E-mu Morpheus Retro Review

MIDI Rack

E-mu Morpheus Retro Review

Every once in a while something comes along that sets itself apart from the competition, sometimes it dominates the market like the Yamaha DX7 and sometimes it sits in the background almost unnoticed, but is picked up by a few people and the sound is layered in music and soundtracks the world over, giving it a unique flavor but without you realising just what it is.

The E-mu Morpheus fits into that latter category.

The Morpheus evolved in the early 1990's from E-mu's Proteus range, which itself was conceived as a sample player to bring the impressive Emulator sample library to the masses. The Proteus range was always respected, but the constant criticism was that it did not have a filter. The Morpheus brought filters, but this was not an ordinary filter...

Morpheus was named because it had the ability to morph one sound into another with various controls at its disposal, but this was not simple crossfading like that of the Yamaha SY33 and its smaller cousin the PSS790, this was a process carried out in the new Z-Plane filter, which used complex algorithms to change the sound. There are 197 different filter types to choose from, however while that may sounds a lot, that was merely scratching the surface of what the filter could do.

There are 3 banks of 128 sounds on board and the Morpheus expanded on the Proteus concept of hyper presets by allowing combinations of sounds to be used across different MIDI channels. While many of the Morpheus competitors had their own trick to improve sound, these tended to be used across all sounds used, so if for example a reverb and vocoder were used, these would affect all sounds in the same way when used multi-timbarlly, not so the Morpheus, each sound could have its own filter effect and each filter effect could operate independently of the filter effects for other voices.

There are 4 demo tracks on board which show off some of the filter effects, however it is when you delve into the sounds themselves you can hear something unique about the synthesizer. Some of the sounds are used in this track which I did a few years back. The piano especially stands out, but it is the way the filter morphs the sound at the end into what in the manual is described as an angelic choir, that makes the sound stand out for me. There are many other Morpheus pads layered throughout the track, but with effects subtly applied.

The way that the Z-Plane filter worked can be difficult to describe, but if you think of how a regular filter uses frequency and resonance to alter the sound normally, an additional parameter is applied to bring frequencies in from a second sound source while taking those same frequencies away from the first. A kind of mixing by frequency range. another way to think of it is layering tissue paper over a picture and dropping drops of water onto the tissue paper. Where the water hits the paper, the picture behind starts to show through.

Various controls could be assigned to the filter to control how it worked, and using something like the Korg Prophecy with its various control options could really create some interesting combinations. But despite this, the Morpheus didn't sell in huge numbers, though it did find favor with a certain group of composers.

Film and television music in the early to mid 90's was awash with the sounds of the Morpheus, and many famous film composers snapped the units up and used them continually. The thing with them was that the sound never got repetitive, unlike the sounds of many synthesizers of the time, mainly because even with the presets, the initial sound was just the start, and manipulating it created something new as you were playing. Even today you can hear some of the Morpheus sounds if you listen carefully enough, alongside another similar synthesizer available around the same time, the Korg Wavestation.

If any synthesizer was crying out for multiple outputs, it was the Morpheus, standard stereo outs just don't cut it with this synthesizer. Even though the main screen was quite small, the user interface for voice and controller editing is well thought out, so editing is possible, though a little fiddly. As the machine was not overly popular, there are only a few editors available for it and today they can be quite hard to find. If anyone out there has such an editor, we would love to hear from you.

There are some downsides to this synthesizer, lack of external editors is one, but the sheer complexity of editing a sound is another. Yes the interface is reasonably well thought out, but there are so many options it can be daunting to start off with, and to start with it is easy to get lost in all the options. If you don't have a manual, you will need to find and download one, luckily we have one for you to download here.

Morpheus also heralded a new wave of Proteus machines with improved sound and internal expansion, previous Proteus models had been 12 bit sound samples, but the Morpheus and all Proteus based synthesizers afterwards were all 16 bit in quality and had at least one slot internally for adding extra sounds on top of the card slot on the front. Sadly the Morpheus never got any internal sound expansion, but a few cards were made available for the front slot and can probably still be found online if you look around.

Despite rave reviews, the unit did not sell, mainly because it arrived as the dance and techno styles were all the rage, meaning the unit just didn't have that instant turn on and play appeal at the time, which to be honest only showed the lack of imagination that seemed to go hand in hand with that style at that time. As the scene grew up, some took to the Morpheus's decedents such as Planet Phatt and the Ultra-Proteus, both of which had the filter from the Morpheus at their core.

There is something though about the Z-Plane filter I have not mentioned yet, it's ability to talk...

There were a number of sounds that used the filter to effectively create short and simple words, mainly things like WOW and AAAEEEE type sounds, but is was at least audible, and it wasn't the sampled sounds doing this. You could change the main sound to an orchestra and have that say WOW, something that made the people first hearing this at the time say the same thing. The power and versatility of this new filter had to be limited, which is why users were not able to create their own filter types. Which some may seem as a shame, but the Morpheus did come with 197 filter types, however Ultra-Proteus had over 250.

For its time, the Morpheus was revolutionary, and perhaps came a little too early for the mass market to fully appreciate, however at current prices it makes a really good buy, especially if you are after something distinctive to add to your mix. If you want something with a more conventional style in its sounds, you cant go far wrong with the Ultra-Proteus, which also has the benefit of more filter types and additional voices being available for its internal expansion slot.

For some examples of the internal sounds, hop along to this page over at SyntMania, where you can hear the demo tunes and some samples of the internal presets.