Maybe the names are an homage to E-mu’s surf-mecca birthplace ofSanta Cruz, California. They’re certainly priced for a beach bum’s budget, and they’re the first E-mu keyboards with built-in sounds since 2001’s Proteus PK-6. How good can they be? Pretty dang good, as it turns out.
Right off the bat I had a thought about my Shortboard review unit: Since battery operation is possible, since it can transmit audio (but not MIDI) wirelessly to a Pipeline transceiver (sold separately), and since it’s just the right size for slinging around your shoulder, where the heck are the guitar strap buttons?
Regarding key feel, I like the Shortboard’s keys much better than those on my E-mu Xboard 61, which I chose because its keys felt best to me among the MIDI controllers available last year. (The Longboard’s keys and internals are identical to the Shortboard.) Compared to the Xboard, they feel a bit heavier, with stiffer springs. The black keys are also broader and beefier. Eight velocity curves offer something for nearly everyone’s touch. Unlike a lot of things in this price range, this plays like an instrument, not a note-entry appliance.
Sounds and Editing
Sourced from E-mu’s ridiculously deep sample vaults, these two boards focus squarely on vintage sounds, though dismissing them as retro-only would be a mistake, as the sounds are useful in all types of music.
I own an E-mu Vintage Keys module, which almost certainly contains some of the same raw sample material as the 64 featured sounds on the Long- and Shortboards. Everything we want is here, and it’s all thick, chewy, and realistic. Particular standouts include the OB-Xa, Matrix synth, and pre-layered Matrix/Solina patches. There’s no dark Rhodes, just a bright Dyno-like version, but you can make it growly by closing down the filter. A single button lets you bang together splits and layers quickly and easily.
In addition to the 64 featured sounds, a General MIDI bank is on hand so you can use the Long- or Shortboard as a sound module to play back Standard MIDI files. With 128-voice polyphony, you’re unlikely to hear voice robbing.
You get knobs for filter cutoff and resonance, envelope attack and release, and reverb and chorus amount. If E-mu had to build in just a few knobs to keep the cost low, these are the ones you’d reach for most often. The filter sounds great, too—very analog, very smooth, but the resonance doesn’t sweep the way the cutoff does; you only hear changes to resonance after playing a new note. Most of the presets are swimming in more reverb than a karaoke bar, so it’s good that you can dial it down, and edit and save sounds in the “Keys” bank. Don’t underestimate the power of just six knobs—you can take these sounds impressively far from their starting points.
E-mu had also sent editor Stephen Fortner a Longboard, who remarked that the main piano sound is a lot better than you’d expect for the price. We both noticed, though, that playing chords of four or more notes on this sound (and to a lesser extent, the Rhodes sounds) produced a slight flam where not every note crisply attacked at the same instant. This didn’t happen with synths, strings, or other sounds. While this may detract from either keyboard’s desirability as a two-handed stage piano substitute, it doesn’t lessen their appeal as all-around synths. I really substitute, it doesn’t lessen their appeal as all-around synths. I really enjoyed the Shortboard onstage for synth stabs, leads, one-handed pop and rock piano parts, and the like.
<- E-mu’s Pipeline can send stereo audio wirelessly, or receive it from the built-in transmitters in the Longboard and Shortboard. A switch sets the RCA jacks to analog or S/PDIF digital.
E-mu’s Pipeline can transmit or receive, so a pair can be used with any sound source. Since the Shortboard and Longboard have builtin transmitters, you only need one Pipeline to go wireless. I set the Pipeline’s DIP switches and Shortboard’s selector knob to the same channel, held the Connect buttons on both devices, and they saw each other in a few seconds.
Unless you’ve got more than 50 feet between the devices or heavy interference, wireless performance is impressive. At 20 feet, on a stage with three wireless mics, wireless in-ear monitors, and an audience full of smartphones, I had no trouble. I couldn’t even tell I was wireless—it played and sounded just like stereo cables. At home, an active connection interfered with my WiFi. Changing the keyboard and Pipeline channels solved the problem.
Inside the Pipeline is a rechargeable battery with enough life to do a whole gig on a fresh charge. This is more important when using the Pipeline as a transmitter; when it’s a receiver and parked by your mixer, you’d plug in the included AC adaptor.
- Video: Demo at Keyboard headquarters
- Original tune by author Ken Hughes using only E-mu SHORTboard sounds.
- This audio demo was recorded into Pro Tools LE 7.1.3 with the E-mu PIPEline wireless receiver’s S/PDIF output connected to my Mbox 2 Pro’s S/PDIF input. I used Reason for the drum programming, which I preferred to the General MIDI drums in the SHORTboard. Everything was played live to audio with no quantizing. MIDI wasn’t used. Showcased here are the grand piano’s loveliness, the malleability of the sounds (see if you can pick out the heavily filtered and effected CP70) and the sheer fatness of it all. This is not a cheap-sounding keyboard, its low price and General MIDI sounds aside.
For a street price of only $349 for the Shortboard and $399 for the Longboard, there’s an awful lot to like, especially the classic synth sounds. Add your own strap buttons, and the Shortboard is suddenly the least expensive “keytar” (we need a new word) out there. To make any other keyboard wireless, you’d need a third-party system costing at least the same as the Shortboard itself. I expect that E-mu will sell a jillion Longboards and Shortboards. Either makes a great “my first synth,” and they’re so inexpensive that they’ll also appeal to pros as the synth you always keep in your trunk in case a jam breaks out. Access to a surfboard in the event of rippin’ waves should be so easy.
PROS Low cost. Great sounds. Nice-feeling keys. Built-in wireless audio transmitter. Easy to use.
CONS On piano sounds, big chords produce some note flam.
CONCEPT Low-cost, great-feeling, great-sounding sample-playback synth for use onstage or with your sequencer/DAW.
POLYPHONY 128 voices.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS 16.
WxDxH Longboard: 39" x 11.5" x 3". Shortboard: 32.5" x 11.5" x 3".
WEIGHT Longboard: 14 lbs. Shortboard: 12 lbs.
Longboard (61 keys): $499 list/$399 street.
Shortboard (49 keys): $399 list/$349 street.
Pipeline: $149 list/$99 street.