A Taste of Paradise
Ensoniq Mirage Multi-Sampler
Manufacturers of keyboard samplers are now turning their attentions to the studio market by offering enhanced rack-mount versions of their products. Mark Jenkins waited anxiously at Heathrow for the first device to hit our shores - the budget-priced, 8-voice multi-sampler from Ensoniq. Read his report.
Offered now in a 19" rack-mount format as the Ensoniq Multi-Sampler, this keyboardless version of the software-updated Mirage makes low cost multi-sampling available to anyone owning a MIDI keyboard. Mark Jenkins samples the wares.
By now you should all be familiar with the Ensoniq Mirage. It's the keyboard which revolutionised sound sampling by cutting its cost from around £5000 (the price of a second-hand Emulator 1) to £1695, and subsequently to £1395 with the addition of a whole package of extra facilities.
Well, now the Mirage is cheaper still. The Digital Multi-Sampler is simply a keyboard less expander version of the Mirage in a 19" rack-mounting format, selling for well under a thousand pounds. But the software and the hardware updates made since the keyboard Mirage was first launched have helped the new unit on the way to becoming a new machine entirely.
But let's start with some basics which may be familiar from the time of the launch of the original Mirage. The Ensoniq Corporation was set up by three ex-Commodore employees who spent around a million dollars developing a special VLSI sampling chip, the Q-Chip. Ensoniq's decision was then whether to recoup their investment by selling a few units at high cost, or lots of units at low cost. Luckily for most of us, they went for the latter option.
The launch of the Mirage was a complete surprise, leading to many competing organisations denying its very existence and many others disbelieving its stated capabilities. After the machine took hold in America reports began to filter over to Europe, and the European Mirage was officially launched at the Frankfurt show in 1985. By that time a factory had been set up in Italy to produce the Mirage, and a European headquarters in Belgium was dealing with distribution.
At that time, the American, European and Japanese Mirages were slightly different. Continental and UK users had the advantage of a faster disk drive than their American counterparts, being able to load a sound in six seconds rather than ten. The Japanese models used DX7-type membrane switches rather than mechanical switches and added a handy disk rack to the top panel. But the sampling times and facilities - around two seconds with multi-split at full bandwidth - remained universal.
The Mirage's multi-split sample facility offers floating polyphony of up to eight notes, and it's possible to assign two sounds to a key and mix between them using keyboard velocity or the modulation wheel for a total of 16 sounds. On the expander version the multi-sampling capability is being very much emphasised, hence the name.
The Mirage loads sounds from standard 3.5" disks which cost about £4 each from computer shops. Each disk holds six samples with four synthesizer-modulated versions per sound. Multisplits are also stored, but tend to use up too much disk space to allow synthesizer-treated versions.
Originally the user was forced to buy pre-formatted disks from Ensoniq, but eventually a Formatting Disk was released and now it has become part of the standard package for both keyboard and expander versions. If you want to format a set of blank disks, you simply load up with the Formatting Disk instead of a sound disk - each disk takes about two minutes to format before samples can be recorded.
The other main 'accessory' now provided with both versions of the Mirage is the Advanced Sampling Disk. This quickly sets up memory parameters which allow you to make two, four or eight-way multi-samples, and although you could set up these parameters yourself, using the Advanced Sampling Disk is much quicker. The disk comes with a weighty Advanced Sampler's Guide which explains techniques for, and approaches to, sampling on the Mirage.
It's in the user-sampling mode that the Mirage becomes a little complicated to use. The machine's fine for playing existing sample disks, but taking and editing new samples can require a lot of thought.
Basic sampling is fairly straightforward though. A mic or line input can be inserted into the Mirage's rear panel jack and input level can be selected using one of the functions accessed from the keypad. Like many samplers, the Mirage works in terms of keyboard halves, and so there are two Sample buttons - Sample Upper and Sample Lower. Once in Sample mode, the two-digit LED display acts as a simple VU meter indicating no level, mid level and peak level.
The LED display is one of the improvements of the expander version over the keyboard Mirage. A new fluorescent yellow display is used, and it's much more visible than the original version. It still flickers quite considerably though, and this can be mildly upsetting when you're trying to do any complex parameter editing.
Assuming that you want to take a single sample, the Mirage will trigger automatically after being 'armed' as soon as it receives a reasonable input level. Sounds can be played polyphonically from the keyboard immediately, appearing at their original pitch on Key 17 (E) for lower keyboard samples or on Key 46 (A) for upper keyboard samples. Tuning can be corrected in octaves (Coarse) or gradually (Fine), and the resulting sound stored to disk.
Multi-sampling is obviously more complex, involving the selection of an Initial Wavesample point, Sample Start point, Sample End point (in hexadecimal!), Top Key (with 30 keys per keyboard half), Keyboard Half and Enter/Start.
In fact, there are many approaches to sampling, including one depending on the exact frequency of the sampled sound and the creation of a single wavetable loop with the correct pitch. But how often do you have such accurate knowledge of the pitch of a sample? And how often do you want to have to make a calculation in hexadecimal (base 16) before knowing how much memory your sample is going to use? Admittedly, the Mirage handbook does provide a hexadecimal conversion table for the sample memory function, but the Prophet 2000, for example, doesn't use such complexities. Presumably this is a result of the Mirage being designed by ex-computer manufacturers?
Once you've taken a satisfactory sample you'll want to edit it and store it away. As with all main functions, editing is carried out by calling up parameters on the keypad and adjusting levels using the Up/Down (On/Off) buttons. Parameters include Sample Start and End point, and it's also possible to reverse samples or merge two samples together.
Often you'll want to loop a sample to provide a sustain point for string or organ-type sounds, and to some extent this is a matter of luck rather than judgement. The Mirage has no Auto Loop-Finding function as on the Prophet 2000, and producing a click-free loop is often a matter of searching through many possible Loop Start and Loop End points to produce a glitch-free effect. Be assured, however, that it is possible - the factory Piano sound for instance is superbly smooth, although that was presumably created using a version of the Mirage's Apple-based Visual Editing System.
Once you're happy with your sounds, you can dump them to diskette in an appropriate memory location. The layout is as follows:
S1 version 1,2,3,4
S2 version 1,2,3,4
S3 version 1,2,3,4
S1 version 1,2,3,4
S2 version 1,2,3,4
S3 version 1,2,3,4
The 2,3,4 versions of each sample are usually synthetically treated to alter their envelope, tone or tuning. Hidden away beneath the Mirage's simple keypad are scores of parameters familiar from any analogue synth, such as Filter Cut-off, Resonance, Modulation Depth and Oscillator Detune, so it's easy to turn a piano sound into a synthesizer twang (with filter sweep), or a plucked bass (with a shorter envelope) or a honky-tonk piano (with detuning). While it takes six seconds to load a new sample, new synthetic versions can be called up instantly using the Prog button and 1, 2, 3 or 4. On the rack-mount version, these four numbers and the Prog button have been highlighted in yellow.
When you get into Advanced Sampling mode it is possible to place further samples into the 2, 3 and 4 memory positions, and many of the factory disks do just this. For multi-split sounds such as Rock Drums, Electronic Percussion or Sound Effects there usually aren't any alternative versions though.
On multi-split sounds, the sample times or frequency response are necessarily limited, although this doesn't matter too much in the case of percussion sounds. Some sounds are arranged in pairs to provide a whole keyboard with the same sound - such as the Piano samples - while others such as Bass/Brass are split, although it's possible to swap sounds from top to bottom to reverse the split.
The expander Mirage uses all the factory sounds of the keyboard version, but there are several new disks now available which we'll look at shortly. The important point to bear in mind is that each disk holds the operating system for the machine as well as the sound samples. Since the operating system is being constantly updated, it's wise to 'boot up' (load your first disk of a session) with the most advanced operating system version you have.
The new Version 3 operating system introduced with the expander is particularly aimed at making keyboards such as the Yamaha DX7 more useful as a control device for the Mirage. Now on offer are:
1. The ability to respond to external modulation wheel, breath control, foot pedal, data entry slider and volume pedal information over MIDI.
2. The ability to receive MIDI after-touch or polyphonic after-touch information.
3. The ability to send or receive MIDI disk loading and program change information.
4. The ability to select a program on disk while loading.
5. The ability to turn off Local Control so that the Mirage can transmit keyboard information but only respond to external MIDI control.
Several new parameters are also available, accessed from the keypad, which are:
(78) LFO Modulator Source
(79) MIX Modulator Source
(80) After-Touch Modulation Depth
(84) MIDI Function Enable
(30) Local Control On/Off
The new parameters 78 (LFO Modulator Source) and 79 (MIX modulation) respond to the following values:
(1) Mod Wheel
(2) Breath Control
(4) Foot Pedal
(6) Data Entry Slider
(7) Volume Pedal
(9) Polyphonic After-Touch
Effects such as the MIX control are at their most exciting when used with, for instance, the factory Electric Guitar sample, which has a feedback sound available using the modulation wheel. Now you can mix in the feedback effect using a DX keyboard, a foot pedal, or even a breath controller.
As far as the disk loading facilities go, control from a DX7 or similar keyboard is now pretty versatile. DX7 patches 1, 2 and 3 will load Version 1 of the upper and lower Sample 1's on the Mirage disks, while 4, 5 and 6 will load Version 2's, Patches 7, 8 and 9 will load Version 3's and 10, 11 and 12 will load Version 4's.
DX7 patches 13, 14, 15 and 16 will change both Upper and Lower program numbers, while patches 17-28 reproduce the function of patches 1-12 but for the Lower Keyboard sounds only. Patches 33-44 (you'll need to use Cartridge Programs on a DX7 to transmit these figures) control Upper Keyboard sounds, and 45-48 (again using Cartridge Programs) change Upper Program numbers. Slightly different figures apply for synths other than the DX7, such as Prophet synths which start at Patch 00.
Obviously, the expander and keyboard Mirages with the new software are much more powerful as MIDI instruments. Many of the facilities of the keyboard Mirage remain unchanged on the expander version, including the software sequencer. This has a capacity of 333 notes entered in real-time and can be set to loop continuously. Each sample has a sequence associated with it, so there can be four sequences stored on each disk, and a new sequence can be loaded in a couple of seconds.
The MIDI implementation of the sequencer is very good. Speed can be controlled externally via MIDI, and as on the keyboard Mirage it's possible to expand the capacity of the sequencer to 1357 events with an optional cartridge. The 1024 note sequencer expansion cartridge fits into a rear panel socket (rather inaccessible if you've mounted your sampler in a 19" rack with the flanges provided) and this socket also acts as the computer interface for the Apple-based Visual Editing System, which is another optional extra.
Also added to the expander is a MIDI Thru port, rather than having to double up the functions of the MIDI Out socket. What you won't find is a socket for Sustain, and if your controlling keyboard lacks this facility, you've had it.
Obviously the majority of the expander's improvements over the keyboard Mirage are software-based. However, there seem to have been some significant hardware improvements too. On the original Mirage (at least on early models), the audio output was almost unacceptably full of hiss, but this certainly isn't the case on the new machine. In fact, it's dead quiet, so with careful sample editing you should be able to come up with some superb sounds.
However, there are no basic changes in the Advanced Sampling procedure, which remains as baffling as ever. Some notable users such as musician and producer Steve Hillage swear by the Mirage and find it pretty easy going, emphasising the value of the optional Input Sampling Filter if you want to create the most high-fidelity sounds. But it still seems astonishing that using a modern keyboard instrument should require the use of hexadecimal tables and an intimate knowledge of Nyquist's Sampling Theorem.
Obviously, the Visual Editing System or the new Sound Lab software for high-resolution waveform display and editing, can be of help once you've taken your samples, but there must be some easier way of calculating the memory allocation when you want to create your own multi-splits.
The fact remains that the Mirage has already taken great strides in its development since its launch, and its future looks bright (Ensoniq having a sampled piano and a digital synthesizer/sequencer coming up too). This new expander is going to receive enormous amounts of use in studios and on stage, and the fact that you're going to have to live with the handbook for the first month or so (if only to look up the editing parameters) shouldn't put too many people off.
The Mirage Digital Multi-Sampler now responds so well to control by the DX7 and other popular synths, a feature that will increase its sales enormously. At £945, the machine has no competition in this price range, and although the Prophet 2002 and new Akai S900 rackmounting samplers will soon be on the market, they both retail above £1500. As it stands then, the Mirage looks set to out-sell them both.
Review by Mark Jenkins
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