An Oscar Winning Performance
Dream Machine: ensoniq EPS/EPSm
the all-singing all-dancing all-bankrupting Ensoniq EPS
Ensoniq were responsible for the first "affordable" sampler when they released the earth-shaking Mirage in 1985, Now they're facing up to stiff market competition with the EPS and EPSm, but how do they compare? David Bradwell investigates.
THINK OF AUSTRALIA and you generally think of Neighbours, Dame Edna, and lager-swilling koala bears with a passion for cricket. As for Australia's major contribution to the giddy world of rock'n'roll? Think long and hard and you came up with a list of names as fearful as a weekend in Walsall. Men At Work, Stefan Dennis, Pseudo Echo, Rolf Harris, the Sydney "Opera" House... the list goes on. Yet despite this apparent desert of creative talent, once upon a time the Australians did come good.
Around 1979 the sampling dream suddenly became a reality, thanks to the endeavours of a particularly inventive Australian called Kim Ryrie. Being the first of a breed, the Fairlight Series I came complete with a hefty price tag placing it well out of the range of the average musician.
By the early '80s, sampling enthusiasts had a range of products to choose from, providing, of course, they were rather well-endowed (financially, that is). E-mu Systems from America launched their first Emulator in 1980, and by 1984 had established an entire range of world-beating products based around the sampling concept. A full cost Fairlight Series III would set you back £60,000 and by comparison the £10,500 Emulator II seemed good value, but even so represented a colossal outlay.
In 1985, completely out of the blue, another American company entered the sampling market. Nobody had heard of Ensoniq before, but when they released the Mirage - a fully specified digital sampler with built in sequencer and touch sensitive keyboard - at a price well below £2,000, they were instantly the hottest company in the world. Ensoniq had been formed by two former Commodore computer employees who invested $1m developing a custom "Q" chip, dispensing with the need for over 20,000 transistors. The same chip was at the heart of the company's first synthesiser, the award winning ESQ1, and helped establish Ensoniq as the force they are today. Altogether, five different versions of the Mirage were assembled before production was halted last year, and with the mammoth sound libraries available, second-hand Mirages are still very much in demand.
By 1988, the range of "affordable" samplers had grown enormously as other companies followed Ensoniq's initiative. The history of synthesis is full of stories about pioneering manufacturers who released world-shattering products only to fold a year or two later when the initial impact died away. The stories behind the demise of Moog, Sequential Circuits (with their range of Prophets), and ARP could fill a whole book. But the important lesson others have learned from their downfall is that if you want to survive you have to continually surpass your previous achievements and stay one step ahead of market trends. With this in mind, Ensoniq knew they had to compete with the big guns of Akai and Roland, and so in March 1988 they announced the launch of the Ensoniq Performance Sampler, or EPS. This was complimented in 1989 by the rack-mount EPSm, which features the same sampling capability as the EPS, but four times the internal memory, eight solo outputs in addition to a stereo pair, and a built in SCSI port for communication with hard disks and computer systems.
The emphasis in the design of the EPS was on the performance part of its title. The most revolutionary development it offers is the ability to continue playing one sound while another is being loaded, into any one of seven other memory locations. That may not sound much if you've never worked with a sampler that doesn't offer a play-while-load facility, but believe me, you'll soon wonder how you ever lived without it. To explain further, samplers by their nature are generally multitimbral, that is, they allow you to play more than one sound at any instant. Imagine the situation whereby your whole drum track is made up of samples, and you want to play some sampled vocal or instrument parts over the top. If you haven't got enough memory to have every sound on-board at once, you have to load new sounds during the course of the song. On a conventional sampler, the drum track would cut out for the length of time it takes to load a new sound - typically around eight seconds. In a studio that would be annoying, but live it's completely unacceptable, unless you've taken to programming eight second bursts of silence into the middle of each song. The EPS instantly avoids that problem and opens up new possibilities for creative use of sampling. Loading sounds from the optional hard disk is extremely quick, and because sounds using large chunks of memory can be loaded in a matter of seconds, whole performances can be sampled and sequenced to play automatically. For example, a vocal track can be sampled line by line, with the next line loading in while the previous one is still playing. Taking this to its logical conclusion, the EPS moves a significant step closer to complete music automation. Instead of sampling a guitar sound and trying to emulate a guitarist's technique on a keyboard, it's now possible to sample a whole guitar part exactly as the guitarist played it, and reproduce it note perfect time and time again.
Other performance features include two patch select buttons which allow instant access to variations on a particular sound. This comes in handy when you want to emulate the playing technique of a particular instrument. For example, if you're playing a saxophone part it's possible to play a muted sax sound on the keyboard which turns into a fully-blown growling version at the touch of a button. Similarly, percussion sounds can be altered to add dynamic variation to a pre-programmed drum pattern - the possibilities are unlimited.
The keyboard on the EPS (the one feature missing from the EPSm) is sensitive to velocity (how hard you hit the key) and polyphonic aftertouch (how hard you keep the note pressed down after the initial strike). The first EPS keyboards to roll off the production line were criticised for a very clackety feel, but amendments to this have now been made.
Samples are made with 16-bit resolution, on a par with the Fairlight Series III, E-mu EIII and Akai S1000, and light years ahead of the 8-bit Mirage. Without delving too deeply into the rules of physics, the sound quality of a sampler is basically governed by its resolution and sample rate. All samplers have a fixed resolution, whether 8-, 12- or 16-bit, but the sample rate can be altered albeit with a subsequent effect on available sample time. The playback rate of a sampler is exactly half the sample rate and the higher the frequencies this contains, the brighter and cleaner the result. Most people can detect audio frequencies up to around 20kHz, and CD players offer up to 22.05kHz (based on a standard sample rate of 44.1kHz). Samplers allow you to choose your own sample rate so that you can maximise the length of sample time you have available. For something like a bass drum it may easily be possible to set the sample rate as low as 20kHz (playback rate = 10kHz) because very few high frequencies would be present.
In terms of actual figures, a fully upgraded EPS or standard EPSm offers 19.8 seconds of sampling at 52.1kHz, 34.4s at 30kHz and a phenomenal 167s at 6.25kHz. Bear in mind the original Emulator only offered two seconds of sampling at 27kHz, and it cost £8,050 and you begin to see the progress that's been made since samplers first appeared.
Once the sample has been recorded, the editing features come into their own. Sounds can be reversed, looped, filtered, transposed, and modified in any number of ways. The EPS groups its internal memory into eight different instruments, each of which can contain up to 127 separate samples and be assigned its own MIDI channel and volume. Keen mathematicians out there will already have sussed that it is therefore possible to have up to 1016 different samples on board and readily playable at any one time, memory permitting. Sounds can be "resampled" to save memory once on board, which can actually sometimes improve authenticity. By looping a sample it's possible to make a sound sustain indefinitely, irrespective of the actual sample length. Looping is possibly the single greatest art to learn, but the EPS makes it easy by offering six different types of crossfade looping as standard.
On top of the sound possibilities offered, the EPS and EPSm both come complete with a built in eight-track sequencer. This offers a host of editing features that wouldn't be out of place on even the most complex software sequencing package. The current "workstation" craze began when synths and samplers started to appear offering enough facilities to make all external equipment unnecessary. While the merits of this as a theory are questionable, it's undoubtable that the sequencing capability of the EPS qualifies it as a "workstation" in the popular usage of the term.
The appeal of the EPS doesn't even end there. It's especially suited to being triggered via drum pads, guitar synths or wind controllers. Sounds can be stacked and layered as easily as double clicking a button. If you can afford the extra cost an EPSm entails, you get separate outputs for each of the eight instruments, and a built in interface for mass sound storage on a compatible hard disk.
Like the Mirage, the EPS has been eagerly supported by third party companies. The Alchemy editing program for the Apple Macintosh gives the EPS the currently fashionable "time-stretching" capability, allowing pitch to be changed without getting un unpleasant "Mickey Mouse" effect. Other companies have produced their own sound libraries for the EPS, the largest of which is currently produced by Desert Island of Essex ((Contact Details)).
Out in the real world, Nile Rodgers is a committed EPS user, having just produced a set of sound disks himself for the Ensoniq Signature Series. The Beatmasters swear by their EPS, and made their recent single 'Who's In The House' using little else. In short, whereas most samplers seemed designed to perform a specific function, the EPS comes across as a musical instrument, which is easy to learn but which offers possibilities previously only dreamt of. So there you have it, a machine to aspire to, and definitely worth making sacrifices for. I think I'll have two...
PRICES: EPS keyboard version £1,399, with optional upgrades for memory, individual outputs and SCSI available. EPSm £2,468.64, with all extras fitted as standard.
INFO: Ensoniq GB, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Bradwell
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