As Easy As EZE
Ensoniq EPS Sample Editor
Perhaps its because the auto-looping functions on Ensoniq's EPS sampler are so effective that computer-based sample editing software for the machine is so thin on the ground? Matthew Newman checks out Gelva Software's first offering.
The EZE Workstation is an Atari ST-based software package dedicated to the remote editing of the parameters and data of an Ensoniq EPS keyboard or EPS-M module. The author of the program and the accompanying documentation is Rick Gell of Gelva Software, who is based in Double Bay, somewhere near the bottom of Australia. In this country and indeed for all of Europe, the distributors (with whom all owners should register for software updates etc) are Desert Island, based in Culcabock, Inverness - the throbbing heart of the Scottish Highlands.
Fortunately, there is no lower limit to the amount of memory required in the EPS, but any prospective purchaser of EZE will need to have at least one megabyte of RAM available in their Atari ST, a double-sided floppy disk drive, and a high resolution monitor. They will also have to find room for a dongle [copy protection 'key'] in their ROM port. Use of EPS operating systems 2.30 and higher is suggested and apparently 2.35 currently yields the best results, although 2.40 does work.
In my far from humble or unique opinion, visual editing programs for samplers have, almost without exception, been a waste of time and money for a very high proportion of those who've forked out for them. Of course, it's very easy to convince yourself that you really need one when you have an excellent sample that is refusing to yield a credible loop. You've spent an excessive chunk of your short life searching 'blind' for that elusive 'perfect loop', but you know it just has to be in there somewhere. If only you could just see what was going on within the sample, then you feel sure you could achieve your nemesis...
It is this understandable but mistaken belief that fills the Sound On Sound Classifieds with very cheap second-hand visual editing systems. Having convinced yourself that a graphic approach would make things so much quicker and easier, as you pick absent-mindedly at a hangnail or wiggle the mouse pointer aimlessly around the screen, you soon find that any timesaving aspects of the software are negated by the frequent and lengthy delays caused by waiting for enormous chunks of sample data to be shuffled from your sampler into and out of the computer.
It is an equally inescapable fact of life that the ability to manipulate wiggly lines on a screen does not in itself make for freedom from (what I believe are known in the trade as) 'iffy' loops. For so many people and for so long, a screenful of wiggly lines and the ability to draw their own waveforms and loops etc was truly something to covet. The truth of the matter is that when it became affordable to buy this sort of facility in the form of visual sample editing software designed to run on a home computer, the results were seldom worth the effort. Being able to visually locate or create zero-crossing points is no real guarantee of achieving plausible-sounding sample loops.
EZE aims not to fall foul of the biggest drawback of external sample editors - namely, that the time you save by being able to view and use a graphic representation of data and functions, you lose again waiting for the sample data to transfer in and out of the sampler and computer.
It attempts to achieve this by making use of the Wavesample Overview command incorporated within the operating system of the Ensoniq EPS. This command allows a visual representation of sample data to be transferred through the MIDI buss at blinding speed, thus overcoming the slow transfer time of sample data. Apparently, it is from the availability of this command and the author's frustration when attempting to edit the EPS that the design of EZE was born. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Ensoniq have not yet completely sorted this out and so it's use cannot be incorporated into EZE. We can only look forward to how wonderful it will be when it does arrive. Pity really, as this is potentially a major point in EZE's favour.
I like the accompanying EZE manual. It comes in loose leaf format in an A5 ring binder, so it stays open where you opened it and you can shove your own notes inside at convenient points. It succeeds admirably in avoiding the all too common practice of referring the reader to several other pages when looking up one feature or term. I personally become more than a little resentful when required by a manual to work without the use of several fingers, which have to be buried in between the many different pages containing the fragmented explanation of the procedure for one task.
Like all the best manuals, this one is written from the enlightened viewpoint that you're not going to read it, or at least not all of it. Whilst the introduction is uninspiring and I found myself a little concerned by the repeated use of the term 'conceptual' in the first few paragraphs, the documentation is on the whole very helpful. It would have been all the more so had the author seen fit to add an index, but the layout is such that I had no great difficulty locating details of features that I found less than obvious from trial and error.
The format of the text is very logical. First you are given the title of a command then a brief description of what function the command will perform, and this is followed by instructions on how to execute the command. Often there are also practical hints on achieving the most benefit from the described command. I like it when manuals follow similar standards to the program and stick to a format as rigidly as this one does - it makes it much easier to skip through the text, reading only what you need.
The program is divided into seven screens or windows through which you can view the contents of your EPS. They all look very professional, do a lot to boost one's confidence in the program, and give the impression that you're getting something substantial for your £140. On the whole, I reckon this is an appropriate impression.
First up is the Instrument Screen, from which it possible to concurrently edit certain parameters from the EPS's Command Instrument, Edit Instrument, and Edit Layer pages. It is the ease with which it is possible to deal with layers that is the most appealing aspect of this page. Being able to create and edit the attributes of a layer in the same area is very handy, but overshadowed by the profound joy that lies in the speed with which various layers can be made active or inactive within a patch. The EPS has been criticised, in publications perhaps a little less informed than this one, for the amount of button-pushing required to perform simple functions. This criticism is somewhat unjustified by virtue of the facility Ensoniq provide for the 'direct dialling' of EPS pages. However, setting up which layers do and don't sound in a patch does require an irksome amount of arrow button pounding, and this chore will not be missed with any great measure of sadness by those who purchase this program.
The Patch Select Block is an inauspicious looking little box in the centre of the Instrument Screen. To the right of an illustration of each of the four patch select options available for the current instrument, is a row of eight numbered buttons. These correspond to the eight layers which can be used as part of any patch selection on an instrument. The buttons are numbered left-to-right and clicking on these toggles the relevant layer on or off within the appropriate patch.
Below these four rows are two similar rows, which apply a similar principle to assigning key up and/or key down status to layers. This is a deliciously ergonomic arrangement which speeds up a tedious process. I'm particularly fond of making instruments that are comprised of several layers (I don't smoke or drink to any level of excess, so this seems an entirely forgiveable vice to me.) Long winter evenings have so often seen me tucking away slight but crucial envelope changes and the like on layers 7 and 8. If any of you suffer from a similar weakness, then the Patch Select Block is almost worth £140 in itself.
What isn't quite so delicious or ergonomic is that actually hearing the effect of the different layer selections can involve several trips to the front panel of the EPS. This is one area where I would say that EZE is a bit of a let down to those of us who've come to expect to be able to perform at least all the most common procedures from within an external editing package. On my first session with EZE I had the EPS located on the other side of the room. I never made this mistake again! EZE conforms to the Ensoniq standard in that you can only edit wavesamples and their parameters contained in a layer if that layer is active in the current patch. Whenever you click on the patch number icon, you are presented with a message to lock the patch in on the EPS. It is essential that you do this or the EPS will reject any commands sent to it by EZE. This means, therefore, that your EPS instrument select buttons can't really be more than an arm's length away. I found this annoying.
Although the EPS doesn't force the user to name instruments and samples in the manner favoured by some 'un-American' samplers, being able to type in the name of instruments, layers, and samples directly from the computer keyboard is no less welcome a feature. Just how many of you will find yourself moved to the point of christening every layer and sample within each layer remains to be seen. Suffice to say, the names of unfinished files on my own EPS disk library now extend substantially beyond the likes of 'unnamed inst', '*nnamed inst', '01 named inst' and '02named inst'. These were cryptic to the point of being next to useless when coming back to edit a sound more than a day or two after its creation, but clicking through each letter of the alphabet one at a time with the EPS arrow buttons was a heck of a disincentive to naming your work properly!
EZE's second screen is the Wavesample Parameter Screen, where you are able to select the wavesample modulators and set to what degree they will affect the wavesample. This screen is the first of several to contain sliders for incrementing and decrementing parameter values. This is in keeping with the trend in editing packages of this sort towards a knobs-and-buttons approach to parameter editing. You click and hold the left mouse button on any of the sliders. Then, whilst still holding the left mouse button down, you move the mouse forward to increase a value and backward to decrease a value. Upon release of the left mouse button, the value indicated on the slider will be sent to the EPS sampler.
This is definitely an improvement on working from the EPS front panel, ie. finding a parameter on a given page within the EPS software and then trying to set the level precisely with the EPS data entry slider and arrow buttons.
The Crossfade Screen is the one screen where I really feel that EZE won't just help you do quicker what you would have done anyway. If there is any justice in the world, I think that the ease with which the EPS's unparalleled sample crossfading features can be manipulated will lead to the creation of some much more complex and interesting sounds. As you're no doubt aware, the EPS has the ability to crossfade samples on all eight layers and can use any of its 15 modulation sources to control the crossfades. Each layer can have its own modulation source to control the crossfade, and this function can be applied to any keygroup in an instrument.
To quote from the manual: "Say you have eight samples on eight different layers. Samples 1 and 2 could be crossfaded with velocity. Sample 3 could be faded in and out with aftertouch. Sample 4 could be faded in and out with the modulation wheel. Sample 5 could be fading in and out automatically via an LFO. Sample 6 could be faded in and out by the key range played on the keyboard. Sample 7 could be faded in and out by the pitch wheel, and the volume of sample 8 could be controlled via a breath controller played by an external MIDI instrument, all at the same time!"
This example is pretty extreme but it is nonetheless a point well made. This is just one of the features by virtue of which EPS owners find themselves in possession of a machine with capabilities head and shoulders above not only the immediate competition, but anything else currently available at any price. Unfortunately there appear to be very few people, excepting Ensoniq Corporation's sound creation team, who are aware of, let alone taking full advantage of, this facility when producing new sounds.
There are three further screens for editing the pitch, filter, and amplitude envelopes. They all run along very similar lines and are very much quicker to work with than the Edit Env pages on the EPS. You can view the soft and the hard velocity curves at the same time and adjust the shapes to taste. Times and levels can be altered simultaneously by dragging the envelope stages about or by pointing and clicking at the numeric values displayed above these. Clicking the right mouse button increases the value of the selected parameter, clicking the left button decreases it.
I would very much have liked the ability to type in the value in the same way that you can type in names from the computer keyboard. Invariably, if you're changing values in this way rather than dragging the envelope stages, you are pretty clear about the envelope 'shape' you are aiming for. Clicking values up and down one at a time is, after all, available via the EPS's front panel arrow buttons. This is unfair criticism, though, as this facility is far from commonplace on sample editors and rare on even those costing many times more than EZE.
Finally we come to the Sample Editing or Wavesample Screen, which is where the wiggly lines live - and as wiggly lines go these are as helpful as any I've seen. I was a bit disappointed that the traditional sample editor view of an entire sample, ie. seeing a picture of all of the sample data with a line indicating the loop start and another to show the loop end, is not always possible. Graphic representation of loop size and location is courtesy of a little shaded box that appears above the loop window. It's a big box if the loop is large in relation to the sample length, and small if it isn't. The box appears towards the left of the screen if the loop is located near the start of the sample data, and to the right if it's near the end. This may not be the usual way of doing things but it's not one that's overly hard to grasp.
It's from the Wavesample screen that the loop window is available. This is included to allow micro editing of loop points. If you were to draw a wavesample on a piece of paper and then form a cylinder with the sheet of paper, you would be able to slide the drawing of the wavesample backwards or forwards until a matched point is achieved. EZE represents the loop in this manner. On the left side of the window you will see the loop end point. From right-to-left, the sample is visualised moving towards the sample end point. On the right side of the window you will see the sample start point, again visualised moving towards the sample end point. The line in the middle of the screen is the actual loop start and end point.
I spent some time here trying to find more memory efficient loop points for some very agreeable string samples I have which are rather greedy with the memory. A couple of times I succeeded in trimming the block size of the instrument down a bit by finding a loop location a little earlier within the sample data and truncating off the surplus on the end. It has to be said, though, that I could have probably achieved an identical result if I'd spent a similar amount of time using the EPS's Auto Loop feature and had repeatedly sent the loop location back from within the Edit Wave page on the EPS. Really though, this is less an assertion of how ineffective it is using EZE to find a good loop, more a comment on how good the EPS is at doing this for itself.
All things considered, EZE is at least as good as any EPS owner would expect it to be. If you have a predilection for looking at wiggly lines, want a visual editing system for your Ensoniq EPS, and own an Atari ST with one megabyte of RAM, then you are not really going to regret spending £140 on this program. Unless you're already particularly skilled at navigating your way around the EPS operating system, EZE will speed up most common instrument editing tasks quite a bit and a few of these tasks by a great deal.
£140 inc VAT.
Desert Island, (Contact Details).
Review by Matthew Newman