Advanced Sampling Recorder
Bit of this, bit of that
A new machine that takes sampling out of the rack and puts it back in the hands of the musician. But is it an advance?
Currently being in the market for a sampler, I jumped at the opportunity of reviewing the new Ensoniq ASR-10 as soon as it arrived in the MT office. Though well above my means, I would at least be able to gain first-hand experience of just what a 'top-end' machine could offer and, ergo, exactly what I would be sacrificing when buying a cheaper machine!
What I hadn't reckoned on was how totally dependant on a piece of equipment one can become when using it every day for a couple of weeks. Really, we're talking cold turkey here. Even as I write I am dreading that fateful knock on the door when the delivery driver will arrive to take the beast back from whence it came - unmoved by my pitiful cries. Such is life...
The object of my desires, besides being a well-specified sampler offering 64 times oversampling, 31-note polyphony and comprehensive editing, comes complete with internal digital effects, 16-track sequencer, disk drive and of course, a sixty-one note keyboard. And just in case you were wondering - it will happily accept sounds from the Ensoniq EPS range.
A real 'performance' machine, it's stylishly designed and built like the proverbial brick 'un - knocking for six the efforts of certain other manufacturers and laying to rest Ensoniq's rather tarnished image in this department at the same time. The top panel positively bristles with solid, chunky buttons and a fine example of Ensoniq's now characteristic (if you'll pardon the pun) blue alpha-numeric display. If you haven't seen this kind of display on a keyboard before, you may find it rather 'old tech'. Half an hour on a dimly lit stage, however, should soon rid you of that misconception.
Thoughtfully provided is a neat recess for disk storage and below it, set at an angle, is the 3.5" disk drive itself (for both double and high-density disks), with a not-so-thoughtfully positioned eject button which is rather awkward to press, so near is it to the sloping fascia beneath. The usual pitch bend and modulation wheels are positioned where you might expect them on the left hand side of the keyboard, and just above them are two Patch Select buttons, which serve to alter the tonal quality of the sound being played by calling up different component samples.
The rear of the unit features all sorts of sockets, including headphone and stereo line outs, stereo line ins (switchable for microphone level), MIDI, three footswitch sockets, mains and two phonos - excitingly marked 'Digital In and Out'. I would also liked to have mentioned the inclusion of SCSI port here, but alas, this is one of the (few) areas in which ASR disappoints. The digital interface is not fitted as standard but comes instead as an optional extra (read: 'pain in the arse'). Without the extra money/time this takes to fit, you are, I'm afraid reduced to saving the ASR's not inconsiderable memory to floppies. And that, as you'll know takes time. Quite a lot of time actually...
And while we're griping, there's another 'optional extra' in the form of an interface that will provide you with three further stereo output pairs, which given the power in the guts of this machine are actually pretty essential - if only to make mixing as flexible as the rest of the beast's processing. Clearly, these are the kind of add-ons which would be absolutely essential for serious users of this machine - and who would buy a machine like this if they weren't serious?
I'll refrain from taking you through each of the 38 buttons on the top panel - there's a 392 page manual to do that - and just cover the fundamentals as and when they arise. After switching on, the first task is to install the software operating system included along with the eight demonstration disks which come with the machine.
Once the system has loaded, the ASR calibrates its keyboard, which features not only bog-standard channel pressure (after-touch) sensitivity, but also poly-key pressure - a hybrid expressive controller. If you play a three note chord, pressing down harder on any one of the three notes only affects that note - the other two are unaffected. Standard channel pressure doesn't offer this level of sophistication and it's typical of the kind of thoughtful inclusion which adds so much to the calibre of the ASR-10 as a performance instrument.
The unit is always in one of three modes: Load, Command or Edit. Perversely, Load is actually the normal performance mode, as you can continue to play one ASR sound while loading another. Command mode does much as it suggests, making the ASR-10 obediently follow your every order - saving data, copying data, deleting, truncating - you name it. Finally, Edit mode gives you access to the variables of the data being used - sound volume, velocity, MIDI channel and the like.
The basic architecture of the ASR-10 is split into four sections, listed above corresponding buttons - you have a choice between Instrument, Sequence/Song, System/MIDI and Effects. Thus, pressing 'Load' and 'Instrument' instructs the ASR to enter instrument loading mode. Similarly, 'Command' followed by 'System/MIDI' lets you tamper with settings that affect the whole machine, including a wealth of MIDI options, keyboard pressure sensitivity and even a MIDI System Exclusive recorder (just in case you fancy using a two grand sampling wunderkind to back up the data from your Alesis MMT8). 'Edit' and 'Effects' would, of course, give you access to the editable parameters for the internal effects.
Each mode is split into Pages, which carry the various individual commands, editable parameters and values. These can be accessed in one of several ways, depending on your mood. You could scan through them cyclically using the left/right cursor buttons or call them up directly via the numeric keypad; each button from 1 to 0 accessing a different page (or group of pages). The parameter values themselves are altered using the familiar up/down buttons or the equally familiar data entry slider.
I spent many a happy hour just wandering from page to page and parameter to parameter, seeing what delights of processing the ASR-10 had to offer. In fact, the machine is such a doddle to use that you very soon forget any previous loathing of 'Page-driven Parametric Programming' (as the manual so cheerily calls it) and find yourself punching buttons at a speed bettered only by the check-out cashiers at Tesco on a busy Saturday.
It's hard to believe how little you actually need to consult the manual to get things started. And in fact, you can maintain even further distance from the tome (at least during the early stages of getting to know the ASR) by reading the much more accessible Tutorial booklet - designed to take you on a speedy tour through the facilities and features of the ASR-10. In true Blue Peter style, it tells you to collect certain items before taking your first tentative steps into ASR territory: a microphone, blank disc, headphones, operating system (OS) disk and - wait for it - an ASR-10. Quite.
OK the Operating System disk has loaded - let's get some noise going here. The buttons that need to be pressed to load the demonstration sounds from disk are outlined in the tutorial; but simply, you press Load, scan through the list of files on disk via the display and hit Enter/Yes for the one you want. Before the ASR-10 can load a sound, it needs to know which Instrument you want to put your selection into (see the accompanying boxout for an explanation of the terminology).
Each of the eight available Instrument locations has an individual button, located below the display. Pressing button 1 causes your chosen sound to take up residency as the first Instrument. Your next sound can be loaded into Instrument 2, then 3, and so on, up to a maximum of eight Instruments. Like falling off a log, really.
Once your chosen Instrument is loaded, pressing the adjacent Selected button activates the sound and allows you to play it from the keyboard. The sounds supplied with the machine are excellent - particularly the rich strings - but as I've pointed out, we are talking long loading times here. It's easy to forget the sheer amount of raw data involved in loading samples of this sort of quality.
Anyway, in this mode you can also 'stack' Instruments, and thus play several simultaneously on the keyboard. Pressing two Instrument buttons together brings those two sounds to the top of the 'stack', ready to play. Of course, if those Instruments also happen to have different key or pitch ranges, you could go on to create traditional 'split keyboard' arrangements as well.
The next step up from loading individual Instruments is to load whole Banks. A Bank is simply a collection of Instruments together with the performance, routing and effects data that were in place when that Bank was saved. A typical example might contain eight Instruments - Piano in Instrument 1, Bass in 2, Strings in 3, etc. - and their chosen effects, performance setups and stacking data.
The Bank itself does not contain the raw sample information; it is best described as a 'template' into which the instruments fit. Because of this, a Bank must be stored on disk together with, not instead of, its component Instrument files. Telling the ASR-10 to load a Bank instead of individual Instruments is a much speedier way of getting things up and running - it automatically loads each Instrument into its predetermined location without hassle. Not only this, but a Bank can also contain the associated sequence/song data used to play those instruments from the internal sequencer which we'll come to later. Now that really is handy for live use.
Having had your fill of the supplied sounds, you'll no doubt be straining at the leash to get into the actual sampling side of things. Again, this area becomes very easy once you grasp a few basic processes - the first of which is to press the button marked 'Sample/Source select', placing you in sampling mode.
The audio signal to be sampled is primarily taken from the input jacks on the rear panel, and can be set for line or mic level (or digital, if you have the interface). In addition to this, there is an input trim control for more precise gain setting - again on the rear panel. Why this should be, I really don't know; it seems to me that level setting to avoid distortion is pretty vital and I found myself endlessly reaching back to tweak this tiny rotary. Not a matter of life or death, but extremely irritating.
Anyway, the audio signal itself is monitored via two 'Audio Tracks' in the ASR system, accessed by means of dedicated buttons on the right hand side of the front panel. Naturally, one 'track' becomes the left channel and the other the right when sampling in stereo, but they could be used as two discreet mono channels. Pressing an Audio Track button once causes it to be selected as the channel to be sampled (a yellow LED lights); pressing it again causes the signal going through that channel to be monitored via the master outputs (red LED lights).
You've probably guessed that pressing both together tells the ASR to sample in stereo and thus record the signal from both Audio Tracks - and you'd be right. It's also worth noting that you can resample the sounds of the ASR-10; in other words, record a sample in the normal fashion, add effects and then sample the sound again internally from the master outputs - your new sound has integral effects. Brilliant.
Once you've selected your desired signal and pressed Enter/Yes, the display prompts you to pick an Instrument to sample 'into'. Straightforward enough so far. But it is here you encounter two further examples of Ensoniq terminology - 'Layer' and 'Wavesample'. These are outlined more fully in the adjoining box, but it might be helpful at this point to explain that the sample you actually record becomes a single Wavesample in the machine itself.
Wavesamples are then grouped into Layers, with up to eight Layers and 127 Wavesamples in an Instrument. On this screen you can choose which Layer the new Wavesample will become part of; you can also choose to sample over (and thus replace) an existing Wavesample, or create a new one. Since the usual course of action is to create a new Wavesample, punching Enter/Yes again takes you past this screen and into Level Detect mode.
This time, the display resembles a sort of bargraph-VU meter. The signal is metered from left to right, with an indicator lighting to warn you of the onset of clipping. An asterisk is positioned 'over' the bargraph level to indicate the level at which sampling will actually begin; once in sampling mode, a signal passing this threshold will begin the recording process.
Pressing Enter/Yes for the last time takes you to the Waiting screen, indicating that once the input signal is detected, the unit will start recording. You are also shown the remaining sample time left in seconds. And that's it - play your signal, and press Cancel/No when you want the machine to stop sampling. What you're left with at this point are extremely clean and sharp raw Wave samples, ready to be edited as you see fit. There really isn't the space here to go into every process that you can subject them via the pages of editable parameters; suffice it to say, the ASR will not disappoint.
Looping samples is often looked upon as the acid test for samplers: how easy is it to achieve smooth and usable looped sounds? The answer, again, is simplicity itself. The basic edit pages let you select the type of loop you want - no loop, forward loop, reverse loop and so on - together with the loop start and end points themselves. If you engage the Autoloop function, the ASR-10 will only let you choose loop start and end points that readily offer a smooth transition from one to the other - which of course is vital for effective looping of pad/string sounds, for example. It can take a bit of tweaking to get exactly the right outcome, but the end results are, more often than not, superb.
Crossfade looping? Of course. You have a choice between regular crossfade, reverse crossfade, ensemble crossfade, bowtie crossfade and bidirectional crossfade. Rather like a Burger King menu, in fact. (Er...just let me work that one out - Ed.) Time stretching? Naturally. The Time Compress/Expand command page shortens or lengthens the wavesample duration without affecting the pitch, to make it fit a particular tempo; ideal for rhythmic loops which include pitched sounds. However, it can take an age to process, so a Quality parameter is included, letting you process the data at a much lower (but faster) resolution to audition the results before committing yourself to the full thing.
Anything else? Well, you can cut up sections of data within the Wavesample to copy and paste them around as you see fit. You can invert, reverse and add data; you can smooth out the amplitude of the Wavesample; you can even mix, merge, splice, fade in and fade out Wavesamples. And all this before you even get round to the actual filters.
Did I say filters? Yes, the ASR-10 has two filters for each voice - and they're good too (by which I mean tonally useful). In fact, they make you want to twiddle around to see if you can't get your sample sounding that bit more interesting. In my never-ending quest for the ultimate pad/choir sound, these filters began to play a major role. Naturally, you can connect the filters together in different ways and alter various cutoff and modulation parameters to suit your needs - they really do work well.
Each Wavesample, Layer or Instrument can be routed to any of the three internal stereo effects busses to be processed and then sent to the main Left/Right outputs. Alternatively, if you have the output expander I mentioned earlier on, you can route them to three further stereo outputs. Bearing in mind the number of different sounds that you could be playing at any one time, this level of flexibility soon becomes essential.
At this point you might feel yourself to be wilting under the barrage of exciting features, but bear with me while I discuss the final key area of operation - the internal sequencer. As defined on the ASR-10, a sequence is a collection of eight tracks, each containing note and controller data for an instrument. A sequence can contain up to 999 bars, with a maximum of 80 sequences in the whole memory. All the sequences can then be chained together in any order to make up a song. Only one song is permitted in the system at any one time and naturally, available memory restricts just how long a sequence/song can be.
Three 'transport' controls are used to select Record, Play and Stop/Continue; other than that, most of the track and sequence information is accessed in the usual parameter-page way. You can perform quite a few useful tasks on these pages, including some basic but effective quantisation and copying. Like the rest of the system, it is very easy to use. I am a diehard computer-based sequencing person and rather sceptical of such arrangements, but for live use I can see this setup being ideal, simply because you only have to load one Bank to recall all your Instruments and Sequences ready for performance - no mess, no fuss, no bother.
In common with other internal Ensoniq sequencers (such as that on the SQ1), eight further MIDI-only tracks can be sequenced in addition to the eight driving internal Instruments. Thus you could do as I did, and drive eight voices of an external synth from the MIDI tracks while running the eight internal Instruments as well - effectively giving you 16 tracks to work with. I warmed to this feature very quickly indeed; it's a definite bonus.
And so we stumble gasping over the finishing line of our rigorous crosscountry tour of the ASR-10. Before we hit the cold showers, however, I must return to a couple of the niggles which have dogged me since the start of our excursion. I have already made my feelings clear about the 'optional' digital and output interfaces and the absent SCSI interface. However, as an illustration of just what the latter entails, I programmed the eight instruments with a selection of my favourite samples, finely tuned and tweaked to test out all the options available in the system.
Then I went to save the results. Eight Instruments - about twenty Wavesamples in all - using around 85% of the memory. Guess how many double-density disks I used? Five. Yes, five. And that's without expanded memory. I can only conclude that for serious use you can forget floppies; the facility for an external hard drive with a machine of this power is absolutely essential and should be fitted on all machines at the factory.
That aside, the ASR-10 is an unqualified success. It provides everything you could reasonably ask for in a sampling performance instrument. And while a review such as this could not hope to detail all the facilities that go towards making it such a winner, it really does deserve whole-hearted recognition.
With the already vast sample library built up for the EPS series to draw on, there is already some major support for this machine. And the advent of the sample CD and the ease with which new samples can now be obtained really does make it worthy of consideration by anyone looking for a workstation keyboard. Add to that the ease of use and overwhelming friendliness and you can't really go wrong. Unlike many of its contemporaries, this really is a musician's sampler.
Price: £1999 inc VAT; prices of optional interfaces TBA
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