THERE'S NO DOUBT that Ensoniq's Mirage sampler was the right product for the right price at the right time. But the situation is very different for the company's second sampler: price-wise it doesn't stand out like its predecessor did, and there happen to be an awful lot of good samplers currently out on the market.
Most people would agree that the Mirage was a right pain to operate, and the manual didn't help. Fortunately, through the ESQ1 and latterly the SQ80, Ensoniq have developed a very proficient user interface and spruced up their manuals no end. One of the EPS' strong points is undoubtedly the fart that it's extremely user-friendly - to the point, even, that you don't need to refer to the manual that much.
The EPS sports Ensoniq's own Poly-Key polyphonic aftertouch-sensitive keyboard (as already used on the SQ80). Its rather odd "clackety-clack" touch isn't at all appealing to begin with, but I found that I got used to it after a while.
As on the Mirage, Ensoniq have gone for a disk-based operating system, requiring the operating system disk to be in the drive each time you power up the instrument. You can make backup copies of the OS disk, and - unlike the original Mirage - format disks onboard the EPS (the sampler uses DSDD 3.5" disks, with formatting taking about 80 seconds).
Sample resolution isn't a simple matter, for while the input and output converters are 13-bit linear (supposedly giving a 78dB s/n ratio) the samples are stored in memory as 16-bit data while the chips handling the filtering and mixing are 24-bit. Whatever that's supposed to add up to, the EPS has a bright, clear sound with plenty of presence. The six library disks available at the time of writing include a very realistic and expressive flute; drum and Latin percussion kits; a bright, metallic-edged electric piano; snappy digital bass; a very plaintive zither; and a variety of delicate, splashy metallic and atmospheric sounds.
The sampler allows you to choose from 40 sample rates ranging from 6.25kHz to 52.1 kHz. The polyphony of the instrument depends on sample rate, simply because the output is multiplexed, which means the voices are time-sliced. The faster the playback rate the fewer the voices which can be processed. You get three choices: 20 voices at 31.2kHz, 16 at 39kHz and 12 at 52.1kHz.
The EPS comes with 512K of onboard memory (256K of 16-bit words) which gives you 9.92 seconds sample time at the maximum sample rate of 52.1kHz, or 12.52 seconds at 41.7kHz. You'll be able to double this memory capacity with an add-on memory board, but plans to produce bigger memory upgrades have apparently been scuppered by high memory-chip prices.
Like the ESQ1 and SQ80 before it, the EPS has an onboard eight-track sequencer. This allows you to record up to 80 999-bar sequences and then chain them together into a single song. Tracks can be mixed down, muted and solo'd, and given mix levels and pan settings. The EPS utilises pretty much the same track-to-MIDI organisation as the ESQ1 and EPS, whereby each track an be assigned its own MIDI channel and set to internal, MIDI or both.
What you do have to come to terms with on the EPS is the fact that memory is dynamically divided between samples and sequences. If you were to use the memory solely for sequencing (which really isn't very likely, is it) it would hold around about 80,000 notes. Roughly speaking, each Block of data (512 bytes) holds about 80 notes (pre controllers).
As on the SQ80, Ensoniq have included a straightforward SysEx Recorder which is suitable for all instruments that allow you to initiate dumps from their front panel.
Sampling on the EPS seems a fairly straightforward process, with "expert system" auto-looping and six different crossfade looping algorithms doing their best to help you get smooth loops. Up to eight Instruments an be held in memory at any one time, and these an be organised on the keyboard in any fashion and "stacked" in any way. Each Instrument can contain up to eight Layers, a Layer being a group of wavesamples spread across the keyboard. Layers can in turn be combined into four Patches which can be called up via two dedicated Patch buttons above the pitch and mod wheels - the idea being that you can very quickly switch between different sounds or variations on the same sound (s). This may not be the most intuitive part of the EPS, but it's certainly very flexible and musically very useful.
The feature on the EPS which most people are aware of is probably its ability to load a sample while you're playing other samples on the keyboard. This works fine, and with careful memory planning can effectively expand the EPS' internal memory, but it's a shame Ensoniq didn't extend this ability to other disk operations such as loading sequences or formatting disks.
Mirage owners who are thinking about upgrading to the EPS should know this: Mirage samples an be loaded straight off disk into the new sampler and converted into EPS Instruments. Your precious sample library won't become redundant.
Initial impressions, then, are that the EPS' combination of excellent sample quality, user-friendly operation, a host of thoughtful features and a flexible onboard sequencer make it definitely a sampler to listen out for - though I think I'd go for the memory upgrade option pretty quickly.
Prices EPS £1575; ME1 512K memory expansion board £195; OEX8 eight individual outputs £195. All prices include VAT