Tony Hastings and Paul Trynka assess the latest entrant into the increasingly competitive sampled piano stakes
You would have had to have lived in a South American rain forest for the last four years not to have noticed the emergence of the sound sampler as a major influence in the creation of music. Starting with the Fairlight and quickly filtering down to the Mirage we are now about to be flooded by inexpensive high quality samplers.
One thing they all have in common is the fact that most people seem to want to judge the particular sampler's capabilities on how well it can reproduce a piano sound. Understandable, as pianos have always been the last bastion of the almost unsynthesisable, but in a lot of ways it's a very unfair test because a "real" piano is much more of a physical experience. After all there is a large wooden casing that vibrates with the strings and the sound seems to be all around you rather than coming out of 2 speakers in either corner.
Difficulties aside, though, the development of a dedicated sampled piano unit was a pretty obvious step and we already have the Roland and Technics pianos here to prove it. Due for release at the BMF is Ensoniq's digitally-sampled piano, and at £1000 it's cheaper than both the Roland and the Technics.
The same Q chip that gave the world the Mirage is again pressed into action to produce an instrument that contains 10 polyphonic sampled keyboard sounds, 2 duophonic bass sounds, stereo chorus, separate outputs for the piano (stereo) and bass sections, a 76 note weighted piano style keyboard, the ability to send and receive on all 16 MIDI channels and also to be able to give the bass section a different MIDI channel number from the keyboard, transpose over an octave, octave shift and a velocity sensitive keyboard. A busy little chip... Each of the samples is stored in 512k of memory, and is 'burnt' into a ROM, so you can't adjust the samples from within the machine nor use it to make your own samples; it's strictly a preset unit.
The piano is finished in matt black with a curved front above the keys that harkens back to its piano heritage. Adding to the effort, there is even a strip of red felt between the keys and the casing that gives the action a sort of 'soft return'.
It comes complete with a music stand and a set of double pedals for Sustain and Sostenuto (for sustaining chords whilst playing a non-sustaining solo line).
The main piano style sounds are stored in two banks of 5 (A and B) and either of the two bass sounds (upright and electric) can be combined with any keyboard sound.
Well you can't argue with this. It is a very warm piano sound with a rich bottom end. It responds well to different styles of playing, from classical to a thumping version of Lady Madonna.
When manufacturers put 'Honky Tonk' on the label you tend to expect a nasty 'out of tune' piano sound. To their credit Ensoniq have created a piano that sounds like the ideal pub instrument, ie out of tune but not so much as to make you cringe. It's amazing how many times you can play the theme from Pot Black without getting bored (unless you are listening to someone else playing it).
This is yet another rich and full piano sound, but with that extra 'bite' that makes it cut through when playing Rock'n' roll with some noisy friends. Actually we preferred this to the mellow piano and used the desk to cut some of the top end to make it a bit softer for different styles. Again it played well across the whole range of the keyboard and responded excellently to velocity information.
NB The 'real' piano sounds don't have chorus but using the stereo output of the keyboard will give a wider sound.
For electric piano you should really read Fender Rhodes. It's strange that even with its demise as a modern keyboard (when was the last time you saw one on TOTP?) the sound it makes is still high on the list of important factory presets for both synth and sample makers. In fact a certain Japanese company has a digital synth that seems to have become the definitive Fender imitator, it's so good that you can't listen to a modern ballad without hearing it somewhere. Much as the Japanese version is lauded for its 'bell-like sparkle' it's nice to hear the original again (or at least a sample of it!) The Ensoniq piano has captured the wooden earthiness that was very much a part of the Fender sound, whilst still being bright. What more can you say? It sounded great.
No self respecting keyboard should be without chorus. Especially a quiet, rich, stereo chorus that makes the most of the stereo output to sweep sound from side to side. The piano is the same as in the previous preset but with the addition of chorusing.
To select the sounds in BANK B you choose the BANK B select button and then use the same 5 buttons as for the BANK A sounds. They contain percussive or tuned percussion sounds that are playable from a keyboard.
A very sharp and clean marimba sound. Things like this are difficult to judge because, after the initial attack of the note, there is so little character to the tail end of the sound that all marimbas sound more or less the same. This sounded just like a marimba. Great for Thompson Twins impersonations.
Although you know what this sound was meant to be it sounded more like someone blowing over a milk bottle. A very nice and expensive milk bottle, granted. It was a very-interesting sound and could persuade you to get quite pyschedelic. Forget what the manual says about this one and just use it to your own ends.
The Vibraphone has a little more body to the sound than the Marimba, and thus is easier to compare to other vibraphone sounds. It was quite adequate but maybe needed a little eq on the lower end to make it more fullsome. The Tremolo was subtle enough to make the sound 'move' without being distracting.
There are a lot of synthetic clavinet sounds around (many of which are excellent) but since the advent of MIDI and stable DCOs the original Hohner Clavinet has all but disappeared. Here the Ensoniq manages to capture all the 'grittiness' of the originator, with plenty of body and edge. It's enough to make even you funky (well almost).
Exactly what it says it is.
That covers all the 'keyboard' sounds available, but there are also two bass sounds that can be combined with any of the Bank A or B sounds. To choose a bass sound you simply select one of the two corresponding buttons. Selecting one allows you to set a split point anywhere on the keyboard up to the two-octave mark, simply by pressing the relevant key. To regain the lower end of the piano sound, you can simply press the Octave button, and move everything up one.
This is a sample of a wonderfully sleazy double bass ideally played in Ronnie Scotts or Greenwich Village!
The very lowest notes have great character and responded quickly and accurately to all types of playing. Combinations of the double bass with different A and B sounds went well with everything from The Cure to Fats Waller. Definitely my favourite sound (mixed with bright piano).
Having a separate output's useful, too, letting you mess around with different eqs and reverbs...
This is a straight Fender style bass guitar sound. Fairly toppy and with a slight metallic ring to it. To be honest, this wasn't a favourite sound. Maybe it's because 'real' bass sounds out of context played on a keyboard. It worked best when used as part of a sequencer setup.
Fortunately, the piano was available for a fair length of time, and was tried out in a number of different situations. The sounds were first rate for both recording and performing, and the weighted 'piano style' keyboard had just the right resistance. Like most of the other crop of sampled pianos, the Ensoniq utilises multisampling both for samples of different notes and different dynamics. A good test of multisampling is to play the keyboard in a number of different ways and see if you can 'spot the join' where different samples take over; I found that the response was excellent with very little difference across the range.
Comparisons with any other sampled pianos can be misleading — after all, everyone hears and plays in a different way. Suffice to say, it found considerable favour in the IM&RW review department — and the fact that it's only £1080 and can be carried under one arm has nothing to do with it (ish). It also has a useful transpose switch which means that you can learn everything in C and then play along with awkward saxophone players who insist on Bb.
Overall, the piano is near-unbeatable on price and facilities and it even looks good! If you are in the market for a digitally sampled piano you owe it to yourself to wait until this is in your local music shop before buying anything. You might not like it, but you'll kick yourself if you spend three times the money on something else, only to find out that a few weeks later the Ensoniq has arrived, and you prefer it...!
Ensoniq SDP-1 — RRP: £1080
More info from Ensoniq UK on: (Contact Details)
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