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The Q-Chip Piano

Ensoniq Piano

The Q-chip that was the heart of the Mirage and ESQ1 keyboards proves itself to be yet more versatile in the latest in electronic pianos. David Ellis dons concert pianist's tails and tinkles the ivories.

The Ensoniq Piano is the company's third keyboard to make use of the custom Q-chip for reproducing sampled sounds. Its pedigree is impeccable, but competition in the digital piano market is fierce...

Keyboards may come and go, but a grand piano is the one instrument which, until recently, resisted most of the fads and fancies of the music technology industry. But that doesn't mean all is rosy among piano manufacturers. As one worried, head-scratching distributor of grand pianos put it to me at the British Music Fair, 'pianos don't grab the imagination like the latest synthesiser'.

In some respects, he was right: pianos have remained roughly similar in construction since the early 19th Century, when English piano manufacturer Broadwood constructed 'a wondrous new instrument' for Beethoven. But he was also mistaken. Ask any concert promoter what flavour of concerto will pull the biggest crowds, and they'll mention one of the piano concerto biggies ('Tchaikovsky 1', 'Rachmaninov 2', and so on). And if the soloist happens to have just won the Leeds or Tchaikovsky competitions, the promoters are sure to be rubbing their hands in glee.

The almost mystical folklore of the solo piano repertoire also rubs off on the behaviour of its performers. Glenn Gould wore white gloves when not playing, and used to sit on a stool so low that his chin virtually touched the keys. Horowitz refuses to travel without his Steinway, Michaelangeli has cancelled concerts because of inadequate instruments, and Thomas Dolby even sleeps on his Bosendorfer. All of which tends to prove that the piano can capture the imagination of both performer and public in no small way.

But one change that is significant is the environment in which pianos are played today. A grand piano that owes its mechanism to Victorian traditions may be all very well in a living room of Victorian proportions, but it doesn't make much sense if that room has been divided up into the living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom so beloved of property developers. And space is also at a premium in recording studios and music school practice rooms. To cap it all, the ever-rising cost of parts and labour has resulted in spiralling costs for the manufacturer, putting the price of a good grand piano well above the average musician's financial ceiling.

So, as we said in last month's review of the Roland RD1000, the dual desire for greater portability and cheaper manufacturing costs has prompted a lot of attention towards finding an electric or electronic replacement for the piano. Early representatives of this ilk, like the Hohner Pianet/Clavinet and Fender Rhodes, are indelibly inscribed on rock's roll call of classic instruments. The fact that they sounded little like the real thing didn't matter one iota, because they had that rare commodity - personality.

In truth, reproducing the sound of vibrating strings without using vibrating strings is difficult. Tine bars just don't vibrate in the same way. Neither does a triangle wave put through some sort of envelope shaper.

But now that most keyboard manufacturers have got sampling well and truly under their belts, reproducing the sound of the grand piano has at last become a practical reality for electronic instruments. And as it happens, this summer has seen something of a scramble to the top of the critical pile for the authentic sampled piano, with no less than five manufacturers (Ensoniq, Korg, Roland, Technics, and Yamaha) in more or less direct competition, and Kurzweil to follow suit shortly.

Ensoniq's Piano is certainly a good-looking instrument. At a mere 44lbs (20kg), it's also a good deal lighter than either the Roland RD1000 (95lbs) or the Technics PX series (upwards of 66lbs). But what you gain in portability is lost in length of keyboard, since the Ensoniq Piano limits itself to 76 notes (E-G), rather than stretching to the full 88-note keyboard of the Roland, Korg, or technics instruments. Whether that's likely to be a problem comes down to your repertoire and/or love of pianistic lows and highs. Each of the full-size keys is weighted, and Ensoniq claim to use a controlled resistance system to 'further emulate the feel of an acoustic piano'. I found the action comfortable to play, but a touch on the heavy side.

As with other sampled pianos, the keyboard action is velocity-sensitive, but it doesn't generate aftertouch data. A useful feature is a programmable bass split point, which allows you to assign an electric or string bass sound up to B3 (key 32) on the keyboard.

The keyboard is 10-note polyphonic, but the sensible voice assignment employed by Ensoniq often makes this seem more. In general, if more than 10 notes are played at once, it's the first notes that are stolen. However, to avoid a sudden gap at the bottom if a bass note is sustained with note-greedy chords played on top, the piano applies 'lowest-note priority' in order to hang on to the bass.

"Specification: The keyboard is 10-note polyphonic, but the sensible voice assignment employed by Ensoniq often makes this seem more."

Where the 10-note limitation is rather more obvious is if you're playing a glissando sweep up the keyboard or a rapid series of chords with the sustain pedal down. Switching in the bass option leaves the keyboard with eight-note polyphony above the split and two-note polyphony below, and neither section can steal notes from the other.

Controls are on the left of the keyboard, and are just about as basic as you can get these days, without an LCD in sight. The top row of buttons includes Stereo (which switches in an effective but very noisy stereo simulation circuit), Volume, Bank A and Bank B (which select between the two banks of five sounds), and Key Transpose (which transposes the entire keyboard over an octave range).

Personally, I find it confusing to play one thing and hear something else, but I guess the facility will have some use for accompanists who have to cope with the pitching idiosyncrasies of singers. Beneath that row there are two buttons to select bass sounds, labelled Upright and Electric, followed by Octave (which transposes the piano down by an octave to compensate for the bass section using up keys), the five sound selection buttons, and last of all, the MIDI Channel button.

Some of these buttons fulfil a dual role. For example, pressing MIDI Channel and Stereo together instructs the piano to retune its filters. The manual introduces the facility in this way: 'You may feel it necessary to retune the internal filters of the Piano after it has warmed up for a few minutes. This is primarily a decision your ears will make.' Now, quite why the user should have to do this is beyond me, especially when you're not even allowed to alter the filtering characteristics to make the sound more or less bright. Frankly, it sounds as if something's amiss circuit-wise if such retuning is necessary. And anyway, it's your brain, rather than your ears, that makes the decision.

The rear of the keyboard includes the mains switch and fuse, MIDI In, Thru, and Out, an A440 tuning control, and a set of jack sockets for the dual foot pedal (sostenuto and sustain), headphones, left and right outputs, and separate bass output.

The Ensoniq Piano's MIDI implementation is functional, but a far cry from that of the all-encompassing ESQ1. The piano operates only in Mode 3 (Omni Off/Poly Mode), and transmission and reception can't be set to different MIDI channels. One exception to this generalisation is the bass section, which can be set to a different channel than the main part of the keyboard. Actually setting MIDI channels involves pressing the MIDI switch and one of the Bank A (1-8) or Bank B (9-16) buttons. Although the manual shows the channel number lettering to the right-hand side of the buttons, the machine itself is bereft of such useful visual clues.

Like some other manufacturers, Ensoniq have used multi-sampling to store and reconstruct their piano's sounds. In all, 36 samples are used across the keyboard, which translates to around two notes per sample.

"Sounds: Piano 2 is Piano 1 detuned, but rather than being a true out-of-tune piano, it simply sounds as if it's been subjected to exaggerated oscillator detuning."

They've done this well, too, because it's hard to distinguish any obvious discontinuities of tone going from one note to another. The one exception is with the three (acoustic) piano samples, where notes in the top octave have a rather prolonged release time in comparison to the rest of the keyboard. Piano 1 is actually the default sound engaged on power-up. Definitely a grand rather than an upright, this has a good, solid bass, but, above middle C, the sound tends towards a rather wooden, enclosed quality which I found rather tiring.

Piano 2 is essentially Piano 1 detuned. However, rather than being a true out-of-tune piano (Ensoniq describe it as 'a bar-room upright piano that hasn't had a visit from the piano tuner in several years'), it simply sounds as if it's been subjected to some exaggerated oscillator detuning - and that includes the bottom octave of the keyboard where there should only be one string vibrating anyway. In other words, Piano 2 succeeds in being neither one thing nor the other, but hints at the days when every self-respecting electronic piano had to have a preset labelled 'Honky-Tonk'.

Piano 3 is said to be a 'close-miked rock 'n' roll piano sound', but a brighter, EQ'd version of Piano 1 seems nearer the truth. In fact, my suspicion is that Pianos 1,2, and 3 all come from the same multi-sampled set. And because of that common basis, all three sound like a dubiously-miked piano coming over a bass-dominant PA system.

The other two sounds in Bank A are a couple of electric pianos - E-Piano 1 and E-Piano 2. E-Piano 1 is more or less everyone's friend, the Fender Rhodes, but a mite less bright than the real McCoy, and a good bit woolier in the bass. E-Piano 2 is the same multi-sample set but with chorusing added, creating a softer, more delicate piano that's good for ballads and other romantic interludes.

Bank B starts off with Marimba 1 and 2. Unlike a real marimba (which goes from C below middle C to C four octaves higher), Ensoniq's vision of a marimba covers the full range of the keyboard. Since there's no instrument around to multi-sample to the full extent of 76 notes, some jiggery-pokery is employed to simulate what a full-length marimba might sound like. Although the end result is excellent, with a rich, deep tone, notes sustain far longer than those from the real instrument. Still, given the general quality of this reincarnation of a marimba, poetic licence wins over any purist concerns.

Marimba 2 follows on with a chorused version of Marimba 1, using a softer attack. This sounds as if the same multi-sample set has been put through detuning and envelope shaping, losing its real identity in the process. Effects for effects' sake, I'd say.

The third sound in Bank B, Vibes, has a similarly quasi-synthetic basis as the marimba; there's no way that 76 notes of 'vibraphone' can be multi-sampled from a three-octave instrument. This time, the end result suffers from the simulation process, with pitch-shifting below middle C giving rise to a disturbing harmonic bloom. Above middle C, on the other hand, it has an entirely different and engagingly authentic character.

The final two sounds in Bank B are Clav 1 and Clav 2. The Piano displays an identity crisis at this point, as the relevant buttons are clearly labelled 'Perc' and 'Mallet'. Curious. Clav 1 is, not surprisingly, another hark back to earlier days: a rather dull sounding Clavinet-type sound. Clav 2 follows this by adding yet another generous helping of chorusing to the basic sound.

So, to recap, only five of the 10 sounds seem to be separate multi-sample sets; the remainder appear to be derived by internal (meaning pre-programmed) treatment of the sample sets.

"Performance: Velocity sensing is achieved by applying key velocities to opening or closing the filters on the Q-chip's outputs. You wouldn't expect to be convinced, but it works well."

In fact, there are two more sounds belonging to the bass section of the instrument. The Upright (ie. string) bass isn't at all bad in the bottom couple of octaves, but loses its identity above that. The same is true for the Electric bass, which is powerful at the bottom (though lacking a bit in string twang), but less characterful at the top.

One major difference between Ensoniq's and other manufacturers' approaches to reconstructing the sound of acoustic instruments is what they do with velocity data. Kurzweil, for instance, developed a technique of extrapolating a particular sound by interpolating (or mixing) between different samples of the same note made with different key velocities (the so-called 'contoured sound modelling'). Roland do something very similar with the Structured/Adaptive system in the RD1000 keyboard and MKS20 rack unit. In both cases, the designers devoted a good deal of time and money to developing models of how instrument timbre varies with dynamics. They then had to apply the results to resynthesis software (Kurzweil) or special VLSI chips (Roland).

Ensoniq, on the other hand, have elected to use the well-proven hardware in the Mirage and ESQ1 (the Q-chip), which steers a simpler route through the territory of dynamic timbres. In consequence, velocity sensing on the Ensoniq Piano is achieved by simply applying key velocities to opening or closing the filters on the Q-chip's outputs. On the face of it, you wouldn't expect to be convinced by this approach. But, in general, it seems to work well.

Certainly, the Ensoniq Piano is good value. But it's an instrument that reflects cost-cutting compromises. The 76-note keyboard may make it a darn sight more portable than its 88-note competitors, but the loss of those notes is a nuisance if you intend to use the keyboard for jazz or classical performance. And in an age when most manufacturers of sampled pianos are adding some element of programmability (equalisation and chorus, for instance), the Ensoniq Piano's sounds seem a little dated, harking back to an era of fixed presets.

To add insult to injury, the stereo chorus is almost unusable because of its high noise quotient (complete with a frequency sweep reminiscent of that seventies sexist stalwart, the Deluxe Electric Mistress). Even with 'Stereo' switched out, the noise level is a little too high for comfort. But to be fair, the noise problem may be peculiar to the unit provided for review - after all, serial numbers don't come any earlier than the '0001' inscribed on the review model - especially as the latest word from Ensoniq has it that recent improvements to the chorusing circuitry have reduced the noise considerably.

On the positive side, some of the sounds are extremely good - the straight marimba and the upper half of the vibes, for instance. All the samples reveal encouragingly low quantisation noise levels, and also demonstrate that Ensoniq have got their multi-sampling and looping off to a fine art (much better than the Kurzweil 250 in that respect, in fact).

But for me at least, the piano samples don't quite come up to scratch. Given that the Q-chip circuitry permits detuning between pairs of oscillators, I wonder why Ensoniq didn't provide that option on the Piano as a programmable feature, rather than enforcing it on the user, and using up valuable preset buttons in the process. And surely it would have been better to get a solid set of samples from Steinway and Bosendorfer grands (as Roland did), and then allow the users to program EQ to suit their own taste?

Finally, the lack of any facility to add to the range of sounds by means of an expansion cartridge seems a curious omission, considering how expandable the Mirage and ESQ1 are.

Price £1080 including VAT

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Oct 1986

Donated & scanned by: Stewart Lawler

Gear in this article:

Piano > Ensoniq > SDP-1 Sampled Piano

Review by David Ellis

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