Too Good To Be True?
An exclusive review of the Mirage Sampling Synth — A price breakthrough?
At under £2000 Ensoniq's Mirage sampling, digital synth was the talk of the Frankfurt Musik Messe. Curtis Schwartz investigates.
If 1984 was the year for MIDI, then '85 looks like becoming the year of the sampler. From every corner of the globe have appeared sampling DDLs, sampling chip blowers, and sampling keyboards, one of the most exciting of which comes from a hitherto unknown company called Ensoniq. Comprising of several of the people behind the Commodore 64 and Vic 20 microcomputers, the Ensoniq team have developed a multisampling, digital synthesiser keyboard called the Mirage. A brief look at the features of the Mirage reveal that this is a machine of immense potential, and more astonishing is its price of less than £2000.
The Mirage's maximum sampling rate is 33kHz using eight bit processing. This can be broken down into multisamples, progressively reducing the sampling rate down to 8kHz allowing an optimum sample time vs. frequency response for different sounds, with a maximum of 16 multisamples over the keyboard! The Mirage then has plenty of facilities with which to 'warp' these samples, and Ensoniq call these 'Programs'. Consisting of up to four user-presets per keyboard half (specifying Filter, Envelope, Modulation and Sample parameters), these are all fully programmable. The Mirage's filter section consists of eight independent voltage controlled Low Pass filters (one for each voice), with programmable resonance, keyboard tracking, and automatic filter tuning. Each voice has two programmable envelopes (one for filter and one for amplitude), each of which has five parameters (Attack, Peak, Decay, Sustain and Release).
The keyboard is velocity sensing, and this function can not only be routed to a sound's amplitude and attack time, but also to a sound's release time as well, as it also has key release velocity sensing. There is keyboard scaling of the decay rate over the keyboard, and the sum of all these parameters are called a Program which, as I mentioned before can be individually set up to four times per keyboard half (the split point is also programmable).
The samples and programs are then stored on the Mirage's built-in 3.5 inch Microfloppy disk drive (same as that used by Hewlett Packard, Data General and Apple), with each disk having 400Kbyte storage capacity. This is sufficient to store up to 3 full-keyboard sounds composed of 16 wavesamples per sound, four programs per keyboard half per sound, up to 48 sampled sounds, 24 programs (depending on sample size), and eight sequences of up to 333 notes each.
As you may have gathered, the Mirage also contains sequencing software, giving you real time sequencing of up to 333 notes in length. This is fully polyphonic, recording key, velocity, pitch bend, modulation and sustain pedal information, as well as any external MIDI data, with multitimbral overdubbing being possible (within the Mirage's eight voice capacity), and furthermore, pitch bend and modulation during live accompaniment do not affect the sequence playback.
Although the capacity of only 333 notes is very small, this is adequate for repetitive lines and 'experiments', and for more note capacity, the Mirage has an expansion/cartridge connector for sequencer expansion of up to 1333 notes or for future software updates.
Another major function of the Mirage is that it is also a digital synthesiser, containing 16 independent digital oscillators (two per voice) and in combination with its analogue filters, the Mirage is quite capable of conventional digital sounds as well as some analogue-ish sweeps etc. The digitally synthesised sounds can be used in conjunction with the sampled sounds, adding even more power to this instrument.
A quick look round the back of the Mirage will reveal various important connections, not least of which is its RS232 port. This is primarily designed as an interface for the Apple IIe, and with this little micro 'hook-up', we've got wavetable displays, 256-sample page-by-page scrolling of displayed data, random access to any page in memory, display of value of sample and looping, showing splice point data values automatically.
Without the Apple, looping of the sampled voices can either be done automatically or manually. However, in the manual mode, the splice points can be much more accurately pinpointed via the Apple's display and movement of the cursor. Further facilities that are available when interfaced with the Apple are both modification and creation of waveforms, inversion, reversal, graphics-based creation, access to wavetable data on Apple disks, and Algorithmic merging of waveform sections!!!
Furthermore, it will give you programming assistance.
In a performance environment, the Mirage's loading of information from the disk is quick enough so as not to hinder operation too much. Without a VDU, the contents of each disk can only be read from one's own listing on the disk itself (they have adhesive labels which cover the majority of their shells). It would have been useful to have had more than the Mirage's two digit display for information read-out. However, the numeric display is just about adequate.
After insertion of the disk, and a wait of five or ten seconds for loading of a program, you're ready to roll - the factory programs are very impressive and offer all the voices one would expect from the established sampling keyboards such as the Emulators or even the Fairlight. Furthermore, the compactness and simplicity of layout and operation make this a more immediately enjoyable instrument to work with than some of its peers.
As is so often said, and so often relevant to modern musical instruments - "It's not how you get there, so long as you get there" (or something like that). In this case, the end result does justify the means - although the actual feel of the keys are rather too light and spongy for my liking. The data storage system is convenient and relatively fast (taking a maximum of 10 seconds to load a new set of samples). Having the facility for such extensive multisampling and analogue control over the samples does provide the user with a very versatile, yet accessible means of sampling and I, for one, cannot wait until this product becomes available in the U.K. which should be by June of this year.
Although not confirmed it appears that Syco will be involved in the UK distribution for the Mirage. For further info. Contact Syco Systems. (Contact Details)
Review by Curtis Schwartz