Ensoniq Mirage Update
Annabel Scott takes a look at what a reduction in price and an increase in facilities has done for the first budget sampling keyboard...
Living with today's low-cost sampling machines on a day-to-day basis tells you far more about their characters - and their usefulness - than a first-impressions appraisal ever can.
A funny thing happened on the way to the typesetters. The Ensoniq Mirage, the subject of this month's User Report, plunged in price from £1695 to £1295 including Advanced Sampling and user-formatting (previously £49 and unobtainable, respectively).
This put a whole new light on a machine that had already set new standards in budget polyphonic sampling. It also did nothing to charm the people who'd forked out £1695 plus £14 a time for pre-formatted disks, this writer included. But we'll try to keep past history out of this, and concentrate on what the Mirage has to offer at its new price, and with the new facilities included.
As you should know by now, the Mirage is the first product of the Ensoniq Corporation of America, a company set up by three ex-Commodore employees to apply computer technology to the music business. They spotted the growth of sound-sampling as a musical technique and, detecting the lack of a decent budget system, took a rather novel approach to making good the omission.
Spending around a million dollars on the development of a new dedicated sampling chip (the 'Q-chip') may seem an odd way to produce a budget machine, but once in the bag, the Q-chip allowed Ensoniq to turn out the Mirage fairly cheaply, and thus go for the sort of volume sales capable of paying back their investment. In fact, US production of Mirages has never been able to keep up with demand, so a factory has been set up in Italy to produce the European models.
European, American and Japanese Mirages are all slightly different from one another. The European ones use a better disk drive than the American models, and can therefore load sounds in six seconds rather than 12. The Japanese models abandon push-switches in favour of a membrane pad, and add a very handy disk rack to the instrument's top surface.
Otherwise, all Mirages are pretty similar. All of them offer eight-note polyphony, up to eight-way multisplits with floating polyphony, two seconds of sampling at 16kHz, velocity-sensitivity, and advanced sample editing functions using the Advanced Sampling Guide.
Let's look at the Mirage from the potential purchaser's point of view by running through what happened when I got one home. First, there's a standard Europlug mains socket and single jack output to be hooked up. Second, it helps if there's a disk in the left-hand drive when the power's switched on, because if there is, the Mirage loads its operating system from the disk automatically.
Having the operating system on every disk seems an odd move (the original Emulator had a special Systems disk for use at the start of each session), but it does mean they're harder to pirate. The unusual formatting also slowed the hackers down (MPS Software did manage to produce formatted disks without the operating system and sell them for £10 each), but now that you can format your own disks, any computer store should be able to supply blanks at less than fifty quid for a box of ten.
After loading the operating system, the Mirage loads the first pair of sounds on the disk. On each disk, there are three upper and three lower sounds, each one of which can exist in four versions with differing degrees of modification by the Mirage's synthesiser facilities. Loading a new basic sound (upper or lower) takes six seconds, but loading a new synthesised version of the same sound takes no time at all (you just press 0/3, say, for the third version of the sound you're using).
To confuse matters further, some of the Ensoniq factory disks have some of the synthesised sounds replaced by further samples. This is achieved by manipulating wavetable positions using the Advanced Sampling Guide, but I'll discuss that properly later.
"The Ensoniq doesn't have the quietest output in the world; some gentle equalisation, even noise-gating, comes in useful."
Any sample can be multisplit across the Mirage keyboard, and will always load as a multisplit. Some multisplits, such as the excellent Piano, Piano + 1 (one octave higher) and Electric Piano (Fender Rhodes) voices in the factory set, combine to form one sound. Other splits are more outrageous: try Saturday Matinee, which has a few notes each of dogs, sheep, horses, fire, machine guns, screams, cats and ricochets. Or Mouth Organ, which has a complete set of mouth-generated percussion noises.
It seems Ensoniq have a particular soft spot for percussion multisplits, perhaps overly so; it means there isn't even room for a string section on the two factory disks supplied, for instance. A lot of the bumps and thumps are going to be of questionable value to musicians who already have a digital drum machine, but even those who have could still find themselves using parts of the Orchestral Percussion section (gongs, timpani, shakers and the like) or the Electronic Percussion set (lotsa Simmons noises). Although none of the percussion sounds lasts very long, their bandwidth is necessarily restricted to get them into the multisplit; some are pretty dull-sounding, but most are perfectly usable.
If you think you're going to miss those strings, there are a couple of very impressive string samples available that are worth looking at before you resort to sticking a microphone in front of your kid brother's school orchestra. One of these has velocity-sensitive cellos on the lower half of the keyboard (the ability to alter the attack time with your playing technique is very handy) and a velocity-sensitive violin section on the upper bit.
A lot of the factory samples are distinctly ordinary, though. There are some truly crappy clavinets, organs and synth sounds, some of which are sampled from DX7s with considerable loss of quality, and most of which could be turned out by the world's cheapest analogue synthesiser.
There are also a few novelty numbers, such as a short bass/drums loop called Rock 'n' Roll which sounds as if it's been taken from something by Emerson Lake and Palmer. But it's only any use if you play everything in E, since it occupies just one key (the bottom C) of a multisplit.
Anyway, if you're less than happy with the samples provided by Ensoniq, the best thing to do is to make some yourself. Before we describe how to do this, it's worth pointing out that the Ensoniq doesn't have the quietest output in the world; some gentle equalisation, or even noise-gating, is useful to get the most out of your carefully-taken samples.
The subject of sampling technique takes up about three lines in the Musician's Manual and about 90 pages in the Advanced Sampling Guide. Basically, you stick a mic or line input into the Mirage's rear panel jack and select the level using one of the many functions accessed from its keypad. Go into Sample Mode and the two- digit LED display begins to act as a very simple VU meter—bars across the bottom for no level, the middle for some level, and the top for peak. Assuming you want a straight sample, you choose your keyboard half and present your sound to the Mirage, which samples as soon as it gets a decent level.
The sound can be played back immediately, and always comes out at its original pitch on Key 17(E) for the lower half or Key 46(A) for the upper half. You can correct the tuning in whole octaves (Coarse) or gradually (Fine), but inexplicably, Ensoniq haven't managed to tune their own factory samples correctly: they're all over the place.
"Since user-formatting, you can't complain the Mirage is expensive to feed; but some would willingly dump the sequencer and use its disk space for more sounds."
If you want to make a multisample, there are many more parameters to be set. Switch on Multisampling (Parameter 77), select the Initial Wavesample (Parameter 27 — usually set at 1), select the Wavesample Number (remember you can take up to eight wavesamples on an eight-way multisplit), set the Sample Start Point (usually 0), set the Sample End Point (in hexadecimal — you can look this up on a chart and find that it's 7F for two wavesamples), set the Top Key (30 keys per keyboard half), press Sample Upper or Sample Lower, then Enter/Start before playing the sound. All rather involved, I'm afraid. An eight-way multisplit implies a lot of hexadecimal looking-up and even more key-pushing. The main advantage of using the Prophet 2000 over the Mirage is that you're selecting parameters individually (even though there's still only one Data Entry control) rather than punching out a parameter's number every time, which does become tedious. Remember, though, that the Mirage's keypad access system is one of its major cost-savers.
Once you're happy with a sample you can leave it alone or modify it with the synth parameters, which again have to be called up one at a time. The most obvious one to use is the Filter (Low Pass only with variable Resonance), which can remove a lot of unpleasant hiss and aliasing effects, but you might also like to change the Attack, Peak, Decay, Sustain and Release of the VCA or Filter, or even chop up the sample itself.
Changing the sample start or end points is easy enough: just select the relevant parameter and use the data entry buttons to rid yourself forever of unwanted clicks or hisses. But looping a sound for an indefinite sustain effect is much more difficult.
Maybe the Visual Editing System running on the Apple IIe would help here, but I must admit to having had very little success without it. The looping process isn't difficult to use — it's just that it doesn't seem to work too well. All you have to do is switch Looping on and choose start and end points, with the latter having both Coarse and Fine values.
The start and end points are expressed as memory segments, while the End Fine Adjust parameter looks at individual samples within the final segment. Ideally, you should choose start and end points so that the loop is approximately correct, not changing in tone too much or producing major glitches. You'll usually get a click as the sample value at the end of the loop changes, though, so the Fine Adjust is intended to allow you to match values for a completely silent loop.
In practice, it's not so simple. I've searched through page after page of sample values at the end of a simple voice sound without finding a click-free loop, and the handbook's best advice is a) choose a new start point, b) sample again, or c) buy the Visual Editing System. Not very satisfactory, though to be fair to Ensoniq, it must be possible to create good loops, because the factory Piano, for instance, is utterly click-free.
If you do manage to achieve a good loop, you can investigate the more esoteric possibilities offered by the Advanced Sampling Guide. You can set an artificial fade in or out (as on the factory Piano) which effectively gives you much longer release times since the sound is looping as it fades, and you can reverse sounds and splice them together. With the Guide come two disks offering setup parameters for two-way, four-way and eight-way keyboard splits, and loading one of these is a good deal faster than setting up all the parameters yourself. A rip-off at £49, but a bargain now that you can get it for nothing.
The Mirage's other main points of interest are its sequencer, MIDI facilities and other interfaces. The Poly Mode MIDI implementation is fine, and the Out port is switchable to a Thru function with optional transmission and reception of pitchbend and modulation data. MIDI clocks are sent and received by the onboard sequencer, note information is stored on disk with the samples, and you can create polyphonic real-time sequences 333 notes long (1333 with the Sequencer Expansion cartridge) with little fuss.
"The Mirage is a great piano, sound effects machine, choir and string section - particularly if you can swap decent disks with other people."
The Mirage has a single footswitch socket which doubles as a piano-type Sustain pedal (which, as we all know, really means Release) and as a start/stop for the sequencer. The Sequencer Expansion cartridge fits into a rear panel multiway port that's also used for the Apple II interface.
Currently available Apple software is confined to the Visual Editing System, but other packages are being developed (by other sources) for MIDI connection to other computers. Unlike the Prophet 2000, however, the Mirage doesn't transmit sample data over MIDI, so you can't use a computer as a bulk sample store.
Time for a few conclusions. The Mirage itself is pleasant to play — the keyboard is crisp and responsive, the modulation and sprung pitchbend wheels are fine, the velocity-sensitivity is good, the loading times are acceptable.
Sample quality varies enormously, from factory samples that range from the stunning to the mediocre, to whatever you can achieve yourself with or without Advanced Sampling. Multisplits are great providing you don't expect massive frequency response — and introducing modified versions of sounds using key velocity or the modulation wheel can be highly expressive.
With user-formatting supplied, you can't complain that the Mirage is expensive to feed, but some people would willingly dump the sequencer and use its disk space for more sounds if they could. A Jap-style disk rack would be nice, too.
Advanced Sampling is a big joke. Hexadecimal lookup tables, wavesample rotation, Nyquist sample rates, sampling at 256 times the frequency of the sound source for page-long short loops — how many working musicians have time for all that gumpf? It takes about a month to get into, and the catch is that the Mac-style manual looks eminently readable, but is in fact about as comprehensible as a German-language PPG handbook on LSD. You don't get any of this nonsense with the Prophet 2000 — you just tell it how much memory you want to use and where to put it, then whack your sound in.
At £1695, plus Advanced Sampling, plus user-formatting if you could get it, plus a sequencer expander, plus visual editing, plus an input sampling filter for higher frequency responses, the Mirage didn't look too healthy up against the Prophet 2000, though demand has been high enough to ensure healthy sales for both machines. However, at £1295 with Advanced Sampling for those with patience and user-formatting for those into cheaper eating, the Mirage is looking well again. Soon we'll see its keyboardless Expander version (around £800) and no doubt a whole family of other Ensoniq products, too.
Now it's just a matter of what you want the machine to do for you. It's a great piano, a great sound effects machine, and a great choir and string section — particularly if you can swap decent disks with other people (there is an Ensoniq Hackers' Club already in existence).
If you want to take it further yourself, make sure you're well stocked up with patience before you set off. Finding the best of the Mirage involves a long trek through barren, thirst-inducing desert. But then again, you could find it's an interesting journey.
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Review by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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