Certain to be 'Flavour of the Next Six Months', the Ensoniq Mirage is probably the most talked-about new synth on the market.
You may not have heard of Ensoniq Corp. You may still be unaware of their first production keyboard instrument, the Mirage - the first low-cost, professional sampling keyboard - but rest assured, both company and instrument are destined to become household names for keyboard enthusiasts in the next couple of years/months - possibly even weeks!
Why? Well, for starters, Ensoniq is no rinky-dink operation, in spite of a mere three years' experience in this particular field. The company was formed by ex-Commodore personnel in 1982, and have since (though God knows how) managed to fund a million-dollar custom VLSI development programme (the 'Q' chip) and, in addition to setting up a manufacturing plant in the U.S., have set up a European base in Belgium that will coordinate Ensoniq Europe's production of Mirages and subsequent instruments - which, in fact, happen to be made in Italy.
Ensoniq's aim is to become an instant worldwide outfit. The second and more important reason why you're going to be hearing a lot more of these guys in the near future is that the Mirage is an extremely good product. As I write, UK distributors Mirage UK have just shipped the first batch of Mirages to an eager, though selected, network of dealers. Already the waiting list looks ominous. All this fuss and bother concerns a relatively innocuous-looking little instrument that sports a five octave, touch sensitive keyboard, a couple of mod wheels, a tiny two-digit display screen and about a dozen or so push buttons. Further inspection reveals a micro floppy disc drive, almost out of sight on the front lip of the instrument beneath the mod. wheels.
However, what you can do with the Mirage is, briefly, this: you can sample up to 16 sounds across the keyboard, building up either one lifelike sample of say, a piano (with samples taken at varying pitches), or use this capacity to combine several distinct sounds into one playable item. Sounds can be played up to eight note polyphonically, and samples can be up to eight seconds in length for either half of the keyboard, so long as you don't mind sacrificing a certain amount of quality (4kHz bandwidth). If you do mind this sacrifice, then samples of up to two seconds will be taken at 15kHz, which is perfectly respectable.
As well as the expected controls for looping and truncating 'raw' samples, you can also apply a whole wodge of analogue type parameters to a sound. These include envelope generators, filters (powerful 24dB/octave ones), LFOs and provision for keyboard tracking, plus variably controlling the velocity sensitivity from the keyboard. Add to this control from the mod. wheels and, if you don't mind, a genuine multi-track (eight track) sequencer, and the Mirage does indeed begin to look very impressive!
Information is always stored on the micro floppies - be it simply a selection of samples or even a recorded sequence. Three sounds per keyboard half can be stored on any one disc (including a certain amount of your 'analogue type parameter' modifications) and, as expected, Ensoniq supply a collection of factory samples just to get you going. For the most part the ones I've heard so far are high quality. A piano (obvious), selection of basses (equally obvious), and brass samples are inevitable handy items, and not always the easiest to sample yourself. Okay, so it's no longer quite so astounding to hear a 'piano' on a synth any more - I'm afraid Messrs. E-Mu and Kurzweil, never mind Fairlight and Synclavier, snaffled up those honours some time ago - but it is astounding to hear this level of quality so generously priced on an instrument.
The discs are expected to sell for £40 apiece for library discs (pre-recorded) and £20 for blank, user-programmable ones. You can't format your own discs, so don't rub your hands at the prospect of bulk-buying a whole load of 'hot discs' from your mate at the pub and simply formatting them yourself!
As one might expect software is waiting in the wings. The computer chosen is the Apple IIe - I wonder what conclusions we should come to, bearing in mind the founding fathers' connection with Commodore! - and so far announced are waveform display, parameter display, and visual looping/splicing etc. of samples packages.
No surprise is that the Mirage is MIDI equipped - though I've not had the pleasure of trying out combinations as yet. It should, though, be possible to link up additional instruments to help out on sequencing duties, or indeed hook up a MIDI sequencer to uprate the otherwise meagre allowance of 333 events (or 1,333 events if using an accompanying, but optional, expansion cartridge). A note on the subject of syncing, either to a drum machine or a sequencer - the Mirage has an adjustable clock pulse and (though this too hasn't been tested) should be able to read and respond to the messages emanating from whatever is driving it.
We've been waiting for the cost of keyboarded samplers to come down for most of this year. I don't think even Ensoniq would seriously put the Mirage up against the E-II (selling for five times as much, though!), but you are definitely offered high quality results and bags of room to tailor sounds to suit your own purposes. As of writing the Mirage has one or two competitors, namely the Akai S612, which by the time you've acquired a quick disc and a controlling keyboard isn't going to be much cheaper, and the Greengate system (see our review last month - Ed.) which, though far cheaper, again isn't quite in this league.
Seeing as samplers really do protect you against the dating of sounds, it seems fair to assume that you'll be on safe ground with the Mirage. Such protection is not as illusory as its name suggests!
RRP £1695 inc VAT
More details from Mirage U.K, (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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