At last - the instrument with a name on everybody's lips receives an in-depth examination of its European version. Man-on-the-spot is Paul Wiffen.
The keyboard the world has been waiting for is now in production in Europe and should be in the shops by the start of July. But the first shipment won't be there long.
It all happened some while ago now, but the sight is still vivid in my memory. There was one small, unpromising-looking stand at February's Frankfurt music fair that was so busy, you were lucky if it took you less than an hour to get to the front of the crowd. One factor contributing to this chaos was the presence of two stunning German girls giving out glossy brochures, but the main reason was superficially rather more mundane. Three extremely dull-looking electronic keyboards, similar in size to a DX7 and obviously in a just-finished production state, wouldn't ordinarily command such universal attention.
But these instruments were different. Even with the help(?) of an unflattering speaker system struggling to make its presence felt in the face of strong competition from some triffid-like potted plants, the keyboards sounded good. Lots of strings, brass and piano sounds being reproduced with uncanny accuracy by electronics were not, of course, a novelty. But when the girls told us the keyboards would be selling for under £2000, our mood changed from one of mild pleasure to one of uninhibited astonishment. Word spread around the rest of the fair like a forest fire, and chaos reigned on the stand for the entire week.
And so it was that the Ensoniq Mirage multisampling keyboard made its European debut. Six months later, its American designers have taken far too many orders in their homeland to make building instruments for Europe a realistic possibility, so Ensoniq's Brussels-based European arm has set up a production facility in Italy, where Mirages will be made under licence.
What's particularly gratifying is the fact that the RRP in Britain is to be £1795, lower than even the Frankfurt preview led us to believe, and that the European model will actually have a better all-round specification than its American counterpart. Read on and you'll find out why.
It's ironic that for as long as synthesisers have been in existence, keyboard players have been looking for some way of capturing acoustic sounds to augment their electronic ones. Proof, I suppose, that you can't do everything with electronics alone. The first mass-production machine to offer control of acoustic sounds from a keyboard (and hence a crude sound-sampling facility) was probably the Mellotron. Huge numbers of them were sold in the late sixties and early seventies, and made records such as Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and Genesis' 'Watcher of the Skies' possible, but their analogue tape systems were not of the highest quality, they were extremely heavy and bulky, and they kept on breaking down. And that's quite apart from the fact that if you bought a Mellotron, you were restricted to the sounds its manufacturers chose to record.
It took the advent of (relatively) low-cost digital technology before user-sampling became a reality. The pioneer instrument in this field was the Australian Fairlight CMI, a legend in its own lifetime and rightly so, though if you wanted one when it hit the UK market back in 1980, you were talking telephone numbers. Then again, if you opted for the Fairlight's American rival, the Synclavier, you were talking positively intercontinental telephone numbers. Come to think of it, you still are.
But the important thing about both those instruments is that, by turning an incoming sound into a series of numbers, they offered people the opportunity to manipulate sampled sounds in just about any way they saw fit. So instead of just recording a sound, storing it in memory, and letting you play it from a keyboard, the Fairlight and Synclavier acted as complete computer music systems that let you change an acoustic sound beyond all recognition, augment it with electronic, synthesised timbres and make music out of the result thanks to some built-in composing software.
That's why both systems, in spite of being big, complicated and largely anachronistic machines whose abilities can now be bettered for a fraction of the cost, still sell in big numbers to studios and wealthy composers.
But for those of us who think telephone numbers should only be used in conjunction with Alexander Graham Bell's invention, the first major price break came with the release of the Emulator, or E1 as it's subsequently become known. With a selling price of under 10 grand, it made sampling available to a wider range of musicians and brought the technique further into the eye of the general public. It was only eight-bit and could only hold two seconds of sample, but it did allow for a rudimentary form of looping.
Last year's Emulator successor, EII, came out at roughly the same price as its predecessor, and used some very clever companding to stretch the eight-bit analysis to give higher sonic fidelity. Where it really scored was in giving an unprecedented degree of control over sample performance, thanks to a superb combination of analogue (filter and envelope) and digital (editing and mixing) sound-manipulation techniques.
Yet still, all these advances had done nothing to bring sampling into the hands of the musician in the street. A few low-fi machines like the Electro-Harmonix Replays (now incorporated into the rather impressive Akai S612 Sampler) and the truly awful Movement Mimic attempted to change this, but made little impact on the average musician.
What the world wanted - but for so long did not get - was an affordable sampling machine that was first and foremost a keyboard instrument, not a computer. Something in the sub-£5000 mark would have done, and some while ago, word reached us that a number of well-known synth manufacturers (from Sequential to Casio) were working on something along precisely those lines. But it wasn't forthcoming, and now, it would seem, a few ex-Commodore research people have beaten them all to it. How? Well, principally by designing (and building) their own custom IC, the mysteriously-titled Q-chip, to take charge of some of the Mirage's most important functions.
"The sequencer follows the American tradition of being realtime only, but it does what it purports to do well enough."
The basic spec of the Mirage can be summarised as 2.2 seconds of 33kHz, eight-bit sample recording for each half of the keyboard. The two memory areas, called 'Upper' and 'Lower' in time-honoured polysynth terminology, are separated and cannot be joined together to form one long sample. Longer samples (anything up to 6.5 seconds) can be made, but only by reducing the sampling rate, which in turn reduces the audio bandwidth and therefore the sound quality. On its own, the Mirage can't sample any faster than 33kHz, but a very cheap hardware update due in August will allow the sample rate to be increased to 50kHz - that's the same as the £100,000 Synclavier, don't forget. Of course, you pay for this in terms of sample time (you don't get anything for nothing in this life) which will then be down to 1.3 seconds per half. More on that later.
When you power up the Mirage, it's no more than a useless bit of metal and plastic until you put one of the two 3.5" disks supplied into the drive located at the keyboard's left-hand end, just below the wheels. This is because the disks store not only sound samples and sequences but also the operating system that runs the Ensoniq's basic functions. To my way of thinking, this is more than just an inconvenience. When will designers of sampling machines (most of whom come from the computer industry, remember) realise that musicians on the move just can't afford to have the brains of their instruments on the flimsy, separate medium of the floppy disk? True, it's a vast improvement on the traditional cassette, but it still leaves the operating system exposed to erasure (from airport security systems, studio speakers, or 101 other sources of trouble) or theft by any passing berk who happens to like the colour of your disk storage box. What works perfectly well for a home micro or an office system isn't necessarily going to do the same for a musical instrument and the environments in which it's used, so why not put the operating system on EPROM? That way, you'd combine the stability and security of plug-in hardware with the instant upgradability of software.
Anyway, in its present form the operating system takes some 15 seconds to load, pairs of sounds thereafter loading in a mere six seconds. Whilst this may seem a little long to those accustomed to the near instantaneousness of the average analogue synth, I can assure you it's a snip next to the immutable 25 seconds of the EII or, wait for it, the 15 seconds of the American Mirage. That's right, the European version is actually faster than it's Transatlantic forebear, thanks to a superior, swifter disk drive. On stage, the difference between six seconds and 15 can be the difference between holding and losing your audience, so this is certainly a worthwhile improvement.
You can choose whether to load Upper, Lower or both sounds from disk, and each disk stores three discreet pairs of samples plus four programs containing data relating to programmable parameter set-ups (see later). Aside from the two disks supplied, which contain excellent piano, strings and brass sounds the like of which have never been available under eight grand before, you'll have to buy any more at the fairly low price of £17.95 for pre-recorded disks (ie. library sounds) and the almost criminally extortionate rate of a tenner for a blank formatted one on which you can record your own sounds. There's really no excuse for this. If the formatting process can't be included in the operating system for reasons of space or incompatability, it should at least be available on a separate disk. The idea that you must either stock up with dozens of formatted disks in exchange for a vast number of greenbacks or risk running out of the little buggers miles from a Mirage dealer is preposterous. Sadly, the Mirage isn't alone in having such a pernicious formatting system.
...is simplicity itself on the Mirage. The manual is a little thin on the finer points of rate and length, pre-supposing that you'll end up using the Ensoniq's default values for these parameters. An economical double seven-segment display gives a rough indication of threshold and distortion levels of the incoming signal (which can be set to accept either mic or line level inputs via a jack on the back panel, incidentally), and once you've set your desired sample length and rate, you simply arm the sampling by pressing Enter, and the recording begins as soon as the incoming signal crosses the threshold.
The manual comments glibly: "Don't be disappointed if your first samples aren't quite up to snuff. The Advanced Sampling Guide, available from your authorised Ensoniq dealer, combined with your increasing experience, will help you get better sounds." What it doesn't say is that this guide, excellent though it is, will set you back £50 when it becomes available in August. Another costly accessory for what's essentially an excellent-value product. Ah, well.
The story doesn't end there, of course. With your sound safely stored in the Mirage's memory, you're free to embark on such potentially rewarding pastimes as looping: that is, cycling round a defined section of the sample so that notes are prolonged indefinitely. Lack of time precluded an exhaustive test of this facility, but what I did manage to fit in was enough to convince me the Mirage's version of looping is one of the neatest and most trouble-free implementations I've yet come across. And the best testimony of that is the strings sample on the second library disk - smooth as silk.
...is a rather grandiose bit of American jargonese referring to the fact that you can apportion sections of the 64K of memory available for each half of the keyboard to different samples, and play these back in various split or doubled modes. Briefly, this enables you to construct the sort of multisound performance arrangements I was raving about in my appraisal of the EII not so very long ago (E&MM November '84, in fact). These include detuning samples against each other for phasing and chorusing effects, velocity switching between a 'hard-strike' and 'soft-strike' sound, and multi-timbral (more jargon!) keyboard set-ups.
If you want to, you can play a sample across the entire length of the Mirage's five-octave keyboard (another European hardware item that differs from its American counterpart).
This is a welcome relief from the ridiculous confines imposed by the Emulator and Synclavier systems, both of which suffer from hardware limitations on sample playback. The former can only replay the sample an octave up or down - infuriating when all you need is an extra semitone - while the latter has a maximum replay speed of 50kHz - so if you sampled at that rate, the note can't go any higher than the sampled pitch. The Mirage's approach is more akin to that of the Fairlight, which allows you to play pitches that are a good bit lower and higher than the original. I'd be the first to admit that the results of such practices are often pretty unbearable, but there's no reason to limit playback pitch simply because extremes of that parameter render the original sound unrecognisable. Some of the 'new' sounds are perfectly usable in their own right.
"Like the Fairlight, the Mirage lets you play pitches that are a good bit higher and lower than the original."
Not unexpectedly, the input filter and sample rate can both be adjusted, with the objective of obtaining the optimum sample result by minimising noise problems and other side-effects. Not quite so expected is the way the Advanced Sampling Guide really comes into its own here, almost justifying its high price in this area alone. Makes you wish the big systems offered the same sort of advice in addition to the facilities themselves...
However, the basic operating software is far from being omnipotent, but for those who want to take their fiddling a little further (quite - Production Ed), there's a more canny sample-manipulation package by the name of MASOS (Mirage Advanced Sample Operating System) available separately on disk. I can't tell you how much this'll cost because the final selling price hadn't been fixed at the time of writing, but I can tell you that however much it turns out to be, it'll be worth it. A quick demo was enough to convince me that it covers most of the remaining EII provisions the basic Mirage system omits: positional cross-fades to cope with tonal changes in complex instruments or to mutate one sound into another as you run up and down the keyboard; experimental techniques of sample reversal and digital mixing; and a good bit more besides.
This is where the fun really begins. Even when you've sampled your sound and mucked about with its composition to your heart's content, you still have a full eight-voice analogue-type synthesiser to play it back through. You can store four complete synth set-ups on a single disk, and said set-ups can be anything from a fairly flat bank of settings (to allow the basic sample to shine through in all its original glory) to outrageously modified and unrecognisable versions that play merry hell with the sample's component frequencies. Enormous fun, and a complete doddle for anyone who's spent a couple of days with a standard digital parameter selection synth of the SixTrak/Poly 800 variety. It's certainly a hell of a lot easier to work with than a DX7.
Talk of standardisations brings me on to velocity-sensitivity, something that most self-respecting polysynths are equipped with these days. The Mirage is no exception, and both filter and amplifier (brightness and loudness controls to the uninitiated) can be controlled by the speed of the key strike. There is one fairly awkward drawback, namely that the Mirage is currently unable to interpret incoming velocity data from MIDI. Try to control the Ensoniq from a DX7 (say), and the former won't respond any differently to lighter or heavier strokes. Of course, you can always play your DX from the Mirage as there's not much to choose between their keyboards, though I gather the keyboard on the American version is somewhat lacking.
But the lack of velocity response will still be a big drawback if you want to use the Mirage with a Master MIDI keyboard or sequencer. It's that fact, as much as any other, that makes the performance of the Ensoniq's internal sequencer so crucial. Fear not: the recorder performs admirably. It follows the American tradition of being a real-time only device, but it does what it purports to do well enough.
At the moment, the software's memory capacity is only 333 notes, but a cartridge update will bring this up to 1500 in August for only 70 quid. The sequencer records accurately, and can be synced to the rest of the world via a Sync jack input or the MIDI clock and MIDI Start/Stop/Continue commands. Overdubbing is possible, and if the keyboard is set up with split points, there's no reason why that overdubbing can't be multi-timbral. Unfortunately, the Mirage can't look at more than one MIDI channel at once (at least until a software update changes things) to allow multi-timbral sequencing from an external source.
One glance at the back panel tells a story a lot of people won't want to hear: one solitary Audio Out. So, no separate EQing of channels on the multi-timbral outputs in real time, I'm afraid. Personally, I'd defend Ensoniq's position over this one. The extra hardware in terms of sockets and routing add more to the cost than you would believe, and I happen to think the Mirage is at the right price now. If you want separate outputs, you'll just have to start saving for an EII...
As for the future, the manual includes time-honoured sales pitch that the Expansion Port next to the MIDI sockets will allow later Mirage products to be connected. This is presumably where both the Sequencer Expansion memory and the 50kHz sampling hardware should fit (will it preclude their simultaneous use?), as well as any other - as yet unsung - wonders that the chaps at Ensoniq might care to bring to pass.
When all is said and done, a sampling keyboard's life depends largely on two things: its sound quality and the flexibility of its post-sampling processes. Whilst both are pretty damn good in the basic Mirage, it seems Ensoniq are already preparing to see any competition off quickly, with the imminent arrival of both the 50kHz sampling cartridge and the MASOS software. If updates continue at this sort of pace, the opposition may never catch up, and Ensoniq will enjoy a lengthy - and entirely merited - spell at the top of the hi-tech music tree.
As things stand the Mirage is an incredible leap forward for the cause of affordable quality sampling. Its present audio bandwidth gives it a sound quality which, though it lacks the sparkle of the Emulator II (Ensoniq's strongest competitor - at over four times the price!), is nonetheless extremely impressive. And with the promised 50kHz sampling, it may well equal or go beyond that level - though obviously with nothing like the same sample times unless another update brings extra memory space.
As for the price, if I was a religious man I'd say it was a miracle. As I'm not, I'll just call it a giant leap forward for the average musician. The only real precedent for this sort of price breakthrough is the Yamaha DX7, and just look at what that did to the synthesiser market, regardless of the fact that few players could actually fathom out its programming system to any great extent. The Mirage doesn't have any problems on that score. In fact, it doesn't have too many problems all round - save keeping customers supplied, that is.
Further information from Mirage, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Wiffen
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