Ensoniq ASR10 Stereo Sampling Keyboard
The EPS is dead, long live the ASR! 1992 sees the birth of a new dynasty from Ensoniq, its first offspring owing much to its predecessors; is the ASR10 an EPS in all but name? Wilf Smarties tarries awhile in the shade of Ensoniq's family tree...
Ensoniq have firmly established themselves as the US's leading sampler manufacturer — if sales of their samplers, which on their home ground now exceed the total of all other manufacturers' machines put together, are anything to go by. The 8-bit Mirage set new standards in sampler affordability, and Ensoniq built on this early success with the 13-bit EPS and 16-bit EPS16+ samplers. How many bits does the new ASR10 have? Er, one, actually.
Ensoniq have chosen to go with stereo Delta-Sigma (1-bit) 64 times oversampling with the ASR10. The technology is common among CD players, and is also used in the emergent DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) and Sony MiniDisc technologies. How it stacks up against state of the art 16-bit linear sampling, we will see later...
The ASR10 is a 5-octave keyboard sampling workstation (a rack version will follow), which owes much of its sonic and physical architecture to the EPS16 Plus. As on that machine, besides the sampling side, you get a powerful DSP section, and a decent sequencer. Almost all the buttons and sliders are the same, with one or two additions, and visual feedback is still limited by that 2-line blue LED display. It comes equipped with 2MB of RAM, which can be expanded with readily-available SIMMs. Before we go any further, let me refresh your memories on the sound organisation within Ensoniq's samplers:
• There is one Bank containing everything on board, including Effect and Sequence data.
• There are eight Instruments (with corresponding Instrument Parameters). Each has its own select button.
• Each Instrument contains up to eight Layers (with corresponding Layer Parameters). You can create four different combinations of the eight Layers, and switch between these with the Patch Select just above the mod and pitch bend wheels — so holding down one of the Patch Select buttons whilst playing might introduce another Layer, or play two or three quite different Layers.
• Each Layer can hold up to 127 Wavesamples, each with its own note range, volume etc.
• A Wavesample contains a sample (Wave Data) and its associated Wavesample (WS) Parameters.
• Note also that Sequence, Song (a collection of sequences) and Effects data can be edited, saved and loaded independently of sound data.
The EPS16+ was reviewed in the
In appearance, the ASR10 is very 1992 (which is a pity, since 1993 is now upon us). The shell is finished in standard-issue silk black, and is constructed from three extruded anodised aluminium sections, capped with Korg-esque plastic curved end cheeks. A sheet of anodised aluminium supports the arrays of buttons, the LED display, and the ASR10 logo.
Round the back (and with their positions marked at the top of the front panel — very useful) are the following connections and controls: phones; main out (left/mono and right/mono); audio input (A/left and B/right); input level (potentiometer, a welcome addition); mic/line (input sensitivity switch); an Output Expander socket (multi-pin, of which more later); SCSI (option, not fitted as standard); digital I/O (the phonos are there, but the electronics to support them are again an option); pedal/CV (fancy that; it can even help you get a job); Foot Switch and Patch Select sockets; MIDI (Out, In, Thru); AC line (input); and finally a power switch. Unless otherwise stated, all connectors are on standard quarter-inch jacks, stereo where appropriate.
Back on the front panel, from left to right we find a a disk storage recess, the Volume slider, followed by three mode buttons: Load/Select Preset; Command/Create Preset; and Edit. Four master field buttons come next — Instrument; Seq/Song; System/MIDI/directory; and Effects, after which there is a dual-purpose numeric array to select things such as envelope, LFO and Wave parameters.
A data entry slider precedes a cross-cursor array which surmounts the Cancel/No and Enter/Yes buttons. The blue LED display shows two lines of characters, plus a set of 'flags' which let you know which Mode and Page you are in. Beneath the display are eight Instrument/Sequence Track buttons, each with a red and yellow LED, indicating Loaded and Selected respectively. (The massive telephone directory of a manual keeps referring to these as 'instrument/sequence track buttons' — probably one of the reasons why it's so long.)
And now into the unfamiliar territory... To the right of the main LED display lie two pairs of Signal (present) and Peak LEDs. Below these lie a couple of very interesting-sounding buttons for Audio Tracks. Immediate first thoughts: "Surely not a hard disk recorder as well?" Well, no. Audio Tracks A + B correspond to the two inputs (L + R) of the ASR10. You can monitor an incoming signal while the sampler and/or sequencer is active, because the ASR10 provides continuous monitoring of the inputs. You can sing/play, or whatever, over your composition as it plays, with or without the currently selected effect applied, and also sample through the effects processor. Each of these Audio Tracks buttons has two associated LEDs, for Source Monitor (on/off) and (input) Selected.
To the right of the peak and signal LEDs lie two buttons, one for Sample/Source Select, and another for FX Select/FX Bypass. Below these lie three sequencer transport buttons — Record, Stop/Continue and Play. In front of all of this is a 5-octave keyboard with a fairly decent action, to the left of which a floppy drive (for HD and DD disks) sits above the familiar pair of Patch buttons and the pitch bend and modulation wheels.
The unit comes with a set of nine HD floppies. On the first is the Operating System, a copy of which should always be kept with the machine — and make at least one backup too. This will auto load as soon as the disk enters the drive. Hit Load — you can now scroll through a list of the files on disk, and hitting Enter causes the selected file to be loaded. Instruments within that file will adopt their previously defined locations. Hitting an active Instrument button puts its topmost Layer onto the keyboard, and the LED display gives the name of that Instrument, and its (volume) level.
The eight library disks supplied with the ASR10 offer drums, orchestra, guitars, a jazz set, choir, Rhodes, percussion, piano and keyboards, and demo sequences showing them all off to reasonable effect. (Actually, the most stunning instrument demo I've ever heard featured some amazing guitar programming on an EPS16+, so this selection came as less of an eye-opener than it might have). Samples were well taken and prepared. The demo tune, on AD-008, was well sorted — a nicely-panned watch ticking, someone muttering 'timestretching', and wild guitar, keyboards and drums summed up the potential of the ASR10 nicely. The guitar disk, too, was up to scratch. Don't expect to emulate this standard of programming in a hurry, though. Disk loading is quite quick, and you can save new data to partly full ones, as well as updating existing Instruments, etc.
Sampling is dead easy. Just follow the thin tutorial manual instructions and you'll have a multisampled layer of yourself saying "one, two" in no time at all.
As I said, sampling is dead easy, but don't let that fool you: naming, looping, truncating and assembling into keygroups ('Layers' here) are where operational difficulties really show up. We'll give the ASR10 a proper trial now. (Note: in the ASR10, Wavesamples are not living entities in their own right. They cannot be individually named, and must take their identity from the mother Instrument/Layer, though they can be copied between Layers and Instruments. An interesting point is that while many edits of a single Wavesample are possible, the wave data does not have to be copied. Thus is memory saved.)
I chose to start by reloading the Bank on disk AD-008. Most sounds had more, less or none of a chorussy/reverb effect applied. Instrument 8 was totally different — the wild west guitar sound was unbelievably responsive to key velocity, from a murmur to a roar. "How'd e do dat?" I thought. Into Edit mode I boldly went. First up, I tried altering the loop, from forward to bi-directional, and noticed a 1-octave drop in the fundamental. Aha! This meant we were dealing with a single cycle! Q: So where did all that wonderful colouration come from? A: The effects processor. Sure enough, switching out the distortion revealed a tiny acoustic 12-string guitar sample with a very quick loop. I put the distortion back in. I could see that FC (Filter Cutoff no doubt) was mapped to key velocity, hence the massive filter response to velocity noted earlier. I was impressed.
Wavesample editing, including mucking about with loops, was possible while the demo tune played through. I would like to point out to certain other manufacturers that amongst a wide variety of loops, Ensoniq include Bidirectional, which sports S-M-O-O-T-H-I-N-G. Got that?
The ASR10's autolooping is among the best, which is just as well since the lack of a waveform display is a serious hindrance to getting good manual loops together. You're only allowed one loop per wavesample, but this is enough for 99% of samplists, and a decent and innovative range of looping algorithms is offered.
I next decided to re-boot and try to create from scratch a real multisample, without looking back at the manual, so I plugged the CD player's output into the analogue input of the ASR10, and pressed Sample. I was asked to choose from L, R or L+R (source). I chose the latter, and selected a destination Instrument, but I still couldn't hear anything from the Output so I pressed Source Monitor. Success!
I was now looking at a sampling meter on the blue LED display. I adjusted the input level 'til the red Clip LEDs were just firing on audio peaks. I then promptly crashed the machine by trying to turn of the reverb effect that l was currently hearing from the DSP section — oops. It seems that I should have switched off the effects before entering sampling.
Next time, everything went according to plan. When I was ready to sample I pressed Enter. The ASR10 awaited incoming sound, and the display read Waiting. When audio was detected, the LED display switched to 'Recording'. Once the sample had ended I hit Enter again to stop recording (the manual says to hit Cancel; both work). I was then asked to play a Root Key.
That was it — first sample assigned. I noticed that it actually sounded brighter when played one octave down, as though the lower keys had progressively more Aural Excitement added. (I checked this phenomenon out later against the S770 to see if it was a function of the sample or the sampler. It is definitely a feature of the ASR10's bitstream sampling that it makes for a much brighter sound on samples played down from the root note than is usual for 16-bit linear.) I quickly took all six samples of a 'House Piano' from a sample CD to create a multisampled instrument; this procedure was easy and logical, and the only buttons I'd had to press were 'Sampling', 'Instrument' and 'Enter' — that's good ergonomics. I noted that the stereo Wavesamples were organised into two layers — odd numbers to Layer 1 (Left), even numbers to Layer 2 (right). Therefore, in stereo mode, each Instrument can hold four Layer pairs.
Why did I record mono samples in stereo? Because I wanted to check the stereo phase performance of the ASR10. I fed the output of the ASR10 into my MM1 mixer; panning both L + R signals centre stage showed absolutely no phase problem. There was, however, an unusually grainy background noise in evidence, albeit at untroublesomely low levels.
So what is drastically new here? Most obviously, the ASR10 samples in stereo. It supports two sample rates, the choice of which affects your polyphony. At 30kHz polyphony is a massive 31 notes, and at 44.1 kHz a not inconsequential 23 notes — only one off the pace of the S750, and seven notes more than the S1100. The other big story is that there is room for up to 16MB of standard SIMMS memory. I'm told that hard disk management over SCSI using Directories is advanced, though the review model did not have the SCSI option added. Apparently, saving a Bank does not require that Wavesamples be saved: in fact when reloading the same Bank you would be told which disk/cart.(s) the required Wavesamples were on.
The consumer SPDIF interface protocol for taking samples digitally from an appropriate CD or DAT player is supported (hence the 44.1kHz sampling frequency). The inclusion of a sensitivity adjustment on the analogue input, and LED signal monitoring, is welcome.
Another new and important feature, which I use quite a lot on my S770, is resampling. Here the total audio output (for example, a sequence of samples plus effects) can be routed internally or otherwise to the sampling input. Hence a dry sample can be 'copied' through an effect (freeing the latter up for use later), or a complex percussion sequence, involving much polyphony, for example, can be reduced to a stereo loop. Easy on the sampler, and easy on the MIDI data stream, too. (With ordinary samplers, such a procedure is possible, but it requires a DAT intermediary or second sampler. Some day all samplers will have resampling.) Actually, copying an instrument through an effect is not always useful: echo on a piano would be silly, since as a note was transposed, so the echo time would change.
Another goodie lifted from Akai (and Roland) is Time Compress/Expand. You all know by now what it is. So how well does it work here? The answer seems to be: as well as anywhere else. However, at maximum Quality (99), be sure to have something else to do while the ASR10 does its stuff. Taking a holiday should be about right. I found that stretched samples exhibited a click at the tail which required minor surgery. As with other sample-altering operations in the ASR10, when timestretching is eventually completed, you are invited to listen to New and Old before deciding which to keep (Enter). Reassuringly sensible.
Chapters 5 and 6 in the manual span over 100 pages, and deal only with effects. Little is left out, even in the realm of dynamics processing, including 'ducking'. In fact, the only omission I could see was vocoding! There was no way I was going to be able to investigate every detail here, but a cursory wander through parameter land led me to the conclusions that effects quality was generally one notch below top (ie. very good), and that programming was incredibly comprehensive and quite easy, if a little jittery at times. (I have been reliably informed that DSP capability is equivalent to one quarter of the power of Ensoniq's dedicated multi-effects processor, the DP/4).
Effects parameters can be mapped to controllers and modulators (poly pressure, for example) for dynamic MIDI control. The effect chosen for the Bank on library disk 008 discussed earlier was an edit of one of 50 permanently held in an onboard ROM. 'Distortion + chorus + reverb' is of the 3 bus type, which is a bit like having three mixer auxes feeding three separate effects, but not quite, since FX1 also gets fed into FX2, whereupon the two go through FX3 on the way to the stereo output. Confused? I was (at first). With most effects types, however, bus 3 is kept powder dry. With the addition of the optional Output Expander, three further dry stereo outputs are provided. Only one of the 50 effect algorithms may be employed at any one time.
The ASR10's sequencer is similar to that on the EPS16 Plus. However, since it shares note memory with Wavesamples, and since a handsome 16MB RAM is not out of reach (via SIMMs), its memory allocation can be much more generous than was usual with the former. It is basically an 8-track cut and paste sequencer, with some semi-advanced features like track slipping. A further eight tracks are available when sequences are chained into a Song. Cubase users will miss features like Groove Quantise and the Drum Edit Window, but the onboard sequencer is well suited to the ASR10, integrating such useful functions as output routing assignments and panning. It also supports event list editing, and has track play parameters. (I have been told that, though the sequencer functions are derived from the EPS16+, its response is much nippier. Whether this is due to a faster processor or more elegant programming Ensoniq were not saying.) I was curious to see how the sequencer talked to onboard samples. In my Atari/S770 setup all note-on information must, of course, jostle for space in the MIDI cable, where serious serial transmission congestion often results in some notes being perceptibly delayed. (Incidentally, on Cubase, Track 1 is triggered first. Track 2 second, and so on. Be sure to put your loops at the top of the Arrange window.) With a workstation, however, there's the possibility of much faster communication 'twixt thought and lip. From a test using a 23-note cluster, I'd say that the ASR10 sequencer has a high resolution, but responds like a normal MIDI sequencer. An opportunity missed?
• Multi-sampling is particularly easy, provided you remember to assign a new sample to its correct key at the outset — re-mapping on the ASR10 is tiresome, once again because of the poor standard of visual feedback from the LED display, together with an inability to name individual Wavesamples). The ASR10 will auto-split the keyboard halfway between adjacent samples every time.
• DAT backup via the consumer digital interface is supported, as it is with Akai (but not Roland) samplers.
• Non standard user-definable Pitch Tables can be copied between instruments — good for drastically altering the sound of a percussion group, or bringing in non-standard tunings for your gamelan samples.
• One dear to my heart: among the wide selection of voicing options, I found 'Minimode', in which a tied mono note run follows the notes, but does not retrigger the envelopes. Exactly like a MiniMoog should (pronounced 'moag' to rhyme with 'Rogue', by the way). Come on, Roland — get it together.
• The two Patch buttons open up immediate access to four sonic variants. These can be temporarily locked in by holding down the keyboard-assigned Instrument button during selection. Hitting the same Instrument button again recalls the primary sound. Also, Instruments can be stacked by double-clicking on extra Instruments, which will simultaneously play along with that assigned to the keyboard.
Other sampling functions, which space precludes me elaborating on but which are worth mentioning, include various triggering options, pre-recording, digital level normalising, loop synthesis, and the intriguingly named 'Make Loop Longer'. Importantly, there is a facility for cutting and pasting.
I found that while searching through menus, often a single button had to be pressed many times to get to the parameter I wanted to adjust. Why not have an auto scroll function which activates when a button is held down for more than, say, half a second (as do the cursor keys)? This would reduce RSI among ardent programmers. Scrolling through a wide range of values (Timestretch percentage, for example) was tediously slow using the cursors, though lightning fast using the Data Entry Slider. Would it not be better to use the opposite direction cursor as an accelerator, as do many other units?
A pretty wonderful instrument, this sampler is capable of injecting excitement and dynamism into even modest sounds. It is especially good at adding in dirt and width with its sound-shaping facilities, and to make the most of its ability to colour your samples bad it is perhaps best to start off clean. It is much more an instrument than a sample recorder/player, and is better at generating than organising, though the sequencer is no slouch. With its excellent sound quality and unique features, the ASR10 represents real competition at the top end of the sampler market. Check it out — its personality profile might just appeal to you.
Ensoniq ASR10 (2MB RAM) £1,999 inc VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
Review by Wilf Smarties
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