The Ensoniq Mirage: Digital Sampling For The Masses
By James Grahame
Back in the early 1980s, digital synthesis was an expensive proposition. The most amazing musical gadgets of all were digital samplers, which played short samples of real sounds at different pitches to emulate real instruments with startling realism. The same thing can be achieved today with a $29 bargain-basement sound card, but back in 1983 an 8-voice 8-bit digital sampler such as the Fairlight CMI Series IIx would set you back the staggering sum of $30,000.
And then everything changed overnight.
Technology had progressed to the point that by early 1985 a tiny startup called Ensoniq was able to release the Mirage Digital Sampling Keyboard at the unbelievable price of $1695.
The heart of the Mirage was a custom 8-channel audio playback IC designed by Bob Yannes, the guy behind the famous Commodore SID sound chip inside the Commodore 64. The instrument had 128K of internal sample memory and stored up to 48 samples on each ultra-modern 3.5" floppy disk.
The first versions of the instrument offered a 5-octave keyboard, although a lower-cost rack mount module was soon unveiled. Up to 16 samples could be looped and mapped across the keyboard, making sampled drum kits and realistic multi-sampled instruments an instant possibility.
My favorite libraries featured sounds created with high-end instruments such as the Fairlight, PPG Wave 2.2 and Synclavier digital synths. Amazingly, this outdated instrument is still used today because its grungy 8-bit digital playback and genuine analog filters impart a powerful organic texture which is hard to replicate with pristine modern gear.
The Mirage was a mind-blowing instrument, but It was also mind-blowingly awkward to program. To keep costs down, the display was only 2 LED digits, so a working knowledge of the hexadecimal number system was required. All in all, programming the Mirage from the front panel was like editing digital audio using a telephone keypad. In the end, the impossible user interface didn't really matter because there were no other truly affordable digital sampling keyboards on the market. Ensoniq sold over 30,000 units before introducing the more powerful Ensoniq EPS sampler in 1988.