SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.14 No.2. December 1998
Review by Chris Carter
ENSONIQ ASR-X Pro Resampling Production Studio - (see also: ENSONIQ ASR-X review)
It's been about 18 months since the release of the original Ensoniq ASRX Advanced Sampler/Resampler and since then it has gained a dedicated following, if not a particularly high profile. This new incarnation, now renamed the ASRX Pro Resampling Production Studio, includes a few brand new features and improves on some of the original's shortcomings. For a full operational rundown of the original ASRX you'll need to read my earlier review (SOS Aug '97), or take a look at the list of features common to both the ASRX and ASRX Pro in the 'COMMON FEATURES' box. Also, as I won't have room here to cover all the finer details of this upgrade check out the FEATURES AND IMPROVEMENTS AT A GLANCE box for a complete rundown of all the new additions and improvements.
DEVIL IN A RED DRESS
The most immediate and obvious difference is the matt finish flame red case, which is actually a pleasant change from the original black and makes reading the function buttons slightly easier, though for some reason Ensoniq still insist on using a very small point size and a hard to read colour for many of the button names. Housed in the same type of slightly industrial looking steel case the ASRX pro is robust enough for gigging and heavy enough to survive the occasional drop by a careless roadie.
Physically the ASRX Pro is about 90% as the original, same case, knobs, pads, floppy disk, display and audio and MIDI connections. The most notable difference (apart from the colour) are ten new Essentials buttons below the LCD, where the Track edit buttons used to be, and the rearrangement of the left-hand button bank to include the ousted Track buttons.
The ten Essentials buttons allow instant access to 15 of your favourite sounds, patches or drum kits (the additional 5 sounds are called up by pressing the top and bottom buttons simultaneously). This is a very useful feature, particularly as favourite set-ups can be saved to Flash Ram, floppy or hard disk with any songs, sequences or projects you may be working on. The Essentials buttons are also used as a numeric keypad for quickly accessing patterns and tracks when in Sequencer mode.
Rearranging the access buttons for Disk, Effects, Tracks and Pads into a block (on the left) is more logical and makes finding your way around while editing slightly easier, though there are still no dedicated cursor buttons and new users may find navigating the endless editing screens confusing using just function buttons and the Parameter and Value knobs.
A SCSI 2 interface (a 50-way, half pitch D-type socket) is now included as standard, saving a few hundred quid for the SCSI option in the process. The ASRX Pro can read Ensoniq ASR10 and EPS, Roland S770 and Akai S1000/1100 sample data over SCSI, (but not program data or Akai S3000 data). Support is also included for reading standard IS0-9660 CD-ROMs containing Mac AIFF and PC WAV files. The SCSI interface also includes improved compatibility with most hard drives and removable media, including Zip and 3.5" optical. The Ensoniq web site includes a list of compatible drives.
MORE RAM VICAR ?
The previous limit of only 34 Mb of RAM has been almost doubled to 66 Mb. This is a more realistic figure for general sampling use but could still be considered on the low side for sampling AND resampling. I say this because the ASRX Pro is a RAM based dedicated workstation and is very adept at fast 'on the fly' resampling of songs and musical ideas (from samples, ROM sounds, effects and sequences etc.), as opposed to a software/hardware combination such as Cubase VST, which writes directly to hard disk when recording/sampling. So, because of its speed and ease of use the ASRX Pro makes an ideal tool for remixing dance music tracks, which can often involve sampling (recording) complete stereo mixes, spinning-in sampled loops, breaks and sequences then resampling the whole lot, and so on and so on. Add all this RAM based activity (simultaneous sample playback and resampling) together and you begin to see what sort of strain could be put on 66 Mb of RAM. Hopefully this limit can be increased with the next software revision.
LONG TIME SCALE
Two new compositional features are Pattern Mode, for cueing sequencer patterns and triggering them in realtime and Song Mode for chaining sequences together by creating a play list of up to 200 steps per song from 128 sequences. Both of these additions work well, particularly Pattern Mode, which is great for trying out different song structures and live jamming or improvising.
A welcome addition to the sample wave edit menu is time stretching, or 'Scale Time ?' as Ensoniq call it. Only two parameters are available Amount (50% - 1000% ! ) and Quality (Low, Medium, High). Using the High quality setting retains the sound integrity impressively. In fact time stretching on the ASRX Pro is probably the best I have heard outside a computer/software program environment with very few digital artifacts at the best setting. But the time taken to process even a short mono sample is unbelievably slow, we're talking Atari ST speed, definitely not Pentium or G3. As an example: a 2.5 second stereo loop stretched to twice its length (200%) took an incredible 46 minutes and 42 seconds to process, long enough to enjoy a leisurely walk to the shops and back, and there's no way to stop or exit the procedure once it's underway, other than turning the machine off.
The new Stomper option is a software algorithm (created by independent programmer Hakan Andersson) which allows you to make your own 'vintage-synth-style' (sic) samples from scratch. Each sound can contain up to 4 oscillators (each using sine, square or saw waves), or up to 3 oscillators and one low-pass filter (or combinations of oscillators and filters not exceeding 4). The sound is constructed using 12 parameters per oscillator and 4 parameters per filter, with familiar (and unfamiliar) parameters names such as: Waveform, Noise Factor, Start Freq, Amp Curve, FreqCurveShape, Start Cutoff and End Resonance. By adjusting these values you can build up a sound, or use one of six preset drum templates as a starting block. When you've entered all the parameters (which can be 40 or more) press the Enter button and sit back a wait for it to be processed into a sample.
To be honest I found Stomper a disappointment. Having previously seen the Stomper web site I suppose I was expecting more than the ASRX Pro can realistically offer in terms of processing power and visual feedback as part of the problem lies in the fact that Stomper is based on a Windows PC program using a graphical interface, and usually running under the wing of a Pentium processor.
Maybe I'm missing the point somewhere, but blindly inputting numbers (as none of this can be done in real time) and watching a progress bar for 2-3 minutes waiting to hear often unpredictable results removes any spontaneity from the process and is about as uncreative as it gets.
Admittedly it can sometimes produce interesting grungy/vintage sounds but Ensoniq need to include more preset templates (only 6 drums, no matter how good they sound, is insultingly small), better documentation and what about some example settings to point users in the right direction, or supply some examples on floppy disk ? It also bothers me that using Stomper is at odds with the ASRX Pro's forte of being fast and easy to use. If Ensoniq could make programming Stomper more visual AND speed up the rendering process it would be a useful addition to the ASRX Pro, but in the meantime my advice is to buy a decent sample CD of analogue sounds and use the ASR-X Pros superior and faster sampling capabilities to achieve quicker and more predictable results. Sorry Ensoniq but that's the way I feel about it.
BUILT LIKE A BRICK SH... HOUSE
I hope this review doesn't appear too negative because, slight operational challenges aside, I am quite an admirer of the ASRX/ASRX Pro. It's well built, has outstanding sound quality, fast sampling/resampling, top notch multi-effects and reverbs, a very well specified MIDI sequencer and MIDI specification, decent sized velocity sensitive pads, easy song construction and relatively straight forward editing. But nothing moves quite as fast as technology and the sampler/workstation market is no exception and the ASRX Pro comes across as a little dated (notably the internal of ROM sounds) and not quite the state of the art upgrade it could (or should) have been, especially in this price range. One of the most frustrating aspects of using the original ASRX was the pitifully small display and the situation hasn't been improved by including even more editing options to navigate in the Pro version. I imagine this is why Ensoniq have included 10 new function buttons, but a more detailed display would have been far more useful for an instrument of this complexity.
WATCH PC USERS WEEP
But hey ! lets not dwell on the minus points because there's no denying this is undoubtedly a very professional tool. I don't think I've used a sampler/synth/sequencer set-up that's as fast, stable and easy to bash out ideas on (literally) as the ASRX Pro, you don't even need a MIDI keyboard for goodness sake !
Familiarity is everything and once you've sussed your way around its inner workings you'll be the envy of PC users everywhere because while they're struggling to record and sample using buggy convoluted software, you'll be sampling, resampling, composing and laying down tracks in the blink of an eye. OK, it's probably not the best choice for beginners, dabblers or existing ASRX users but if you can live with some of its flaws and idiosyncrasies I can recommended the ASRX Pro to anyone serious about making music in the studio or on stage.
Top notch audio quality.
SCSI 2 interface included as standard.
Flash RAM for system settings and easier OS upgrading.
Essentials buttons speed up patch access.
Increased RAM capability.
Even more editing and sound shaping options.
MIDI control of almost every editable parameter.
No new ROM sounds or FX patches.
Still only 2Mb RAM as standard.
Stomper may disappoint.
Inadequate display for such a well specified instrument.
No digital input/output option.
Can't read Akai S3000 samples.
Rear mounted audio input level.
No load while play.
There's no denying the ASRX Pro exceeds in the fast and easy sampling/resampling and song construction, and the quality of sound can't be faulted. The new additions and improvements are very welcome and definitely improve its versatility and operation. But dare I say it might be a tad overpriced compared to the current knockdown price of £750 for the soon to be discontinued ASRX (which, with the new software upgrade is almost a match for the Pro). Think carefully before you decide which one to go for, but either way I doubt you'll be disappointed. A Pro upgrade for pro musicians.
ASRX SOFTWARE UPGRADE
The major new ASRX Pro features are not available as an upgrade to existing ASRX owners owing to the obvious (and not so obvious) hardware changes. However, a new upgrade (O.S. v2.62) has recently been announced for current ASRX owners giving them some of the benefits of the new machine, these are marked below with an asterisk*.
Other than a small handling charge the upgrade is free and details of how to obtain it are available on the Ensoniq web site or from your local Ensoniq dealer.
NEW ASRX PRO FEATURES AND IMPROVEMENTS AT A GLANCE:
OS and system settings stored in Flash memory.
Sample RAM expandable to 66Mb.
Built-in SCSI 2 connector and improved SCSI support.
10 dedicated 'Essentials' patch recall buttons.
Built-in 'Stomper' synthesis program.
Improved BPM resolution (within 1/100th).
Improved hard disk compatibility.
*Sample Time Stretch/Squeeze.
*New Song Mode.
*New Pattern Mode.
*SCSI Disk copy/optimise.
*SCSI support for IS0-9660 CD-ROMs containing AIFF and WAV files.
*SMIDI transfer support (MIDI via SCSI).
*Faster ASR10 loading.
*Selectable MIDI out (play external MIDI from internal sequencer).
(* ASRX O.S. v2.62)
FEATURES COMMON TO BOTH ASRX AND ASRX PRO:
Stereo Sampling/Resampling (@44.1kHz). SEE SAMPLING TIMES
MR Synthesiser (128 pre-set ROM voices, expandable).
16 track, polyphonic MIDI sequencer.
128 sequences, (ASRX: 40,000 notes, ASRX Pro: 70,000 notes)
16 part multitimbral.
14 Velocity sensitive pads.
18 dB Resonant multi-mode filters.
ESP2 24-bit Multi-Effects. Two types: Insert and Global (40 algorithms).
20-bit A to D convertors.
2 x 20 digit backlit LCD.
2 Mb on board RAM
DOS Compatible Disk Drive
Save/Load AIFF and WAV audio files.
Save/Load Standard MIDI Files.
Stereo audio in (Mic or Line) and out (plus headphones).
Dual foot switch socket.
Load via SCSI: Akai S1000 and Roland S770 sample data.
Ensoniq-X Audio Sample CD Vol 1, included.
ASRX Pro SAMPLING TIMES:
Mono (halve for stereo) 2Mb 15 secs.
18Mb 202 secs.
34Mb 392 secs.
66Mb 773 secs.
X-8 Audio Output Expander. £199 incl. VAT
RAM expandable to 66 Mb (using standard 5v EDO/non-EDO SIMMs)
EXP WAVE EXPANSION BOARDS
EXP1 (24 Mb)
World and Ethnic Waveforms and Sounds.
Includes: 441 waves, 500 sounds and kits.
EXP2 (16 Mb)
Featuring: Steinway D Grand and electric pianos.
EXP3 (24 Mb)
"Urban Dance Project"
Loops, Grooves, Pads, Hits, Basses, Synths and SFX
Includes: 369 waves and over 400 sounds and kits.
ENSONIQ ASRX Pro
£1499 incl. VAT
Copyright © 1998 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.