What a fascinating time for hi-tech keyboards the mid 1980s was. In many ways, the five short years between 1983 and 1988 would define pretty much all the major concepts adopted by the market for a very long time. That ’83 to ’88 period, during which mass market keyboard sound production underwent a wholesale shift from analogue to digital, really was an era like no other. What became possible within a single, relatively inexpensive keyboard by 1988, had been virtually unimaginable to the average consumer in 1982.
Above: The image from a 1986 UK advert for the Ensoniq Mirage Digital Sampling Keyboard (left), and the Ensoniq Mirage Digital Multi-Sampler. The rack unit was the same as the keyboard but without the bulk and the keys, and was about 18% cheaper.
There were two fundamental routes keyboard manufacturers took – both based on old concepts which had previously been feasible, but way too costly for an ordinary musician to consider prior to the mid ‘80s. The first was additive digital sound creation, as exemplified in the Yamaha FM synthesizers to the point of world domination. The second was sample playback – ideally with the addition of some form of subtractive filtering and envelope sculpting grafted on for greater control. This second principle was encapsulated by the staggeringly successful Ensoniq Mirage sampling keyboard. Combined, these two concepts wiped traditional, analogue synthesis off the map, and almost every major keyboard sensation for the next decade was roughly based on one or the other.
But let’s rewind a little. To give some insight into why the Ensoniq Mirage created such excitement, we need to go back to the very start of the 1980s. Here you find computerised sampling fully established, but exclusively the preserve of the very rich and famous, and costing tens of thousands of pounds. That notion of keyboardists in general either having to face mortgage territory prices or do without, had been slowly diminishing through the early ‘80s, but it was shaken to its foundations in 1983 when Yamaha introduced the DX7 and the DX9. The DX7 in particular had features which no amateur had considered within reach. Against all previous frames of reference, its price should have been astronomical. But it wasn’t. In fact, the DX7 was massively cheaper than some analogue synths which could not hope to cover a fraction of its bases.
The result was a revolution in consumer demand. Uptake was phenomenal, and Yamaha were very quickly banking their fortune. Suddenly, manufacturers were realising that it was better to focus on making a spectacular and groundbreaking product affordable and to sell as cheaply as possible, than to trade on ‘premium’ status with a high price per unit. The Ensoniq Mirage would take that ethos to extremes, making what had essentially been a five figure dream, into a £1,199 reailty ($1695 in the US). Anyone who had watched in awe as the Fairlight CMI sampling system was demonstrated back in 1980, would now be able to produce similar effects, with a slightly better sampling rate than an early Fairlight, for just a tiny fraction of the cost.
The Ensoniq Mirage got itself established in the market in 1985 (introduction was around February that year - in the UK at least), and by 1986 it had sold double the number of units around the world as the entire remainder of the multi-sampling market put together. But the Mirage was not without challengers. Akai competed hard in similar territory, initially with their considerably cheaper, although keyboardless, S612. Then, in 1986, the Akai S900 made serious improvements on the ‘612, and whilst it was £400 more expensive than the Mirage, and still keyboardless, its quality and practicality versus price set Akai on the road to immense success.
Certainly, as viewed from the standpoint of 2014, the Ensoniq Mirage does not look particularly impressive. It’s cumbersome, using floppy disks for storage and thus being governed by their 1.44 megabyte capacity. It also has very limited RAM, coupled with 8-bit architecture and a top sample rate of 32KHz – very perceptibly below CD quality. For those not technically minded, you can conveniently substitute the phrase “lo-fi” for the previous sentence. But of course, all early samplers were lo-fi, so in the context of the Mirage’s day this was not considered an issue, and there was plenty to entice anyone who was even vaguely attracted to the idea of sampling…
The price may have been low, but the Mirage offered significant sample editing facilities, which could be accessed through dedicated software on desktop computers by anyone who wanted to take editing seriously. It’s a good job there were computer editing packages available though, as the Mirage’s own editing ‘interface’ made advanced processing impracticably difficult.
The Mirage also notably incorporated traditional subtractive analogue filtering. The mid ‘80s was a hotspot for this sort of hybrid digital/analogue architecture. Probably not ideal from a marketing viewpoint (the word “analogue” was definitely not one manufacturers would want to be shouting in 1985), but it did the job, and it’s added to the instrument’s lo-fi charm in retrospect. The S&S (Sample and Synthesis) keyboards of the late ‘80s were very much a fully digitised progression from what these mid ‘80s hybrids started. Although, of course, the Ensoniq Mirage was designed as a sampler, not a synth, and importantly it could record and edit the raw material as well as just play it.
The device’s ability to set multi-samples across the keyboard was another fantastically attractive selling point on the amateur market of ’85, and as time went along, the professionally developed Sound Library (presets, essentially) ran to hundreds of desirable patches.
Whilst the Ensoniq Mirage did have incredible success in its genre, the immense speed of technological progress in the mid 1980s meant that it was always going to be relatively short-lived. It went through a number of incarnations, but was replaced in 1988 by the more upmarket Ensoniq EPS – much better spec, and more than just a sampler, but still rooted firmly in the tradition of the Mirage.
It’s hard to imagine who, but a collector, would be greatly interested in a Mirage today. But its museum credentials are high, and there was a time when its OMG! factor was literally off the scale. There were A LOT of commercial disasters in the music tech world of the mid 1980s. This was the opposite, and on that basis the Ensoniq Mirage must take a bow and claim its pedestal in music history.