ASR X

Ensoniq continues their passion for workstations with the ASR-X. Proclaiming this as an "Advanced Sampler/Resampler," Ensoniq packs this machine with lots of cool and easy-to-use features. It's got 16-bit stereo sampling, a built-in synthesizer (based on their MR workstation keyboards) with 2-Mbytes of ROM waveforms, 32-voice polyphony, a 16-track sequencer, a serious effects processor, performance pads and a disk drive. As you could have guessed this is a real powerhouse with the real stand-out feature being the resampling function.

The ASR-X is a portable, table-top unit. On the front panel you'll find a 2x20 back-lit LCD, plenty of function buttons and fourteen unique pads for triggering along the bottom. Below the display are two value knobs; these are used for sound selection and parameter selection and editing. On the back panel is the power switch, MIDI in-out-thru, an assignable foot switch input, stereo outputs, stereo inputs, an input level switch and a mic line switch. You'll also see room for some of the expansion capabilities of the unit.


The ASR-X comes standard with 2-Mbytes of RAM and is expandable to 34-Mbytes with standard 72-pin SIMMs. You'll want to upgrade the RAM right away, as it will be needed to do any serious sampling and/or resampling. The unit I tested had 18-Mbytes and that seemed to be sufficient for advanced applications. But with the low price of memory these days, you may want to go ahead and purchase a 32-Mbyte strip for maximum performance!

 


Ensoniq offers a number of source options while sampling---main out, input+main out, input+insert and input dry. These four options offer a great variety of sample capabilities. The main out option samples the direct output of the ASR-X, leaving this path completely digital. This is what Ensoniq means when they use the word "resampling". Whatever sound is being sent to the outputs will be routed to the sampling engine. One of the coolest applications of this is creating your own drum loops. Using the on-board sequencer, you can program a pattern inside the ASR-X, select "Main Out" in the sample set-up section and hit play on the sequencer. You've now sampled your newly created drum loop. This can now be re-sequenced on-board or triggered via an external sequencer! The ASR-X has plenty of editing parameters so you can edit any sound to your heart's content. VCF, LFO, envelopes, portamento and a new (phat) resonant filter are all available for your listening pleasure. Back to source options: the input+main out option samples both the input signal and whatever sound is being sent to the main outs and combines them into one sample. You could conceivably sample a harmony vocal on top of a harmony vocal on top of a harmony vocal (it boggles the mind!). The input+insert option allows you to route the input through the effect processor in order to sample with effects. And finally the self-explanatory "Input Dry" option allows you to...you guessed it...sample only the input signal. With the different sampling options alone, the ASR-X should keep you busy for quite a while. And Ensoniq has made all of this user-friendly...sampling has never been easier! But there's a lot more under this steel shell.

Moving on to the built-in synth, the ASR-X comes with a 2-Mbyte version of their MR synth engine. This is one area that kind of let me down, but that's not to say there is a bright side to it. If you've seen any advertising for the ASR-X, Ensoniq refers to it as a groove box and I didn't think the included ROM sounds lived up to this as well as the other features did. A lot of the patches seemed kind of uninspiring. But the fact that any type of synth was included is a step in the right direction. Akai's popular MPC-2000, which is competition to the ASR-X, does not offer any kind of synth. But hold on, not only is the RAM expandable in the ASR-X, so is the ROM! Ensoniq's Urban Dance Project expansion board is a perfect fit for the ASR-X. It features over 500 sounds and 400 waveforms (for a whopping 24 megabytes of samples), and this sucker grooves! You get drum kits, drum loops, rhythm grooves, pads, hits, basses, vocal effects and more. Everything you would ever want to create floor slamming dance music is on that board! And the nice part is that it is user-installable. I think that musicians doing a variety of styles would find these extra sounds indispensable!

The built-in sequencer offers some interesting features but also has some shortcomings. First, it is a breeze to use. It has dedicated track select buttons that allow you to toggle back and forth through each of the 16 tracks, corresponding to each MIDI channel. It features 384 ppq and has the different record modes you'd expect---replace, add, loop and step. Track edit tools include tempo adjust, undo, quantize, copy, erase and merge. The quantize tool offers additional parameters to adjust swing, strength, randomness to name a few. The transport controls aren't very user friendly. First, the buttons are fairly small and their color is the same as the unit itself, making them hard to see. There are three buttons (in order) record, stop and play. In order to rewind, you need to hold stop then press record, the same for fast forward only stop and play. In order to record you must hold record then press play. Not only does this get confusing, but it allows for mistakes from pressing the wrong set of buttons. My final gripe about the sequencer is that there is no "Song" mode. The only way to create a song is to append individual sequences to one another, hopefully this oversight will be improved with a future software upgrade.

While the ASR-X sequencer may not be flexible, the effects section certainly is. Ensoniq has included their new ESP2 effects chip and it sounds great! It features 40 insert algorithms, and includes everything from the standard reverbs, delays and choruses to multiple effect algorithms such as distortion-VCF-DDL and EQ-Comp-Gate. They also included a couple of Ensoniq exclusives---Chatter Box and Formant Morph. Each effect is fully editable and includes a set of parameters which allow full editing via MIDI. The insert effects can be accessed through a five bus processor. You also have the ability to chose dry, light, medium and heavy reverb and the insert.

Ensoniq left the ASR-X open ended. Along with the ROM and RAM upgrades, you could add on SCSI and output expander which would bring the total number of outputs to 10! Each of these options are currently available, and have a retail price of $229.

All in all, I was impressed with the ASR-X. The synth, with the expansion board, had a lot of great, useable sounds that would cut right through a dance floor mix. The sampler, with all it's functionality, couldn't be easier to use and gives you fantastic results. The sequencer is great as a scratch pad for quick ideas, while I wouldn't use it to pen entire tunes. But with the popularity of computers and computer-based sequencers, that isn't much of an issue. Add the excellent effects and you'll have a creative tool that should keep you content with fresh, creative sounds for a long time!

 

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