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
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!