Generally speaking, the module version of a synth comes after the keyboard. Why Ensoniq have chosen to reverse the plot is anyone's guess but here, not more than six months after the launch of 'Mr Rack' (the Ensoniq MR Rack), reviewed by my good self back in SOS April 1996, come two spanking new keyboard versions -- the weighted-action MR76 that I'm staring at presently, and the synth-action, 61-note MR61.
These keyboards and the aforementioned module do share the same basic voice architecture, and many of the same sounds. However, and not a little confusingly to the hard-pressed pundit, they're completely different animals, with their own structure and vastly different applications -- so sending you back to the April '96 review could be more confusing than beneficial.
Ensoniq's current synth technology uses a bank of instrument samples, digitised analogue waveforms, inharmonic sound bites, and Ensoniq's 'moving picture show' Transwaves, which can all be processed by analogue-style filters and envelope generators, and coated with high-gloss effects. Within this fairly classic S+S system, the standard element is a Sound. On the MR Rack, Sounds reside within Parts, which are assembled into multitimbral Performances. With some relatively minor extensions thereof, on the MR keyboard you'll only be dealing with Sounds. There are no Parts, and Performances -- well, they mean something entirely different! It must have been tempting simply to slap a nice weighted keyboard onto the innards of the MR Rack and dot the control panel with a few gratuitous knobs and sliders; Ensoniq are to be congratulated on clearly having given the question of a 'performance' keyboard, and what such a beast might be in need of, serious thought.
The workstation has become a tired old nag, and this is the first one I've seen in over a year that leads me to think there's life in the concept yet. Aside from the instrument's fundamental friendliness (until you open the huge manual, that is, whereupon everything that seemed intuitive and clear a moment ago suddenly fogs into a panicky blur), two features will propel the MR76 into and out of the stores: the Idea Pad, and the built-in Drum Machine (see 'Good Ideas' box). In tandem, these compositional aids will inspire you to work, and then let you remember what the hell it was you played. The Idea Pad is like having a Dictaphone plugged into your brain. It's brilliant.
The MR76 is a bulky, imposing instrument. I'm not too sure if the screen is the same size as the MR Rack's, but viewable at a magnified scale, or whether it is genuinely larger. You can't view a colossal amount of data with it, but the screen is twice the size of a normal 2-line x 20-character LCD.
The panel hosts numerous sections for different functions, clearly marked, and dead easy to find your way around. (Just don't open the manual, for heaven's sake.) There's a disk drive to the left, above the pitch and mod wheels, and at the back, tucked beneath a ledge that makes them all but impossible to locate and insert things into, lie the MIDI ports, audio outs and pedal inputs.
When an instrument is billed as a performance keyboard, the keyboard and its action are extremely important. The MR76 has 76 keys, sufficient for most people these days, and a keyboard action that is genuinely weighted, with quite a deep travel. I'm put in mind of the Fatar keyboard on Viscount's FK1000 digital piano -- both have somewhat sharp edges that I hope will wear down and soften in time.
The response seemed hard going at first, so I reset the velocity curve parameter to Table 1, for "someone with a light touch", as Ensoniq say. Some adjustments needed here, I think. I've battered a fair few Rhodes to death in my time, and Table 1 is still hard work. Table 4 requires a truncheon. There are also two fixed velocity curves, handy for playing vintage synth parts (no velocity at all in them there days) or possibly drum programming. The keyboard also responds to release velocity, and to Channel Pressure, with Soft, Medium, Firm, or Hard response.
On power-up, you'll be confronted by a screen that shows the current sound bank and sound. Using the data wheel to spin through the banks, you'll see that, as on the MR Rack, the memory is divided into ROM and RAM banks, the latter delineated Flash RAM (whose contents will be retained on power-down) to differentiate it from the DRAM, which temporarily houses the various forms of sequence data.
There are hundreds of sounds to choose from, but Ensoniq's SoundFinder utility allows you to type in the name of the sound you're looking for (using letter-assigned keys on the keyboard) and the sound will magically appear as soon as SoundFinder recognises the first few letters. In a further attempt to streamline the nightmarish process of auditioning so many sounds, Ensoniq also allow you to spin through to sound categories -- bass, vocal, synth lead, and so on -- and then quickly step through all sounds thus categorised. GM (General MIDI) is also offered as a separate bank. It's a great system.
In this brief examination, I'm not going to dwell on sounds (check out the MR Rack review), but this is a highly cosmopolitan collection, with depth and substance, aided by some wonderful natural effects. Some of the one-shot drum sounds, of which there are 468 resident, could have come off a top-quality sample CD. Perhaps they have.
The MR76 is a keyboard to play and compose on. A degree of sound editing is offered on board -- low-pass filters (not resonant) with dedicated velocity-dependent ADSR, amplifier ADSR, and LFO (syncable) -- but for proper programming you will need a module for MOTU's Unisyn Editor (Mac or PC). More details on this in the MR Rack review.
The MR76's 16-track sequencer is very approachable, with sufficient dedicated buttons to be manual-proof for all but the most sophisticated of manoeuvres. Hit a track button, it lights up, press record, rewind, play, change sounds..... this is all good stuff. Better still, there are tools for assembling songs in computer-like cut-and-paste style, since you can save parts of a song as individual 'sequences', then copy, mix, and match them to form a song. Effects can be routed per track, a sensible implementation.
An FX/Mixdown strip alongside the main sequencer controls lets you mute or solo tracks, and alter pan, volume, reverb and chorus levels, as the sequence plays. I particularly like the vocal "One, Two, Three, Four" count-in. For techie types, the sequencer's resolution is a feel-preserving 384 ppqn.
The sequencer has plenty of edit parameters, and a list of quantise options. You can even store sound edits within a sequence. Step entry is supported, though it wasn't operational on the review model. GM Standard MIDI Files can also be loaded, from MS-DOS format disks.
Though the sequencer is bliss to operate, you may occasionally need to use the MR76 as a multitimbral expander, and provided you remain in Select Song mode (keep the Select Song button alight), you'll easily be able to access sounds multitimbrally. Otherwise, the MR76 will respond on a single (base) MIDI channel.
In a relatively brief time, I've grown quite fond of the MR76. It sounds great, and it's not a hassle to use. For live performance, perhaps greater emphasis could have been given to big multitimbral patches (even though these can get you into trouble, live), but as a composition tool the MR76 is in a league of its own at the moment.
In keeping with its Performance/Composition name tag, the MR76 is a bit of an action man, and no more dramatically so than with the Idea Pad in tow. The Idea Pad is permanently in record mode. Everything you play is automatically recorded whether you like it or not. Cleverly, it listens for 'silence', so deciding that a new idea must be coming up. It also records sound and rhythm changes, fills, and tempo adjustments.
While your MR76 is on, the Idea Pad fills up with ideas. You can go back and listen to early ones ("Idea 15 of 46..." says the display) and even send wondrous nuggets over to the 16-track sequencer, for development and (by saving the sequence to disk) permanent storage. Although the manual manages 14 pages of verbiage about the Idea Pad, its power is in its simplicity.
The same goes for the Drum Machine. Everybody needs drum patterns. In real life, your choices are to program them yourself, hire a drummer, buy lots of yummy but expensive sample CDs, or purchase a collection of MIDI drum patterns played by real drummers. Ensoniq's solution is a sort of mix of the last two. Resident in the machine are 90 1- and 2-bar patterns, each with eight variations. Extra patterns are stored on a free floppy.
The patterns, say Ensoniq, have all been played by top-notch drummers using drum pads. And they're pretty good. Not only are stock ballads, latin, pop, and rock beats on offer, there are also jungle, world, ambient and hip hop patterns, and a delightful example called 'Oddmeter (5/4)' that is pure Vinnie Colaiuta on Sting's 'Seven Days'. Nice one.
Tempo is variable, of course (via data entry or a tap-tempo button), but so is the kit for each rhythm and, indeed, the drum or percussion sounds within the kit. Effects currently applied can also be specified per keyboard zone, as can volume and pan. I suspect that most people will simply want to trawl the patterns, and occasionally substitute new kits, but it's nice to know that the editing power is here if you need it.
Ensoniq are particularly big on drums. Aside from featuring the incredibly friendly and useful Drum Machine, the MR76 allows you to use any sound as a drum sound when constructing a new kit. And while GM mapping is supported, both the Ensoniq map, and programs that place a single drum sound across all keys, are extremely handy when constructing a more considered drum environment. As with the Idea Pad, Drum Machine patterns can be spun over to the sequencer for further elaboration and floppy storage.
Sounds: approximately 1200 (including drum sounds).
Keyboard: 76-note, weighted action, velocity and release velocity sensitive, with channel pressure.
Disk Drive: DD/HD.
Idea Pad a stroke of genius.
Expansion boards available for new samples and loops.
Multiple modulators available for the effects (key velocity, pressure, wheels, controllers, etc).
Keyboard response may need tweaking.
Need to go outside the synth for full editing.
Paucity of dedicated multitimbral memories.
Ensoniq have come on in leaps and bounds. From a company that's always had great ideas, but hasn't always executed them in the most friendly or (sometimes) reliable manner, the MR76 is the model of manageability -- lively and exciting, but dead practical. Without doubt, their best yet.
£ MR76 £1999; MR61 £1749. Prices inc VAT.
A Key Audio Systems Ltd, Unit D Chelford Court, Robjohns Road, Chelmsford CM1 3AG.
T 01245 344001.
F 01245 344002.