When Ensoniq Brought Samplers to the Masses: The Mirage, EPS, and ASR-10

RZA (1995). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer, Michael Ochs Archives.
Timbaland (2013). Photo by Ian Gavan, Getty Images Entertainment. Getty Images.

Say it's the late 1970s and you're a producer looking to sample a fragment of a song or a vocal phrase. You'd be in a pretty tough spot, as affordable options are few and far between.

If you're an innovator like The 45 King or Afrika Islam, you can loop and extend samples with your cassette deck using the pause tape method. Wealthy individuals with an extra 13,000 British Pounds (roughly $79,000 in modern US dollars) laying around or access to an expensive studio might utilize a Fairlight CMI, but a happy medium between DIY tape-deck minimalism and outrageously expensive gear doesn't exist yet.

In spite of samplers costing the equivalent of an impressive annual salary, sampling technology advanced rapidly after the advent of the Fairlight CMI in 1979. By 1981, Toshiba introduced the first digital sampler with the LMD-649, another important step in making the art of sampling accessible to the masses.

Yet for all the sampling innovation happening at various companies, taking a sample and mapping it across your keyboard—a standard move in any DAW today—was an impossible dream to most, as E-mu's 1981 Emulator keyboard carried a hefty $8,000 price tag, equivalent to roughly $22,000 modern US dollars. This barrier to entry likely discouraged many a potential producer, until a new invention by a trio of computer builders made a relatively affordable keyboard sampler a reality.

The Birth of Ensoniq

In 1982, Bruce Crockett, Al Charpentier, and Bob Yannes founded Ensoniq after leaving Commodore Business Machines, where they had helped kickstart the home computer revolution and became renowned VLSI (very large scale integration) experts. Taking note of the incredibly steep pricing model for samplers on the market at the time of their departure, the men saw an opportunity to introduce quality instruments to consumers at a higher volume and a lower price tag.

The move away from Commodore came with significant financial risks for all involved, as each literally bet the house on their new endeavor. "We financed our houses, our cars, everything," Crockett told National Book Award-winner James McBride in a January 1988 Washington Post article.

Add to that $1,000,000 in payments from a lucrative consulting gig, $350,000 in venture capitalist funding, and a $100,000 loan from a willing bank, and the Ensoniq team had enough money in its coffers to launch.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, The Bomb Squad, and The Advent of the Mirage

As the trio navigated the uncertainty of their new business venture, their collective expertise helped them design the sleek, user-friendly Mirage sampling keyboard—the first piece of gear that officially put Ensoniq on the map. Released in 1984 with a price tag of $1,695 (about $4,000 in modern currency), the machine wowed the industry. Billboard magazine credited the company with bringing "sampling capability down to the unheard-of price point of less than $1,700."

Charpentier and Yannes deserve credit for dropping the price of samplers so significantly, as they designed a microchip to replace a total of 120 costly chips used in the much pricier keyboards of their competitors. In spite of their revolutionary microchip innovation, Mirage's 8-bit quality and limited sampling time likely seems paltry by current producers' standards. Regardless, it wasn't long before the keyboard started making its way onto hit records.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were early adopters, as they fired up the Mirage for Janet Jackson's "When I Think Of You" from her commercial and critical triumph Control in 1986. The legendary production duo also put the sampler to use alongside an E-mu SP-1200 on "Escapade," "Miss You Much," and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" from 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814, according to this interview with Jimmy Jam for Red Bull Music Academy.

Likewise, sampling icons and Public Enemy's long-time production team The Bomb Squad made good use of the keyboard. According to Hank Shocklee in another RBMA interview, he constructed the original instrumental for "Rebel Without A Pause" from It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back with the Mirage.

When the group experimented with resampling some of "Rebel" in the studio's superior Akai S-900, Shocklee immediately felt his original production lost a subtle but essential edge when the interesting imperfections of the Mirage version were smoothed over.

"There was a feel and sound that the Mirage had at four bits and there was something good about the fact that it could only give you three seconds, because the way that it caught with a little hiccup in it that gave you that extra charge," Shocklee told Philip Stevenson in a 2006 Tape Op interview. [Ed.: Factory specs list the Mirage sampling rate at 8-bit instead of 4-bit.]

Before all was said and done, the roster of esteemed Mirage users expanded to include Prince and Herbie Hancock. In fact, Hancock demonstrated the keyboard before it hit the commercial market in a special episode of The Muppet Show filmed in Africa—an experience he details in his book Herbie Hancock: Possibilities.

EPS 16+, Arrested Development, and the Emergence of RZA

Ensoniq's 1988 release of the EPS sampling keyboard proved another important stepping stone for the company and the art of sampling. "The EPS is a quantum improvement in sampling technology for Ensoniq and, in many ways, for sampling in general," Craig Anderton wrote in Sound on Sound in a February 1988 review. "I have a feeling this is the instrument that will break the sampling market wide open."

The EPS' 13-bit sampling rate certainly was an upgrade in quality from what The Bomb Squad employed on their early Public Enemy classic, but Ensoniq samplers truly became a staple in rap records when the company introduced the EPS 16+ and its 16-bit capability in 1990.

With some notable upgrades in sound quality and performance over the original EPS, the 16+ proved the perfect instrument for Arrested Development frontman Speech to create the group's breakthrough single "Tennessee." Created in the aftermath of his grandmother's passing and his brother's unexpected death one week later, Speech likened the song's chorus to "a prayer to God" in a February 2008 Songfacts interview with Carl Wiser.

The experience of creating "Tennessee" was so emotional that Speech needed to construct the beat before he could write a single line. Using an EPS 16+ in tandem with Alesis HR-16 drum machine, he decided to sample Prince saying the word "Tennessee" from his 1988 "Alphabet St." single and make it a central part of the song. After taking the tiny snippet of sound, Speech experimented with replaying it at varying pitches on the EPS 16+ in the song's opening and throughout.

Hear Speech talk about the creation of "Tennessee" in this video.

The interesting vocal sample—coupled with a powerful drum track, introspective lyrics from Speech, and some beautiful singing from Dionne Farris—helped "Tennessee" hit the top of the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart while Arrested Development's debut, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In The Life Of…, sold an excess of four million copies in the ensuing years.

Around the same time Speech was piecing together drum hits and pitched-down Prince vocals, another soon-to-be breakthrough artist was familiarizing himself with the EPS—850 miles northeast of Atlanta—in Staten Island.

Despite making some early classics like Method Man's "Bring The Pain" with an E-mu SP-1200, Wu-Tang frontman RZA's life as an artist was forever changed when friend and collaborator RNS traded him the Ensoniq EPS for his 1200 in the early '90s. Never completely satisfied with the 1200 interface, the layout of the EPS allowed RZA to experiment with looping two and four bars in a style that was largely unprecedented at the time. "I fell in love with the EPS. I didn't care about the SP-1200 no more," he told Kotori Magazine in a November 2007 video interview.

Hear RZA's EPS-16+ on "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthin' ta F' Wit"

With time, RZA graduated to the 16+ model, producing the mayhem-inciting '90s classic "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthin' ta F' Wit" by using the machine. "All of it was done with stolen electricity, on a little eight track, an Emulator X SP-1200 sampler, and an Ensoniq EPS 16+ sampling keyboard that I got from hustling," he wrote in his book The Tao of Wu. "It was the true hip-hop means of production." [Ed.: The mention of the E-mu Emulator X is likely an error, as it wasn't available until 2004.]

Insepctah Deck will never forgot witnessing the song's inception, though there is a slight discrepancy in memory—he remembered RZA making the beat with the ASR-10, an EPS 16+ upgrade Ensoniq released in 1992. Just as Speech used his Ensoniq sampler to make significant changes in the pitch of his samples, Deck recalled RZA flexing on the keyboard in much the same way—picking apart sounds, adjusting their tempos, and turning them into something completely original.

"There's a moaning noise in there and he slowed it down dramatically, took two pieces, and put them together," Deck told author Brian Coleman in his book Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. "To watch him doing that was just incredible."

A Brilliant Concept Album and the Emergence of Alchemist

Whether it was an EPS 16+ or an ASR-10, an interview with RZA indicates that he used the ASR to compose most of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), a game-changing album that was sonically and lyrically unlike anything else in the industry at the time of its release in 1993. Over 25 years old, 36 Chambers continues to influence MCs and producers from all over the world. According to RZA, the ASR-10 helped him reach an elite level and shaped many other early Wu group and solo classics. "That's when I became a master producer," he told Kotori. "The whole first 100 Wu-Tang songs was made on an ASR-10."

The ASR-10 also gave him the ability to cook up "Graveyard Chamber" for The Gravediggaz nightmarish masterpiece 6 Feet Deep just one year after the release of 36 Chambers. Prince Paul, who handled the lion's share of production and also masterminded the entire concept album, later said that watching RZA flex his deft touch on the keyboard was a transformative experience. "He just did his stuff unorthodox, he just put stuff in off-beat, put in snares manually," Paul told Chris Pattinson in a 2013 HipHopSite interview. "Technically what he was doing was off, but it felt right and sounded right."

Paul would carry those ASR-10 lessons with him when he edited together his brilliant 1999 concept record A Prince Among Thieves line by line with the ASR-10 doing much of the heavy lifting—one of the more impressive feats ever achieved with an Ensoniq instrument. "I did it on an ASR-10, no Pro Tools," he told The Cipher podcast in a 2015 interview. "ASR and ADATs. And a sequence program on Mac called Master Tracks Pro."

Even when the process wasn't as complicated as the making of A Prince Among Thieves, the ASR-10 helped producers achieve their desired sound in any given circumstance. Veteran super-producer Alchemist found this out when late MC Prodigy called him to the studio in the middle of the night while working on Mobb Deep's 1999 release Murda Muzik. "I literally threw my ASR in the fucking case and got a cab and went to the studio and when I got there, G Rap was sitting there," Alchemist told Insanul Ahmed in a 2012 Complex interview.

Laying down a two bar loop with no added drums straight out of his ASR, Alchemist's "The Realest" instrumental so inspired G Rap that the veteran rap legend penned a classic verse in a mere 45 minutes. "The Realest" was the highlight of Murda Muzik and proved to be a key production in Alchemist's career, helping to make him a household name in the years to come.

The Rise of the ASR-10 Super-Producers

A few years prior to the release of A Prince Among Thieves, Norfolk, Virginia native Timbaland established himself as a serious force in the industry with his work on Missy Elliott's 1996 Supa Dupa Fly, an incredibly innovative album he produced from beginning to end. Though Timbaland has been notoriously tight-lipped about his production process throughout his time in the industry, he does discuss the importance of the ASR to his career in his memoir The Emperor of Sound. A 2007 Entertainment Weekly article by Ethan Brown further indicates that the ASR was his weapon of choice throughout the first decade of his career. "Tims made all of his hits on this early '90s-era keyboard, from Ginuwine's 'Pony' to Timberlake's 'What Goes Around Comes Around,'" Brown wrote. "He has an almost romantic relationship with his ASR-10."

For much of the late '90s and the first decade of the 2000s, fellow Virginia natives and ASR-10 devotees The Neptunes, a production duo comprised of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, would dominate the charts and airwaves alongside Timbaland. Though The Neptunes employed various tools of the trade during their unstoppable multi-year reign, the ASR remained an intuitive and familiar part of their setup that they went to often for drum sounds, as described in this 2017 Electronic Musician interview.

Missy Elliott - "The Rain"

By the time Timbaland and The Neptunes were well-asserted in their dominance, a young Chicago producer would take ASR success to another level by putting a new spin on old techniques. Using the Ensoniq pitching feature like his producer forefathers, Kanye West established a sound in the early 2000s that would define the early part of his career as a key producer for Jay-Z and many other Roc-A-Fella artists. He continued to drastically pitch up samples on his seminal The College Dropout debut, selling millions of records and making himself a superstar in the process.

In a 2004 Electronic Musician interview, West explained how he transformed songs like Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire" into "Through The Wire," the first single of his solo career. "I sample them at regular speed, then speed them up inside the ASR-10," he told journalist Ken Micallef. "The ASR-10 is like my left hand. I can chop samples into 61 pieces without wasting any memory."

Even though Kanye has used various other instruments to make music over the years, he continued putting the ASR-10 to use on cuts like 2007's "Stronger," which saw him sampling Daft Punk with the vintage Ensoniq machine.

The End of Ensoniq, and a New Era of ASR-10 Innovation

By 1998, Ensoniq says it owned 75% of the sampling keyboard market. But despite that market-share and having such an esteemed, musically diverse, and high-profile clientele, Ensoniq faltered as the '90s came to a close. Clunky attempts to compete with Akai's MPC in the form of the ASR-X and ASR-X Pro did not perform well, and the company released their final piece of gear—the Halo—in 2002, after merging with E-mu.

And even though the EPS 16+ and ASR-10 are beloved by sampling enthusiasts, they are not without serious problems. Mention the words "Error 144 Reboot" to anyone who has used the keyboards and they're likely to shudder with dread at the memory of an incredible piece of production they lost because of a system crash. As a result of both keyboards' sometimes faulty circuitry, many beatmakers ditched the 16+ and ASR-10, moving on to new and improved samplers over time.

Jake One explains his ASR-10 process used on "3 Kings"

Though many high-profile ASR users like Alchemist, Babu, !llmind, DJ Khalil, Khyrsis, and Nottz have more or less moved on to more modern means of production, Seattle's Jake One continues to make his ASR work well for him by playing out his beats into Pro Tools—a studio rig he has employed for many years. With this setup he deftly chopped up samples for Chance The Rapper's early hit Acid Rap; Dr. Dre, Rick Ross, and Jay-Z's gospel-infused single "3 Kings," and De La Soul and MF Doom's hard-hitting mid-2000s masterpiece "Rock Co.Kane Flow."

Beyond just running an ASR through Pro Tools, producers are finding other ways to keep the now 27-year-old sampler alive and well. Sampling live instruments through the keyboard is one such technique, a practice that dates back to Babu and Evidence sampling shakers and tambourines into the ASR for Dilated People's 2006 album 20/20 and before.

Wu affiliate and producer Mathematics used live instrumentation to craft all of the beats on Wu-Tang's 2017 album The Saga Continues, giving the album a mellow, dark sound somewhat reminiscent of early Wu productions RZA used to crank out on his Ensoniq keyboards. "Instead of just sampling and make music in there, I took the instruments I played and run them through the ASR-10," Mathematics said in a 2018 abcdrduson interview. "I tried to find the perfect cohesion of everything."

More from Ensoniq

The rise in popularity of both producer drum kits and beat tapes on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and streaming platforms is also providing new opportunities for producers to resurrect their old ASR productions from the past. Beat Fanatic co-founder SlopFunkDust, who owns over 1,000 floppy discs full of ASR-10 beats, is releasing his creations in a multi-volume series titled ASR-10 - Beat Archive.

Meanwhile Alchemist, who was recently spotted in the studio playing beats out of his ASR-10, took drum sounds from his ASR classics like Dilated Peoples' "Worst Comes To Worst" and compiled them into The Official Alchemist Drum Kit - ALC Secret Sauce.

Whether meshing Ensoniq samplers with modern DAWs and software, combining them with live instruments, or breathing new life into old ASR creations in the form of beat tapes and drum kits, it seems like producers will keep the company's legacy burning bright for many years to come—even though they went out of business 17 years ago.

About the author: Gino Sorcinelli is the writer, creator, and editor of Micro-Chop, a Substack newsletter that dissects beatmaking, DJing, music production, rapping, and sampling. His articles have appeared on Ableton, HipHopDX, Okayplayer, Passion of the Weiss, Red Bull Music Academy, and Roland.

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