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Clearly, your humble chronicler has left the path of reason! Does he really intend to place the 8-bit slab of dirty grey that is the Ensoniq Mirage at number four on the list? For crying out loud, the thing has a two-digit hexadecimal LED display!
To comprehend just how earth-shattering the Mirage was upon its release, you must understand that the average working musician had absolutely no inroads into the world of sampling. Before the Mirage came along, only big names could afford samplers. The Emulator cost 8K and the Fairlight CMI a whopping 40k and up! The Mirage came in at a somewhat less breathtaking $1695 USD.
What did you get for such a relatively paltry sum? Well, lots, actually, but with a number of accompanying “gotchas”. The first gotcha came when you realised that while the Mirage was capable of some quite advanced sampling functions, you had to pony up an extra sum for the MASOS Advanced Sampling Software and the Advanced Sampling Guide to get ‘em.
The next gotcha came upon facing the dreaded user interface. Yep, it had a two-digit LED display and a smattering of buttons, though most of those were thankfully dedicated to one or two functions. The display’s limitations meant that you had to either memorise the considerable parameter list and the numbers to which they were assigned, or tear the relevant page out of the manual and tape it up somewhere nearby. We are embarrassed to say that we chose the latter option, and that tattered document has followed us from studio to studio for decades!
The Mirage offered, as suggested above, a grim 8-bit, 30kHz max sample rate. However, the onboard sample memory was limited to 128KB, so most users became quite good at adjusting the sample rates to eek out every last drop.
One of the things that has held the Mirage in good stead is its use of analogue filtering. The resonant filter has a dedicated 5-stage envelope and can deliver a healthy screech if pressed. It’ll also respond to, say, incoming velocity from the instrument’s own keyboard or its MIDI interface.
Fine, you say, but is the Mirage relevant today? Many pundits say no. We beg to differ. The Mirage can be had for ridiculously low prices and its grungy sound quality makes it a fine candidate for urban or industrial styles. There are PC-based editors that allow easier access to the machines innards and, in fact, there is still active support from Syntaur, which will sell you sounds, disks, manuals and even repair parts. More than that, it carries something called Soundprocess, an alternate operating system that transforms the Mirage into a 16-channel multi-timbral digital synthesizer.
The Mirage may seem like a joke today, but in the mid-'80s, it shattered the price barrier and gave many musicians their first taste of sampling, and that earns it a place on this list.