Synth Site: Ensoniq: ASR-X: User reviews Add review
Average rating: 4.0 out of 5
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Anig Browl from Magellanic Cloud writes:
I posted the first review of the ASR-X on this page back in 1998. Since then I went broke and had to sell my ASR-X. And now, I'm getting ready to buy one again. So here is an updated review and mini-buyer's guide. I also suggest you search the net resources for more information.

The ASR-X is basically a 32-note poly, 16-part multitimbral sampler/synthesizer. It was originally launched as an all-in-one dance workstation. Ensoniq made a major mistake: as a workstation, it's a disaster. Many people who bought it on that basis were disappointed, and it now has a rather poor reputation. This is a pity, but good for you as a potential buyer.

What's wrong with it? Well, a workstation implies a powerful sound engine and a sequencer to match. But the ASR-X sequencer is terrible for arranging a track. It doesn't cope well with huge amounts of MIDI data, it's not very intuitive, and you have to view your entire song through a 2-line LCD. You can sequence a complete track made out of loops, but it's not fun. Why anyone expected any different is a mystery to me: with a 2 line LCD, two alpha dials (not controller knobs), a fairly minimal selection of buttons, and 13 pads (plus one extra for sample management) spanning a single octave, it's not going to set any composer's world alight. Add the fact that early versions of the operating system were buggy, and you can see why it got a bad rap.

You probably wonder by now why I would want another one. And the answer is that if you treat it as a module, it's fantastic. The sound quality is outstanding. The sampling and synthesis facilities are easy to use and also very powerful. It has extremly good built-in effects. Listening to its output makes you determined to overcome its flaws, because it sounds soooo good. It is a great instrument which has been packaged and marketed in completely the wrong format. All the good stuff is inside the box.

Let's take a quick tour. You have stereo inputs, whose sensitivity can be adjusted by means of a switch and a pot on the back. Sound comes in (and goes out) via 20-bit converters, although samples are stored at 16-bit/44.1Khz. Dithering takes place between the converters and the A/D/ACs. In practise, this means that your all sound (both coming in and going out) is loud, detailed, and fat.

So you want to sample something. Well, you can hook up to one of the inputs, or resample one of the ROM sounds. There are about 128 sounds in ROM, including several drumkits. They are OK as raw material, of good quality, but not very interesting, and after a while you tire of seeing them in the patch list. But since you can resample, you can turn them into something quite different. Resampling is very flexible: it can be in mono or stereo, and you can sample the inputs, the outputs, or both together, with or without effects. Sampling is fast and easy: new samples appear on a dedicated pad, from where they can be auditioned and added to a drum kit, or saved, or used as multisamples. You can also reduce the bit rate if you're one of those people who likes dirt.

Once you have a sample, you can tweak the playback parameters. These are much more comprehensive than on most mid-price machines. Obviously, you can set start, loop and release points: start is dynamic, and you have options for one-shot triggering and back-forwards looping. Then you get 5-stage envelopes for each of pitch, filter cutoff and the amp; 2 resonant filters which can be linked or adjusted independently, MIDI-syncable LFO with 18 or so waveforms, chokes if the sound is part of a drumkit, good portamento, volume, pan, and the like. The power lies in the fact that the envelopes, LFOs and up to 4 MIDI CCs can be freely assigned as modulation sources, and you get two kinds of random modulation as well. This allows for very subtle (or wild) alterations to the sound, and is comparable with the facilities on Emu 5000s and upwards.

For example, you could set the pitch control from the pitch envelope to zero, but then use the envelope value to control resonance on one of the filters instead, while also modulating the degree of LFO control over the filter. Modulation routings are fixed, but you have about 12 sources and 23 possible destinations - When you add in all the various options (LFO shapes, filter types, etc.) there are something like 500 possible configurations for EACH patch - and drums in a drumkit count as a patch here. You could put the same sample on every key in a kit but have them all sound very different. And it's all dynamic, every parameter can be changing in real time.

To put this in perspective, imagine having a drumkit on one channel, twirling the mod wheel on an attached keyboard and hearing every sound in the kit change in a different way when you do so.

Filters can be high, low, band pass or band reject, and as I mentioned, you get two: one 1 pole and one 2 pole. That doesn't sound like much compared to other samplers, but having two filters immediately gives you 16 combinations of filter types. And being able to adjust cutoff, envelope sensitivity and resonance seperately for each filter makes for infinite possibilities - this is much better than having umpteen different filter types to choose from but only one set of controls for cutoff and resonance. Of course you can't emulate every weirdo filter in an Emu sampler this way, but there are other ways :-) the two filters are both very smooth and rich, and are equally good at gentle tone shaping and burbling acid. Strangely, the lack of a 4-pole isn't the problem you might expect.

I've gone on at length here, because the sound engine is really very tasty from the point of view of a sound designer. You can do wild things with existing samples; equally, you can load up (tiny) samples of a single cycle (eg a saw wave) and treat it the same way as an oscillator in an analog synth. The configurability makes this *much* more rewarding than on most samplers - the ASR-X can wind up sounding like a virtual analog quite easily. One thing you can't emulate, though, is frequency modulation or dynamic sync. In other words, you can't make it sound like a Nord lead, but you can out-303 ReBirth or any single-oscillator analog emulation with ease. Oh, and you can have up to 4 layers per patch, each of which can have their own configuration as described above...if you like synth programming, you'll love this.

Downsides are that you only have a 2-line LCD, so editing is in numbers (fortunately in real measurements like Hz and samples and ms), and you have no controller knobs, so you'll want some other MIDI gear to control it with. All the major parameters accepts CCs and you can also choose another 4 CCs for free assignment. Nerdy, but powerful.

Now, what about those effects? Ensoniq were known for good FX and their stuff is now used in the newer Emu gear. You get two busses, a global reverb and an 'insert' bus (which you can also treat as a send-return configuration). Because of the architecture, you can play continuously through the effects even when you're not sampling. OF course you can still send the samples to the effects at the same time. The reverbs (8 types) have about 20 parameters each and are excellent. Rich, smooth, realistic, they sound OK next to something like a Lexicon MPX500 and are better than Digitech 'verbs IMHO.

The insert fx come in about 40 flavours: more (stranger) reverbs, some choruses, flangers and phasers variously combined with reverb, distortion, EQ and delay, various delays, some combined with other things, some FX chains for guitar and vocal, rotary speakers, pitch shifting, and formant filtering. all FX have between 10 and 30 parameters and all allow you to assign one controller to a parameter of your choice for realtime tweaks. BAD THING: you cannot save FX edits. This really sucks. Well, you can do it by saving a 'session' file, but this is a very clumsy workaround and it's really annoying. Why they did this is beyond me.

On the plus side, the effects themselves are very good indeed. They (and the reverb) are 24-bit, so you can really tweak them out and not worry about your audio clipping. Everything that should be is midi-syncable, a godsend for any sort of techno music. Standards like choruses, phasers, flangers, and delays sound really good - you can pile on the effect without things getting mushy. You can easily tweak from smooth to far-out, and realtime control works fine. The distortion is great - you can plug in an electric guitar and sound like your favorite axe-wielder in no time, and of course it's great on electronic sounds too. The pitch-shifter is linked with a delay: as well as very good shifting you can get serious weirdness. There are two formant filter patches which also do very strange things to your sound - they are as good as (but a bit different to) those in the Nord Modular. And there are a few other effects beyond that. Like the synth stuff, it's deep.

Overall I'd compare the FX quality to something like the MPX500 - they are certainly the best FX I have heard built into an instrument below the $2000 mark. When I owned the ASR-X, I used it all the time as an FX box - once you know it, it's quite fast to program, even with the irritating 'no save' problem. And since you can resample any time you like, you can just pile effect on top of effect in your samples. This soon gets to be very addictive and creative. It's a mark of the sound quality that you can resample a sound through effects five or six times and it won't turn into noisy crap.

There are a few other features like time stretch, normalisation, gain adjust and so on which you find on most samplers. As usual, quality is quite high; but as on all hardware samplers, time stretching is damn slow. I prefer the PC for this.

So, you've got this excellent sounding sampler with serious tweak power and effects that should carry a hazard warning. What next? Now we come to the sequencer...eugh. Well, it's not that awful. You can record in step or real time (no grid obviously), quantise (lots of options, quite good), and make patterns which you can then chain into a song. On early OS versions it suffered from all sorts of timing problems - these were mostly fixed with OS 2.67. Part of the problem is that samples, sequencers, and synth programming all shares the same memory.

But editing is a pain, there is no event list, and trying to write and arrange a whole track through a 2-line LCD is asking for trouble. Use the sequencer for making loops, resampling them, and sketching and it's a handy tool. For big jobs, use the computer or a hardware sequencer. Incidentally, I never had any problems with timing from external MIDI sequencers, for playback it's nice and tight.

By the way, there are two editors available. One comes from Rubber Chicken enterprises for the PC and costs about $60. I had problems running it in the past but work has continued. A demo is available. There is also a free Mac editor that uses OMS. I don't know how well it works. If you can get one of these working, then it would make using the ASR-X quite a bit easier, though possibly not as much fun :-) There are also profiles for the Logic environment (mac and PC) and Cakewalk available.

If you're still reading, you now know what the weaknesses of the ASR-X are, and also why I think it's such a wonderful machine even with its faults. So how about getting one? Well, since Ensoniq have been absorbed into Emu, the ASR-X is a bit of a dead product. If you buy the black ASR-X, make sure it has SCSI because the SCSI kits are no longer available as a separate item. Also, you want OS 2.67 (the last one), as it's quite possible that the EPROMs are no longer available either. I believe the manuals are available as .PDF files. You can manage without them, but they help a lot. Also make use of the information scattered around the net.

You can still get the ROM expansion and multiple output accessories. The latter is pretty cheap and gives you eight outputs that could go into a mixer, yay! The ROM expansion cards available cover dance and world instruments - you can only fit one ROM. I always thought they were a bit pricey, but they are reputed to sound very good.

How about the (red) ASR-X pro? Well, it has some extras, but they have never attracted me enough to want to pay the extra cost. I prefer the black model. You can add 64mb of RAM instead of 32mb and you also get 64 note poly (pretty cool, I admit), you get 10 extra buttons for switching between your favorite patches (big deal), you get 'Stomper' a drum sound synthesizer, built in - nice toy but very slow and not too predictable or useful in practise. Finally you get the OS as software instead of on an EPROM. This is really good in one way. The OS for the Pro is currently at 3.something, but doesn't have any major new features except what I've mentioned here. There are quite a few bug fixes, but they are pretty trivial IMHO. There is a rumour that OS 4.0 is in development - which would be great except that Emu-Ensoniq say that they don't have the resources to continue work on it, so it's on ice for now. Unfortunately, there's no sign of the spec being made available, so not much chance of hacked or alternative operating systems showing up from 3rd parties. As for technical support, don't get your hopes up :-)

Given all these facts, I don't see any reason to go for the extra expense of the Pro: the original black version, which has been discontinued, is generally priced below its real worth on the 2nd hand market, because of the poor publicity surrounding it. Unless you really need the RAM capacity, go for the older model. If you want large chunks of RAM for remixing purposes or for loading huge multisamples, you are probably better off with a more established sampler like an Akai S5k, a good Emu, or one of the nice Yamaha samplers. And if you want a workhorse, do-it-all production tool, you should really look elsewhere for something more user-friendly.

On the other hand, if you want a sampler with which to make brain-twisting sounds, and you are prepared to live with awkward quirks and use something else to control it, then the ASR-X should be on your shopping list. Unlike most Ensoniq gear it is built like a tank and should last very well. You will get a very powerful and musical sampling synthesizer with top-notch sound quality. Get to know its depths and your sounds will really stand out from the crowd.

I can't wait to introduce my Nord Micro Modular to the ASR!

Rating: 5 out of 5 posted Friday-Mar-30-2001 at 18:52
damien a part-time user from south of heaven writes:
Just dont buy it for the sequencer (when did the Americans build a decent sequencer anyway? It is a fucking great sampler, about a 1000 times better than the MPC. (I have both) Great effects too. For the current second hand prices you cannot buy a better sampler than the ASRX period. The MPC is not even a sampler just a drummachine with some nice sequencing capabilities. But even that should not be overrated it doesn't even offer grid style sequencing? and as a fucking drumbox it is a little on the expencive side innit?

Rating: 5 out of 5 posted Monday-Mar-05-2001 at 20:29
a professional user from usa writes:
The ARX(PRO). This review will needs to be read by anyone interested in the asrxpro. I bought a used one for $600.00 at Guitar Center. They told me that the guy that they got it from bought it at Mars. Well I have used samplers since the mirage days. I had one of those. Then I got into the S-series from Roland. I then upgraded to a ASR-10. I must say the ASR-10 was a beautiful instrument. But it has no longevity. Keys break and the LED readout screens dies after prolonged use. I talking on pro-use level. Cheap plastic buttons that aren't made to take thousands and thousands of hits. The sequencer isn't good for live performance, although the preset\split application is great. But the sequencer will freeze sometimes while assessing other directories. So watch it if you makes quick moves while performing live sequencing. I sold mine after years of wear and tear. I got an EMU ESI-2000. But I still longed for a all in one sampler/sequencer. I recently bought the new KORG ES-1 sampler. It is quiet fun and quick! That is what is important to anyone who creates songs. Like an ASR10 or MPC. You want to write fast. I once taught a guy how to operate an Asrx when they first came out with it. I immediately notice the flaws in the sequencer. I thought the ASRXPRO version would eliminate it. To my dismay it only made it worser. After spending hours (i'm talking 10+ hour days writing and sequencing it got nowhere. I love all in one workstations but the ASRX series aren't. THey are bug-infected pieces of crap. Sort of like a beautiful car with a shitty engine. To many menus to access but you can't assess them properly. It is a clumbsy machine. I hate to talk about Ensoniq because they really had it going with the ASR. All they had to do was use better plastic and slightly improve the O.S.. I just returned it to Guitar Center and got my 600 smackeroos back. And it feels good. I'm glad that I learned it before the return expired. Why would anyone buy a Workstation sampler and use another sequencer to operation it? That's because you moronsknow damn well that you wasted your money buying that crap. And you probably bought it new and paid over a 1000+. Granted it maybe sound good, but look at what you can do with it? Sample this and sample that and then you can't write it in the sequencer because the sequencer can't even count to 4. Ha - Ha and La La and you are nowhere again. Try this: writing a song out of the sequences and then try syncing it to your computer sequencer. I guarantee that you will not exceed in making the two devices play together. What this means is that you won't be able to send your midi data that you recorded on the ASRX to correctly displayed in your software. Notes will not portray the correct timing. It stutters(the sequencer) like it has the hic-cups or higher than I can ever get. It is like an repeat-offender. Always getting in to some sh--! Time and time again you Morons need to really think of what you supposed to have bought when you bought that crap. I recently taught a professional how to use his new MPC drum machine. I have done this a couple of times with other people who have that MPC. I will get me one in a couple of weeks. Because It works! Not fancy though but it's sequencer works. Even at 96ticks it's still fun and easy. It doesn't have the sampling power of The ASRX, but again it is a working machine. I wish ASRX would fix it's sequencer and I would get it. But that won't happen because it would more than likely involve sending in your instrument for total re-infastructer. It would be the best bar none. But I personally don't have time to wait for such things to occur. The money isn't there. Ensoniq does not really exist in that market that they once dominated. I don't know what happened to them.....but I personally think that the ASRX and the ASRX-PRO were sabotaged by research and developement engineers who plotted the demise of the company marketing schemes. LATER...

Rating: 1 out of 5 posted Monday-Mar-05-2001 at 14:22
Uncle Lester a part-time user writes:
Yes,the ASRX Pro can do quantizing before and after you record a track.I gotta tell you,I just got mine used and I don't know where all of the hostility toward this box is coming from. The sounds and sequencing are pretty dam good for the price of this unit.I also own the Roland XP60,Korg Triton and Yamaha A3000 along with a slew of other sampling synth units and the Ensoniq fits in quite nicely. .Its a great tool for beginners as well....

Rating: 5 out of 5 posted Saturday-Feb-17-2001 at 12:48
Luciano/ La Casa Nostra productions a professional user from charlotte nc usa writes:
I have this black asr-x and i use it everyday to produce the shit you guys hear on the radio..i use my mpc60 to sequence.. my sp1200 for kicks and snares my proteus2000 for different sounds my audity2000 for techno sounds and arpeggiated stuff and my qsr rack for its pianos......i also have an e4xtultra for doing all my re-mixing in and with over 30 cd-roms for it i use it also as a sound module....keep this in mind the more you have the more diverse your sound can be......each piece whether hot or not serves its purpose and has its very own place in history......buy whatever you can at the best price and keep it forever....look at the roland tr-808 ..they were considered "garbage" in 83 when they came out and now they sell for over 2000 us dollars on some sites.....hit me up for the illest tracks and sounds.....villainace@aol.com

Rating: 5 out of 5 posted Thursday-Feb-15-2001 at 23:02
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