Ensoniq

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Ensoniq Corporation
Type Corporation
Industry Musical Instruments and Technology
Founded 1982
Headquarters Malvern, Pennsylvania
Key people Bruce Crockett, Al Charpentier, and Bob Yannes (founders)

Ensoniq Corp. was an American electronics manufacturer, best known throughout the mid-1980s and 1990s for its musical instruments, principally samplers and synthesizers.

Company history[edit]

Ensoniq was founded in 1982 by former MOS Technology engineers Robert "Bob" Yannes (designer of the MOS Technology SID chip for the Commodore 64 home computer), Bruce Crockett, and Al Charpentier. Their first product was a software drum machine that ran on a home computer.

In January 1998, ENSONIQ Corp. was acquired by Creative Technology Ltd. for $77 million, and merged with E-mu Systems to form the E-Mu/Ensoniq division. The fusion with E-mu sealed Ensoniq's fate: after releasing an entry-level E-mu MK6/PK6 and Ensoniq Halo keyboards - essentially keyboard versions of the Proteus 2500 module - in 2002, the E-Mu/Ensoniq division was dissolved and support for legacy products was discontinued soon afterward.

Musical instruments and digital systems[edit]

Mirage DSK-1 (c.1985)
ESQ-1 (1986)

Ensoniq entered the instrument market with the Mirage sampling keyboard in 1985. At the price of USD$1500 it cost significantly less than previous samplers such as the Fairlight CMI and the E-MU Emulator. Starting with the ESQ-1, they began producing sample-based synthesizers. Following the success of these products, Ensoniq established a subsidiary in Japan in 1987.

Ensoniq products were highly professional. Strong selling points were ease-of-use and their characteristic "fat", rich sound (generally thought of as being an "American" quality, as opposed to the "Japanese" sound which was more "digital" and somewhat "cold"). After the Mirage, all Ensoniq instruments featured integrated sequencers (even their late '80s and early '90s samplers) providing an all-in-one "digital studio production concept" instrument. These were often called "Music Workstations". Starting with the VFX synthesizer, high-quality effects units were included, in addition most synthesizer and all sampler models featured disk drives and/or RAM cards for storage. The manuals and tutorial documents were clearly written and highly musician-oriented, allowing the users to quickly get satisfactory results from their machines. In 1988, the company enlisted the Dixie Dregs in a limited edition promotional CD "Off the Record" which featured the band using the EPS sampler and SQ-80 cross wave synthesizer.

The company had much success with the SQ product line starting in the early 1990s. This was a lower-cost line that included the SQ-1 (61 keys), SQ-2 (76 keys) and SQ-R (rack-mounted, with no keys or sequencer). Later versions were produced with 32 sound-generating voices.

VFX (1989)
ASR-10 (1992)

The company's heyday was in the early 1990s when the VFX synthesizers offered innovative performance and sequencing features (and terrific acoustic sounds), along with the ASR series of 16-bit samplers which also integrated synthesis, effects, and sequencer into a single-unit digital studio. The TS synthesizers followed the legacy of the VFX line, improving several aspects such as the polyphony, effects engine, sample-loading capabilities and even better synth and acoustic sounds. The DP series of effects rack-mount units offered parallel processing and reverb presets on a par with Lexicon's offerings, but at affordable prices.

DP/2 (1995)

Despite these strengths, early (1980s) Ensoniq instruments suffered from reliability and quality problems such as bad keyboards (Mirage DSK-8), under-developed power-supply units (early ESQ1), or mechanical issues (EPS polypressure keyboard). Through the early and mid-1990s, much effort was focused on improving the reliability of the products. The company didn't manage to reinvent its workstation concept in order to survive the mid and late '90s, and no lower-budget versions of their keyboards were offered to replace the aging SQ line. Excellent synthesizers like the VFX or TS models lacked cheaper rack-mount counterparts. Finally, while the competition's products were continually evolving and newer technologies such as physical modeling were introduced, Ensoniq failed to follow the late '90s market orientation, often recycling old concepts on their new products. During this time, much of the engineering effort and company resources were focused on computer sound cards, which offered more profit for the company.

Timeline of major products[edit]

ESQ-M (1986)
Mirage DSK-8 (1985)
EPS (1988)
EPS-16+ (1991)
TS 10 (1993)
Fizmo (1998)

Sound cards and semiconductors[edit]

Ensoniq was known not only for their innovative musical instruments division, but also for their computer audio chips. In 1986, after making an agreement with Apple Computer, the same Ensoniq 5503 DOC chip utilized in the Mirage sampler (DSK-8, DSK-1, DMS-1), ESQ-1, ESQm and SQ80 synthesizers, and SDP1 piano module was incorporated into the Apple IIGS personal computer. The Ensoniq ES5505 (OTIS or OTISR2), ES5506 (OTTO) and ES5510 (ESPR6, ESP stands for Ensoniq Signal Processor) were used in various arcade games. They were all manufactured on the CMOS process. The OTTO was licensed to Advanced Gravis for use in the Gravis Ultrasound card. In 1994 production began on PC sound cards for home computers. The design of the video game console Atari Panther also included the OTIS chip, though the product never reached series production.

Ensoniq's sound cards became immensely popular, no doubt due to their many wins with the big OEM system manufacturers. Towards the end of the DOS gaming era, every game supported the Ensoniq Soundscape. In fact Ensoniq was the first to come up with an ISA software audio emulation solution for their new PCI sound cards that was compatible with most DOS games. It is likely that this was a big motivator in the Creative/E-MU purchase of Ensoniq because Creative Labs had not developed a high-compatibility method to support audio in legacy DOS software. According to one source, because of the wide range of patents Ensoniq had involving the PCI bus support for the sound cards, and the fact that Ensoniq wanted E-MU's technologies, the buyout of Ensoniq became the best of both worlds.

Soundscape[edit]

  • Ensoniq Soundscape Elite The ELITE was Ensoniq's high-end ISA offering. It offered the highest MIDI quality of any PC sound card they ever made, including the newer AudioPCI. The Elite was based mostly around the S-2000, with some additional features that set it far apart from its progenitor.
  • Ensoniq Soundscape OPUS This card was a Gateway 2000 OEM, and possibly was used by other OEMs, but was never sold to Ensoniq's customers directly. It was a Soundscape-like board, using the Ensoniq "OPUS" multimedia sound chip, a chip that was only used on these OEM boards.
  • Ensoniq Soundscape VIVO90 was Ensoniq's generational step forward from the Ensoniq Soundscape S-2000-based boards. It was first produced in 1996. VIVO90 had similar specifications to the older boards, but was built to cost less to manufacture.

AudioPCI[edit]

  • Ensoniq AudioPCI The AudioPCI was designed to be cheap first, functional second. However, it is very functional. When one compares the wide variety of chips and sheer size of the older Soundscape boards to the highly integrated 2-chip design of the AudioPCI, the cost-reduction is obvious. It consisted of little more than a small host CPU driven audio chip (one of the following: S5016, ES1370, ES 1371) and a companion DAC. AudioPCI still offers nearly all of the audio capabilities of the Soundscape ELITE card.

Transoniq Hacker[edit]

The Transoniq Hacker was an independent monthly newsletter that was published from July, 1985, through December, 1994. The newsletter was originally published as a means for owners of the Ensoniq Mirage to exchange ideas, but was eventually expanded to cover the entire line of Ensoniq synthesizers.

References[edit]

  • Ensoniq Corp., Dixie Dregs, "Off the Record", ENS-1000, 1988.
  • Case, Loyd. "In Search Of The Ultimate... Sound Card." Computer Gaming World Dec. 1994: 138-148.
  • Ensoniq Corp. Soundscape S-2000 Manual, Ensoniq, 1994.
  • "Ensoniq Corp. Web Site" by Ensoniq Corp., Multimedia Division Product Information and Support Pages, 1998, retrieved December 25, 2005
  • "Ensoniq FAQ" by Ensoniq Corp., Multimedia Division Product Information and Support Pages, 1997, retrieved December 27, 2005
  • Prince, Bobby. "In Search Of The Ultimate... Wavetable Daughtercard." Computer Gaming World Dec. 1994: 156-164.
  • Weksler, Mike & McGee, Joe. "CGW Sound Card Survey." Computer Gaming World Oct. 1993: 76-84.

External links[edit]