Ensoniq TS-10/12 Workstations
Intro: I purchased my Ensoniq TS-10 at a local music store in Michigan back in the early 90s. I was just getting my home studio started, and needed a complete workstation with the sounds and sequencer. At the time, I first purchased a Korg M1 (whatever version/model of the M1 was out at that time). After using it for a few weeks, I determined the voices on the M1 just did not cut it for me - the bells and EPs were nice (like with all FM synths), but most other voices were lacking - strings, brass, and drums were horrible. Luckily, I had made some sequences and user-patches and tried to save them to the floppy, only to discover that the floppy-drive did not work, so I was able to return the unit as defective. I kept checking out local music stores in Michigan and eventually came across Ensoniq. The voices were full, warm, and authentic-sounding, even the strings, brass, and drums. A bonus was the effects engine, same as in the famous DP/4, the best effects you can get aside from the super expensive pro units like Lexicon. I took home the TS-10, set it up, banged out a couple of cover songs in the first few days, and was hooked on Ensoniq. It is still my primary keyboard controller workstation to this day. The TS-10, which cost me around $2,400 (if I remember correctly) back in the day, still goes for almost half that on eBay. The reason is that it is one of the best keyboard workstations ever made.
Disclaimer: I always put a disclaimer into my blogs. I am not a professional reviewer or musician, just a guy with a home studio. There is no editor or fact-checker, so it is quite possible that there are inaccuracies. This is all just opinion, for entertainment purposes only, so don’t make any decisions based solely off this info.
Voices: You get 3 banks of 60 each for internal preset patches, and 2 banks of 60 each for user patches. The user patches stay in memory if you power off the unit. You also get 2 banks of 10 each for samples. The TS-10/12 units can load ASR-10, EPS 16+, and EPS samples. They can be loaded from SCSI hard-drive, or from good old floppy disks (I don’t have SCSI on my TS-10). The ASR samples are best, EPS 16+ are pretty good, and EPS samples are just so-so. I tend to use wavetable patches for the primary voices in my songs, and ASR samples for the more unusual patches such as ethnic/world instruments and hip-hop kits and such. Samples are dropped from memory if you power off the unit.
Gruv Loops: The TS-10 can do gruv loops called Transwaves or Hyperwaves. I cannot give much info on these, as I have never programmed a loop myself. They basically contain numerous waveforms, and then cycle through waveforms at certain intervals. If you cycle through kick, snare, cymbal base, and EP, on the beat, then you have a pattern loop. If you cycle through pads, sweeps, and atmospherics, not on the beat, then you have a motion pad like the Korg Wavestation. I have never done much with these, because if I need a pattern, I just sequence it, and if I need a motion pad, I just layer a couple voices. One downside of the TS us that the midi clock will not sync to these motion voices, nor will it sync to LFO or long-delay echo or anything like that, so the "tempo" of the motion voice is fixed and probably will not match the tempo of your sequence.
Midi: The TS has midi capabilities that go beyond what I have seen in any other gear or in software. I can send and receive data on the same midi channel and track. I can play a track internally, externally, both, and send to multiple tone modules. I can receive an entire midi song on all 12 armed sequencer tracks, with 1 take. Best of all, midi channel and track assignments are saved with the song, not globally, so I can have different setups with different songs, and never have to change any global midi settings. This last item is a huge feature - every other piece of gear I have has midi settings at the global level, so however you set it up, is how it is set for every song. With the TS, I can have different midi settings saved for each song, so I can have songs saved that use all internal voices, others that use all external gear, others that are a crazy mix of send/receive channels, and I never have to change the global settings.
Sequencer: You get 12 tracks in sequencer mode, then you go into song mode to chain several sequences together to make a complete song, and you get 12 additional song tracks in the process. So a song might be made up of 5 sequences, something like: 1 Intro, 2 Main repeated twice, 3 Chorus, 4 Main repeated twice, 5. Ending. There is full sequence, song, and track editing, even by range or filtered events. There is quantization with percentage, swing, and random options. You can mixdown automation of volume, pan, brightness, timbre, and tempo into a track. There are buttons for each menu category, for example Edit Track, and 6 soft buttons beside the display for the specific options under that menu, so you don’t get into much menu diving. Sequences and songs stay in memory if you power off the unit. The soft-buttons are a huge feature, no menu diving, just press the Edit Track button for example and the 6 soft buttons will have the various Edit Track options - there are no menu/cursor-navigation type buttons.
Display: The vacuum-fluorescent display is great. Too bad you can no longer find that type of display on the newer Ensoniq gear, or on any other gear for that matter. It is clear and easy to read in both bright and low-light situations. The only improvement I can think of would be to include lower-case letters. On the TS, everything is in caps, which takes 1 extra character when naming, since instead of naming a patch BrightPno, you have to name it BRIGHT-PNO. Obviously you can’t do something like show waveforms on the display, but then again hardly any older gear does that - you need a huge display like a Roland MC-909 for stuff like that. Apparently, these displays became unavailable during the reign of the TS and ASR, and Ensoniq had to switch to traditional LCD displays with the latest models, the TS Plus and the ASR-10 Purple Display. I have never seen these models in person. I have had much newer gear with LCD displays that have given me problems, but the TS (and my ASR-10 for that matter) displays are still perfect, bright, with no burnt-out segments, so I will take these old vacuum-fluorescent displays any day.
Storage: The TS was from the days before SM, CF, SD cards, or USB sticks. You have to use good old fashioned floppy disks, unless you have the SCSI option, which I don’t have. But it uses the newer HD disks that you can still easily buy new online (as opposed to the older DD disks), so it really is not a problem. Just be sure to label and organize all your disks so you can find your sequences, voices, and samples. Note that floppies are magnetic and go bad from time to time, so make a 2nd backup of any important disks. Ensoniq floppies were always in a proprietary format, until the ASR-X/MR/ZR came out using MS-DOS format, so with the TS you have to use software to read and write files from a computer to Ensoniq-formatted floppies. I use Giebler software for standard midi file (SMF) conversion and for reading/writing sound patches and samples to/from Ensoniq-formatted floppies. I selected Giebler because I remember when he had ads back in the day in the Transoniq Hacker newsletter. I will make a blog post on Giebler software when I get the chance.
Keybed: I like the feel of the keybed. I think it is from Fatar, like the Kurtsweil boards, but don’t quote me on that. It has a nice synth feel, not too clicky/bouncy, but also not too heavy/weighted. The TS-10 is 61-keys. If you want weighted-action for more of a piano feel, then get the TS-12 which has 76-keys.
Polyphonic Aftertouch: Let’s say you have a voice where aftertouch (pressing harder on the keys after the initial attack velocity) adds vibrato to the sound, and you are playing chords with the left hand and a solo with the right. You can press harder to a note held in the solo to add vibrato, without adding any vibrato to the chord you are holding with your left hand. This polyphonic aftertouch feature is hard to come by. It is good when you want to merge 2 tracks - you can be using aftertouch on 1 of the tracks, but not the other, and when you merge them, they do not impact each other. I sort of wish that were true for things like the mod/bend wheels - if you merge 2 tracks, then mod/bend wheel movements will impact all the notes from both of the merged tracks.
Polyphony: The TS only has 32 notes of polyphony (sounds that can play concurrently), so you will probably want another tone module or two for external voices. 32 notes of polyphony may be enough, but if you have layered voices, or you have anything sustained for a long time (like a building sweep or roll cymbal), you will eventually get some clipping. The TS does not have an arpeggiator, nor any true analog voices, so those would be good options for external tone modules. I will make a separate post on the various external tone modules that I use.
Resonant Filters: One criticism of the TS is that the filters lack resonance, so you cannot do a traditional filter sweep (think first note of Rush’s Tom Sawyer) using a dial/slider. This is true, but you can simulate a filter sweep by using 1 of the sweeping type effects, by layering in a sweeping waveform, or you can do mixdown automation on brightness or timbre. It is funny how important this became when Techno/Dance/House hit the scene - everyone wished that the Ensoniq gear could do the "filter sweep up to the big bass drop" thing.
Expansion: There were never any waveform ROM expansion boards, those came later with the ASR-X, MR, and ZR units. You could expand the sequencer to almost 100,000 notes, which I did. You could also expand the sampler memory to 8MB, which I also did. Can you believe it - with today’s 2GB piano samples, there was a time when you could load over a dozen 16-bit 44.1-kHz multi-sampled instruments into 8MB. There are tons and tons of ASR-10 sample libraries on floppy and CD that will play on the TS, so expansion is not a problem. There are also many libraries that use the internal waveforms, and those will fit on 1 floppy disk.
Tempo Sync: One drawback of the TS is that you cannot sync the effects or the gruv loops with the midi clock. I sure wish it had that capability. If I put a long-delay on a patch, and I want that long-delay to sync with the tempo of the song , then I have to look up these arcane charts in the User Manual that show what the long-delay effect parameters should be sent to in order to match up with various BPM settings.
Patch Select: Ensoniq keyboards always had 2 patch select buttons. I don’t think any other manufacturer had those. It was basically a way of switching between the waveform layers that make up a sound. So you could have a velocity-switched guitar sound, with strums and fret noises and such, and use the patch select buttons to have control over the switching, along with probably the velocity. I have an ASR-X groove box, and the patch select buttons are even on that unit.
History: The wavetable synths built upon each other from the ESQ, to SQ80, to VFX, to SD, and to the TS, just like the samplers built upon each other from the Mirage, to EPS, to EPS16, and to the ASR. The high-point of Ensoniq was when you could get the TS, the ASR, and the DP4. A combined TS/ASR/DP4 super-workstation was the next logical product, but instead the ASRX, MR, and ZR units came out, with poor sequencers, weak midi, missing functionality, and OS bugs. Ensoniq, as a company, never recovered from these later units which were a big step down from the TS/ASR/DP4.
Support: Ensoniq is long gone, but you can still get support and accessories online. I can recommend Syntaur.com, as I have purchased memory modules, floppy disks, and CD sound libraries from him, and I remember when he used to have ads in the old Transoniq Hacker newsletter. I have also gotten some sampler libraries from Rubber Chicken Systems.
Documentation: Ensoniq gear was known for the best-in-class user documentation. The manuals and tutorials are clear, easy to understand, and go in a nice flow without having to jump around. There were no undocumented features. Every owner of an Ensoniq piece of gear should make sure they print off a hard-copy of all documentation, and then actually go through the manuals page by page sitting in front of their keyboard. I like how there was the User Manual for reference, but then there was also a Tutorial, to just go through step-by-step.