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The full soundset of the classic Mirage 8-bit sampler


‘The raw sounds are as delicious now as they were back in the mid-80s’  – Computer Music Magazine 

‘I compared Sahara directly to the factory sounds that have survived in my Mirage’s library and, from the first sample that I tried, I was impressed… Sahara not only captures the underlying sound and the unexpected warmth of the Mirage, but also its sometimes imperfect soul.’

Sound on Sound magazine review our Native Instruments Kontakt Instruments

The first digital sampler for the rest of us: the Mirage defines an era of popular access to sampling technology • Thick, warm, gritty sounds from 8-bit DACs and a tiny 128kB of sample storage • Entire Ensoniq factory soundset: 179 original Mirage patches, plus custom Multis: Splits to recreate original keyboard splits, and Layers to take the Mirage sound in whole new directions • Extensive control set gives you the option to sculpt the sounds; or click “Vintage” to restore authentic 1984-compatible settings!

The Ensoniq Mirage was a landmark machine in the history of sampling. Before its release, sampling was strictly the purview of the very well-heeled musician: a Fairlight Series II cost £30,000 (the price of a house); a Synclavier would set you back between $25,000 and $200,000 (yee-ouch); and there were no alternatives.

All that changed in 1984. Two astonishing machines hit the market more or less simultaneously: the superb Emulator II snuck it at just under $10,000 and captured the hearts (and wallets) of mid-range studios and musos who wanted in on the sampling action but couldn’t stretch to a Fairlight. But if it thought it was going to steal all the limelight, it was wrong – because elbowing its way into the party like a scrawny punk rocker who no-one invited, here comes the Mirage.

The Mirage was a lean, aggressive bid to make sampling available to ordinary people. There were no light-pens, no CRT screens, no Fourier waveforms, no sweeping blue cases adorned with sliders and LCD displays. Every single element was cut back to the bone, the bare minimum, in order to fulfil the goal of getting a sampler into the hands of players for under a couple of grand.

This led to some pretty stark compromises. The 8-bit Mirage sported a teeny-tiny 128kB of sample memory, which was permanently split into two 64kB chunks devoted to each side of the keyboard. (Why?) It could, at its maximum 33kHz sample rate, store just 2 seconds of sound per keyboard half. There were no upgrade options. Its only display was a 2-character LED window, which displayed (in a flickering amber light) arcane and inscrutable hexadecimal numbers which – when decoded – told you what parameter you were editing. Perhaps. The Mirage manual came with a handy tear-out-and-laminate reference sheet, which you were more or less obliged to stick onto the front of the instrument in order to be able to understand it. It was a pig to program and its on-paper specs make it look laughably, appallingly limited by today’s standards.

All that said, though… it really did change the world. 16-bit companding DACs and 100kHz sample rates were all very well, but this was a thing you could actually buy. What’s more – it sounded fantastic.

The earthy edge of the Mirage’s raw, 8-bit output, and the need to reduce sample rate (sometimes down as low as 10kHz) to squeeze more time out of that measly 128kB lent it a thick, warm sound with a particularly rounded and filled-out bass end. It has, to our ears, more in common with machines like the Akai S900 and S950 (both 12-bit) than the Emulator. The warmth also comes from the Mirage’s analogue filter, which plays a vital role in giving the machine its expressive playability. And finally, Ensoniq really did a job with the factory library, honing every sound to get the very best from the limited resources at their disposal.

So although programming a Mirage is a bit of an exercise in masochism, playing one is just a joy. The string patches soar and sweep; the basses are rich and grounded; the synth sounds have grit and girth to them; drums have a wonderful crunchy, almost vinyl, dirt. This is above all an instrument with character.

Our Sahara version samples, in forensic detail, the entire Mirage factory soundset – an epic undertaking which we’ve completed with the blessing of Syntaur, the company who now hold the exclusive right to license these sounds. As with our previous Emulator II UOS project, we’ve been absolutely fastidious about capturing the true sound of the instrument. We worked with a reconditioned hardware Mirage, and sampled every note of every patch; whenever necessary, we sampled at multiple velocity layers as well, to capture the action of the analogue filter or to mimic precisely how the Mirage’s envelopes behave. The result is a set of factory patches whose raw sound is as close to having a real Mirage as you can get without having to learn hexadecimal.

Because of the Mirage’s peculiar “64kB per keyboard side” architecture, many of the factory patches were originally splits, with one sound loaded on each side of the keyboard – a configuration that also made good sense for live playing. We made the editorial decision to break out the individual sounds and extend them over the full MIDI range, which we feel is far more musically usable. These original factory sounds form the main part of the Sahara library – 179 of them in all. But if you want an authentic Mirage experience, we’ve also included a number of Split Multis which recreate some of the original splits, just as they exist on the hardware. In addition to these there are some non-authentic but awesome-sounding Layered Multis, which graft several Mirage patches together, add effects, and generally bring the machine into the 21st century.

The result of many hours of delight (these were such fun sounds to work with!), Sahara is the Mirage recreated and slotted neatly into your DAW. It will bring you raw and muscular bass tones, thick and gritty drums, and warm surges of synthesiser goodness – exactly as it first did in 1984. The Mirage brought digital sampling to the masses for the first time… and what an amazing thing that was. Step back in time and join the revolution!


Downloading and installing the Sahara soundset:

This is a big, big set of instruments. As such, we’ve partitioned the download into 7 x 1Gb files, so when you receive your download link email, it will include links to seven separate .zip files. If your internet connection is on the slow side, you’ll get better performance if you download these one at a time rather than setting them all going at once.

When you’ve downloaded all the parts, Mac users will need a copy of Stuffit Expander and Windows users will need a copy of 7-Zip, both of which are free to download – just follow the links.

Launch your decompression utility. Mac users can drag the first .zip file only onto Stuffit’s window. Windows users should select the first .zip file only using 7-Zip, and click Extract. The utility will (slowly!) decompress all seven files into one consolidated folder containing the instruments and samples. NB Simply double-clicking the file will not work; follow the procedure above. Decompression will take a long time and it may look like the utility has stalled; but don’t panic, there’s a lot for it to do (and in the case of Stuffit, the little progress bar shows progress for only the first file of the seven, so the time it takes to complete the whole process will be about seven times longer than the progress bar suggests.) Perhaps make a warming beverage while it gets to it 😉

Once the decompression has finished you’ll find a folder with the original Mirage patches, plus folders for the Layered and Split Multis. You’re all ready to enjoy!

You can read the full Sound on Sound review of Sahara here.

(All our Kontakt instruments require a full copy of Native Instruments Kontakt v4.2.3 or higher (including all versions of Kontakt 5). Kontakt Player is not supported: instruments will load, but will time out after 15 minutes. See the FAQ for further information.) You can read more about the original hardware Ensoniq Mirage here.

Sound On Sound magazine reviews Sahara:

Much of the appeal of low-bandwidth, 8-bit sample libraries lies in their imperfections; nowadays it’s easy to obtain samples recorded at high sample rates with long wordlengths, but sometimes a little bit of grit and noise is just what the mix needs. Mind you, if you were to try to buy an 8-bit sampler today you’d find surprisingly few available: fully functional Fairlight CMIs (Series I, II and IIx), Emulators and Emulator IIs are exceedingly rare. So perhaps your only options would be one of their much cheaper, upstart competitors, the Ensoniq Mirage DSK-8 and DSK-1 keyboards or their rackmount sibling, the DMS-8 Mirage Rack. This isn’t as bad as it might seem; despite their tiny memories, ghastly operating systems and (by today’s standards) laughable capabilities, the various Mirages continues to prove that larger numbers don’t necessarily mean better sounds, not least because their factory samples are surprisingly good. Consequently, Sahara is exciting not just because it promises to make those factory sounds available to a much wider audience, but because it does so in a form that makes it much simpler to sculpt them into new and, as I was soon to discover, very pleasing forms.

Its layout is well designed and clear. On the front panel you’ll find a resonant low-pass filter and an amplifier, each controlled by a dedicated ADSR contour generator and LFO, three effects (chorus, phaser and reverb), and a Skip Attack button that, not surprisingly, skips the initial samples of a sound for a more percussive attack. The final two controls are a Vintage button that disables all of the contours, LFOs and effects to play the raw samples, and a Spread knob that pans low notes to the left, high notes to the right, and all stages in between. The ‘rear panel’ tab boasts two more effects (delay and rotary), this time with a degree of control, plus sliders for the velocity response of the loudness and filter cutoff frequency, and two knobs that control the rate and depth of pitch modulation applied using the mod wheel of your controller keyboard or the equivalent MIDI CC.

The underlying multi-samples — nearly 8GB of audio comprising nearly 24,000 items — were produced in collaboration with Syntaur, a Texan company that hold the rights to the Ensoniq library. (If you’re still using a Mirage of one form or another, you can buy these as three sets of 3.5-inch diskettes for $99 per set.) So I compared Sahara directly to the factory sounds that have survived in my DSM’s library and, from the first sample that I tried, I was impressed. I tested everything from basses to strings to vocal samples and much in between, and found that the samples have been re-recorded faithfully, right down to the original flaws and occasionally dodgy loop points. Notwithstanding the move from analogue filters to digital ones, Sahara not only captures the underlying sound and the unexpected warmth of the Mirage, but also its sometimes imperfect soul.

Having all of these sounds available in Kontakt confers at least two enormous advantages over the original instruments. The first is the user interface. Instead of struggling with a two-character LED screen and all of its arcane messages, everything now falls to hand. You want a gentle attack? Move the slider. You want to change the filter cutoff frequency? Turn the knob. To be honest, I did more with these samples in a few days of testing Sahara than I had in the past three decades on the Mirage itself. The other major advantage is the ease with which Kontakt allows you to layer sounds and detune them against one another. For example, I took two vocal sounds, tuned one up by a fifth, extended the attacks on both, closed their filters a little, and added chorus and reverb. The results were gorgeous, and I can guarantee that I would never have discovered this sound using the original instrument.

Rhythmic Robot’s claim that “Sahara is the Mirage recreated” is a bit over the top because you can’t record new 8-bit samples as you can on the original, nor does it include the Mirage’s sequencer. (Had the Mirage been merely a factory sample player in the same way as the 360 Systems Digital Keyboard and the DK Synergy the claim would have been closer to correct.) Nonetheless, I don’t want to belabour this because, for many musicians, the Mirage was just a sample player and, given its operating system, I can’t say that I blame them for that. Consequently, I’m going to make just one complaint; there’s no documentation, and the only clue as to what’s going on appears in the optional tool tips that appear when you hover over a knob, slider or button. If you asked me what type of filter has been implemented in Sahara, I couldn’t tell you. The maximum and minimum contour times? The nature of the chorus and phaser? The maximum LFO speeds? I haven’t a clue! One could argue that, if the sounds are good (which they are) the numbers are unnecessary, but I would prefer to know what I was dealing with when programming. That quibble aside, I can wholeheartedly recommend Sahara to anyone who has the hard-disk space and is a fan of the Mirage.

2 reviews for Sahara

  1. michael.topic (verified owner)

    When the Mirage came out, lots of bedroom composers were ecstatic, because sampling was previously beyond their budgets, but professional composers were a little bit dismissive of the sounds and the sampling quality. I think the bedroom composers were actually right. There are some very usable sounds in this library, especially if you want to create something that is period accurate. The ability to wrangle these sounds in Kontakt takes away the pain that was the original machine’s user interface. Now, you can enjoy the sounds without the frustration of having to navigate the universe via a very small number of controls and a letter box display. Don’t expect crystal clarity. The subtle dust and noise adds a smooth sheen to the sounds, making them sound distinctly old school. When every other sample library in contemporary use is “epic”, with overblown drums, voices and orchestras, making every composition sound the same ole, same ole, putting something minimalist in your compositions can really introduce a useful contrast. Give it a go.

  2. audioart (verified owner)

    Was sure there was a few Chicago House and Detroit Techno presets/patches lurking amongst the Mirage Factory Library which were before this product unobtainium unless you found the sampler secondhand with all the discs, which would be a rare find if you did! Anyway, found this product has just been released and took a punt, well it delivered – All the sounds I thought were there are here and in a convenient Kontakt library with a nice looking simple to use UI. 10/10

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