Ensoniq came from nowhere in 1984 with their Mirage.

The Fairlight had introduced us to the mortgage-inducing concept of digital sampling whilst Emu had brought this down to used car prices with their Emulator. But here was an unknown company with a worthy competitor.

Or was it?

To reach a certain price point, Ensoniq had to make compromises with a minimal control panel with a 2-digit LED display - hardly the stuff we're used to today! But beneath this simplistic front panel was actually quite a potent sampler for the time.

Capable of (limited) multi-sampling, the Ensoniq Mirage was something of a miracle (at the time) offering affordable sampling for around $2,000. This might seem a lot by today's standard but bearing in mind that the Mirage's nearest competitor was $10,000, it seemed to be quite an attractive alternative. On paper, it also offered a lot - analogue filters, multi-stage envelopes, a flexible LFO... it even had a sequencer (albeit restricted to 300 notes!)!

In practice, it was an utter pig to use! To get the best out of it you needed the MASOS software installed but with that 2-digit LED display, it required a lot of patience to make anything meaningful on the thing - even back in the '80s, dialing in Hex codes for sample editing and looping was not entirely intuitive! Also, memory was limited to a mere 144kb!!!

And even if you persevered, you were hamperd by the lo-fi results - 8-bit with a maximum sampling rate of 32kHz meant that your best efforts were unlikely to be rewarded with quality output.

That said, the Mirage was popular by default.... it brought this new-fangled concept of 'sampling' to the masses. The fact that it wasn't very good was not really an issue at the time. Why should it be? After all, sampling quality was pretty lousy on the £20,000+ Fairlight and no better on the £7,000 Emulator either.... why should it be any different on a £1,300 product?! Users at the time accepted this level of lo-fi quality as 'normal' !!

But there was a contender waiting in the wings.

At almost exactly the same time, newcomers Akai released their S612. This was a far simpler affair with no multi-sampling or filters (other than a simple 'hi-cut' static lowpass tone control). It didn't even offer any onboard storage - that was available as an optional 2.8" disk drive (affectionately referred to as 'the toast rack' because of its slots for holding the 'Quickdisks'!). But the S612 did have several other benefits.

It was far easier to use with a dedicated control and a meter for setting record levels, dedicated sliders for setting start/end points and loops, dedicated LFO, release and tuning controls plus dedicated switches for several replay modes - there was also a special 'overdub' mode where you could effectively record layered samples.

It also had considerably more memory than the Mirage allowing up to eight seconds of sampling (albeit at reduced bandwidth). As well as being a few hundred bucks less than the Mirage, it was a dream to use even for complete novices. It did have one disadvantage though - it could only play one sample at a time which spanned the entire keyboard range.... no detailed multi-sampling with this product!

But the S612 had the one big advantage over the Mirage - it was 12-bit and although it too had a limited bandwidth with a 32kHz sample rate, it sounded pretty damned good (as I can testify - it was my first sampler!).

Of course, the S612 was the precursor to the now legendary S900 and when that product hit the streets, the Mirage was pretty much handed a death sentence (as were other sampling products of the time!).

That said, the Mirage's lo-fi sound quality was/is not without appeal and a collection of drum, percussion and other samples have been generously donated by Italian musician Aphrologique of Club Silencio. They are decidedly 'lo-fi' but will no doubt be able to find a place in a modern music production.