Desert Island Waves
Ensoniq SD1 Music Production Synthesizer
The SD1 is the new flagship of Ensoniq's synthesizer/workstation range. Paul Ireson feels the quality.
Review the Ensoniq SD1? No problem, I thought to myself, as I lugged the unwieldy box from the office into the car, then up a couple of flights of stairs at the other end. Plug it in, brew a fresh cup of coffee, play with the thing for a while and... well, this is where the problem starts. The SD1, the latest and greatest addition to the VFX family of synths and workstations, is actually too much fun to be easy to review - it's just too damn good to be left alone for long enough to write about it.
The SD1 replaces the VFX-SDII (reviewed Sep 1990) at the top of the VFX family tree, and it might just as well have been called the VFX-SDIII. There are several additions and improvements over the SDII — new waveforms, new effects algorithms, a new drum map feature, new output circuitry, slightly different graphics on the case — but nothing radically different. Still, that hardly detracts from the SD1's worth, particularly as it's cheaper than the VFX-SDII was on its introduction last year. What makes the SD1 so appealing is Ensoniq's combination of sequencing and (particularly) synthesis power with a user interface that really feels as if it has been designed by musicians; the result is an integrated music production workstation that is a delight to work with, yet offers a wealth of facilities for you to exploit. The SD1 is also one of the few instruments to offer poly aftertouch.
The voice architecture of the SD1 is almost identical to that of the original VFX (
In Sequencer mode you can create 60 Sequences and Songs; a sequence is a loop of how ever many bars you like, using 12 tracks, and a song is a series of Sequences on top of which are laid a further 12 tracks — so you have 24 tracks in all. Mixdown mode allows you to record dynamic volume and pan changes to all 24 tracks in a song, to add that final polish. The SD1 is 12-part multi-timbral via MIDI.
A Program is constructed from up to six Voices, each of which uses a single digital oscillator playing one of 168 waves. Obviously, using all six Voices restricts polyphony (the instrument will play up to 21 Voices at once), but you would not generally want to stack all six together in any case. Two patch select buttons above the mod and pitch bend wheels allow you to switch instantly between four different combinations of active Voices, effectively quadrupling the number of sounds at your disposal, and providing a fine performance control — you could, for example, have four variations of a sax patch literally at your fingertips. Each Voice is processed by a 2-part 4-pole filter (1-pole + 3-pole or two 2-pole filters, in low or band-pass configurations), and there are three envelopes per Voice; one is hardwired to pitch modulation, the second to the filter and the third to amplitude. The pitch and filter envelopes can also be assigned as modulators in other parts of the Voice.
The Waves which the digital oscillators use are split into several groups, which occupy a total 3.5MB of ROM: String; Brass; Breath; Bass; Percussion; Tuned Percussion; Transwave; Multiwave; Inharmonic; Waveform; Drums; Multi-drums; Piano; Hip Percussion; Mixed Samples; Drum Map. The Piano waves, including both grand and Rhodes sounds, seem very similar to those found on the VFX-SDII. As on that instrument, they're good, but not great, as there simply isn't enough memory to store stunning grand piano samples. However, as I've said before, I feel it's a terrible waste of effort to try and put first-class piano samples inside every synth — give me more synthesis facilities any day. The new waves (ie. those not found on the VFX-SDII) are the Hip Percussion group (TR808 samples in fact), the Mixed Samples group (an assortment of instruments not previously included) and Drum Map (this is not actually a ROM wavebank like the others; rather it's a means of incorporating a custom drum map into any Program — very handy).
Most of the groups, as the names suggest, contain digital recordings of acoustic and electronic instruments. Many are multi-sampled, and the drum samples appear both as single Waves (mapped across the whole keyboard, and in multi-drum setups. The Transwave, Waveform and Inharmonic groups contain sampled synthesizer waveforms, although the Transwaves are rather special. Each of the 17 Transwaves is actually a wavetable containing around 100 variations of a basic waveform. When a Voice plays a Transwave, it can move through the wavetable as the note is held — the waveform is therefore changing progressively, and the result is that you can create complex timbral shifts even before any other sound-shaping techniques are brought to bear. Classic pulse width mod and heavy filter sweep effects are both possible (the latter through the provision of four resonant wavetables, compensating somewhat for the lack of resonance on the SDVs own filters).
Each Program, Preset or Sequence has its own effects setup. The effects section has been improved somewhat since the days of the original VFX, and there are now 27 algorithms to chose from, offering all the popular treatments (although there's no distortion with delay; it only comes with reverb). There are two internal effects busses, FX1 and FX2, plus a Dry and an Aux bus. The Aux bus feeds only the Aux stereo outputs, whilst the other three feed to the main stereo outs. In a single effect algorithm, FX1 and FX2 act like two aux sends to an effect unit, allowing different Voices within a Program, or different Programs within a Preset or Sequence, to be given different amounts of processing. There is also a special mode for FX2 in which regular stereo operation is suspended, and the pan position of a Voice or Program determines the wet/dry mix. Pan can be modulated, so you have real-time control over the wet/dry balance.
In multiple effects mode, FX1 feeds Effect 1, and FX2 feeds Effect 2 (in algorithms with more than two effects, the different sections are split between Effect 1 and Effect 2). Mix level parameters allow you to set anything between fully parallel and series processing, and several of the algorithms allow real-time modulation of decay times, flanger depth, and so on. You also have a good deal of control over the sound, through diffusion and high frequency damping parameters for example. The quality of the effects is superb, with some beautiful reverbs and lush choruses, although pushing some parameters to their limits inevitably produces some less pleasant noises. On the subject of noise, the SD1 incorporates the same output section as the EPS16+, giving better audio quality than the VFX-SDII.
The 24-track sequencer, now on Version 3.0 software (you can load a new OS in from disk), is as good as on-board sequencers get. It has the full range of editing facilities, yet it's probably the most intuitive workstation sequencer, partly because it presents you with all of the important choices that you tend to make about your musical doodles as you build them up into something useful. For example, as soon as you've recorded a track or edited any data, the SD1 asks whether you'd like to keep the new track or stick with the original version, and you can listen to both and switch between them on the fly before you decide.
Whatever the cliches say, not all of the best things in life are free, and at just a little under £2,000, the SD1 is not cheap. On the other hand it's cheaper than the VFX-SDII used to be, despite the upgrades. Comparisons aside, it's an outstanding workstation in its own right; it's based on what is still my favourite synthesizer, and the sequencer complements it beautifully. All aspects of operation are fast and intuitive, and the result is that you can take a basic musical idea to a 'good demo' form in next to no time — which is what workstations are all about. I think if I had to chose one instrument to take to a desert island with me, it would be this.
£1995 inc VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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