Ensoniq ESQ/SQ80 Voice Editors
More and more synth owners are turning to computer based voice editing software to take the drudgery out of programming their own sounds. We asked Matthew Newman of the Ensoniq Users Club to compare three ESQ/SQ80 editors from Soundbits, Dr T and Steinberg.
More and more synth owners are turning to computer-based voice editing software to take the drudgery out of programming their own sounds. We asked MATTHEW NEWMAN, of the Ensoniq Users Club, to compare three ESQ/ SQ80 editors from Soundbits, Dr T and Steinberg.
Birmingham-based software house, Soundbits, have just released two programs designed for editing and creating voices on Ensoniq's ESQ and SQ80 synthesizers. This is the first Atari ST editor for the SQ80 but there are other ESQ programs already on the market which run on an ST. Since I began manning the Users' Support Line at Ensoniq UK, there has been a steady stream of calls from ESQ/Atari owners keen to know what, and indeed why, these packages are about. I've decided, therefore, to take a look at the Soundbits offerings in relation to Steinberg's Synthworks ESQ1 and Dr T's ESQ-Apade, which are the best established editors currently available for the Atari.
There is a certain amount of scepticism about the need for computerised assistance for editing the ESQ1. On its own this synth is easier to edit than most, due to Ensoniq's 'page-driven parametric' layout set in a screen capable of displaying two rows of forty characters. This large display is a boon and, hopefully, the start of a trend among manufacturers. However, in my opinion, there is a gamut of ways in which the Atari's GEM environment can add features there simply wasn't room for in the synthesizer's operating software and routines that make life generally easier.
Soon after commencing this review it struck me that the opinions I was forming, and therefore the conclusions I was due to pass on to you the reader, were very much based on my own personal requirements and preconceived ideas about what a computer-based synth editor should do. It became obvious that it would be of benefit to us all if I got several of my Ensoniq-owning chums around for lots of lager, heaps of curry, and a look at the software. The following comments are therefore not the work of one man alone but a consensus.
The first program to surface from beneath the sea of biriany was Soundbits Software's SQ80/ESQ1/ESQM Editor Librarian. This program and the accompanying user guide were designed and written by Russell May, and although he's obviously had to move pretty quickly to have an SQ80 editor ready so soon after the release of the synth, it seems a job very well done. The program disk is copy-protected in such a manner that although you can make replicas of the files from the GEM desktop, and even shove these onto a hard disk if you can afford one, you always have to insert the original disk into drive 'A' during the loading process. To their credit, Soundbits do apologise for this after softening the blow by telling you that their program will support 16 SQ80s at once if you want! To be fair, the Soundbits program is far and away the cheapest of those we looked at. Perhaps this reasonable price makes it more acceptable that they feel they have to protect their investment from piracy in this manner. I have always maintained that illicit software copying would be much less commonplace if programs were sensibly priced in the first place. Nuff said.
The SQ80 version of this program can operate on ESQs as well and needs to be told which synth you are intending to edit after boot-up, because of the extra waveform options and the second release envelopes on the SQ80. Having confirmed your intentions are honourable, you are allowed onto the Library screen - the first of six screens. Only two lots of 10 voices are visible at any given moment, drawn from the two banks of 40 voices you can load onboard at a time. This doesn't compare too well with the other two programs we are soon to describe but for most applications it is not really a problem.
One is immediately struck by what a good looking program this is. Soundbits have even seen fit to smarten up the drop-down menus. The mouse pointer often becomes a pointing finger (like on Pro-24) and the chaps here were especially taken by the movement icons, which appear instantly on most screens and save having to drag one's weary mouse all the way up to the Goto menu when you want to switch to another screen. All this effort with presentation gives you the impression that this program hasn't just been thrown together. Further investigation bears this out.
Once a program voice is in the edit buffer you can use the mouse to drag it to the clipboard, the trash can, or to the printer icon. The latter allows you to obtain hard copy of all the voice parameters on an Epson-compatible printer. The clipboard facilitates the temporary storage of up to four program voices. During the course of editing a voice you may wish to save it to the clipboard in case any further changes that you make distort the voice too far away from what you're aiming for. If so, it's easy to retrieve the voice from the clipboard and try again.
The appeal of using a clipboard like this is going to vary greatly from person to person. Those of you who make a point of frequently saving your work "just in case..." will find this buffer saves wasting a lot of time thrashing the disk drive motor. Those of us from the "stupid bloody computer!" school of programming are likely to blunder on regardless, however easy the saving of work is made for us.
Voices in the clipboard are saved chronologically, on a first in, first out basis. The first one gets trashed as soon as you add a fifth voice. This means nipping back to the Library page pretty frequently if one is to avoid heartbreaking losses. No amount of gargling will retrieve a voice lost through accidentally nudging it off the clipboard, but on balance the clipboard is a time saver if used intelligently. Indeed, the clipboard bailed us out quite a few times in our initial session with this program, when we were deceived by their innocuous appearance and forgot how ruthless and unforgiving the trash can could be; no amount of sobbing and pounding on the Atari's 'Undo' button would give us back a voice thrown away in error. The manual is quite clear on this though, and indeed pretty clear generally.
The second screen of the Soundbits program is where the Main Editor lies and all parameters relevant to voice editing can be displayed and edited from here. It would have been logical, therefore, to have had the clipboard here and on all other screens relevant to editing, as well as on the Library screen. There are, however, worse things in life than having to work alternately on two screens, and they do redraw themselves pretty quickly.
It's only possible to view one each of the Envelopes, Amps, Oscillators and LFOs at a time on this page, but stepping through the values of each one is easily done. When editing a selected parameter you are not allowed the option of the 'fader' control many of you will have become familiar with on other ST programs, but you don't really miss it because you can use the left and right mouse buttons to increment and decrement the parameter values. Clicking once on the mouse steps the number displayed up or down by one division. This is the same as if you were using the data entry buttons on the synth. The values keep increasing or decreasing for as long as you hold down the mouse button.
The obvious appeal of this screen, and indeed the corresponding ones on the other programs we looked at, is to see more than one page of ESQ information at a time. Being able to compare your Envelope and Amplifier settings at a glance is a welcome luxury. You're not left trying to remember how you left one when you're working on another. As you make changes on the Atari screen, the alterations are automatically and immediately passed on to the synth. I'm very much used to working on the ESQ's own pages and sometimes found that if I altered a parameter via the synth keypad, the changes made on the synth didn't seem to be conveyed back to the program. There is really no call to do this though and I don't mean to imply that any of the editing functions on the program are easier accessed from the synthesizer keypad than the computer. For having accessed the ESQ's MIDI page and opened up your synth for System Exclusive communication, you should not need to touch the Ensoniq keypad again. This also applies to the Dr T and Steinberg editors, apart from certain aspects of sequence storage on Synthworks.
From the Main Edit screen you can access the most interesting and productive aspects of the Soundbits program. A short trip up to the Utilities menu is rewarded by the opportunity to not only randomise but also blend sounds. These are features not actually available on the synth itself. The randomise function is similar to that of other computer-based synth editors but is enhanced by the ability to set a 'mask' so that only certain parameters get scrambled. 'Blending' is a cute trick, and is achieved by clicking on a food mixer icon which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Kenwood A901 Chef Mixer. (Honest!) You can take the patch you have been editing and blend it with another using a mask to dictate which aspects of the sounds are affected. This feature is great for novice programmers and a real time-saver for those of us who know exactly what we wish to do but would prefer not to have to go through the rigmarole of setting each parameter individually.
The third Soundbits screen shows all the Oscillator values together and allows you to alter them. The fourth and fifth screens offer the same for the Amplifiers and Envelopes respectively. There's no sense waffling on about these. Suffice to say they work fine. The Envelope screen allows not only for the adjustment of the envelope shapes by clicking on their displayed values but also, as is becoming customary on editors of this nature, the shapes of the envelopes are illustrated with thin lines and can be quickly modified by dragging points on these illustrations around.
Clicking the left mouse button on any area of the previously mentioned screens that is otherwise inactive sounds a note from the edit buffer. The Test screen, however, allows you to listen more comprehensively to the results of your editing. As well as providing a five-octave keyboard onscreen for you to 'play' with your mouse, there are other nice features such as the facility to sound four preprogrammed chords, or a scale. Also, it's possible to check those elements of your patches which are affected by velocity using the Velocity Control slider. This is obviously more of an issue if you're intending to use this program with the ESQM expander, bereft as it is of any keyboard to check that filters and the like respond to the firmness of your touch as you want them to.
The cheaper of the two Soundbits programs is a stripped-down version of the above. The Test page has fewer features than its big brother and there is no blending option, but the remainder is pretty much the same. If money is tight at present, you have no intention of getting an SQ80 in the forseeable future, and can live without the blender, then maybe this cheaper version is for you. We all felt that it's probably worth saving your money until you can afford the SQ80 version.
Having looked at the new kids on the block, it's time to check out how the established programs compare. Next up was ESQ-Apade, in the 'Caged Artist' series of editors from Dr T. This is perhaps the best established of all the review programs and there are now Macintosh, Amiga, and PC versions also available. As the display showed us the load-up screen announcing 'Serious Software For The Thinking Musician', we shuffled a few unthinking musicians out to get more lager and got down to business.
The five screens in this program are inverted, ie. white writing on a black background, and whilst they are possibly easier on the eyes over long periods, they are nothing special to look at and quite an anti-climax after the visual extravaganza of the Soundbits offering. Having recovered from the bathos, however, it became obvious that the simplicity and clarity of its layout is one of this program's strengths. Uncluttered by graphics, the Voice Edit screen has room to display 40 voices at a time, compared with the two lots of 10 from different banks in the Soundbits program. The Dr T program also allows you to read and retain four complete banks of sounds in memory simultaneously. This is far more than either of the other programs can manage and is particularly handy for shuffling your best patches about.
The ESQ-Apade Envelopes screen is perhaps a little less clear than the Soundbits counterpart. One part of it works on a similar system of dragging lines about with the mouse, but if you prefer to alter parameters individually then you can select them with the mouse and drag a marker up and down in the ubiquitous fader bar to alter the value. You can also adjust the envelope settings from the Voice Edit screen, which contains all the relevant parameters and miniature replicas of the envelope shapes. This was agreed to be highly beneficial, as we didn't have to keep going to the Envelope screen just to make minor changes.
The sequencer library on ESQ-Apade is the bit I love best. It is as delightfully intuitive as the rest of the program and fills in the gaps left by the storage options on the ESQ1. I sincerely believe, and several of my friends with Dads bigger than yours will bear this out, that the ESQ and SQ80 onboard sequencers are as easy, if not easier, to use than any other sequencing software or dedicated unit available. They may lack the advanced editing functions and memory capacity of the popular computer programs, but there's nothing better for getting an idea recorded quickly from scratch without having to get embroiled in switching on and connecting up several other units. This program's ability to store sequence data onto disk will not in itself appeal to SQ80 owners as much as it will to ESQ1 owners. However, without wishing to be accused of indulging in the sort of hyperbole one usually associates with TV weathermen extolling the good fortune of "Lucky little Lowestoft with their 5.7 hours of uninterrupted sunshine", it is the format of the storage available when in storage mode that will prove exciting to both parties.
It's much easier to programme a song when the sequences have names as well as numbers, especially if you recorded the component sequences which make up your song some time ago. Also, when dealing with internal patches or external instruments, you need to document the sounds used. Pen and paper is fine but saving the comments to disk with the songs is much finer, and with Dr T's ESQ-Apade you can do this. Last but not least, you can keep a library of re-usable sequences (drum patterns, for example). These can be called up from the disk, sent to the synth and then edited, merged or whatever you fancy. Another handy time-saver.
The manual which accompanies this program is small but beautifully proportioned. The author comments that if you're anything like him you won't read it anyway because the program is so easy to use. He's quite right, for the most part.
Rumour has it that Dr T have an update on the way for ESQ-Apade, which should make it SQ80-compatible. Contact MCMXCIX Distribution for more details.
The third specimen up for perusal was Steinberg's Synthworks ESQ1, the manual for which shows their typical disregard for the plight of the rainforests. The manual follows in Steinberg's fine tradition of being a well laid out, easy to understand text that also gives a concise explanation of some of the technical aspects of what is going on, punctuated with flirtatious invitations like 'Try it and you'll see how easy it is'!
This program seems to be another excellent piece of software, the only silly thing I found is that it seems not to recognise that 'Sync' and 'AM' are mutually exclusive on the ESQ. Parameter values are increased and decreased using the left and right mouse buttons again and Steinberg have added a neat little option that allows you to quickly set a parameter to its maximum or minimum value - if you press the right mouse button whilst holding down the left, the parameter being addressed immediately leaps to its lowest value. If you press the left button while holding down the right, the opposite occurs. This is a bit confusing if you're used to this sort of action on the ESQ's data entry buttons resulting in the parameters setting themselves to the middle of their normal range, but this is about the only bit of unlearning you'll need to do with this program.
Synthworks ESQ1 is very quick to use as it only has two screens. If you need to alter parameters not displayed on the Storage or Editor screens, then you only have to open a window to access what you need. The result of this is that one is not forever watching the screen redrawing itself. This is not to say that the programmer was without a creative urge as far as the display graphics are concerned. Older readers will appreciate the fact that when assigning modulation, the mouse pointer turns into a little jack plug icon which you can then 'plug in' as required. Other aspects of the program that enhance its speed of operation are that any disastrous changes made to envelopes can be nullified by hitting the 'Undo' button on the Atari keyboard, and a well placed double-click on the mouse can quickly remove unwanted modulation. We liked this.
Steinberg's envelope copy function also found favour in certain quarters, as did the simple sequencer data storage which allows you to store, name, send and receive files of individual sequences as well as the entire sequence memory of the currently connected synth. A quick chat with Steinberg Digital Audio revealed that although the ESQ1 program doesn't boast the library commands available on all their other Synthworks editors, an update is on its way that will remedy this situation and will include the ability to use some nifty database-type functions for quickly finding the right patch amongst many others.
One criticism which could be levelled at most synthesizer editing programs, including those we have looked at in this session, is that there are very few if any programming tips supplied. Steinberg are better than most at explaining the technical aspects of what's going on, but it is my experience that a substantial proportion of those people interested in purchasing programs such as these want to buy company and assistance for their first traumatic steps into the big bad world of synth programming. Many of you reading this are probably thinking of buying one of the products being discussed because you're attracted by features which make the learning process less daunting. The ability to see and edit envelopes as recognisable shapes and to view all the programming parameters on one screen are just two good examples of this. In my far from humble opinion, software programmers should wake up to the didactic qualities of their creations and spend a little time augmenting the text of their manuals with this in mind. Excuse me while I climb down off this soap box...
To conclude, I have to say that all three programs are well conceived and well put together. I developed a soft spot for different parts of each program and will miss each one in its own way when it has to go back. We tested all three packages with ESQ's running version 2.0 software, as this is probably the most commonplace at the moment. Many of you will no doubt want to update your ESQ's software to the latest version and I know that the earliest versions of ESQ-Apade and Synthworks ESQ1 might well have problems with the changes made. All these should be ironed out by the time you read this, as all the manufacturers concerned have shown their commitment to updating their products as and when necessary. Check with me in the Customer Services Department at Ensoniq UK if you're confused. I hope soon to be holding seminars on these programs at Ensoniq UK. The idea being that you can come to our new headquarters, see all three programs in action and try them out for yourself. If you can't wait until then, the accompanying comparison table should help you decide which one gets your vote.
Soundbits SQ80/ESQ Editor Librarians
Contact Soundbits Software UK, (Contact Details).
Dr T's ESQ-Apade
Contact MCMXCIX Distribution, (Contact Details).
Steinberg Synthworks ESQ1
Contact Steinberg Digital Audio, (Contact Details).
Ensoniq UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by Matthew Newman
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