Cross Wave Synthesizer
The onboard 8-track sequencer and sampled waveforms of the ESQ-1 make it a hard act for any manufacturer to follow. So what further features does Ensoniq's new SQ-80 synthesizer have that could possibly outshine its stablemate? Craig Anderton explores...
By any standard, Ensoniq's ESQ-1 is a very successful synthesizer that has garnered a loyal - almost cult - following. A number of third parties provide program cartridges, voicing software, librarians, and so on, which is always a sign that an instrument has caught the public fancy. Now the second generation ESQ is out, and it deserves a close look. While the SQ-80 doesn't represent any miraculous breakthrough - in fact, it is still based on the 'Q' chip technology used in both the Ensoniq Mirage and ESQ-1 - the SQ-80 is well-positioned as the next step in the ESQ evolutionary chain.
Since the 'feel' of an instrument can be as important as the sound, let's start with the keyboard. It spans five octaves, has a lightly weighted response (it's no KX88, but it's no Farfisa combo organ either), is velocity-sensitive, and puts out... polyphonic aftertouch!?! Yes, every key produces independent aftertouch data, just like the late, great Sequential T8 or Kurzweil Midiboard, so you can articulate each note individually (try assigning aftertouch to filter cut-off, and play a brass chord; you can make just one or two notes stand out if desired). While you might expect a so-so kind of action for this price, the aftertouch response is smooth, predictable, and adds a definite expressiveness to the sound you won't find on synths lacking this feature. (For the techno-fans out there, Ensoniq uses an ingenious inductance-sensing aftertouch system where pressing on the key pushes a metal plate closer to a tuned coil, thus reducing the inductance between the plates and changing the aftertouch value. It's simple, cheap, patented, and effective.) One problem with instruments that include both velocity and aftertouch is knowing exactly where aftertouch becomes engaged during the key travel. With the SQ-80, there is a definite, obvious 'bottoming-out' of the key, whereupon aftertouch begins. In fact, when the key hits the bottom point, you'll hear a noticeable 'clack' sound. This may bother some players; I didn't find it particularly distracting, and if it's the price one pays for knowing where aftertouch begins, I mind it even less. As a comparison, the noise is softer than, for example, the sound produced by the average computer keyboard.
The SQ-80 keyboard can be split, and sounds can be layered on either or both keyboard halves - a nice touch.
Like the ESQ-1, the SQ-80 uses an eight-voice, multitimbral architecture. Sounds are based on stored waveforms (wavetable synthesis), and there are a total of 75 multi-sampled sounds and synthetic waveforms available (the original 32 found in the ESQ-1, plus 43 new waveforms; see the sidebar 'Making Waves'). Since each voice consists of three oscillators, you can do tricks like assign a sampled attack to one oscillator, a sustained wave to the second oscillator, then cross-fade between the two (and still have one oscillator left over) — hence Ensoniq's term of 'crosswave synthesis'. If this sounds like the way the Roland D50 does things, you're right, and it works well in this case too.
There's more to a voice than oscillators, of course. There are 15 routable voice modulation sources, which includes three LFOs per voice, four complex envelope generators, two velocity options (linear and exponential curves), keyboard tracking (again, two options), modulation wheel, foot pedal, external MIDI continuous controller (eg. breath controller), and aftertouch (which can be set to monophonic aftertouch instead of polyphonic if desired). That should be enough options to keep you busy, particularly when you start controlling parameters via aftertouch and velocity.
For those of us who sometimes wax nostalgic for the days of modular synthesizers, hard sync and ring modulation effects are also available. The filters are four-pole analogue low-pass types, and sound quite good. However, the SQ-80 still falls just shy of that elusive 'fat' bass sound. It's beefier than the ESQ-1, but still doesn't hold up next to the Oberheim/Moog type of bottom end. I suggest a good graphic EQ as an excellent travelling companion for the SQ-80; proper equalisation can make a significant improvement to the occasional 'problem' patch.
Regarding 'grit' and noise, some of the preset programs are very clear and clean-sounding, while others have a bit more of a noisy or muddy component. The SQ-80 is average in terms of noise - I've heard better, and I've heard worse. I would like it if the sound was a bit less 'buzzy', but that's being picky and the sound quality is totally acceptable as it stands now.
The five-stage envelopes have a couple of clever features. First, they are time/level types, not rate/level types, which minimises the confusion that can occur when rates and levels interact. Second, envelope levels respond to velocity - but better yet, the attack time can also be tied to velocity. There is also a second release stage (a la TX81Z) for creating pseudo-reverb effects. This is more useful than you might think if you're using the SQ-80 as a self-contained music machine; the quality of this type of reverb won't put any REV5s out of a job, but it can save some outboard gear in less critical applications.
Thankfully, the SQ-80 retains the highly-readable fluorescent display and 'page-oriented' programming interface that made the Ensoniq ESQ-1 easier to programme than other low-cost synths.
For those who aren't familiar with the concept, rather than call up one parameter at a time and alter it with a data slider (or increment/decrement buttons), you call up an entire 'page' of up to 10 parameters. Each parameter is spelled out in the display and there are 10 corresponding buttons. To alter a parameter, all you do is push the button above or below the desired parameter, and vary the setting with the data slider or increment/decrement buttons. When you change pages, the SQ-80 automatically inserts a 'place marker' on the page you just left. This makes it easy to switch between specific parameters in several different windows.
One of the biggest advantages of the SQ-80 over the ESQ-1 is the built-in double-sided, double-density (DSDD) 3.5" disk drive. It stores up to 40 banks of 40 programs (1600 programs total), 128 individually-recallable single programs, and 10 sequencer/System Exclusive blocks - yes, the SQ-80 drive can serve as a general purpose Sys Ex storage device for files up to 64K (useful for just about anything, except long sample dumps).
But the drive isn't the only way to store data. An EEPROM cartridge will store two banks of 40 programs for instant recall (however, sequencer data cannot be saved to cartridge). Memory data can also be sent via MIDI to another SQ-80 or computer librarian, and there's even a tape interface for compatibility with existing storage formats. (I suppose this could also be used to make tape backups of programs in case you're paranoid about the disk drive failing at an inopportune moment, but otherwise, I'd stick with the disk drive and cartridges as the preferred way to save.) The internal programs are accessed as MIDI program numbers 1-40, cartridge bank A as 41-80, and cartridge bank B as 81-120. Thus, you can access 120 programs at any given moment via MIDI. Actually, the SQ-80 not only has a good MIDI implementation, but one that is well-documented in the very thorough owner's manual. See the sidebar on 'Turning Pages' for more information about MIDI and the SQ-80.
Far from being an afterthought, the SQ-80's built-in sequencer is a pretty powerful tool in its own right, with several applications. One, of course, is to use the SQ-80 as a 'sketchpad' for recording relatively full orchestrations with a single instrument. Or you could run a sequence as you change program parameters - this helps speed up patch development. Another use is less obvious. Polyphonic aftertouch puts out a lot of data, and it would be easy for all this data to tax the capabilities of a main computer-based sequencer. So, I prefer using the SQ-80 sequencer to record all the SQ-80 parts, and sync it to the main sequencer that drives all the other MIDI gear in the studio. This is not unlike slaving two multitrack recorders together; also note that the SQ-80 receives Song Position Pointers, so it can also sync directly to devices like the J L Cooper PPS-1 [see review: SOS Nov'87].
The sequencer stores up to 20,000 notes internally, arranged as six banks of 10 sequences (these can be chained into two banks of 10 songs). There are eight polyphonic sequencer tracks provided, each of which can specify a program number, volume setting, and MIDI channel. Thus, the SQ-80 can sequence other MIDI gear via the MIDI Out socket. Tracks allocate notes dynamically, so that even though you can't play more than eight notes at a time on the SQ-80 (although you can send more notes out via MIDI), you are not obligated to assign a certain number of notes to a particular track.
Once recorded, a track can be non-destructively quantised down to 32nd note triplets (does anyone use quantisation that fine?), mixed in relation to other tracks, muted, and synchronised to tape (if you're using the SQ-80 as a 'master') or via MIDI. There's the obligatory metronome, although I suspect a lot of people will simply record a drum track first and have that serve as the timing reference. This sequencer allows for a fair degree of track-level editing: punch-in, punch-out, looping, merging tracks together (sound-on-sound!), transposing, controller filtering, erasing, and - no kidding - step editing. In step edit mode, you can punch out as well as in. You can also select a status for each track (whether the track will play on the SQ-80 only, over MIDI, or both).
Sequence editing options include: append one sequence to the end of another, add or delete measures starting at a particular measure, and copy. Each sequence can have its own tempo, and there are some thoughtful functions included such as GOTO (finds a particular measure in the sequence) and BACKUP (backs up one measure).
Since this sequencer has a modular architecture (ie. short sequences are chained into songs), there are song editing options available as well, including: song step or sequence transpose, sequence select, repeat selected sequence for 1 to 99 times, insert step (for adding in another sequence), delete step, backup one step, and go forward one step.
Overall, Ensoniq has addressed the shortcomings in the ESQ-1 (although the improvement in sound quality is incremental rather than revolutionary) and produced a very flexible piece of gear. The built-in disk drive gives access to a lot of sounds and sequences, and the sequencer can be used in a studio or live situation.
Is the SQ-80 worth the extra money compared to the ESQ-1? I would say yes. The great thing about the ESQ-1 is its 'systems' approach, and the SQ-80 takes this one step further. However, if you already have a significant MIDI studio and sequencing set-up, and all you're looking for is new sounds, then the SQ-80 might not be your best choice for a new toy (by the way, Ensoniq are emphatic that a rack-mount version will not be available). Still, if you could only have one mid-priced keyboard to take to a desert island, this would be the one thanks to its built-in 'drum machine' (well, okay, the toms aren't so hot) and sequencer. And as a master keyboard, the SQ-80 has a better-than-average feel with a lot of capabilities, not the least of which is general purpose System Exclusive data storage. Couple these features with the polyphonic aftertouch - whose importance should not be underestimated - and you have quite a MIDI device on your hands.
The sequencer won't make me give up my Macintosh, but it does the job it's intended to do. There are some features I miss, though. For example, tempo changes cannot be inserted into a song; you must create sequences with different tempi, then chain them together. Also, you cannot insert program change commands into the middle of a sequence - again, you have to create a sequence for each program change, and chain them together. What this means is that you have to give a bit of thought to how long you're going to make your sequences, and exactly how you will chain them together. Considering the price it would be somewhat ungracious to expect a lot more, but I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that the SQ-80 will substitute for buying a computer-based piece of sequencing software.
Any relatively minor reservations aside, Ensoniq have done their homework. With the SQ-80, they've at least preserved, and probably augmented, their reputation as a company that uses high technology to give excellent value for money. The SQ-80 is a solid contender in the sub-£1500 price bracket and, unless I'm way off base, it should have no trouble gaining the same kind of loyal following that the ESQ-1 has earned over the years, and pick up many new fans as well.
Price £1395 inc VAT.
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