Ensoniq SQ1 Plus Workstation
Almost exactly a year since the launch of the ensoniq SQ1, an updated version has arrived. Paul Ireson looks at the 1991 model of Ensoniq's most affordable workstation.
Ensoniq's profile in the UK, traditionally rather lower than the quality of their products merited, seems to be improving at last. Their latest wave of products should secure their position, including as it does an outstanding sampling workstation, a similarly first-class synthesizer workstation (the SD1), and in the SQ1 Plus an update of the small but perfectly formed SQ1 workstation.
The update consists of doubling the ROM wave memory to 2MB, the new capacity being given over entirely to new 16-bit piano samples (it is possible to have an existing SQ1 upgraded to an SQ1 Plus, but as this involves replacing the whole motherboard, it's likely to be expensive — around £500). There's also the SQ2, which simply puts the guts of the SQ1 Plus in a different case, specifically one with a 76-note piano-weighted keyboard. The SQR, the rack version of the SQ1, remains unchanged.
Now that Ensoniq have dropped the VFX, all their keyboards are workstations, offering synthesis (or sampling), sequencing and effects. The synthesizer section of the SQ1 offers up to 21-voice polyphony (usually rather less in practice, as you'll tend to use sounds which employ more than one oscillator per note), 8-part multi-timbrality, and a similar (though slightly cut-down) voice architecture to the VFX series (VFX, VFX-SD, SD1). The sequencer is intuitive in use, yet powerful, and the effects section features a good selection of quality treatments, and this all contributes to making the SQ1 Plus a fine workstation, although there are a couple of aspects of the spec that, as on the SQ1, might make the SQ1 Plus inadequate for some people's needs — specifically the absence of a disk drive, and the non-pressure sensitive keyboard.
Being a later design, the SQ1 Plus is a good deal sleeker and better looking than the somewhat chunky VFX-based range. The 61-note keyboard feels good, with a light yet positive action. It's a shame about the lack of aftertouch, as the voice architecture of the instrument offers so many modulation possibilities, but it does respond to both channel and poly pressure via MIDI.
Round the back of the instrument, under a slightly awkward overhang, you'll find all the audio, power and MIDI sockets: main stereo outputs; phones socket; pedal/CV and footswitch sockets; MIDI In, Out and Thru; power in (a standard Euroconnector). The footpedal socket can be used to control the SQ's volume, or to generate controller data to modulate some part of a sound (respectively, these selections will generate controller numbers 7 and 4). The second socket will accept either a single sustain footswitch, or a double footswitch, in which case you can choose sostenuto or sequencer start/stop for the left pedal, and sustain or sequencer stop/start for the right.
The user interface of the SQ is good. You are always in one of four modes — Sound Select, Sound Edit, Sequence/Preset Select, Sequence/Preset Edit — selected by the four grey buttons around the Bank and Screen buttons which allow you to find your way around each of the modes, ie. to select Sounds or Sequences/Presets, or select an editing function. Alternatively, you can move from screen to screen within a Bank (eg. between the various sets of filter parameters) with the cursor buttons, or with repeated presses of the Bank buttons.
In general, everything on the SQ happens as you would like or expect it, although it is not quite as easy to operate as the SD1 (reviewed last issue). The difference, however, is simply down to hardware. The SD1 has a large display with six soft keys, and more buttons dedicated to different system functions, whereas the SQ has a small display and multi-function buttons. I do wonder slightly whether this is fair: after all, the JD800 has demonstrated that front panel hardware is not as expensive as we've often been led to believe in the past, so should it only be the more up-market keyboards that sport decent control hardware? This criticism could equally be levelled at most of today's keyboards.
There are two sorts of Sounds on the SQ — Standard Sounds, and Drum Sounds, the latter being the drum setups without which no workstation would be complete. The Standard Sounds are each composed of three voices, processed by the effects section. Each voice is in turn composed of the following: a digital oscillator playing one of 124 digital waves; two digital filters; one LFO; three envelopes hardwired to modulate pitch, filter and amplitude (the first two of which can also be used as mod sources throughout the instrument); a powerful matrix modulation system. Envelope programming is facilitated by the provision of a macro function, which allows you to reset any envelope to one of 17 templates before tweaking it to your exact requirements.
The 124 waves are arranged into 12 Groups: Strings; Brass; Bass; Breath; Tuned Percussion; Percussion; Drumwave; Transwave; Waveform; Inharmonic; Multiwave; 16-bit Piano. The last group is new, and addresses the only major aspect of the original SQ1's sonic capability in which it might be said to lack something. The multi-sampled piano waves are good — very good in fact — and are put to excellent use in several of the preset sounds, although they're inevitably not quite up to the standard of piano sounds on, say, dedicated piano modules like the Emu Proformance.
The Transwaves are the most interesting wave group, each consisting of 100 variations on a basic waveform. Sweeping through the variations, under mod control from any of 15 sources, produces deeply satisfying and powerful timbral changes. In a sense this is a fine example of what Ensoniq synthesis does best, for me at least. Although acoustic imitations can be achieved with ease, mainly because many of the sampled waves consist of complete sampled instruments, attacks, decays, multi-samples and all, you'll have most fun creating new sounds. There's no space to go into detail on the synthesis, I'm afraid, as it really does take some time to explain properly, so I'll refer you to last month's SD1 review (there are some differences, but the overall picture is the same) or to that of the original SQ1 in July 1990.
Drum Sounds are rather different, consisting of 17 separate voices split across the keyboard. Each voice can play any wave, apart from Transwaves and the Multiwave (a composite of every other wave), although you'll probably stick to drum sounds most of the time. The 22 basic drum waves (six kicks, six snares, three toms, five hi-hats, ride cymbal and crash cymbal) cover the basic kit sounds well, and there's a decent selection of percussion sounds too. You can set pitch, filter cutoff, and a simple amplitude envelope for each voice, and also specify volume, pan position, and output bus destination (see below).
The voices in the SQ's Sounds come together in the effects section, via three stereo busses — Dry, FX1, FX2 — before being output via a stereo pair of jacks (no individual outs or alternative stereo outs — shame). The 13 effects algorithms offer a good range of single and multi-effects treatments, including combinations with rotary speaker and distortion.
The voices can be routed independently to the three effects busses, and the way that FX1 and FX2 are dealt with depends on the current algorithm. In a simple 1-effect algorithm, both FX1 and FX2 are routed to the effect, and a mix level for each bus sets the wet/dry balance, so different voices can be given different amounts of reverb.
In 2-effect algorithms, FX1 feeds Effect 1, and the FX1 mix level sets how much of the treated signal from Effect 1 is sent to Effect 2. FX2 feeds Effect 2, with the FX2 mix level setting the wet/dry balance for this bus.
Each effect algorithm has one parameter than can be modulated, and the audio fidelity is high, although not quite up to SD1 standards, the more expensive keyboard having a brighter, richer sound.
Presets are multi-timbral arrangements of eight Standard or Drum Sounds, plus an effect. The sounds are arranged on eight tracks, each track having parameters for key range, MIDI channel and so forth. You can also set whether each Track will transmit, receive, or transmit and receive MIDI data, or whether it will work purely on a local level. Presets therefore allow you to create split/layered performance setups (which could include tracks dedicated to external MIDI control), or multi-timbral setups for sequencing.
Each of the 70 Preset/Sequence memory locations can also hold sequence data (hence Preset/Sequence), for eight tracks of music. Recording and editing sequences is a straightforward business. There are several recording modes, including auto punch-in, loop, add and replace, and all of the editing functions you could reasonably expect are here, making this more than a mere notepad. Songs are assembled from a series of sequences, and you can record a further eight song tracks on top of the sequence tracks. Mixdown recording allows you to add volume and pan changes 'live' to each track, via the data entry slider.
The only problems with the sequencer are a slightly limited memory capacity (9,000 notes in unexpanded form, 58,000 with an optional extra board), and the lack of a disk drive. You can save sequences and songs to RAM card, but it's a very expensive storage medium.
The SQ1 Plus, whilst being in a sense little more than an SQ1 for 1991, is nonetheless a fine instrument. Ensoniq's claim that they take the 'work' out of 'workstation' is justified across the range, although the SQ does suffer slightly from the limitations imposed by its front panel hardware. The lack of a disk drive is more of a problem, and it is a shame about the non-pressure sensitive keyboard. This latter omission is perhaps more critical on the SQ2, which otherwise would perform well as a master/mother keyboard.
Nevertheless, the SQ1/SQ1 Plus represents the cheapest way to buy into Ensoniq's world of quality synthesis, and if you don't require disk storage — most probably because you're using a computer sequencer — there's a lot of mileage in the facilities within the SQ1's sleek frame.
SQ1 Plus £1235 inc VAT.
SQ2 £1375 inc VAT.
SQR £825 inc VAT.
SQX70 memory expansion £299 inc VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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