Ensoniq SQ1 Plus
Personal Music Studio
Value added tracks
How do you improve on a winning formula? Well, giving people more is usually a good place to start...
In the film world, they often say that a sequel is never as good as the original movie. Since I first discovered the Ensoniq SQ1 Plus, I have started to wonder whether this is true in music technology circles as well. My conclusion? You'll have to wait until later for that. First, a little background info...
MT looked at the original SQ1 in October 1990, when we were confronted with a 21-note polyphonic, 180 sound synth section, 20 banks of drums, a 16-track, 9000 note sequencer and digital effects unit in one box. Sounds could be comprehensively edited and laden with on-board effects, jammed into sequences, or played over MIDI. Ensoniq seemed to have made a quite decent stab at that most elusive of instruments - the 'complete' music workstation - and our verdict was generally pretty favourable.
But that was many moons ago. What have Ensoniq done to rejuvenate the SQ? Well, it still resides in the same box, with the same small 2x16 character LCD display and the same chunky buttons. The only external difference would appear to be the addition of the words 'Plus' and '32 Voice' to the logo - and indeed, this is perhaps the best clue to the changed beast that dwells within.
In a nutshell, the SQ has gone 32 voice polyphonic. Now, even the most note-greedy of synthesists can layer sounds left, right and centre with ne'er a shadow of concern about voices cutting out or sticking. Well, perhaps just a little. But the difference between having 21 voices and 32 voices to play with cannot be overstated. Suddenly, I found myself piling on thick pad sounds with gleeful abandon, and marvelling in the way they remained 'intact' - even when faced with a barrage of MIDI data from my sequencer. Sheer bliss.
The other major change concerns the insertion of an additional 43 sampled waveforms. These are known as 'expansion' waves, and have been incorporated with the rest of 167 waves to create a whole new range of internal sounds. Factory sounds can be incredibly important when choosing a synth. They really do need to elicit that strange, tingling, 'Wow!' factor when you first hear them - the factor that causes your hand to mysteriously reach for a credit card. So did I swoon in amazement?
Well, sort of. I hope that's not anticlimactic, but having played this synth for I while now, I find myself faced with a conundrum. Many of the sounds are simply fantastic - they fill you with an inspirational enthusiasm for life that is hard to beat. But there are also sounds that are quite the opposite: thin, unchallenging and really rather a waste of space. Naturally, there are subjectively poor sounds on any synth - you know, the ones you hardly ever use, perhaps because they seem to crop up everywhere, or because they always sound out of place. The SQ1 has its share of these; unfortunately, it also has some which can only be described as pointless. There - I've said it.
Thankfully, such sounds are very much in the minority (...and your opinion of them may differ anyway). The bulk of the voices are stunning - the Ensoniq 'character' is rather like a combination of the M1, D50 and several analogue synths rolled into one. It is capable of producing rich, luxuriant pad sounds - '01-Airchoir', '05-Analog Orch' and '26-Monks Sing', for example, along with some excellent breathy choirs. The string sounds are equally impressive and include some attractive orchestral voicings like '07-Concert Strings'. By contrast, I detested '53-Gypsy Violin' which, to me, sounded horribly thin and 'cheap'.
The bass sounds are highly convincing and I spent many hours with '16-MiniBass' and '17-Fretless 2'. In fact, the SQ1 Plus is particularly impressive at the lower end of the frequency spectrum where its detailed, solid feel was reflected in some superb recreations of analogue synths such as '57-Lead Kiss'. Full marks must also go to the guitar samples - '02-Classic Guitar' - and anything to do with woodwind: check out the clarinet in '45-Violin & Reed'. Organ aficionados are not left out either, and I guarantee they'll be impressed by the throbbing tones of '32-Jazzy's Organ'.
Finally, the drum kits deserve a special mention. Without exception, each of the banks offers a selection of highly usable, dynamic sounds all of which are worthy of praise.
So where does the SQ1 Plus fall down? If you listen to patches such as '70-Soprano 2' and '65-Koto', you'll see where my reservations lie. Simply put, I feel that around a quarter of the sounds let the side down. But of course, making up for them are the other seventy-five percent which are quite excellent. And this is the basis of my conundrum: I really do feel the SQ1 Plus has outstanding talents, and oodles of potential. It simply isn't always utilised to the full. As for the sequel argument - well, you could say that it has much the same plot, many of the same characters, but there's a cleverly devised twist at the end. It shouldn't disappoint.
Review by Ian Masterson