Personal Music Studio
Ensoniq don't bombard the market with products - they take their time and get it right. Paul Ireson casts an eye over their new SQ1 workstation.
There's no justice in this world - Ensoniq's products are extremely popular in the States, but the company has yet to make the same kind of impact in Europe, where Japanese companies take by far the largest slice of the keyboard market. Although it is certainly a factor, the Stateside 'buy American' tendency is not the only reason for this popularity - Ensoniq make outstanding, often groundbreaking, products, and they are admirably focused in their product design and manufacture. They will make one keyboard that really counts, rather than churning out a range of instruments at specific price points.
Ensoniq were pioneers in the workstation field, and the SQ1 seems to be their bid to recapture a market that has been taken by M1s, D20s, V50s and the like, where once an SQ80 might have been the only choice. Ensoniq's own VFX SD is a formidable workstation, of course, but at around £2000 it is aimed very much at the top end of the market - at £1189, the SQ1 represents the more affordable end of things (although nothing on the wrong side of £1000 could be called a 'budget' instrument). Here, your money buys you what is essentially a scaled-down VFX SD - VFX-type synthesis, drum sounds, sequencer, and effects, with all four of those components being top-rate.
When I reviewed the VFX last year, I raved at length about its sheer power as a synthesizer. Well, the SQ1 uses substantially the same voicing architecture - the waves have changed slightly, the modulation matrix is slightly different, and sounds are built up from three voices rather than six (not as great a sacrifice as it might sound), but the two are substantially the same. The SQ1's 8/16-track sequencer is a small-bore version of that found on the VFX SD, and like that instrument, the SQ1 features on-board drum samples.
The internal memory of the SQ1 allows you to store 80 of your own Standard Sounds (the SQ1's single-sound patches) - alongside 80 ROM sounds, and 20 (user-programmable) drum setups. Confusingly, a multi-sound drum setup is actually called a Drum Sound, in SQ1-speak. You can also store 70 Sequences and 30 Songs, which are associated with 100 multi-sound Presets (which are user-programmable, not preset! When will manufacturers agree on an equivalent of a MIDI standard for synthesizer terminology?). The sequencer has a capacity of 9,000 events, expandable to 56,000 via an optional memory expansion kit, but there is no disk drive to archive your material.
Workstations need definite characteristics - selling points, if you prefer - in order to stand out from the crowd, and the SQ1 has several. It offers VFX SD sounds at a good price, the sequencer is wonderful with few compromises in performance, and the whole package is well thought out, thoroughly integrated, and more importantly easy to use. A joy to use, in fact.
One slight disappointment is the specification of the SQ1 keyboard itself - it is sensitive to velocity but not to aftertouch. Ensoniq have always been big on aftertouch, traditionally being the major champions of polyphonic pressure response, and including it on most of their keyboards. The SQ1, however, does not even have channel aftertouch sensitivity. Still, it responds to both types of aftertouch via MIDI.
While we're covering the physical aspects of the instrument, the SQ1's styling is a good deal sleeker than the VFX's - I like it. The front panel buttons feel good and solid, and are arranged in several distinct sections: directly below the 32-character LED display are cursor and data increment buttons, along with the Compare and Edit/Save buttons; 10 Bank buttons and 10 Screen buttons, which select Sounds, Sequences/Presets, and Screens in the two edit modes; four mode select buttons (Sound Select, Sound Edit, Sequences/Presets Select, Sequences/Presets Edit) surround these Bank and Screen buttons. Track select buttons, and three sequencer transport control buttons (Stop, Rec, Play) complete the rundown.
There are Volume and Data Entry sliders to the left of the panel, and Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels are located just where you'd expect. A memory card slot is also included on the front panel, to the right of the sequencer controls. Each memory card allows a further 160 sounds to be stored in two sets of Banks, along with more sequence data.
The rear panel is the source of one minor complaint - there are phones, stereo audio outputs, (sustain) footswitch and (volume) footpedal sockets, along with MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports, but unfortunately an overhang at the back of the instrument makes 'grope and feel' access from the front rather awkward.
The Standard Sounds of the SQ1 are each composed of three voices, processed by the effects section. Each voice is in turn composed of the following: one digital oscillator playing one of 121 waves; two digital filters; one LFO; three envelopes hardwired to modulate pitch, filter cutoff frequency, and amplitude; a powerful matrix modulation system. The VFX and the VFX SD both use six voices per sound, but they have patch select buttons which turn sets of voices on or off - so most sounds would never use six voices at the same time anyway.
The 121 waves available on the SQ1 are arranged in 11 groups: Strings; Brass; Bass; Breath; Tuned Percussion; Percussion; Drumwave; Transwave; Waveform; Inharmonic; Multiwave. There are some additions to the VFX's set of 109 waves, and a few simple changes in equivalent sets, but otherwise the selection is pretty similar. In the String, Brass, Bass, Breath, and Tuned Percussion groups, all but one or two of the waves consist of a complete sampled sound, with attack and looped portions - they may even be multi-sampled across the keyboard. Percussion and Drumwave groups are the only ones that do not feature looped sustain portions.
The Transwaves are the most interesting group of waves, and are the source of many of the VFX family's gutsier sounds. Each Transwave is actually a PPG-style wavetable, consisting of 100 variations on a basic waveform. The variations sound similar, but have a different harmonic content which changes through the table. The trick is that the change is progressive, and the point in the wavetable at which the oscillator plays back a single waveform can be modulated in real time by a number of sources (15 in fact), which produces sounds with a deeply satisfying and powerful timbral movement.
The choice of Transwaves allows some wonderfully sharp digital sounds to be generated, along with some classic analogue tones - four resonance and two pulse width modulation Transwaves are included.
Other waves cannot be modulated in quite this way, but you can set a Start Index and modulate it with any of the standard set of 15 modulation sources. The Start Index sets where in the wave the oscillator starts playing, so it will allow you to chop the start off a sound. You can also specify that a wave is to be played backwards rather than forwards. You can delay the start of a wave's playback, or set it to play only when a key is released - great for harpsichord and certain guitar imitations. The delay time is set by a parameter that has the arbitrary range 0-2S0. The manual claims that each step should be 4ms, but it sounded more like half this figure to me, giving a maximum delay of around 0.5 seconds.
The Waveform group contains simple, single cycle loops of organ, synth and some acoustic sounds - great for turning the SQ1 into a kind of 'regular' analogue synthesizer - and the Inharmonic group contains longer loops with more dissonant harmonics. The final group is Multiwave. It actually contains only a single wave, which strings together all the waves in the other groups. Start point and Loop Length parameters allow you to specify which portion of the wave series plays back and loops.
Each oscillator's pitch parameters allow you to set octave, semitone, and fine transposition, up to four octaves either way. Both Envelope 1 and the LFO are hardwired to modulate pitch (although they can also be used as mod sources elsewhere), and you can set a modulation level for each (—99 to +99). In addition, you can select a third mod source from the regular set of 15, and specify a mod level for that also. Pitch tracking can be switched on or off for each voice, and a multifunction glide facility is available. All three voices must use the same glide time.
Each SQ1 voice is processed by two multi-mode digital filters. The possible filter configurations are: 3-pole low pass and 1-pole low pass; 2-pole low pass and 2-pole low pass; 3-pole low pass and 1-pole high pass (band pass); 2-pole low pass and 2-pole high pass (band pass). This is a very powerful and versatile system. Each filter has its own cutoff frequency, but no resonance parameter unfortunately. Filter 1 is modulated by Envelope 2 at a user-definable level, and keyboard tracking and a third mod source can also be specified. You can set Filter 2's envelope and keyboard tracking sensitivity independently of Filter 1, but as for a third mod source, it must either shadow Filter 1's settings or use nothing.
All three envelopes — Envelope 1 (pitch), Envelope 2 (filter), Amplitude envelope - are 5-stage types, giving you control over four level and four time segments. The parameters are: Initial (level); Attack (time); Peak (level); Decay 1 (time); Breakpoint (level); Decay 2 (time); Sustain (level); Release (time). The stage times can last anything up to approximately 50 seconds each - very leisurely. You can set a velocity level sensitivity for each envelope, and also use velocity to shorten attack times. Four velocity response curves are provided: Quick rise, Convex, Linear, and Concave.
There are seven possible LFO waveshapes, and LFO speed can be varied from 0.08Hz to 21 Hz - a usefully wide range. You can set a basic level for the LFO, and the time it takes to reach that level. LFO rate can be modulated by any of the 15 sources.
In the output bank of parameters, you can set a Volume level for each voice. Also, a 12dB boost can be switched in, to compensate for heavy filtering. A volume mod source can also be specified. A fixed volume mod source - keyboard scaling - is also available, and you can choose a stereo bus destination for each voice: Dry, FX1, or FX2. The precise effect of this routing will depend on the chosen effects configuration. A stereo pan position can be set within the stereo bus, and a velocity range can be set to allow the creation of velocity switched sounds (eg. plucked and thumbed bass).
The modulation facilities of the SQ1 are almost as wonderful as those of its bigger brothers. Wherever a mod source can be specified (except in the effects section), you have a choice of 15 sources, plus 'off'. The sources are: LFO; Env 1; Env 2; Amp; Noise; Noise 2; Velocity; Keyboard (scaling); Timbre (an arbitrary parameter which can be set track by track in Sequences and Presets); Pedal; Pitch (bend wheel); Xctrl (external MIDI controller); (mod) Wheel; Pressure; Max. Noise 2 is a smoothed version of the principal noise generator's signal.
For the most part, the SQ1 is refreshingly easy to use. You are always in one of the four modes - Sound Select, Sound Edit, Sequences/Presets Select, Sequences/Presets Edit - and the location of the four mode select buttons around the Bank and Screen buttons is very convenient. In either select mode, the top row of Bank buttons selects a Bank and the bottom row a Sound or Sequence/Preset within that Bank. In edit modes, the top row selects groups of edit screens (eg. all filter parameters), and the bottom row selects particular screens. Alternatively, you can move from screen to screen within a Bank using the cursor buttons. You can move from parameter to parameter within a screen either with the cursor buttons, or by repeated presses of the button for the current screen. The SQ1 will remember which screen in each Bank you were last in, so when you return to that Bank you will find yourself in that same screen.
There are other ways in which the SQ1 makes itself an easily understood and easily used instrument. Besides the fact that all of the sequence edit functions that you need or would expect are here, the default values for edit parameters are sensible ones. For example: the length of a sequence is determined by how long your first take is, and inevitably you tend to hit 'Stop' just a little late, inadvertently recording an unwanted blank bar at the end. Now when you select 'Change Length' as an edit option, the default is to remove one bar - the last bar in fact. Another great boon is the audition facility, which allows you to hear the results of many sequence edit functions (such as Quantise, erasing part of a track, and indeed adding new material to a track) before committing the new version of the sequence to memory. Thus you can listen and decide whether you prefer the old or the new version.
One area where editing is not so easy, however, is in how the machine deals with the three voices in a Sound. If you are editing a parameter for one voice and want to change the same parameter in another, you have to go off to the voice select screen and change voices, then go back to your parameter. A minor irritant, but an irritant nonetheless.
The digital effects section of the SQ1 is where the audio paths of the three voices come together, via the three stereo busses: Dry, FX1, and FX2. You can create a different effects program for each Sound and Preset, and the 13 effect algorithms on which they must be based are: Concert Reverb; Hall Reverb; Room Reverb; Warm Chamber; 8-Voice Chorus; Chorus & Reverb; Flanger & Reverb 1; Flanger & Reverb 2; Phase Shifter; Phaser & Reverb; Rotary Speaker & Reverb; Distortion & Chorus & Reverb; Compression & Distortion & Reverb. All effects algorithms are highly user-programmable, and allow dynamic real time modulation of many of their parameters.
the way that audio signals are mooted through the effects, and FX1 and FX2 are rooted to the effect, but a mixed level for each bus sets a balance between a dry and a wet signal. So, effectively, we have two auxiliary busses with different levels of the same effect. This is especially useful with drum setups, where different drum sounds may call for quite different reverb levels.
In two-effect algorithms, FX1 feeds Effect 1, and the FX1 mix level sets how much of the treated signal from Effect 1 is sent straight to the outputs, and how much is fed to Effect 2. FX2 feeds Effect 2 via a mix control. Juggling the mix levels for FX1 and FX2 allows you to create anything between a series and a parallel arrangement of the two effects. The configuration of the two distortion algorithms is best understood with the aid of a diagram (see below).
I was very impressed by the SQ1's effects section - all the algorithms sound good, but above all you are given a degree of control over the effects that I don't think any other competing workstation can offer. There really isn't room to list all the effects parameters here, but rest assured that if you want to change it, you almost certainly can, and there's a good bet the SQ1 will let you modulate it into the bargain! A single source and destination are allowed for each effects configuration. The available mod sources are: Keyboard (scaling); Velocity; Pressure; Pitch Wheel; Mod Wheel; Mod Pedal; Xcontrol; Sus Pedal; Timbre; Ramps 1-6 (envelope-type structures); off.
The reverb treatments sound lovely - deep and rich, with decays that go on forever if you want - we're talking whole minutes here. Parameters such as Diffusion and Detune let you really work on the basic effect. Surprisingly, there are no delay programs, which I consider an unfortunate oversight, but special mention must be made of the distortion programs, which are wonderfully full-blooded - indeed, on the Compression/Distortion/Reverb program (a real screamer), the Distortion Level even goes up to the magic '11'. The manual quotes the Tufnel theorem to justify this, pointing out that it isn't enough merely to make 10 louder - "these go to 11." [See Spinal Tap for further clarification - Ed.]
Besides the 160 Standard Sounds in the SQ1, 20 Drum Sounds can also be stored. Standard Sounds are placed in Banks 0-7, and Drum Sounds in Banks 8 and 9.
Each Drum Sound uses 17 separate voices, split across the keyboard - only one will play per key. Each voice can play any wave, apart from Transwaves and Multiwaves, and is processed by a fixed 4-pole (24dB) low pass configuration of the standard digital filters. Obviously, you'll probably elect to use the 22 actual drum waves most of the time, but you might well want to use other waves to create more unusual drum setups.
The basic drum waves (six kicks, six snares, three toms, five hi-hats, ride cymbal, and crash cymbal) are well chosen, though they don't venture outside 'conventional' territory. Still, there are all those other waves to play with, and the other voice parameters allow you to tweak sounds when creating your drum setups.
You can set pitch over a range of eight octaves, and switch pitch tracking on or off. The filter has a variable cutoff frequency, and velocity level control. The amplitude envelope for drums is very simple, with only Gate Time and Release parameters. The Gate Time parameter is only referred to if Finish mode is specified for envelope playback. In this mode, an envelope is allowed to run to completion even after the key has been released. The alternative is Normal mode, in which envelopes go to their release stages once the key is released.
Each voice in a drum sound also has volume, pan, and output destination parameters, as for Standard Sounds. One of four velocity curves can be selected for each voice.
The factory sounds show the SQ1 off to good effect. Like its VFX brethren, it is capable of impressive timbral movement, although it lacks pan modulation, which is a shame. The best sounds are those which project the word 'synthesizer' into your mind's eye in 100ft high granite letters - whether they be gentle pads, JX-style brass, or powerful leads - and shifting acoustic textures which can make full use of the quality effects. The straight imitative sounds are not so good - the piano is rather unconvincing, whereas the piano/strings combination is a perfect sound for composition.
OK, let's get organised. 'Presets' are SQ1-speak for multitimbral arrangements of eight Standard or Drum Sounds, plus an effect. The Sounds are arranged on eight Tracks, each track having parameters governing key range, MIDI channel, and so on. These can be split/layered performance setups, or multitimbral setups for sequencing. Each of the 100 memory locations for Presets can also hold note data for an 8-track Sequence, hence 'Sequences/Presets Select' rather than 'Presets Select' and 'Sequences Select'. You could think of a Preset as being a Sequence without any note data.
The Sounds on each track can be played by internal Sequence tracks, from the keyboard, or via MIDI. Select a track with the Track Select buttons and it will respond to keyboard control. Tracks can be layered on top of one another, for performance setups, by double-clicking on successive track buttons.
The following parameters are defined and stored for each track: Key Range; Transpose; MIDI Channel; MIDI Program; (MIDI) Status; Pressure (ie. whether the track will respond to channel or poly pressure); Sustain Pedal; Volume; Pan; (Play) Status; Output; Timbre (value); Release (modifies a Sound's nominal release time). A single effect is used for each Preset. Effects in Presets are exactly the same as in Sounds, except that several sounds may be feeding each of the effect busses. You can choose to let each sound use its normal output routing, or override it and define a new output path.
Most of these parameters are pretty self-explanatory. One rather important one is MIDI Status, which specifies whether each track has Local, MIDI, Ext or Both status. In Local mode, the tracks play only internal Sounds, and no MIDI data is transmitted either from the keyboard or sequencer for that track. Incoming MIDI data will play a Track's sound, however. In MIDI mode, a Track will send out MIDI data but will not play an internal sound. Incoming data will play a sound. In Both, data is sent via MIDI and also plays internal Sounds. Ext is the same as MIDI, except that incoming MIDI data will not play a Sound on the Track. This is an ideal mode for sequence tracks that will be driving external equipment, eg. other synth modules. Track status sets whether each track is playing (when a sequence is running), or is soloed or muted.
The SQ1's built-in sequencer is a powerful one, yet still easy to use. You can record on eight tracks, and the length of each Sequence is determined by how long your first take is - so you set the sequencer running, and just play. The metronome bleeps, but recording is not initiated on the first take until you press a key. On subsequent takes on that or any other tracks, a one-bar count-in is provided. Sequences loop on playback. You can record in regular 'Replace' mode, or carry out an overdub, or loop and record (although it is not possible to quantise while recording). You can also use an auto punch-in/out function, with points specified right down to the limit of the machine's 96 ppqn (pulses per quarter note) resolution, or use manual punch-in where playing your first new note switches from playback into recording.
Editing facilities are very comprehensive - this is a fully featured sequencer rather than just a sketch pad. The limits of accessing powerful functions with only a small display are overcome, as I mentioned when covering the user interface, largely by sensible choices for all default values, and the audition feature is most welcome.
Once you've created a set of Sequences that might form the basis for a Song, you can chain them together with the appropriate number of repeats, and then record on a further eight Tracks that stretch the whole length of the Song. These Song Tracks can use a further eight Sounds of their own, although 16-part multitimbrality might stretch the SQ1's maximum polyphony of 21 voices somewhat. Note, however, that if you try to control 16 tracks via MIDI, you find that only one of the two sets of eight tracks (Sequence and Song) will respond at any time.
The 8/16 track configuration is actually rather neat, as it fits in with the way that many people compose - my initial ideas are usually short loops, and when I get to the point of stringing them together, I generally want free tracks to play with.
In addition to recording performance data, you can also record volume and pan changes into Sequence and Song tracks in 'Mixdown' mode, using the data entry slider. Mixdown recording is only possible in Song mode.
The 9,000 note capacity of the SQ1's sequencer is, frankly, not an awful lot. You can create decent length songs - just - but it may mean clearing out all your dead wood; all those sequences containing half-baked ideas that you were playing with yesterday. The optional memory expansion to 56,000 notes will help, of course, but a disk drive would be even more welcome. I did in fact run out of memory several times in the course of playing with the SQ1, but then I leave a lot of ideas half-baked.
Ensoniq don't exactly rush to get their products out, and this philosophy seems to pay off - they get them right. Well, almost. The SQ1 should have a disk drive. Nevertheless, the Korg M1 - an obvious instrument with which to draw comparison - also lacks a disk drive, and the SQ1 outguns it in the synthesis and effects stakes by a long way. I just love those Transwaves. The keyboard should really be channel pressure sensitive as well - the SQ1 can respond to both pressure types via MIDI. As it stands, the physical specification means that the SQ1 will never be the keyboard in your setup, as the VFX or VFX SD would be perhaps.
Still, if you're prepared to compromise on that little issue, the SQ1 is another winner from Ensoniq - a reasonably priced instrument that wins Brownie points for its synthesis capabilities, sound quality, ease of use, sequencing power, and effects quality and control (quality is the key word here). The SQ1 probably won't be the only keyboard you'll ever buy, but it will keep you happy for a very long time.
£1189 inc VAT.
Ensoniq GB, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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