Ensoniq VFX Synthesizer
Unheralded even by rumours and speculation, Ensoniq's new VFX synthesizer has arrived. Prior to a full review next month, Paul Ireson offers his first impressions of what could turn out to be the most sought after synth of 1989.
Hi-tech music products have a nasty habit of not appearing until months after they're first announced, and even then they're sometimes not quite finished. Therefore, it's a pleasant surprise to encounter an instrument that turns this situation around entirely - the Ensoniq VFX. It arrived with the minimum of prior publicity, it should be in music shops as you read these words, and it's HOT - an A1, 24-carat dream machine that will have anyone with ears drooling in its presence.
Anyway, enough of the hyperbole, what's so good about it? It sounds wonderful, and has the sounds and facilities to keep both players and programmers on a high for months. Briefly, the VFX sounds are characterised by the fact that they allow a lot of timbral movement - they just won't stand still unless you want them to. The VFX gives the user as much control as possible over both sound creation and performance, through a design philosophy called Dynamic Component Synthesis - sounds are easy to create, and can be played very expressively. The basic spec of the machine looks like this: it has 21 digital oscillators, with three envelopes and one LFO per voice (each voice plays a single oscillator), extensive modulation facilities, a high quality built-in stereo digital effects processor, and a polyphonic aftertouch sensitive keyboard. When used with an external sequencer, 12-part multitimbral operation is possible.
The digital oscillators can use any of a wide variety of waveforms, including sampled acoustic and synthesizer sounds, and Transwave sounds that allow the VFX to perform wavetable synthesis a la PPG (remember them?) - only better. For those unfamiliar with wavetable synthesis, it involves switching between a set of different waveshapes as the oscillator plays, thereby introducing timbral variation into a sound at its most basic level. In this and many other ways, the VFX is able to produce sounds that have enormous depth and movement.
The immediacy of the VFX makes it an exciting and easy instrument to use. The sounds that you play from the keyboard are called Programs and Presets. Programs group up to six Voices together and process them through the effects section. Patch select buttons (like those on the EPS) above the pitch bend and modulation controls allow the player to instantly switch between one of four combinations of the six Voices for each Program, which greatly increases the variety of sounds that can be played without changing Program. This is an excellent performance feature, as it enables you to do things like instantly switch from a muted trumpet sound to a throaty blurt, from note to note, within a passage.
Up to three Programs can be combined into a performance Preset, which is best viewed as a performance arrangement of the three Programs. The Preset parameters for each Program include not only Key Zone, Transpose and Volume, which you would expect, but also amplitude envelope Release time, so that you can quickly tweak Programs to work in their new context. Changing this parameter does not permanently edit the Program parameters, it only modifies the release times when the Programs are played from within the Preset. Different overall effects parameters can also be set for each Preset. Programming of Presets is absurdly easy: to stack a second Program on top of whatever Program you're playing at the moment, you simply double-click on its name with one of the 'soft' selector buttons located around the LED display. Double-click on a third and the three Programs are combined and ready to be written straight into a Preset slot. 60 Programs and 20 performance Presets are stored in the VFX's internal ROM (non-rewritable), and the same number can be written into internal RAM and onto an optional memory cartridge.
For multitimbral use under external MIDI control, the VFX has Multi mode, whereby 12 'tracks' can be created, each playing a single Program on a different MIDI channel. Using synthesizers in multitimbral mode can be quite demanding on polyphony (particularly when each Program can use up to six Voices), but the VFX has an advanced form of dynamic voice allocation that keeps note stealing to a minimum. Whenever a Voice is no longer sounding within a Program, for example when its amplitude envelope level drops to zero, its oscillator is returned to the available pool even if the note is still sounding. Neat.
The synthesis technique of the VFX starts with Voices. Each Voice is based on a single digital oscillator which can utilise any one of 109 waves. These waves are arranged in 10 groups: String, Brass, Bass, Breath, Tuned Percussion, Percussion, Transwave, Waveform, Inharmonic and Multiwave. The first six groups contain samples of acoustic and electronic sounds, but rather than divide sounds into attack and sustain types, the VFX's waves have both attack and sustain portions, and are multi-sampled where appropriate. The Transwave, Waveform and Inharmonic groups contain sampled synthesizer waveforms only. Each of the 17 Transwaves is actually a stored wavetable of around 100 variations on a basic waveform. When a Voice plays a Transwave, it can move through the wavetable as it plays, so the waveform can be constantly changing, introducing complex timbral shifts in a sound even before any other kind of processing or modulation is applied to the Voice. Classic pulse width modulation, heavy filter sweeps, they're all here: if Transwave sounds don't blow you away you'd better give up music now. All the waves sound beautifully clean, with none of the noise that seems to come with LA's sampled Partials.
Three 6-stage envelopes are applied to each Voice. One is hard-wired to pitch modulation, the second to the filter, and the third to the Voice amplitude. The filter section of the VFX consists of a two-part 4-pole filter. This can be configured as one 3-pole and one 1-pole filter, or two 2-pole filters. Filter 1 is low-pass only, but Filter 2 can be high- or low-pass.
The modulation facilities on the VFX are the key to its great depth of sound, and the movement that can be introduced. Within each Voice (and remember that six Voices can be combined into each Program), there are 15 different modulation sources that can be routed to destinations that include both filter cutoffs, wave start point, Transwave read index, pitch, LFO rate, LFO level, volume and panning. The mod sources include poly pressure, the front panel data entry slider, envelopes 1 and 2, and any external MIDI controllers. Someone could write a whole book on the possibilities that these modulation facilities open up, and the VFX is the first instrument to offer anything this comprehensive since the Oberheim Matrix range. Just imagine: polyphonic aftertouch modulating LFO rate, mod wheel modulating LFO depth, the two filter cutoff points driven in opposite directions by two different mod sources - and all that happening simultaneously! One of the modulation sources is a mixer/shaper, which accepts any two other sources and modifies one of them before combining the two together. This modification can take the form of applying a response curve (as you would to modify the velocity response of a keyboard), quantising the output so that it can only take one of 2, 4, 8, 16 or 32 values, or smoothing out a varying input.
Ensoniq's Dynamic Component Synthesis is not only about extensive modulation control over Programs, it's also about making programming easy, and this is achieved by allowing you to copy sets of parameters from one Voice to another, from one Program to another, or from one Preset to another with the greatest of ease. The copy buffer will store a set of parameters (Voice envelope parameters, Program effects parameters or whatever), and then enable you to copy it over to a new destination - so you can quickly bolt together new sounds out of selected elements of other sounds.
the VFX is a very impressive machine, and for my money is now the most exciting keyboard around. It is immediately easy to use, rewarding to play, and is simply full of wonderful sounds. More importantly, once you get past these surface impressions you discover a world of exciting synthesis and modulation possibilities. This instrument has depth. The variety of waveforms contained within the VFX is too broad to enable the 'sound' of the VFX to be summed up in a few words, particularly as those waveforms are only the first stage in a powerful and expressive synthesis process. Where sounds need to be clean, they exhibit a breathtaking clarity, and where sheer power is called for the VFX will stretch to meet the challenge with ease. This is a synthesizer with a capital 'SIZE', the best thing since sliced DX7's, and it's going to be this year's hot keyboard.
A full, in-depth review of the VFX will appear next month.
Ensoniq GB, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul Ireson
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