Dynamic Component Synthesiser
Initial impressions of the VFX have been glowing, to say the least, but will Ensoniq's latest synth break the Japanese stranglehold on the marketplace? Simon Trask investigates further.
It received a rave preview last month, now lets take a closer look at Ensoniq's contender for "synth of the year".
IS ENSONIQ'S NEW synth really as impressive as it seemed on the initial inspection of last month's preview? Having subsequently acquired another VFX (running production-line software version 1.50) and spent more time with the instrument, I'd say yes. However, I'm less keen on the feel of the keyboard than I was initially (though its polyphonic aftertouch capability is a definite plus point).
What about the Synth of the Year tag? Well, to use a film analogy for a moment, is this year's Oscar winner better than last year's? Back in the world of music, is the VFX better than Korg's M1? Don't ask me, I'm only passing through.
On a more mundane note, I'm sad to see that two of my favourite sounds from the preview model, namely 'Inspired' and 'Saw 0 Life', have gone to that great patch library in the sky. But enough of such musings. I suggest you glance back over last month's preview to get an overview of the VFX and a description of its sonic impressiveness, so that we can, as is only fitting for what is a deep synth, get into more in-depth discussion here.
THE VFX COMES with 60 Programs stored in internal ROM, the same 60 in internal RAM, and a further 60 on ROM cartridge. You can store whatever Programs you have in the internal RAM via MIDI SysEx or to an Ensoniq RAM cartridge (which isn't included with the synth). I'll discuss the VFX's Program structure in more detail later, but for now I'll just say that you can assign up to six Voices to each Program, with each Voice consisting of one of the VFX's 109 Waves (the synth's raw sound material) together with parameters governing pitch, filtering, amplitude and impressive modulation possibilities. Programs can then be routed through onboard digitally-implemented audio effects such as reverb, chorusing and flanging before being sent from the synth's stereo outs. The VFX can play up to 21 Voices at once, so obviously the more Voices you select for a Program the less polyphony you have (select all six Voices and you've got three-note polyphony).
The VFX's Programs are organised in a way that will be familiar to Ensoniq users: ten Bank buttons beneath the synth's fluorescent display each call up a group of six Programs, while you select individual Programs using the six buttons above and below the display. The VFX allows you to select up to three Programs at a time; the primary Program is selected with a single button-press, while the "layered" Programs are selected by double-clicking on the relevant buttons. You can choose any combination of Programs across the Banks and the internal and cartridge memories.
While single-clicking and double-clicking on Programs provides a spontaneous means of selecting Program combinations, you can actually store these combinations, together with further parameters into Preset memories; in fact, whenever you select a combination, it's automatically stored in the Preset edit buffer. The VFX has 20 Presets stored in its internal ROM, 20 in internal RAM, and a further 20 on the ROM cartridge which comes with the synth. Further storage can be RAM cartridge or via MIDI SysEx (again, 20 Presets).
When you come across a Program combination that you like, you can store it in the internal RAM by holding down the Preset button, selecting Bank A or B and pressing one of the ten Program Bank buttons. Each Program within a Preset becomes part of what Ensoniq call a Track (Part would surely have been more appropriate and less confusing, given that the VFX doesn't have an onboard sequencer).
Each Track has a number of parameters associated with it, all programmed from a group of buttons immediately to the right of the fluorescent display. For a start (and crucially) you can assign it its own independent note range, allowing you to create all manner of split and overlapping textures on the keyboard. Other parameters allow you to transpose a Program (in +/- octave, semitone and finetune amounts), assign it a volume level, pan it across the stereo outputs (here you either select a global pan value for the Program or allow its individual Voice pannings to be retained), assign it a Timbre setting (more on this later), select a +/- envelope release offset, define its status as Local, MIDI, Both or Off, assign it to a MIDI channel, and give it a MIDI patch-change number which will be transmitted when you select the Preset. Further parameters allow you to decide whether each Track/Program will respond to sustain-pedal information (via MIDI and from the VFX's own sustain footswitch) and whether it will send and receive polyphonic aftertouch, channel aftertouch or no aftertouch at all.
It's also possible to set how each Track will respond to the VFX's Patch Select buttons. You can "latch" one of the four possible settings so that it's automatically selected when you call up the Preset, or select Live (in which case the Track will respond to the current state of the buttons) or Hold (the Track will respond to whichever combination of Patch buttons you're holding down when you play an initial note - a sort of dynamic latching).
Although in the traditional Ensoniq style the VFX is able to overlap notes and sounds whenever you change patches (if only more synths could do this), its digital effects can't be overlapped. Though each Program can have its own effect settings, only one Program's settings can be used at a time. Where two Programs use a different effect type (such as large and small hall reverbs) there's a brief drop in volume as the new Program's effect is installed; however, if the effect type doesn't change there's no such "glitch", even if the other parameter values are different.
So what happens when you want to play more than one Program at the same time in Preset mode? Simple: each Preset can have its own effect, which takes precedence over the individual Program effects. However, each Voice in a Program can be given its own effects routing. In Preset mode you can choose to preserve these settings, or you can force all the Program's Voices via the Dry buss, all the FX2-routed Voices to the FX1 buss, or all the FX1 Voices to the FX2 buss. Alternatively, with Control routing selected, all the Voices will preserve their Program routings, plus controller information will be routed to the programmed effect. On top of all this, you can define the reverb mix for each of the FX1 and FX2 busses; in this way, if you're routing, say, two Programs through a VFX reverb effect you can separately control the amount of reverb applied to each Program.
I hardly need say it, but the VFX's Preset mode provides you with plenty of flexibility in setting up your Program combinations, and it's evident that Ensoniq have put much thought into this aspect of the VFX.
Pressing the Multi A or the Multi B button on the VFX's front panel takes you, logically enough, into Multi mode. Here you have access to not three but 12 Tracks from the VFX's keyboard and/or via MIDI. Depending on the status setting of each Multi Track (Local, MIDI, Both or Off), you can have up to 12 Programs on the keyboard, and as each Track can be given its own independent note range, you can define any keyboard texture you want. With Omni, Poly or Mono A MIDI receive modes selected, you can also play this texture remotely via MIDI. However, in order to be able to control up to 12 Multi Tracks independently from a sequencer via MIDI, you must first set the Mode parameter on the System MIDI Control page to Multi. Any MIDI guitarists tempted into using a VFX will be glad to know that multi-channel Mono mode reception is also implemented, as are global controllers.
The parameters definable for each of the 12 Multi Tracks are exactly the same as those for Preset mode, and are programmable from the same group of buttons. Multi mode's 12 Tracks are independent of the three Preset Tracks, making 15 in all. Although when the VFX is in Multi mode it will only respond on the MIDI channels assigned to the Multi Tracks, you can call up a Program or Preset and play it on the keyboard, complete with MIDI transmission on the MIDI channel(s) assigned to each Track, and still control the VFX's 12 Multi Tracks from a sequencer. The synth's Multi Tracks respond individually to MIDI performance and patch-select data.
The VFX's 21 Voices are dynamically assigned across all the Tracks, with the oldest non-held note being stolen when all 21 Voices are in use. However, as you know best which Programs are most important in your arrangement, you can also assign a low, medium or high priority level to each Track. By setting a higher priority for, say, your leadline Track than for the piano accompaniment Track, you can ensure that the latter won't snatch Voices from the former.
In addition, a Multi setup (the VFX stores one such setup internally) can be given its own effect settings or can adopt the effect settings of an individual Program. As in Preset mode, all Tracks have to be routed through one effect, though each Track has the option of Dry, FX1, FX2. Voice or Control routing, and the reverb/dry balance can be decided for each of FX1 and FX2. It's possible to install a new effect into the Multi setup via MIDI patch changes: if you send MIDI patch change 125 to the VFX, with the next MIDI patch change it receives it will select both the relevant Program and its effect settings.
EACH VFX PROGRAM can consist of up to six Voices, and each Voice consists of one of the synth's 109 Waves plus associated parameters which can further shape the "raw" sound material of that Wave. Pressing the Select Voice button in the front panel's Programming section calls the six Voice Wave assignments into the VFX's display. Here you can mute any combination of Voices, solo a Voice and select the Voice that you want to work on.
With the Voice decided, you can call up the Wave page and choose the Wave that you want. There are ten categories of Wave: String, Brass, Bass, Breath, Tuned Percussion, Percussion, Transwave, Waveform, Inharmonic and Multiwave.
The instrumental categories of samples contain a healthy variety of sounds, multisampled where necessary, including various strings, guitars, electric and acoustic pianos, trumpet, horn and saxophone, several electric and acoustic bass, a few flute and vocal sounds, marimba and kalimba, orchestral hit and doorbell (I kid you not) and a variety of conventional and unconventional percussion sounds (such as snare drum and spraycan respectively). Unlike such synths as Korg's M1/M1R and the Roland L/A range, you won't find an extensive "drum kit" of percussion samples, though there are enough to create, say, a six-Voice rhythm kit in one Program. Also, the range of acoustic instruments represented is by no means comprehensive, and it's worth mentioning at this point that Korg's M1/M1R fares better in this area, especially with its very significant ability to access a whole library of samples via plug-in PCM ROM cards.
The Transwave aspect of the VFX is somewhat more unusual. There are 17 Transwaves in all, each consisting of many single-cycle waveforms, each of which has its own harmonic spectrum. You can start playing at any specified waveform and use a modulation source to control the movement of the sound in a forward or reverse direction. This is akin to the old PPG Wave approach, and is capable of producing all manner of odd digital noises which don't necessarily have much to do with samples, thus significantly enhancing the synthesis possibilities of the VFX.
Waveform, on the other hand, consists of 23 single-cycle waveforms, some of which are timbre-shifted versions of others, which have both sampled and synthetic origins. Here you'll find, among other things, familiar synth waveforms like square, sawtooth and triangle. The five Inharmonic loops aren't single-cycle waveforms and can therefore contain inharmonics - frequencies which aren't exact multiples of the fundamental frequency - consequently they provide more clangorous sounds. Finally, Multiwave plays through all the VFX's Waves on the basis of Start and Length parameters.
When you've selected a Wave you can choose to play it forward or reversed, specify a delay of from one millisecond to two seconds (or Key Up, which only starts playing the Voice when you release a key), and specify whereabouts in the Wave, on a scale of 0-99, the Voice should start playing from (you can also control the start point from velocity, on a response scale of +/-99).
The Pitch page allows you to specify +/- octave, semitone and fine-tune amounts for the Wave, together with whether pitch will be determined by the System pitch-table or a user-definable pitch-table, or be constant across the keyboard (C4 pitch). Each Voice can have its own choice, which can lead to some, er, interesting clashes when you combine System and customised tables. If you decide to use a customised pitch-table, you lose Voices five and six from your Program.
For the customised pitch-table you can specify a playback pitch in semitones and cents (to cent resolution) for each note across a 96-note range; in this way you can set up some very strange scales and microtonal tunings. A less laborious approach is to extrapolate or interpolate a pitch table. Extrapolation takes the pitch relationships that you define in any specified range of the keyboard and reproduces them across the entire note-range (so you can, for instance, specify a quarter-tone in a two-note range and create a quarter-tone scale from it), while interpolation takes the interval between two notes on the keyboard and divides all the keys in between into equally-spaced fractions of that interval (for example, select the entire keyboard as the note-range, but specify an interval of an octave - you now have a 60-note octave). A real delight for anyone who's into non-standard tunings.
The pitch of a Voice can be modulated by envelope one, the LFO and/or a third modulator specified from the 15 possible modulation sources (see below), with each modulator having its own mod amount.
Each Voice has its own pair of filters (digital, of course). Filter one is always low-pass (two-pole or three-pole while filter two can be high- or low-pass (two- or one-pole). You can set a fixed cutoff amount for each filter, plus a keyboard tracking amount, and a mod source and amount for the cutoff. In addition, a five-stage envelope (with time and level parameters) can control the cutoff on both filters dynamically, with a separate envelope modulation amount for each filter.
The LFO (which can function as a modulation source many aspects of a Voice) allows you to select one triangle, sine, sine/triangle, pos/sine, pos/triangle, saw tooth and square waveforms as its basis, with associated delay, rate and level parameters, the last two of which are modulatable, each from a difference source. Modulation frequency can be varied from 0.05 Hz to 21Hz.
The output section allows you to set an output volume level which is in turn controlled by envelope three and modulatable from one of the 15 mod sources. In addition you can define a keyboard zone over which the Voice sound, allowing you to split/layer multiple sounds within a Program , and a +/- velocity threshold above or below which the Voice won't sound (for velocity splits and overlaps with other Voices).
Each envelope can be set to repeat itself as long as a note is held down, thus retriggering the note automatically. By careful manipulation of the envelope timings you can play rhythms just by holding note(s) down (this is how the Program 'Rituals', Bank 0 Sound 5, was created).
Modulation is a significant aspect of the VFX's Voice architecture, with pitch, filter cutoff frequency (separately for each filter), output level, Voice panning within the stereo image, LFO rate and level, and selected digital effect parameters all able to be modulated. You get a choice of 5 modulation sources: LEO, envelopes one and two, the noise generator, velocity and aftertouch, mod and pitch wheels, timbre, the mixer, keyboard tracking, an external MIDI controller, velocity+aftertouch, and mod wheel+aftertouch.
With Timbre selected as a parameter's modulator, that parameter can be modulated from the VFX's data entry slider when you're not in Edit mode; the slider can thus be used to control any combination of modulatable parameters. Mixer allows a parameter to be modulated from any two of the VFX's modulation sources, with a Mixer edit page allowing you to select which pair of modulators, and both scale and shape the output of modulator before combining it with the output of modulator one.
Programming parameters across up to six Voices can get a bit laborious, especially if you want, for instance, the same envelope settings for all six Voices. Ensoniq have thought of this (and no doubt thought about making their own programming lives easier) and have introduced a feature known as Group Edit. With this selected, any edits you make in one Voice will also be applied to all the other active Voices in the Program.
Ensoniq have also tried to make life as easy as possible with their Copy options. In addition to the usual copying of whole Programs, you can copy Program pages individually from any combination of Voices and Programs into a Program Copy buffer, then copy them out again into any other combination of Voices and of Programs. Although you need to have your wits about you when you're doing all this copying, it's a vast improvement over having to program all parameters from scratch into a new Program.
EVER SINCE ROLAND introduced digital effects processing onboard the D50, the idea has slowly but surely been taking hold. The VFX is part of this trend, with a choice of six single effects and ten combined effects, each with their own programmable parameters. In general the quality and scope of these effects is good, though the reverbs tend to be ringy (even with high-frequency damping on) and lack smoothness.
As discussed earlier, each Program, each Preset and each Multi configuration can be assigned its own digital effect and associated parameter values, with the Preset and Multi effects overriding the effects programmed for the individual Programs within them.
So what are the effects you get? Large and small hall reverbs, medium and small room reverbs, dynamic reverb, eight-voice chorus, two chorus+reverb, two flanger+reverb and two delay+reverb effects, two flanger/delay+reverb effects, rotating speaker+reverb, and rotating speaker+distortion. Where a single effect is in use, FX1 and FX2 routings independently decide the wet/dry signal balance; where two effects are in use, FX1 is first routed through effect one and then through effect two (apart from the rotating speaker effects, this is reverb) with wet/dry balance, while FX2 is only routed through effect two again with its own wet/dry balance. Thus if you're using say, delay+reverb, you can route one Program or Voice through both the delay and the reverb (FX1) and another through the reverb only (FX2), and also decide how strong the reverb should be on each one. In addition it's possible to create a dynamic wet/dry balance for FX2 by modulating the panning of a Program or individual Voices within the Program.
The VFX takes a step forward by allowing selected parameters in many of its effects to be modulated by any of 15 modulation sources including pitch and mod wheels velocity, aftertouch, sustain pedal and an external MIDI controller. Among the reverbs, only the dynamic reverb can be modulated, having its reverb decay time controlled by one of the 15 sources. With most of the combined effects, modulation is applied to a parameter in effect one, so that, for instance, you can modulate chorus rate and depth, flanger min/max notch frequency, delay time and regeneration, or the speed of the rotating speaker. Needless to say, all these modulation possibilities greatly enhance the flexibility of the VFX's individual effects especially when controlled as part of your playing from velocity or aftertouch.
THE VFX an extremely impressive synth, with a great deal of flexibility built into it, a great deal of depth, and many musician-friendly touches. It has a clean but not clinical sound quality which can be anything from bright and sharp to dark and warm, handling anything from thin and delicate sounds to huge and punchy sounds with equal competence.
Although the VFX does include many sampled acoustic instruments, allowing you, for instance, to play some quite realistic pianos and horns, this isn't a major aspect of the synth, which is much more attuned to creating a rich and varied selection of synthesised sounds. On the operations front, it really is very easy to find your way around the VFX, while Ensoniq have provided all sorts of helpful shortcuts to make your programming life even easier.
But what about reliability? Well, I only came across one bug on the review model; this caused the synth to freeze up (sometimes after a several-second burst of noise whenever I played de-assigned (local off) notes at the top end of the VFX's keyboard in Multi receive mode. Ensoniq were apparently already aware of this, and say it will be fixed in the next software update (which should be in place before the bulk of VFXs hit the shops).
The main competition for the VFX has to be Korg's M1 which costs not much more than Ensoniq's synth, includes an onboard sequencer and a complete "drumkit" section and has the significant advantage of access to a far greater library of samples than the VFX via plug-in PCM ROM cards. Having recently tried out four such cards (each which comes paired with a Program/Sequence card) at the APRS show and fallen in love with the M1 all over again, I'd say it's a tough choice. The two instruments do have different overall sound quality, something along the line, the M1 being light and smooth while the VFX is heavy (or dark) and "grainy".
But the very difficulty of choosing between the VFX a synth of the M1's standing indicates that Ensoniq are in synth major-league status like never before, and that the VFX is a significant challenge to the Japanese companies.
Price £1350 including VAT