Paul Wiffen tinkers with the synth/workstation that has made the competition sit up and listen
Paul Wiffen heralds the Ensoniq VFX a new classic.
Whether sampled acoustic, analogue synth or digital wavetable sounds are your cup of tea, the new 21-voice poly-synth from Ensoniq has the lot, complete with interactive signal processing. At under £1500, could anyone wish for more? Paul Wiffen thinks not!
It seems that these days nobody can launch a synthesiser onto the market without having a handy initialized way of referring to the type of synthesis involved. Yamaha started this trend with F.M. (Frequency Modulation), Casio came next with P.D. (Phase Distortion) and more recently Roland contributed LA (Linear Arithmetic). It seems that every time the man in the street manages to understand the latest jargon, there's a new mystery to unravel.
The latest term in this apparently never-ending series is D.C. synthesis. In England, D.C. usually stands for Direct Current (the type of electricity supplied by batteries) and in most of America, it is used to refer to the District of Columbia, where the capital Washington is located. However in Malvern, Pennsylvania (where Ensoniq have their corporate headquarters), the term apparently means Dynamic Component synthesis. But just what is that?
It refers to the ability of the VFX to take various different methods of generating and processing sound (that's the component bit) and mix them in real time (hence the dynamic part). So before we can assess how the combination of these parts works out, we need to see what individual components are available.
(Incidentally, there has been much speculation as to what VFX stands for. Monty Python fans will of course insist it comes from the famous Learn Norwegian sketch: Question: F.U.N.E.X.? (Have you any eggs?) Answer: V.F.X. (We have eggs) and it certainly seems like Ensoniq have put all the different synthesis eggs in one basket. Brash East Coast types in the States are convinced by Very F***ing eXciting (which seems an appropriate way of describing the more outrageous patches). Rather more mundanely, I suspect that the FX refers to the onboard signal processing and the V sounds high-tec and rolls off the tongue nicely).
There are three distinct types of synthesis offered on the VFX. Those on the verge of buying a Roland D-series, a Korg M- or T-series or an Emu Proteus might do well to take a look at the VFX, as it features 63 multi-sampled acoustic sounds, divided into 6 categories, String (15 multi-samples), Brass (8), Bass (6), Breath (5), Tuned (13) and Untuned (16) Percussion. String refers to all instruments that produce sound through the vibration of a string, and includes Piano and Guitars, as well as bowed and pizzicato String Sections. Brass features the usual complement of Trumpets, Trombones, Saxes and French Horns as well as a Unison Section. Bass covers acoustic and electric basses as well as synth bass samples. Breath includes both human Vocal (Oohs and Aahs) and various types of Flute samples. Tuned Percussion is all the sounds which can be used to play a melody, Marimba, Bells, Kalimba, etc, plus other percussion sounds which need to be looped, eg. Cymbals. The other Percussion group includes standard Kick and Snare drums as well as more esoteric things like Woodblocks (the only real omissions seem to be open hi-hat, ride cymbal and tom-toms).
So how do these multi-samples sound? Well for those who remember the sampled waveforms on the ESQ-1, these are in a whole new class. Gone is the restricted bandwidth and the lack of memory resulting in too few and too short multi-samples. These sound bright and realistic over the whole keyboard range. The Strings are bright and warm, and work in both textural applications (patches like Lush Strings and SwellStrings living up to their name) and velocity sensitive versions for carrying melody and counterpoint lines. The Pianos may not be in quite the same category as dedicated piano modules like the Yamaha EMT-10 or Korg P3, but they compare very favourably with those on the Korg M1, and certainly work perfectly for live use or in a track. The Guitars are particularly realistic, some of the samples having come from the EPS Signature Series of disks by Nile Rogers and Paul Jackson Jnr. Check out Clear Guitar, FlangeFifths and Funk Guitar for some of the best guitar sounds since the Mirage Rock Guitar (whose omission from the VFX samples I cannot understand), the Brass sounds are big and punchy, from sections like Star Brass to individual instruments like Solo-Trumpet (with mono triggering for easy trilling) and FrenchHorn. The AltoSax is the most realistic and expressive I have ever heard from synth or sampler, due in part to the Patch Select buttons carried over from the EPS which give variation to the sound in the form of overblowing, glissandi and grace notes (more on Patch Select later).
One of my favourite things about the VFX is the range of bass sounds available from the slap funk of Jammaster, through the standard ElecBass 1 & 2, the plucked upright BeBopBass to the analogue sounds we will look at later. In the Breath category, the WoodFlute is the rival of AltoSax for the most expressive and realistic sound on the machine, whilst the various Vocal based patches give that sampled voice breathiness that everybody has loved since we first heard it from the Fairlight 10 years ago.
The tuned percussion sounds are all very realistic and play well. The drum sounds are very acoustic and natural sounding, because they are recorded dry, which isn't so impressive as reverbed and gated monsters, but don't forget that you have the onboard effects to process the drum sounds with, the way most modern drum sounds are created!
Patches like Drums 'n' Stuff and Kick + Snare show just how far you can go with these basic sounds. If these were only sounds in the VFX, it would be an excellent sample player along the lines of the Korg M1 or Proteus, but it would hardly merit the term synthesizer. However, it has the means to produce all the sounds of the traditional analogue synth, plus some revived techniques from the early days of digital, German-style.
To begin with, there are all the standard analogue waveforms, Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth, Square, Pulse, which are used in patches like Its-a-Synth and Synthbass to produce sounds which haven't been heard since the days of Prophets and Oberheims. Smak-Bass is the first bass patch I've ever heard which can stand up beside monosynths like the MiniMoog or the Oscar. In fact the whole bass end of the VFX blows away anything produced in the last five years! Played through any system with a sub-woofer, the VFX is in serious danger of repeating Joshua's achievement at Jericho (not to be attempted in building with shaky foundations).
Then there are many other single-cycle waveforms, some of which come from samples, like Clarinet or Woodwind for example, which can be used in patches of straight acoustic imitation. Others have been created by harmonic addition (e.g. 1st4Harms) or straightforward digital generation. There are 4 Organ Waveforms and these are used to great effect in patches like Drawbars and Timbre-Org, both of which feature the "Leslie" speaker effect. NastyOrgan goes further than ever before in emulating a really grunged-up old Hammond, and as such is not for those with delicate ears.
But for those interested in synthesis, the leaf that Ensoniq have taken out of the PPG book will be one of the most exciting aspects of the machine.
Wavetables, referred to on the VFX as Transwaves, containing 100 related wave forms can be swept from a variety of modulators including LFO, Envelope, pressure, Wheel, etc. You simply set a start wave form from 00 to 99, and then set the modulator (any of the above) to move around in the wavetable. This is how various time-honoured analogue effects are emulated. There are two wavetables you can use for Pulse Width Modulation (shown off superbly in the patch Big Money), one for Sync Sweeps and four different Resonant wavetables for exaggerated filter sweeps (check out RezStrings for authenticity). But the use of these goes far beyond the recreation of analogue effects. Trans-Tine shows a very PPG like electric piano, whereas PressWave uses pressure to move around inside the Spectral X wave table to very spooky effect.
Once you have chosen from the hundreds of different waveforms in the machine (be it multi-samples, analogue or digital waveshapes), then you can run each of them (and not just the synth waveforms like on the D-50) through its own dual-filter triple envelope voice structure, just like on the EPS sampler. Each of the two filters can be various types of Low or High pass and can have its own cut-off, modulator and envelope amount. This allows you to create all kinds of filter contours including Band pass (combining Low and High Pass Filters in tandem).
Envelope 1 is preset to pitch, 2 to filtering and 3 to amplitude, but you can use these envelopes to additionally modulate anything you fancy courtesy of the Mod Mixer (more of this later). Each Envelope is six stage (Attack, Decay 1,2,3, Sustain, Release) with Initial, Peak, and two Break levels programmable. Velocity can of course be used to modulate levels and times complete with independent curve for each envelope, and keyboard tracking and envelope cycling are also user programmable. I know of no more comprehensive envelopes. Pitch on each voice is far more comprehensive than just tuning and interval parameters. You can create a custom pitch table for each patch and then decide which parts of the sound use it and which use the standard equal temperament. This is particularly useful for inharmonic components in the sound which do not necessarily need to change pitch at the same ratio as the harmonic components, as you play up and down the keyboard. You could for example set a breath noise as part of a flute patch to transpose by just one octave over the whole keyboard. Or you could set up the whole patch to a standard alternative tuning like Werkmeister or Kirnberger (for those who want authenticity in their harpsichord patches). You only need to set up the tunings for one octave and the VFX will extrapolate these over the whole MIDI range. You can also set ratios of pitch to the number of keys, say 7 semi-tones per octave and the VFX will interpolate all the intervening pitches. Hours of endless fun and several avant-garde albums could result from the use of just this facility.
Real-time Pitch Modulation is another area of seemingly limitless possibilities. In addition to your standard Glide, LFO or Env modulation, you can take any of the 14 modulation sources of the VFX or combinations of them through the Mod Mixer to mess with the pitch of your voice. The Output page allows you to set the final volume (with choice and amount of modulator and keyboard scaling), key range, pan position (with choice and amount of modulator) and effects bus switching. This last is very important as we will see when we come on to look at the effects available within a program. It gives you the choice of sending each voice to one or other of the multieffect busses or leaving it dry (that is to say unprocessed).
As you will see if you press the Select Voice button with any sound selected, each program can use up to six voices. No mean feat when you consider that the voice architecture described above, represents as much as most synths offer in an entire patch. This means you can take a voice based on a multisample and layer it with an analogue sound and a digital one. This would mean that you are playing three voices per key, and as there are 21 voices on the VFX, it would mean that that particular program would be seven note polyphonic. Of course, you don't have to use more than one voice per patch and indeed many of the sample-based programs are this economical. The average for synth-type sounds is two voices per patch (giving ten note polyphone) and it is only the really big Play-1-Note type patches which uses all six voices simultaneously. Any voices you are not using can be muted by pressing the button above or below it, causing brackets to appear around the name in the display.
However, the six voice capacity of each program is not just for building mega-sounds. It can also be used in conjunction with the Patch Select buttons. So you may have just two voices sounding in normal playing, but then when the left Patch Select button is depressed, the two voices you were playing are muted and two other voices (variants on the first two) are unmuted to give you a different playing style with basically the same timbre. Or you could have the right Patch Select button bring in a couple of completely different voices to change to a totally different sound. Both buttons held together might give you all available voices. The possibilities are endless.
Once you have selected your combinations of voices, it merely remains to decide which effects algorithm you want, which voices you want routed through which busses and (unique to the VFX) which performance parameters you want to modulate the effects.
There are 5 reverb only algorithms, an 8-voice chorus, 2 chorus and reverb combinations, 2 flanger and reverb, 2 delay and reverb, 2 flanger/reverb combinations and finally a rotary speaker with delay. Each effect algorithm has two busses, FX1 and FX2, which allows voices to be routed differently in the single effects this usually controls this like reversing the stereo image on the second buss. In the multiple effects, FX2 normally by passes the other effect and just sends any assigned voices to the reverb, whereas FX1 sends it voices first to the chorus, flanger and/or delay and then on the reverb.
Here are some algorithms worthy of special mention: the Dynamic Reverb which set the decay time according to the velocity of keystrokes is most often used on the pianos, it creates a very realistic large hall performance effect with quiet notes hardly reverberating, whilst big hard chords ring on; in stark contrast is the Rotary Speaker + Delay algorithm used on the organ patches which recreates the effect of a leslie speaker. The speed of the rotation effect can be controlled directly by a modulator (say the mod wheel or timbre slider) or it can be toggled by a switch (foot-pedal for example) or most usefully, a gradual speed up and slow down can be triggered from any controller. Generally speaking, each of the algorithms can have various parameters which can be modulated from the usual list of modulators referred to above and this makes the effects an integrated part of the sound rather than the sweetener tacked on at the end of the audio chain, which they are on so many of todays synths.
While you are in the Sounds mode just playing individual Programs either from the 60 internal ROM sounds, the 60 memories or the 60 sounds on each cartridge, you can at any stage layer a second, or even a third program on top of the one you are currently playing simply by double-clicking on its associated button. In this way you can quickly and easily create a Preset. There is room for twenty presets to be stored on the VFX. Once in preset mode, you can call up any of the following parameters Volume, Pan, Timbre, Key Zone, Transpose, Release, Track, Pressure, MIDI and Effects (each has its own button for speed) and see and adjust them for each of the three Sounds in the Preset. Everything is designed for quickness in the performance situation, so for example Key Zones are set by playing low, then high note on the keyboard, volumes are adjusted by slider and so on. MIDI decides whether the Sound is played locally or from MIDI or both, which MIDI channel it responds to and what patch selects are sent when the Program is selected. This means that you could call up external sounds to double in different Key Zones or alternatively another player could access one Sound you are not using via MIDI in (say from drum pads or a MIDI guitar/Wind Instrument).
There is only one effects chip in the VFX, so only one algorithm can be active at any one time. This voice is designated the Control and this is the first one selected in the Preset creation. However you can change any voice to be the control. When playing from the keyboard, three Sounds simultaneously is probably all you will be able to control. If you are using a sequencer however, then three Sounds at once is probably not going to be enough. For this reason Ensoniq's Multi Mode allows you to access Sounds at once on different MIDI channels.
Once chosen, these sounds can be set up with exactly the same parameters as in Preset Mode although obviously there are more of them so the parameters for all 12 cannot be visualized at once. You can toggle backwards and forwards between the first and last 6 by using the Multi A and B buttons. Then you select the required parameter, Release say, or Pan for example and you vary the values of six at a time. Clearly with all these parameters available and the Effects (one of the 12 Sounds is designated Control again and all the sounds use its algorithm), you can produce a finished sub mix of all the VFX Sounds you are using.
The dynamic allocation of the VFX works superbly in this Multi-Mode and you can do a lot before you notice voices dropping out. I have tried the VFX with a variety of sequencers, Akai MPC-60/ASQ-10, ST running C-Lab Notator and the EPS's sequencer and it works splendidly. My only reservation is that the Multi-Mode set-up cannot be saved to cartridge, so you have to use System Exclusive dumps to your sequencer. This is fairly quick and hassle-free with both the EPS and Notator, but I couldn't get it to work with the Akai's even with the latest version of their operating system. Still this is hardly Ensoniq's fault.
The VFX is capable of a broader range of sounds than any other keyboard I have ever come across and within this range there are some which are the best I've heard in years (the analog basses and the Transwave sounds) and others which are the best I've ever heard (the Wood Flute and AltoSax for example). There are very few of the factory sounds which are substandard and I can see a context for 99% in various kinds of music. If you can only afford one keyboard, then this must be the one, especially if you are playing live or want to sequence from a computer package. But for the guy with a large set-up already in place, there are sufficient new and different sounds for it to claim its unique place in any keyboard rig. The Poly Pressure keyboard carried over from the EPS is the most expressive since the 5 grand Prophet T-8 and 10 grand Yamaha DX-1 or 5 years ago, and is not at all out of place as a synth feel master keyboard (although piano players would probably not find it weighty enough). All in all, the VFX is the best thing to hit the synth market place in a long time and will soon be spoken about in the same breath as the MiniMoog, the DX-7, the D-50 and the M-1. A new classic!
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Review by Paul Wiffen