"A new synth, a new style of synthesis" could be Ensoniq's motto as they unveil their new VFX and its Transwave synthesis. Simon Trask previews the sound of things to come.
I'VE GOT TO be honest: this Preview almost didn't get written. Why? Because for the couple or so days' access I had to a VFX I didn't want to stop playing the damn thing. Er, let me rephrase that: Ensoniq's new synth is not only set to be Synth of the Year 1989, it represents the most serious competition the Japanese have had since... Well, since the Americans last had something worth calling a synth industry.
What makes Ensoniq's new synth so impressive? Certainly not its workstation status. Ensoniq have not only forgone the onboard sequencer which has been a regular feature of their instruments since the Mirage, they've avoided that other workstation staple, the dedicated "drumkit" section. But, to me, Ensoniq have made the right decision in concentrating on the VFX's synthesis capabilities, because it is these rather than any workstation aspirations which will make the synth stand out from the crowd.
And stand out it does. On first acquaintance the VFX impresses through the sheer range of sounds which it handles with equal competence, from full, warm analogue-style sounds to bright, breathy digital sounds and realistic acoustic sounds. In addition Ensoniq have introduced onboard stereo digital effects processing capable of adding reverb, chorus, delay, flanging and rotary-speaker effects, individually and in combination, to the VFX's sounds (more on these later).
The VFX's factory Programs show off the scope of its synthesis abilities to excellent effect, and there are many sounds I could single out for mention. For instance, there's 'Inspired', a rich, shimmering electric piano; 'My Desire', a warm synth brass sound with a soft breathy edge; the assorted "ethnic" percussion sounds of 'Afrique'; 'Double Reed', which sounds like a cross between a bassoon and an oboe, and captures the characteristic hollow, reedy sound of these instruments very effectively; the delicate chorused 12-string guitar of 'Strum-Me'; the eerie 'El-Encanto', a thin, shimmery sustained sound which works well for chordal accompaniments; 'Saw 0 Life', a dark, warm, swelling sustained horn sound with a very analogue-y buzzing edge: 'Flugel Strg', which starts out with a horn attack and then crossfades smoothly into a subdued strings sustain; the realistic acoustic sounds 'Solo Trumpet', 'Alto Sax' and 'French Horn'; the soft, breathy 'Cool Flutes' (actually more like panpipes); 'All Waves', which is complete mayhem: and 'Play-1-Note', which will play with itself, so to speak, for as long as you hold down a note, in an orgy of self-modulation which reminds me of Oberheim's Matrix 12. In fact, there's much about the VFX which reminds me of Oberheim's classic analogue synth, but at the same time Ensoniq's new (and all-digital) synth is capable of producing sounds which the Matrix never could.
Now what about the VFX's 61-note attack velocity and poly-aftertouch keyboard? Reports suggesting it would be the same keyboard that Ensoniq used on the SQ80 and EPS had me groaning - I hate that keyboard. Well, if it is the same keyboard then it's undergone a metamorphosis: the notorious "clacketty-clack" action has given way to a smoother, more substantial and altogether more comfortable feel. In fact, it's a pleasure to play.
The VFX's front panel bears a certain similarity to previous Ensoniq instruments, with its 2x40-character fluorescent display, six "soft" buttons and multiple Program-name display capability. To the left of the display are volume and data sliders and inc/dec buttons: beneath are buttons for selecting the mode and the Performance Presets (of which more later), while to the right are buttons for editing the Programs and Performance Presets.
The buttons have a more substantial feel than those on previous Ensoniq instruments, contributing to the overall professional aura of the instrument.
Meanwhile, lurking on the rear panel are left and right audio outputs, separate stereo headphone output (at last), a single/dual footswitch input, a pedal/control-voltage input and MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the VFX draws on elements of both the SQ80 and the EPS. However, it is first and foremost a synthesiser, despite including many samples as part of its raw sound material. It also represents a significant advance on the SQ80. For a start, it has 16-bit fidelity and a 96dB dynamic range. It also uses first-order linear interpolation to give a wider transposition range for its samples (fancy words, I know, but they mean fewer multisamples and consequently more room in memory for a greater variety of samples).
The VFX has 109 basic waveforms stored in 1.5 Mbytes of waveform ROM. These divide into multisampled acoustic instruments arranged as 15 String, six Brass, five Breath and six Bass sounds; 13 looped tuned percussion and 16 unlooped percussive sounds (the latter including various attack transients); 23 looped single-cycle waveforms (sampled and synthetic); five inharmonic multicycle looped waveforms; a rather unusual "waveform" called All Waves which allows you to create loops consisting of multiple waveforms; and what is perhaps the most significant development: 17 TransWave spectral interpolation waves. These are akin to the old PPG Waveterm, in that they are wavetables consisting of up to IO0 consecutive single-cycle waveforms which can be read through from any position in the table, for any number of waves. This offers a tremendous degree of harmonic motion which in turn makes possible a wide variety of effects, and that's even before you start modulating the waves in real-time from VFX controllers such as velocity, aftertouch and mod wheel. This really opens up endless possibilities for the adventurous synthesist. And that's before you even think about reversing waveforms.
While the SQ80 and EPS both featured a form of pseudo-reverb which could be generated by setting second-release time and level parameters, with the VFX Ensoniq have introduced onboard high-quality stereo digital effects. Far from being an afterthought, these are an integral part of the VFX's sounds, with the same sort of sophistication that can be found on Korg's M1, plus the ability to control effect parameters dynamically in real-time - the sort of thing you've up till now only been able to do with some stand-alone digital effects units via MIDI.
The VFX uses a new custom 24-bit VLSI chip, the cunningly-titled Ensoniq Signal Processing (ESP) chip, to perform the necessary calculations. Fifteen effect combinations are available, offering various types of reverb and combinations of reverb with chorus, flanging and delay, and a rotary speaker effect. Each of the VFX's Voices can be routed to one of three stereo busses, providing routing to a dry signal output, to Effects 1 and to Effects 2 respectively.
A Voice in VFX terminology is a digital oscillator which plays one of the 109 waves, with associated parameters governing pitch, trigger delay, filtering, envelope generation, LFO, I5 modulation sources and even more destinations, a pitch table for alternative tunings, modulatable panning, and output routing to one of three stereo effects busses (dry, FX1 or FX2).
Up to six Voices can be assigned to a Program, with the Patch Select buttons to the left of the keyboard allowing you to instantly change between four combinations of Voices. This was a neat feature on Ensoniq's EPS sampler, but on the VFX it's even neater, because you can latch the Patch selections for two-handed playing.
Programs can be layered by double-clicking on the soft buttons which edge the central display. Up to three Programs can be combined into a Performance Preset, in which case each Program can be independently zoned across any area of the keyboard. Additional parameters for each Program within a Preset are volume, panning, transposition, timbre (actually any parameter or group of parameters assigned to the data slider), release characteristics, Patch Select number, aftertouch response (channel, poly or none), sustain pedal on/off, MIDI assignments (channel, transmittable patch change and local on/off status), and global effect (with different routing for each Program if required).
Ensoniq have capitalised on this "two-tiered" arrangement of Programs and Presets to provide two distinct editing sections on the front panel. You can work at the Preset level of combining existing Programs to create new sonic configurations, or delve deeper by editing existing Programs. The VFX's front-panel layout provides a button for each logical set of parameters, which not only makes it easier to understand the parameter organisation in Program and Preset modes but also makes all parameters equally and readily accessible.
The VFX's Multi mode gives you 2 'tracks" for multitimbral reception and transmission (that's four more than on previous Ensoniq instruments). Each track allows you to define the same parameters as for Preset mode, which means that in addition to multitimbral sequencing applications you can layer and split up to 12 Programs on the keyboard. You can program a single effect for all 12 tracks, with independent routing for each track. Bearing in mind that you have two stereo effects busses and a dry signal buss, you do get some flexibility here. Providing more effects busses would require further ESP chips, and that would inevitably mean more money.
Ensoniq's new synth has 21 digital oscillators which are dynamically assignable across the Programs in Preset and Multi modes (remember, each Voice requires one digital oscillator). The synth does its level best to be intelligent about what Voices it should silence when required to do so; most of this is hidden from the user, but one thing you can do is set one of three "snatch levels" for each track. After all, ultimately you know best which Voices should and shouldn't be silenced first.
The VFX stores 120 Programs and 40 Performance Presets onboard (divided equally between ROM and RAM), with a further 60 Programs and 20 Performance Presets on a cartridge which plugs into the VFX's front panel. You can also transmit and receive Programs and Presets via MIDI SysEx.
Any self-respecting new instrument has to have some demo sequences, nowadays. In contrast to those instruments which have demo sequences blown into an internal ROM, the VFX is able to have a range of demo sequences provided for it because it plays its demos off cartridge. The four sequences I heard show off the synth to great effect, and are certainly worth listening to.
The VFX's sounds exhibit a special combination of depth and breadth which no Japanese synth has, and it is for this reason as much as for its inherent merits that Ensoniq's new synth will shoot straight into the big league. There appears to be plenty of depth and complexity in the VFX's synthesis architecture, too, and despite the absence of knobs and sliders I believe the VFX will appeal to programmers of the old analogue school.
At the same time, the two-tiered approach to editing ensures that you can create plenty of sonic variety at the Performance Preset level without having to delve into the synth's deeper mysteries. What's more, it's apparent from the many subtle but neat touches included on the VFX that Ensoniq have really listened to musicians.
I don't believe there's such a thing as a universal synth, capable of producing every type and quality of sound you could possibly want. But maybe with the VFX Ensoniq have created a unique winning combination nonetheless. Certainly at the price Ensoniq are asking for the VFX you owe it to yourself to check it out; initial shipments are expected around about the end of May.
I should emphasise that this is a preview based on two or three days' experience with the VFX and a very thorough and competent run-through of the instrument from Ensoniq's American demonstrator. Nonetheless, the VFX has made a very strong impact on everyone in the office during this short time. As to how versatile it truly is, and what its shortcomings (if any) are, next month's in-depth review will reveal all - that is, if we can prise another VFX out of Ensoniq UK. Now, what was their new phone number again...
Price Expected to be in the region of £1295.