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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ensoniq SQ80

Workstation Synth (Retro)



Reviews : Keyboard 


Sounds of the '80


On its release in the late '80s, the SQ80 had to slug it out with Roland's D50 and Korg's M1, and didn't come out on top, at least as far as sales were concerned. STEVE HOWELL takes a look at an early and underrated workstation that still has a lot to offer.

Back in 1986, before this eminent publication had even reached its first birthday, and was a mere 80 pages rather than the bookshelf-battering size it is today, Ensoniq released the ESQ1 synthesizer [and SOS reviewed it too, in the August '86 issue -- Ed]. This was a revolutionary instrument, integrating advanced sequencing and sophisticated synthesis years before the word 'workstation' had been applied to keyboards. For the first time, it was possible to create complete multitimbral compositions from one box (albeit with only 8-voice polyphony). Ensoniq also deserve credit as being the first company to introduce the polyphonic, multitimbral mode of sequencing we all now take for granted. Prior to this, whilst some synths offered multitrack or multitimbral operation, each part was strictly monophonic. On the ESQ1, each part was dynamically polyphonic, stealing voices as and when they were needed and/or available. It was to be a couple of years before Korg, with the M1, were to launch an instrument to rival it.
Costing around £1100 when released, the ESQ1 was out there on its own for a while, with its wide range of unique sounds and multitimbral sequencer. But then came the Roland D50, crammed with chiffy noises, pan pipes, bowy strings and other, less describable sounds, all aided and abetted by a simple reverb/chorus combination. The D50 took the world by storm, and soon its ability to combine sampled attacks with sustained loops was regarded as the way to create new sounds.



Ensoniq countered with the SQ80 (reviewed SOS February '88); basically an ESQ1 with extra waveforms, polyphonic aftertouch, an expanded sequencer section, and a floppy disk drive for saving and loading sounds and sequences. A serious rival to the D50, surely? Sadly, 'twas not to be. The reason is something of a mystery, because not only did the SQ80 offer a clean combination of sequencing and sound creation, its synthesis capabilities were also considerably more advanced than anything else around at the time. Just look at the specifications: three oscillators per voice, each with their own Digitally Controlled Amplifiers (DCAs), feed into a resonant low-pass filter and out to a stereo output amplifier. To complete the impressive lineup, three freely-assignable multi-wave Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs) and no less than four freely-assignable multi-stage Envelope Generators are also available. On top of this, there's a single-triggering monophonic mode, portamento, oscillator sync, ring mod, and more. It's the SQ80's modulation capabilities, however, that are so appealing to hardcore programmers. Virtually any controller can be routed to any module but, rather than using patch cords, as on modular synths, it's all done in software. At the time, the only thing that compared was the keyboardless, sequencerless 6-voice Oberheim Xpander, at considerably higher cost.



Unlike the Xpander, however, the SQ80 is not analogue. Ensoniq achieved what they did at such remarkable cost by doing the bulk of the signal generation and processing digitally. The traditional Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs) found on analogue synths were replaced with digital oscillators reading out samples from wave memory, rather than generating the real thing -- more waves to play with, but ultimately less beefy, largely due to the waves' restricted bandwidth. The filter, however, is a true analogue 4-pole (24dB/Octave) job, which nevertheless lacks the 'welly' of its analogue counterparts, probably due to the fact that it is being fed with 'bandwidth-challenged' sampled waves.

That's not to say that the SQ80 is sonically weak, however, because it is far from that. It can produce strong, rich pads and strings, and fair simulations of most analogue synth sounds. It's not so hot on truly woofer-wobbling analogue basses. With a mere 256Kb of wave memory to read from (synths today measure their wave ROM in Megabytes!), long multisamples, of pulse width modulation, for example, are not possible, so any sonic movement has to be created with oscillator detune and/or modulation. This is easy enough, given the three oscillators and the sheer number of LFOs and modulation possibilities.

The wealth of digital waveforms on offer allows you to create distinctive metallic and other 'non-analogue' noises, and also gives the SQ80 an appealing 'PPG-esque' quality. The ability to combine analogue and digital waves across the three oscillators also enables a wide range of hybrid sounds to be created.

Strings, piano, bass, electric piano, organ, reed and other such waves are on offer too. These latter waves are single-cycle multisamples, not the detailed multisamples of modern ROM-based synths. They're capable of giving a good impersonation of the sounds they represent, but if you use them as interesting waves in their own right, you won't go far wrong. Some of the SQ80's voice-like and breathy waves can be used to create totally unique vocal sounds not readily found elsewhere, and in an attempt to capture some of the D50 market, Ensoniq included some short, one-shot clicks, bumps, thumps, plucks, clicks, and scrapes to use as attack transients. Some of these waves don't transpose terrifically well, being rather aliased at the lower reaches of the keyboard, but most are useful additions to the sonic armoury, and for some sounds, that digital grunge can really add character. The SQ80 does have some drum sounds, but these are hardly worth mentioning, being of low bandwidth and quality. I class them as virtually unusable except, possibly, as attack transients for percussive sounds.



The SQ80 came supplied with a floppy disk containing hundreds of sounds, and many of these are very usable. They also form a good starting point for experimentation.

Editing or creating a sound on the SQ80 is a doddle. On the right of the panel, rather cleverly laid out to represent the signal path of a voice, is a set of keys which give direct access to sonic building blocks such as Oscillators, LFOs, Envelopes, and Filter. To edit a sound, simply press the key for the one you want to affect and use the 10 keys around the custom fluorescent display for direct access to each parameter. To tweak the cutoff of a string sound, for example, press 'Filter', then 'Freq', and waggle the Data Entry slider. Simple, quick and effective. Each module's parameters are available on one page, so there are no awkward cursor movements or page scrolling.

The three oscillators, their associated DCAs, and the filter each have two modulation inputs, and each mod input may have any of the 15 available controllers assigned to it -- including the three LFOs, the four envelope generators, and real-time MIDI controllers such as the wheels, aftertouch, velocity, keyboard, and an (optional) pedal controller, plus a definable external MIDI controller (such as breath, for example). These can be mixed and inverted for a wide range of modulation and performance possibilities.

Oscillator sync between the first two oscillators was a welcome innovation for a synth with all-digital sound generation, and although the results may not be as impressive as a MemoryMoog, many interesting and unique sounds can be created with the wealth of waveforms available on the SQ80. The ability to use any controller to modulate Oscillator 2 adds much flexibility to the range of sync sweep sounds available. A missed opportunity, perhaps, is the SQ80's inability to cross-modulate one oscillator's frequency with the output of another oscillator within the flexible modulation matrix; I can only assume that this is a hardware limitation rather than an oversight on the part of Ensoniq's designers.

The fact that each oscillator has its own DCA allows quite fine control over the oscillators' level, and the DCA for Oscillator 2 serves a dual purpose, in that it can act as a ring modulator, with one input derived from Oscillator 2 and the other from Oscillator 1. Some interesting clangorous noises can be coaxed out of it, especially when you consider the number of waveforms you can use to cross-modulate each other.

The three DCAs are summed to the input of the analogue low-pass filter and can be set to overload the filter slightly. As mentioned, this is an analogue 4-pole resonant filter, but controlled from the SQ80's digital control sources. Cutoff frequency and resonance controls are provided, as is a dedicated keyboard tracking control. Like the oscillators, it has two controller inputs which allow different control sources to be combined, mixed and inverted, for fairly flexible tonal control.

The filter passes to a final stereo output DCA, where you have control over the output level and pan position of the sound. The pan section has one control input, and any of the controllers may be used to move the sound between the left and right outputs, enabling the introduction of a great deal of stereo movement into a sound.

The three LFOs are identical, each offering triangle, square, sawtooth and noise waveforms (sadly, there is no random 'sample and hold' wave available and the noise waveform does not make a good substitute). The output level of the LFOs can be affected by any of the controllers -- so you can 'shape' the LFO modulation via one of the spare envelope generators. Using real-time MIDI controllers, you can control LFO depth via velocity, keyboard position, aftertouch, an optional pedal, or mod wheel. The LFOs are extremely functional and to have three of them is certainly a treat, but if I have any criticisms of them, it would be the inability to modulate the LFOs' rate from the matrix -- a curious omission.

The four envelopes are also identical, with four rates and four levels. You can control the envelopes' output level and attack time using velocity. A key-scaling function allows you to make keyboard position control release times -- higher pitches create shorter release times, as on many acoustic sounds such as piano, guitar or tuned percussion.

In an attempt to simulate some kind of reverb on the SQ80, Ensoniq introduced a function which involves a second release stage kicking in -- instead of going to zero immediately, the second release reaches a low level and then fades to zero at a fixed rate. The effect can be bypassed if you wish. The idea may sound a bit strange, but it's not ineffective on some sounds -- onboard DSP processing it most certainly isn't, however.

Last in the voice programming department is a 'global' page, where you may, amongst other functions, switch on a single-triggering playback mode that emulates analogue monosynths, plus a glide function that works in both polyphonic and monophonic modes.



So the SQ80 is capable of producing a very wide range of warm analogue sounds and strong digital sounds, plus many, many more besides, with sophisticated but easy control. On top of all this, however, is a nifty little sequencer which, whilst not rivalling software-based sequencers, is extremely functional, on a par with many hardware sequencers, and more versatile than one would at first imagine.

The sequencer features eight polyphonic tracks, all easily accessed in sequencer mode from keys around the display. Each track can control internal and/or external sound sources, and can send out Program Changes and MIDI volume. Up to 60 sequences of any length and time signature can be chained together, drum machine style, into 20 songs. There's a maximum note capacity of 20,000 notes (although aftertouch, particularly the SQ80's polyphonic aftertouch, can consume a lot of this, so it's advisable to switch it off except for sounds that really need it). Sequences are held in memory even when the SQ80 is powered down (though you can save both sequences and sounds to the onboard floppy drive if you wish), so you can come back to your work with no tedious loading time. Tracks can be mixed, muted, merged, quantised, transposed, deleted and otherwise manipulated after the event, and sequences can be copied, appended and deleted. Also provided is a simple autolocator, and all these functions are accessed very simply using the nine Sequencer keys to the right of the display.

Recording a sequence is very easy, as is overdubbing. You can select a loop playback mode so that when an overdub is complete, the sequence will loop round and immediately play back what you've just recorded. When the overdub is looping, though, you can't then continue to overdub more data into that track as on, say, Akai's MPC60/3000, which is a shame.

After recording, you can edit a sequence at the track level, including erasing, copying and merging tracks. Quantising is available, with a resolution of quarter notes to 32nd-note triplets. Generally, this works very well and will tidy up sloppy timing quite adequately without adverse effects on the performance. Like many of the sequencer's edit functions, quantising is non-destructive, and the SQ80 allows you to audition the original, unquantised sequence, or the quantised one before deciding whether to keep the new sequence or return to the original.

No step-time input is possible, but you can edit in step-time. Finished sequences can be chained together in any order you wish in Song mode, and since the tempo of each sequence is retained as steps change, some degree of tempo variation is possible within a Song, even though gradual rallentandos and the like are not possible within the sequences themselves.
Finally, the sequencer can be synced to MIDI clock (with Song Position Pointers -- SPP), and there is also a simple FSK tape sync code (without SPP) for syncing the SQ80 to tape.

All in all, then, the sequencer is more than functional. It offers quite a simple approach to building up sequences and songs and is better than many other so-called 'workstation' sequencers I have used, even recently. In fact, my only criticism of the sequencer is its lack of step-time recording facilities, for those occasions when really tight, solid sequenced riffs and arpeggios are required. The SQ80's ability to sequence both internal sounds and/or external modules with Program Change and MIDI volume control allows it to be quite a sophisticated central controller in a budget studio, if you can live with the 8-track limitation.



As a master controller, the SQ80's keyboard has a curious feel to it. It certainly plays well enough, even offering a choice of velocity curves to suit your playing technique, but the polyphonic aftertouch mechanism, with a separate sensor underneath each key, makes it quite 'clattery' and noisy to play. The action is fine, though, and the polyphonic aftertouch is great fun and very expressive on sounds such as strings, brass, vocals and pads -- if you dig into just one note, only that note is affected by whatever modulation type (amplitude or vibrato, for example), you've assigned to aftertouch.



The SQ80 has much to offer: extremely versatile synthesis which can produce a wide range of very good, usable sounds, in the analogue, digital and, to an extent, S+S styles; a more than capable sequencer, especially with a few external modules hooked up to overcome the synth's limited polyphony; and an eminently playable keyboard, one of the few to feature polyphonic aftertouch. The integration of sounds, sequencing and control of external MIDI gear is very thorough, everything is well laid out, and the direct access to sounds, synth parameters, sequencer tracks and edit functions makes operation very quick. It's a truly underrated instrument.

But it's precisely because the SQ80 has been overlooked that I bring it to your attention now, because it has very little resale value at the moment and is a bargain waiting to be had. I recently bought one for £299 and that was from a shop! I think I did very well, however, and you should expect to pay a bit more than that -- around £400 would be about right for an SQ80 in good condition. This would give you an excellent sound source and a versatile little sequencer that could form the centre of a budget home studio.

Buy one for its sound-making potential. Buy one because it is so easy to use. Buy one for its cracking little sequencer and the fact that you can control a whole bunch of external modules from it so easily. Buy one because it's cheap and you get a hell of a lot for the money!




The SQ80 can produce a wide range of serious analogue, digital and FM-ish hybrids, with some attempt at S+S. It can do lush and dreamy pads, unusual vocal textures, spiky basses and clavs, excellent bells and other metallic sounds. It's very adept at organ sounds and no slouch with electric pianos. Modern, fashionable sounds can be created on it but, perhaps more interestingly, so can unique sounds not so readily available on other synths -- with an SQ80, you might stand out from the musical crowd a little. The sounds won't stand direct comparison with a true analogue (but neither will more contemporary digital synths), and its digital sounds won't worry a PPG or FM synth too much. However, that said, you can get surprisingly close on all counts.



If you're on an even tighter budget, check out the Ensoniq ESQ1, which is functionally identical in terms of sound making but has only 32 waveforms instead of 75. The sequencer is also more restricted, offering only 30 sequences and 10 songs. If you're looking at an ESQ1, make sure it has the memory expansion installed -- without it, there's a measly 2,500 note limit, which the expansion board takes to a more sensible 10,000 notes. The ESQ1 has a velocity-sensitive keyboard with a nice action but no aftertouch at all, it has no disk drive, and off-line storage of sounds and sequences is only possible using cartridges or cassette dump.

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