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Ensoniq ESQ-1

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above instrument (serial #2046) from the collection of Steve Sims, UK.

The ESQ-1 revolutionized the concept of a synthesizer, and really started the trend toward "workstation"-style keyboard instruments. Though the Korg M1 was released at around the same time, offering direct competition sound-wise, you just couldn't beat the ESQ 1's overall value in 1987. Its features and price combined to give you bang-for-the-buck that had at that time been unprecedented.

Architecture and Sequencer - written by Steve Sims
The ESQ-1 is a mostly digital (It has analog filters) 8 voice polyphonic, synthesizer with multitimbral (8-part) capabilities and MIDI. Sounds can be split or layered. One nice feature is that changing the sound while the previous sound is still playing doesn't cut the first sound off. It can store 40 sounds internally, and another 80 to cartridge. Sounds and sequencer data can also be stored via cassette tape.
Each sound, or timbre is constructed with up to three Oscillators. Using all three oscillators can give very thick, rich string pads and brasses, especially as the sounds can be de-tuned and panned in a variety of different ways.
Each oscillator draws upon a bank of 32 hybrid digital/sampled waveforms including sawtooth, sine, square and a variety of conventional waveforms such as piano, human voice and organ. This may not sound very many in comparison to today's synths, but there are enough editing features to independently change these basic waveforms in an almost limitless fashion.
One of the strongest parts of the ESQ architecture is the filter section, which features analog four-pole (24dB/octave) resonant filters. The filter covers a broad sonic range, and can be modulated via a number of inputs including key velocity, modulation wheel, any of the three LFO's and any of the four Envelopes.
The ESQ-1 comes standard with an 8 track 2400 note sequencer which can be expanded to 10,000 notes. The sequencer features a flexible 'pattern play' facility for chaining patterns one after the other in any order. The ESQ-1 sequencer does all the usual stuff, but has one extremely useful feature: You can record a sequence (or Pattern), comprising of up to 8 independent tracks (Bass drum, Snare, hats, synth, strings, bassline etc) and copy this to another location. You could then for example, remove the bass drum track from one of the sequences, but leave it in the other. While the sequence with the bass drum track is playing, you can select the one without the bass drum track, which will start to play with seamless integration once the first sequence has played to the end. This method of letting you chain any of the sequences in any order you like, continuously and seamlessly, means that you have total freedom with song arrangement. After trying out arrangement ideas this way, the 8 track sequences (of which 30 can be stored) can finally have their 'play order' fixed into a Song. I haven't come across another sequencer that gives you the ability to play a looped sequence as many times as you want before selecting another sequence, without first having to save the order in which you want them to play. This is a very useful feature in Dance music and Techno music where the song is generally built up over time in the same key, but with additional instruments coming and going. You are not limited to using only the ESQ-1 sounds on the sequencer, as each track can be made to play the ESQ-1's internal sounds, external sounds over MIDI, or both.
Missing are headphone plugs and aftertouch on the keyboard.

It's place in History
So, why was the ESQ-1 so popular and so loathed? To find out, let's look at its stats:

The basic model (which was pretty much the ONLY model) was about $1,395 US, making it the least-expensive synth/sequencer combo of its time. Korg's M1 clocked in about $1,795 list, so it was just out of the reach of many basement musicians. The Ensoniq workstation, however, was in a class by itself.

Ensoniq created their "Q-chip" in about 1984 or 1985, and used it first in the Mirage. The chip would prove to be a marketing boon, giving rise to several innovative future products, including the VFX-SD and the DP/4 Effects Processor. In 1987, this technology was a revelation to many, who had been raised believing that the only way to get a big, full sound was to blow upwards of $30,000 on a Synclavier or a Farilight C.M.I.

The ESQ-1 changed all of this, by showing elitist composers that you could pack a lot of features into a well-designed, ergonomic, digital synthesizer, and that it could still be affordable.

The ergonomics of Ensoniq's design were apparent from the attention to detail; the "soft" buttons above and below the large, well-lighted LED screen (yup -- LEDs -- none ofÊthese crummy, tough-to-read LCDs!!!) for instance, made navigating the various pages a breeze. And the layout of the right-panel synthesizer controls was unparalleled, before OR since. In fact, there has never been a better layout of controls for ANY digital synth. Only with the advent of knobs on digital modelling synths has this system been improved upon at all -- and we still can't see everything all at once. (Those tiny little screens kill your eyes in bright sunlight...!)

One thing that made the ESQ-1 such a fantastic instrument though was that it didn't rely exclusively on digital technology. The M1 did -- and you could HEAR it. Its cool, often TOO-cold digital sound was very much at odds with the warm, fat, and round sound achieved by the ESQ-1's programmers.

Owed to this are the 8 Curtis analog filters, one per voice (!) Though they needed "tuning" from time to time, you could easily do this by merely calling up the auto-tune program (something that required the simultaneous pressing of two or three buttons at startup).

One of the most significant features of the editing pages was the almost total lack of nested pages. There may have been one or two (though this author has a tough time remembering exactly) but mostly, what you saw was what was there. Though some folks hated this (and let you know it) most of the instrument's players sadly never even bothered trying to program it.

Again, the ESQ-1 was both lauded and condemned. Its critics accused its maker of having that "Ensoniq-y" sound, an unfortunate product, presumably, of its digital-analog lineage. However, most of us will remember fondly sounds like "Piano1" and "Klunks" as some of our first-ever flirtations with synthesized sound.

information compiled by Sammy James
at www.sammyjames.com

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