Test Drive: The Ensoniq SQ-80

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On the same note, the SQ-80 has a sequencer built in. Better sequencers are available if you're willing to shell out the bucks for one of those, too; but the sequencer in the SQ-80 is more sequencer than you'll probably ever use in production. With all this in mind, let's take a closer look at the synthesizer section of this machine.

The SQ-80 is an 8 voice, polyphonic, polytimbral synthesizer. That means you can play up to 8 different sounds at once, and this is a major attraction of this unit. Plus, each of the 8 voices has stereo panning capabilities which makes for nice stereo effects. There are 75 waveforms stored in ROM. If you kept up with "The MIDI PAGE" from previous issues, you know that these waveforms are the building blocks of a sound. Earlier synths offered a square wave, a sine wave, a saw tooth wave, and maybe a few more. The 75 waveforms in the SQ-80 give you the freedom to make an unlimited number of sounds. Included in these waveforms are several multi-sampled waves of various instruments as well as three multi-sampled waves of human voices saying "Ah" and "Ooh". Other waves to choose from carry the names, "Alien", "Breath", "Steam", "Noise", and "Metal". These are unusual sounds that can be combined with some of the more familiar sounds to create an endless variety of unique sounds. There are several "Transient Attack" waves. These waves do not repeat over and over like the other waves, but are just the initial attack sound of various instruments. Some of the self describing names of these waves include, "Bowing", "Pick", "Mallet", "Slap", "Pluck", "Click", and "Thump". These waves are used to create the sounds of "struck" instruments. Finally, there are 5 "Drum" waves that can be used as attack waves or as separate drum kits. The variety of percussion instruments in the drum waves is not large, but there are enough sounds to provide an adequate percussion section if you plan to use the sequencer to write promo beds, beds for song parodies, etc. A massive amount of memory was not used to provide a great percussion set probably because most MIDI musicians will be using external drum machines.

So you have 75 different basic sounds to work with. You take these sounds and assign any one of them to one of three oscillators, then modify each of the oscillators to create a "voice" or "program".

Once you have created a voice, it can be layered with any other voice you have to give you an even greater variety of possibilities. The three oscillators can be modified by any one of three LFO's or Low Frequency Oscillators, as well as any one of four complex envelopes (see MIDI Page in April and May '89 issues). The oscillators can be modified not only with the LFO's and envelopes, but with the velocity with which you hit a key, the position on the keyboard of the key you hit, the modulation wheel, the pressure applied to a key after it is hit, and some external controllers if you have them. Each oscillator can have up to two modifiers. To top this off, each modifier can be modified by itself or any one of the other modifiers. There is a separate DCA (Digitally Controlled Amplifier) for each oscillator to modify and control the output level of each oscillator. Each DCA can be modified with up to 2 of the available modifiers. The synth section includes a modifiable filter, and a final DCA is used for panning the sounds left, right, or anywhere in between. The panning can be controlled by any of the available modifiers. The net result of all these waveforms, oscillators, and modifiers is that you have a programmable synthesizer that offers tremendous flexibility when it comes to creating a variety of sounds. It is this flexibility that attracts many musicians to the SQ-80.

Programming the synthesizer section is relatively easy compared to other synths. The manual is very well written and easy to understand. As Todd Albertson mentioned in a previous issue, the manual itself can serve as a great tutorial on synthesizers in general.
Practical radio production application of the synthesizer section would be to create all the synthesizer zaps you desire. The variety of waveforms will let you create any number of bells, buzzers, and numerous "electronic" sounds. You will only be limited by your creativity and time when it comes to creating weird new sounds.

Once you've created a sound, it can be stored in memory. This memory holds 40 sounds or voices. The disk drive on the unit lets you save and load sounds easily. One disk will let you store 128 individual sounds, 40 banks of 40 sounds each, and 10 sequencer blocks. Each sequencer block can hold 60 sequences and 10 songs as long as memory usage doesn't exceed 64K. What this means to the average production person is that one disk will likely hold all the sounds you would ever use, so you won't be in a situation of needing 50 disks
around to store all your work. Remember that the disk is only storing instructions for the synthesizer, not the actual digitized sound itself.

The sequencer in the SQ-80 is a good one. This is a 20,000 note sequencer. That means you'll never run out of sequencer memory unless you plan to do some serious writing of some very long songs. This is an 8-track sequencer, which can be thought of as an 8-track recorder. If you have an outboard sampler, the sequencer can be used to control it, or even another synthesizer. If you understand what a sequencer does, you probably know how it can be applied to radio production. If you don't know how a sequencer works, we will cover that in a future issue. For now, just understand that keystrokes can be recorded and played back with the sequencer. A very good application of the sequencer in radio production is in producing sweepers. If you have an outboard sampler, the voice tracks can be recorded there. The synthesizer zaps and sounds can originate from the synthesizer. The voice tracks and the synth sounds can both be triggered by the sequencer. You have 8 tracks to work with, so a sweeper can have 8 different "parts" recorded at different times then played back together, much as you would with an analog 8-track. Tracks can also be merged with each other, which is comparable to bouncing tracks on an analog multi-track to free up tracks. And when you've set mix levels and have all your tracks recorded, the final stereo output is digital; there's no tape hiss here. Of course, if you are even a tiny bit of a musician, the sequencer, together with the numerous instrument sounds and drum kits in the SQ-80, will let you write simple promo and commercial beds easily.

Other features of the SQ-80 include a slot for a cartridge. These cartridges can be used for storage in the same way as the floppy disks. Memory can also be transferred to audio cassette tape for storage.

The SQ-80 lists for $1895. We've seen it sale priced as low as $1545. We spoke with several MIDI enthusiasts and professionals and received a very favorable response to the SQ-80, both as a synthesizer and as a sequencer. There are likely some better synthesizers on the market, but you'll pay more for them. For the dollar, the SQ-80 is one of the better synths around.

The popularity of Ensoniq and the SQ-80 has spawned a flood of pre-written sounds for the unit. A check with your local music store or a magazine such as Electronic Musician will offer many sources of sounds created by someone else, should you choose not to take the time to create them yourself. Ensoniq offers several disks of sounds created by their staff as well. While most of these sounds will be musical, some will be effects more than they are musical sounds.

For the dollar, we feel the SQ-80 is an excellent synthesizer with a very good sequencer for an added bonus. As always, shop before you buy, learn as much as you can about these new toys, and look at all the brands available. ♦

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