Ensoniq ESQ-1

I’ve been wanting to make a post about the Ensoniq ESQ-1 for a while. The only reason I didn’t do it sooner is I wanted to buy one on eBay before I drive the prices up! I can happily report I did just click the Buy Now button and got a mint one for $250. Now I’m going to tell you this synth is the biggest secret in the synth world. Ensoniq was an American company and most of their synths are made of metal. The ESQ-1 also has a LED screen which is still beautiful and much nicer than the green/black LCD screens such as on a Yamaha DX7. The ESQ-1 is a digital synth but has all analog curtis filters (like DSI products). They are 4-pole analog resonant filters with 6-stage envelopes. You get 8 voice polyphony. What’s the price difference between a DSI Prophet 8 and a vintage ESQ? See where I am going here? It has 3 oscillators per voice, 32 waveforms, 3 LFOs per voice (triangle, saw, square, random) and 4 VCA + 4 Envelopes with 7 parameters per voice. There’s MIDI, memory and an on-board sequencer.

When I was in college I was friends with a synth band called Exurbia. The lead keyboardist Juan had an Ensoniq. I was constantly blown away by the sound. Skinny Puppy also used one. Recently I was viewing the awesome synth demos Jexus puts online and came across two he posted for the ESQ-1 (see above). I instantly jumped on eBay. I was shocked to see these consistently sell for under $300. I bought one. Another piece in my musical time machine. Go get one.

“The ESQ-1 is an absolutely fantastic synth with a great sound. In modern language – “It has a DSI filter” – you can hear it when it’s running through those ‘lo-fi digital samples’ with high resonance. It’s a very aggressive, powerful sound with lots of low end and depth. The filter makes all the difference and I would never miss analogue saw waves now that I own it. Roland synths of the era were beautiful and smooth, ESQ-1 was heavier and darker.” – Rib (comment on vintagesynth.com)

For more info: vintagesynth.com/ensoniq/ens_esq1

photo credit: Matrixsynth

31 Comments

  1. Love the sounds of the Ensoniq but I really don’t want any more hardware so I use the SQ8L a lot. Not exactly the real thing but it does do a great job. http://www.buchty.net/ensoniq/#sq8l

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    1. I heard that emulation is pretty good although I’m on a Mac. Do you have any demo tracks you did with it featured?

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      1. I’ve used it on a few tracks listed at http://soundcloud.com/rekkerd
        Not sure which ones from the top of my head but I love using the SQ8L for dreamy lead sounds. Chris mentions ESQ-1′s sounds blend in a mix easily, I find the SQ8L has that same quality.

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  2. I had one of these during college. I bought one after high school. Looking back, it might have been due to your influence when I came over to your house in Palisades and saw your studio w/ Bryan come to think of it. If not you, then from my college suite-mate from Rapid City, SD in ’92

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    1. What happened to it? Funny I don’t remember you guys coming over… getting old! I’m going to call Bryan today!

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      1. Oh yeah I definitely came by a few times, but the one time I came over w/ Bryan we were there for hours as you were demoing some of your stuff prior to Disintegrator. I remember it so clearly because you had the rare 12″ of DM’s Enjoy the Silence with The Quad Final Mix on one side and the etched rose on the other side. It wasn’t long after that when Bryan found his own copy down in the village. Sadly, I never found my own copy :( As far as the ESQ-1, the same friend from college actually broke his near the end of the Spring ’94 Semester. He was bummed, so the next day I handed him mine. He offered me money for it, but I said it was OK. We wound up going to Rick’s Pancake House on Carrollton Street. It was the best place to eat after a night of drinking at Cooter Brown’s which was on the corner of St. Charles and Carrollton. Hmm…TMI? Got a bit nostalgic there bro!

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  3. I bought one when they first came out and added the sequencer upgrade. At the time it was really versatile because you could sequence external synths as well as the internal sounds. Wrote a ton of songs using it MIDI -ed to my S-900 and Yamaha RX15 drum machine.

    Was never impressed with the bottom end of it but almost all of the patches would blend easily in a mix without taking too much space. It also has on of the best keyboard actions. Slightly better than the DX7 in that respect IMHO.

    Now you’re making me dig it out of the closet to play with it again. Mine needs a new battery…

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    1. I see replacement batteries for it on eBay. I’m not sure how difficult or easy it is to replace it yourself. Post some of your old songs recorded with it!

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  4. I had an esq-1 from around 1990 to 2004 and wrote a ton of music on it. I knew it inside out and only sold it with a bunch of other gear so i could buy a laptop. I don’t really regret it as i rinsed that machine. There’s a cool hack to get extra waveforms i used to do using a software editor for the SQ80, can’t really remember how tho!

    Also, i don’t miss carrying that thing around, it was heavy!

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  5. This post makes me happier to own one of these gems. I never use it anymore though, I need to get into the habit of using it more than just a midi controller. I got mine on eBay for $140, that’s including the shipping. Best thing I’ve gotten on eBay so far! Thanks for making this awesome post Oliver, keep it up! :)

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    1. It’s great to rediscover stuff in your own studio. My number one rule is never sell any hardware!

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  6. I don’t have an ESQ-1 but bought it’s younger relative, the Ensoniq VFX-SD. Got it a few years ago for around $200. I use it as my main keyboard controller (the keyboard action is incredible on it). It sounds a little (and looks a little) like the ESQ-1 here, but more sample based and digital sounding. It’s one of the few synths to have real wavetable synthesis in it too. A big crunchy 16-bit digital sound. I think of it as the “Made in the USA” D-50.

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  7. Great to see some love for the ESQ-1! I have a SQ-80 that I picked up on Ebay about a decade ago for $150. Love the sound of the filter. Looking forward to hear what you do with your ESQ-1 Oliver!

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  8. Here’s some websites about the ESQ-1/SQ-80 you might find useful, including info on spare parts, OS, cartridges, etc…:

    http://www.buchty.net/ensoniq/

    http://www.pic101.com/ensoniq/

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  9. I have an ESQm and love it still. I’ve had it since it was new in the 80s, and despite selling off tons of other gear over the years, I haven’t been able to part with it. What it fetches on the used market vs what it does for my productions is not a trade off that’s worthwhile. I’d rather have the functionality than the $250 by far and away. I have often wondered why it never got the same cred as the Prophet T8 when its nearly the same beast (3-OSC, wavetable + Curtis). I also still own a Mirage 8-bit sampler with Curtis chips as a poor man’s Emu Sp-12, for 8-bit sampling meets that Curtis lowpass filter, (also a Skinny Puppy fave) which can easily be mapped to the mod wheel for a fun filtered drum kit vibe especially with MASOS 3rd party OS for it. I think the digital menus that separate you from the synth paramters are the #1 reason its not a total classic. Had Ensoniq put knobs & sliders on their early analog digital hybrids like Roland did with the Juno-106, people would be fighting over these. That of course can be remedied with a good SysEx Ed/Lib or control surface with an ESQ template loaded in, but most people won’t go to the trouble. That said, I have found that my biggest creative barrier is not the ESQ’s sonic architecture which is fantastic, but rather the inaccessibility of parameters, so I end up using my older patch creations too often, rather than creating new patches each time I sit down with it, like I do with my alpha Juno-1/PG-300, Syntechno TeeBee, Nord Lead or Eurorack Modular. Still though, the ESQm plays a vital role of beastly polyphonic that is distinctly different from my other poly synths, and compliments my mono synths nicely.

    I think the quote you pulled from vintagesynth.com is spot on the money. Couldn’t agree more. :)

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  10. Hey Everyone!
    I bought the ESQ-1 new along time ago… but I never really got past using the presets! I tried programming it, but never really understood filters, oscillators, DCA… etc! LOL. What I was wondering, is there anything out there that would help me regarding programming the ESQ-1?

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  11. Hi,
    Very cool page for ESQ-1 enthusiasts.
    I just want to make a shameless pitch for the ESQ-1 and VFX. I recorded a cd about 1 year ago Soniq Variants(as in Ensoniq) in which I extensively used Ensoniq gear mainly the ESQ-1 and a modified VFX-SD. The music is all ambient electronica and just goes to show you how these machines are still very useful in todays world. If you spend some time programming(its easier than you think!) the ESQ1 you will be quite surprised how warm and grandiose the machine can sound. The filters are superb and its multi-timbral like having 8 mono synths in one!

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      1. My first poly synth bought new in the UK, 1987. It was a choice between an OB’Matrix6 or an ESQ1. To be honest, the sequencer swung it for me more than the sound, the Oberheim sounded warmer to me. Within 10 minuets of seriously getting into the ESQ(patch editing a dream), I realised I’d bought into a unique sound. I’d made the right choice. Many happy times until I had to sell in 1995 just to buy a flight case for a TS12, for a tour in Africa. On arrival, that BIG TS12 was ####ed!! Very unhappy times…One dead TS, no ESQ. However, SHE’S COMING HOME AFTER 17 YEARS!! Just bought one outright on ebay for £299! As I write, she’s on her way to me. Can’t wait, a true American classic!! Cheers, Pete.

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        1. Great story and congrats Pete… ESQ is really a secret special!

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          1. Nice story. I owned a TS-10 totally different machine and still sounds great even in today’s land of rehash digi synths. I wanted to reply because not only did I also own a TS-10 but a Matrix 6(hyped for it being an Oberheim) which sounds thinner than the ESQ-1. The M6 is not an Xpander or a M12 and sounds radically thinner and lacking the so called Oberheim warmth. I managed to come up with pads just as good as a M12 or OB8 on nmy ESQ-1 you just need to know how to detuned it and marinade in in a nice old Lexicon reverb!

          2. Hi Greg, yeah I agree. I loved my TS12. The fault turned out to be a faulty disc drive. What I didn’t mention before was that I counted six ‘size 12′ boot prints on the flight case, face up. Months of fighting with British Airways followed until they backed down and paid for the repair. She came to a sticky end about 10 years ago when somebody spilt beer onto keys(not me)! Had the mother board cleaned but it had corrupted the sound engine. People would comment when they heard projects I’d be using her on,”who’s the brass section”?…Honestly. I’ve yet to hear any Roland or Korg that comes close, even now! Strings as well, killed on that thing! Ensoniq’s really are something special. Cheers, Pete.

        2. Thanks Mate! Still waiting though:( British post, best in the world!:(

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  12. Hi Oliver, thanks for the photo of that sweet looking ESQ. Now I need a cold shower. I’m already on the register, you should know better sending pictures like that to synthophiles…”AHEM”. Anyway, I’ve finally got my synth off the postman. Everything works OK but I was kidding myself if I thought I wouldn’t have at least one issue, coming as it did off ebay…There’s a fault with DCA’s 1-3. Briefly, they work only at near maximum gain(around ’53′ on the main DCA oscillator level setting), under ’53′ there’s no tone. Modulating the DCA at full amount with ENV or LFO with main level at zero, you only hear tone when the MOD gain is excess of ’53′. So, apply a long attack on ENV, and for the duration of the attack phase you hear only a bit of OSC bleed until suddenly sound! All DCA’s 1-3 share this fault respectively, ENV4-DCA4 hard wired is working as normal. OSC freq mod is not affected by any of this so I’m sure the fault lies with the DCA’s. Please, any help gratefully appreciated. Thanks, Pete.

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  13. just looking at trying to get my ESQ-1 back into my music making, hook it up to my computer finally perhaps? :-) been using one since 86, got my own in 89 when i saved up enough money. the one thing that really makes this keyboard sound totally up to date is a little reverb and delay. i love the Kalimba sound, and a bunch of resonant filter string sounds i made myself. so rich… i was trying to find a link on our band site to songs that use the ESQ-1 but it wouldn’t let me just select those tracks. https://www.facebook.com/FadedSFmusic/app_2405167945. Check out the song Ignorance is Fatal. all keyboards are ESQ-1 run thru a Quadraverb, the drums are on a Mirage sampler and Alesis SR-16. the audio samples were all triggered on an Amiga computer live. haha now you know it’s OLD school! that was back in 1992 i think. the other songs that feature the same keyboard/drum machine setup (plus guitars and vocals) are West, Nothing to Feel, Ascend, Hours and Let it Go. a few years ago my ESQ sequencer stopped working very well and i switched to a 1999 version of Frooty Loops, but i still sample off my ESQ-1 when i can! :-) rock on!

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  14. Just in case anyone has an ESQ-1 and is into Python, I have written a Python module that can generate or edit ESQ-1 patches and load them from or save them to SYSEX files: https://github.com/stuartkeith/esq1

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  15. All you need to know on the ESQ-1 / SQ-80-

    Here’s an example of Ensoniq ESQ-1 sounds in an older song of mine, and it’s also being used as the sequencer driving the EMU-ESI 32 sampler.
    The ESQ-1 is mainly responsible for the liquid / melodic sounds. All the rest are the EMU sampler-

    http://soundcloud.com/frost_light_project/strange-enough

    (Recorded live onto single track DAT. Most of it was step edited by hand on the ESQ-1.)

    The ESQ-1 (and SQ-80) are definitely under-rated synths. I’ve owned an ESQ for many years, and if you get deep into programming sounds it has wonderful liquid sounds, analog style saw, and square growls, good osc syncs, 8 bit video game style sounds, and lush beautifully emotional almost analog sounds that can have quite a bit of complex modulation for an 80′s synth.

    It uses digital waveforms, but runs them through a smooth analog filter with nice character. It’s fairly warm / analog sounding for a mostly digital synth.

    The stock sounds were kind of average as usual. It’s when you program it for a while that you can get amazing results.

    Here’s one cool thing I discovered when I put my friend’s SQ-80 sound cartridge in my ESQ-1-

    If you can get SQ-80 waveforms where all 3 oscillators start at waveform 70 (highest wave), and then put that patch into the ESQ-1, the ESQ-1 will play the SQ-80 waves but they don’t behave normally which can be cool.

    And it shouldn’t cause issues with the ESQ-1. Used this technique for many years with no problems.

    The only thing is that if you change waves down from 70 (which can get interesting circuit bent style results on the ESQ) you can’t go back up on waveforms 36-70 on the ESQ. So you have to be strategic when designing sounds with the extra waves, and keep a master copy of the patch with the waves set to 70 for each of the 3 oscillators

    They are the additional 35 extra waveforms intended for the SQ-80. The ESQ-1 garbles them in strange ways.

    It’s an 8 voice synth, but if I remember right it can even be chained with another ESQ-1 slave synth, and if they both have the same patches loaded up, you could put the master (and servant!) in “overflow” mode that effectively makes it a 16 voice, 16 track synth instead of 8. Even with just 8 voices, it does pretty well at note allocation.

    The ESQ-M (ESQ-1 rack version) was a different story- only 1 parameter on screen at a time where the ESQ-1 could have up to 10 with corresponding buttons. The ESQ-M sounds the same as the ESQ-1, but it’s not nearly as fun to work with.

    You probably want to put these synths through an effect machine to get the most out of them. They have no internal effects.

    They’re also very easy to sequence on (although editing options are somewhat limited), and it has a step editor that’s fun and easy to use.

    Get the metal case ones if you can. The plastic one’s screen could die if you lean on it too hard which you often do when programming. (From what I understand, the plastic cover could flex too much and break the solder joints for the screen.)

    The ESQ-1 had an expansion slot for larger sequencing memory- I think it goes up to 10,000 recordable notes and 30 sequences.

    The sequences were parts of songs that could be chained together and automated in song mode, or just mixed on the fly- with 8 tracks that could be assigned to different internal sounds, as well as control multiple outboard midi instruments.

    They were pretty intuitively designed compared to most other digital synths of that age. They have 10 selector buttons above and below the screen with most parameters easily accessible without much menu diving.

    They hold 40 internal patches, and an additional 80 on the changeable sound cartridges for a total of 120 sounds.

    They also have a data slider (and up/down buttons) for whatever parameter you choose so it’s quick to change.

    How the SQ-80 was different from the ESQ-1-

    They’re very similar, but the SQ-80 had twice the recordable notes (20,000 instead of 10,000) and sequence capacity (60 instead of 30 sequences), twice as many waveforms (70 vs 35), and had a floppy disc drive to save sounds and sequences. The ESQ-1 did not have a disc drive, so you’d have to save your sounds to an editor librarian, or an Alesis data disk, or an Ensoniq Mirage sampler which was compatible with the ESQ-1 and could save it’s sounds to disk. (..and there were other options like tape saving).

    The SQ-80 uses the same 35 waveforms as the ESQ-1, and has an extra 35 waves for a total of 70.
    They both sound pretty much the same when it comes down to it though.

    The SQ-80 also had aftertouch (the ESQ-1 just had velocity)- the aftertouch sensors apparently make the SQ-80 keyboard “clack” a bit, unlike the ESQ-1 on which the keyboard has a pretty nice feeling with no clack. That alone has always made me favor the ESQ-1. That clacking sound isn’t really loud but can take away from the joy of making music.

    They’re built like tanks, and are quite reliable, but they are aging, and repairs may be needed from time to time. The internal battery typically needs to be replaced every 5-7 years, and each end is soldered to the board. (A few have been modified to make battery replacement easier.)

    They are great synths- 3 oscillators, with 35 or 70 waves each, 4 envelopes, and 3 LFO’s that can be assigned to modulate pitch, filter, panning etc. And they have Curtis chips, and analog filters which is where the liquidy pretty stuff comes from.

    (I was contracted with Ensoniq to design sounds for the ESQ-1 shortly after it came out. I sold them over 100 patches, so you might even have some sounds I designed in your ESQ!)..

    I selfishly kept all the really amazing patches to myself of course, and still have them. ( :

    -Wizard

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  16. Hi friends, I hope my previous comment “synthophile” e.c.t, didn’t offend anyone. I was only messing about, no offence intended. I’m sorry if this was the case…Anyway, just to say I’ve finally managed to get my poorly ESQ to synth guru ‘James Walker’, one of the best techs in the UK and he knows Ensoniq’s inside-out. So hopefully, I’ll have some good news soon:) Cheers all!

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    1. I don’t think that offended anyone. I usual say “synth nerds” though! Cheers!

      Reply

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