Growing its V-Collection suite at a steady rate, Arturia became one of the leaders in analog synth emulation. But lately it seems that the French audio stronghold has nurtured a soft spot for the quirky digital synthesizers that murdered analog for a decade or two before menu diving became uncool with the kids again. V-Collection 8 introduced a fantastic take on the Emulator II, THE mid-80s sampler synth powerhouse (rivaled only by the EMAX, I’d say, but what do I know… I was merely a spark in my father’s weary eyes at the time). Today, Arturia is turning its sights onto a famous creation by what I consider the 80s digital craze’s chief underdog – Ensoniq.
The American manufacturer’s sampling keyboards, such as the Mirage, ESQ-1, SQ-80, EPS, and ASR-10 are the stuff of legends. Brimming with potential, yet comparatively affordable, these went a long way with studio rats at the time, and still represent a love interest for vintage synth explorers. To me, the Ensoniq stuff (particularly the Mirage) helped define the hauntingly beautiful synth sounds of the late, great Dwayne Rudolph Goettel – the auxilary heart of my favourite band in the world, which is Skinny Puppy.
Arturia SQ 80 V
For its first Ensoniq emulation, Arturia chose an all-around crowd favorite – the SQ-80. This keyboard is basically an ESQ-1 with a beefed-up engine that was blown wide open by handsy users and modded into the stratosphere. I’d trust Arturia to take a keyboard like this kicking and screaming into the 21 century like I’d trust very few developers with the same task – like the brilliant folks at Cherry Audio and u-he. Expectations are understandably high, but does the SQ 80 V rule?
Lovers of the SQ-80 have long benefited from the crazy good freeware emulation that is the SQ8L. Save for a bunch of Kontakt libraries, I think Sigfried Kullmann’s accomplishment is the sole viable competitor to Arturia’s work. Being a somewhat dated effort that’s not always easy to integrate in a modern DAW setup, SQ8L forever deserves praise, but it certainly shouldn’t sway you from exploring the French alternative. Arturia has provided a typically exhaustive emulation of the SQ-80’s many abilities to end up with something that sounds period-authentic, but feels as exciting to work with as any modern softsynth.
The SQ 80 V interface is organized in three views. Instrument view displays the entire keyboard naturelle, with all controls and keys usable via mouse. It’s a welcome bit of authentism, but also a means to make quick tweaks to patches without jumping into the more involved Synthesis view. There, the entire synth architecture is laid out before thee – that’s 3 digital 8-bit oscillators, the famous analog filter, 4 envelopes, 3 LFOs, the Mixer, and an additional 3 sections – Voice, Tune, and DCA4. I’m in-between flats at the moment, so my life is the manifestation of universal chaos and I was unable to really dig into the sound design possibilities. But the gist is that SQ 80 V is both the SQ-80 as you know it, and not quite.
That’s because Arturia worked out thoughtful upgrades wherever possible. Think of 16-voice polyphony (twice the original’s), 8-voice unison for massive chords and stabs, and 2 additional envelope modes. There’s more, but the latter are incredibly interesting. The DADSR mode adds a delay stage to the traditional ADSR points, and the MSEG mode provides a fully customizable looping function generator – that’s a lot of fancy words for “you get to paint envelopes how you want them.” Wicked!
Chiefly, Arturia not only dusted off the full factory library from 1988, but also put in all the ‘hacked’ waveforms which crafty owners created by messing with the original code. Same goes for all the ESQ-1 waveforms hidden in it. Heck, Arturia even had the guts to transplant the Transwaves technology from Ensoniq’s later products into the virtual SQ-80. I know how much Arturia means its business, but they never cease to amaze me. Buzz off, it’s my fanboy moment!
What else is there? Yup, that’s an arpeggiator right there, and the effects? Oh, man! Arturia loves effects and synths about equally, so it understandably went to town and came back with abridged versions of all the reverbs, delays, modulations (including the Juno chorus), dynamics and digital stuff it built for its sizable collection of effects plug-ins. Enter Effects view and take yer pick (of up to 4)!
Make no mistake – the SQ 80 V is a crunchy, mean, 8-bit lo-fi machine. With the liberal sound design possibilities on offer and a smidge of imagination, you can squeeze out a bottomless variety of sounds from it. But the gritty character isn’t something you are supposed to get around – you have to embrace it. As a lover of creatively borked up sounds, the SQ 80 V has already brightened my days. It’s available now for EUR 99 at launch, EUR 199 post-introductory period. Have fun!