It’s official, Arturia has captured and reimagined the classic Ensoniq SQ-80 Cross-Wave synth as the SQ80 V software instrument.
The SQ-80 was Ensoniq’s update to the even less impressive looking ESQ-1. It has that classic late 1980s vibe of a minimal digital interface designed to make you understand that synthesis is hard and needs to be worked at through the serious task of pushing buttons and paging through menus. However, interface aside the SQ-80 was a pretty decent instrument. It had a great keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch which attributed to the depth of modulation along with the three LFOs per voice. Each voice had three 8-bit digital oscillators that could use any of the 75 available waveforms making for some very interesting combination tones. This then went through an analogue 4-pole filter and analogue VCA so it had a warmth and feel to it that many of the emerging digital synths had lost.
I’m not exactly sure how awesome or popular this synthesizer is but Arturia suggest that it became a bit of a cult classic because it sounded good, was relatively easy to program and didn’t cost a fortune – that’s a pretty good combination. Apparently, it was created by the same people who were responsible for the Commodore 64 – I never knew that!
Arturia says that the uniqueness of the SQ80 V is in the combining and manipulation of waveforms. SQ80 V has all the classic waveforms found in the original plus hundreds more expanding massively on the potential of the synth and in some ways taking it away from what people liked about it. But let’s not be cynical, let’s see it as the evolution of a synthesizers capabilities into new tonal territories. Many of these new waveforms come from the hacking of the original software that was done at the time to unearth unpredictable waveforms made from manipulated code. They’ve also included some Transwaves that come from later Ensoniq synths.
For the analogue filter section, Arturia has modelled the CEM 3379 filter of the original and has kept in all the organic imperfections, crunchy harmonics and lo-fi distortion.
Arturia has added a bunch of things like an arpeggiator, 8-voice unison mode, 16 notes of polyphony, expanded envelopes, a Mod Mixer and MPE compatibility. There’s also something called Dispersion which reports to introduce subtle variations and inconsistencies to the sound so that no two notes sound exactly the same.
The interface has also been overhauled with nicely animated waveforms on the front panel. You stare at these for a while before wondering how you get to edit anything other than the three oscillators and the filter. Eventually, you’ll notice the “Synthesis” and “Effects” tabs at the top where you are treated to a full-on proper virtual synthesizer editing page. You do lose a little of the SQ-80 magic when the hardware is hidden but it’s a far more comprehensive place to do synthesizing.
It sounds really nice, the presets are interesting and familiar in a good way. It feels like a wavetable synth but one with a chunkiness and analogue vibe to it. The focus on the waveforms is really pleasing and you can lose yourself for ages clicking through them.
The SQ80 V is available now for an introductory price of €99 and you’ll find Arturia in booth Z090.