Ensoniq ESQ-1

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A fully operational Ensoniq ESQ-1
Dates1985 - 1989
Technical specifications
Polyphony8 voices
Oscillator3× single-cycle wavetable-lookup oscillators per voice
LFO3 (triangle, saw, square and noise)
Synthesis typesubtractive
Filter1 analog resonant low-pass per voice
Attenuator4 VCA (3 DCA, 1 VCA)
Envelope - Four levels, four rates
Storage memory40 patches internal
80 extra with an expansion card
Keyboard61 keys
External controlMIDI

Ensoniq ESQ-1 is a 61-key, velocity sensitive, eight-note polyphonic and multitimbral synthesizer released by Ensoniq in 1985, marketed as a "digital wave synthesizer". Although its voice generation is typically subtractive in much the same fashion as most analog synthesizers that preceded it, its oscillators are neither voltage nor "digitally controlled", but provided by a custom Ensoniq wavetable chip. The signal path includes analog resonant low-pass filters and an analog amplifier.

The synth also features a fully functional, if crude by modern standards, 8-track MIDI sequencer that can run either its internal sounds, external MIDI equipment, or both, with a capacity of 2,400 notes (expandable via cartridges). It provides quantization, step-editing, primitive forms of copy/paste editing, and can be synchronized with external MIDI or tape-in clock.

ESQ-1 can store 40 presets internally, and features a cartridge slot for additional storage capability. ESQ-M, a rackmount version of the synthesizer, was released circa 1987, with the same specifications but without the sequencer.

Notably, the sound chip at the core of the synth is a brainchild of Robert Yannes, father of the popular SID chip.


The ESQ-1 features eight voices with three oscillators per voice, and is fully multi-timbral. Despite eight voice polyphony, the system is actually nine-voice multi-timbral - when using eight internal sounds in the sequencer, one additional internal or cartridge sound can still be controlled independently. The wave ROM accessed by the soundchip contains 32 different waveforms, including standard synthesis waveforms such as sawtooth and square, but also less usual ones such as "piano", "voice", or "bass" (note that, although multi-sampled, these are still single-cycle waveforms, not true samples as such).

Each oscillator can be independently volume-controlled via its dedicated digitally-controlled amplifier, and modulated. Oscillator amplifiers provide room to be overdriven, and thus produce moderate analog distortion as an additional effect on, for example, synth leads or organ sounds.

ESQ-1 has three independent LFOs, and three independent envelope generators which can be programmed to modulate any number of parameters. The fourth envelope generator is hardwired to the main output amplifier though it can still be used as a modulation source for other parameters as well. The output amplifier (DCA4) also provides programmable panning for each voice. Its envelope generators allow numerical level/rate settings, and like many other synthesis parameters, allow the use of negative values. Furthermore, they can be set to track for keyboard velocity and alter the attack segment of the envelope (enabling a voice to have a soft attack when played softly or vice versa), and note position to alter envelope length (for instance, on a piano sound, having shorter notes higher up the keyboard).

Its low-pass filters are analog (CEM 3379), but digitally controlled, and thus can be modulated with a significant number of sources, including LFO, envelopes, velocity, aftertouch, modulation wheel, et cetera. Even though the filter resonance can be driven to extreme effect, the resonance setting features only 32 steps, and the filters do not fully self-oscillate. The ESQ-1's keybed doesn't feature aftertouch, but the synthesis engine is capable of processing polyphonic aftertouch over MIDI, such as the polyphonic aftertouch implementation of the SQ-80's keyboard.

Furthermore, Ensoniq ESQ-1 features amplitude modulation, oscillator sync, monophonic mode, and portamento.

Voice programming[edit]

Each section of the synthesizer is called to screen via a dedicated button, and settings inside each category are made by using one data slider or two +/- buttons. Settings do not influence the sound directly, but rather, changes are heard only when the next note is played. In other words, one can't use the data slider to change the filter cutoff setting as a way of producing a filter sweep, but can use any of the modulation sources to the same effect (including envelopes, the modulation wheel, modulation pedal, or external controllers over MIDI). Any modulation source can be set up to modulate any page of any given program (such as OSC1, DCA1, Filter, etc). Voices are organized in four banks, and all presets can be overwritten by the user, and exported as banks via the tape-out port in the form of audio-encoded data, thus making it easy to store any number of user-created banks on tape or, for example, a computer. Additionally, it has a cartridge slot for voice cartridges. Commercial cartridges come with two sets of four banks of voices each, but there are also blank or rewritable cartridges.


ESQ-1 has an eight track sequencer, which can be set to use any of the internal or cartridge sounds, or alternatively set to MIDI output channel for any track separately, while still being able to control a local voice on that track as well. Mixer section provides volume control for local sounds. MIDI output sends program changes, and the sequencer records continuous controller data such as pitch and modulation wheel use. The sequencer capacity can be expanded with additional cartridges. Events can be recorded in real-time (playing the keyboard or using any of the controllers with the optional use of integrated metronome with pre-count), or step by step. Recorded data can be quantized and tracks can be merged and copied. Changes and edits can be auditioned non-destructively. The sequencer can be set to slave or master clock, via MIDI or tape, and optionally controlled for play, record and punch-in via a footswitch. Sequences of up to 999 bars can be chained to "songs", with programmable number of repetitions for each, or sequenced live, since a currently selected sequence will play only after the previous one ends. Each "sequence" can use a different tempo.

Notable users[edit]

See also[edit]

Ensoniq SQ-80


  1. ^ "Behind the Release: School of Seven Bells Recombine for "Ghostory" | SonicScoop". Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  • Ensoniq ESQ'1 Digital Wave Synthesizer and Sequencer Musicians Manual Version 2.0 (PDF). Ensoniq. 1986. Model # MM-10, Part # 9310000701, Rev. 2. Your new ESQ 1 is acctually two powerful device -- an eight voice, poly-timbral Digital Synthesizer, and a flexible eight-track MIDI Sequencer -- built into one packaeg. ...", "The Synthesizer - With three Digital Wave Oscillators per voice, thirty-two sampled and synthetic Waveforms to choose from, and 15 routable Modulation sources, ... The ESQ 1 also has an Amplitude Modulation (AM) mode which can produce bell and ring-modulator type effects and a Sync mode for hard sync effects. ...", "The Sequencer - The built-in Sequencer can record and play back 2400 notes (expandable to 10,000 with the optional Sequencer Expander Cartridge). It will store 30 different Sequences, which can be combined into 10 songs. Sequences and Songs can be saved to tape or via MIDI to diskette using ...
  • Ensoniq ESQ'M Digital Wave Synthesizer Module - Musicians Manual Version 1.0 (PDF). Ensoniq. 1987. Model MM-11, Part #9310001301.

Further reading[edit]

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