When I divested myself of most of my hardware synths, one of the very last to go was my Ensoniq ESQ-M — one of the company’s first synthesizers, succeeding the Mirage sampler and the ESQ-1. Both ESQ models were identical in their voice architecture, with three digitally controlled oscillators and an analog signal path that featured a juicy 24dB Curtis lowpass filter. Its warm, often gritty tone and well-designed signal flow found a place in my music for decades. So I was excited to hear that UVI resurrected the instrument for its free UVI Workstation and flagship Falcon synthesizer.
Among the USQ-1’s basic sounds are the 32 raw waveforms that populated the original Ensoniq instruments. The remaining waveforms are more complex and were created by sampling fully developed ESQ-1 patches. Unfortunately, its two-oscillator (the ESQ models had three) voice architecture differs enough from the originals to preclude any precise rendering of your favorite ESQ-based patches.
The USQ-1 signal flow is simple. The panel is easy on the eye, with plenty of visual real estate allocated to the parameters. Each of the oscillators has 4-stage amp and filter envelopes. The filters offer highpass, lowpass and bandpass types and have their own ADSR, with controls for cutoff, resonance, depth, and velocity sensitivity.
The Wave-Selection window is where you load a fully-finished patch or one of the original ESQ waveforms into each oscillator. Although a number of USQ-1 patches are single-oscillator sounds, be sure to audition the second oscillator, since most are programmed to enhance the existing patch. But don’t look for a complex, convoluted modulation matrix as nearly everything is hardwired and uncomplicated (although automation via Control Change messages is fully supported).
Use the Edit button to access playback modes and alter the basic pitch of the oscillators; such as changing the stereo width, detuning the oscillator against itself in Unison mode, and altering tone color by pitch-shifting samples. You’ll also find modulation-wheel assignments (vibrato, tremolo, and filter cutoff ) and poly/mono performance settings.
In addition to the routine mod-wheel tasks, a second Mod window offers additional LFO functions per oscillator including cyclic, tempo-synched control of filters, volume, and pitch. More interesting is the Step Modulator, which serves as an auxiliary LFO and uses ties, rise time, and averages to smooth out transitions from one step to the next. Although it can modulate either or both oscillators, the destinations are hardwired to volume and filter only; a second step modulator and conventional LFO would have been welcome.
In addition to effects culled from UVI’s SparkVerb and Thorus, you’ll find a simple, yet flexible 16-step arpeggiator for each oscillator with the ability to link. However, the length of each sequence, as well as speed, direction and tuning are independent.
FATTEN THE HATCHES!
Although the USQ-1 doesn’t fully re-create the ESQ-based voice architecture (which seems possible given the power behind UVI Workstation and Falcon), UVI does a great job capturing the sonorities of the originals. And in many ways, USQ-1 exceeds the potential of its Ensoniq forerunners.
The layering capabilities and high-quality effects can dress up and fatten the occasionally thin and grainy qualities of the originals, while faithfully evoking the timbral variety that made the ESQ-series stand out in a crowd (particularly apparent in the keyboard and bass patches).
Overall, the USQ-1 — especially in the context of UVI Falcon — is a terrific sounding, powerfully expressive synthesizer that will add intriguing colors to your synth mixes.
Marty Cutler is the author of The New Electronic Guitarist, published by Hal Leonard.
Tasty revision of signature Ensoniq timbres. Uncluttered GUI. Simplified modulation routing. Oscillators include 32 original ESQ waveforms.
Doesn’t have 3-oscillator voice architecture of the original instruments.