8 – Ensoniq ESQ-1

Years of production: 1986-88
Spec: 8-voice hybrid polysynth
Key features: digital oscillators; Curtis analogue filters
Current second-hand price: £150-250

Before the arrival of digital workstation keyboards in the late 80s, there was a brief period where manufacturers made early attempts at nailing the idea of all-in-one production solutions with digital features.

The ESQ-1 is the perfect example. Building on the hybrid digital/analogue concept of their Mirage sampler, the company integrated digital oscillators with Curtis analogue filter chips and an eight track sequencer. Ignore the sequencing options; you’d have to be a crazy masochist to want to sequence on this dinosaur in the 21st century.

Instead, focus on the ESQ’s amazingly versatile synth features: with three oscillators (each with its own VCA), three LFOs and four envelope generators per voice, this is one of the most powerful hybrid synth engines you’ll find anywhere.

Dig deep into the modulation options and you’ll be hard pressed to find any synth which can keep up with the ESQ’s abilities to create organic, evolving pads and subtle shifting textures.

If you can’t find an ESQ-1, keep an eye out for the slightly scarcer and more expensive SQ-80 or the Korg DSS-1, which also combines digital oscillators with analogue filters.

19th September, 2012

Comments

  • Enjoyed this. informative and fun article.

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  • This was a good read. I would like to see another article on sampled based instruments, another on workstations and one on drum machines. IE (The good, the bad and the undervalued)

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  • David –

    Drum machines here: http://www.attackmagazine.com/features/top-ten-classic-drum-machines/

    Dave @ Attack

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  • classic era mini and maxi family are the real underrated korg synths, not he ms

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  • I would have included the Akai AX-60 on there as a relatively lesser known and underrated synth rivaling the Juno 106.

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  • Alpha Juno 2 and JX-3P are very much deserved on this list. Both super cheap and both sound great. I’d have added the Yamaha SY77 (or TG77) too, that thing is a powerhouse and totally over-looked and goes sometimes for less than a DX7 (heck even a DX-100) I’ve had all those inc DX-100 and many differetn DX7s and I can tell you none of them are value/under-rated like the SY77 is. It’s a total monster and can do almost anything from analog style bass, leads to the most complex evolving beautiful ‘alive’ pads (only use FM mode though – the samples should be ignored and partly why this is misunderstood synth) you essentially have 2 DX7 IIs under the hood but with far more ability, I swear you could use an SY/TG77 for 20 years and never max it out it’s that potent. One of them and A 3P or Juno 2 and you have an amazing set up that runs rings around far more expensive rigs.

    I’ve tried many many under-rated synths (sub $1000) and my top 3 choices would be SY77, Juno 2, JX-3p – for value AND ability but above all SOUND!

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  • Roland Juno 2 is a very capable and underrated synth.
    I love the way Drexciya used this synth in several productions,in my opinion the best way this synth is used.

    Greetings,Sjoerd.

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  • a couple of others: yamaha pss 480, akai ax-80, casio cz-1, realistic mg-1

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  • I think you’d be quite lucky to find them at these prices. Enjoyed the article but it will probably bring the prices up even higher.

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  • I’d add the Korg Dw8000/ex8000, with a fabulous filter , versatile fx and easy programmation. I agree too about the juno 2 that I love, but for the atc 1 and pulse that I owned, the only bad thing is of course not the sound but the programmation matrix…. Why not add the superbass station?

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  • I was owner of the moog prodigy in 1981. The filter is a moog ladder filter. My favourite sound: 2 X triangular wave at the filter input.

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  • I always look up the synths mentioned in these articles and the prices are always far higher. Where are you guys finding these?!? Let me in, I need something tactile!

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  • djoremi –

    Prices have probably risen since we published the article but we’re still confident all these synths could be picked up within the price ranges we’ve listed here.

    First off, eBay is now one of the most expensive places to buy second-hand gear, so you need to expand your horizons if that’s where you’re looking. Try forums, tell all your friends what you’re looking for, visit local second-hand dealers, go to auction houses, keep your ear to the ground for house clearances and yard sales…

    If you are shopping on eBay, look out for auctions listed for collection only. They’ll usually go for much less than if the seller was willing to ship them.

    There are still plenty of bargains out there. Good luck with your search!

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  • Mostly agree with your list of bargain heroes here, with a few additions and alternatives:
    – For the Ensoniq ESQ: consider the Korg DW6000 and DW8000 instead of the DSS as alternative: both digital (sampled) oscillators with analog filters, while the DSS adds a sampling facility that is rather unusable these days. Another great alternative is the Kawai K3 that adheres to the same concept and is definitely a bargain.
    – For the JX3p consider the Roland MKS30 module as an alternative: virtually the same except the keyboard and with velocity and mush better midi-specs.

    Now that you’ve got me started: Kawai SX210 and 240 (both analog poly), K4r (digital), all the Casio CZ and VL-synths (great alternatives for the Yamaha DX-range), Korg DS8 and 707, Sequential Sixtrak…

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  • Might want to check the date of production for the ATC-1 there…

    I think someone was asleep when they wrote that.

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  • I don’t know what the author is talking about. Most those synths listed are not underrated. Those are like all extremely expensive vintage synths that are hard to find.

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  • WTF is this list – all these synths are expensive.. he just pulled the prices out his @ss because he’s a limey nerd trying to appear relevant

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  • no place for a Crumar or Elka?

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  • JX3P SY77 & SY99 Happily sitting in my studio ! Oh not forgetting my Matrix 6

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  • I totally agree with Juno 2 (or MKS 50, same thing in a rack), including PG 300 controller (hard to get though). The prices here are not 100% realistic, as some of the gear is gong for more already. I’d add the Roland Super JD (or JD 990) here.

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  • Casio HT & HZ family are the most underated of all. HT6000 is an 8 voice analog polysynth with 4 DCO, 1 VCF, 1 ring mod, 3 Env, noise, independent velocity response for each DCO, 64 waveforms, LFO with S&H, etc per voice, plus analog chorus. HT3000 and 700 are 8 voice paraphonics with 1 DCO per voice, plus 1 VCF and analog chorus.

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  • hoping you just do a great synths one of these article ,rather than just under-rated
    love to see to what you rate not just for sound but programmability and versatility

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  • When he speaks of the IR3109, he is talking aobut the JX-3P and not the JX-8p, as the 8P has a IR3105. The JX-3P and 8P are cousins, not brothers and sisters…..

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  • Great selection, but I dont think these ones are kind of underrated

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  • I found my ESQ-1 and juno-1 within the prices listed here. The trick is you have to be patient and keep looking around ( obviously you gotta avoid ebay) Prices go up and down on the used market for various things.

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  • Micromoog should be on the list, it regularly gets hated on because of its single oscillator and relatively straight forward modulation section.

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  • Like the selection but the prices need some updating because they have become hilariously expensive, that’s especially true for Ebay. For example I used to be able to find, say a Kawai SX210 or 240 for less than $300 and now I see them go for $800+. I’d also like to suggest some additions to the list:

    Akai AX series
    Casio HT & CZ series (Ex: CZ230S and HT-700/3000/6000 are programmable synthesizer home keyboards.
    Korg DS-8
    Paia 2720
    Seiko DS101, 202 & 250 with DS310 programmer
    Anything Siel and Crumar

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  • Don’t know why the Rogue gets a bad rap. I’ve had both a Prodigy and a first generation Rogue for years now and they’re both great. The Rogue has a lot of sweet tricks up it’s sleeve and is much more diverse than credited for. I can vouch for this. I’ve done some fantastic recordings with it. Love the arp type options and hold switch too.

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  • I have an ensonic ESQ1 with stand that I am looking to sell. If anyone is interested please let me know! It’s been in the garage since my mom bought it for me. I think she was hoping to see me become a pianist as well as a singer but it just didn’t click with me. Thanks!

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  • Hello! Is the ESQ1 still available? if so, where is it? I agree with the list of synths given here. by the way. Well done.

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  • The ESQ1 is great if your want to make music or sounds from the 80’s. So im not surprised it didnt click with being a singer and a pianist.

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  • I’ve owned a Prodigy and a Pro-1 and I think the Pro-1 was a much more capable synth.

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  • “Juno6 Wrote:

    Casio HT & HZ family are the most underated of all. HT6000 is an 8 voice analog polysynth with 4 DCO, 1 VCF”

    The HT6000 has a filter per voice = EIGHT independent analogue filters. It’s the only model in the HT/ HZ range so equipped (along with a velocity sensitive keyboard). All the others (HT700/ 3000 and HZ600) have just a single filter and non velocity sensitive keys.

    They’re very interesting synths and capable of some good sounds, though the specs make them sound more impressive that they actually are. They lack CC/SYSEX control and also seriously lack bottom end frequencies. The HT6000 can use a ring modulation trick on the 4th DCO to bring in a sub bass to a patch, but otherwise they are quite lacking in the bass department.

    All the HT’s are definitely underrated though, and can still be picked up for bargain prices. They can also be modified to add extra controls for the filter and resonance, plus have the resonance tweaked to go into self oscillation.

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  • Actually, Liam did that in the late 80’s…

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  • I really enjoyed this article though I must say that I’ve never even heard of the majority of these synths and, I’m an old guy having finished high school in the late 70’s. I don’t remember seeing most of these in the music stores back then but, it may have been because I had my eye on other things I couldn’t afford like the MiniMoog and Arp 2600.
    One of my brothers played an Ensonic ESQ1 for years, it really was a great synth and I think it still has a great and unique sound. Definately underrated. I had my eye on the Ensonic SQ1 until I discovered FM and enventually the Yamaha SY77, which I still use to this day. Now THAT is a seriously underrated synth. It, along with the tg77 and SY99, are more powerful and versatile than all the FM synths before it or since, but it was overshadowed by the sample playback movement that seemed to peak with the Korg M1. If your goal was realistic pianos and such, they were in fact, pretty good. Although the SY77 has samples for playback, they were not as good as those in the M1. But, these sample based synths have NEVER been able to equal the subtlety and nuance of ANY of the FM synths. This is important when you are creating orginal sounds. Listen to some of the demos of the DX series on youtube and realise these sounds were created using nothing but enveloped oscillators using simple sine waves. No filters or effects were included, yet the DX7 was one of the biggest sellers in synth history. Now with the SY77, add 15 more wave forms, 13 more algorithms, up to 4 layers (the DX7 had one) plus, 2 filters per layer, effects AND, sample play back? You would think Yamaha would have been fighting to keep up with production and yet, it is nearly as unknown to most musicians as most of the above list is to me. I tell people I play the SY77 and just get blank stares. Sigh. Such is the life of the underrated.

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  • Looks like someone needs to do a little more homework here.

    3 noticeable absentees are: the Korg DW8000; the ARP Odyssey; and the ever so popular Yamaha DX 7.

    They should be on this list and also the other list about synths.
    To exclude them means that these list are simply flawed and incomplete.

    Just sayin’…

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  • I think the point was underated synths!

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  • I think the Moog Rogue is awesome, far from “disappointing”. My grandfather
    recently gave me his, along with a completely unused TB-303 he had stashed away. They both are now being used to make music that he would find nauseating, Cheers Grandpa!

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  • Roland JD-800 of 1991 is the most under-rated synth. The Author might not know about the JD-800 and how good it is with a signature sound to it and how it caused a person to get very amazing pads quickly which in theory could be reproduced by other synths but got them quickly and a JD800.

    The Author could listen to Psygone – Costra Nemus and notice both the opening pad and the lead synths which are JD 800. And listen to other random 1990s Psygone songs to get a sense of the the JD-800.

    Although they are different types and cant be compared, overall, The JD-800 is better than the jupiter and juno synths. its better than the poly six and many other synths, even though its digital or part digital. If a person has a JD-800, a 303 the old TS 404 that person can make electronic music that sounds much better.

    Wow, someone in the comments section said his grandfather gave him an unused 303! Probably audio-realism replicates the 303 best even though Phoscyon has better added-features. Too bad the Phoscyon doesnt have the filter of an AudioRealism Bassline with its better features.

    The OLD TS-404 before the FL Studio version was changed and ruined is the most under rated VST, its filter and built in disortion type B is incredible and has a signature sound to it. download the stand alone 1999 TS 404 and listen to the examples and the filter. the TS 404 sounds much better than all newer monophonic type or bass-line type VSTs exscept for the V-Station which is also good

    But the point of this comment is you ALL need to go and listen to JD-800s and if you listen to Psygone Songs you can hear more what it can do that the videos of JD 800s that people make on youtube. Youll want a JD-800, the old TS-404 and a Freeware KX77FREE Modulad

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  • I Wonder if the commentor named Rick Knows that the Ensonic ESQ1 is perfectly emulated by a freeware emulator someone made for it, VST. almost all VST emulators dont emulate accurately but the Ensonic ESQ1 just so happens to have an emulator that really is just like it and everyone praises it and says so. its a tiny freeware DLL VST called SQ8L and it has the Ensonic ESQ1’s origial presets in like bank C or D on it.

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  • Most of these synths are cheap for a reason. They’re uninspiring knobless wonders or severely limited. You’ll end up programming them with your pc like a softsynth. You may as well just skip the middle man.

    I’ll grant an exception for the Prodigy and the CS-15, but these synths aren’t cheap or ‘underrated’ where I live, so…

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  • Hmm even in 2012 (in the UK) the projected prices are half what they were in reality, , yes if you are lucky in classified adds you may drop on , but for the prices listed they would be pretty battered. I would also add TG77 / SY77 and the Cheetah MS6 remove the DX100 because it isn’t exactly underated .

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  • definitely would’ve tried to throw the Casio CZ series in there somewhere…good drop nonetheless.

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  • Great read but cross referencing with ebay all these synths have since jumped in price..oh well.

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  • I have Roland rs202 string synth in my garage, I’ve never plugged in or tested it. Does anyone have any idea if it’s worth anything? Thanks!

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  • Tone 303: I don’t think the JD 800 is under rated. It’s a famous synth that is well known amongst musicians that were around in the early 90’s. I have one. The JX3P is truly under rated. It is a gem.

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  • I was thinking: Where the hell are prices coming from? I scroll down… And I see where… 4+ Years ago

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  • The arp odyssey? Are you serious?

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  • JD-800 is a beautiful, beautiful synthesizer. Looks and sound wise. It’s a very special machine even with only PCM engine. It has outclassed many of my analogs in its time and sounds amazing in a mix next to real analogs.

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  • Roland , like the others confusing with arh. of Synth , like Juno’s , JX and @ Juno’s !? Juno 6 – 106 real analog interface , easy to program and real time control like ”real analog ” but only 1 DCO per voice ! JX , 3 -10 , 2 DCO per voice bat digitally based programing , hard to make any with out programing units , not possible for real time control , like @ . Only couple of sliders on JX and @ dial on Juno @ can do some as real time control .

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