Grant's Gear Pages

Page 1a: Keyboards & Synths (continued)

The Gainful Employment Years (1988-present)

Ensoniq ESQ-1

Ensoniq ESQ-1
I had played the ESQ-1 in music shops and seen it played by Comedy of Errors. The hybrid analogue/digital synth engine led to some GREAT sounds, with the piano, choir and WAVBEL presets standing out. Unfortunately, the RRP was pretty scary to me at over £1000 (around 3 grand in today's money). Fortunately, by waiting a couple of years, I was able to pick one up second-hand from an Evening Times classified ad.

The ESQ-1 is without doubt my favourite polysynth (that I have actually owned). The voice architecture is versatile, yet very easy to get your head around, if you're familiar with the basics of subtractive synthesis. There are three digital oscillators per voice, each with a dedicated VCA. There is also a 'final' VCA which provides the overall volume envelope for the voice. There are three independent LFOs and four envelope generators, all of which can be used as modulation sources for various inputs. The modulation matrix is suprisingly user-friendly when you consider the miriad routing possibilities available. All oscillators are routed through a resonant 24dB/oct analogue low-pass filter (one per voice - not some weird paraphonic architecture like the Korg Poly-800).

The digital oscillators provided 32 waveform types, but many of these are actually multi-sampled wavetables which retain consistent formant properties over the keyboard range. This is particularly noticeable on the human voice waves, which avoid 'munchkinisation' by switching samples every three semitones (if memory serves). Of course, the good-old-fashioned 'standard' analogue waveforms are also available (though PWM is not an option). Having the luxury of three oscillators per voice at all times allows you to create very lush string and choir pads. You can get very close to the Solina ensemble effect by careful use of the three LFOs to drive the three oscillators.

I wasn't particularly fond of the filter, I have to say. Don't get me wrong - it was very useful for making sounds more mellow and for highlighting harmonics, etc. The trouble was that it simply didn't have the character of those filters I grew up with on analogue monosynths. Maybe it would have been a less-useful machine with more aggressive filters, and it was a carefully-considered design decision on Ensoniq's part - I will never know.

There are many great things about the ESQ-1 which aren't immediately obvious from the spec sheet. The programming interface was about as comfortable as any digital-access menu-based system I can remember using. You called up pages of related parameters by pressing one of the 'module' keys on the right-hand side of the panel. This brought ten adjustable parameters into the display in the middle of the panel. Around the display were ten soft buttons - one per parameter. By pressing one of these parameter buttons, you could then freely adjust the parameter through either the data-entry slider, or fine control through the increment/decrement buttons. One very important feature was that you never had to go into deeper menus - every function was pretty much instantly-accessible by pressing at most two buttons. It was the closest thing I have every experienced to the one-knob-per-function programming model that I grew up with on monosynths.

The keyboard was lovely to play. Semi-weighted, with just the right balance between a piano feel and an 'electronic' feel. My one gripe is that it didn't have aftertouch (even monophonic). The pitch and mod wheels were nice, and you could program the (sprung) bend wheel to 'retain' the bent value when you released a note. Another nice feature was that if you selected a new patch while playing, any held notes would continue to use the previous patch while the new patch would sound for any new notes played since selection. This meant that you could hold down a deep drone, then play another patch over the top. If you were careful about your playing technique, then the drone note would never be 'robbed' unless you chose to play eight new notes simultaneously.

The sequencer was another incredibly user-friendly aspect of the machine. You could program it in real-time or step-time and there were plenty of editing options for tidying things up after recording. It was a breeze to build up multi-layered 'Page R' type sequences within minutes (or tens of seconds). The final sequence in the track 'Hell' by Under the Dome featured a multi-layered ESQ-1 sequencer pattern (layer volumes mixed in real-time directly from the front panel). You could even drive multiple external synths over MIDI from different sequencer tracks.

The ESQ-1 was arguably the first 'workstation' synth, and I really got my money's worth out of it for the few years that I owned it. I would happily go back to having it in my keyboard rack, both for studio and live use. As luck would have it, when Under the Dome played our debut gig at Jodrell Bank in 1998, Colin had access to an ESQ-1 through DMA Design and I was able to play my beloved WAVBEL melodies on The Aeon's Day!

Sequential Circuits Pro-One

Sequential Circuits Pro-One
The Pro-One was without doubt my fave analogue monosynth of all time. There are many reasons why it holds such an honoured place, so I'd better get started...

First up, it has a hugely versatile architecture. It's not an exageration to call it semi-modular. Let me explain:
There are two modulation busses available - "Wheel" and "Direct". Three modulation sources are available - "Filter Env", "Oscillator B" and "LFO". Each of these sources has a level knob, and their outputs are sent to either of the two busses by selecting either "Wheel" or "Direct" on the appropriate switch in the "From" column. If more than one source is applied to a bus, then the signals are added together. The "Wheel" bus signal is further attenuated by the modulation wheel, so that you can 'play' the modulation depth in real time. With the wheel in its lowest position, modulation amount is reduced to zero. There are five modulation destinations: "Osc A Freq", "Osc A PWM", "Osc B Freq", "Osc B PWM" and "Filter Cut-Off Freq". These can be driven by the mixed output from either bus or set to zero modulation ("Off") by selecting the appropriate setting on each three-position switch in the "To" column. It's difficult to put into words just how versatile this patching system is. It's closer to an ARP Odyssey or 2600 than a MiniMoog in this respect, and can lead to the creation of very complex "modular" type patches. Great for VCS3 type SFX, too.

Talking of MiniMoogs, the basic sound of the Pro-One is very strong. The oscillators can be made to phase against each other by use of very slight detune, and the filter is a very powerful 24dB/oct low-pass design. The oscillators can also be synced, and by modulating the frequency of Osc B, you can get all sorts of sync sweep effects. One of my fave sounds was created by applying LFO modulation through the wheel to the frequency of Osc B alone whilst in sync mode. This leads to a sort of shimmery sound which is not quite vibrato and not quite PWM, either. You can hear an example of this sound playing over the final sequence in the track "The Aeon's Day" by Under the Dome. I haven't been able to get quite the same sound from any synth (analogue, digital, hybrid or soft) since.

The Pro-One had an internal step-time sequencer and a well-designed arpeggiator. This could be clocked by the LFO or from an external source. A great design decision was that the external source could actually be an audio signal, as well as the more usual positive DC pulse. In my portastudio days, I would often build up multi-layered sequences by laying down a click-track, then recording up to three layers of sequence or arpeggio on the Pro-One. This technique is all over tracks including "The Aeon's Day" and "Strange Attractor". By the time it came to recording "Hell", I had the Roland System 100m which allowed me to record multiple layers simultaneously, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

My main gripe with the Pro-One stems from the sequencer "Record / Play" switch and the musical keyboard itself. Both were very prone to 'switch bounce'. This occurs when a switch flips between its "Off" state to its "On" state; the metal contacts can actually make and break the circuit multiple times in rapid succession. This would normally go unnoticed by a human operator but the fast scanning microprocessor in the Pro-One would detect it as multiple key presses or switch transitions. A space could be inserted as a step in a sequence by shifting the "Record / Play" switch to "Play" then back to "Record". Unfortunately, due to bounce effects, you would enter multiple spaces more often than not. You wouldn't know for sure until you previewed the sequence whether you got it right or not. Similarly, you could often accidentally register multiple presses of a key when you tried to enter only one. A royal pain in the arse! I was gobsmacked to learn that Howard Jones did live programming of Pro-One sequences when he did a recent tour with some of his original gear. Brave man!

Roland System 100m

Roland System 100m Modular
The Pro-One gave me the modular bug in a big way. I had started to really think about patches beyond the 'normalled' routing options of most cheap monosynths. So I was incredibly lucky to find someone selling a Roland System 100m at a ludicrously low price in 1990. The system I purchased had the following spec:

2 x 191-J Racks - Five module racks with power supply and multiple connectors in the base. Filled with 9 modules:

4 x M-110 - Single 'voice' with VCO, low-pass VCF and VCA.
2 x M-140 - Dual ADSR envelopes and multi-range, multi-waveform LFO (with delay).
1 x M-112 - Dual syncable VCOs.
1 x M-172 - Phase shifter, audio delay, gate delay and LFO.
1 x M-131 - Audio mixer with reference oscillator and headphone output.

181 Keyboard - Four octave (C-C) monophonic with portamento and bender.

Total cost? To you, sir - two hundred and fifty of your Earth pounds! No, really! You have to remember that everything was going digital at that time, and a 'module' meant something like a Roland D-110 or Emu Proteus: basically a self- contained synth with MIDI which fitted into a 19" rack. Genuine analogue gear had really fallen out of favour at that time, and probably had reached its lowest ebb in terms of selling price. So I was more than happy to give a good home to this most desireable piece of 'obsolete' technology.

The 100m played nicely with the Pro-One, as they both used the same volts-per-octave and positive pulse trigger standard. I had really fancied the M-182 sequencer module, but the Pro-One could output control voltages from its built-in sequencer and arpeggiator. By using the click-track method described above, I could record multiple sequencer lines in parallel. However, I found that having one main sequencer pattern was sufficient when you could patch the 181 keyboard into another module and play different pitches in real-time. Also, you could remove all CV inputs to oscillators so that they droned on a specified static pitch. This was the setup I used for the first sequence section of "Hell". (I also sent the ESQ-1 output through one of the M-110 modules so that it was gated in time with the sequencer pulse).

My single fave aspect of the 100m however was the voltage-controlled phase shifter in M-172. The phaser was really powerful sounding, and being voltage-controlled, you weren't limited to cyclic LFO sweeps. You could use envelope generators, or even sequencer voltage to drive it. I often used it to process other gear, and it seemed to work particularly well with the digital waveforms that came out of the ESQ-1.

I would have liked to have extended my system, particularly with M-121 - Dual Multi-Mode VCFs, M-150 - Ring Mod, Noise, Sample/Hold and LFO, and of course the sequencer module M-182. However, the chances of finding such items in these pre-WWW days was almost non-existant. I think I had used up all my luck by finding the system I had!

Of course, wonderful as modular systems are, they are really only a practical proposition for using in a studio environment. Yes, I know several artists in the EM community did (and still do) tour with modulars of one brand or another. However, I found that setting up a patch took a LONG time to get right before you would commit to hitting the 'Record' button. The idea of re-patching something during the course of a track (or even over the course of a concert), was simply unthinkable. Being an electronic and software engineer, I came up with numerable plans on how you could take a modular system on the road, but none of my ideas was really workable. I would have to wait for the genius of Hans Nordelius and Mikael Carlsson to show me The One True Way to realise my dream (more later...).

Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed having the 100M and when it came time to part with it, I was able to sell it on to a very grateful and respectful new owner. I gave him the modular bug and he went on to acquire, restore and even modify some truly wonderful machines over the years. I sold it for the exact same price as I bought it in the first place, as it didn't seem right to profit financially from the deal.

PPG Wave 2.3

PPG Wave 2.3
It's difficult to describe how much of a Dream Machine this had been to me throughout the 1980s. Of course, the Wave rubbed shoulders with the Big Names of the digital synth revolution such as the Fairlight CMI and NED Synclavier. Indeed, a Wave keyboard combined with the Waveterm would give you a system not dissimilar to a Fairlight, with sampling capabilities and multi-track sequencing. But these awesome capabilities came with an equally awesome price tag: According to this review by Mark Shreeve, the UK RRP of the Wave 2.3 was £3,995 and the Waveterm B would cost you an additional £4,590. Cheap next to a Fairlight or Synclavier, but an eye-watering and inconceivable amount to a schoolboy with a paper round!

The raw sound of the unadorned PPG Wave was what really blew me away, though. Those quirky wavetable sounds had been used to great effect by Tangerine Dream when they entered the '80s and started incorporating more digital equipment into their sonic armoury. Thomas Dolby, Trevor Horn and Rush also made great use of the stand-alone synth without venturing into extended capabilities offered by the Waveterm. Even the look of the Wave was fantastic, with its white-on-blue panel artwork, real knobs and a calculator-style keypad. I literally did dream about owning a Wave for myself, but I figured that it would always remain 'just a dream' (Tangerine or otherwise).

So, I was amazed when, in 1991, I saw a classified ad for a Wave 2.3. In Glasgow. For £650! I hastily withdrew the maximum £300 from a cashpoint, and persuaded my colleague Charlie Simm to lend me an additional £300, and we set off to Glasgow as quickly as possible. I took my chequebook along (remember them?) with the hope that the seller would trust me not to bounce him for the extra fifty quid. Anyhow, we met the seller at Richer Sounds in Jamaica Street, and found the machine to be fully operational. Most importantly, it came complete with the vast and absolutely necessary user manual. The seller claimed that it had come from Peter Gabriel's Real World studio, but musos are full of shit, so I took it with a pinch of salt whilst making appropriate respectful noises. Finally I said "Shut up and take my money!", put the not-insgnificant machine into the back of the car, and set off back through to Fife.

Even though I am a software engineer, not afraid of embedded systems, assembly language, or even raw machine code, I found the digital side of the Wave to be excessively arcane. I think I had been spoiled by the effortless and transparent UI experience of the ESQ-1, and the multi-layered menus of the Wave were impenetrable by comparison. Sound editing was doable, but the multi-track sequencer (known as the Event Generator) was just hopeless. I'm sure if I'd approached the Wave with the same dedication as I had approached an 8-bit micro like the ZX-81 or Spectrum, then I would have been able to take advantage of the enormous potential it had to offer.

Sadly however, I was not at the right point in my life to make the required commitment to it. Also, it didn't seem to gel sonically with my other gear, and in fact I ended up never making a recording of it. In the end, I reluctantly came to the realisation that I was never going to really be intimate friends with the Wave, and so decided to sell it on. Fortunately, another colleague, Niall Fraser, offered to buy it from me, despite my warnings as to the quirky nature of it:

The aforementioned horrible digital interface.
The quaint habit it had of forgetting everything in its memory at the merest hint of a mains voltage spike (e.g. fridge motor switching off).
The absolutely AWFUL keyboard, which got 'sticky', requiring liberal dosing with talcum powder to unstick it.
The pseudo-velocity-sensitivity derived from mono aftertouch, which never quite worked.

After a couple of months with the Wave, even Niall had to admit defeat, and I was able to arrange a swap for a Roland D-50 from the same guy to whom I had sold my 100m. All's well that ends well!

Yamaha AN1x

Yamaha AN1x
When David Law at Synth Music Direct heard the Under the Dome demo CD-R in 1998, he offered to sign us to his Neu Harmony record label. Great! The only thing was, he expected us to be an act that could be developed, which meant that we would need to record new material and (gulp!) play our material live. At that point in time, I had a Soundblaster AWE-32 soundcard in a Windows 3.1 PC and a very cheap MIDI keyboard to my name. Fortunately, Colin was still working for DMA Design at the time, which meant that we had access to their Pro-Tools systems for recording, and a fair collection of decent polysynths to play live. If memory serves, for our debut performance at Jodrell Bank, we borrowed Ensoniq ESQ-1 and two Korg X5s from DMA. Colin had decided to treat himself to a new Yamaha AN1x in the interim, which completed our keyboard line-up for that gig. I was also able to use Pro-Tools to create a backing track from the original four-track cassette recordings of sequences from my System 100m and ESQ-1.

I'd been exposed to virtual analogue technology throughout the '90s, and had exclusive use of a Korg Prophecy during my time at Devil's Thumb Games in Colorado. I never felt that anyone had got it 'quite right', though. That was, until Colin introduced me to the AN1x. I took to it in no time, mainly as a result of the incredibly intuitive front panel controls. Its sound engine was also reasurringly subtractive in nature. The built-in effects were of extremely high quality, meaning that you didn't have to rely on an outboard effects unit, and have to remember which effects patch related to which synth patch. Within minutes, I was able to recreate a lot of the sounds which I had recorded using genuine analogue gear back in the home studio days. It was almost like having a polyphonic, programmable Pro-One at my disposal.

Suffice to say, that the first thing I bought with the royalties from The Demon Haunted World was an AN1x all to myself! Thus for a few years, we had two AN1xs (AN1xes?) at our disposal.

The main act at Jodrell Bank that day was Paul Nagle's 'Far From Stars' incarnation. As well as featuring a genuine Digidesign analogue modular system, Paul also had one of the UK's first Nord Modulars with him.

Clavia Nord Micro-Modular

Nord Micro Modular

I had read about the Nord Modular in Sound On Sound (reviewed by Paul Nagle himself), and was REALLY intrigued. It seemed like the people at Clavia had somehow worked out how to make my dream come true of taking a modular system out on the road. Of course, a lot hinged on whether it sounded like a genuine analogue machine. Well, Paul's programming of the sequences from Ricochet Pt. 2 convinced me that it was certainly worth exploring! Unfortunately, it was out of my league in terms of price. From what I remember, the RRP of the rack unit in 1998 was well over a grand. Fortune smiled on me however, and Clavia soon brought out the Micro Modular at a vastly reduced price. Even better, Steve Jenkins offered to sell me his for the princely sum of £275.

From the outside, the Micro Modular seems pretty unassuming. It's about the size of a VHS cassette, and only has three buttons, two seven-segment LEDs and four knobs (one of which is a dedicated volume control) on its front panel. But don't let appearances deceive you - within that box is the sonic equivalent of one full Nord Modular 'slot'. This means that patches can be as complex as a full Modular patch, but with less polyphony. Given that I was mainly interested in creating monophonic modular patches to recreate my System 100m setup, this was no real limitation.

The Nord Modular really requires an external computer to program. This is achieved by loading the Nord Modular Editor program onto your Windows or MAC machine, and connecting to the Modular through a pair of dedicated MIDI cables (proper old-skool 5-pin DIN ones at that!). The Editor is a real joy to use. You can select any number of pre-defined modules from the library avilable to you. Each module requires a certain amount of DSP processing power, and you are limited to an overall DSP load of (unsurprisingly) 100%. Fortunately, most modules consume less than 10% - for example, a sawtooth slave oscillator consumes 6%, while the classic 24dB/Oct filter consumes just 5%. A three-input audio mixer consumes a mere 0.89%, whilst the 16-channel vocoder module consumes a whacking 49%! The great advantage of this system is not immediately obvious, but it is this: You don't have to buy multiple physical modules in order to use multiple instances of them in a specific patch. For example, if you wanted to implement a six-channel "barber-pole" phaser on a physical analogue modular, you would require six voltage-controlled phasers, six LFOs and six VCAs, not to mention a heap of patch leads and racks to put the modules in. Any future patches which didn't require phasers would mean that those modules would be lying unused, just taking up space. By contrast, the Nord would require 14% load for each LFO-Phaser-VCA channel and an extra 5.6% for an Audio In, Audio Out and eight-input mixer. This comes to a grand total of 89.9%. That leaves enough spare change to throw in a Stereo Chorus module at 9.1% and to extend the mono Audio Output to stereo, and still end up using less than the max 100% DSP load.

A HUGE advantage of the Nord Modular being a stand-alone hardware box running embedded DSP software is that you are guaranteed that you will never use any more DSP power when a patch is being played. This is in stark contrast to a soft-synth running on a general purpose Operating System like Windows or MAC OSX, where you are at the mercy of whatever events the CPU needs to process in a non-deterministic way. Can you imagine the fear you would experience if you were playing live and your soft-synth was reporting a CPU load of over 90% ? The Nord buzzes along just as happily at 99.9% load as it does at a load of 2%, and you are guaranteed that it won't choke when trying to service the next knob twist or MIDI note-on event.

The synth engine runs at 96kHz 24-bit for all audio modules. Some of the modulation and control modules run at a mere 24kHz in order to place less of a load on the DSP. It is insanely clean-sounding, with a sparkling top-end. It can also provide huge, deep sub-bass. It can be a shockingly accurate and stable when you're used to genuine analog synths, but don't let that put you off; it's straightforward to introduce subtle (and not-so-subtle) inaccuracies and variations which make it sound wild and unpredicatable. I had convinced myself that it still sounded 'digital' and lacked the 'warmth' and 'presence' of a real analogue. However, that was before I got the chance to try to imitate genuine analogue machines in a side-by-side environment. I now know that any analogue sound I want to use can be pretty much provided by the Nord.

Colin was so impressed with my Nord Micro that he bought one for himself when they were on sale at £250 in Dundee. I think he was more interested in using it as a guitar effect unit, similar to the way he used the Roger Linn Adrenalinn on the album 'Over the Pond'. However, I think it just didn't seem to 'click' with Colin in anything like the same way that it had with me. To be fair, I have a huge history of dealing with modular synths and subtractive synthesis in general, and I had been waiting years for exactly this instrument to be invented. All's well that ends well, however - Colin gifted his Micro to me, so I can now use one in a dedicated Modular/Sequencer role and use the other as a dedicated Lead/Bass/SFX machine.

In fact, I've even created polyphonic patches within the 100% limit of a single 'Slot'. For example, I used the 'Common' area of a patch to replicate an Eminent/Solina ensemble unit by using audio delay lines and LFOs. I then fed the input with six simple voices from the 'Poly' area, each constructed from a Sawtooth Oscillator and an ADSR Envelope Generator / VCA. You can hear this patch on the first part of the Under the Dome track "Sundunes". Confusingly, this track also features the Arturia Solina softsynth, too. You can spot the Nord version however, as the ensemble effect occasionally settles into a static state, achieved by bringing the mod wheel down to its lowest position. One of the joys of the Nord is that you can investigate some of the paraphonic shortcuts taken by the manufacturers of early 'polyphonic' machines like the Moog Liberation. You simply can't do that on homogeneous polysynths, where each voice has independent signal paths and modulator articulation.

Yet another great thing compared to a genuine modular, is that you can place only the 'important' parameters under MIDI control. Many years ago, I bought a KeyFax Phat-Boy MIDI controller to pair up with my Micro. By sheer fluke, it was exactly the right size to sit above the 'lip' on the right hand side of the AN1x front panel. The Phat-Boy gives you 13 MIDI Continuous Controller outputs, and I have found this plenty to control even quite complex multi-sequence patches on the Nord. It would be nice to have individual switches for each sequence step, etc and to that end, I am currently in the process of designing a custom MIDI controller based on a Silicon Labs BusyBee development kit. This may be a long time coming, as I have to fit development work into my Copious Free Time, but I'm happy to play the long game.

But hey, enough of my yakkin'. I could wax lyrical about the Nord Micro Modular forever. It is quite simply my Desert Island Synth beyond all shadow of a doubting Thomas, oh my brothers. I'd be devastated to lose it (them!).

To be continued (???)

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