Ensoniq ESQ-1 Synthesizer Review

This video, via TheDaydreamSound, takes a look at the vintage Ensoniq ESQ-1 synthesizer:

The Ensoniq ESQ-1 is a hybrid digital-analog synthesizer released by Ensoniq in 1986. The ESQ-1 offers 8 voices with 3 digital oscillators per voice. Each oscillator could be set to one of 32 different waveforms. Some of these were standard simple waveforms such as sawtooth and pulse, while others were samples such as piano and voice.

Each oscillator also had an associated DCA (not VCA) to control its volume in 256 steps. In addition to that, an ESQ1’s voice featured 3 LFOs, 4 envelope generators, a 4-pole resonant analog lowpass filter (VCF), and a final VCA with left/right panning. It also sported a 61-key velocity-sensitive keyboard, full MIDI implementation, memory for 40 patches, a memory cartridge slot, and an 8-track sequencer. A rackmount version called the ESQ-M was also released circa 1987, with exactly the same specification minus the sequencer.

The ESQ-1 was produced until 1988.

If you’ve used the Ensoniq ESQ-1, leave a comment with your thoughts on it!

15 thoughts on “Ensoniq ESQ-1 Synthesizer Review

  1. I still love mine, that’s for sure! this is a great synth and highly affordable on eBay. The keyboard feel is great and the thing is really built solidly. Here’s a couple of tracks record entirely on the ESQ-1 sequencer with just an outboard reverb (no internal effects in those days). It was my first real synth since my Micromoog died and I sold my Wurly.


    I was starting to look at keyboards again and a saw and heard this at Guitar Showcase in San Jose back in 1986. It was affordable and so I bought it immediately. The multitimbral abilities really appealed to me over the big keyboards of the day. I still have my original in the studio.

  2. I never owned one myself, but I played in many bands with people who had an ESQ-1. In the early 90s this board was all over the place because it was affordable for a gigging musician and it could cover a full range of stuff we were playing at the time. A player in a cover band could easily go back to back from Elton John to Thomas Dolby to ELP to Depeche Mode to Michael Jackson to Earth Wind and Fire. It could get close enough to any tone from songs people wanted to hear in clubs back then, and it had a sonic character that helped it cut through a muddy mix in a bar with a P.A. of questionable quality. It was also hearty enough to stand up to the demand of gigging five nights a week for months or years on end without breaking, rebooting or all the other fickle things many other synths of the time were prone to (some of your favorite classic synths really did suck when used five hours a night on stage!). The ESQ-1 was up there with a handful of go-to synths for performing musicians.

  3. I own a SQ80 which essentially a upgraded ESQ-1 which I love and used for a long time. Unfortunately it died awhile back. I still have it in hopes of one day getting it fixed. The synth was featured on one of my remix’s – http://soundcloud.com/fools-chaos/lb-earthquake-my-midi-controller-died-re-mix if anyone wants to hear it in a modern track.

    It’s a great keyboard, the free plugin is worth checking out as well, but nothing beats the real thing 🙂

  4. Wavetables are interesting to people now I think because we have tired of all analog production styles somewhat. We crave harmonic complexity, and wavefolding or wavetables certainly deliver. The ESQ was an affordable way to get wavetables if you couldn’t cough up for a PPG. ESQ-1 is nice and dirty, too. 8-bit, I think. Ensoniq’s follow up was the VFX, I think, and didn’t have nearly as much character, but back in the day people wanted things clean. Much more is possible on the Nord Wave now, which also has a characteristic grit. A blofeld is much smoother. I like to own all of these synths, but of course, have to choose just one.

    1. Not really about being tired of analogue, the ESQ-1 is a pure hybrid one of its strengths are those analogue filters and amps, it would sound quite horrible without the VCFs/VCAs, but I admit you wrote this a little before the analogue resurgance and I agree we need other sounds to suplement the basic waveforms offered by traditional subtractive synthesis, but can never be truly bored of pure analogue :o)

  5. Im not questioning the power of the ESQ-1, but what’s the value of the opinion from a guy who has owned only one synth?

  6. Having owned an ESQ-1, an SQ-80 and VFX, I must say that (in hindsight) I wished I had not sold these synths. The VFX-SD was very problematic because of issues in the operating system (which were never really fixed and made mine not really playable on the long run), but the SQ-80 was fantastic. I wished somebody would buy the property and start building real plugins to be used in a DAW. That would finally give an original sound and something which you´ve already heard somewhere 🙂

  7. ESQ-1 was my first workstation synth back in the day. IMHO it’s still one of the best and the sequencer metaphor used all through their line from this point on is still better than say a Korg Triton. Personally, I think this was also way better than the M1 which had more marketing $s behind it. Of all the synths I’ve owned and sold, this is the one I wish I still had.

  8. I noticed that he mentions that it’s an 8-bit synth. As far as I remember, it was a 12-bit synth (as opposed to the Mirage which definite was 8-bit.) The same sound chip was eventually used in the Apple IIGS. The 12-bit capability was used in the next sampler, the EPS as well as the Squid.

  9. This review leaves much to be desired – not nearly enough time was spent showing the actual user interface, programming, and performance controls … or playing actual sounds! And what about that sequencer? We didn’t get to see it. It also has on-board effects, doesn’t it?

    Well, heck with it – I want one anyway (or an SQ80 or VFX in my dreams) because of that beautiful vacuum fluorescent display!

    1. I watched this all the way through and then realized the same thing – he spent more time talking about the synth than showing you anything.

      But I actually liked this a lot better than the typical YouTube review, because the video is so well done and he does a great job of explaining why he likes the synth so much, despite it’s flaws.

      Also, it’s great to see vintage gear get reviews, too. There’s a lot of vintage gear that’s built great and sounds great still.

  10. Of all the suns I’ve owned and eventually sold (and the list is long). The ESQ-1 is one of the few that I really wish I still had. I even tried to buy mine back from the guy I sold it to only to find that he’d sold it a month earlier.

    What I like most about this synth, other an it’s sound, is the programming interface. I really think that the ESQ-1 and SQ-80 have the best user interface of any display based, single data slider synth I’ve ever used. I’ve never come across another display based synth that comes close. it may not have the raw power and complexity of my K2000 or the lush realism of someing like a Fantom. But have you ever tried programming sounds in a Fantom? It’s like working on an excel spreadsheet (not fun in my opinion).

    No offense if you own and love the Fantom. It sounds quite nice. I just could never get into it.

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