Ensoniq SQ-80 Polyphonic Aftertouch Demo

This video, via Joakim Floke, demonstrates why – even after three decades – the Ensoniq SQ-80 is still a sought-after synthesizer.

The SQ-80 has a fairly comprehensive synth engine, combining digital oscillators with analog filters.

But what really makes it stand out is its expressive keyboard, which implements polyphonic aftertouch. Polyphonic aftertouch means that you can press down harder on individual keys to control synth parameters in an expressive way. In Floke’s demo, he uses this capability to modulate the position and filter cutoff of individual notes within a chord.

Unfortunately, polyphonic aftertouch is an option that adds to the costs of creating keyboards, and it remains a rare option to this day.

Here’s another example, demonstrating how polyphonic aftertouch can be used expressively, via synthylover:

14 thoughts on “Ensoniq SQ-80 Polyphonic Aftertouch Demo

  1. Ummm “fairly comprehensive synth engine”? You’ve got three of everything: oscillators, DCAs, LFOs, not to mention four envelopes, plus a ton of modulation routings!

  2. Poly AT is a rarity because A) its generally rather subtle in use, which doesn’t exactly sell in the greatest numbers, B) too few people will really explore it, so the added hardware isn’t cost-effective for the manufacturers and C) this area is now the province of Roli, Eigenharps, the Linnstrument and others specifically built for it. I especially like release velocity, but as with other features, you have to commit to whatever comes the closest. BTW, nice demos that show off the “problem” of subtlety in a world that’s often about compressed drums and hooks.

  3. I still got my ESQ-1, which I find superior compared to many newer synths and this new spaghetti western trend people are trying to build nowadays

  4. I ended up selling my SQ-80 because, although it sounds great and I really appreciated the poly aftertouch, the keyboard itself was very ‘clickety clacky’. One of the worst keyboard ‘feel’ of any synth I’ve used. I later had an SD-1, which also has Poly AT, minus the analogue filters, but with far more complex synthesis and a much better keyboard feel.

  5. I wagely remember some copyright-issues on poly aftertouck keys quite some years back that, made most manufacturers stop implementing them.

  6. I would gladly put up with that weird clacky keyboard (I had an EPS & EPS16+), to get poly AT. I used it all the time. It was fun, useful and added a dimension of expression that I have missed. Weird as those keyboards felt, they did work well.

    I wonder if that technology could be re-visited. Seems like they just need a little nicer cushion for the key to fall on as its played.

    Did it use the same dual switch velocity sensor?

  7. IIRC the Ensonic system for poly aftertouch was much cheaper to build than earlier implementations, but it resulted in a keyboard feel that some didn’t like – and sometimes noisy keys. I’m sure a lot more SQ-80s were sold than CS-80s and Prophet T-8s. More too than the General Music S2 and S3. Other Ensoniq keyboards with Poly AT included the EPS sampler line and the VFX digital synth line. Of these, only the SQ-80 had analog filters.

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