& John Senior
meets SQ80 V
& John Senior
meets SQ80 V
Ensoniq’s SQ-80 is a keyboard responsible for some of the most recognisable synth tones of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond.
Its combination of digital oscillators, analog filters, and a surprisingly intuitive workflow sets it apart from the crowd, both then and now. With SQ80 V, we wanted to resurrect this hybrid icon in all its former glory and more. We had the privilege of spending a day with two of the original engineers on the project, Bill Mauchly and John Senior, exploring their inspirations, the limitations of technology, and their insight into the process of designing a classic.
Ensoniq was founded in 1982 in Philadelphia by a group of visionary engineers, some of whom had come from MOS Technology - the company who made the circuits for the iconic Commodore 64 home computer.
These engineers had designed sound chips that had real potential to go beyond the computer market. The Commodore’s SID chip evolved into the DOC 5503 (aka the Digital Oscillator Chip), the brainchild of Commodore’s Robert Yannes and the sonic foundation for Ensoniq’s first generation of synth releases.
This was a relatively young company who, by entering the synthesizer market, faced fierce competition from the well-established titans. When software engineers Bill Mauchly and John Senior joined in 1984, the stage was set. The team had plenty of experience (both music and engineering), great chemistry, and a determination to succeed.
The tight-knit culture of the Ensoniq team meant that everyone chipped in, working towards a common goal. That goal wasn’t simply to fill a gap in the market, or to make a quick buck - as Mauchly notes, the team felt personally invested.
The soon-to-be SQ-80 was what they were ultimately aiming for, but there were a few stepping stones along the way to their intended destination. The team came from an engineering background, and they had their innovative DOC chip ready to deploy. But the cost of the technology needed to reach their goal - combined with the shape of the market - meant that they had to bide their time.
The Mirage sampler was unveiled in 1985, followed by the ESQ-1 in 1986. Both releases offered something a little different to the competition - different enough for Ensoniq to be taken seriously. The Mirage was a far more affordable sampler keyboard than the likes of the 5-figure Fairlight CMI, while the ESQ-1 is seen as an early example of a keyboard workstation.
Friend Or Foe?
The success of their early releases only added to Ensoniq’s momentum and determination. With the company now established and the cost of the necessary technology within their range, the stars were aligning as they had hoped.
This was still a small team working on a small scale, and in the absence of today’s instant-results computers, it was a labour-intensive process - Bill and his former Ensoniq colleague Al Charpentier joked about how long it took matching components by hand on a 12ft x 12ft schematic on their office floor. Still, they pushed the boundaries of the tech that was available to them.
In 1988, the SQ-80 was born, the instrument that Ensoniq had been working towards since the company’s founding 6 years prior. Like the Mirage and the ESQ-1 before it, it entered a competitive market but brought something new.
It wasn’t just the contrasting nature of the digital oscillators / analog filters that set the SQ-80 apart. The fact that you had 3 of those oscillators, and a multitude of different waveforms to assign to them, meant that you had an unprecedented range of timbres at your disposal.
One of the major challenges that musicians faced when working with the digital keyboards of the ‘80s was their complexity. Fiddly menus, sprawling interfaces, tiny screens. Bill and the Ensoniq team sought to change that with a clearer interface that allowed for quicker, easier editing.
Thousands of unique waveform combinations, an intuitive but powerful synthesizer, a crunchy sound with analog flavor - and above all, a synth workstation that wasn’t a nightmare to program. From the visionary engineering responsible for the best-selling computer of all time, to the team’s convergence of technical expertise and musical passion, the company’s penchant for innovation was clear. Every release was a thrilling opportunity to push the boat out; the SQ-80 is the perfect example of this.
The Cross Wave
SQ80 V is a faithfully reverse-engineered software version of the instrument that Bill and John helped to create over 3 decades ago.
Emulated down to component-level accuracy and enhanced with cutting-edge features for modern producers, it offers an immersive virtual experience of this iconic synth - in a way that we hope pays deserved homage to the original creators’ inspiring vision.