If Ensoniq's ESQ-1 left some folks feeling a bit cold, even with its warm, fat analog sounds, the VFX-SD tried, perhaps vainly, to destroy those old misconceptions. This was, as one fan of the instrument once put it, "A KILLER keyboard!"
The VFX-SD was Ensoniq's attempt to corner the market on low-cost, high-performance workstation synthesizer keyboards. Sporting twice the polyphony of its immedate prediecessor, the SQ-80, and FOUR TIMES that of the ESQ-1, it was, by all accounts, the very best that money could buy.
If there was one complaint that anyone ever had about the
VFX-SD, it was that it sounded TOO good. Its beatiful and haunting string sounds were probably the instrument's greatest strength -- while its drums and basses were too thin, brittle-sounding, because the digital filters were, in a word -- WIMPY.
So, what was the goal of this instrument? Unfortunately, as Ensoniq learned with the ensuing TS line of instruments, you can't be all things to everyone. But they did TRY, nonetheless. And if they failed, they did it in the grandest way possible -- by creating some of the most beautiful and enduring sounds in modern music history.
The VFX (the original):
21 Voice polyphonic, with NO disk drive, and only a cartridge port for storing sounds onto the proprietary media -- bulky plastic cartridges that might crack if dropped.
There was the usual, trademark LED screen (something that this author misses greatly on simlar products nowadays). There was also a group of about 20 to 30 buttons on the right, front panel, many of them with little "double-page" symbols on the silkscreen just above each one. (These, as we came to later understand, indicated that there was a "nested page" -- a page that you could only access by DOUBLE-clicking any button.)
Finally, there was the usual assembly on the rear panel of connectors, including just one bank of MIDI jacks (IN, OUT, and THRU) and no SCSI ports or serial connector.
The VFX-SD was a VAST improvement on the original. Gone was the cartridge bay on the left (replaced with a *gasp* FLOPPY drive -- a 3.5 incher, too!) and the many bugs that had purportedly plaged the original's OS. Ensoniq would get to about OS 4.0 or 4.5 before giving up the ghost on this machine.
Finally, there were the SOUNDS. The "mega-piano" samples, as they were then called, were pretty mega alright. At just over 4 megabytes of sample data, it was the most ambitious such undertaking in synth history (though it would later be outdone by Kurzweil.) The drums sounded better, the vioiins and cellos were breathtaking, and the flutes were gorgeous-sounding.
The problems were many-fold though. For one thing, the disk drive wasn't DOS-compatible -- and in fact, its format wasn't recognized by ANYTHING other than another VFX-SD. This meant that the system would be forever closed to the rest of the world.
Sadly, Ensoniq seemed to almost revel in this kind of thing. With the ESQ-1, they had alrready begun the hermitage, by creating in their sequences no way to combine the data among each individual pattern. This changed only SLIGHTLY for the better with the VFX series, but was still kind of difficult to use. This, from the company that advertised its workstaions as "having taken out the work," was too much for some to deal with.
In the end, the VFX-SD failed because it didn't keep up with the times. It was designed as the final, do-it-all-in-one synth workstation -- but you can't build a road to everywhere, if it is in fact a dead end.
This is a lesson that we hope every synth manufacturer will at least try to learn.
information compiled by Sammy James
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