Arturia's SQ80 V is one of its best classic synth emulations in years

It captures all the dusty and digital charm of the Ensoniq original.

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Arturia’s V Collection consists of a staggering 28 virtual instruments at this point, covering everything from analog classics, to acoustic pianos to forgotten digital keyboards. At some point, you’d think the company would run out of interesting synths to emulate, but not just yet. The newest addition to the Arturia family is the SQ80 V, a recreation of the Ensoniq SQ-80.

The SQ-80 was a bit of a strange beast. It was released in 1987 and combined 8-bit digital wavetables with analog filters. It’s quirky, crunchy and seriously fun. It combines crunch lo-fi digital samples with analog warmth for something pretty unique. Also, at a time when many synth makers were stripping down their interfaces while stuffing in every feature they could imagine (looking at you DX7), the SQ-80 was surprisingly easy to program. It was also one of the earliest keyboards with polyphonic aftertouch, which is captured here thanks to MPE support.

Engadget · Arturia SQ80 V sound demos

Arturia normally takes great pains to recreate the physical appearance and controls of a synth they’re emulating, but the company simplified things a bit for the SQ80 V. You can change the oscillator waves and tweak the filter, but many of the controls, like the three LFOs and four envelopes are all on a separate synthesis tab that’s a little more mouse friendly.

Arturia also went all out with the sound sources. It includes the original 75 waveforms, as well as the “hidden” waves from the SQ-80 and it’s predecessor the ESQ-1, plus a selection of transient waveforms. The company greatly expanded on the sound design possibilities of the SQ80 V without really straying from the heart and character of the original.

This is pretty par for the course, though. Arturia has been at this long enough, meticulously emulating classic synths while adding some modern conveniences, that it’ be more surprising if it missed the mark at this point.

The one thing this means though, is that the company is filling increasingly small niches in its arsenal of instruments. The SQ80 V is a digital synthesizer, with a lo-fi character built around sampled waveforms and an analog filter. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same broad description also applies to the E-MU Emulator II which Arturia recreated for V Collection 8 in December.

Arturia SQ80 V
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

While both are definitely crunchy and digital they have identities all their own. The Emulator II is more of a straightforward sampler, and the SQ-80 is closer to a traditional synthesizer. While I quite enjoyed the lo-fi bit-crushed keys of the Emulator, I dig the SQ80 V more. It’s more approachable to someone coming from the world of synthesizers. Plus, it’s a little warmer and more timeless sounding. Not that you can’t get cheesy 80s sounds out of the SQ80 V, it’s just easier to coax modern sound out of than the Emulator which can be a touch too cold and brittle for my tastes.

While there are some analog style sounds in the SQ80 V, its bread and butter is crushed digital sounds. Harsh industrial hits, dusty keys and ambient pads. There are two sound packs being released alongside it that lean into those strengths: Dust Materials and Raw Machinery.

But even if you skip the sound packs, you should be able to easily find sounds that you like either in the included presets or by designing your own. And building your own patches is pretty simple. The three digital oscillators have dropdown menus for selecting waveforms, the envelopes and LFOs all have their own tabs, and the filter can be shaped with the mouse. The whole interface is clean, charmingly retro and easy to navigate. It’s especially impressive considering how much power there is to manipulate things. Most parameters can be modulated by a number of different sources — and many can be modulated by two sources at the same time.

Arturia SQ80 V
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

My one minor complaint UI-wise is that the tiny dials next to the various modulation destinations could be a little clearer. It might not be immediately obvious to everyone that, if you want LFO two to change the filter cutoff you have to hover over the darkened circle underneath it then click on the even tinier plus sign that pops up to select a modulation source. Then you click and drag on the circle to set the modulation amount.

Minor quibble with that aside, Arturia does deserve credit for putting a lot of effort into creating thorough and clear tutorials for all its instruments over the last couple of years and SQ80 V is no different.

Arturia’s V Collection is stuffed with great instruments and great sounds, but the SQ80 V is quickly becoming one of my favorites (though, it is technically not part of the V Collection — yet). It's available now as a standalone instrument for an introductory price of $99 until October 5 at which point it will go up to $199. It can also be bundled with V Collection 8 at a discount, though the final price will depend on your status as an Arturia customer.

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