Monday, January 23, 2012

Firstman SQ-01 Sequence Synthesizer from Multivox, Contemporary Keyboard 1981

Firstman SQ-01 Sequence Synthesizer from Multivox 1-page advertisement from page 23 in Contemporary Keyboard June 1981.

Until recently, I've never really had an interest in a lot of Multivox stuff. Reading through older Contemporary Keyboard magazines, the Multivox brand always left the impression they were an "organ" and "preset keyboard" company. Even as my knowledge of the company and its products grew, my mind never really made the move to include "synthesizer" and "sequencer" in whatever part of my brain held Multivox reference info. I would literally pass by their ads completely, not giving them a second look. I'm a creature of habit, and it's dang hard to break any of my bad habits.

Whether that is chewing the inside of my lip or changing my view on a company, product or service. I do it *a lot*, and I'm not the only one.

Casio is a great example where, for once, I'm on the other end of the equation.

As good as I thought Casio's CZ- and other professional synthesizers and samplers were, I just couldn't convince others of this fact. And that includes many of the other synth enthusiasts in my small part of the world. For some reason, Casio always seems to tickle the neurons that dig up memories of toy keyboards, nerdy digital watches and calculators. It's hard to convince them of Casio's awesomeness. And, I gotta add that coming out with the diminutive CZ-101 didn't really help matters. It's looks screamed 'toy'. Even when I showed my synth-pop friends a photo of Vince Clarke standing next to a stack of them. Gah.

Yah, I love that photo. :)

But, bringing this post back to the Firstman SQ-01, I gotta say this ad was the first step in my brain's conversion of Multivox from organ company to synthesizer company. But it is still an on-going, bumpy, up-hill ride.

The ad began appearing in CK around June 1981 and continued to run pretty regularly until around November 1981.

It's a great looking ad with large photos, plus good layout and design to boot. The only real problem is the ad-copy - there is just so much of it. Normally I like this is the ad, but in this case Multivox is really trying too hard to make this instrument all things to all people. And in some cases, really over-hyping some of its functionality - especially for a piece of kit that sold for only $599.00 in 1981.

All things: Its a sequencer! But it has a VCO and Envelopes. Its a synth! But I see bass pedals in the ad.  It's bass-pedals! But it says it has a 7-octave range.

All people: It is a sophisticated synth. Cool. It's great for people with limited keyboard experience as a sight-reading and teaching tool. Wait... what?

Getting the picture yet?

And to compound this problem, Multivox takes the normal amount of marketing hype I expect to find in ads to the next level.

"The SQ-10 can simulate the sounds of strings, brass, woodwinds, piano, harpsichord, string bass, fuzz bass, and more."


"[The synthesizer] can give you a maximum of versatility in a minimum amount of space".

Uh huh.

This little beast is really good at what it actually does - a fun and easy to use sequencer - so why not focus on that? Even marketing hype can go too far.And when marketing hype hits a brick wall of reality, audience perception is left in the ditch.

Before the Internet, a lot of that North American perception was no doubt formed through reading magazines such as Contemporary Keyboard. From ads... but also what is written by those writers and editors. And, in the case of CK, that would be mostly seen by readers in Spec Sheets and Keyboard Reports.

The SQ-01 Spec Sheet promo appeared in the July 1981 issue of Keyboard Magazine, just a month after this ad first touched down. Unfortunately, that little review didn't provide any editorial perception - it was all technical.

But, as luck would have it, a Keyboard Report on the SQ-01 did turn up in the October 1981 issue of CK, written by the very perceptive Dominic Milano.

In the introduction, Dominic sets the stage by first giving a good run down of the current sequencer market, both high-end and not-so-high-end, listing off what was available from Roland, Emu, Oberheim and SCI,  admitting they could all do some amazing things, but users would have to pay the price both in cost and technical know-how. His perception of the SQ-01:
"The digital sequencer we'll be looking at this month, the Multivox SQ-01, is much simpler than these space-age machines. It also has a feature that non of them have: In addition to being a monophonic digital sequencer, it has its own simplified synthesizer voice built into it, so if you don't want to interface it with an already existing synthesizer, you don't have to to. You can listen to it all by itself. And it doesn't cost an arm and a leg to buy one, making it attractive to those of you who might be curious about owning a sequencer buy have been put off in the past by all the technical aspects of having to interface a sequencer to a synthesizer. It can be a good learning tool to experiment with before getting involved more technically with sequencer/synthesizer setups."
Dominic's systematic review of the gear really only touches on the synthesizer functionality for a paragraph or two, including this gem:

"Overall the synthesizer voice sounds fairly thin, probably due to the fact that there is only one oscillator and no modulation."

And his conclusion hardly mentions the synthesizer functionality at all - focusing mostly on the sequencer.
"The SQ-01 isn't the be-all and end-all of sequencers... Overall, though, the SQ-01 does all right as an instrument for the neophite who want to get involved with digital sequencing on a limited budget..."
So, even though Multivox's ad tried to push the SQ-01 as a "studio synthesizer" that could simulate a wack of keyboard, string, brass and bass sounds, in actuality, the CK report found the synthesizer voice to be relatively simple and thin.  


In the minds of readers, the whole thing probably plays out something like this:  A reader sees the ad. Processes. Then sees the report. Processes the disconnect. And not the normal marketing-hype type of disconnect. A true, grand-canyon-style disconnect. And over time, if a company keeps that up, it will erode the brand..

Maybe I'm just grumpy today. And sure, other companies did it as well. But, like I said at the beginning of this post, I really wasn't interested in Multivox before this ad.  And even though the disconnect between the ad and the CK report is so great, for some reason, it *still* helped me move Multivox from the organ pile to the synthesizer pile.

Just the crappy synthesizer pile. Whether deserved or not. So, maybe they won.

See, even a creature of habit like me can change. A little.

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