A Modern Classic
Korg Wavestation EX
Korg's Wavestation synthesizer has won a small but devout following since its introduction 18 months ago. Paul Ireson wonders whether new sounds and effects on the updated Wavestation EX will broaden its appeal.
As Julian Colbeck observes in his survey of the synth market this month (see page 32), the Korg WS1 Wavestation was a missed opportunity for many people, passed over perhaps in favour of more familiar instruments. Those who did buy one, however, have acquired an instrument that is surely a modern classic. Korg's M1 was deservedly the most successful workstation to date for its power and value for money. The Wavestation, however, being merely an extraordinarily powerful synth, thoroughly well designed, and with a sound to kill for, has remained a minority interest since its introduction.
Why? And are the new Wavestation EX keyboard or Wavestation A/D rack expander sufficiently different to attract more interest? Beneath its deceptively minimal front panel the Wavestation is a phenomenally powerful, useful and different instrument. I'll leave Kendall Wrightson to re-cap on the details of all that in his forthcoming Wavestation A/D review, but briefly sampled waves can be combined one, two or four at a time into Patches, which in turn can be grouped eight at a time into Performances. (In Multi mode, for use with a sequencer, you can address 16 Performances independently, rather than 16 Patches as you might expect.) There's a powerful digital effects section which can apply two independent effects, and each layer in a Patch can be filtered and modulated, processed by an amplitude envelope etc.
Hardly anything special so far, but it's Wave Sequencing and Vector Sequencing that make the Wavestation so interesting. Wave Sequencing allows oscillators to crossfade or simply cut between any of the waves in ROM producing, respectively, crossfades between timbres, or rhythmic effects. Vector Sequencing facilitates dynamic mixing of the oscillators in a patch: you select envelope points, and use a front panel joystick to set the balance between two or four oscillators at each point.
But it seems this is not what the public wants: if it doesn't have drum sounds and a decent piano, then most people don't want to know about it. Perhaps heavier marketing from Korg would have paid dividends, or perhaps it was always intended to be a 'niche' product, aimed at the relatively small number of synth users who actually get down to serious programming.
The new EX version of the Wavestation has addressed the piano/drum 'problem', however. The system software has also been updated to v3.0, but the main differences between the 1990 Wavestation and the 1992 Wavestation EX are around 120 new waves in ROM (there are now 515, including single looped waves, 32 ROM wave sequences, single shot sounds etc.), and eight extra effects algorithms.
The physical specifications of the Wavestation keyboard remain unchanged. It comes in the same stylish black case — more stylish than most, for what it's worth — and the 61-note keyboard is velocity and channel after-touch sensitive. The feel of the keys is on the heavier, more solid end of 'unweighted synth' (there are 8 response curves), and the degree of finger pressure required to generate aftertouch modulation feels about right to me — neither so light that extra vibrato appears when you don't want it, nor so heavy that it's hard to apply. There are four audio outputs which, depending on how you use the effects section, provide either wet and dry stereo pairs, or stereo outputs from two independent digital effects busses.
Two slots on the rear panel accept PCM and program cards, and there's no other means of storing data (apart from via SysEx); as the Wavestation does not include a sequencer, it hardly needs a disk drive.
The new waves include the all-important grand piano, a good multi-sampled instrument eminently suitable for pop work, a small but decent selection of drum sounds, a multi-drum wave that maps all drum sounds (plus assorted percussive vocal and other sounds) across the keyboard, synth basses, pads, strings, horns, saxes, and short percussive vocal sounds. It's surprising just how 'big' a lot of the new waves appear when played in isolation. You don't need to layer anything with DeepBs1 to produce a great bass patch, nor apply even a hint of digital effect to VoiSyn1a to provide a fairly organic chord sound. This does, however, seem somewhat at odds with the design philosophy of the original Wavestation, in that you're presented with complete sounds rather than raw material, with which to build sounds — and building sounds is the Wavestation's forte.
A card supplied with the EX contains 32 wave sequences that use the new waves, plus 34 new Patches and 50 new Performances. (If you get a chance to delve deep when you try out a Wavestation EX, listen to the last wave sequence on the card, a synthesized imitation of someone saying "wavestation". Remember that this is not a sample of robot speech, but a product of the Wavestation's unique synthesis system.) The Performances provide an excellent showcase both for the synthesis possibilities of the Wavestation old and new, and for the new waves. Performance 9 on the card, 'The Wave Police', is probably the Sound Most Likely To Shift Keyboards, although to call it a sound hardly does it justice. Just listen for yourself.
The new effects algorithms comprise a modulatable pitch shifter, a stereo compressor-limiter/gate, and six different vocoders. Now if this seems an odd bunch, it's because they've come straight off the Wavestation A/D, which has stereo audio inputs into the heart of its synthesis section (and the same extra waves), and although you can't process external audio on the EX you can still make these algorithms perform some neat tricks. The vocoders provide the most fertile territory: basically, they allow you to impose the timbre of one signal (the modulator) on to another (the carrier), through what is essentially a combination of spectrum analyser and multi-band dynamic EQ. Using a wave sequence as a modulator produces the most dramatic results, as on card Performance 27, 'Vel Drum Vocoder'. The two most powerful vocoder algorithms, Stereo Vocoder 1 & 2, each use all the Wavestation's effects processing power, so you can't use another effect alongside them.
The two existing Distortion-Filter-EQ algorithms have also changed slightly, and now enable the output level to be modulated.
If you took a good look at the Wavestation first time around, then you're probably a convert, and new waves and effects plus a few operating system tweaks will look like icing on a cake that you've already had, are eating, and are very happy with (original instruments can be upgraded, by the way, with a board that costs a little over £400). If you missed out, then it's certainly time to look again at the Wavestation. The extra waves add the basic bread and butter samples that it seems every keyboard, no matter what else it offers, must have. But waves are only the start, and the Wavestation still has perhaps the most exciting synthesis engine around, plus a formidable digital effects section. It sounds simply stunning, and must be heard by anyone looking for a serious synthesizer.
£1,499 inc VAT.
Korg UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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