King Korg and the Wave Monster!
Korg's new Wavestation is a direct descendant of Sequential's long-gone vs synthesizer, but as Paul Ireson discovers, it has plenty of new tricks up its sleeve to complement the old ones.
Some days it just feels great to be alive. More specifically, at some moments it feels great, and I had one such perfect moment when I first encountered the Korg Wavestation at the APRS '90 exhibition. When I found the new instrument on the Korg stand, donned headphones, flipped through the presets and let my fingers wander over the keyboard, for a few brief minutes I was in heaven. The thing is, I wasn't quite sure how much the novelty of a new instrument and new sounds, or the champagne that I'd been drinking at the Audio Media (SOS's new sister publication) launch party, contributed to my reaction. Naturally, I just had to get my hands on one to find out whether it was as wonderful as my first impression suggested. Having tested, fiddled, played, composed, and listened, I have reached my conclusions. Is it really that wonderful? The short answer is YES! The long answer is this review, so read on.
Yamaha and Korg have both recently released instruments based on the gone-but-not-forgotten Sequential VS keyboard (the SY22 and Wavestation respectively). The reasons have an awful lot to do with the movements of Sequential's R&D staff after the company was bought by Yamaha, and when it was apparent that the two companies were about to launch VS-based instruments, there seemed to be a good chance of someone looking very silly — probably whoever priced their keyboard the highest. As it turns out, however, although both synthesizers have their roots in the VS design, they are quite different and have very distinct characters. The Wavestation is the more expensive of the two, but the SY22 and Wavestation are not really competitors, such are the differences between them, and the Wavestation must be measured against top-of-the-range instruments such as the Roland D70 and Yamaha SY77.
The Wavestation has a different implementation of Vector Synthesis to the SY22, but more importantly it adds a powerful new technique called Wave Sequencing, which lies at the heart of many of the instrument's most powerful sounds. Although the guts of the machine are all digital (with 24-bit processing and 19-bit DACs), the voice architecture is based on the conventional analogue oscillator-filter-amplifier path.
What particularly struck me about the Wavestation is that it has been designed, successfully, as a thoroughly excellent synthesizer. It has no drum parts and no sequencer, but it does have the capability of producing complex, multi-layered, deeply satisfying sounds — either singly or in 16-part multitimbral mode. It is up to 32-note polyphonic. The digital effects section is perhaps the most versatile currently available on any mass-produced keyboard, and programming the whole thing is surprisingly easy. It also sports an excellent MIDI implementation, for both transmission and reception, and could certainly serve as a master keyboard in most setups.
The exterior of the Wavestation gives precious little clue to what lies within. There isn't even anything labelled Patch or Edit. All you have are a 10-key number pad, Enter, Jump/Mark, Compare, Exit, Inc and Dec, Cursor keys, an alpha dial, a volume slider, and six Function switches (ie. soft keys) under a large liquid crystal display. These last six items are the most important, as they will take you everywhere in the excellent menu-driven operating system. The large display is well used, with graphic representations provided, for example, to make envelope programming easier.
The final front panel control is the Vector Position joystick, which is used to programme dynamic mixes of the oscillators in a sound (which is what Vector Synthesis is all about), and can also be used for live dynamic mixing. A welcome side-effect of the inclusion of this control is that, presumably to avoid confusion, Korg have dropped their ghastly modulation/pitch bend joystick controller in favour of traditional separate wheels.
The keyboard is five octaves long, with a positive, lightly-weighted feel. It responds to velocity and channel (mono) aftertouch (pressure), although the Wavestation can also respond to polyphonic pressure via MIDI.
The rear panel sports two sets of stereo audio outputs, which can be used in a variety of ways depending on how the signal paths for different sound are routed internally. There's also a trio of MIDI sockets, a standard Euro connector mains socket, a footswitch jack, two definable footpedal jacks, a headphones socket, LCD contrast control, and two card slots (one for sounds, one for new waveforms).
The Wavestation's memory is organised into three Banks: ROM, RAM1; RAM2. Each Bank contains 50 Performances, 35 Patches, and 32 Wave Sequences. Each Patch is a sound consisting of one, two, or four oscillators, and up to eight Patches can be used in each Performance. Performances are the most important level of sound structure in the Wavestation — it is Performances that you select from the front panel or via MIDI, and up to 16 Performances can be used in multi-channel Multimode setups. There are 16 Multimode setups, which are not assigned to any Bank.
365 Waves are stored in the ROM Bank to provide raw material for the oscillators. Wave Sequences — complex combinations of any of the 365 Waves can be created, and 32 stored in each Bank. If a memory card is used, a Card Bank is available to store a further 35 Patches, 50 Performances, and 32 Wave Sequences.
The primacy of Performances in the sound hierarchy is reflected in the fact that the Performance Select page is the one that greets you when you first turn on the Wavestation, and this is the 'home' page. A new Performance within the current Bank can be selected by using the Inc/Dec buttons or the alpha dial, both of which scroll through successive Performance numbers, or the numeric keypad followed by Enter, which enables you to jump straight to a given number. This procedure is the same for all data entry. You can hop from Bank to Bank with one of the Function switches. The other switches are assigned to take you to the Performance Edit, MIDI, Global, and View pages. The View page lists the 10 Performances in the same decade (ie. 11-20, 21-30) of the same Bank as the current Performance.
Performances serve two roles: arranging Patches into more complex sounds with added digital effects; determining how MIDI data will be transmitted from the Wavestation, allowing it to operate quite well as a master keyboard. A Performance has eight Parts, and a set of effect parameters. The main Performance Edit page lets you change only the Patches assigned to each Part, and reach pages on which more detailed editing, of Parts or the Patches that are assigned to them, can be carried out. One of the Function switches provides a Solo function, whereby the currently selected Part (as determined by the cursor position) will be heard on its own. The soloed Part moves with the cursor, which is a nice touch.
In the Part Detail page, you can fine tune the settings of each Part. You can make all of the obvious tweaks, controlling Part level, transposition, detuning, and whether the Part will respond to the Sustain pedal or not. An FX Bus parameter determines how the sound of each Part is routed to four internal effect busses, which feed the Multi-Digital Effects processor. A Delay parameter allows you to set a delay between physically playing a key and a note actually sounding — the parameter range is 0-9999, and the maximum delay time seems to be around 10 seconds. A different tuning scale can be set for each Part, and you can choose from Equal Temperament, Pure Major, Pure Minor, and 12 User scales, all in any key. Each Part can be set to play in normal Polyphonic mode, or in Unison Legato (all voices stacked on one note, envelopes do not retrigger if new notes are played whilst others are held) or Unison Retrigger (envelopes do retrigger). In either of these last two modes, you can set note priority to Last, High or Low note.
Keyboard and Velocity Zones are set in a dedicated page, which has an excellent graphic display of the note and velocity ranges over which all eight Parts will play. A very useful programming feature is the ability to set up instant 'standard' setups by simply pressing a single Function switch, as an alternative to creating them from scratch. You have a choice between Split, Layer, Velocity Split, and Velocity Layer. The facility takes account of how many Parts you are actually using.
Each Part within a Performance can also act as a source of MIDI data, so that sounds in external synth/sampler modules can be used along with the Wavestation's own sounds. Play Mode determines how that Part is to be used. You can select Local (the Part responds to the Wavestation's keyboard and incoming MIDI data), MIDI (the Part transmits MIDI data) or Both (both of the above). Velocity and Keyboard Zones are observed for a Part's data transmission, so you can create eight-zone master keyboard configurations. You can also specify a Transmit Channel for each Part, and a Program Change number to be transmitted on that channel when the Performance is selected.
The Wavestation owner's manual (which is excellent; all credit to author Stanley Jungleib) makes a lot of the Patch architecture's similarity to an analogue synthesizer. Each Patch can employ a one, two, or four-voice structure (your choice), and each voice consists of a single oscillator playing a Wave or Wave Sequence, plus a Pitch section, Filter section, modulation envelope (Envelope1), Amp section, and two LFOs. The oscillators are designated A, B, C, and D; if a single oscillator is used it will be A, if two are used they will be A and C. This claim to an analogue heritage is strengthened by the inclusion of a Hard Sync facility — in two- and four-voice structures, the other oscillators can be synced to oscillator A's frequency, a technique that traditionally generates the most fantastic lead sounds — as it does here. (Each oscillator actually plays back waveforms at its own nominal pitch, but at the start of each oscillator A cycle, all the others start their cycles afresh. By modulating the pitch of the slaved oscillators, you can create broad sweeps in the timbre of your sound.)
Patch programming is made easier in two principal ways. Firstly, in multi-voice structures, at any stage in the Patch's audio chain, the same set of parameters can be used to control all the Voices, rather than have them under separate control. So in the filter section, for example, if you select All rather than A, B, C, or D, you are editing all four filter sections simultaneously. It's a bit like having a single filter section that is processing all four voices, except that the four voices are still distinguishable if you want to give each one a different amplitude envelope when they emerge. Programming is also helped by the provision of Macros, which enable you to impose one of a pre-programmed set of parameters on to part of a Patch. Typical Macro shapes might be Lowpass or Aftertouch Sweep for Filter, or Envelope 1 Bend for Pitch.
The 365 Waves in the Wavestation's memory are, broadly speaking, raw material for you to build on rather than stunning sounds in their own right. There are 111 sampled instruments (electric pianos, strings, choirs, brass, synth bass, guitars, etc) which are 'complete' instruments, with distinct attack and sustain portions, and they may be multisampled. The remaining 253 are a huge range of single waveforms, with names that suggest a variety of sources, including MiniMoog and Oberheim synthesizers, and the original Prophet VS itself. Suffice it to say that there is an enormous range of material here, and you have plenty of ground to explore and exploit. The one serious omission in the manual — a list of the Waves — means that exploration is something of a necessity, albeit very pleasant.
No memory capacity has been wasted on ROM-consuming grand pianos or drums. There are a few percussion sounds and other 'one-shot' effects, but these are all short, and the kind of thing that you could well find a use for. Whilst drum sections on workstations have their uses, Korg presumably reckon that you already have a drum machine that you're happy with, so there's no point in putting drums in the Wavestation. The choice of waveforms is good, although a few of the sampled instruments are better employed as raw material for further processing than used 'naked'. The electric pianos are fine, and there are some good brass section samples, but the saxes are pretty hopeless imitations of the real thing. I must mention my favourite Wave, the gorgeous 'SynOrch' (number 88), a beautifully rich and evocative sound. As for quality, a little noise is evident on the samples, but it's nothing to worry about, especially as you will often be filtering the sound.
You can set a separate Pitch Bend range for each oscillator, or let a global setting take precedence. A Pitch Ramp facility offers a simple 'auto bend' over a user-definable range and time. You can use key velocity to modulate the rate of pitch rise or fall. Pitch can also be modulated by two independent sources, with variable positive or negative amounts.
The modulation possibilities within each Patch are excellent: most Patch sections have a parameter or parameters that can be modulated by two independent sources, and as in this case modulation amounts can be varied over a full positive/negative range. The modulation sources are: Linear Keyboard; Centred Keyboard; Linear Velocity; Exponential Velocity; LFO1; LFO2; Envelope1; Aftertouch; Mod Wheel; Aftertouch + Mod Wheel; MIDI 1 (an assignable MIDI controller, set in the main MIDI page); MIDI 2; Foot Controller. For most modulation paths, the mod amount is variable from -127 to +127. The effects section can also be modulated, although a slightly different set of sources are used.
The Wavestation's filter section is a simple lowpass type with, unfortunately, no resonance parameter (although this deficiency is somewhat compensated for, as on Ensoniq's VFX and SQ1 synths, by the provision of sets of resonant waveforms). The filter cutoff frequency can be modulated by keyboard tracking, and two further assignable modulation sources. An exciter is provided to add a little high-end sparkle to a sound that may have been dulled by your filtering. The depth of excitation can be varied (0-99), although I was fairly unimpressed by the results. I actually found it quite hard to tell whether or not the exciter was in use at all.
One of the most popular sources of modulation for a filter is a simple envelope. Here you are provided with a general modulation envelope, which is not nominally assigned to the filter, and can be used as a modulation source at any of the Patch modulation destinations. Perhaps unusually in these times of complex envelopes, Envelope1 is a simple four-stage affair, with five level parameters and four times. This envelope differs slightly from the amplitude envelope in that whilst the latter decays to a zero value, you can set a value for a final level for Envelope1. The Envelope itself can be modulated, by both Velocity and Keyboard tracking. Velocity can be used to modulate the Envelope level and Time 1 (attack), and Key Tracking to modulate Times 2 and 4 (first decay and release).
The Amp section of the Wavestation features an envelope similar to Envelope 1 (with the one difference already mentioned) for each Wave. In addition to the envelope, amplitude can also be modulated by two other sources, and the Amp envelope can be modulated in the same way as Envelope 1. Remember that each of the voices in a Patch can be treated totally independently, so each could have a different set of modulation sources as well as different envelope shapes.
The panning options for a Patch are a little baffling at first, simply because there are so many pages that can affect it. You can specify a Bus destination for an entire Patch as a Part parameter, and in this case the bus options are: Bus A; a fixed pan position from 99/1 to 1/99 between Bus A and B; Bus B; Bus C; Bus D; Bus C and D; All; Patch.
If you select Patch, the routing of voices to the four busses is determined by Patch settings, and pan can be dynamically controlled. On the Patch Bus Assignment page, you can specify whether or not each of the (up to) four Waves in a Patch is routed to each of the four busses, with a simple 4x4 matrix of on/off parameters. So, each Wave could be sent via its own bus, or all four could be routed via the same one, or whatever. Also, the pan position of any Wave within the A/B bus pair can be modulated (via the Edit Bus A-B Pan page), provided that it is actually routed to both busses in the Patch Bus Assignment page. Pan position can be modulated by both velocity and keyboard tracking, and each Wave can be pan modulated independently.
Each voice can draw on two independent LFOs as mod sources — that's a total of 64 LFOs, a far cry from the days of one paltry LFO for an entire polyphonic instrument.
For each LFO you can vary the Rate, Initial Amount (a basic depth, essentially). Shape (triangle, square, sawtooth, ramp), Delay (time from key-on to the start of LFO fade-in), and Fade-In (the time taken for the rise in level). You can also specify whether the LFO is free-running, or whether it will start at the same point for each note, with a Sync option. The rate and depth of an LFO can be modulated by any source, including the other LFO, or even itself.
This is where the fun starts. In addition to the 365 Waves that are stored in ROM, you can also have each oscillator play any of the 32 Wave Sequences in each Bank. A Wave Sequence is a series of steps (up to 255 per sequence), with a single Wave from the 365 in ROM assigned to each step. As a note plays, the oscillator steps through the series of Waves. This can produce two distinct effects: one is essentially a form of wavetable synthesis, generating a progressively changing timbre; the other (where the Waves are one-shot types, or just very different to one another) is similar to the 'rhythmic loops' heard on Roland's LA synths. However, quite apart from the fact that you have total control over what Waves you use in the sequence, and that you can combine the two effects in a single sequence, the Wavestation's Wave Sequencing is far more versatile than either of the two techniques to which I've just compared it.
You can specify a duration for each step — the parameter range is 0-499, and the maximum time seems to be around 10 seconds. Each step can also be individually tuned, two octaves up or down, and you can either crossfade successive steps into one another, or have an abrupt change (a different crossfade time can be set for each step). The whole sequence can just play through once, or alternatively you can set a loop over any one section. The loop can either repeat a set number of times (1-126) or forever, and the specified section can either loop forwards or alternately forwards and backwards. Versatile, eh?
If the Waves in a sequence are quite similar, then a wavetable synthesis effect will be created by simply sweeping through them. Many of the Waves do in fact form wavetable-like sets, and their location at successive numbers in the ROM Bank makes finding similar-but-progressively-different Waves an easy matter. Where this method scores over standard wavetable synthesis is that you can choose any Waves, in any order, for your Wave Sequence, and you have more control over how long each stage of the sequence will take. You could use two very different Waves for the first two stages of a sequence, with the durations for both stages set to high values with a long crossfade, and then sweep through another 30 Waves relatively quickly.
More rhythmic effects can be created by choosing some of the percussive one-shot Waves (which will not repeat if any step's duration is longer than the length of the one-shot Wave), or a mixed bag of waveforms. However, because the length of each step can be individually controlled, you can actually create your own rhythms, using whatever Waves you like, rather than being stuck with whatever the synth gives you in the first place. Furthermore, because you can set the tuning of each step, you could even programme a melody or bass line. Better still, because the Wave Sequence is advanced by an internal clock that has nothing to do with the clock rate of the samples (Waves) that are being replayed, a rhythm programmed in this way will not change tempo as you play notes up and down the keyboard — the pitch of each Wave changes, of course, but the Wave Sequence steps through at the same rate.
As if this isn't enough, you can even substitute a MIDI clock for the internal clock, so that a Wave Sequence rhythm can be synchronised to a sequencer. This kind of thing is so wonderful that it makes you want to run outside and kiss total strangers! Sounds which contain a rhythmic component are often very inspiring, and wonderful to compose with, but when you try to use them with a sequencer, the hassle of changing tempos and synchronising everything is usually just too much — for me anyway.
The playback of a Wave Sequence can be modulated in two ways — either by a static or a dynamic source. If a static source — eg. velocity or keyboard tracking — is assigned, then playback proceeds as normal, except that the start point of the sequence can be moved. If a dynamic source is used, normal playback of the sequence is suspended and the dynamic source is used in place of the internal clock to advance the sequence. So, you could use the modulation wheel to control the point in the sequence at which the oscillator is playing. Programming sequences is facilitated by some very handy features, such as the ability to scale all step durations up or down by the same percentage amount.
The implementation of Vector Synthesis on the Korg Wavestation is very different to that on Yamaha's SY22. In general terms, the technique is about how you vary the dynamic mix of two or four oscillators. If a single oscillator configuration is chosen for a Patch, then Vector Synthesis cannot be used. Here, the dynamics of mixing are controlled by a four-stage envelope. You can use the joystick to set the balance between the four (or two) oscillator levels at each of five points, and the envelope will fade smoothly between these points as a note plays. Point 3 is the Sustain stage. You can set times for each of the four envelope stages (0-1, 1-2, 2-3, 3-4), and loop between point 3 and any of the previous points. As with Wave Sequence, the loop can repeat indefinitely, or just a set number of times. A graphic display is well employed to show you the changing mix balance through time.
On the SY22, you can record your joystick movements, an inherently more intuitive approach to the mixing, but one that is limited by the 'sample memory' available, because the length of time for which your twiddlings can be recorded is limited. The Wavestation's envelopes can create changes over a longer period of time, especially if a portion of the envelope is looped. Both instruments allow you to use the joystick to control 'live' mixing, although the Wavestation scores in allowing this all the time — on the SY22, live control is only possible when a recorded vector is not used.
The dynamic mix of a Patch can be modulated by modulating the X and Y coordinates of the Vector Position, which sets the overall balance (the X-axis sets the balance between waves A and C, and the Y-axis between B and D). Two modulation sources can be assigned to each axis.
There really is not enough space to discuss the Wavestation's effects section in full. There are two independent processors, just one of which would do credit to a quality instrument, which can produce an identical range of treatments — the 47 algorithms are listed in the accompanying panel on page 52.
Effects are programmed at the Performance level, and each Performance has its own complete set of effects parameters. The two processors can be arranged in series or in parallel across the four internal effects busses (remember those?).
In the parallel configuration, Effect1 processes busses A and B, and Effect2 processes C and D. The output of Effect1 is then routed to outputs 1 and 2 as a stereo pair, and the output of Effect2 is routed to outputs 3 and 4. Yes folks, this means you can give two sounds (or sets of sounds) entirely different stereo effects treatments, and have them emerging from two sets of stereo outputs, all on the same machine. Referring to my handwritten notes, I see that "This is ****ing magic!" is the correct, rational response to discovering this. You can also feed the output of Effect2 to the main stereo outs, with the Mix controls. The feed from each channel of Effect2 to outputs 1 and 2 can be independently panned, and the pan position dynamically modulated.
In the series configuration, Effect1 and Effect2 are placed in series (one after another) on busses A and B. The Mix parameters that previously fed the output of Effect2 to the main stereo outputs can now be used to feed busses C and D into the A/B main output chain before and after Effect2, in such a way as to give you dynamic control over the wet/dry mix. Busses C and D also carry a dry signal straight to outputs 3 and 4, so that this configuration can be used to give you stereo effects plus two separate outputs.
The quality and range of effects offered by the Wavestation is excellent, and many algorithms offer two or three effects simultaneously, even before you start placing the two processors in series. Modulation can be used to give real-time control in many algorithms, usually of parameters such as effects mix and LFO modulation depth. Some algorithms offer two such mod destinations — in such a case, it's particularly handy that Joystick-X and Joystick-Y are two of the standard set of sources for effects modulation. The others are: Mod Wheel; Aftertouch; Velocity; Key; Envelope1; Key Down; Footswitch; Footswitch Toggle; Footpedal; MIDI 1; MIDI 2; Mod Wheel + Aftertouch.
You can use Wave Sequencing and Advanced Vector Synthesis to create some wonderful Patches, and combine up to eight of these in a multitimbral Performance along with some digital effects processing. Obviously the next step is multi-channel MIDI control of these performances, which, sure enough, the Wavestation offers.
There are 16 Multimode Setups, which are the Wavestation's multi-channel equivalent of Patches. In each one, a single Performance is assigned to each of the 16 MIDI channels. Each Multimode Setup has its own Effects configuration, which overrides that of all the Performances that are included in the Setup. Any channel can be designated as the controller channel, from which controller data used to modulate effects will be recognised. You can also set a volume level for each Performance.
In order for the Wavestation to respond on all 16 MIDI channels as required by these Setups, you must go to the main MIDI page and set the Mode parameter to 'Multi'. Other MIDI modes available are Omni, Poly, and Mono, all of which will play Performances in the usual manner. Other parameters in the main MIDI page allow you to set a basic channel, and allocate the two MIDI controllers to be used as mod sources. In Multimode, program change messages will select a new Performance on whichever channel the message is received, and any of the 150 Performances can be selected. A Performance Select Map is provided in order to map Performances to the regular 127 Program Change numbers, but the Wavestation also implements MIDI Bank Select (it is the first commercial instrument to do so). Also on the MIDI front, a MIDI activity indicator facility allows you to see what channels of data are being received at the Wavestation's MIDI In socket.
This is a very, very impressive synthesizer — I think only the Ensoniq VFX made quite the impression on me that this synth has. The Wavestation, like all great instruments, has a clear idea of exactly what it is supposed to do, and it does it superbly. It's not a jack-of-all trades, but a thoroughly rewarding and wonderful synthesizer that deserves to be every bit as successful as the M1 turned out to be. Although many people's expectations of this instrument were related to its Prophet VS heritage, it is Wave Sequencing that makes it special.
Advanced Vector Synthesis is an eminently user-friendly means of creating dynamic sweeps or subtle changes after you've exhausted the other means of shaping sounds on the Wavestation, but it is Wave Sequencing that allows you to get at the very heart of things. Power and versatility combine with ease of use to make this a uniquely exciting technique. Part of the beauty of it is that you can approach and use Wave Sequencing more or less how you want — if you want to treat it simply as a means of fading between two or three Waves, so be it. If you want to try your hand at wavetable synthesis, this is the best instrument to do it on. If you want to create and control rhythmic loops in your sounds, or be able to sync specific timbral changes in a note to MIDI clock pulses, this is the only instrument that will do it at present. The factory sounds give a good idea of the way to go with sounds on the Wavestation. There are few attempts at imitative synthesis, but any number of wonderful, living, breathing, and kicking synthesizer sounds.
The internal effects section is quite outstanding, partly because the individual sections are versatile and of high quality, but mostly because there are two of them, and two sets of stereo outputs to take advantage of it. As if to stake its claim as a superior instrument, the Performance architecture offers quite acceptable master keyboard facilities. For all this, the price tag of just a little under £1600 really does seem cheap to me. I have seen the future, and I'm only sorry that Korg wanted the Wavestation back!
£1575 inc VAT.
Korg UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul Ireson
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