Advanced Vector Synthesiser
In their days at the top, Sequential pioneered an exciting form of sound generation called Vector Synthesis. Simon Trask witnesses its revival in Korg's Wavestation.
Korg's latest synth is intended to complement rather than succeed the company's M and T-series synths. Is the Wavestation different enough to establish its own identity?
SUCCESS BREEDS ITS own problems. Once a manufacturer has produced a best-selling instrument, the problem which inevitably confronts them is how to build on that success. Can they advance the technology and the concept sufficiently to capture the imagination of the musician once again? More often than not the answer is no. It's as if something in the vector of success prohibits one company from keeping the edge for too long.
One company who know a lot about vectors are Korg. At one time they were languishing in the backwaters of hand-me-down Yamaha technology, seemingly destined to be forever overshadowed by both the big Y and Roland, but the immense success of the M1 in the late '80s signalled a return to prominence for a company who have a long and worthy history in the world of synthesisers.
Following the M1 and its inevitable M1R rackmount version, Korg have flown in the face of conventional wisdom by producing only one downmarket version (the sub-£1000 M3R rackmount) but three upmarket versions (the T-Series synths). This can be explained in part by the M1's technology being too sophisticated to produce cheaply, but equally it's clear that the company are on a mission to build a reputation for themselves as purveyors of high-class professional synths.
No-one can doubt the sophistication of Korg's technology these days. With the M1 they demonstrated a clear technological edge over the competition, and at the same time produced an instrument which, conceptually speaking, was just right for its time. But times change. Nowadays musicians are tiring of the workstation ethos, they have sample-based synths coming out of their ears and they yearn for something which might perhaps be, well, just a little bit more synth-like in the traditional sense.
Cue the Wavestation, and the return of another kind of vector, namely vector synthesis. "Return", because the Wavestation has a clear ancestry in Sequential's Prophet VS synth - hardly surprising when you consider that Korg's new synth was designed by ex-Sequential personnel. The combination of Western design talent and Eastern business sense is nothing new. The foundations of Yamaha's success in the '80s were laid by John Chowning at Stanford University in California during the '60s - but then FM synthesis would probably never have reached the commercial marketplace if it hadn't been for Yamaha. Similarly, Akai's most successful samplers were born in the minds of British and American designers, while when Yamaha bought out Sequential in late 1987, they took on board members of the Sequential design team with a view to making use of their sampling expertise. The story goes that the Californians were more interested in producing a successor to the Prophet VS, and a subsequent transfer to Korg provided them with an environment conducive to pursuing this aim. The end product of Californian dreams and Japanese sobriety is with us now in the form of the Wavestation, a synth which strikes out in some intriguing new directions.
THE WAVESTATION PROVIDES a mixture of the familiar and the not-so-familiar. The traditional oscillator-filter-amplifier analogue synthesis model lies at its heart, as do 365 waveforms and samples, with waveforms VS35-125 making the Wavestation's ancestry clear. Where once you had only a limited choice of waveforms to work with, and had to rely on filtering to create different sounds from them, the Wavestation gives you a tremendous variety of sounds to begin with. Although samples are included, they tend to be of the percussive variety rather than the whole instrument multisamples we've become used to. Thus you'll not find that staple of the workstation synth, the multisampled acoustic piano. And that's really no bad thing.
The not-so-familiar comes in two forms, which appear at the beginning and the end of the synthesis chain - namely wave sequences and vector envelopes. The former can be used for wavetable synthesis and/or melodies, arpeggios and rhythmic sequences, while the latter allows you to dynamically vary the amplitude balance of the oscillators within a Patch. The Wavestation also has a front-panel vector position joystick, like its precursor the Prophet VS and Yamaha's recently-released SY22. In addition to being used for programming the mix envelope, the joystick can also be used to override the envelope at any time during performance.
These features allow you to create a great deal of movement in your synth sounds, and it's this which is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Wavestation.
Four oscillators per patch has become pretty much the current standard, and this is what the Wavestation has. There are 35 Patches in ROM, 70 in two RAM banks, and a further 35 on ROM or RAM card. Korg's new synth also allows you to combine up to eight four-oscillator Patches on the keyboard in all manner of note split/layer and velocity split configurations. This combination is known as a Performance, of which there are 50 in ROM, 100 in two RAM banks and a further 50 available on RAM or ROM card. Each Performance has eight Parts, and each Part can be assigned one Patch together with various parameters such as level, detune, transposition, delay and sustain on/off. Each Part can also be set to Local, MIDI or Both, governing whether or not it plays on the Wavestation's keyboard and sends and receives via MIDI, and can be assigned its own MIDI transmit channel. In this way you can replicate your keyboard textures on external MIDI instruments, or selectively double onboard sounds with external sounds. This facility means that the Wavestation could become a very useful master keyboard.
Other Part-specific parameters allow you to select one of 16 tuning tables (four in ROM and 12 user-defined) and a performance mode (polyphonic or unison legato, with a choice of last, low or high-note triggering for the latter), route the whole Patch through a particular effects bus, and send a MIDI patch change command on the Part's MIDI channel whenever the Performance is selected.
"An interesting feature of the Wavestation is its ability to record sound edits as an integral part of a MIDI sequence, as well as record a Patch creation session."
A Performance isn't a multitimbral setup in the sequencing sense, however. This capability is provided by what Korg call a Multiset, where you can assign a Performance to each one of the 16 MIDI channels. You can create and store 16 Multisets in the Wavestation's memory, and call them up remotely via a SysEx command.
The Wavestation can be set to either Basic or Part channel MIDI transmission, and can receive in either Omni, Poly, Multi or Mono mode. If you want to use a Multiset then you need to select Multi or Mono, which allows you to have up to 16 Performances running at once off a sequencer while you play another Performance on the keyboard (assuming you don't run out of notes).
The synth's front panel is sparsely populated with buttons and sliders, with operation centred around a large backlit LCD screen. The Wavestation's numerous parameters are organised in a hierarchical fashion based around numerous software display pages which have been organised in a logical manner with a view to clarity and accessibility. On the bottom row of each page is a list of pages at the next level down, and you select these using the Function buttons located below the LCD.
Successive presses of the Exit button to the right of the LCD step you back up through the levels to the Performance Select page, so you needn't worry about getting lost in an indecipherable maze of pages. In fact, once you've familiarised yourself with the page organisation you can move around the various pages with great speed using the Function and Exit buttons.
An interesting feature of the Wavestation is its ability to translate virtually every front-panel action into MIDI-communicable SysEx data, allowing you to record sound edits as an integral part of a MIDI sequence, as well as record a Patch creations session so that you can go back over every step at any time (and not lose all your work because you forgot to save the Patch once you'd created it).
One consequence of hierarchical page organisation is that some pages are quite a few button-presses away from one another. Consequently, Korg have included what is becoming a very familiar feature on Japanese synths these days: a Jump function which allows you to move directly to any software page via a user-defined list using the Function buttons.
Last but not least, the Wavestation implements patch overlapping, that is, the principle whereby notes which are active when you select a new Patch, Performance or Multiset continue to play their existing sound until they're released and have gone through their release stage. A very welcome feature which gives you a great deal of flexibility in combining different sounds in performance.
THE WAVESTATION POWERS up on the Performance Select page. Even if you're playing a single Patch, you still do it by selecting a (single-Part) Performance. So to get an idea of the Wavestation's capabilities we'll look at some of its Performances.
"Given that you can use the wave sequences to create rhythms, riffs and melodies, you'll be glad to know that the Wavestation's wave sequences can be sync'd to incoming MIDI clocks."
Performance ROM 1, 'Deep Atmosphere', combines four Patches - 'Ravel by Numbers', 'Industrial', 'Air Vox' and 'Motion' - in a mixed split/layer configuration. 'Ravel by Numbers' consists of four waves: Glass Vox, MV Wave, Spectrum 2 and PWM String. 'Industrial' consists of one wave: WSNoise, which is a wave sequence consisting of four looped and fully crossfaded steps: Spectrum 2, Spectrum 3. Spectrum 4 and Spectrum 1. 'Air Vox' consists of one wave, which is Air Vox. Finally, 'Motion' consists of a wave, SynString, and a 22-step looped wave sequence, Unison, which cycles through a succession of diverse sounds such as SynOrch, Electric Guitar, Inharm 1, Glass Hi and SuperSaw to create a sort of metallic/strings rippling effect in the background. Additionally, both 'Ravel by Numbers' and 'Motion' have looping mix envelopes applied to them, so that the amplitude balance between the sounds within each Patch fluctuates slowly. The end result is a very characteristic combination of smooth sustained sounds (strings, "soft" noise and vocal breathiness) with background movement created by metallic tinkling and hissing sounds.
'Ravel by Numbers' crops up again in the enchanting 'Northern Lights' (Performance ROM 29), in which subdued strings and soft metallic hisses are given a shimmering surface courtesy of some more metallic tinklings, this time from the WS S&H wave sequence.
Another Performance in the same vein , is RAM2 1, 'City of Tomorrow', which combines six Patches -'Debussy VS', 'Motion', 'Choir' and 2 x 'Doublepad' (a combination of SynStrings and wave sequence Spectrum2, a sort of metallic whooshing noise) - using various note and velocity splits and mix enveloping of waves within Patches to create a constantly-changing mixture of sustained strings in fifths and various bubbling, tinkling and whooshing sounds to make a very effective panoramic background sound. In fact, the abilities of the Wavestation in this area suggest it would make a very useful synth for providing background effects in film work.
I must also mention RAM1 49, 'Debussy on Wheels' - if only because of its name. In fact it's a "scaled-down" version of 'City of Tomorrow', using just the 'Debussy VS' Patch (a four-oscillator combination of Sine, SynString and PWM String waves and Unison wave sequence, with a looped mix envelope being used to repeatedly and slowly crossfade between SynString and PWM String while the tinklings of Unison fade in and out of the mix).
A good example of how wave sequences can be used to create detailed rhythmic accompaniments is provided by RAM1 20, 'Midnight Run', a split keyboard texture which uses in the lower half a combination of a wave sequence called Taps (a pitch and rhythm sequence using several muted guitar samples) and the Multi-Tap Delay digital effect to create a dancing, spiralling rhythmic accompaniment, with an underlay of sustained strings and an added initial percussive attack provided by a "noise chiff". The upper half mixes a breathy 'Air Vox', nasal 'Vocalise' and "flutey" 'SynStrings' to create a hoarse and slightly tacky sustained sound which floats very effectively over the rapid rhythmic stuff going on in the accompaniment.
Not that all your Performances have to be rhythmic, complex, continually-shifting special effects. The Wavestation doesn't force you to use it in any particular way. You can equally create a wide range of more familiar instrumental sounds. Performance ROM 27, 'Warm Strings', is a straight layered mix of three single-wave Patches - 'SynString', 'SynOrch' and 'PWM String' - producing a clear, vibrant synth strings sound. In a similar vein is Performance RAM1 17, 'Bowed Strings', which combines 'PWM String' and 'SynOrch' with a bowed strings attack sample.
'SunGlasses Kid' (Performance RAM1 24) is a hard-edged electric piano sound which sits somewhere in between a Rhodes sound and the brighter DX sound. It's very satisfying to play, with a good bite to it on percussive chording. It's a split texture, with layered 'Shock Bass' and 'Organ Perc' in the lower half and layered 'Soft EP' and 'Changin' Tines' in the upper half, but in practice it has a smooth continuity of sound across the keyboard. If you sustain notes in the upper half of the keyboard, a sort of metallic glistening sound wafts in courtesy of a wave sequence provided by the 'Changin' Tines' Patch. If you don't like this effect (and it does rather get in the way of straight playing) you can easily deselect the Patch from the Part and write the edited Performance back into memory.
Performance ROM 28, 'Chiffy Kalimba', layers four Patches: 'Digi Harp' (waves Pluck 2 and Sine), 'Tambotak' (waves Thai Marimba and Tambourine), 'Glass Bottle' (waves Glass Hit and Bottle) and 'Pluck 3' (wave Pluck 3). That adds up to seven oscillators, and therefore seven voices - which in turn means you're down to four-note polyphony. Use this Performance in a Multiset and you haven't got much (if anything) in the way of polyphony for other Performances in the Multiset. It's worth bearing in mind the practical limitations that the Wavestation's 32-voice polyphony imposes as you set about creating ever more sophisticated multi-layered sounds.
"Storage of the WS's joystick positions means that the experimentally inclined can take the joystick wigglings from one Patch and superimpose them on another Patch."
Performance ROM 4, 'Mini Lead', is a powerful lead synth sound which uses two Parts to layer wave sequence Mini with itself four times (two wave sequences in each Part), with a touch of detune on one layer and Uni Legato with Last Note Priority performance mode selected. Crossfading between wave sequence steps of different pitches is employed to bring in a screaming "feedback" effect on sustained notes, while you can use aftertouch and/or the mod wheel to bring in some vibrato (LFOs 1 and 2 act as modulators on pitch, and the depth of their effect is controlled by aftertouch and the mod wheel).
Illustrating how Performances readily allow you to use Patches in a variety of contexts, Performance RAM1 0, 'Ski Jam', is a split keyboard texture with a rhythmic wave-sequence accompaniment in the lower half and Mini again layered with itself in the upper half. Well situated in the zero slot, it makes a great introduction to the Wavestation's capabilities.
EACH OF THE four oscillators within a Patch can be assigned either an individual wave or a wave sequence. The Wavestation comes with 32 ROM wave sequences and room for a further 64 in two RAM banks, while a further 32 can be accessed off ROM or RAM card. Each RAM bank can hold up to 500 sequence steps, while an individual wave sequence can be up to 256 steps long. Any edits to a wave sequence are automatically stored into memory, so there's no need to remember to save them.
Each step in a wave Sequence can be assigned any one internal or card wave (no, you can't assign a wave sequence to a step within itself or within any other wave sequence, in case you were wondering), and can be given its own semi and fine tuning, level, duration and crossfade amounts. Whether a wave sequence is a continuously evolving sound (wavetable synthesis) or a clear-cut sequence of sounds (for melodies and rhythms) is determined by the crossfade parameter, which of course means that you can alternate between the two within a single sequence if you want.
Sometimes a clicking sound is produced as a side-effect of moving from one wave to another with no crossfade. You can turn this to your advantage for rhythmic effects, but alternatively a crossfade value of one or two will smooth the click away.
Step duration can be set from 1-499 or Gate. If a step is set to Gate, the wave sequence will hold on that step until the note is released. Other wave sequence parameters are the start and end steps of the sequence, number of repeats (off, 1-126 or infinite) and loop direction (forward or forward/backward).
If you decide that you want to speed up or slow down a wave sequence, fear not: you don't have to alter every step duration manually. Durations can be compressed and expanded by from 1%-200% with just one parameter. A value of 50% halves all durations, while a value of 200% doubles them. Simple, and really easy to execute.
Another neat feature allows you to modulate the start point of a wave sequence using any one of 13 mod sources (see below). You can set a ±mod amount and start step, which means you can modulate backwards or forwards from any specified step in the sequence. If you're using keyboard note or note velocity as the mod source, the initial step varies but then the sequence plays normally to its end or until the note is released. However, other mod sources such as the mod wheel, aftertouch and the LFOs allow you to select individual steps within a sequence by adjusting the position of the relevant controller. So for instance, you can play note sequences using the mod wheel, which needn't be as daft a thing to do as it sounds.
"The Wavestation doesn't represent a complete break with the Korg sound we've all grown to know and love, but it does allow you to do things that no other synth does."
Given that you can use the wave sequences to create rhythms, riffs and melodies, you'll be glad to know that the Wavestation's wave sequences can be sync'd to incoming MIDI clocks. In this case a duration value of one becomes equivalent to one MIDI clock - which means that the maximum resolution of the wave sequences is a modest 24ppqn. It also means that, where you might naturally begin creating wave sequences with durations based on multiples of two, for MIDI purposes they need to be based on durations of three - unless you want everything to be in triplets. For instance, each step in the wave sequence Tap Drops (ROM 27) has a duration of eight, which translates into triplet quavers when the sequence is slaved to MIDI clocks. The result is that you're forced to think in terms of MIDI clocks rather than crotchets, quavers and the like.
It's also worth bearing in mind that the Wavestation's internal clock runs at a fixed rate (effectively at 105bpm) and you use step duration settings to create different tempi. However, as soon as you switch to MIDI sync, the clock rate depends on the rate of the incoming MIDI timing bytes. Unless you want all your music to be at 105bpm. you'll soon run into problems unless you program your wave sequences in relation to MIDI sync from the outset.
The rest of the Wavestation voice module consists of a 24db/octave low-pass filter with initial cutoff, keyboard tracking, exciter amount and two mod source and mod amount parameters (but no resonance); an amplifier with velocity envelope amount, attack velocity mod. envelope keyboard mod and two modulation source and modulation amount parameters; a dedicated four-stage amplifier envelope; one freely assignable four-stage envelope; and two freely assignable LFOs with rate, initial amount, shape (triangle, square, sawtooth and ramp), sync on/off, delay, fade-in, and depth mod source and amount and rate mod source and amount parameters. Like Ensoniq's synths, the Wavestation employs a sophisticated modulation matrix, with 13 modulation sources including keyboard, velocity, aftertouch, LFO and two user-definable MIDI controllers routable to five destinations (amplifier level, filter cutoff, mixer "x" axis, mixer "y" axis and oscillator pitch).
Once you've created your four sounds within a Patch, you can use the mix envelope to adjust the balance between them through time. The mix envelope has five Points, each of which refers to four x/y co-ordinate positions of the vector joystick, and therefore four amplitude mixes of the oscillators within a Patch. You can set durations for the transitions between consecutive points, effectively fading the oscillators in and out over time, loop the envelope from Points 0-3, 1-2 or 2-3 either forwards only or bidirectionally, and select a repeat setting of off, 1-126 or infinite.
Using a combination of slow crossfades and envelope looping, you can spin the mix envelope out over quite a time. However, for extended sound mixes with a much greater number and variety of changes you can turn to your MIDI sequencer. This is because the vector position joystick's x/y co-ordinates are transmitted via MIDI as controllers 16 and 17. Yamaha's SY22 does the same thing, but unlike the SY22, the Wavestation can respond to these controllers on all 16 MIDI channels when it's receiving in Multi mode.
This external storage of joystick positions means that the experimentally inclined can try taking the joystick wigglings done with one Patch and superimposing them on another Patch. The result might make no sense at all, but there again it might produce a great result - you don't know until you try.
Sophisticated digital effects processing has been Korg's forte ever since the M1, and the Wavestation continues in this tradition. Once again you get two independent effects processors which can be combined in parallel or serial configurations. Processor one is always routed to the stereo output pair, while processor two is similarly routed in serial configuration, but routed to two individual outs in parallel mode, with the option to pan the effect output across to the stereo outs. Assignability of the Wavestation's oscillators to the effects and outputs is very flexible, as you might expect.
Advances come in an increased number of effects and in the inclusion of modulatable effects parameters, with a similarly wide range of mod sources as there are for the synthesis parameters. Effects include nine reverbs, two gated reverbs, two stereo delays, three stereo multi-tapped delays, several stereo choruses and flangers, distortion and overdrive, stereo pitch shifter and several effect combinations. Common to most of the effects is low/high EQ, a useful feature. As you might expect, these are high quality effects, but, if you want to switch them out for some reason, Korg have included a global effect on/off parameter.
IN MANY WAYS the Wavestation would make a very effective second keyboard - which is seemingly what Korg intended, complementing an M1 or a T-Series synth, perhaps. But equally its ability to transmit on up to eight MIDI channels at once, replicating all manner of keyboard split/layer configurations on external MIDI instruments, makes it in some respects a good candidate as a controller keyboard.
The Wavestation doesn't represent a complete break with the Korg sound we've all grown to know and love, nor is it any kind of fundamental conceptual leap forward, but it does allow you to do things that no other synth does, and it does allow you - in fact, encourage you - to be experimental. That hoary old advertising slogan, "The only limit is your imagination", springs to mind when considering what you can do with the wave sequences, because it's clear that the Wavestation's implementation of wave sequencing is tremendously versatile, allowing you to create slowly-evolving sustained sounds, delicate tinkling effects, arpeggios, melodies, bass riffs and all manner of rhythms from simple beats to complex cross-rhythms, and at the same time mix them together in all sorts of ways using vector synthesis. There's a lot of depth to the Wavestation, and a lot of interesting possibilities - certainly more than I can cover here. At the same time, to get the most out of it (and to my mind that's the best reason for buying it) you do need to indulge in a certain amount of head-scratching to figure out what the hell's going on, some of the time. Partly that's because the Wavestation is such a sophisticated instrument and there's so much that can go on in the sounds themselves.
Price £1575 including VAT.
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Review by Simon Trask