An analog poly that rivals the DX? Korg's DW6000 might be the one...
Is something that Korg's new DW-6000 digital waveform polysynth seems set to do, offering 'digital' textures via familiar analog techniques. How? Dave Foister reveals all...
Korg have had their ups and downs over the years, but they've been around the synthesiser market for almost as long as that market has existed, and have often quietly made a significant contribution to the synthesiser's development. They produced one of the first truly affordable, portable genuine synthesisers (the 700); they were toying with fully polyphonic synth-based instruments while Moog were still working on the prototype Polymoog (the PE1000 & 2000); they came up with the first battery-operated, portable, sling-it-round-your-neck-and-pose, MIDI polyphonic synthesiser (the Poly-800); and now they're going to throw the market into chaos with the first of a new breed of hybrid instruments, the DW-6000 which has a RRP of £1099.
It's become pretty well established by now that Yamaha have cornered the market they created with their FM synthesisers, the DX1, 7, 9 and 5. The sounds they produce are quite unique, often unprecedentedly realistic, and no instrument from any other manufacturer offers any competition in their specialist area. It's also common knowledge that they are difficult to program; even the lucky few who have owned DX7's since the early days find it far from easy to create a new sound from scratch, and spend an inordinate amount of time trying. The main problem, apart from the sheer scale of the instrument, is that the processes and techniques involved in building up a sound have precious little in common with the methods we've all learnt down the years on our analog machines. The DW-6000 produces sounds that in some cases are indistinguishable from DX equivalents, using mainly analogue techniques.
The secret lies in the oscillators. Although the control panel contains mostly familiar hieroglyphics — VCF, VCA, EG and so on, nowhere does it say VCO or even DCO, nor are there little symbols for selecting sawtooth, pulse, triangle or any other recognisable kind of waveform. Instead each of the two oscillators provides eight digitally generated waveforms, each with its own characteristic overtone spectrum, and all eight are graphically illustrated together with their respective spectra on the front panel. Most of them sound so familiar from playing with DX instruments that they might as well be FM generators as anything else. The difference is that there's no messing about with algorithms, operators, carriers, modifiers, rates or levels; you choose one of the eight basic waveforms and then process it exactly as you would the sawtooth, pulse or triangle on your favourite analogue instrument, via the filter and amplifier.
The filter is a conventional VCF, and sounds very much like a Korg VCF — not as smooth and polite as a Roland, not as hard and edgy as an Oberheim — although since the raw material it's dealing with is so unfamiliar comparisons are difficult and probably pointless.
It has its own envelope generator, separate from the VCA, and both are the six-stage envelopes familiar from the Poly-800. The normal Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release stages are there, but in between the D and the S come Break Point (anyone for tennis?) and Slope; the Slope is a further decay slope, independent of the initial decay, and the Break Point is the level at which the signal stops Decaying and starts Sloping. Besides giving a greater degree of control over conventional envelopes, this arrangement offers intriguing possibilities when the Break Point is lower than the Sustain level; the signal level (or cutoff frequency) decays from its initial peak to the break point, then rises again to the sustain level before falling away after the key is released according to the release time. This feature alone on the Poly-800 produces effects unobtainable on anybody else's instruments, and on the DW-6000 in conjunction with the digital sounds it's a powerful combination indeed. In addition, the polarity of the VCF envelope is reversible, doubling the capabilities.
The rest is familiar enough. There's an LFO (labelled with Korg's usual perversity MG for Modulation Generator) which although it has only one waveform has variable delay and the usual Korg up/down joystick operation, left/right movement giving pitch bend. Polyphonic portamento is also provided, along with a noise generator and very effective on-board programmable stereo chorus. The two oscillators have independently selectable footages and waveforms, and number two can be detuned from number one or offset by a fixed intervals.
As you might expect, controlling all this lot is done by the now familiar incremental system — a chart of parameters on the panel, a set of buttons for calling them up one at a time and displaying the current setting, and one big knob for making adjustments plus up/down nudge buttons for fine tweaking. Although when this idea first appeared some people were thrown by the absence of knobs or any clear picture of the overall state of the instrument, most people are now happy enough with the system to make it acceptable, and after all, it's cheap.
Sixty-four memories are provided, complete with tape dump, and the instrument comes with 64 factory presets which for once show the capabilities off very well (how often have you tried out factory presets and thought "H'm, well," only to find the synth in question is actually capable of making wonderful earth-moving noises when you poke it in the right places?). Among the sounds you'd swear could only be Yamaha are bells, acoustic piano (not totally convincing but bloody close), marimba, three electric pianos, and various sounds called 'Digi' something or other, like digi bass, digi sound 1 & 2, digi horns — although I couldn't find a didgeridoo. The percussive type sounds all have that clarity, sparkle and characteristic overtone spectrum which you always thought weren't possible on such a simple instrument, while the fatter string, brass and organ sounds still retain the richness and thickness you thought were only possible on analogue synths. The usual fairly boring effects are included — does anybody ever actually use presets labelled Helicopter, Monsters, Jet Plane and Thunder? — but in all fairness there's not a weak sound among them which out of 64 ain't bad.
There's also the start of an interesting trend; two of the sounds are named after the songs they suggest — Africa and B.(illy) Jean — which while being an enormous compliment to the guy who originally produced those sounds opens up enormous possibilities for the future. How long before we have sounds called Draw of the Cards, Don't You Want Me, The Original Birdie Song — the opportunities for ripping off other people's classic noises are endless.
So what don't you get — where's the catch? Well you don't get touch sensitivity for a start (don't be fooled by the Touch Sense tag on a couple of the factory programs) which leaves Yamaha with the edge in the realism and playability stakes, and you also get only six voices, but that seems to be the standard for any synth around a grand these days, and besides who's counting? What you do get is an instrument which brings controllable, programmable digital sound within the reach of anyone who understands the basics of conventional synthesisers, and for that the DW-6000 has quite simply no competition.