PPG Wave 2.3
Fairlight going cheap?
Mark Shreeve gets to grips with PPG's spectacular Wave 2.3
The first words you read on picking up the operator's manual are 'As the owner of a Wave 2.3 you are in possession of a big synthesizer', and, leaving the slightly quaint language translation aside for a moment, they're dead right. It's not the physical 'big' that I'm referring to, more the audio 'big'. In fact, the overall sounds can be downright monstrous. The reason? Well, the Wave 2.3 is a hybrid synthesizer giving you the best of both worlds for it has digital voicing circuitry and analogue controls which enable easier access to contouring final sounds.
The statistics go something like this. It is an eight voice polysynth with 16 digital oscillators and an eight track polyphonic sequencer. It has a smart blue metal control fascia which is contained in black metal casing. The layout on the front of the 2.3 consists basically of a Multiple Function Analogue Control Panel — this contains a series of high quality quantized black pots and is used for the more 'normal' synthesizer functions such as LFO, Envelope Generators, VCF etc.
Moving on to the centre of the control panel we have what is termed the Multiple Function Display; it has several different modes of use so that you can discover how each sound and sequencer program is made up, right down to the last detail. Accompanying the display there is a numerical keypad which calls up sound programs and, in addition, gives numerical values to both sound and sequencer parameters. Each individual parameter can be accessed by using the two cursor keys (also on the keypad).
Over to the right hand end we find the Multiple Function Digital Control Panel which consists of ten buttons, used essentially to call up the various display modes. The keyboard itself has a good smooth action (unlike the infamous 'drooping' keyboard on earlier Wave models) and has the facility for both velocity and touch sensitivity.
The PPG possesses 87 memories for sound programs and 20 memories for what are called combi-programs. These combi-programs are a particular speciality of the Wave 2.3, they mean that you have the facility to play eight totally different sounds on the keyboard or sequencer, the keyboard having seven user definable split points (yes, seven!). An incredible feature I think you will agree. As another bonus you get eight individual outputs on the back panel for the sequencer and keyboard splits and in this mode the ADSR controls double up as separate mixing controls for the volume level of each channel. It goes without saying that the keyboard can be split and layered in all the traditional modes as well.
The PPG, like 'normal' synthesizers has sawtooth, square, pulse and triangle waveforms, but in addition it has a further 1800 plus different waveforms — by anybody's standards, an awful lot of waveform power. All the waveforms are contained in 29 'wavetables', each holding 64 different waveforms. This means that the user has the facility to have up to 64 different waveforms sounding within the duration of one note and if that doesn't satisfy you, then there are also what are termed 'upper wavetables' for every one of the ordinary wavetables. These upper wavetables are used to create special effects when used in conjunction with the ordinary wavetables, the most extraordinary of which is the 'waveform cascading' effect. Basically, if you hold down a note or chord you can audibly detect the waveforms changing during the note duration — quite stunning, especially if you have a long release time. You have to be careful though, for what started as a silky string sound can transform itself into a bucket of broken glass falling down two flights of stairs — and you don't have to touch a single button!
The PPG works on the principle of purely additive synthesis, ie you start with nothing and create sounds by combining single harmonics — this way, just about any combination imaginable is possible. This is where the display screen and the multiple function digital control panel come into play. To program a sound from afresh, you call up the various display modes and enter numerical values for every single parameter you require, wavetable number, modulation, touch-sensitivity, etc. Everything bar the volume and stereo split amount is programmable. As you can imagine, it is easy to get lost amongst this sea of digits, to get the best out of this machine you have to work at it and understand it. I suspect that, as with everything else, the longer you spend on it, the more familiar you become with the controls and functions.
Also included on the 2.3 is an incredibly versatile thousand note sequencer and arpeggio section of which all the necessary parameters can be called up on the display. And when I say versatile, I mean versatile! For instance, in the arpeggio modes alone, you're not just limited to the normal up, up/down and down functions, you've also got 'random', 'moving' and 'downwards with repeats' functions to play with.
With the sequencer you have up to eight different channels to record on, and although recording is done in real time, there is a metronome and also a time correction facility to the nearest sixteenth of a note. It is even possible to determine the exact number of repeats that are required for each sequence by using the 'loops' function. As with everything else on the Wave 2.3, all the sequencer information requires numerical values, including the speed which I thought was a particularly useful feature. The killer blow from the sequencer though, is that it can record and play eight totally different sounds simultaneously — not only that but it also has eight separate outputs on the back panel that can, if desired, go directly into an external mixer — great idea! Incidentally, this 'voice splitting' is one of the main differences between the Wave 2.3 and earlier Wave models.
The connection facilities on the back of the PPG are as comprehensive and impressive as everything else on the keyboard section. As I previously mentioned, there are the eight separate channel outputs (¼" jack) for the sequencer and split keyboard sounds but there are also two ordinary audio outputs available should you prefer this. There is a CV in, Trig In, Trig Out for connecting up external synths plus the obligatory sustain pedal socket (apparently you can use Korg type foot pedals). Also provided is a footswitch socket to enable the player to step through the program numbers — much like the Juno 60. And now the most interesting connections, the first of which is the Digital Communication Bus (not to be confused with Roland's DCB). This is used to hook up the 2.3 to the PPG Waveterm Computer and/or the PPG Processor Keyboard (both of which I shall mention briefly later on). Secondly, inset on the back panel there is a little array of mini-switches which, when set by the user, determine the clock output rate of the sequencer to just about any time division you want — why don't other manufacturers include this? Finally, there is, of course, a MIDI-in-Out-Thru section. You know, in retrospect it would have been easier for me to say what the Wave 2.3 hasn't got! As far as I can see, it can be linked up with just about anything.
Before concluding matters on the Wave 2.3, I can't go without briefly mentioning the various devices that can be hooked up to it. Now there is no way in which I can do any justice to these units in such a short review, indeed the PPG Waveterm computer justifies a book to itself (which, in fact, is more or less what you get from PPG when you buy it!). Suffice to say that the current Waveterm software which comes in the form of twin disc drives gives you five pages of goodies. Page One enables you to create your own waveform from scratch (on the 2.3 of course the waveforms are all pre-determined). Page Two is used to put together your waveforms to form, yes you've guessed it, your very own wavetables. On to Page Three now, and here we have the facility to record 'Transient Sounds' or sound samples to you and me. The maximum sampling length on line or mic connection is 2.75 seconds on a bandwidth of 4kHz. Shorter sampling times can be selected and therefore increasing the bandwidth resulting in increased sound quality. To my ears the sampled sounds that the Waveterm played were incredibly good quality in terms of clarity and distinction, in fact, I'll stick my neck out and say that they are better than those of the Fairlight.
Another feature that's importance can't be overstated is that all sampled sounds, whether self-recorded or provided by PPG can be altered, updated and re-stored by using the 2.3's programming controls. The startling upshot of this is that you can have semi-synthesized-semi-sampled sounds all erupting from your fingertips! Page Four of the Waveterm allows you to produce your own Resonator Curve, and as far as I can make out (I admit that I didn't fully understand it) this means that you can determine which frequencies of any one sound should be emphasised or attenuated along the keyboard scale, it leads to a more 'natural' sound — that's what it says in the manual anyway! Moving quickly onto Page Five (before I reveal any more ignorance!) we come across the 'Event Generator' — the what? Well, after hearing the almost unbelievable demo floppy disc provided by PPG, I have decided that once a sequencer can store what seems to be an almost unlimited number of events on 16 channels all with different sounds, then that's when they call it an Event Generator! Seriously though, I couldn't find any information in the manual to suggest what the capacity limits are, possibly there are so many that nobody has actually calculated it.
On the basis of what I heard, the sequencer, sorry I mean the event generator, is the most comprehensive composing facility currently available. On the demo floppy there were acoustic guitars, vibes, electric guitars, orchestra staccatos, cellos and synth voices all playing happily along — it was so realistic that I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to a synthesizer and not a multi-track tape mix! The Waveterm is finished with the same blue metal as the 2.3 and is 19" rack mountable. All the page information is displayed on a VDU.
PPG also produce a separate keyboard known as the Processor Keyboard or PRK. This has a piano-weighted keyboard action with very comprehensive velocity sensitivity. As a bonus it will also play pre-recorded sample sounds (supplied by PPG) which I believe are stored on internal chips. The PRK can be hooked up to the Wave 2.3 or the Waveterm, or indeed both.
The Expansion Voice Unit is basically another PPG 2.3 without the programming controls and keyboard (programming is done via the Waveterm). The basic purpose of the EVU is to extend the whole package into a 16 voice/channel system.
I must reiterate that what I've said about these three add-on units is in no way supposed to be a full review, let's just hope that it's whetted your appetite — and threatened your wallet.
First let's get the prices out of the way — the PPG Wave 2.3 retails at £3,995 inc VAT, the Waveterm is £4,590 inc VAT, and the PRK is £1,110 inc VAT. I have no details as yet on the price of the EVU.
So what about the Wave 2.3? It's a little difficult for me to say this without appearing to go way over the top — but here goes. The PPG Wave 2.3 is, by far and away, the most incredible sounding synth I've ever heard (and no, I'm not on their payroll!). It clangs, it thunders, it cuts through your sound system with devastating clarity and power, it is delicate and subtle. Just hearing the waveform cascading effect alone leaves you gasping for more. No other synth or computer synth sounds anything like it — it is totally unique. The price makes the remarkable seem positively unbelievable — Okay, so four grand is a lot of money whatever you spend on, but when I think of other synths in the same price bracket, their specifications seem scandalous by comparison.
For an extra £4,590 you can upgrade (when you can afford it — you are at least given the choice) to a system that is not only comparable to the Fairlights of this world but is in many respects actually more flexible. This would cost you a total of £8,585 inc VAT; now what was the price of the Fairlight?
What about its faults then? Well, a couple of niggles really, the first of which is that by anybody's standards the PPG is not an easy synth to operate (the Waveterm, as you would expect, attains a still higher level of complexity) so in cases like these you need a good, clear instruction manual. Well, the one that I used was somewhat confusing, mainly due to the translation from German (oh yes, it is a German synth by the way). However, I am told by the new PPG UK office that this will be put to rights very shortly — good on 'em!
The other niggle I have is actually only a personal one but a very major one nevertheless, and that is I can't afford it!
To sum up then, I shall requote from the owner's manual — the PPG Wave 2.3 is a very big synthesizer indeed.
Review by Mark Shreeve
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