The Synth Is Dead: Long Live The Synth
With the predominance of the workstation synth, and the rise and rise of essentially preset instruments, what has become of the 'traditional' synthesizer? Paul Hazel turns the spotlight on Roland's JD800 and Korg's Wavestation, two recent instruments which answer the question — but in very different ways.
Two of the more interesting professional keyboards to have appeared in the last couple of years are the Roland JD800 and the Korg WS1 Wavestation. What makes them so interesting is that they have both been consciously designed as synthesizers, rather than as workstations or 'music production centres'. In other words, neither has an onboard sequencer (or the floppy disk drive that one might associate with a sequencer) and, perhaps more importantly, neither is geared toward the production of sounds derived from acoustic instruments. Although both come with presets such as pianos, basses, strings, and brass sections, this is not the area in which their strengths lie; it is, rather, in the production of synthetic, textural, and purely abstract types of sounds which they excel. Furthermore, the JD800 and the Wavestation use fundamentally similar synthesis techniques to generate these sounds, though they differ considerably in detail.
It is these details, however, rather than the similarities, that make it worthwhile to compare the two instruments. As a cursory glance at the pair of them sitting side by side would suggest, the way in which the design of these synthesizers has been implemented could scarcely be more different. The JD800 is sleek, curvaceous, and futuristic, absolutely smothered in faders and buttons, the left-hand group of which are set at a rakish angle to the main panel. Two orange LCDs and a constellation of red LEDs add the final extrovert flourishes. By comparison, the Wavestation is an exercise in minimalist chic, its controls laid out around a large pale blue LCD in immaculate asymmetry. Only the inclusion of a joystick at the top left of the front panel hints at any possible thrill-power...
So, given this common ground, both in aim and in voice architecture, how could two companies come up with such radically different keyboards? What is different about them apart from the way they look? Perhaps more to the point, what does the way they look tell you about how they might work? Finally, given that upon their release the JD800 and the Wavestation were similarly priced (their RRPs have since drifted apart, although street prices restore approximate parity), and given that every synthesizer design is a trade-off between features and cost, it might be reasonable to ask where the money seems to have gone: what were the priorities in design and build? What exactly are you getting for your money? (I refer those of you unfamiliar with the JD800 to Julian Colbeck's articles in the April '91 and April '92 issues of SOS. Those unfamiliar with the Wavestation should read Paul Ireson's August '90 review. This article refers to release versions of both keyboards.)
At heart, the JD800 and Wavestation are both subtractive synthesizers (albeit subtractive synths with tricks up their sleeves). Crudely put, this means that they start with complex waves as their raw sonic material, which can then be filtered, shaped, and modulated as necessary. Generally speaking, you start with a complex wave and subtract harmonic information. (As its name implies, this method is functionally opposite to Additive Synthesis, where you start with very simple harmonic data, usually sine waves, and build up a complex waveform. Another quite distinct technique is FM — frequency modulation — in which a modulator signal modulates a carrier audio signal and thereby adds harmonics to the carrier wave whose frequencies are determined by the relationship between the frequencies of the modulator and carrier.) Subtractive synthesis has its origins in analogue synthesizer technology, which used waveforms such as square, pulse, and triangle, generated by oscillators (dedicated electronic circuits). One of the many problems associated with this technology was that the range of sounds produced was relatively limited, and that it was notably poor at imitating some acoustic instruments. This is due in part to the fact that one of the strongest auditory cues for sound recognition is the attack transient. This is typically a noise-like component at the beginning of a sound generated by the plucking of a string, say, or the sound of breath forcing the air inside a tube into motion. With the advent of digital technology, it became possible to sample these sounds and to tack them onto the beginnings of synthetic tones (which were by now also likely to be samples). This development of subtractive synthesis was first implemented on the Roland D50, and became known (logically enough) as 'sample+synthesis' (S+S).
The JD800 has 108 samples stored internally, including the standard set of waveforms derived from analogue synthesizers, plus a fair selection of sampled acoustic instruments such as pianos, brass, and percussion. The Wavestation has a generous 365 samples stored in ROM (515 in the newer EX version). This not quite as impressive as it may seem at first, however, as a good half of these are 'sets' of similar time-related samples specially designed to be used in wave sequences (of which more later). Having said that, it remains a very impressive selection, benefiting-greatly from the inclusion of sundry inharmonics, formants, and fricatives (vocal sounds). Both instruments allow you to expand the internal sample memory using PCM cards.
As mentioned earlier, the voice architecture of these two synthesizers is essentially very similar. Once you have decided upon a sample to use as a basis for making a sound, this would be assigned to a 'Tone' on the JD800, or the more sensibly named 'Oscillator' on the Wavestation. Four of these virtual oscillators, as I shall call them, may then be assigned to a 'Patch' (as it called on both machines). There is another layer on the Wavestation: you can combine up to eight Patches in a 'Performance'. The JD800 allows you to use 24 virtual oscillators at once: with a 4-oscillator Patch, the maximum polyphony would therefore be six notes. The Wavestation allows 32 oscillators to be used simultaneously, giving 8-note polyphony with a 4-oscillator Patch — or an 8-Patch Performance might easily be constructed to generate one, massive, all-32-oscillators-at-once monophonic sound!
The JD800 has 64 internal Patch memories, the Wavestation has 150 internal Performance memories. Again, both have provision for expansion via cards.
The JD800 has the legend 'Programmable Synthesizer' emblazoned on it, and the designers have obviously made ease of programming sounds their priority. The synth has a distinctly 'analogue' look about it, with dedicated controls for most of the important sound parameters such as: waveform and pitch envelope parameters; LFOs 1 and 2; filter and filter envelope; and TVA and TVA envelope. These are grouped together in the upper-middle part of the control panel. The actual physical quality of the faders, buttons, and wheels is first class, and what's more a lot of thought has been put into installing the correct type of controller for a particular job. For instance, there are rotary knobs for stepping through the waveforms and for tuning, faders for the envelope parameters, dinky little switches with an associated LED for stepping through the LFO shapes. The only negative side to this superbly implemented layout is that it has necessitated the use of a plastic casing: no doubt the manufacture of a metal casing with so many slots and holes in it would have been prohibitively expensive. Whilst this has allowed the styling department to go to town, it leaves the keyboard somewhat fragile. For sustained use on the road, to which it is perhaps best suited, the JD800 would have to be treated with kid gloves.
"The JD800 has the legend 'Programmable Synthesizer' emblazoned on it, and the designers have obviously made ease of programming sounds their priority. The synth has a distinctly 'analogue' look about it, with dedicated controls for most of the important sound parameters"
Surely then, with so many dedicated controls, programming this 'Programmable Synthesizer' should be an absolute doddle? Well, yes and no. On the JD800 the system controls are grouped together on the angled panel at the left. Under the section labelled Patch are four buttons relating to each of the four tones that make up the Patch, and each of these has a status LED. Simply pressing an active tone button deactivates it and turns off the LED. Below these four buttons is another, marked 'Layer/Active'. This is essentially an Edit button — why they didn't just call it that and have done with it, I don't know. Anyway, pressing the Layer/Active button causes some or all of the four tone buttons to flash: whichever ones are flashing will be those that can be edited. These can be selected and de-selected in the same way as the tones themselves. So far, so simple. The problems begin when you want to isolate a tone or tones for editing, and to have only those tones audible: pressing the Layer/Active button and entering edit mode only shows you those tones that will be affected by any editing — it doesn't simultaneously turn off those tones that aren't selected. In order to do that, you have to leave edit mode, deactivate those tones you don't want to hear, re-enter edit mode, and then select whichever tones you want to edit. Although you get used to this, it is a ridiculous way of going about things. There is one good reason for it, however — it may be used as a performance feature. Because the 'tones ready for editing' setup saves when you save the Patch, the idea is that on stage you just hit Layer/Active and give the filter cut-off (or whatever) some serious woggling, and only those tones that you have selected in that particular Patch will be affected. This is a good thing. Unfortunately it cripples the editing procedure you use the other 99% of the time.
So, having finally got into edit mode with relevant tones audible and ready for action, you strike the next problem: what are the current values of the parameters I am about to edit? As Patrick Moore might say, we just don't know. As you begin editing, you are in the strange position of being confronted with a comprehensive array of visual data given by the positions of the faders and other controls — all of which is likely to be wrong. Although the right-hand LCD gives parameter values for each of the tones, this only becomes active after you have edited the parameter. In other words, it is only by moving the relevant control that you can call up the display. This is where the parallel with a classic analogue synthesizer breaks down. Most of these had no way of storing sounds, and the settings of the controls on the front panel related directly to the sound: what you saw was what you got. Even the later polyphonic analogue synthesizers tended to have separate banks of controls for each voice. The intermediate generation of synthesizers with memories (and thus digital control), for example, the Jupiter 8, Juno 106, Oberheim OB8, have exactly the same problem as the JD800 but tend to be much simpler.
It could be argued that if you edit using your ears as your guides then this is not a problem at all. The LEDs on the front panel will tell you which LFO is doing what and where, and the LCD display will become active whilst you're editing. All I can say is that I find it annoying and distracting, but ultimately understandable. After all, given this way of editing, and given 4-voice Patches and a totally digital system, what are the alternatives? Either a massive display giving you all the parameter values of all the current tones numerically, which rather defeats the whole purpose of the exercise, or having all the faders automated. The latter is plainly unrealistic; both sound expensive.
However, back on a positive note, once you've piled in, having all the important controls for a particular tone to hand really is wonderful. Editing is fast, intuitive, and fun. In no time at all you can rustle up some beautifully clean and zingy sounds. As usual, the presets don't really do the instrument justice. The TVF itself, a variable-state filter instantly switchable between high, low, and band pass, is superbly implemented. There are dedicated faders for cut-off, resonance, envelope, key follow, LFO, and aftertouch modulation. The filter envelope has four time and four level parameters, as well as faders governing overall velocity response, time against velocity response, and time against key follow response. On any subtractive synth, the quality of the filter is crucial: the JD800's is outstanding.
The LCD on the Wavestation is a generous 8 lines by 40 characters (64 x 240 pixels); since almost every scrap of information available to you is presented on it, it has to be. The front panel of the instrument contains virtually no information other than the lettering on the 10-key pad, and labels on the Jump/Mark, Increment/Decrement, Compare, Exit, Cursor, Master Volume, and Vector Synthesis controls. Beneath the display are six unlabelled 'soft' buttons, whose function depends upon which page of the menu-driven software you're editing. Their current functions are always displayed in the bottom row of the LCD. On power-up you find yourself on the main Performance page. You can step through Performances using the Inc/Dec buttons, the Infinity Wheel, or the 10-key pad. Having selected a sound for editing, pressing the second of the 'soft' keys (labelled Edit on the LCD) brings up the page showing you which Patches make up that Performance. Selecting the requisite Patch and pressing the second 'soft' key again (this time labelled Patch) brings you to the (guess what) Edit Patch page: from here you would probably select 'Waves' if you actually wanted to change the basic waveform, or 'Macros' if you wished to edit pitch, filter, or amplifier parameters. In other words, this appears to be a typical modern 'wallpapering the hall through the letterbox' type of software-driven synthesizer.
"The Wavestation appears to be a typical modern 'wallpapering the hall through the letterbox' type of software-driven synthesizer. Strangely enough, however, it is pretty easy to use."
Strangely enough, however, the Wavestation is pretty easy to use. The way it has all been laid out is perfectly logical. The interface is consistent throughout. The availability of the three methods of data entry allows you to work quickly and efficiently. The LCD is large, clear, and detailed. There are lots of little short-cuts, parameter macros, graphic displays, and other situation-specific software tools: the Jump/Mark facility, for instance, allows you to save six user settings. Having said this, programming sounds is nowhere near as quick as on the JD800, and the constant button-pushing does get to be a chore.
In compensation, the Wavestation has a couple of extra, amazingly powerful, synthesis techniques lurking within it. Firstly, there is Wave Sequencing. This allows you to linearly connect together up to 255 samples, and specify pitch, duration, length of cross-fade, loop points, and so on. As this can be done for each of the four oscillators that make up a patch, it's clear that you can create some very interesting sounds. What is even more incredible is that these sound transformations can be sync'd to MIDI — rather than use its internal clock, the Wavestation can use MIDI clocks to cycle through a Wave Sequence. Referring back to the Roland D50 again, amongst that synth's presets was a Patch called 'Digital Native Dance'. This is typical of the type of sound you can create with wave sequencing — a complex percussive rhythm underpinning the rest of the sound. What made 'Digital Native Dance' virtually unusable was that as you raised the pitch the whole sequence sped up, because the rhythm was a single sample, and when you transpose a sample up in pitch it becomes shorter. On the Wavestation, this isn't the case: the sequence of samples will stay in tempo regardless of pitch. Brilliant! Its apparent simplicity belies the serious amounts of DSP going on. Alternatively, you can create complex timbral changes by crossfading smoothly from one waveform into another, then another, then another...
The second technique is called Vector Synthesis, and this is the reason for the joystick on the front panel. This idea was originally developed by the pioneering American synthesizer company Sequential Circuits for their Prophet VS synth. The company was eventually bought out by Yamaha, and Vector Synthesis resurfaced recently on the SY22. Some ex-Sequential staff were subsequently hired by Korg, and it may come as no surprise to learn that the Wavestation's designer, Dave Smith (The Man Who Invented MIDI) was once Mr. Sequential Circuits. What happens is that the relative levels of each of the four oscillators within a Patch can be manipulated dynamically over time: one each of the four oscillators is assigned to the North, South, East, and Western poles of the joystick, and its simple movement relative to those poles modulates the amplitudes of the oscillators. You can also assign each of the oscillators in a Patch to the four separate audio outputs: moving the joystick then gives you quadrophonic panning! Alas, real-time movements cannot be recorded, and the 'Vector Position' cannot be controlled by MIDI continuous controllers as on the SY22 (although the joystick will generate continuous controllers), so you can really only make the best of the joystick in performance. You can, however, program dynamic changes with the joystick by assigning 'snapshots' of the vector position to the points of a 4-stage envelope.
There is an enormous amount of control available on the Wavestation. Each of the 32 oscillators has two assignable LFOs; aftertouch and mod wheel can be assigned to modulate almost anything; you can sync oscillators together (a great technique for searing lead sounds, and a throwback to the days of analogue synths with 'real' oscillators); variable pitch scaling is available on all oscillators. The list is seemingly endless. Sadly, if there is one area where the Wavestation is severely lacking it is in the filter department. Provision is made for a low pass filter only, and there is no resonance control. There is a case to be made for saying that the Wavestation doesn't really need it. The Wave Sequencing and the Vector Synthesis were designed to give control over timbral changes across time, and there are even those sets of samples mentioned earlier which, when sequenced together, reconstruct a filter being swept across a sound. Unfortunately, these sound pretty lifeless, and do not recreate effectively the changes of timbre that occur with changes of pitch (as the harmonics move around under the filter). Nor do they allow you to set your own filter cut-off points or amounts of resonance. Or, for that matter, to put filter resonance on any sound you like. To have had as powerful a synthesizer as this with a filter as fully implemented as the JD800 would really have been something. An opportunity missed.
My only other criticism of the Wavestation concerns the cursor buttons. They are used constantly when editing, but they're so fiddly you have to keep looking over all the time to check you're pressing the right one. It would have been so much better to have had a second Infinity Wheel dedicated to cursor movement, as on the Akai S1000.
The MIDI implementation on the JD800 is, by modern professional standards, a bit half-baked. For example, you can turn off local control when using it with a sequencer, but this then disables Patch changing from the front panel. You can record all front panel fader movements into a sequencer, but only via SysEx messages. Because these messages must be transmitted as relatively large blocks of data, there is the possibility of their causing glitches in the timing of a busy sequence: using continuous controller messages would have been better. Also, there is no way of chaining together Patches for live performances, which some might consider a drastic failing, considering the keyboard's performance-oriented bias. The JD800 is 5-part multi-timbral, with one other 'Special Setup' (for drums). There is only the one, lonely, memory location available for Multi setups.
The Wavestation's MIDI specification is absolutely first class: there are separate pages for Global MIDI, Transmit, Receive, Status, Performance Mapping, and System Exclusive. 16 Multi memory locations are available, and the instrument is 16-part multi-timbral. The Wavestation would make a very good mother keyboard; not so the JD800.
"In their own ways, the designers of both machines under discussion have expended an incredible amount of effort in an attempt to come up with new ways of making a complex electronic musical instrument that has character, that is expressive, fully programmable, and yet somehow still relatively easy to use."
In Single mode, the JD800 allows you to use up to a maximum of nine effects at once. Whilst these are not fully programmable algorithms, sheer weight of numbers wins the day. In Multi mode, things are not so good: only five effects are available to the six parts. This produces a notable reduction in the quality of some of the Patches.
The Wavestation has two fully programmable effects units within it, the equivalent of something like two SPX900s. These may be used in series or in parallel. Again, Performances used in Multi mode will lose their specific effects setups, but for some reason this is not so noticeable on this machine.
Consider the violin. It is essentially monophonic. It only has two basic sounds, generated either by bowing or plucking the strings (although there are other possible sounds to be derived from these). What makes so seemingly limited an instrument as the violin so musical is that it allows the player an almost infinite means of expression. So much so, in fact, that any player would be hard pressed to play two consecutive notes identically. By comparison, most modern electronic musical instruments are still in the Stone Age. If there is one means of expression both the JD800 and the Wavestation do attempt to come to terms with, however, it is in the vital area of controlling timbre across time. We talk of sounds 'evolving': the importance of attack transients at the onset of a sound has already been discussed, but if there is no further change within the so-called 'steady-state' or periodic part of the sound, the ear rapidly loses interest in it. (By way of brief explanation, it is tempting here to refer to Information Theory: a sound that doesn't change over time is not relaying information, so we 'turn off'. It's not expressing anything.) In their own ways, the designers of both machines under discussion have expended an incredible amount of effort in an attempt to come up with new ways of making a complex electronic musical instrument that has character, that is expressive, fully programmable, and yet somehow still relatively easy to use. Starting from very similar places, they have taken very different routes and ended up with products that are conceptually almost diametrically opposed.
The JD800, whilst superficially futuristic, is in fact an attempt to drag 'analogue' synthesis techniques into the present all-digital day. The ability to physically manipulate controls in performance is not one to be dismissed lightly, in particular, sweeping or modulating the filter is a very powerful and musical technique for bringing timbral variation into a sound, and to this end the JD800 is very well equipped. However, there is no doubt that when you buy a JD800 you're paying a significant proportion of the cover price for a box of knobs. It perhaps a shame that, in order to ensure that all this is still affordable, the instrument is in other respects pretty unremarkable. And, as I've said, the promise of ease in programmability does not always live up to expectations.
By comparison, with the Wavestation you pay relatively little for the hardware and consequently get a greater return in sheer synthesis power. At the risk of unleashing an awful pun, it is much deeper. For the programmer, the Wavestation breaks no new ground in terms of its interface. Instead it is well-developed, relatively straightforward and, cursor buttons aside, very well implemented. There is no doubt that Wave Sequencing, especially when linked as here with a MIDI sync facility, is an incredibly powerful new technique. It is the sort of thing that Electro-Acoustic composers have been throwing time and money at since the introduction of computers into music. For this unique feature alone, the Wavestation is value for money. Vector Synthesis I'm not so sure about: personally, I'd swap it for a well-implemented filter with an option to somehow sync its envelope to MIDI clocks. Dream on...
Korg WS1 Wavestation EX £1,495 inc VAT.
Korg UK, (Contact Details).
Roland JD800 £1,999 inc VAT
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Feature by Paul Hazel
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