Korg Wavestation SR Synth Module
The Wavestation range has been a resounding success for Korg — but does the world really need another Wavestation? Hang on, though... the SR's got 550 Performances, many the work of world-class programmers, two effects processors, and 32-note polyphony, all in a 1U rack module. Julian Colbeck thinks it might be worth a glance...
There are times when there is such a buzz about a new instrument that reading or writing a review becomes frankly redundant. Now is such a time. Lucky old Korg, eh? They just can't seem to put a foot wrong these days.
Why? Sounds. The story is always the same: the instruments that make the best noises sell. How many facilities an instrument offers, or how difficult it is to program, or even to an extent how expensive it is, all pale into insignificance besides this all-important factor. And damn right, too. It's for this same reason that a Stradivarius or a Bechstein enjoys its reputation — not, mind, that I'm placing Korg's latest slimline Vector Synthesis/Wave Sequencing module in quite this class just yet.
Korg launched the first of these synths (from the US Prophet 5 design team) back in 1990. Both Vector Synthesis (which is really mucking around with the blend of oscillators on an X/Y axis, in real time if need be) and Wave Sequencing (stringing together chunks of sound sequentially so that a final sound appears to evolve over a period of time) provide innovative and creative sound options that pro players were quick to latch on to. The modular Wavestation A/D took this a stage further, by offering analogue inputs so that external signals could be processed, not only by the instrument's fine array of DSP algorithms, including an ear-catching vocoder, but also by the actual filters and envelope generators. Billed as a programmers delight in its SOS review last year, the A/D has indeed been found lurking in almost every sound hound's rack ever since.
But these were expensive toys. Although the Wavestation SR has binned the A/D's analogue inputs, the price reduction of more than a third on the A/D is made even more ludicrous when you consider the SR has no less than 550 onboard performances, excluding use of a card.
Since the Wavestation, in some form or another, has now been reviewed in these pages three times (the original Wavestation in August '90, the Wavestation EX in January '92, and the Wavestation A/D in February '92) there is little point in going through the instrument parameter by parameter, because all essentially follow the same pattern.
I will go through the basic structure of the instrument, though, because although this too has been the same throughout the range it serves as a reminder of just how deep and powerful a system we are dealing with here.
The small currency of sound is the PCM waveform, of which there are 484 to choose from internally (more can be slotted in from PCM card), and which are samples of varying types and length — loops, single cycles, transients, etc. Up to four of these (each individually processed by envelope generators, filters and the like) can be combined in what is called a Patch. Without recourse to external storage cards, some 385 Patches can be stored. The second most readily available sounds — what you'd think of as the basic presets — are yet another notch up the tree, and are called Performances. These can be made from combinations of up to eight patches, and the Wavestation SR holds no less than 550 Performances internally.
As for multitimbral operation, up to 16 performances can be stored in what the instrument calls a Multiset. The SR can store 32 Multisets, twice the number that a Wavestation EX keyboard or the Wavestation A/D offers. SR Multisets can also be named and, more significantly, offer a more streamlined approach to multitimbral effects routing, which is normally the bane of everyone's life.
All this is very impressive, of course, but it is still subject to polyphony restrictions. The SR might be a relatively healthy 32-voice polyphonic, but should you feel inclined to start piling on the patches when you're creating a new performance, this can make a severe impact on any Multiset that Performance is subsequently used in. Similarly, greedy patches that use up four oscillators will quarter the instrument's polyphony at a stroke. Korg has no monopoly on this frustration; it just becomes more apparent the more powerful an instrument appears to be.
Time out to listen to some sounds. Korg says that it trawled the world's top Wavestation programmers for these presets, and it shows. I myself lobbed a card full of Wavestation sounds at Korg UK a year ago and I'll comfort myself with the thought that one or two may have been included. In truth, though, the standard is ridiculously high and my sounds are probably sitting on a reserve bench somewhere up at Korg HQ in North West London.
The biggest and best are always the ones that got away aren't they? I had a very sad run-in with some absolutely cracking Wavestation sounds I'd done previously when the wretched (pre-release) Wavestation keyboard initialised itself!
But this is ancient history. Today's SR sounds are, in my humble opinion, unrivalled for both quality and range. Stars include 'Noble Strings', quite the most luscious, electronics-free string patch I've ever heard on a synth or sampler; in all registers, a patch to die for. Then there's 'Vocodadrum' — a sort of Bobby McFerrin vocalising drum patch; 'Funky Planet' — a complete drum loop laden arrangement package of wonderfulness; 'Life Goes On' — a sizzling wave sequence of mind-bending proportions that grooves along with velocity-dependent kick and snare drums; flutes, pianos, Hendrix-style guitars. And so on and so forth.
As I said, it's the scope of the presets that is so impressive. Yes, every instrument is going to have the old killer patch, the odd 'Digital Native Dance' (D50), 'Universe' (M1), 'Electric Piano' (DX7), but the SR's basket of goodies includes killer presets by the score plus plenty of good, plain, useful sounds as well.
This is an important point. As a seasoned M1 owner, I know only too well how difficult it can be to slot many of the M1's 'top' sounds into a mix. They sound brilliant, yes, but brilliant on their own. Having been using the SR in the studio, I can assure you that these sounds blend. The other point about the sounds is their all-round playability. Clearly the programmers who put this lot together play. Sounds are never less than highly expressive, with many sporting challenging aftertouch, modulation, or simply 'passage of time as you hold down a key' characteristics. Sounds, and by this I mean Performances, are organised into banks, of which there are 11. The first three are RAM, the remaning eight ROM.
So it's cheap, it sounds wonderful — what's the catch? The only possible cloud on the horizon is the question: how easy can an instrument this powerful, yet with such a miniscule display screen, really be?
In fairness there have been times, as I've idly overwritten a preset because I've hastily jabbed at one (the wrong) of the SR's pinhead push buttons, that I've felt like murdering the little thing. And you can get lost: the screen not only devolves to a system of pages but also to a system of pages in which you can veer off a further umpteen pages to either side.
I'd advise a thorough session just on the SR's operational procedures before you embark on any serious work. That said, the system is neither convoluted, nor in any way badly arranged. It is simply that there's an awful lot going on. Even so, most users will probably want to do little more than flip through the presets, change MIDI channels, transpose the odd sound (do it in Global), and set up Multisets. Which is a shame, because the SR employs two highly sophisticated musical functions — namely, Wave Sequencing, and Vector Synthesis.
Vector synthesis was fairly self-evident on the original Wavestation, because the instrument boasted a joystick that you could waggle in real time and hear the blend of oscillators changing as you went. On the SR there is no joystick, for a start. Nonetheless you are free to waggle joysticks, or indeed mod wheels, or pedals on your MIDI controller to work the effect. Or you can program in a Vectored balance for permanent safe-keeping.
Wave sequencing is a completely separate subsport that some people are going to get into and love, while others will ignore it completely. The beauty of the instrument is that both tactics are perfectly valid.
On one level, wave sequencing can be a painstaking, carefully thought out procedure, as evidenced by the SR's stunning presets that employ complete drum tracks alongside each musical note. On another, it can be an almost random approach of stringing sounds together willy nilly and seeing what happens.
The clocking of such sequencing is generally undertaken internally, although it doesn't have to be. Just watch out for one thing: when you've been using MIDI as a clock, remember to switch back to internal or else all sounds that use(d) a wave sequence will suddenly be wave sequenceless — i.e. half the sound will be missing.
When this first happened to me (albeit inadvertently because someone else had switched over to MIDI clock in my absence) I thought the SR had gone on the blink. Back at Korg all was revealed. Sure, I felt like an idiot. But having carefully explained exactly what seemed to be happening on the phone I'd have thought they could have twigged what it was and put me right over the phone. All of us have now been warned, anyway!
In both of the two effects processors, there are no less than 55 quality-oozing sound-enhancers, including such splendid rarities as vocoder and stereo compressor. Many of the effects are already in combinations (flanger and delay, or distortion and filter), so that in, ahem, effect, you can use up to six simultaneous effects on a sound.
The effects themselves are never less than top quality, and can even be modulated or activated by various sources — for example, keyboard velocity, aftertouch, and key down gate (only in place when note still held down).
There are two effects processors here, not 32. So, as always on a multitimbral instrument, all effects are removed from the presets in multitimbral operation and a separate, multitimbral effects setting comes into play. Effects routing is complex (isn't it always?) but the SR at least makes things more flexible in a Multiset, since every part can now be assigned its own Multiset routing — in other words, a routing that overrides that set on the performance itself.
However, the Wavestation doesn't depend upon effects in order to sound great. Effects enhance, much as they should; they don't bolster up. There's a subtle but vital difference.
The SR formula is slick, almost irresistible: it offers an inordinately large number of presets to choose from (eight ROM banks as opposed to the one each of the other Wavestations), and yet gives the full programmability of its illustrious predecessors on tap (excluding analogue inputs) as well. Should you buy an SR for the first reason, it will only be a matter of time before you're tempted to investigate and, I'm sure, become beguiled by the second.
Wavestation SR £1095 inc VAT.
Korg UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by Julian Colbeck
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