Nobody who has heard the Korg Wavedrum played by a skilful percussionist can fail to have been impressed by the way this instrument responds. Unlike traditional electronic drums or sampled drum sounds, the Wavedrum creates its sounds using physical modelling, a technology first brought to our attention in the form of Yamaha's VL1. Though most people don't think of drummers as particularly technical people, there's a new breed of drummers and percussionists out there who don't want to take second place to the keyboard player where technology is concerned.
The US team of Dave Smith and John Bowen in California (ex of Sequential), are largely responsible for the Synth Kit development software that lurks within the bowels of Korg's Wavedrum, and in spite of all you might have heard, read, or thought about the Wavedrum, it cannot accurately be described as a MIDI conga. It is more of an electronic drum, whose internal sounds are based on a multi-synthesis physical modelling technology, and whose physical attributes aim to offer the professional percussionist a range of dynamics and expression that is not currently on offer from any MIDI-based instrument.
The nuts and bolts of the Wavedrum are these: for your money, you'll take delivery of a unit the size, shape, and -- Godammit, what else can one say -- look, of a wooden toilet seat, equipped with a standard drum head. The whole unit bolts onto a very sturdy-looking camera tripod-type expandable stand. With standard Euro socket power applied, you can now fire up the Wavedrum and thwack away, using hands or stick, at some 200 sounds ranging from thunder, to jingle bells, sticks, drums, basses, grunge guitar, to percussive wavesequences. Depending upon how hard you thwack, or indeed where on the drumskin you thwack, sounds can evolve, or change completely, and like a real drum, you can damp it with your hand or even apply pressure on it for tabla-like bends.
Using just the Wavedrum by itself, you can edit sounds for tuning and decay. With the select and value controls tucked away beneath the rim of the instrument, performing edits isn't particularly comfortable, but the range and response on offer are perfectly adequate. As you tweak one of these parameter values up or down, the display -- and it's a highly stylish one -- offers up a little hieroglyphic readout to accompany the proceedings. Neighbouring controls under the rim include basic tone controls (hi/lo) via a dual concentric pot, master level, and a separate phones level knob alongside a phones jack. On the far left hand side are bank select, and program knobs, plus a tiny, sunken reset switch that you would, I imagine, have to prod with a toothpick or mini screwdriver if and when such a need arises.
Given the position of all the controls, scrolling through the banks and programs is fiddly. But without Korg's RE1 Remote Editor (initially made to accompany the M3R synth, I believe), you'll have to get used to this. You'll also have to get used to the fact that whole areas of editing and sound creation are not open to you -- the obvious moral of the story being that the RE1 Remote Editor is an absolute necessity if you want to tap the full potential of the Wavedrum. Not only are then all the instrument's day-to-day functions made instantly accessible and visible, but you can also set about concocting virtual instruments, or just plain heavy tweaking, until you have set up this unique device to suit your individual needs.
The RE1 connects via a multi-pin socket at the back of the instrument, alongside which are a pair of output jacks, a pedal input, 'Rim' in, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports. The pedal input is useful, giving you continuous controller pedal control of any parameter within a program (more on this in a moment). 'Rim' refers to the metal rim which bolts onto the top of the drum and which sports a socket enabling the rim to be activated by connecting it to this special input. The purpose of all this is to make the rim electronically sensitive to being hit with a stick. And not merely hit, either. There are two lengths of corrugated strip running along the rim's edge which my percussionist ally in this test, Wendon Davies, immediately spotted as offering a way of generating the sound of a guiro. Nice touch, this.
From all this you may deduce that the Wavedrum has two fundamental ways of being played: it can be slapped, as a conga, or it can be hit, as a drum. All well and good, but it's a shame that the process of removing or adding the rim involves screwing it on or off via three lugs and a drum key, which obviously inhibits the speed at which you can change from one method of playing it to the other. Wendon suggested that some form of clip-on/clip-off mechanism would have been better here while SOS editor Paul White thought a rim which could be raised or lowered easily would have been a smart move.
Time to investigate what is going on inside this intriguing instrument -- but first you must have an RE1 in tow. I suspect -- and certainly hope -- that Korg might even bundle an RE1 into an only marginally increased price of the Wavedrum, as without an RE1 you really are missing out not just on 50% of the fun but probably 90% of the creativity.
With the RE1 suitably plumbed in (via a single multi-pin connector cable from Wavedrum to RE1 that also acts as its power supply), there is instant interplay between the two units. Call up a program using the RE1 keypad or cursor keys and the Wavedrum responds appropriately. Similarly, go into edit mode and make parameter changes on the RE1 and you will hear those changes in real time on the Wavedrum.
The subject of precisely what parameter changes these might be is a fascinating one. There is no standard set of parameters here as you would expect to find on a conventional synthesizer -- no 'oscillator, filter, envelope generator' route map to follow. Seemingly, each program has a set of bespoke edit parameters. On a sound like the 'Koto', for instance, you are given control over: Fine tuning, Pluck position, Damping, 'Loosening', Plucked noise, Bottom string, Top string, and 'Loosening 2'.
Meanwhile, the giant conga-type sound called 'Big Hand' offers control over: Stuffing (?), Open level, Slap level, Slap decay, Slap tone, Slap peak, Slap expand, and Rim level. [See Joe Becket's box elsewhere in this article for an explanation of some of these parameters.]
When you first dive into a sound edit mode (just by selecting F2 on the RE1's front panel), an algorithm number briefly flashes by on screen. With no documentation -- to either your reviewer, or anyone at Korg UK -- no one is quite sure of the significance of this for the moment, other than simply to tell you which algorithm your current program is using. The only way actually to change the algorithm appears to be to find a sound that employs that algorithm, and copy it across to a free memory location.
Clearly, however, the algorithms define sound type -- that is, which of the umpteen varieties of synthesis is being employed and which parameters you are being given to control them. The multi-synthesis Wavedrum does not simply footle around with samples, you understand!
Even if the precise thoughts and intentions behind the Wavedrum's voice structure are still unavailable for inspection, the reality and practicality of the system is as plain as day. Each program has up to eight edit parameters available to it, listed over two pages, with tweaking just a matter of activating a soft button or slider.
Although the terminology of physical modelling is deliberately descriptive as opposed to literal -- definitely a good thing, provided terms have been chosen wisely -- no doubt the Wavedrum manual will provide more accurate explanations than I for such terms as 'Loosening', or 'Region'. No doubt the manual will also have wise things to say about programming in terms of approach and application. During my time with the Wavedrum I simply, and happily, nudged and chivvied this parameter and that until I settled upon a sound that was interesting.
The immense power and potential of physical modelling is easy to see on a program like 'Jingle', where a parameter such as 'metallize' progressively transforms a set of jingly-jangly metal bells into a set of strung dry beads. Brilliant. With additional parameters such as jingle pitch, jingle decay, drum level, and the mysterious Loosening (a parameter that crops up often but that in itself appears to do different things within different algorithms), not only can the 'instrument's' physical constitution be manipulated, but its size, and environment in which it is being heard can also be modified.
'Bas-Seq' is another intriguing program, which also demonstrates the Wavedrum's external, player controllability. On the face of it 'Bas-Seq' is a fairly hoary old analogue synth bass tone. Only it's not just 'a' tone, so much as a series of five tones that can respond to position and velocity information. Although there must be a technique to setting up exactly by what you would like each note to be triggered, the edit pages do offer up Notes 1-5 parameters for setting up which are to be the notes in question. The same sort of puzzled pleasure awaited me on a program called 'Wav-Seq', in which the parameter 'Motif' gives you the choice of three 'wavesequence' patterns of clickity-clackety percussion rolling along behind the note, though there does not appear to be any more specific control than that at present. Korg inform me that the clocking of the wavesequence 'should be' controllable over MIDI. Since this is indeed the case on a Korg Wavestation synth, I guess this is a fair enough assumption.
Now the subject of MIDI has been raised it's time to consider the first body blow: the Wavedrum cannot be 'played' into a sequencer in order that the sound you generate can be sent back to you, faithfully or otherwise. So for all us armchair percussionists dreaming of being able to generate, and then fix, all manner of wild and wacky percussion parts with this instrument I have this to say: sorry, folks, but you're just going to have to learn to play.
The reason for this is not just some total piece of forgetful lunacy on Korg's part, but rather because the sound generating system of a Wavedrum is not purely under MIDI control. Beneath the skin and underneath a little metal tongue that lies just above the drum-head is an arrangement of sensors and microphones whose output contribute greatly to the overall sound in terms of picking up things like 'slap' and hand noise. This is an electronic instrument, true, but not a 'MIDI' instrument as such.
Subsequent rooting around the edit pages of the Wavedrum revealed a MIDI channel, plus Note Number parameters. Although I could elicit nothing whatsoever from the latter, you can, I'm told, get the Wavedrum to receive certain basic MIDI-friendly information from an external controller on any thus set-up note number. I'm not sure I find such an offer terribly exciting, but there we are.
The Wavedrum's acoustic tendencies are excellent, obviously, and we'll come on to them in more detail in a minute. But they do throw up one significant imponderable in that although the sensors pick up and amplify the instrument's 'natural' sound as you hit it, the total sound is still a blend of acoustic and synthesized. The problem is that the acoustic sound of you slapping the drum head is so loud that sometimes this simply drowns out, and certainly overshadows, the electronics. Only on playback (audio playback, not MIDI) do you get a true picture of what you've done. Of course, any acoustic percussionist will be used to this last point, but the Wavedrum's total audio picture is a blend of acoustic and electronic and it is just very difficult to hear the exact mix, accurately, in real time. If you are only playing, live, then perhaps who cares. But for studio work, and certainly programming new sounds, this may present problems.
So we've had a few problems, now for a major pleasure. The pedal input allows you to patch in a continuous controller pedal and so manipulate selected parameters in real time, in rather the same way as on Korg synths since the M1. Precisely what you have control over depends upon the make-up of your sound. It would seem that any available edit parameter within the algorithm can be so controlled. I liked the display's helpfulness in providing you with instant information regarding a parameter's present value as you access each parameter in turn.
I also liked the editing system in general. You can swap programs from one location to another, and you can audition either your source or your destination in order to avoid accidentally erasing some priceless piece of programming.
When the Wavedrum was first unveiled, it was introduced not so much as a product but as a development platform and as a means of eliciting feedback from potential users. The fact that this same machine is now on the market must indicate that Korg feel they got it pretty much right first time, though I think only its nearest and dearest would claim that this instrument is perfect. It is, after all, the first of its generation, and if you are the sort of person who must have the latest technology, then you must expect a certain amount of beta testing to come with the territory, and similarly, you shouldn't be surprised when the inevitable, lower-cost 'variations-on-a-theme' arrive on the scene.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the Wavedrum is the technology behind it and where that technology might lead, though I can't claim to have explored every possibility the Wavedrum offers because of the lack of manual or technical information in general. Although a quick call to Korg R&D in California has revealed that there are no immediate plans for the algorithm development tool Synth Kit to be released as either a stand-alone program or as some form of programmer for the Wavedrum, both have been requested and noted. More likely, I would imagine, may be some form of Synth Kit made available to third-party voicing specialists in due course, plus, of course, the other item that we'll all be looking forward to, namely a Synth Kit-inspired, physical-modelling keyboard.
Despite some design niggles, and the disappointment over the lack of full MIDI compatibility, the Wavedrum can produce impressive results at the hands of a real percussionist. But perhaps most importantly, it defines a new direction for electronic percussion and holds out the promise of some genuinely exciting future spin-offs.
So how does the Wavedrum sound and is it fun to play? In addressing the first point, I was somewhat hampered by the fact that the sounds in the review sample were not finished at the time of the review, though they will be by the time you read this. Assuming, though, that 'forthcoming sounds' will occupy the empty spaces in my review model, I hope (and am reassured by Korg) that the late arrivals will comprise a healthy smattering of congas, bongos, timbales and the like. Of the 70-odd programs included to date there are very few natural, acoustic sounds, and rather a lot of electronic booms and bongs. The now-electrified percussionist will surely get a thrill out of being able to trigger World War III, but I suspect his job in the band will still depend upon him delivering a decent set of congas!
Of the present programs, 'Koto' -- offered at seemingly random pitches depending upon position and velocity -- is an ear-catcher, as is 'Sawari', with its atmospheric sitari drone. 'Jingle-D' is a useful mix of kick drum and tambourine; a pair of Gamelan programs are both, though in different ways, crazily playable, while a program entitled 'Hendrix' is bound to be a crowd-pleaser with its swooping, whammy bar, grunge guitar dive bombing into serious pitch bend when you grind the ball of your hand deep into the centre of the drum head.
The more sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed a Wavedrum emerging from the clouds of dry ice on the TOTP stage during The Grid's recent appearance. The lads had been loaned the only unit in the country, destined for despatch to SOS's reviewer after the show, to pose with. A gear mix-up after TOTP's recording meant that SOS had a day less with the instrument, but that The Grid's percussionist Pablo Cook, got a chance to try it out.
"OK, so it looks like a toilet seat, but who cares! This pad has brilliant sensitivity from the outer hoop to the centre of the drum. Onto the controls, straightforward panel switches, not too many of them, but all under the dash-board. On the far side you get your standard MIDI In and MIDI Out and -- one small plus -- a cable holder, to help keep big-foot roadies at bay (Sorry Phil!).
"The internal sounds do not fit into the style of music I'm working with. They're not hard enough for me, but they would sound great at Real World, for instance. Check out the Hendrix sound: Wicked! I would definitely have two of these as part of my setup, the strong point being that you can play it like a Conga and it feels really nice."
In amongst JC's rag bag of talents, percussion playing is not one I count as being of professional standard. Help was needed for this review and I was fortunate enough to persuade Wendon Davis, recently of D.Ream, to journey down from rehearsals for an afternoon's Wavedrum bashing.
I personally may have some misgivings about the look of the Wavedrum, but Wendon had no such problems. 'Gorgeous' was the word he used to describe the feel of the silky-smooth wood rim and, having first ascertained that the plasticky Remo drumhead could be removed and a natural skin one put in its place and then having tightened the head up to a bouncier tension, the basic feel of playing the instrument was pronounced by Wendon as highly satisfactory -- with one or two exceptions. The first concerns a two-inch metal tongue inscribed with the name 'Korg' that pokes out over the drum head at the back of the instrument. Curious place for a logo, I'd thought, before Korg informed me that this in fact houses the pickup essential for the 'slap.' Quite so, but Wendon found this an intrusive piece of design, especially, as he reminded me, considering that percussion players frequently come in big-handed varieties, who might find a tendency to keep smacking their hand on the thing.
Wendon Davis is reasonably big at 6 feet 2 inches, and he found the stand could not be raised to a sufficiently comfortable height for him to play standing up. It is, however, extremely sturdy. Several massively (gig-like, he told me) healthy Davies thumps did not seem to budge it at all.
It was during this highly physical part of the joint test that the Wavedrum's somewhat sensitive nature was discovered. Even standing three feet away from the drum, it was possible to trigger a sound just by stamping on the floor. This might be a little worrying considering the amount of vibration and general leaping up and down that takes place on most stages. Better insulation, either from a design point of view or as an external fix, seems in order.
Wendon's main concern was the instrument's lack of natural conga-type sounds, plus the fact that, because each algorithm has a separate range of parameters, you may not necessarily be able to exert the influence you want over each particular sound. In particular, Wendon responded to being able to bend notes using aftertouch-type pressure, which is only currently available on some of the programs. As for the range of sounds themselves, it was the ambient sounds that caught the Davis ear. "I could certainly see myself playing these on quite a few gigs." he says. "But it would be nice to be able to mix in some more recognisable sounds like strings, even things like smashing glass samples." Speaking of which, Wendon also put in a request for some form of user sampling on any future Wavedrum-type products, even perhaps making a unit with something simple and immediate like a built-in mic. The problem of a lack of natural percussion instrument sounds has already been pointed out to Korg and this, they assure me, will have been cured before actual release. Although there is no card slot, I also suspect that there will be a healthy trade in new Wavedrum sounds in the future -- loading and dumping via MIDI.
We put some of Wendon's concerns to Joe Becket, a pro percussion player who demos the Wavedrum for Korg. See his answers in the box 'Korg's Pro Demonstrator on the Wavedrum', elsewhere in this article.
One of the highlights of July's British Music Fair was the Wavedrum demo given by Joe Becket on the Korg stand. Joe is a percussionist who's toured with Spandau Ballet and Paul Weller and worked extensively with ace remixer Phil Kelsey, as well as playing on sessions for the Auteurs, Monie Love and Adeva; he's also been responsible for a number of dance tracks of his own. As Joe tells it, he got into the Wavedrum by chance: "I happened to be at Nomis Studio Complex when Korg were showing a prototype. I spotted the Wavedrum and started to play it. When the BMF came up, they asked me if I'd like to demonstrate it."
Although Joe's only had contact with the Wavedrum since just before the BMF, he already sees a place for it in the modern percussionist's arsenal of sound: "I'd love to use it live. In the right context, it would sound excellent. And there's the visual side -- it looks good." The small size and power of the Wavedrum are also an asset: "If you wanted to take a whole set of tablas and African drums on stage, you could never do it. The Wavedrum would fill the gap."
While he hasn't yet gigged the Wavedrum, Joe has used it in the studio. One of his techniques is to sample and loop rhythmic patterns while playing along to a click -- this also gets around the instrument's limited MIDI spec. "It works very well; I might record three or four loops, and they give a good, live feel to a track. Wavedrum parts sit really well in a track." The question of recording or sampling the Wavedrum unearths a rather strange problem, however. "You have to EQ it, because the sounds are quite... real. The Wavedrum doesn't produce digitally crisp sounds; they're a bit middly and you have to brighten them up a bit. I was using a tabla sound in a session recently, and if you can imagine the sound of a real tabla in a room with a mic over it, that was the sound produced by the Wavedrum, rather than a tabla that had been EQ'd and processed."
The Wavedrum offers some rather odd sound editing parameters -- 'Loosening' and 'Stuffing', for example -- and Joe is almost as baffled as the rest of us, since he hasn't seen a user manual either. "Each sound has a different set of parameters. The 'Loosening' parameter, for example, emulates the detuning you get when you loosen the skin on a drum. 'Stuffing' is very hard to describe... A conga can have a wooden or a fibreglass shell, which both produce a different sound; the 'Stuffing' parameter allows you to emphasise more of the wood or fibreglass, something you can't do with a real conga. You'd alter the 'Stuffing' parameter if you wanted to bring out more of the shell ring. If you give it a high value, you can make the conga more metallic sounding.
"Programming the Wavedrum really is a matter of trusting your ears and trying different variations of what's available -- some sounds can be affected quite heavily by editing, while others don't seem to be affected much at all. I think everyone's been going on instinct. To be honest with you, I work a lot by ear anyway when I'm programming synths."
The synthesis system at the heart of the Wavedrum is a combination of FM, analogue and physical modelling synthesis; for Joe, the sound of Korg's instrument has a rather 'FM' feel to it, and overall he finds the Wavedrum's sounds very realistic. "For me, it's the most exciting electronic hand-played percussion ever. The sensitivity and response are unbelievable -- each patch is like playing a different drum."
"Sturdy hardware" is another comment that regularly came up during our conversation, so I mentioned some of Wendon Davis's comments. With regard to the metal pick-up housing, Joe says "I've never had a problem. At the BMF, I played for six hours a day and not once did I catch my fingers. As with any instrument, once you start playing it, you instinctively know where to put your hands." The stand height question isn't an issue with Joe either, since: "I'm short! The height was fine for me, although for someone over six foot, it might be a bit of a problem."
The sensitivity problem can also be addressed. "The sensitivity can be adjusted for each patch. I've never used it with a band setup, but every time I've I've used it on a hard floor, I've never had that problem." Noting that Wendon fitted a natural skin head and adjusted the tension, Joe suggests that perhaps this caused the sensitivity problems.
Asking Joe about the Wavedrum's MIDI implementation brings about a slightly different viewpoint. "It sends out an awful lot of information: note ons, poly pressure, and a lot of controller information. It transmits more data than even a MIDI guitar, and if you could get it to play back from a sequencer, editing that data would be a nightmare. And in any case, I don't think you'd get anything out of it because I think you've got to have the actual hit, the 'spike' to start the sound. In a way, it's a good thing that the Wavedrum can't be recorded over MIDI. It's a performance instrument, and people are going to have to get percussionists to play it -- or learn to play it themselves. It may be that technology is moving more in that direction anyway, and that can't be a bad thing."
If Joe has any negative comments to make, it's with regard to the lack of conga and bongo sounds (in common with Wendon Davis) -- the bread and butter of a pro percussionist's life. However, as of writing, Korg hadn't finalised the sounds for the Wavedrum, which means that this point may well be addressed when production machines hit these shores. He also had a little trouble with the pedal input. "I don't know if I was using the wrong kind of pedal. You can actually assign any parameter to the pedal, allowing you to change any parameter while playing: for example, while playing a patch called 'Wah Heart', you change the amount of 'wah' with your foot. This would be an excellent facility live, but when using the sound recently, I had to change the 'wah' with my chin because I didn't have the right pedal!"
On the question of price, Joe sees no problem in context of the pro percussionist. Asked about how a Wavedrum compares to, say, a set of congas, Joe comments: "A set of three quality congas could cost around the £1400 mark. If you want good percussion equipment, you have to spend a lot of money. I had to buy an Akai S1000 for a Spandau Ballet tour a few years ago, and that cost me £3000. So for someone who's touring, £1800 isn't going to be that much. But for the average percussionist who doesn't gig very often, then it may be a bit expensive -- hopefully there will be a smaller, cheaper instrument in the future."
And the future for Joe? "I've used the Wavedrum on a couple of tracks, and I want to get into it a bit more. I want to see how far I can push the editing side. You really need to sit down with the Wavedrum and get used to what it can do: different points on the drum give different sounds, and the pressure pad may either bend the note or give you another sound or mute a note. So you do have to spend some time finding out what each patch is capable of." But it's worth it: "The Wavedrum is very, very realistic and you can get the kind of groove out of it which is impossible with programming." Derek Johnson
I was fairly sceptical about the Wavedrum when I first saw it announced in the press. After all, what was the point of a single drum pad when you could buy an entire electronic MIDI drum kit for less money? A visit to the Korg stand at the Live '94 show completely changed my opinion of the Wavedrum and gave me an idea why the drummer I work with most (hi Richard!) would sell his grandmother to get his hands on one of these instruments.
The main thing that struck me about the Wavedrum was its feel. It has the feel of a real instrument. It's remarkable that after years of working with MIDI drums of various flavours -- and some of them very good ones, like the Simmons SDX -- you get used to a less than ideal performance interface to take advantage of the technology. As a playable instrument, the Wavedrum is in an entirely different league. It uses a standard 10-inch drum head which gives control both when you hit it and when you apply pressure to the skin. You can use the pressure to control various parameters of the sound, such as muting -- like a Conga 'stopped note' -- or to change the pitch -- like a Kalangu (African talking drum). One of the Wavedrum programs even did a passable impression of a Billy Cobham Moog Drum.
Though I'm not a drummer, being a working bass player means that I work closely with them, so I feel I've got a good insight into what they want out of a piece of percussion. The big advantage of the Wavedrum to a gigging drummer or percussionist is that s/he can add a single pad to their live setup and have access to a wide range of sounds. Since the pad is self-contained, trailing wires are minimised, just a power lead and an audio connection. In the studio, the Wavedrum has the obvious advantage of giving a wide range of drum sounds without the need for a huge storeroom full of arcane ethnic percussion.
So my first impression of the Wavedrum is that it is a solidly playable piece of electronic percussion. Even the asking price seems reasonable, as this is what you'd expect to pay for a 'professional' keyboard synth.
It handles like a choice piece of sculpture.
Some of the programs are inspiringly playable.
Nice style of editing (with RE1).
Its design makes full MIDI driving impossible.
Currently not a wide enough range of sounds.
Some of its design attributes are physically restricting.
Korg are to be applauded for their willingness to do something different for musicians. The Wavedrum is a unique instrument which will probably sell mainly to percussionists, with some going to other musicians rich enough to indulge in non-essential gear. While it's not without its faults, these appear to be outweighed by its undoubted appeal and playability, and by the prospect of exciting future spin-offs.
£ Wavedrum £1750 inc VAT.
A Korg UK Ltd, 8-9 The Crystal Centre, Elmgrove Road, Harrow, Middlesex HA1 2YR.
T 081 427 3397.
F 081 861 3595.