The Wasp has to be one of the most unusual looking synths ever made, with its shiny black ABS plastic casing, bright yellow knobs and legends, and the infamous flat yellow and black keyboard. It looks so cheap and cheerful that you would almost think it was disposable!
Containing a single PCB with a hybrid digital VCO and analogue VCF design by Chris Huggett, the Wasp was released in 1978 for an amazing £199 by UK company EDP and was distributed by Rod Argent's Keyboards. Advertised as being "One of the biggest advances in synthesizer design -- an ultra low-cost, high-performance instrument unmatched by synthesizers several times the price", it quickly gained cult status. While some pro musicians regarded it as no more than a toy, many more saw it as a Godsend -- who cares what it looked like, it sounded bloody great! Admittedly, the Wasp can sound exceedingly waspish when played through the awful internal speaker, but if you put it through a few effects and an amplifier, it's transformed into an awesome-sounding beast that can really move speaker cones. The Wasp is also capable of producing some classic acid, techno and bass sounds and is often overlooked in favour of the Roland Bassline, long the darling of the dance track -- but it deserves some exposure now, as sonically it outshines the Bassline in many ways.
The heart of any analogue synth has to be the coupling of decent VCOs and a VCF; the Wasp's system is very impressive, with a full bottom end and a glass-shattering top end that really don't equate with its looks. The VCF sounds very distinctive and is superb when filtering a sawtooth wave, especially if modulated by the LFO random output and Envelope Generator. In a blindfold test, you'd be hard pressed to pick out the sound of the Wasp as coming from anything other than a decent Korg, Roland or -- dare I say it -- Moog from the same period.
Along with the Roland SH101, the Wasp must also be one of a very few 'genuine' synths that runs off batteries. I can remember buskers around Covent Garden in the early '80s with a Wasp, a Boss Dr Rhythm, a couple of effects pedals and a hat full of money, doing a roaring trade.
It must be said that the Wasp doesn't have one of the best track records for reliability, and finding one that still works these days is becoming increasingly difficult. I've known a few bands over the years who have gigged with Wasps, which has got to be one of the quickest ways of trashing one, as most clubs have very high humidity, and this plays havoc with the Wasp's keyboard sensitivity. The first sign of trouble is that no matter how much you adjust the keyboard sensitivity and fiddle with the controls, the thing refuses to stop droning -- 'The Droning Wasp' syndrome. Then there's the prospect of the classic 'Flying Wasp' syndrome, which occurs when you dash across the stage doing your Pete Townsend impersonation and trip over the Wasp's lead. The weight of most synths these days would mean either that the lead would come out of the socket or that you would trip arse over elbow, but since the Wasp weighs about as much as a bag of sugar, it simply takes off (probably still droning) and follows you across the stage, smashing effortlessly to the floor or hitting a slumbering roadie -- a dead Wasp either way. The best way to prevent this happening is to lash it to something heavy with lots of gaffa tape.
The Wasp's plastic casing is unsurprisingly fragile and you can make the screws holding it together fall out just by looking at them. This includes the underside battery compartment, which is held in place by six (yes six!) tiny self-tappers. Try unscrewing them on a dark stage in the middle of a gig...
Although the Wasp's front panel is divided into six basic sections, a detailed explanation uncovers many unique features in a synth of this type and price:
This contains a Bend control for the VCOs which can bend a note by one semitone in either direction. As there's very little physical depth to the Wasp, a proper pitch-bend wheel couldn't have been included -- and would probably have added too much to the cost. To get around this problem, an ordinary pot is used, with a 90 degree dead band. For it to have any effect on the VCOs, you have to turn it almost fully clockwise or anti-clockwise -- so, while playing, you don't have to worry too much about making sure the knob always returns to dead centre for everything to remain in tune.
Next in this section is a Glide (portamento) control with an adjustable three-second, two-octave sweep. One quirk is that when you apply Glide to the VCOs they don't track the keyboard as accurately; a side-effect of this is that when you jump from one end of the keyboard to the other, one VCO always lags slightly behind until they reach the correct note. This is quite a good effect and could normally only be created on a regular synth by using a MIDI delay or DDL. Last in this section is a recessed pot for overall tuning (by screwdriver) of both VCOs, by one tone up or down.
VCO 1 has a five-position 'FT' (range) control that can be switched from 32 to 2 (spanning five octaves). There is a Width control for changing the shape of the square wave output, and a three-position Wave Shape selector, with Off, Sawtooth or Square wave available. VCO 2 is slightly different, in that the Width control is replaced by a Pitch control (variable over one octave) that can be used in combination with VCO 1 for tuning two-note chords and intervals. The VCOs are pretty stable as far as tuning goes, and are usually only let down by noisy or worn-out pots, which can make tuning the Wasp a problem if it's old or well used.
CONTROL OSCILLATOR (LFO)
This section has a Freq control (rate), with a range of about 1Hz (not really slow enough) to about 100Hz. Next is a Pitch Mod control for adjusting the depth of VCO modulation, and then a six-position Wave Shape selector switch, with sine, ramp, sawtooth, square, noise and random waves available. The Glide control can additionally modify any of these waveforms. Finally, there's a Noise Signal knob; this is just a volume control for the white noise output and feeds the VCF audio input.
This consists of a very musical sounding 12dB-per-octave VCF that has a range of about 3Hz to 16Hz. A Freq control adjusts the filter cut-off, and a Q control adjusts the resonance. Unfortunately, a built-in overload limiter prevents the VCF from going into oscillation (shame!). A very useful mode selector is next, for choosing low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filter types (hurrah!).
Lastly, there are two modulation controls: one for varying LFO modulation depth into the VCF, and the other to adjust the output from the Control Envelope Generator into the VCF. These are unusual in that if they are set to the mid position they have no effect. However, rotating them clockwise will increase the amount of modulation, while rotating them anti-clockwise will give a similar effect but with inverted modulation. This is a very versatile arrangement and works particularly well with the Envelope Generator. If no modulation is applied to the VCF, it will track the keyboard.
The VCA Envelope Generator has a linear Attack control, with a rate variable from 3mS to 2 seconds, and an exponential Decay control, with a rate variable from 3ms to 15 seconds and a switchable Sustain level control. The fastest Attack/Decay settings are very short -- just a click -- and great for Kraftwerk impersonations. If you turn the sustain knob anti-clockwise (past the click position) it turns on an envelope repeat function (LFO 2). The speed for this repeat is then adjustable by a combination of both the Attack and Decay knobs, but only as long as a note is held down on the keyboard. The downside with this is that you do lose some fine adjustment of the Attack/Decay times. The speed of the effect is at its fastest when the Attack and Decay controls are turned fully anti-clockwise (not clockwise, as you would normally expect -- strange!).
The Control Envelope (which modulates the VCF) has linear Attack/Decay controls, with rates variable from 15mS to 6S, and a switchable Delay level control that can apply a maximum 1. 5S delay to the control envelope.
Like the VCA EG, the Delay knob on the Control Envelope Generator can switch on a repeat function (LFO 3), with its speed adjustable by the Attack/Decay knobs. The combination of these two additional LFOs means that some very complex modulated patches can be set up. Great for complex percussive loops and helicopter (!) effects.
This has just one dual-purpose control that adjust the volume and acts as an on/off switch.
The flat, two-octave keyboard works by sensing skin capacitance, so playing with gloves on is out of the question. It was originally advertised as being "Touch Sensitive" but actually the only touch sensitivity is that you need to touch the keys to play it. The keyboard is surprisingly easy to play and is great for fast arpeggios, trills and fancy riffs, as all you need to do is rub your fingers over the surface as fast as you like. The keyboard always gives priority to the highest note played, and if you hold your finger on a low note while your other hand is trilling about at the top end, you can create an impression of a duophonic Wasp.
The main drawback with the keyboard (apart from the fact that it's not touch sensitive) is that the envelope generators won't re-trigger unless you release your fingers and touch the keys again -- but after using the Wasp for more than 12 years I have learned to live with this foible.
You may be interested to know that the design of the Wasp keyboard has a very similar look to the EMS Synthi AKS keyboard, which is also flat. The AKS keyboard is blue and black, and together they make a lovely pair!
On the rear panel are two 7-pin DIN sockets that a lot of people mistake for MIDI sockets -- they are not! These sockets transmit and receive 5-volt CMOS logic signals for linking Wasps together, or for connecting with other EDP products. Most MIDI-to-CV converters have the option of adding (or include) a Wasp 7-pin compatible output.
The Headphone and Line Out jacks are switched and the internal speaker is turned off if either is used. The Line Out produces a -10dBm/600ohm signal, and is adequate for most amps and mixing desks. The Wasp's noise level is said to be -65dBm in its 'quiet state'. I've always found the output to be pretty clean and loud, with very little background noise. The same can't be said of the internal speaker, which tends to hum loudly unless a very stable external PSU (or six 'C'-type batteries), is used. Speaking of batteries, it's best to avoid them, as they tend to get devoured fairly quickly.
As you can see, the Wasp's 24 knobs can go a long way. It has some very useful features and even a couple of fairly unique innovations (at the time), and while it may not really be a classic as such, it certainly has cult status.
The first time I heard the Wasp was in 1978 while I was with Throbbing Gristle and Industrial Records, and happened to hear some demos by Robert Rental and Thomas Leer (who later signed to ZTT). They were writing very individualistic 'electronic' songs using just voices, guitars and two Wasps. The Wasps supplied all the keyboard and percussion parts, and we were amazed at the sound they were producing with these, especially as they were using no drum machines (I think they may have used a Spider sequencer -- see box on other EDP products). We signed them to our label and released their first album, The Bridge (now re-released on MUTE/Bridge1CD). I was so impressed by what they had achieved that I went out and bought a Wasp of my own.
EDP also produced a number of other products to supplement the Wasp:
First was the Deluxe Wasp; on this instrument, Oscillator 1 gains an external input that allows you to plug in an external instrument and feed it through the VCF, and a volume control for each VCO -- which is more flexible than simply turning the VCOs on or off. EDP also gave the Deluxe nice wooden end cheeks and a real keyboard, a move that was obviously meant to appeal to people who wanted a MiniMoog but couldn't afford one.
Then there was the Spider digital sequencer, with a 252-note capacity in step time and 84 notes in real time. This also had useful CV and gate outputs and the ability to sync to tape.
The Spider was was followed by the Caterpillar 3-octave keyboard, powered by a single PPS battery. It was an 8-voice keyboard to which up to eight Wasps could be connected and played polyphonically.
EDP also produced another synth called the Gnat, which was basically a smaller, even cheaper, single-VCO version of the Wasp.
Another rarity is the repackaged, MIDI-equipped, rackmount (but keyboardless) Wasp produced a few years ago by the now-defunct Groove Electronics. I don't think Groove got around to making that many, but it does sound like a good idea and worth checking out if you want a Wasp for playing live.
Most of these units are pretty rare and well worth checking out if you come across any of them at a car boot sale. In a press release for the Wasp's launch, EDP mentioned more products to come. These are listed as: Millipedes, Eagles, Cockroaches, Beetles, Grubs, Moths and a Playing Mantis. God knows if these ever got off the drawing board and what they would have been if they had!
Signs to beware of when buying a second-hand Wasp -- if you can find one:
A heavily scratched or worn away keyboard instantly betrays a Wasp that's had plenty of use.
Test all the pots and knobs, including the two presets, for crackles and weird effects, as dodgy pots can make the Wasp very unstable and unpredictable.
If the speaker distorts, the output circuits may be damaged, but if it sounds OK using the line out, then the speaker might just need replacing.
Look for cracks in the casing and missing screws, and give it a gentle shake for signs of anything loose or floating around inside.
Weigh any problems against the asking price and bear in mind that there probably aren't that many workshops around these days that could fix one.
Designed by: Chris Huggett
Manufactured by: EDP/Electronic Dream Plant Ltd.
Original Price in 1978: £199
Dimensions: 17 (w) x 13 (l) x 2. 5 (d) at rear/1 at front. (Dimensions in inches).
Keyboard: 2-octave, monophonic, touch activated!
Two digital VCOs, with sawtooth and pulse.
LFO, with six waveforms.
Digital Noise Generator.
VCF, with low-, high- and band-pass modes, and Envelope Generator with repeat LFO.
VCA, with Envelope Generator and repeat LFO.
Separate line-level and headphone outputs.
Two 'LINK' sockets for connecting other EDP products.
Built-in 4 x 2-inch speaker.
Powered by six 1.5V 'C'-type batteries or external 9V PSU.