Paul Ward reintroduces an instrument now widely neglected on account of its 'digital' tag, and argues that it still has much to recommend it.
"The synthesizer that's more than digital." That was how Korg described their 1985 synth, the DW8000. Those were the days when all things digital were considered to be intrinsically good, whilst all things analogue were inherently outmoded. The irony in the case of the DW8000 is that the features that arguably make it "more than digital" are, in fact, analogue! Whilst that may have been considered something to gloss over in the mid‑'80s, by today's standards it is something to crow about.
The DW8000 made use of Korg's DWGS (Digital Waveform Generator System). What this amounted to was sampled waveforms stored in four 256Kbit ROM chips. At the time it was considered important for manufacturers to come up with proprietary acronyms for their synthesis technologies to give an air of wonderment to new synths, and Korg were very much on the bandwagon with DWGS. This has often been seen to backfire, and the DW8000 has generally been overlooked, being seen as little more than an S+S synth with a limited palette of waveforms.
Essentially, however, the DW8000 is an analogue synth, with digital waveforms piped in at one end, and a digital delay clamped across the other. The most important aspect of the machine, the filter, is most assuredly of the analogue persuasion. Polyphony is fairly restricted at eight voices, but since the DW8000 is a monotimbral synth, this is not really a problem in general use. The keyboard is both velocity‑ and pressure‑sensitive, and the cutesy little Korg joystick is ever‑present for pitch and filter modulation duties.
Editing is simple, if lacking in immediacy. Parameters are dialed up with the numeric keypad and the parameter value changed by use of the data slider, or up/down buttons. With a grand total of 53 adjustable parameters, this is a tolerable working method, but there are several computer editing options available as an alternative, including free examples on the Internet. Using the editing facility to make adjustments during performance is perfectly feasible and is one of the DW8000's little pieces of magic.
Two oscillators are provided, with the ability to adjust the relative levels and to detune oscillator 2 for a rich, chorused effect. Four parameters relate to the DW8000's 'autobend' feature, which sweeps the pitch of either, or both, oscillators up or down to its true note over a specified time and by a specified amount following the press of a key. Although this feature may not seem particularly exciting, it does have the capability to add interest to the attack of notes and imparts a certain 'weirdness' that is very appealing. Korg added a separately mixable noise generator, which was quite generous.
The 16 sampled waveforms are interesting. Having cast off the limitations of the standard analogue synth's sawtooth, square and sine waveforms, Korg chose to push back the boundaries of sound by including such raw digital material as, well... sawtooth, square and sine waveforms! I'm being quite cruel here, as they also included more complex waves such as bells, clavinet, acoustic and electric pianos, organ, guitar and sax. a separate sample is used for each octave and the waveforms are recreated using additive harmonic synthesis. The result is a set of waveforms that, whilst more varied than its purely analogue predecessors, certainly lacks the breadth of tonality of a Roland D50, or Korg's later M1.
Not a particularly inspiring start, you may think, but the fun has only just begun. Both the VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) and VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) are just what they imply — 'Voltage Controlled'. For those brought up on a digital diet, read 'analogue'. What this amounts to in practice is a smoothness and, in the case of the filter, a musical richness that more than makes up for the relatively limited range of waveforms. The VCF is fully resonant, giving a gorgeous whistle at high settings and purring beautifully over low‑pitched notes — quite Moog‑like, in fact.
Keyboard velocity and aftertouch are routable to volume and filter cutoff. Aftertouch can also be programmed to introduce vibrato.
Typical of its time, the DW8000 has a selection of key assign modes. Normal polyphonic playing is obviously taken care of, with a further mode to make use of polyphonic portamento. The Unison modes stack all eight voices together for a much fatter (monophonic) sound. What a pity that the ability to detune the voices in unison mode was not included — the results would have been fatter than a very fat thing indeed.
The digital delay conceptually glued across the DW8000's outputs was quite a revolution for its time — indeed, the first of its kind. Delay time (up to a maximum of half a second), feedback and level are all programmable for each patch, as is a modulation effect to create chorus or flanging effects.
An arpeggiator is a wunnerful thing, to my way of thinking, and the simpler they are to use the better I likes 'em. Five controls are about all I need when I'm looking for some instant inspiration. I switch the arpeggiator on; I tell it which direction to scan the keys and over how many octaves; I hit a fistful of notes; I latch them and then adjust the speed to taste. Yes, I know that today's arpeggiators are considerably more sophisticated, and I enjoy using them too, but this kind of immediacy is not to be sniffed at. The arpeggiator will happily clock to incoming MIDI clock data for synchronisation to your sequencer or drum machine.
As far as MIDI is concerned, the DW8000 is reasonably conversant. Parameter changes can be applied on the fly, and patch data can be dumped to external storage devices (much better than using the included tape interface — ugh!).
So, are there any flies in the ointment? Well the non‑programmable tuning is a bit of a pain. Catch the tuning slider during a live performance and you could lose a few friends. Quite why tuning is believed to warrant instant front‑panel access at all times remains a mystery to me.
The DW8000 has no patch names, which is frustrating, although I've created a name list in Cubase's Studio Module for my most oft‑used patch banks. The stereo outputs are also problematical. The unwary would plug a pair of cables into them and assume that their machine was delivering glorious stereo sound. In reality, the only aspect of the sound that is in stereo is the digital delay. Fair enough, you may think. But I have to add that this is pseudo‑stereo created by passing opposite phase signals down the left and right outputs. If you still haven't figured out why this is a problem then I hope you never hear your recordings played back in mono — where the left and right delay signals will cancel each other out, leaving your DW8000 sounds bare and stark to the world! The answer is to make use of the mono output only to avoid any such problems.
My only other gripe is that the darn thing always starts up in Omni mode and promptly tries to play every other MIDI instrument's part! My solution is to include an Omni‑off message in my default Cubase song and run it before I begin work.
Given a well‑programmed machine, what are the highlights that might be expected? Basses are probably one of the DW8000's strongest suits. The low end is generally thick and powerful and sits under a mix with confidence. Chunky mid‑range sequence sounds are also particularly appealing, especially given a tweak of the data slider to modulate the filter as it plays. Lead patches are capable of both aggression and subtlety, as required. There are certain characteristically 'nasal' lead sounds that I have never managed to recreate on any other synth — a kind of 'oboe on acid' for want of a better description. Autobend adds a certain slurring to note attacks that is inspiring to fool around with.
The DW8000 is very much a synth, not a sample playback device, so don't expect the acoustic piano waveform to render anything much like a Steinway! The waveforms are essentially raw material to be mangled by the synthesis engine. Pad sounds are thick and rich, but never seem to sit in a mix particularly well in my experience. String sounds are also warm and powerful, but just don't seem to cut it when other sounds are around. I mention these points not as damning aspects of the machine, but as a reminder that no synth will be all things to all players. Utilise a device to exploit its strengths, forgive it its weaknesses, and it will pay you back accordingly.
If you set out to buy a DW8000 then look out for models with the optional MEX8000 expansion fitted which gives an extra four banks of 64 patch locations — well worth a few quid extra. a particular Achilles' heel is the keyboard, which is prone to mis‑triggering after periods of low usage due to the build up of dirt around the contacts. This is not hard to cure, and could prove a bargaining point if you are willing to take the risk that it's nothing more serious. The EX8000 is the rackmount alternative (see above), but is more difficult to find than its keyboard cousin.