Once the plaything of the rich and famous, this hybrid synthesizer/sampling system introduced the world to wavetable synthesis. John Molloy reflects on Germany's finest hour.
When the microprocessor first began to have an impact on the music industry in the early '80s, pop music itself underwent a technological jump. Things we take for granted now, like sequencing, sampling and digital manipulation of sound, were indeed revolutionary and the bands that embraced them changed the way that music sounded. Analogue synthesizers were being replaced with samplers, and new forms of synthesis began to appear. Machines with previously undreamt of levels of power were becoming more affordable all the time. They were known as 'Computer Musical Systems' or 'Computer Musical Instruments', and the big three were the Australian Fairlight CMI, the American NED Synclavier, and the German PPG (Palm Products Gmbh) Wave and Waveterm. All offered slightly different means of achieving the same goal: computer‑generated sound. The Fairlight was an exclusively sample‑based workstation, the Synclavier initially used a form of FM synthesis and later added sampling, while the PPG Wave introduced a new form of synthesis — wavetable synthesis — and if you bought its companion computer module, the Waveterm, it too offered sampling.
Wavetable synthesis has subsequently been adopted by manufacturers such as Korg (Wavestation) and PPG‑offshoot Waldorf (Wave, Microwave). You may be used to hearing the kind of sounds the Wave is capable of producing, but may not realise how innovative this machine was when it first appeared.
PPG was an electronic development company run by German inventor Wolfgang Palm. As well as musical equipment, they also developed lighting control equipment for band and theatre use. One useful thing about the Wave system was that you could buy it in sections. If you could only afford the synthesizer, you could shell out five grand or so for an 8‑voice synth with onboard sequencing. When you wanted to have more control you could purchase a Waveterm; this added the computer, a monitor and dual disk drives for around another five grand.
By today's standards the technology is laughable, but at the time it gave musicians and recording studios far more control of their music than had ever been possible. And the new technology also brought with it new sounds and the promise of editable perfection — spend around £10,000 (at the time the Fairlight cost around £30,000 and the full Synclavier system was nearer £120,000) and you too could have almost perfect pop songs.
Instead of using analogue oscillators for its sound source, the PPG uses very short digital sound samples — waves — each just 256 bytes long. These waves loop round to produce the sound of the 'oscillator', with 64 waves combining to form a 'wavetable'. In all, 30 wavetables are available on the PPG Wave 2.3. These are processed by an analogue 24dB/octave low‑pass filter, with sounds ranging from the obviously digital (if you keep the filter wide open) to much more mellow, analogue sounding noises, with the filter adding warmth to the sound.
In addition to the filter, the PPG incorporates two ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) envelope generators and one AD (Attack and Decay only) envelope generator. You can even assign one of the envelope generators to force the 'oscillator' to cycle through a given wavetable. This produces some extremely complex sound sources, helping make the Wave a unique machine in its day.
Although several modern synths (Korg Wavestation, Waldorf Microwave) deliver much of what the PPG Wave 2.3 offers, none are quite as good.
The PPG has 16 digital 'oscillators' driving eight voices. Each voice has two possible sound sources: one stored in bank A and the other in Bank B. This setup is referred to as a 'program' and the Wave 2.3 can store up to 87 of these. You can also store 20 complete snapshots of the machine in a special 'combi‑program', with a different sound assigned to each of the eight voices.
So much for the sound generating aspects of the machine. What did you physically get for your hard‑earned readies? The Wave 2.3 is a large yet surprisingly lightweight keyboard, four feet wide by around two feet deep, and some eight inches high. The Waveterm, however, is a different story — it's a 19‑inch rack‑mounting monitor with dual disk drives, and I, for one, would not recommend lifting it alone!
The keyboard is housed in a black metal case while the front panel features white text and graphics on a striking blue background. It has a 5‑octave, 61‑note keyboard with Minimoog‑style smoked perspex pitch and modulation wheels. The keyboard itself is a pretty tacky affair, so these machines frequently end up looking like someone with a bad set of teeth. Even though it is both velocity and aftertouch sensitive, the keyboard itself is not physically up to the kind of treatment it typically received. Consequently it bent and warped, often damaging the key contacts.
The big blue front panel is split into two sections. The left side is labelled 'Multiple Function Analog Control Panel' and contains all the analogue knobs to control the envelope and filter settings. There is also a button on the right side of the machine, labelled 'Panel', which puts the knobs into a second panel mode, which changes the function of the knobs. I'll explain this in more detail shortly.
...the PPG Wave introduced a new form of synthesis — wavetable synthesis.
The basic analogue functions are themselves split into sections. The section labelled 'Low Freq Osc' has three knobs, labelled Delay, Waveshape and Rate, associated with it. The Delay knob sets the amount of time before the LFO kicks in, which is good for emulating vibrato on a natural instrument. The Waveshape knob produces a triangle wave when turned to the left and a square wave when turned to the right, passing through various sawtooth wave shapes in between. Rate sets the speed at which the LFO plays. (In 'second panel mode', this knob controls the playback speed of the sequencer.)
Below the LFO section are three knobs associated with Env3, the simple AD envelope. These set the attack time, the decay time and the envelope level. Next comes two rows of four knobs which control ADSR1 and 2. Each stage of the envelope has a discrete knob. In 'second panel mode' these eight knobs control the volume of each of the eight 'oscillator' outputs.
The next section contains the sound modifiers. The first two knobs control the low‑pass filter: VCF Cutoff sets the cutoff frequency, while VCF Emphasis sets the resonance of the filter. The next two knobs are involved with the manipulation of the wavetables. Waves‑Osc controls which of the 30 wavetables your oscillator uses, while the Waves‑Sub knob sets which of the 64 waves within your chosen wavetable is to be used by the oscillator as its start wave.
Underneath the modifier section are three red LEDs. The first two display which bank is active: A, B or A and B. The third LED indicates when the machine is in 'second panel mode'. The three remaining knobs set the amounts of envelope control to various functions. The first assigns Env1 to control the filter, the second assigns Env2 to control the volume of the sound, while the final knob assigns Env1 to the wave played. So the envelope's attack rate can set the speed at which the sound cycles through the selected wavetable, permitting a huge range of expressive control.
At the left side of the front panel, the lower of two knobs controls the master volume of the machine while the other, called 'Basis', controls the position of the sound in the stereo field. If you use the PPG's stereo outputs, turning the knob to the left outputs the sound centrally, in mono. Turning it to the right assigns each sound to a different side of the stereo field; the further to the right you turn the pot, the wider the stereo field. If you use the PPG Wave as a keyboard for stereo pads, you can create interesting, moving parts with the simple turn of a knob.
The right side of the front panel is labelled 'Multiple Function Digital Control Panel'. Its green, backlit display features two rows of 80 characters, with a small knob to adjust the display contrast, a numeric keypad, and a 10‑button pad for switching the machine into various modes.
The problem with the display is that Wolfgang and friends attempted to cram too much information into too small a space, resulting in almost meaningless abbreviations. As part recompense, the display section has some useful notes printed upon it as a reminder to the cryptic content of the display. For example, keyboard modes are numbered 0 to 8 and keyboard mode 0 equals 'Poly 8 * 1', which means you have selected 8‑note polyphony. Modulation sources and destinations are also specified with letters: sources being K for keyboard, M for modulation, T for Touch Sensor ('aftertouch' to you and I), and V for Velocity Sensor. Modulation destinations include W for Waves, F for Filter, L for Loudness (volume) and P for Pitch. The Data Transfer modes are equally cryptic. The heady days of computer music, eh...
The aforementioned dedicated 10‑button keypad is labelled 'Display Select' and is used to change the status of the machine. Options include Program, Digital, Tuning, Analog, Sequencer, Group, Datat, Keyb, Panel and Run/Stop. Pressing the Tuning button, for example, lets you customise the pitch of each of the eight voices. You can even programme it to play a tune on one note; as you repeatedly trigger the note, the machine cycles through the tuning table.
By today's standards the PPG Wave's onboard sequencer is downright weird. It is a real‑time affair and not terribly easy to work with, especially given the small display. Even with the Waveterm monitor attached, it's still not much better. Unlike the Fairlight, whose Page R sequencer forces you to sound like early '80s Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush, the Wave sequencer doesn't have an identifiable character. As the PPG is equipped with MIDI anyway, it's probably best to drive it from an external sequencer and forget about the integral facility altogether.
The comprehensive arpeggiator, however, is definitely worth exploring. To access the arpeggiator you must put the machine into a special sequencer mode — either mode 1 or 2. You can then select how the arpeggiator runs, ie. up, down, up and down, random or moving. All of these modes are very useful for creating rhythmic parts of a sequence, and when used in conjunction with the Basis (pan) control, can produce some really good stereo effects.
Coupled with the Waveterm, the PPG Wave 2.3 is a grungy‑sounding Germanic sampling machine which can produce both sweet noises and unholy rows. It truly is a weird machine but is definitely worth the effort of using it. Although several modern synths (Korg Wavestation, Waldorf Microwave) deliver much of what the PPG Wave 2.3 offers, none are quite as good. PPG's analogue filtering definitely has the edge, and these days you should be able to pick up a system for between £500 and £1000 — a tenth of the original asking price.
The back of the keyboard features a large number of sockets, giving you plenty of control. From left to right: a 5‑pin Cassette port for storing data if you have no Waveterm; Headphones on a stereo jack socket; CH1 and CH2, the main stereo outputs; Sustain Pedal, CV in, VCF in, Trigger In, Trigger Out and Program Change all on jacks; Clock Rate (selected using the non user‑friendly collection of 12 mini DIP switches!); Communication Bus, a special connector used to connect the Wave to the Waveterm; MIDI In, Thru and Out.
In addition, eight separate audio outputs are provided on mono jack sockets. Finally we have the power section, which includes a fuse, voltage selection switch, a standard Euro socket and the power on/off switch.
The Wave was a sought‑after item in the mid‑'80s, helping create that bright sound that was British pop music at a time when two men and a synthesizer were a highly fashionable commodity. Check out most material from The Pet Shop Boys and Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
Two albums which contain classic PPG Wave sounds are Propaganda's A Secret Wish and Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age Of Wireless. Amongst current users are Nine Inch Nails.
Adding the rackmount Waveterm computer terminal to the PPG system provides even more control and more features, sampling being the main one. The original Waveterm A provided 8‑bit sampling, while the 'improved' Waveterm B offered the dizzy heights of 12‑bit sampling. The maximum sampling time, however, is extremely short — three seconds at a pretty grungy sample rate! But the 24dB filters can treat the samples, so that even though the original samples might be crap, you can do a hell of a lot with them.
Sadly, the Waveterm has no user‑friendly WIMP environment. The entire user interface consists of an 80‑column text display with two rows of buttons beneath the monitor screen. These act as 10 programmable soft keys, and the display prompts you as to their functions at any particular time. To the right of the case are the two vertically‑mounted 5.25‑inch floppy disk drives.
Below the disk drives are two knobs: the left one looks after the screen brightness, while the other sets the input level. Audio input is via a 3‑pin XLR socket, with a switch to change impedance from mic to line level and a little red LED indicating input overload. A small button marked 'Restart' lets you reset the computer whenever it decides to do something on its own — ie. crash!
The rear of the Waveterm features three connectors: the 'communications buss' connects the Waveterm to the Wave, while two smaller connectors handle a printer and a QWERTY keyboard.
On power‑up, the Waveterm checks its communication buss to see what is connected to the system. The disk drives are of the dedicated variety — the left drive must contain the system disk and the right drive the data disk. If you put the wrong disk in the left drive, pressing the Restart key with the correct disk in the drive is the only way to recover! Once the master disk has booted, you're presented with the communication management screen, or Page 0, as it is also known.
From Page 0 you can load up the eight voices with samples or wave compound files (wavetables). Unfortunately, this is one of the places where the names have been changed to confuse the innocent. The Waveterm refers to the memory locations where these files are stored as memory banks 0 to 7 (1 to 8 in computer jargon). Just to confuse you, these are completely different from Banks A and B in the Wave!
The rightmost function key is misleadingly labelled 'Help'. To call up the help files for each function key, you have to press the Help key twice in succession. The first time you press Help you are actually taken to the File menu. From here you can copy; make a new disk; merge samples together; get, store, delete and list files. This is where the Waveterm is really grim. The only way to recall and save files is by entering a combination of highly descriptive digits like 'T023', 'T201', 'T803' etc. Thankfully, the PPG library disks have a whole 80 columns of characters to describe them (OK, 75 if you remove the filename).
Pressing the Page function key followed by a single digit takes you to the selected page (screen), where you can carry out various functions. Waveterm pages are provided for computing waves, creating wavetables, inputting transient sounds (sampling), editing events (sequencing), and so on.