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Technics SX-WSA1

Acoustic Modelling Synthesizer (Preview)
Published May 1995

With their background in home keyboards and high‑quality electric pianos, it came as something of a surprise that Technics should enter the mainstream synth market with a physical modelling instrument. SOS attended the world preview.

A couple of years ago, nobody but a handful of researchers would have made anything of the term physical modelling, but at the Frankfurt Musik Messe '95, four different companies demonstrated working instruments, with further announcements expected from other major manufacturers at any time. So far, the only models you can actually go out and buy belong to the Yamaha VL range, but by the end of the year, you should be able to buy physical modelling synths from Yamaha, Korg and Technics plus a physical modelling guitar system from Roland, ranging in price from around the cost of a typical keyboard workstation up to the price of a small car. Technics' projected price for the SX‑WSA1 at the moment is £2199, but as usual, this is subject to change!

Unlike the essentially monophonic or duophonic Yamaha VL‑series machines, the Technics SX‑WSA1 offers a maximum of 64‑voice polyphony. The sounds themselves are based on a physical modelling principle which describes the instrument being synthesized as a resonator and a driver. In other words, the player puts energy into the system (for example, by picking, blowing or hitting), so causing a part of the instrument to resonate — whether it be a string, a drum head, a pipe or whatever. By mimicking these physical drivers and resonators using mathematical algorithms, it is possible to generate the output waveform of the instrument being synthesized without the need for conventional oscillators. The more accurately the algorithm describes the real instrument, the more realistic the instrument will sound, and more importantly, the more it will react like a real instrument. Take the flute model comprising a pipe and a blown mouthpiece — depending on the nature of the virtual breath used to blow the virtual mouthpiece, the character of the sound will change in much the same way as it would on a real instrument.

Model Types

The SX‑WSA1 utilises six basic types of modelled resonator, based on the behaviour of strings, flares, plates, cylinders, cones and membranes. Rather than use a breath controller to articulate the sound, a built‑in trackball‑type controller may be used to control multiple parameters, such as the position of plucking or striking, and after the basic sound has been modelled, it can be further modified using conventional filters, envelope amplifiers and effects. Numerous parameters may be controlled at once, using existing MIDI real‑time controllers, and more driver sources may be added in the form of an optional Wave Expansion Board.

Because the various modelling parameters may be combined in ways that would not normally occur in nature, the SX‑WSA1 isn't limited to emulating real instruments, and because of the degree of real‑time parameter control, it is possible to set up sounds that metamorphose from one kind of sound to another.

To make use of the relatively large 7olyphony, the SX‑WSA1 has two sets of MIDI connections, enabling it to work over 32 channels, and there's also an on‑board 16‑track sequencer. The large custom display makes use of icons for simplified control and sound editing, and although the technology inside the machine is no doubt incredibly complex, from the user's perspective the SX‑WSA1 seems no more complicated than a conventional keyboard workstation.

Judging the sound of the SX‑WSA1 was quite difficult, because the demonstrator tended to play it like a conventional keyboard, rather than trying to get 'under the skin' of the instrument he was trying to recreate. Consequently, anything sounding vaguely like jazz piano came across very well, while the more esoteric sounds tended to suffer. However, we did hear enough to appreciate that there is a lot of real‑time control potential, and you don't seem to have to use a breath controller to articulate the sounds effectively.

Realistically, we shouldn't expect to see the SX‑WSA1 in the shops much before Autumn. Technics emphasised that this was really a technology preview, which (reading between the lines) probably means the price, the delivery date and the final spec will be subject to revision before the product is finally launched. In any event, it's great to see a company with the technological potential of Technics getting into the serious synth market, and I for one would like to see what else they could bring to an industry where it's becoming more and more difficult to tell the different manufacturers' products apart.