Derek Johnson takes a second look at this powerful instrument, now available at a fraction of its original retail price.
Whether we, as consumers, like it or not, electrical goods eventually become obsolete or are discontinued. This is particularly noticeable in the synth and studio gear market. On a regular basis (every year, in some cases) manufacturers revamp or overhaul their product lines, making the previous generation technically obsolete in the process. While the occasional instrument will remain available for a period of years, all too often seemingly worthwhile instruments inexplicably cease to be available after quite a short time on the market. This can cause extreme aggravation if you bought the item in question brand new on its release — but on the other hand, the quick‑witted musician is regularly offered the chance to grab a bargain, as older stock is cleared to make room for the latest developments.
In spite of the inevitable mutability of the hi‑tech music market, we at Sound on Sound were as surprised as anybody to hear that Technics' first stabs at the serious synth market — the acoustic modelling‑equipped SX‑WSA1 workstation and SX‑WSA1R rack module — were turning up at Soho Soundhouse for a fraction of their former retail price. End‑of‑line hardware is often discounted, but seldom by as much as this: the WSA1 keyboard originally listed at £2499, and is now selling for just £869; the rack was £2199 and now costs just £649. Stocks are limited, but these prices represent savings of 75% and 70% respectively, which is pretty amazing for this kind of instrument, offering 64‑voice polyphony, 32‑part multitimbrality, and (in the case of the workstation) a 16‑track sequencer.
While the WSA1 was covered in depth by Martin Russ, back in December 1995, we thought that, in view of this intriguing situation, it was worth having another quick look at the Technics take on synthesis.
The name for the technology employed by these synths — Acoustic Modelling Synthesis — really does promise a lot. Anything with 'modelling' in its name implies some sort of DSP‑based physical modelling system, such as is found on Yamaha's VL series. To a certain extent, this is true of the Technics synths, although their physical modelling sections are simplified and more accessible.
The WSA1's architecture works like this: at the start of the chain is a sampled PCM waveform, or Driver, which forms the attack portion of a sound; there are 307 waveform samples available, including raw synth waveforms, real instruments, percussion, and various useful samples of fret and breath noise. The Driver is treated by a Resonator, the modelling section of the synth, with models including string, cylinder, cone, flare, plate, membrane, and others. The Resonators are provided in several different flavours — bright, mellow and soft, for example — and can be modified quite drastically, courtesy of a comprehensive range of parameters; Resonators can even interact with each other. The Driver/Resonator combination is further processed by a traditional synth section, offering control over Pitch, Filter (a choice of 12dB low‑ and high‑pass, and 24dB low‑, high‑ and band‑pass are provided) and Amplitude. Each of these 'synth' blocks has a full range of envelope and LFO parameters. What Technics term a Sound — a patch to you or me — is made up of four of these Driver/Resonator/synth collections (or Tones), plus routing to the three effects processors.
The next stage up is the Combination — up to eight Sounds that can be split or layered. Here, the workstation and rack diverge slightly: the WSA1 has a 16‑part multitimbral section to go with the 16‑track sequencer, but both it and the rack have a 32‑part multitimbral mode which is accessed via two sets of MIDI sockets, and controlled by a comprehensive mixer section. This is used for assigning Sounds, and controlling volume, pan position, effects and output routing to the main and subsidiary outputs, and so on.
Editing and controlling of WSA features is greatly assisted by a large, and very informative, backlit blue LCD, and a dizzying number of buttons. Luckily, most of the buttons are labelled fairly logically, with 28 arranged around the display in soft‑key fashion; their functions change according to what screen you're currently accessing. The display, while often busy, is equally logical if you keep a clear head.
One unusual feature, for a synth module, is the so‑called Realtime Creator, a sort of stickless joystick — like a trackball — which can alter the quality of your current Sound or Combi in real time. You can assign a range of parameters to be controlled in this way, and the facility is extremely useful. The WSA1 workstation goes one better, featuring two trackball‑type controllers (one of which is sprung), plus a pitch‑bend wheel, and two modulation wheels.
While the WSA1 has a fully‑working sequencer, the WSA1R is not entirely lacking: through its disk drive, it can play back Type 0 MIDI files, which will be good news to some gigging musicians.
Other nice features include alternate tuning tables, digital drawbars (on‑screen drawbars for certain organ‑based sounds), and a certain amount of expandability. The WSA1 I looked at was equipped with both the SY‑EW1 wave expansion board and the SY‑ES1 output expander board. The former adds a collection of drum loops and the like, ideal for dance musicians, while the latter doubles the number of audio outs — to four stereo pairs — and adds a 20‑bit S/PDIF co‑axial digital output.
The WSA's editing facilities are powerful, and pay back whatever effort you might like to put in: if you don't like editing at all, I'd first of all ask you why you were buying such a powerful synth, and then tell you that it's got quite a worthwhile collection of presets that can be customised on the fly using the many control options.
But does it feel like a physical modelling instrument? Yes, to a certain extent, although a rather restricted one. If you want the power and flexibility of a Yamaha VL1, you'll probably have to buy one. If you want access to the latest DSP‑based synth technology, however, in an arguably more useable form, look at the WSA1. Its basic sound generation is, and always will be, samples — which means the occasional noticeable loop and jarring crossover point. However, the Resonator and synth sections really go a long way towards covering up these faults; the quality of the Resonators is good, although sometimes you get the feeling that you're playing with a sophisticated filter. At other times, however, the results can be quite striking, and sounds of considerable complexity and movement are possible. Overall, the presets give an impression of variety and depth, with some exciting and playable sounds on board. The WSA1 can also be squashed into the GM straitjacket: a very fine collection of GM sounds are provided. They're not, perhaps, as exciting as those that exploit the modelling capabilities of the synth, but they're still bright and useable.
At the original price, the SX‑WSA1 and SX‑WSA1R were interesting, but expensive, examples of a direction in which synth technology might go — the mixing of a flavour of physical modelling with more familiar sample‑based synthesis. But that's the conclusion for a pair of instruments costing well over £2000 each. At their new prices, of comfortably less than a grand each, it's time to re‑write the ending. It's hard to think of where else you could find this combination of power, editability, polyphony and multitimbrality (and even GM compatibility). In the current climate, either version of the WSA1 could definitely be worth dragging out your cheque book for.
- Excellent, large display.
- Refreshingly high polyphony and multitimbrality.
- Very good value at the new price.
- Lots of sonic power.
- Manual a bit of a let‑down.
- Some people might find the WSAs complicated.
- Four outputs on an instrument of this power (base model) seems a little stingy.
Programmers will love this instrument, since it offers a rewarding and potentially deep platform for sound creation. Good‑sounding, accessible, modern technology, at an unmissable price.