Stardate 02/2001: the most compact and affordable of Waldorf's bright yellow workstation synths is beamed into the SOS Editorial dome. Is it the work of a superior intelligence, or does it have all the appeal of a Vulcan nerve‑pinch? Mind‑meld with Paul Nagle and find out...
The Waldorf Q has had an 'interesting' life so far. When it reached UK shores (and stores), it was an expensive, knobby, and yet obviously unfinished virtual analogue keyboard. Time passed, software and hardware people laboured, and a version in sound‑module format, the Q Rack, was born, costing just half the price. The rapidly maturing Operating System received bug fixes, new features, and yet more fixes, resulting in an instrument that SOS reviewer Gordon Reid described as "(now) a hugely powerful synthesizer that deserves attention and respect". But it faced some tasty competition, and the Q Rack still weighed in at over the magic thousand‑pound mark in the UK. Waldorf needed to do something to recover their investment — so they made a second, even cheaper rackmounting Q, the Micro Q.
As the Q and Q Rack have been extensively reviewed before in SOS, I suggest you read those reviews, from December 1999 and June 2000 respectively, or surf to the SOS web site (see https://web.archive.org/web/2016..." target="_self and https://web.archive.org/web/2016..." target="_blank).
To quickly recap, the Q (keyboard and rack) is a 16‑note polyphonic virtual analogue synth, expandable to 32 notes. It features the usual 'analogue' waveforms but incorporates elements of Waldorf's wavetable synthesis too. A powerful dual‑filter design has the expected low‑pass and high‑pass modes (and others too) but also boasts positive and negative comb filters. With three LFOs, no less than four envelopes, a modulation matrix, and an effects section, it's a synth of considerable complexity. And the list goes on to include patch morphing, a step sequencer, 16‑part multitimbrality and digital output. For the bulk of this review, I'll concentrate on how the Micro Q differs from its bigger siblings, and which of these features had to go. Naturally, I'll offer my own slant on what has become quite a controversial synth, not least because of Waldorf's 'open‑ended' design philosophy, which might be rendered as "if something you want isn't in the Q today, who knows, it might be available tomorrow?" The original Q took this to extremes by being initially released for sale with many fundamental features not operational at all! I remained well aware of this as I received the Micro Q: my first action was to upgrade it from OS version 1.01 (with which it shipped) to v1.1...
Let's kick off with a look at how the price has been trimmed down. First to be chopped were those expensive continuous knobs — the original Q has an impressive 58 of them. Instead, Waldorf have adopted the matrix‑style editing method, as seen on their marvellous analogue monosynth, the Pulse. With this system, the Micro Q needs just four continuous knobs to edit values selected from seven rows of parameters (the active row being shown by an LED). Navigation is via up/down/left/right keys, so a little flicking about to reach the parameter you want will be needed. Some rows have multiple LEDs to represent multiple parameter sets (envelopes, for example; since there are four of them, four LEDs are required). And almost all parameters have a second edit option courtesy of the shift key. If this lot isn't sufficient, yet more options are available for each row by pressing the Edit key. It's a system which is a good deal easier to use than it is to describe, and I'd say it is no worse than the Q in terms of patch editing. Obviously, you can't just reach directly for the control you want (which would have been nice for live performance), but that's an inevitable drawback when you cut down on the number of physical controls. Incidentally, the Micro Q's knobs are tapered but unlike those of the Q, they are ridged — an improvement as far as I'm concerned.
The central section of the Micro Q panel will look familiar to Q owners. It comprises: a small (2 x 20) LCD, four instrument selection buttons, two knobs, a red alpha dial and a further eight buttons (to handle access to various parameters and utilities, such as global settings, and store and compare utilities). There's no dedicated volume control; this duty is performed (in play mode only) by the leftmost knob under the display. At least there is a headphone socket, which takes care of one of Gordon Reid's most vociferous criticisms from previous SOS reviews.
The Micro Q is small but hard to ignore; it's like a Pulse in a loud suit. You'll doubtless have noticed that like its elder brothers, it's bright yellow, but what can I say? The day Waldorf make a conventional synth is the day Ann Widdecombe gets into 'jazz cigarettes'.
Peering at the Micro Q's rear, I see that only the Q's digital output and pedal/CV connectors have been lost. Everything else is there: MIDI (of course), stereo input and six audio outputs. One small concern was that the audio sockets are directly attached to the motherboard but not fixed to the outer casing. As a result, they wobble slightly when you insert a cable and care must be taken not to put too much pressure on them, although I suppose once the Micro Q is racked this would be less of an issue. Unlike the Q keyboard and Q Rack, the Micro Q has an external power supply and the one which arrived with the review unit was a bulky, Euro‑type two‑pronged monstrosity. According to UK distributors Arbiter, this was a temporary replacement and a proper UK PSU will be supplied with units on sale via dealers. If this turns out not to be the case, contact Arbiter or have your dealer do this on your behalf. Despite this slight irritation, I got the Micro Q up and running, and the techno‑style demo songs soon had me smiling.
While the physical differences between the Qs are obvious, I was reassured to find that the Micro Q lacks only a few programming features of the 'full' models. The step sequencer is gone; it wouldn't have been much fun to use via the Micro's interface anyway. Perhaps surprisingly, I didn't feel this was a loss. Although I personally love step sequencers, I was never convinced by the Q's version as it just doesn't have enough dedicated controls. A more important omission is the Xphorm function — Waldorf's version of patch morphing and a versatile tool found in synths such as the Yamaha AN1x and Oberheim OB12. It's a shame it didn't make it into the Micro Q.
In raw synthesis terms, the most significant difference between models is in the filter routing. In the Q, this was continuously variable between serial and parallel operation, but in the Micro, it's serial or parallel with no steps in between. I was concerned that the loss of this unique feature would compromise the power of the Micro, but once I'd tried it out I didn't think it suffered much at all. You can still control the balance of each oscillator's output into the filters, and the Q's filter‑panning options are retained. Furthermore, you can control this panning dynamically via various modulators (LFOs, envelopes, velocity), so it remains a tremendously flexible system.
Most of the differences I've mentioned so far result from the Micro Q's internal architecture. Instead of the Q's three DSP chips, the Micro Q has just one processor (albeit one of increased power). Thus it has a unique Operating System not shared with its bigger brothers (by contrast, the Q and Q Rack share the same OS). The Micro Q can import Q patches (although they may end up sounding slightly different), but the Q can't (yet) import Micro Q sounds. The Micro Q's single‑DSP design also means that the number of simultaneous effects are reduced from the Q's eight to five and the delay effect can only be used in the Global effect slot. The maximum available delay time (1.48 seconds) is also less than that of the full Q.
Unexpectedly, there's an area where the Micro Q surpasses its larger relatives. Unlike them, it uses a dynamic voicing method, and so can produce up to 25 notes of polyphony (the unexpanded Q is fixed at 16 notes). It would have been nice to have had some means of displaying the current polyphony of each patch, as on the Nord Modular, but I did come across some general rules on maximising the available number of notes (see the 'Q Tips' box above for these).
The Micro Q responds to the same MIDI controller numbers as its larger siblings but, alas, these numbers don't correspond to those of other Waldorf synths such as the Pulse or Microwave XT. If you were thinking of using the XT's knobby surface to control a Micro Q, think again.
Showing that their days of quirky, near unusable factory patches are behind them, Waldorf have filled the Micro Q with sounds that are (mostly) very good and a few that are excellent. There are impressively deep basses, thick flanged strings, dirty organs and shimmering pads, plus snappy sequencer‑ish patches, courtesy of the highly versatile arpeggiator.
I was struck by how the Waldorf personality pervades almost every patch. There's a certain hardness of tone that's always present, a rather distinctive chorus‑like sound that Waldorf oscillators make when detuned. Perhaps because the oscillators were modelled on those of the Pulse, they sound wonderfully rich and full; I was particularly impressed by their presence and clarity in the upper registers. The wide frequency range on offer can really spice up patches which use the ring modulator or oscillator frequency modulation.
The filters aren't the most analogue‑sounding I've heard, but then the Q family shouldn't be classified as just another set of analogue imitators. Even leaving aside its wavetables, this is audibly a digital synth, and excels at those things digital synths do best (electric pianos, bells, thumping percussion and aggressive, cutting solos). Some of the wild noises I generated with the Randomise Patch utility hit my ears like flying concrete, and in general, the Micro Q demonstrated a capacity for sound effects like no synth I've known before.
I explored some of the Micro Q's innovative features such as looping and one‑shot envelopes, yet failed to find such basics as envelope multiple triggering. Annoyingly, the envelopes always start from zero which hampers some monophonic lead synth emulations. In the current Operating System, there's also no way to turn off MIDI program change reception, which is a minor nuisance, and it doesn't respond to a couple of controllers that it should. Sure, these things are probably being addressed as I write this but they would be handy now! Happily, I experienced no crashes with the Micro Q.
My only real sonic disappointment was with the effects section. The Q series has considerable DSP power, and yet it still lacks a reverb effect (one is scheduled for early 2001). The effects that are present are rudimentary, confusingly implemented in Multi Mode, and none of their parameters appear as entries in the modulation matrix. Fortunately, the Micro Q's sound doesn't rely on effects and its comb filters in particular go a long way towards providing the Q's best flanging, chorus and phaser sounds.
I'm quite a fan of Waldorf's continuous control knobs for live performance but I understand previous comments (like those of Gordon Reid in SOS, and others too) that it's hard to work out at any one time what parameters are set to. If Waldorf took a leaf from Access' book and displayed the original (stored) parameter values alongside any newly edited value, it would improve things. In the current Operating System, if you want to see a parameter on the LCD before you change it, you must press the Peek button, and then, before the parameter can be edited, you have to press it again.
There's no avoiding the fact that the Micro Q's LCD is small and can only ever represent a fraction of what's going on in the synth. A computer editor would be an ideal partner — if it could keep up with Waldorf's frequent OS updates, of course! There is an edit menu that displays all the ADSR parameters at the same time but there's no such display for oscillator levels, filter settings and so on. Mostly, just two parameters are visible at once, corresponding to the two knobs under the display.
If you are looking for a synth that attempts more than just traditional analogue emulation, the Micro Q offers a palette of sounds guaranteed to set you apart from the crowd. Perhaps it lacks the maturity and sheer class of synths such as the Access Virus, but Waldorf devotees doubtless hope to receive new and improved features as time goes by. I feel the effects section, in particular, needs attention; if Waldorf want to compete in the feature‑count game, they should press ahead with their reverb and add a little polish to the existing effects too. Nevertheless, the internal and external changes made to keep the cost down have left the underlying Q personality remarkably unscathed. If you can live with the Micro Q's user interface, there is programming depth within to reward even the most cerebral synth boffin for years. Certainly if I were buying a Q it would be this one, and I have no doubt it will prove to be the most popular member of the family. If you dare to go where no‑one has gone before, you should arrange a meeting with one of the Q.
Whilst in the middle of my review, I did receive a sneak preview of the next operating system from Waldorf (which isn't even at official beta stage yet). This offered a new delay effect — essentially five delays at once using all six of the audio outputs. The revision also addressed a problem I had noticed in v1.1 where the delay does not become active for a few moments after patch selection.
- Six audio outputs.
- One stereo audio input.
- 16‑part multitimbral mode.
- 300 sounds.
- 20 drum maps.
- 100 Multis.
- Three oscillators per voice with pulse, saw, triangle, sine and two wavetables with 128 positions (two additional sub‑oscillators are available when wavetables are used).
- Frequency Modulation of all oscillators and filters is possible.
- Oscillator sync (Osc 2 to Osc 3).
- Two filters with 24dB/octave and 12dB/octave low‑pass, band‑pass, high‑pass, and notch and comb types.
- Three LFOs (at up to audio frequencies).
- Four envelopes.
- 16‑entry modulation matrix.
- Glide (portamento, glissando).
- 25‑band Vocoder.
HOW THE MICRO Q DIFFERS FROM THE Q
- No Xphorm (morph) function.
- No CV/Pedal inputs.
- No step sequencer.
- No continuous filter routing — serial or parallel switch with no 'in‑between' settings.
- The second effects unit is a global effect and is the only effect with delay.
- The maximum delay time is reduced from that available on the Q.
- Dynamic voice structure can yield up to 25 voices.
- Expandable to up to 75 voices (although the hardware option to do this is not yet available).
- In Multitimbral Mode, up to five effects can be used in total, four effects for the first four parts, and one global effect with adjustable mix level in each instrument.
- No digital output.
The Micro Q's dynamic voice allocation can provide up to 25 notes at once, depending on how many unused parts of the sound engine there are. A future hardware upgrade will take this up to 75 notes, although no details are yet available of when this may appear (or how much it will cost when it does!). By turning off oscillators, filters, and effects, you can squeeze more voices out of the Micro Q, as shown in the following guidelines:
- Use oscillators in the order 1, 2, 3 and turn off unused oscillators with the Shape parameter. Turning off oscillator 1 or 2 but leaving on oscillator 3 will not help.
- Turn off FM when you don't need it. Either set FM Source to off or FM Amount to off.
- Use the filters in the order 1, 2. Turn unused filters off with the Type parameter.
- Turn off Filter FM as described above when you don't need it.
- Set unused effects to Bypass.
As stated in the text, I reviewed version 1.1 of the Micro Q's OS (which is not, remember, the same as the Q's OS). Waldorf maintain a page on their excellent web site (www.waldorf‑music.de) solely for Micro Q OS updates (www.waldorf‑music.de/micro_q/mq_system.html), so it's worth checking back there regularly — that was how I came by v1.1. If you're interested in learning more about the Micro Q before you take a look at one, you can also download the English manual from www.waldorf‑music.de/micro_q/microqen.pdf.
- The most affordable Q yet.
- Impressive programming potential.
- Upgradable to 75‑note polyphony.
- Not just another 'analogue wannabe'.
- External power supply.
- Display is too small for the number of parameters on offer.
- Unremarkable effects implementation.
- Some important features still "in the pipeline...".
By stripping the Q down to its essentials, the Micro Q sacrifices remarkably little depth and no sound quality. The matrix system of editing is less of a burden than you might expect, so it really is most of a Q at a fraction of the price.