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Waldorf Wave

Analogue/Digital Dynamic Spectrum Wavetable Synthesizer By David Crombie
Published July 1994

Waldorf Wave keyboard synthesizer

Waldorf's dream machine is finally off the drawing board and in the real world, and looks sure to set synth players' hearts beating a little faster.

For those of you new to the Wave story, there was once a company in Germany called PPG, who were so far ahead of the game that few people understood what they were doing. PPG were probably the first company to develop a commercial hard disk recording system that semi-worked. However their big claim to fame was the PPG Wave 2.2, and the subsequent Wave 2.3. The Wave 2.2 appeared around 1982/3 and was the answer to those who weren't too impressed by the way synthesizers were going — i.e. digital.

The Wave 2.2 and 2.3 utilised digital oscillators to generate sound, but processed it using analogue filters, which gave the instruments more guts. The Waves were pretty big news in Europe — especially, of course, in Germany. With cute-sounding Japanese synthesizers becoming the order of the day, the analogue/digital hybrid was one of the ways in which specialist synthesizer manufacturers could carve out a niche for themselves. Bands like Ultravox employed PPGs for a big sound, to distinguish themselves from the new pop synth bands of the day, who were busy using the presets on their digital synths.

PPG, alas, went west (and we're not talking travel), and from the ashes arose Waldorf Electronics. Waldorf has been closely involved with Steinberg for many years helping in the design and manufacture of some of their hardware.

In 1989 Waldorf released the Microwave; they took the PPG Wave concept and redesigned and repackaged it into a handy 2U rack. Although 'Microwave' was a catchy name, I felt that having the 'Micro-' diminutive was like saying "here's a cut-down version of the old Wave 2s". In fact, the Microwave was in many ways more than a Wave — it was a whole lot more reliable, that's for sure.

The Microwave was/is successful enough, however, for Waldorf to invest in producing the new Wave, which really is something... to see, to hear, to play... to lift.

The Wave Philosophy

Imagine you are a synthesizer designer; you have a brief to design an instrument that people will want to pay an inordinately large amount of money for: what do you do? Waldorf realised that if you are going to build a top-flight instrument it needs to have a great sound, and you need to be able to program it with relative ease. With this kind of a price tag, the Wave seems to be aimed at the studio owner, the hire company and the richer musician, most of whom have grown up with the analogue way of constructing sound; Waldorf have therefore constructed the Wave so that it will seem pretty familiar to the Prophet 5 generation. In addition, they've tried to move away from the 'Data Entry' method of programming to a system that provides as many active knobs and switches as possible, for ease of use.

The Wave is a 16-voice polyphonic, 8-part multitimbral synthesizer that has an excellent and highly intuitive user interface. It's a digital/analogue hybrid with analogue filtering, to give that powerful, rich quality, and it has Dynamic Spectral Wavetable Synthesis for creating its own unique sounds. (Unique is an over-used word when it comes to synthesizers, but here it is justified.) Add to all this a comprehensive range of true master keyboard functions — and you've scratched the Wave's surface. But perhaps more importantly... there's no drum samples and no on-board effects.

Physical Appearance

The Wave is one impressive-looking piece of hardware. Walking around this year's Frankfurt Music Fair, I came across the Waldorf/TSI stand and there was the Wave. And although the stand wasn't the last bastion of hi-tech design, like those of the Yamahas and Rolands of this world, the Wave leapt out to grab the attention of every passer-by strolling down that aisle. I hung around the stand for a few moments watching peoples' reactions when they saw the Wave for the first time. Those who were obviously into synths would stop, their jaws would drop (metaphorically) and then a smile would creep across their faces. I was just the same.

It's a large, heavy instrument — so much so that I was loath to trust it to my 'scissor' keyboard stand. The casework, however, is very nicely styled, with lacquered wooden end cheeks sandwiching a metallic chassis, onto which are attached grey vacuum-formed panels. The main control panel is hinged, so that it can tilt up for ease of access and viewing. This panel is big — the width of the instrument, and over 12 inches deep — and it's heavy, so much so that the mechanism for tilting requires the use of two shock absorbers. As the manual states, "don't be afraid to use your muscles." Mine hadn't recovered from carrying it up the stairs and getting it out of the box. It's funny that the last time we saw a tilting panel such as this was on one of the very early synthesizers, the Minimoog, some 25 years ago.

The overall look of the instrument is good. Located in its centre is a large, square, grey panel which houses the display section, the main element of which is a large, 680 x 64 pixel (225 x 35mm) back-lit LCD display, used in conjunction with the eight display faders and eight display buttons to select and edit key voice functions (more later), and claimed by Waldorf to be "the largest display implemented in a musical instrument to date." It's a little difficult to read in anything but fairly low ambient lighting, but Waldorf say they are going to fix this.

The actual location of all the controls is similar to that of the old analogue instruments and maps out the basic signal path. All the Oscillator waveform/wavetable, pitch and modulation controls are to be found on the left-hand side of the display panel, the Sound Generator section. On the right of the central display panel is the Sound Modification section, where you'll find modules that change the actual character of the sound — filters, amplifiers, and envelope generators. Also located here is the Manager, a set of buttons akin to a programmer, used to select and store sounds and to perform general data-management functions

To the left of the keyboard is a performance control panel, beneath which is a floppy disk drive, and just above the keyboard are a set of Sequencer Controls — currently for remotely controlling external sequencers, but there's talk of incorporating an on-board MIDI sequencer in future releases of the operating system.

Waldorf have created a suite of control buttons for the Wave, which have a very distinct and attractive style to them. In isolation, each button appears enormous when compared with most of today's synths, but set within the context of the Wave's control panel they look perfectly normal in size. These buttons are mostly round, although the Edit select buttons are rectangular with rounded ends. Very small colour-switchable LEDs are used throughout the instrument to show certain status settings; however, I found the LEDs above the Display buttons very difficult to see, which is a bit of a nuisance because these lights are crucial in the programming of the Wave.

Many of the knobs are continuous — you just keep turning them and the Wave increments the associated value accordingly. These knobs are also notched for more accurately setting up the instrument. The large red wheel is used like an alpha dial to set up wavetable data.

Waldorf Wave oscillators, LFO and Wave controls.Waldorf Wave oscillators, LFO and Wave controls.

Power Up

Like most computers, the Wave's operating system has to be loaded in every time the instrument is turned on. As there is no internal hard drive — there's really no need for one — the synth is booted from a floppy. Advantages: it's easy to install the latest operating system which, hopefully, will be continually updated by Waldorf, incorporating new features. Disadvantages: it takes 15 seconds or so to boot up and you're absolutely sunk if you lose or corrupt the boot disk. So the first thing to do once you've booted up is to make a copy. Waldorf will offer to provide the operating system in ROM if you'd like. This is more than just a good idea — they should do this as a matter of course, as it ensures you can at least get the Wave going in emergencies such as losing your disk or total disk drive failure. You would still be able to override the ROM with a more recent operating system if you have a boot disk in the drive on power-up.

The Display Section

The Display Section is the Wave's central workspace. A row of eight large blue buttons is rather nicely positioned on the edge of the display panel, and these are used to select the Wave's various Operating Modes. The Wave's primary operating state is Performance, and it defaults to this on power-up.

The other Operating Modes are:

  • Instrument Edit, which gives you access to all the data that is used to construct a Sound.
  • External Edit, for setting up external parameters of a Performance.
  • Wave Edit, for constructing waves and wavetables.
  • Option, for future updates, and not currently selectable.
  • Sequencer, for future updates, and not currently selectable.
  • Global Edit, for determining parameters that apply to all areas of the Wave, such as Tunings, Base MIDI Channels, SysEx, Velocity Curves, Local on/off etc.
  • Quick Edit, which utilises pre-defined macros to perform simultaneous editing of several parameters related to a Sound.

So, we're in Performance. The Wave is always in this multi-mode; there is no single mode as such — every Performance consists of up to eight Sounds (or Instruments). The main page of the Performance display window features a status line across the middle detailing the name of the Performance, its location, whether it is an edited version of the saved Performance, and which of the Performance Pages you are looking at. Above the status line are four button labels which define the first four of the eight display buttons (the other four aren't used on this page) — you can select Master Parameter; Perform Controls; Fader Parameters; or Assign Faders. Below the status line are eight Fader labels which, as you would expect, determine what effect moving the respective faders will have. And just below the Fader labels are a set of values for that fader — these may be numerical values or the fader might have been set to select a function, in which case the display will identify this function.

Waldorf Wave display section.Waldorf Wave display section.

It seems complicated, but it isn't, being basically a straightforward, menu-driven, soft-keying system that makes controlling a wide range of functions both straightforward and visually responsive.

The second of the Performance pages — Instruments — is the most important. Here you see: i) the Sound that has been selected for that channel; ii) that Sound's program number; iii) a flag that indicates whether you are listening to the saved Sound or an edited version of that Sound, and iv) the set MIDI Channel. The faders are set up as assignable MIDI controllers for the Wave's own Instruments or for external MIDI equipment.

Performance mode is the mode in which you are going to use the Wave, and it is fairly simple to master.

The Sound Modules

At this stage, it's worth going down to ground level and looking at the basic sound modules that are used to construct the Wave's unique and powerful sound.

As stated, the Wave is a 16-voice instrument (expandable up to 48 voices). Each voice consists of two oscillators and a noise generator. The oscillators drive the waveshapers, and it is these that actually produce the 'sound', the oscillators themselves providing the pitch reference. Signals from a noise generator and from the analogue input socket are then fed to the mixer, the output of which is directed to the filter, after which the signal is further modified by the amplifier and finally passed on to a panning module, which sends the signal to the relevant stereo outputs. That's the basic system — with the addition of a host of modulators to shape and manipulate the various sound modules.

If you look at the various sound modules (oscillator 1, wave 1, etc.), you will see on the control panel a large, angled button marked Edit. Pressing this activates that module, and the display then indicates all the related parameters. Rotating knobs alters values on the display, and the display faders are used to select routing, modulation and other options/signal amounts. This is a very intuitive and intelligent piece of design.

Dynamic Spectral Wavetable Synthesis

The Wave sounds good for two reasons: firstly, it uses analogue filters; and secondly, it uses Dynamic Spectral Wavetable Synthesis. We'll deal with the filters shortly, but at this stage, let's consider PPG and Waldorf Wavetable Synthesis technology.

Just as in nature there is no such thing as a straight line, there is also no naturally-generated sound that consists of a single, constantly-repeating waveshape. That is to say, all natural sounds, and those produced by acoustic/electric (not electronic) instruments, have a constantly changing harmonic structure. That's why synthesizers producing, say, triangle and square waveforms, need some form of animation to bring them to life. This animation can take the form of detuning the oscillators, introducing vibrato, or adding effects such as chorus and/or reverb. But these solutions are really of the 'closing the door after the horse has bolted' variety.

Another characteristic of acoustic/electric instruments is that when they are played louder or harder, their harmonic content tends to become fuller. Consider, for example, an oboe: this produces a mellow, smooth tone when played softly, but when the oboist gets cooking the sound becomes richer and brighter. It's the same with most instruments. Non-FM synthesizers do emulate this; responding to increased key velocity, the sound naturally becomes louder, and by opening up the low-pass filter in proportion to the key velocity, sounds appear brighter and richer in harmonics. This works, but is a bit of a cop-out.

The Wave synthesizers tackle the problem at source and try to create waveforms which aren't static, but which have a constantly changing harmonic spectrum. How? By using wavetables.

A wavetable is a collection of 64 waves. Each wave can be considered as a waveform with a specific harmonic content. Most wavetables are designed so that there is a harmonic relationship between adjacent waves. The system is comparable to sampling an instrument that is played at different volume levels and then assigning each sample to a different key velocity. However, with wavetables, you're dealing with single waves, not complete samples. More important, though, is the way in which the waves are utilised. The Wave uses modulation to sweep through up to 64 waves, thus producing a sound that has a constantly changing harmonic structure; a processor interpolates between waves so that the transition from wave to wave is smooth.

There are four sources of modulation which can be used to sweep the wavetable, these sources being selectable from an incredible range of sources — see next section. If no modulation is applied the waveform is static, like a traditional synthesizer. Each wavetable includes standard square, sawtooth and triangle waves, but you can opt to use any of the other 61 waves in the 128 wavetables as a static waveform, should you so desire. Modulation is the key to the rich sound. By sweeping through a range of waves, the output from the oscillator/waveshape is animated to give real depth and a timbral quality that can't be beaten.

A big red knob, which many will recognise from the Microwave, is used to select one of the 128 wavetables. Of these, 64 wavetables are factory presets, which are given names that can be relevant to their applications — for example, 'Robotic', 'Perc. Organ', 'Strong Harmonics', 'Resonant Harmonics', 'Bellish', 'Electric', and so on. There are many ways of using the waves. For example, '2 Echoes' is a wavetable that starts with a set of mellow waves that get brighter as you step through them, then suddenly jump back to a mellow wave; the structure is then repeated. So if you sweep through the waves using an LFO, you get an echo effect.

The outputs from the waveshapers are fed to a mixer, along with a basic noise source. It's funny that Waldorf made the mixer level controls so coarse at this stage — there being just eight levels, although each audio source can be further modulated by any modifier from the Modifier Table. The output of the mixer is combined (if so desired) with up to four analogue inputs. If you were using an external sampler keyboard, you could feed the audio output into the Wave, trigger the envelopes and relevant modifiers via MIDI and process the sampler's sound through the Wave's analogue filters, amplifiers, and panning facilities. Neat.