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Korg Wavestate

Korg hasn’t so much reiterated the legendary Wavestation as reimagined it. Hang onto your hats as we disappear down a rabbit hole of WSeqs tweakery.

By

July 28, 2020

Wave Sequencing Synthesizer

In 1990, after enjoying the runaway success of the M1 and the more advanced T series, Korg delivered their first Wavestation. It was a sleek, eye-catching instrument, with minimalist front panel controls, but most importantly it was the first product to feature Wavesequencing combined with Vector synthesis thanks to a collaboration with Dave Smith and the team at Sequential Circuits (responsible for the Prophet VS Vector Synthesiser).

The Wavestation was somewhat hobbled by memory constraints and the user interface restrictions of the time, yet it was a seductive machine which ignited curiosity. It offered a novel approach to composition and live performance: building sounds using step-sequenced looped chains of short-duration waveforms fused with a Vector Joystick to crossfade between four layers of these sequences. The synth was best known for its lush evolving pads, spacey atonal clusters, kitschy drum-n-synth sequences and carefully-crafted mesmeric waveform jams. Its distinctive sound pervaded a plethora of cop-show TV dramas, nature documentaries and popular feature films of the era. Stylistically, it aligned with genres from new-age and ambient through to industrial, trance and rave. Producers were enthusiastic about incorporating Wavesequencing despite the level of difficulty in editing [one reviewer at the time likened editing in the rackmount version to ‘wallpapering your hallway through the letterbox’ — Ed.).

VERY NOW

Rather than a mere reiteration of the original, the Wavestate is a complete reinvention. The minimalist front-panel design aesthetic has been replaced with a front-panel liberally populated with hands-on controls in an economical, compact unit.

Wavestate features Korg’s Wave Sequencing 2.0 engine. Key improvements include: a vastly expanded PCM library; Wavesequence attributes split across separate Lanes (with each Lane having independent looping/probability functions); an expanded collection of analogue-modelled filters; and vastly extended modulation capabilities.

At its heart beats a Raspberry Pi Compute module (based on an STM32 ARM CPU). While some may find this a point of contention, Korg is no stranger to the use of Common Off-the-shelf Technology Systems (COTS). Historically, they’ve excelled at incredible DSP-based instruments on such platforms as proven by the Oasys and Kronos workstations. Aside from the development advantages and lower cost, in future years, there will be an increased likelihood of sourcing replacement chips thanks to their widespread use outside the boutique synthesiser realm. 

PHYSICAL ELEMENTS

The matte-black aluminium faceplate hosts an attractive, spacious arrangement of controls. Meanwhile, its lightweight chassis (2.9kg) is entirely plastic. Regardless, it feels sturdy and doesn’t have the wobbly, creaky feel you might expect. Its OLED display is petite, but it is bright, legible from almost any viewing angle and the font size is ideal for comfortable reading. All front-panel knobs are firmly chassis-mounted and exhibit silky-smooth travel with just the right degree of friction. The buttons feel sturdy but the switch mechanisms are a little recalcitrant for my liking.

Wavestate has a three-octave keybed with full-size keys — the same action as Korg’s Krome/Kross series. It is velocity and release velocity sensitive, but lacks aftertouch… pity. It responds to channel and polyphonic aftertouch via MIDI, but for stand-alone performance, its inclusion would be much preferred. Inclusion of independent pitch and mod wheels (instead of Korg’s spring-loaded paddle) is a welcome decision.

NEED TO KNOW

  • PRICE

    Expect to pay $1199

  • CONTACT

    CMI:
    (03) 9315 2244
    sales@cmi.com.au
    cmi.com.au

  • PROS

    Sounds phenomenal
    Profoundly deep modulation capabilities
    Wide array of filter algorithms with rich, analogue flavour
    Exceptional build quality
    Play-over notes when changing patches

  • CONS

    Deep menu diving
    No Aftertouch
    No software-based editor
    No user sample import
    PCM sample lists are tedious to navigate
    Occasional freezes

  • SUMMARY

    Wavestate will provide sounds you won’t find anywhere else. But making the sounds of the Wavestate your own will come with a considerable investment of time. Sound designers and Wavestation nostalgists will sign on first. And those with pandemic time to kill will be rewarded.

MEMORIES, VOICE STRUCTURE & HIERARCHY

Wavestate is not a virtual analogue synth — its oscillators are entirely sample-based. Its engine delivers 64 stereo voices of polyphony and four-part multitimbrality. Performances are at the top-most level of its hierarchy consisting of four Programs which load into Layers (A, B, C and D). The vector joystick provides the means to crossfade between Layers in tandem with key-range splits or velocity mapping determining playback behaviour.

An extensive library of samples and multisamples populates its memory (2GB compressed). In addition to fresh samples created for the Wavestate, you’ll find the original Wavestation PCM waves (including expansion cards), a selection of superb Multisamples from the Kronos and Krome series as well a sample library from Plug-in Guru. The majority of samples have several pre-determined ideal Sample Offset points (rather than always triggering from the start), further expanding the expected mileage you’ll experience from its library. Ingenious sound designers will unearth abundant content to explore, but there is no means to import user samples, which is a big disappointment. (Possibly a future update may include this since a majority of sound designers have come to expect such facilities.)

Its memory pool is dynamic with assets defined by name alone, much like a computer’s file system (rather than numbered Bank/Patch slots). Patch memories are almost limitless, offering storage for up to ‘tens of thousands of user Performances’. You’d often hear power users of the Wavestation complaining about running out of memory, so this is a tremendous improvement.

WAVESEQUENCING 2020

Before getting stuck into making Wavesequences, it’s worthwhile recalling the Init Performance, loading the factory-supplied Wavesequences (there are 1000 to explore) into different Layers, and exploring the possibilities.

Wavesequences (or WSeqs. as we’ll call them) have seven Lanes: Master, Timing, Sample, Pitch, Shape, Gate, Step Seq. Each Lane may have up to 64 steps. The 16 WSeq step buttons above the keyboard provide a convenient means to select steps for editing. Each Lane has independent start/end step points, looping behaviours and a probability setting — the foundations for more organic-sounding results compared with the original Wavestation. If you’re seeking a quick method to populate a Lane with events, the useful Lane Preset function gives you a bountiful assortment of starting-point templates. For each WSeq Lane, the Loop start/end knobs enable remixing of Wavesequences on the fly.

The Master Lane: can restart other lanes after a specific number of steps.

The Timing Lane: governs the timing of the other Lanes allowing variable durations for each Step. Here, you can control the transition method from one Step to another allowing sharp snaps (recommended for percussive sequences or drum patterns) or smooth crossfades (brilliant for lush, animated, evolving Pads with complex tonal shifts).

The Sample Lane: is where you specify which sample plays on each Step. You can also determine if samples play at a fixed pitch (ideal for drum, percussion or FX sequences) or not.

The Pitch Lane: is where you can sequence transposition amounts, effectively, the means of writing melodic offsets into a WSeq.

The Shape Lane: applies contour shapes to each Step (mapped to volume by default) with adjustable Offset, Level and Phase.

The Gate Lane: determines how long Steps generate sound for based on divisions of the Timing Lane.

The Step Seq Lane: allows generating control signals for use as a modulation source for Mod Routings (covered later). 

WSeq Utility functions are available for manipulating the Steps of WSeq Lanes including cut/copy/pasting and inserting/appending empty Steps. A Scale Timing tool gives a batch modification of durations within the WSeq Timing Lane.

A BIGGER WAVESTATION?

It’s easy to characterise the Wavestate as bigger and better Wavestation, but the venerable Wavestation actually out-punches the Wavestate in certain regards. A Wavestation Performance consists of eight Parts. Each of these parts is the equivalent of what a Wavestate Performance provides thus, notwithstanding having only 32 voices of polyphony, allows stacking and layering/splitting eight times deeper than the Wavestate, albeit with an increased chance of voice stealing. Wavestate also has only four-part multitimbral operation compared with the Wavestation’s 16-part Multi-mode and only has a single main stereo output.

MODULATION HEAVEN

As a sound designer, synths with a bounty of fixed modulation paths are great, but those with a flexible freeform modulation matrix are even better. On this count, Wavestate is unsurpassed, it has a modulation matrix beyond any digital hardware synth I’ve encountered.

While its fixed modulation paths are adequate, the real magic is in its modulation matrix. Rather than thinking of sources which modulate destinations, you’ll acclimate faster if you consider them in reverse (ie. destinations modulated by sources). Creating Mod Routings establishes these connections. 

Virtually every parameter is available as a destination: those accessed via knobs/buttons; those found in menus only; those within the effect engines (covered later); and even those buried deep within the steps of WSeq Lanes on a per-step basis. The latter is especially compelling since you can build interactivity into Wavesequences when using Controllers as sources. Multiple Mod Routings can be attached to a destination, and every destination has an <independent array of up to 31 modulation slots!> The creative possibilities of this system are mind boggling.

Korg has implemented an elegant scheme to define Mod Routings. Begin by tweaking/editing a parameter you intend to use as a destination for a Mod Routing. Next, press and hold the Mod and Right Arrow buttons. A pop-up menu appears which then guides you through the process to select a Mod Source and then presents the fields to define the modulation Intensity and a secondary Intensity Mod Source (the resulting modulation value is the product of all three elements). Done. Genius!

Available Mod Sources consist of the following: Controllers (Mod/Pitch wheels, Joystick X/Y, Damper, Velocity, Gate/Damper combinations, Note Number and Channel/Poly Aftertouch), Performance/Program Mod Knobs (the array of eight white-coloured knobs above the keybed), and Generators (Envelopes, LFOs, Keytracking, Mod Processors, the WSeq Step Seq Lane, Step Pulse, Tempo, Note/Voice Counts, Poly Legato and the full range of MIDI CCs interpreted as either Unipolar/Bipolar values).

Three ADSR Envelopes are available per voice (and thus are polyphonic). By default, these Envelopes modulate the Filter, Amp and Pitch respectively, yet also serve as sources for other destinations. These Envelopes also feature adjustable curves for the Attack, Decay and Release stages. The display shows a graphical representation of the envelope shape for more intuitive adjustment.

Each voice has four LFOs (and thus are polyphonic) which default to modulation of the Filter, Amp, Pitch and Pan respectively, which may modulate other destinations. LFOs feature an impressive 18 wave shapes, which may be finessed with the Curve and Offset settings. LFOs may be tempo-clocked by various divisions or set to specific frequencies from a super-slow 0.001Hz through to a not-so-impressive 32Hz (a limit which will thwart those expecting to perform audio-rate LFO magic).

VECTOR ENVELOPES

The five-step Vector Envelope, the essence of Vector Synthesis, works across all Layers of a Performance (and thus is monophonic). By default, it crossfades the volume level of each Layer by proportionate amounts providing a rudimentary means to fade between Layers over time. You may set X/Y values for each Step via the Joystick or by editing values within the menu and optionally have it loop (with several functions) before hitting the final Step. Vector Envelopes can be Time based (with each Step being up to 60 seconds in length) or Tempo based. The Vector Envelope may be repurposed as a fifth monophonic LFO to modulate monophonic destinations. The volume/crossfading behaviour can be defeated when used in this context.

While it may appear there is almost boundless freedom for modulation, some constraints apply. Mod sources which are polyphonic (eg. LFOs and envelopes) are routable to polyphonic destinations but not to monophonic destinations (e.g. the master reverb parameters). The Vector Envelope is a monophonic source and thus can modulate destinations which polyphonic sources cannot.

Dual Modulation Processors are also available as Sources providing further scope for building sophisticated, interactive patches (particularly once combined with the Performance Mod Knobs). Each processor takes two inputs and applies a transform process on them with the resulting output available as a modulation Source throughout the modulation matrix. Transform processes include Gate (alternates between dual input sources based on the level of a third input reaching a threshold), Offset (ideal of converting signals from bipolar to unipolar), Quantise (converts smooth value ranges to stepped), Scale, Curve, Smooth, and Sum.

FILTERS

The original Wavestation had only a single low-pass filter which lacked resonance (common to digital synths of the era) having a very digital flavour. Thankfully things are different in 2020.

A bountiful array of filter types, including emulations of the PolySix and MS20 filters, are available in addition to several additional filter types which also have a distinctively vintage analogue flavour. These cover the gamut of low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, band-reject filters in either 2-pole or 4-pole configurations. The MS20 and PolySix filter types additionally have a gain option for more aggressive tones.

The Multi Filter is of specific interest. In Manual mode, this presents low-pass, hi-pass and band-pass simultaneously in different mix amounts with phase-inverted versions being available by specifying a negative mix amount. In Mode1/2, an array of presets of different setups of these mix amounts additionally with a crossfade amount which is available for modulation.

WAVESTATE BRAIN STATE

It took significant time to get accustomed to the Wavestate. Superficially, it may appear to provide a hands-on user interface, but nested menus abound. After repeated recourse to the manual, I reached a point of fluency. Even experienced synth maestros will find this instrument demands an investment of time. 

I’m not going to lie: creating your own wavesequences is tedious: scrolling through the extensive library and selecting samples for each Step of the Sample Lane using the Value encoder takes time. Yes, you can filter by category and you can change the sort order, but the categories would benefit from a more granular library system or a mechanism to tag favourites.

Synths of this complexity, particularly those with small displays, benefit immensely from the inclusion of a computer-based editor. While a capable librarian for MacOS/Windows systems for easy organisation of its memory and backup functions is available as a free download, a decent fully-fledged editor is missing, and Korg doesn’t appear to have one planned. 

Considering it is effectively a software synth, it boots fast and generally feels very stable, however several times during the review period the unit froze requiring a hard reset by power cycling the unit. No doubt, software revisions will iron out the bugs.

FORMIDABLE

It is remarkable how much synthesis horsepower Korg has packed into this compact, inexpensive instrument. When you consider that the original Wavestation WS-1 sold for around A$3000, Wavestate is a fraction of that price.

I hope Korg is planning a premium version of the Wavestate. I’d imagine a larger 61-key version with Aftertouch, a considerably larger display with higher resolution (for better comparative overviews of parameter sequences within Lanes), the inclusion of Virtual Analogue oscillator models, layering of Performances up to eight deep (on par with the original Wavestation) and the ability to import user samples.

Shortcomings aside, I have no doubt it will win over nostalgic fans of the Wavestation keen for more advanced wavesequencing capabilities, better filters, extended modulation possibilities and effects, but also, a new audience curious to explore the creative possibilities of wavesequencing. While I may lament some clunky aspects of the user interface, the lack of user sample import functionality and its aftertouch-less keybed, it is a sensational instrument capable of producing unique sounds. Sound designers and synth fanatics will be attracted to Wavestate’s apparently endless sound creation possibilities. You may fall down a Wavestate rabbit hole and not emerge for days — in other words, it’s the perfect pandemic synth!

EFFECTS: OASYS RETURNS!

The Wavestate has 12 Program Effect engines with algorithms derived from the Prologue series, Minilogue XD and Kronos workstations. Within a Performance, each of the four Layers provides three Program Effect engines in series. Hands-on control comes from five buttons (to select/mute blocks and select Effect Type) and a pair of knobs to tweak parameters.

First up is Pre FX offering several compressor/EQ models in addition to a decimator, guitar amp, ring modulator, tremolo and Waveshaper. The second is Mod FX which offers various models of chorus, flanger, phaser and wah. The third is delay providing several modelled delay types. A series of presets for each effect block allows you to establish typical setups rapidly.

Two Master Effect blocks affect the entire output of a Performance. The first is a reverb which offers two algorithms — Early Reflections and OVerb (inherited from Korg’s revered Oasys DSP card from the late ’90s). The second is a parametric EQ intended for tailoring the overall tone of a Performance.

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FLAT OUT
Recording Bon Iver’s ‘I,I’
READ ONLINE NOW
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Issue 65