KORG WAVESTATION
VINTAGE CONTRIBUTIONS

Korg enjoyed enormous success with their M1 being (arguably) the world's first music workstation... certainly the first affordable music workstation that allowed complete compositions to be realised using acoustic instrument samples, drums, multi-effects and an integral multi-timbral sequencer. This was followed by a rack version and also the more professional 'T' series which had more memory/samples, expanded sequencer facilities, larger displays, disk drives and which also brought larger, weighted keyboards into the equation.

It was a surprise then when they released their next big synth product, the Wavestation.

This was a true synth in the strict sense of the word in that it produced overtly synthetic and electronic textures using vector synthesis, wave sequencing and, of course, more conventional techniques. The Wavestation was. of course, derived from the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS designed by Dave Smith and when Sequential went bust, it is assumed that the Sequential team went to work for Korg and thus the Wavestation was born.

Not quite - the team's first project was, in fact, with Yamaha!

In 1988, Yamaha bought the now bankrupt Sequential and formed a new company, DSD (Dave Smith Designs) with Dave at the helm. DSD's first job was to work with Yamaha on (not surprisingly!) a vector synth and the result was the Yamaha SY22 and SY55. There was also the TG33 table-top expander module.

The principles of vector synthesis were all there in these products and it was possible to merge, blend and morph oscillator waveforms in real-time using the dedicated joystick controller - these movements could also be recorded. However, the synths had no filters and with watered down, 2-operator FM oscillators and lack-lustre samples as the basic sound source, they sounded thin and lifeless. There was little to redeem these products but they went into production anyway - with sales of FM synths now well and truly in decline, it was almost as though Yamaha were so desperate to just get something 'new' onto the market, so these synths were rushed out too soon. Unfortunately, the products weren't particularly successful. Furthermore, the relationship between DSD and Yamaha had (for some reason) soured and Yamaha closed DSD down.

Aware of this, Korg approached the team and pursuaded them to work for Korg and yet another variation on vector synthesis went into development, this time in the form of the successful Wavestation released in 1990.

When it was released, it was greeted with almost universal acclaim and not without good reason - for the first time in a long time, here was something that made totally unique sounds, the likes of which had rarely been heard before. Vector synthesis allowed you to mix, blend and morph waveforms from up to four oscillators in real-time using the joystick or using multi-stage envelopes, LFOs and other controllers. The waveforms were a broad mixture of digital and analogue synth waveforms and samples allowing enormous potential for dramatic, evolving sounds. The Wavestation also featured a new technique called Wave Sequencing where any waveform could be placed along a simple timeline (at any pitch, level and pan position) and played back sequentially (no pun intended!). These could then pass through filters and envelopes. The results were stunning - almost complete soundtracks in their own right - and these could also be synchronised to MIDI clock for even more flexibility. The Wavestation also had a comprehensive set of on-board effects (derived from Korg's workstation products) and the overall effect of hearing a Wavestation for the first time was quite an experience!

But this power came at a cost - with so many possibilities, programming a Wavestation to create your own sounds was something of a chore - indeed, impossible for many. The trouble is, you almost had to program your own sounds because so many of the presets were so distinctive, they were a dead give-away if you tried to use them in a track!

Also, at a time when memory was expensive, to cram in all this power meant that compromises had to be made in this area. As a result, the on-board wave memory was minimal (a mere 2Mb in the original Wavestations!) and so many of the on-board waveforms weren't as multi-sampled as they could (or should) have been and many waveforms had just a single sample that covered the entire keyboard range. Those that were 'multi-sampled', only had two or three samples to cover the range. When transposed, these waveforms exhibited unpleasant aliasing noises - they sounded 'crunchy' down low and almost ring modulated up high. That said, many used this to their advantage (including Korg) to create very 'industrial' sounds.

Of course, the Wavestation had another failing - it wasn't a workstation! It had no on-board sequencer, had limited multi-timbrality and it also had little in the way of 'acoustic' sounds such as piano, guitar, brass, sax, woodwind and so on. With the success of the M1 and its subsequent variations, this is what people were coming to expect of a keyboard instrument. Korg tried to address the latter problem in the Wavestation EX that had expanded memory containing piano and other 'acoustic' sounds but at a time when people were very much embracing the concept of the $2,000 workstation, it was difficult to get them to part with the same kind of money for a synth with these limitations.

Of course, die-hard synth nuts bought the Wavestation in droves and came to terms with its arcane operating system and programming methods and for many, the Wavestation is still a staple component in their studio or live rig.

Although the Wavestation was not a huge success in the wider music market (i.e. the huge majority of jobbing musos across the world for whom the flowing, evolving textures of vector synthesis and the angular, industrial soundscapes of wave sequencing are totally inappropriate), the Wavestation is largely regarded as a milestone in synth history that remains relatively unique even today.

Korg kept the concept going with the Wavestation A/D (a 2U rack-mounted version that added the ability to use external sounds in the vectoring process) and ultimately, the Wavestation SR (a 1U rack-mount unit with a miniscule 2 x 16 LCD that made even moderate tweaking all but impossible). The Wavestation concept was eventually discontinued in the mid-90s. However, vector synthesis is still alive and well in the form of Dave Smith's Evolver (www.davesmithinstruments.com) and, of course, in Korg's own Legacy software instrument where (for once!) the original is faithfully reproduced.

The Wavestation samples have been donated by Hollow Sun regular, Louis van Dompselaar - they are all dramatic, evolving soundtrack pads.