Korg Wavestation

The Wavestation is a great digital beast from 1990. I bought mine second-hand for 215€, which is a good deal considering the sonic qualities of that synth.

The Wavestation is indeed a nice piece of gear, with a reassuringly solid built (metal was used rather than plastic). Two points that should be looked closer if you consider buying one are the LCD brightness (it had a tendency to fade with the years, and can't easily be replaced (you can see on the pics that my own second-hand Wavestation has a very dimly lit screen) and the lithium battery (see here for details). It's a machine of respectable dimensions, and if you're already running out of space, the rack versions (Wavestation A/D and Wavestation SR, each one adding new features) or the software version (Korg Legacy) might be better choices.

click on the pic for hi-res versions

So... what about it?

At first glimpse, the Wavestation suffers from the infamous "80’s interface" bug…. No knobs, but a LCD screen and some buttons. It sure looks slick, but what about programming? Well, I would certainly prefer a vintagish array of knobs to control the parameters in real time, but as digital synth design goes, I've seen worse than the Wavestation. The screen, after all, is quite big and although fumbling through menus and sub-menus isn't the most practical way to tweak the sound, everything is laid logically enough and with a little practice (because the manual is very thin), programming becomes somewhat easier. While the factory presets are decent (including the cool Mini Lead patch used by Tony Banks on "Fading Lights"), the Wavestation isn't a preset machine, but a real synth with vast programming capabilities.

audio example 1

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This synth works with "performances", which are combinations of patches, each one able to stack up to 4 oscillators. That allows for very complex sounds, bearing in mind that the Wavestation is a vector synthesis synth, allowing the player to "move" inside the sound with a joystick (Dave Smith brought this to Yamaha and Korg from the ill-fated Prophet VS - my first synth was a Yamaha SY35, one of these surprinsingly rare vector synths). Toying around with the juxtaposition of patches, their respective envelopes, the split keyboard mode and the vector joystick is a perfect way to create rich, sophisticated, highly evolving sounds and landscapes.

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This alone would grant you interesting creations, but the Wavestation has one more trick up its sleeve : wave sequencing. Simply put, it's a way of chaining waveforms in order to produce a rhythmic/melodic sequence (see pic below) that can then be supplemented with other patches, in unison or split mode. You can for example program a sequence for the left hand, juxtaposed with a bass sound, and a lead patch on the right hand, itself enriched by a pad… If programming a wave sequence will surely prove too scientific and tricky for most users, you can always tweak up an existing one by editing its waveforms and their duration, pitch, etc…... Of course, the overall effect is so distinctive that you can’t really use wave sequences that often in finished songs, but it's still a very fun way to experiment, improvise and try out ideas.

The Wavestation's main flaw, unarguably, is the lack of a proper filter. What we've got here is a digital non-resonant low-pass filter that doesn’t do much to shape the sound. This is really a pity, as we can but imagine how great the machine would have been with a good one, not even mentioning some bandpass, hi-pass or more exotic capabilities. Or even better, a combination of digital synthesis and analog filter, like what could be found on the Ensoniq SQ80. This serious issue forbids that the Wavestation produce any of the warm, smooth sounds of a D50, for instance, and explains why it excels in lush, but somewhat icy atmospheric pads and FX.

One final word about the built-in effects...… Like many digital synths, the Wavestation tends to rely heavily on them to make up for the relative weakness of its sound compared to that of an analogue polyphonic instrument. The effects supplied here are quite good, but I would definitely advise in most cases to turn at least the reverb off. This has a very metallic, harsh sound that needlessly contribute to the coldness of the sound.
On the following audio example, a wave sequence is played, first with the built-in reverb the patch was created with, then with a VST hall reverb.

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As you can hear, while the Wavestation's reverb provide for a peculiar ambience, it can prove difficult to make the whole patch work in the context of a whole mix. That’s why it might be a good idea to record the synth dry, even if it sounds a bit shallow at first, and then use a mellower, lighter reverb.

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