In this blog I will write about a bit of an unusual keyboard synth that perhaps arrived a little too early for its time.
Continuing on from the 01/W blog, where the emphasis was very much on the Workstation trends of the early 90’s, this oddball was not quite perceived the way it should’ve, causing some confusion, namely because of the use of the word “Station”.
I vividly remember feeling as much confused by this Korg release as everyone else that walked into the music store’s keyboard department.
Advertisements of the day were cryptic and even magazine reviews were not quite sure what to make of it.
With Korg setting a new benchmark with the M1 workstation, the market was expecting no less from a new product.
We had now arrived at a stage where us users started to have expectations and demands, whereas before we were pretty much happy with whatever new innovation was concocted.
Stand alone synths that made radically new sounds were slowly becoming extinct.
Still Korg and Roland wanted to break the Workstation mould, by introducing synths that had workstation features, but were not workstations persé.
Another now classic from Roland was the JD-800, a digital synth with real-time controls, but no sequencer.
It was an attempt to satisfy the hands-on synthesist.
Yamaha took a step back, as they now owned Korg and put their trust in a new team of engineers.
In 1987 many companies were struggling to compete, which was mainly caused by market democratisation.
The technologies developed in the US, Europe and Australia, were now accessible at a fraction of the cost.
Even a relatively new company by the name of Alesis, bombarded the market with highly affordable, professional gear, deepening the problems of companies like Linn, Moog, Fairlight, PPG and Sequential.
The engineers of Sequential were hired by Korg and other staff at Sequential continued servicing existing customers under the name of Wine Country.
The last drawing card Sequential had in a DX7 dominated market, was the 1986 Prophet-VS, which stands for Vector Synthesis.
Vector Synthesis is a morphing type of synthesis, whereby one waveform can blend into another.
There was a total of 4-oscillators and the movements between the oscillators could be recorded in real time using the Vector-lever.
It’s therefor no surprise to see this Vector-lever featured on the Korg Wavestation, as the Sequential engineers didn’t want to squander this cool invention.
The Vector idea was built on the PPG developed technology of Wave-Table synthesis, where an oscillator could move through a series of digitally stored waveforms, bringing movement to a sound.
Evolving sounds were becoming the fashion, but Vector alone didn’t seem to be enough, hence why another new technology was implemented in the Wavestation.
Still to this day the Korg Wavestation is the only synthesizer that has adopted this feature.
The keyboard sequencer had firmly cemented its place in the MIDI studio, either in hardware or software form.
The term Wave-Sequencing was therefor confusing to many.
So we have a Station and a Sequencer.
Then we have a Workstation, right?
Well, yes and no.
It was not really the type of sequencer that you’d find on an M1 or SY-77, where you can record different instruments on different tracks, creating an entire arrangement.
The Wavestation was however 16-part multi-timbral.
So what type of sequencer did it use?
Wave-Sequencing more resembled the traditional Step-Sequencers found on old modular synths, with a couple of extra tricks up its sleeve.
Take a traditional step-sequencer, the ones that have now become standard on every synth.
You have a row of steps and each step can create a different pitch, length and/or velocity.
There are numerous step-sequencers on the market now that can go beyond those basic functions.
What not many step-sequencers can do though, is play a different sound for each step.
Each step could contain a different waveform and each step could also have its own effect.
Even more impressive, wave-form transition times could be set, removing that repetitive, robotic element associated with step-sequencers.
Just imagine holding 1-key on the keyboard and the sequencer playing a complex string of waveforms changing every 16th note.
The wave-sequence could also be used in a vector-patch, so several sounds or wave-sequences could be mixed in real-time.
In 1990 this was a totally new concept and it still is unique today, so it’s in a way still ahead of its time.
Start Up Chime
Not many people know this, but the Wavestation could be heard almost on a daily basis, perhaps even multiple times a day, somewhere between 1999 and 2016.
This is the period where the Apple company started to gain more widespread popularity.
On the tail of the success of the iPod and iTunes, Apple was able to drop the prices on their computers.
This also coincided with Microsoft’s then unstable and virus sensitive operating-systems, pushing people more towards Apple’s limited but highly stable OSX.
Especially the slick designed Macbooks started to appear left-right-centre.
All you Mac users will forever remember that start-up sound on your Mac. Gooooonnnngggggg…..
Especially when you installed a new update, the computer had to re-boot a few times to unpack the software.
You would also remember vividly trying to avoid your Mac making this sound in public places, but this was only possible if you had muted the speakers before you turned it off.
You would expect this start-up orchestral-hit to have been at least made on an Apple computer as well, right?
Well, is was created on the Korg Wavestation.
I'll admit that I cannot recognise the Wavestation in that sound.
Can we find this sound inside the Wavestation’s preset-bank?
I have not found it, so I assume that it was programmed by layering sounds.
Low fidelity has also contributed to it sounding different I guess.
After a keyboard version a Rack version would inevitaby follow.
Usually rack versions are a little different, as more time is spent on them allowing for more features to be added.
This was also the case for the Wavestation A/D.
The A/D included a balanced XLR input for external signal processing.
Analog to Digital (A/D) means you can plug in an external instrument and process it using the Wavestation’s built-in effects processor.
You therefor had a full-blown effects unit as well, with some really nice classic 80’s style effects.
Amongst the many cool effects is even a pretty decent sounding Vocoder.
There is a very good demo of this on YT if you wonder what it sounds like.
In Use / Issues
This synth is not for the hands-on synthesist.
No knobs and sliders for immediate tweaking provided, this was 1990 technology at its apex.
As mentioned before, Roland attempted to change this with the JD-800, but it took some time before that trend became mainstream again.
Menu diving and a slick, smooth design were the market criterion, which put off many and only contributing more to the resurgence of the vintage analogs.
In todays synth landscape these factors still remain in force, leaving the WS well under-appreciated.
However, its lack of appeal combined with the somewhat scarce numbers, put it in an unattractive price range.
As a synth it offers a lot more than an 01/W or M1, but the user interface is a dragon to use and the sound is dated.
On top of that, some issues that many of them have can make a prospective purchase even more unlikely.
My WS/AD had a dead display and missing rack-ears.
The rack-ears are pricy, but considerably cheaper than an LCD replacement.
These LCD’s are still available, but not cheap and you will have to get it replaced by someone who knows what they are doing.
I attempted to do it myself, with the help of a comprehensively written instruction from this web link http://tellun.com/
Even though I followed these instructions painstakingly heedful, I had no knowledge of electronics, thus not having the ability to measure current, merely relying on good fortune.
Predictably, 5-hour later the struggle turned into disenchantment and I had to take it to a service centre, which costs me even more as they had to backtrace my clumsy achievements.
As was fashionable in the day, optional ROM and RAM cards were released at steep prices.
These came as sets in CD Jewel cases, one card holding the PCM samples and the other the program data.
These cards tend to vanish from people’s collections, either through neglect or selling them separately from the synth.
More often than not, very few to no cards are included with the synth, but you might be lucky.
The EX option had become a devoted trend too, so an extra bank of PCM samples was made available.
Skip this Station?
You will not see a 2nd hand WS on the market as frequently as an M1 or DX7.
As it was not a major commercial success, due to all the reasons mentioned above, they are scarce but not rare either.
The main reason why you’d want to pursuit a purchase, is if you are as nostalgic as me, who was there at the time it got released, but didn’t quite have the dosh to buy one.
Another reason might be that a buggered WS pops up for sale at a low price and you are technical enough to repair it.
If you are really curious and you want to avoid the hassles, there is a perfect and cheap solution.
Korg have a software bundle called “The Korg Legacy Series”, which can either be purchased as a bundle or each synth from that bundle can be bought separately.
No sacrifice of space in your studio, no sticky buttons or faulty LCD’s, no need to break the bank.
You even get every single ROM card included as well.
You can now also assign parameters to knobs and sliders if you have a MIDI controller.
Sonically there is a difference, as the output stages are different for every computer set-up, but we’re entering nitpicking territory here.
Sometimes Korg have special offers at half prices, but if you still don’t want to spend that much on the software, Korg have an iOS version as well.
Meet the family
As with the M and T series, there were different members of the Wavestation family.
- Wavestation: standard version that could be expanded to an EX.
- Wavestation EX: expanded with an extra 4MB PCM ROM, 200 performances instead of 100 and additional effects.
- Wavestation A/D: rack version with audio-inputs for signal processing and 250 performance storage location.
- Wavestation SR: single unit rack version with the exact same features but less easy accessible editing.
Of all the synths that Korg released late 80’s, early 90’s, the Wavestation is by far the most interesting.
Whether you get the hardware or software version, you will be pleasantly surprised by how good this thing sounds.
One more reason for getting a keyboard WS, which I didn’t mention yet, is the keybed.
Just like the M1 and 01/W the Wavestation is using the same DX7 keyboard, which feels like an absolute dream.
The Wavestation is still a classic, because it is unique and not just another synth.
Because it wasn’t commercially successful, it’s not all over early 90’s recordings like the DX7 and D50.
Vastly going beyond the capabilities of those two legendary synths, who knows how much can still be squeezed out of the WS.
In synth history the Wavestation is in my book a legend, because it was an attempt to bring something new, which it absolutely did.
Unfortunately with the trends of the day, the operation of this synth was a creative obstacle and with workstations being more favoured, the Wavestation was simply misunderstood and largely ignored.