Korg are undoubtedly a leading brand in the world of music technology and that expertise and brand has very much embraced what iOS has to offer over recent years. Earlier apps such as iKaossilator, iPolysix and iMS-20 showed great promise but more recent apps such as Gadget, Module, iM1 and, most recently, ARP ODYSSEi, have most certainly made a significant impact in what is now a very healthy and competitive market place (if perhaps not one that is always financially sustainable for all developers). Each of these apps is brilliant and all represent very good value for money.
As I posted a few days ago, hot on the heels of the ODYSSEi release, however, comes another ‘classic synth as an iOS app’ release from Korg; iWaveStation. No prizes for guessing that this is based around Korg’s own WaveStation hardware synth from the early 1990 (and that they have also recreated a s a desktop software synth in the more recent past). This is a synth with quite a prestigious history. Users include Jan Hammer, Phil Collins, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and countless other performing artists while it has also been a favourite of media composers (including Mark Snow who used the WaveStation when creating music for the X-Files TV series).
Now, the hardware WaveStation is, by ‘classic synth’ standards, actually a pretty recent device so there are still many of the original hardware units (it was produced in a number of iterations) out there in active use. Secondhand models can be found from around the US$250 mark but the original launch price was around the US$2000 mark (eek!). That we can now pick up the essence of that classic synth and its sound in an app format costing around UK£14.99/US$19.99 (that’s a launch price with a 30% discount) is pretty remarkable to say the least.
In terms of other practical details, iWaveStation requires iOS9.3 or later, is universal and comes as a 75MB download. As with Korg’s iM1, the iWaveStation also reproduces the ‘virtual’ ROM-style add-on soundcards from the hardware…. so you can already by an additional IAP (currently just UK£3.99/US$4.99) to expand on what is already a huge number of presets many of which, I think, mimic those from the original hardware.
Audiobus and IAA are supported from the off but, as yet, no sign of AU support (but then none of Korg’s apps currently have AU included; here’s hoping that’s something they are working towards). MIDI support is pretty much ‘as is’ in other Korg iOS apps so you should have few problems hooking up your favourite external keyboard or linking the app with your DAW/sequencer. And, of course, if you are also a Gadget user, then iWaveStation becomes available as a gadget called Milpitas (apparently named after the town in California where Korg have a head office; thanks for that snippet of information Toz).
The WaveStation used a combination of technologies to make its sounds. This was a development on from the ‘Sample & Synthesis’ approach of Roland’s D50 and, instead of employing simple/basic oscillator waveforms, used waveforms taken from sample-based sounds. By the time this technology evolved and was implemented within the WaveStation, is had been refined in various ways, one of which was more sophisticated ways to layer these waveforms in a sound and play them back in a sequence…. which was great for generating sounds that evolved with time such as pads.
The other key element was ‘Vector Synthesis’. The concept here is quite simple in that your synth, rather than just having one sound creation pathway, features two or more pathways (‘parts’). Each pathway could contain a difference sound and, with a suitable control, the user could simply morph between them. With the WaveStation, you got up to four parts and a hardware-based joystick that could be used for real-time morphing (although you could also modulate between these parts using other elements of the synth engine such as LFOs).
And, of course, the iWaveStation reproduces all the key elements of the original hardware sound engine so you get the four part/oscillator-based sound source, lots of sample-based waveforms to build sounds from, options to sequence the waveforms and a (virtual) joystick to do sound morphing. However, what you also get is a rather better editing environment to create your sounds in (an iPad touchscreen is a big improvement over the original hardware editing interface) and a few other modern bells and whistles to the feature set to bring the WaveStation concept appealing to the modern user.
Incidentally, if you want a somewhat fuller (and better informed) history lesson of how this synth technology developed, then check out Steve Howell’s short article in Sound On Sound from a few years back (and thanks to reader Snystrom for sending me the link)….. So, with that context to hand, just what does Korg’s iOS WaveStation recreation deliver to your iPad for such a modest investment?
Give me a wave
OK, now regular readers here will know that I am really a guitar player (sorry!) and not someone with a PhD in synthesis. And, while the broad principles of how the WaveStation creates sound described above hold good here in the software emulation, that doesn’t mean that the practicalities of the synth engine are not a bit bewildering on first encounter. If I was looking for a first synth to learn about sound programming, I’m not sure the WaveStation (’i’ or otherwise) would be my first choice!
Fortunately, with the iWaveStation, we are helped out in three regards. First, even if you are not an expert synth programmer, iWaveStation offers one heck of an interesting collection of sound presets; have a browse and simply enjoy (it will take you some time, especially if you opt for the additional IAP which adds further to the collection). Don’t be embarrassed to be a preset player…. the iWaveStation is very good in that role.
Second, Korg have a fairly comprehensive PDF reference manual for the app available to download (you can access it via the app’s own Info menu or directly from Korg’s website). This is not (unfortunately) a ‘how to program’ tutorial but it does provide a clear explanation of the various controls; if you want to program from scratch, then RTFM.
Third, the UI, while undoubtedly having a lot going on and being spread over several sub-pages of options, is a heck of a lot easier to work with than the original hardware. Fully grasping the programming process is therefore an easier task under iOS than it ever was back in the 1990s J
My own level of programming expertise is… well, limited at this point would probably be the kindest thing to say… and I’ve no intention of providing an in depth tutorial as part of this review (I’ll leave that to bigger and better brains than mine). However, let’s see if we can’t at least give a flavour of how an iWaveStation sound is constructed.
The highest level of the structure is what Korg call a “Performance’ and, if you tap on the preset box located top-centre of the screen, that’s what you begin browsing from the various ‘virtual’ RAM/ROM cards that model how Performances were stored and accessed on the original hardware.
A Performance is, itself, constructed from up to eight ‘Parts’ and, as well as the ‘sound’ elements of a Part (which I’ll get to in a minute), there are various Part-level parameters you can adjust including pitch, filter and volume. One further important editable parameter is that you can also set the note range and velocity range for each Part. This is key (pardon the pun) to creating sophisticated sounds within the synth as it allows you to place different elements (Parts) of an overall preset (Performance) in different parts of the keyboard range, or to overlap those keyboard note ranges and blend the Parts based upon MIDI velocity (different Parts responding to different ranges of MIDI velocity, for example).
Finally, you get a Patch and a single Patch is placed in each of the (up to) 8 Parts. A Patch consists of a complete, stand-alone, synth ‘engine’, with an oscillator, filter, amplifier envelope, LFO’s, etc. A Patch might, therefore, be a complete sound on it’s own and, in a simple Performance, you might have just a single Part (and therefore, single Patch) containing, for example, a basic piano or bass or string (etc.) sound.
With me so far? Good… but we are only just getting started really…. First, the ‘oscillator’ in a Patch can actually take a number of forms. The all use a waveform from the many supplied with the app, but this waveform can be set to loop or to play as a ‘one-shot’ or, and this is where things get beyond the original nature S&S synths, you can sequence up to 127 waveforms to play back in sequence (with all sorts of creative ways to implement that sequence).
And if your head is already spinning, then each Patch can use up to four of these oscillators so that a Performance might feature 8 Parts and each Part might have a Patch containing up to 4 oscillators, each of which is built around a multi-wave wave sequence….. phew, that’s all straightforward then. Oh, and there is lots of interesting ways to modulate the sounds, filter them, add effects and don’t forget that ‘vector synthesis’ bit that allows you to blend between the four oscillators used in any Patch within your overall Performance (preset). That’s a total of 32 oscillators in a single Performance if you really push the boat out (and have iOS hardware that doesn’t explode with the effort required).
I need to lie down…..
…. but before I do, I’ll just mention that each of those ROM/RAM cards you see contain presets for Performances, Patches, Waveforms and Waveform Sequences so, if you want to limit your own programming efforts to simply experimenting with different Patch (Part) combinations, then that’s fairly easy to do.
The UI layout of iWaveStation includes a toolbar strip at the top that provides access to the key menus plus the Performance preset system while, at the base of the screen is the ‘mini’ virtual keyboard. This includes a number of buttons that modify the display/behaviour of the virtual keyboard, some of which are common to iM1. The Chord and Scale buttons, for example, provide means to simply creating MIDI performances via the touchscreen and there are some excellent options to be had here.
The Keyboard button opens a new sub-panel that presents a larger keyboard for more refined playing. However, perhaps the most fun is to be had with the Vector/KP (Kaoss Pad) button. This provides you with a virtual joystick for all that sound ‘morphing’ referred to above and a Kaoss Pad that can be used for triggering notes.
The user can customise the behaviours of both of these virtual controls in various ways and, on the whole they are very easy to use. Perhaps the only downside to the available layouts is that, at present at least, there doesn’t seem to be a display option that shows a combination of virtual keyboard and virtual joystick. That won’t be an issue for those using an external MIDI keyboard (which I was during the review) but if you were on the move with just your iPad touchscreen available, it might be useful to have that keyboard/joystick option. This would, of course, be something that Korg could easily provide via an update if enough users request such a feature.
The contents of the central portion of the screen is dictated by the three large ‘tab’ buttons; WaveSeq, Mixer and Effect. iWaveStation allows the user to apply two global effects from a series of available (and familiar) types. The effects themselves sound very good and there is some nice options in terms of routing your sound through these two processors and plenty of controls for the individual effects themselves. This screen is, howver, pretty straightforward to navigate.
The Mixer screen is also reasonably straightforward once you have got your head around the Performance/Part/Patch structure. Essentially, the Mixer allows you to configure the (up to) 8 Parts. You can load Part presets into the carious Part slots and, for each Part, then configure it’s volume, effects routing/balance and Scale/Key characteristics. These settings are made in the Mixer’s ‘Mixer’ tab but there is also a MIDI tab and here you can define the Key Zone or Velocity Zone that each Part will respond to as well as transposing or detuning each Part. This is all simple enough for any specific Part but, with up to 8 Parts available, the possibilities/combinations are already starting to mount up; iWaveStation is not an app you are going to run out of options with in any great hurry.
Rather like the ocean, the WaveSeq screen can present you with an almost endless number of waves to explore. The selected wave or wave sequence for each part can be seen here and, again, this page has a number of tabs – 5 in all – that you can move between to configure various aspects of how the waves are employed within each.
Just how complex things get here depends upon the Performance preset you have loaded but, if your Performance includes the maximum of 8 Parts, and each Patch within those 8 Parts uses the maximum of four oscillators, you will end up with 32 rows of waveforms to scroll up/down across on this screen….. and one key of the virtual keyboard can trigger them all. If you have the patience to really dig in, then complex and evolving sounds are something the iWaveStation could get very good at.
There are all sorts of ways you can modify these various waveforms and wave sequences including their individual levels, looping status, pitch and filter characteristics. You can change the waveforms themselves, add new ones into the sequences, change the way waveforms within a sequence fade into one another, adjust their pitch and volume, adjust filter settings, configure automatic morphing between the oscillators within a Patch….. well…. it is, frankly, quite mind boggling. Again, maybe not a synth to program for the faint of heart but, for those that invest a little time getting to know iWaveStations inner workings, this is going to be a fascinating sonic playground….
Despite the apparent complexity, Korg have done a reasonable job of making each sub-page of controls easy to use. Yes, there is undoubtedly a learning curve once you decide to go beyond the Performance presets, but the bulk of the controls are big and bold and, with perhaps a couple of exceptions (the wave envelopes in the wave sequences, which I found a bit fussy to grab and edit), everything is easy to operate.
Oh, and the other rather neat feature is the various ‘random’ sound creation options. Aside from the big Random button in the toolbar, the File menu also offers a couple of additional options under the Create New Performance setting. If you don’t want to program, but do want something original, just keep pressing these until something catches your ear :-)
The sound of waves
OK, enough already of the technical details (impressive though they are? What does iWaveStation actually sound like? Well that’s both a good and interesting question. There are a huge number of Performance presets and these cover a staggering amount of sonic ground. They range for the super-simple (for example, there are some very nice – and very conventional – electric pianos, organs, string sounds, bells and guitars/basses. However, if you every used one of the early S&S synths like the Roland D50 (I owned an MT-32 at one point that was build on the same sort of technology), the nature of those sounds will seem very familiar.
I don’t want to imply here that these more routine sounds are dated but there is certainly something about them that is of the era… but, as this is an emulation of an early 1990s synth, then I guess that should be exactly what users should expect. If you want more realistic sample-based pianos, strings, guitars, basses, etc., then I’m sure there are desktop and app software that will deliver it; the iWaveStation is, however, true to its hardware origins.
However, where things get more interesting (for me at least) is the more complex and less conventional sounds. It’s here – where the Performance/Part/Patch construction makes use of multiple wave sequences and the huge range of sound modulation options offered by the iWaveStation’s engine, that the app excels. And, whether we are talking about short, un-sustained, but heavily layered sounds, or more complex, evolving pad-like sounds, there are sounds here that could slot right into almost any contemporary music-making context. If you are also prepared to program… well, sound design freaks will have a heck of a lot of fun.
There are also some ‘one preset does it all’ Performance presets that manage to combine synth sounds, a bass, plus some rhythmic elements, all mapped in various ways across the keyboard. With a bit of experimentation, you could easily create a complete musical performance from a single preset… and sometimes with just one or two keys :-)
Used as a stand-alone app, and with a suitable MIDI keyboard hooked up to my iPad Pro, I had an absolute blast running through the various Performance presets (well, some of them). Auditioned through some decent monitors, iWaveStation sounds very good indeed. I also had no issues using the app via Audiobus or IAA. In the latter, I did most of my testing within Cubasis and it worked very smoothly.
The other option, of course, is to use the app as the Milpitas gadget within Korg’s own Gadget. In the absence of AU support (doh!) that does allow you to use multiple instances of the iWaveStation sound source within a single project. Considering you are then working with a much smaller screen area, Korg have done a pretty good job of handling all the sound editing features (minus the effects) contained within the stand-alone version. I think I’d still prefer to edit and create sounds within the full-blown thing, but for some minor tweaks, the gadget format of iWaveStation does a very god job.
Grab the wave?
Even in a review of this length (and well done if you have got this far and are still with me!), it is impossible to give a full sense of what iWaveStation is capable off or dig right to the bottom to the feature set. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve done much more here that scratch the surface. That said, I think this is yet another great app from Korg and, while there are undoubtedly still features it would be nice to see (such as AU support), this is undoubtedly a heck of a lot of (virtual) synth for a very modest amount of money.
I’m not sure that means it is for everyone though. Yes, if you are an avid collector of iOS synths, you will enjoy this. Equally, if you are just nerdy about synth programming, then the WaveStation concept in its ‘i’ format, is just as intriguing (and perhaps more accessible) as the original hardware.
However, this is not a conventional synth and, if you are still of a novice status when it comes to synth programming, this is perhaps not the obvious place to begin (or continue) your education. This is a very specific synthesis/sound design approach and not all the principles learned here would translate to other (more conventional) synths.
Even so, the iWaveStation can make both conventional and less conventional sounds; Yes, the bulk of those sounds are very characteristic of the era from which the original synth came (this is an emulation so that’s partly the point), but there is a huge number of Performance presets and it is not too much of s stretch to think some users would buy the app and simply use it as a source to ready made sounds. It would certainly work in that role….
I think I’ve only ever used a hardware WaveStation for about 30 minutes… and it was a long time ago. However, even since the app launched, I’ve been contacted by a couple of regular Music App Blog readers who still own the hardware version and who have expressed very positive views about the iOS emulation. This suggests to me that Korg have done a pretty decent job in capturing the sound of the original… and have simply wrapped it up in a much more user-friendly software format….
…. and, it bears repeating, for a very modest price. Yet another classic slice of synthesis history reaches your iOS devices for less than the price of a Friday night out. Up to you of course, but I can think of a lot worse things to do on a Friday evening that stay in and spend the beer and burger (or curry/kebab) money of iWaveStation….. no hangover, no bad breath and, when you get up the next morning, iWaveStation will still be there and ready to help you create music. A win-win bargain!