BY NORMAN WEINBERG
My first exposure to the original Wavedrum was at a NAMM show about 16 years ago. The device was sitting inside a Plexiglas box outside of a demo area. Someone inside was playing a prototype. It was the talk of the show. By the time the instrument was actually available, there was no question that it was something totally unique in function and sound. Too bad that it had a retail price of several thousand dollars. The Wavedrum fell in and out of production pretty quickly, and became a highly prized instrument that only occasionally found its way to eBay for serious top dollar. Well, there’s a new Wavedrum in town, and Korg has made the instrument more flexible, more affordable, and even more desirable.
In essence, the Wavedrum is an electronic percussion device with a 10″ head that can be played with sticks, brushes, mallets, or your hands. You can play it on your lap, on a tabletop, or on a snare drum stand. The only instrument even somewhat similar to the Wavedrum is the Roland HandSonic, but these two units are philosophically, functionally, and aurally poles apart.
While the Handsonic has its main playing surface divided into ten or fifteen different playing areas (depending on the model), the Wavedrum really only has two playing areas: the head and the rim. In a way, you can think of the Handsonic as if it were a bundle of trigger pads not unlike the M-Audio Trigger Finger. The Wavedrum, on the other hand, is more of a drum synth. You play it in the same physical way that you would play a hand drum: strike it, tap it, rub it, scrape it, push it, mute it, finger tips, finger nails, whatever you want. In addition to offering high-quality samples of acoustic percussion instruments, the Wavedrum offers new, fresh sounds that could only be created by advanced synthesis techniques.
On the face of the Wavedrum sits the head and the control panel. The controls are simple in design. On the far left is a small knob for volume. On the far right sits a knob that controls value. In between are six small buttons. With these buttons, you access “Live Mode” for program selection and perform all available editing functions. There’s also a very small and cryptic LED display that serves as your window into the brains of the machine.
The back of the Wavedrum is also very simple. It contains a jack for the power cord (sorry, another wall wart), a set of stereo audio outputs, an AUX input, and a headphone jack. You won’t find individual outputs, MIDI jacks, trigger inputs, or any other inputs or outputs that you might think would be standard on today’s electronic percussion instruments. However, once you get playing the Wavedrum, you’ll understand why the instrument doesn’t need any of those other jacks.
UNDER THE HOOD
The new Wavedrum works its magic in a unique way. When you play, the machine combines two totally different ways to produce sound into one composite instrument. The first is simply a PCM sample player. There are 100 different samples that can be assigned to the head’s surface, and another 100 samples for the rim. Together, the sample selections form a very complete library of sounds from the percussion family, both with and without heads. There are snares and kicks, toms, and taikos, congas and djembes, tablas and udus, along with triangles, caxixi, jingles, guiro, claps, log drum, and castanet. Only a few of the PCM sounds are “synthy” or special-effect sounds, and all of those have a strong percussive quality.
What makes the Wavedrum much more than a simple sample player is the way it reads and reacts to your strokes played on the head and the rim. The Wavedrum includes sensors that process the actual audio sounds that you play and pass them through sophisticated digital signal processing (DSP) engines. The sensors will “hear” the drum whether played with sticks, soft mallets, hands, brushes, multirods, or anything else that you might want to use as a tool to force the head and the rim into vibration. In all, there are the 36 different DSP algorithms that morph the sound into something totally different and unique. According to the manual, the DSP algorithms produce a wide variety of synthesis styles including analog, additive, non-linear, and physical modeling. Using this type of technology, you can vary your playing position, the dynamic, the degree of dampening, and pressure against the head, to generate subtle and often life-like playing nuance.
A complete Wavedrum program can be created by blending and combining a PCM sound and a DSP algorithm to the head, and a PCM sound and a DSP algorithm to the rim. Together, it’s a pretty powerful and creative package.
The factory programs are way cool, and sound fantastic. They have been created to take advantage of the special features that make the Wavedrum stand out. But to make the instrument your own, you’ll want to do some tweaking. Even though the button layout is plain and simple, programming the Wavedrum is not obvious. There are three buttons that control the editing process: Edit 1, Edit 2, and Global. At the beginning you’ll need to keep the manual handy so you can find what parameter you’re editing and how that parameter is going to affect the overall sound. There are obvious editing options that set the basic tuning, decay time, level, pan, velocity curve and pressure curve. But since each algorithm is different, each has its own set of dedicated adjustments that hint to the type of synthesis being employed. For example, the “Wah Harp” has parameters for Damping, Wah Color, String Character, Wah Balance, LoDamp, Attack Level, Attack LoDamp, and Bend Range. The “TalkDrum” algorithm lets you adjust the Bend Range, Brightness 1, Brightness 2, Decay Interval, Tension, Drum Type, Attack, and Pressure Filter. To learn how each of these modifies the tone and the playing response, you’ll need to experiment and embrace the trial-and-error learning style. But the end result will definitely be worth the time spent to learn how the machine operates.
The Wavedrum has memory for the included 100 factory programs as well as 100 user programs that you create yourself. Rather than try to describe the factory sounds, I suggest you visit your local music store and try out a few dozen. You’ll find some that do a pretty fantastic job of emulating traditional acoustic percussion instruments. My favorites are those that essentially create an entirely new percussion instrument that can be controlled using traditional percussion-performance techniques.
Jumping from program to program is somewhat time consuming, as there is only a single knob to scroll between them. And, once the selection is made, there is a 1—2-second delay before the program is loaded into memory. While you’re loading in a new program, the machine is non-responsive. For this reason, Korg includes 12 memory locations (three banks of four programs each) termed “Live Mode.” You can load any program into these 12 slots, and moving between them is quick and easy. If you’re planning on changing programs in the middle of a song, you’ll want to pop them into the Live Mode.
If you wish, you can plug an external audio device (CD player, iPod, etc.) into the AUX input and jam along through your speakers or with headphones. There are also 100 loop phrases in a variety of musical styles, such as Latin, Brazilian, rock, and pop – but they are very limited by the fact that you can’t adjust their tempo. You can call a loop up and control its start, stop, and volume, but that’s it.
Something that’s new on this version of the Wavedrum is the ability to play the “bumps” on the left and right side of the rim. The Korg manual calls them “notches,” but they compose a portion of the rim that can be scraped in a similar manner to a guiro.
If you’re looking for a machine that can provide a large number of traditional percussion samples to take the place of a lot of different instruments, I think that the Handsonic is still your instrument of choice. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in exploring an entirely new instrument that plays and responds with the subtlety and nuance of an acoustic percussion instrument, you need to check out the Wavedrum. With the Wavedrum, you won’t find that perfect mark-tree sample, but you may find something much, much better.
List Price $850
Playing surfaces: 2 (head, rim)
PCM Samples: 200
DSP Algorithms: 36
Loop Phrases: 100
Outputs: Stereo L/R, Headphones
Effects: Reverb, Delay
Display: 3-character, 7-segment LED
Sample Quality: 24-bit/48 kHz