Korg Wavedrum Review

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FIG. 1: With a real drumhead and an impressive assortment of onboard sounds, the Korg Wavedrum plays equally well using hands, sticks, mallets, or brushes.

Although Korg''s original Wavedrum sold poorly after its launch in 1994, it quickly gained a mystique that''s often inevitable with expensive, rare, and unusual instruments. Retailing for $2,499, it was a true electro-acoustic drum that responded to mechanical vibrations that resulted when you played it. The Wavedrum''s onboard DSP-generated synthesis included physical modeling, making it the first and only instrument of its kind. It responded to a drummer''s performance technique with much greater nuance than would have ever been possible with completely digital instruments.

Armed with numerous technological advances and design innovations, Korg more recently introduced a new and much improved Wavedrum. Like its predecessor, the new Wavedrum lets you play it with sticks, mallets, brushes, hands, or fingers. You can damp the head manually or apply pressure to change its pitch, just like an acoustic drum. Compared with the original, though, this year''s Wavedrum ($599) is considerably less expensive and, in most ways, considerably more versatile.

More than anything else, the Wavedrum resembles an elaborate practice pad (see Fig. 1). You can play it in your lap (it weighs less than 4.5 pounds), on any flat surface, or mounted on a snare stand. Its bottom housing is made of tough, rigid plastic, and the top rim is made of powder-coated aluminum. Five tuning pegs around its perimeter let you adjust the tension on its standard 10-inch-diameter drumhead using the included drum key. Coarse ridges on the left and right sides invite you to scrape them with a drumstick to simulate guiro, cabasa, and similar percussion. At the top, Volume and Value knobs flank six buttons, seven red LEDs, and a three-character LED just behind a prominent raised nameplate.

Behind the controls and recessed under the top edge are the Power button, unbalanced ¼-inch outputs, a minijack for headphones, another for an iPod, and a connector for the included wall-wart power supply (see Fig. 2). The Wavedrum supports neither MIDI nor USB, so it has no data ports.

When I first turned on the Wavedrum, I was surprised that its audio output level was so low, especially for an instrument that makes significant physical noise when you strike it. Korg''s explanation is that the Wavedrum''s dynamic range is so great that you''d otherwise easily clip the output. Still, I''d gladly sacrifice dynamics for a hotter signal; the ideal solution would be an internal compressor or at least a limiter. A one-off sheet accompanying the owner''s manual explains the procedure for doubling its output level, but even that wasn''t as loud as most electronic instruments, so I returned the setting to its default and routed the outputs through a stereo preamp. A guitar amp works well, too—especially one with two inputs.

Inside the Wavedrum are two sensors for the head—one that responds to hits and another that responds to pressure—and a second pair for the left and right sides of the rim. The rim sensors are independent of the others and allow you to trigger a completely different sound. The sensors pick up the details of your performance, including striking, thumping, rubbing, scratching, and pressing down on the head. Owing to its rigid nature, playing the rim is less nuanced than playing the head, changing only loudness, pitch, or velocity, depending on how hard you hit it.

Because the Wavedrum makes noise when you play it—even when it''s turned off, as any drum does—its acoustics can compete with the synthesized sound emanating from within, especially when the volume is turned down and you select a patch that sounds nothing like a traditional drum. If the amplified sound isn''t loud enough, it''s easy to drown it out with the sounds of striking the Wavedrum. This isn''t a problem when recording, of course, as you''ll hear only the output signal on playback.

I''d like to see an expression-pedal input in future versions. The original model had this feature, and I can''t imagine it would have significantly raised the current Wavedrum''s cost. A pedal would be dynamite for changing pitch as you played rolls with both hands, for example, or varying effects depth in real time.

Because it isn''t a MIDI instrument, you must actually play the Wavedrum to get anything out of it. You can''t cobble together a sequence and then trigger it like a MIDI drum module. The only way to capture your performance is to record its audio output. That''s less of an issue than it used to be because editing audio has become almost as easy as editing MIDI data.

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FIG. 2: The Wavedrum''s back panel hosts all its connections to the outside world, all of them analog.

The Wavedrum holds 200 patches; by default, the user bank contains 100 patches duplicating the factory bank''s 100. Although you can access any patch by turning the Value knob, each patch takes a few seconds to load. Luckily, you can quickly access any sound you''ve stored in 12 slots by repeatedly pressing the Bank button to scroll through three banks, then pressing any of four numbered buttons to load a patch within the selected bank.

Kit sounds such as snares, kicks, and toms are quite realistic, but the Wavedrum really shines on world percussion: conga, djembe, surdo, tabla, taiko, etc. (see Web Clip 1). It also offers several synthesized drum sounds, some with acoustic qualities and others that are purely electronic in nature. There''s even a nice collection of innovative sound effects, including wind that blows harder when you press down on the drumhead without striking it. My only disappointment was that realistic cymbals are in short supply. The few that are available don''t respond like real cymbals, which would ring out differently depending on how and where you struck them.

The Wavedrum relies on two sound-production techniques: sample playback and digital signal processing (DSP). Sampled patches draw from a collection of 200 PCM sound sources. Thirty-six DSP algorithms either control how these 24-bit, 48kHz multisamples respond to any variety of performance techniques, or they process the acoustic sounds the drum makes when you play it. Many algorithms rely on physical modeling and others offer virtual analog, additive, or nonlinear (Korg''s variation on FM) synthesis.

Algorithms come in single and double sizes. When you load patches using single-sized algorithms, you can independently assign an algorithm and a multisample to the head and the rim. With double-sized algorithms, the head and rim play as a single instrument instead of producing independent sounds.

The Wavedrum also contains 100 preset rhythm loops, any of which you can access with four button presses and a turn of the knob. They range in style from traditional beat patterns to the latest hip-hop grooves, with a heavy emphasis on Latin percussion (see Web Clip 2). You can''t record your own loops, but you can play along using any patch you choose and change patches on the fly. The factory loops sound terrific, and for marginal drummers like me, they ensure you''ll always have steady accompaniment to improve your drumming skills. Most feature two or more instruments independent of the one or two you can play live. My only complaint about the loops is that the last beat cuts off instantly when you stop playback rather than ringing out naturally, as it would with a sequencer playing samples.

Editing user patches is usually a matter of pressing the right buttons and turning the Value knob. After you''ve made changes to any patch, press the dedicated Write button and select a location to save your edited patch. User parameters range from basics such as tuning, level, and panning to algorithmic specifics such as the drum''s size and whether it sounds more metallic or wooden.

Effects-wise, the Wavedrum offers delay and reverb. The delay has very few parameters, but its maximum 2-second delay time is enough to loop your playing in real time. The reverb is also quite basic, with a choice of types ranging from spring to canyon.

With so few onboard controls and such a minimal and often cryptic display, the Wavedrum''s user interface is hardly intuitive. You''ll want to keep the manual handy until you memorize the combinations of button presses and knob twists needed to load and edit patches. The Wavedrum''s lack of a USB port precludes any possibility of a computer-based editor, too, so editing sounds is unavoidably cumbersome.

With so many types of drums from which to choose, the Wavedrum is remarkably versatile. Because you can interact with it in so many ways—hitting it, rubbing it, and so on—its versatility extends to performance techniques. Its greatest success, then, is that it feels like you''re playing an acoustic drum.

The Wavedrum opens up an unending world of timbral variety. In the unlikely event you grow tired of the 100 stock sounds, you can create your own patches using algorithms or samples that are neglected in the factory patches.

For the first time since the original Wavedrum, you can carry a massive collection of drum and percussion instruments under one arm that sound realistic and feel like real drums when you play them. And the price is certainly right. If you''re an electronic musician with rhythm in your hands, or a skilled percussionist of any kind, I can''t imagine why you wouldn''t want to own one.

Former senior editor Geary Yelton has been writing for EM since 1985. He lives in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, N.C.

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Click on the Product Summary box to view the Korg Wavedrum product page.