Harnessing the Power of Hardware Wavetable Synthesis

Thanks to the success of software synthesizers like Massive and Serum, wavetable synthesis is having something of a renaissance. Long relegated to the synthesis sidelines in favor of FM and analog, wavetable is coming back strong, with a number of recent high-profile hardware releases cementing it as the style of choice for forward-thinking musicians.

So what is wavetable synthesis all about, and how can you get the most out of it? In this article, we’ll be speaking with some artists who have been championing wavetable synthesis in their releases, as well as the head of development of one of the most exciting synths to hit the market this year, the ASM Hydrasynth.

But first, a little history.

Development of Wavetable Synthesis

The father of wavetable synthesis is Wolfgang Palm. Originally a manufacturer of analog synths, Palm turned his attention to the digital world in the late 1970s in the hopes of creating new kinds of sounds. Replacing the traditional analog oscillators in a synthesizer with a wavetable holding single-cycle audio "samples" allowed him to digitally reproduce traditional analog oscillator waveshapes, like sawtooth and square waves, while also allowing for more unique timbres.

Wavetable synthesis was not just a sample playback system, as with some later synths such as the Korg DW-8000. Palm hit upon the idea of using a "table" to house the sampled waveforms. Thus, any number of waveforms could be lined up alongside each other and playback swept across the samples.

If a single waveform is a 2-D shape, then a table can be thought of as a three dimensional topographical map, with peaks and troughs represented by the differences in the waveforms as they line up. Imagine a remote control drone flying over this landscape—this drone selects the playback position. Interpolation is used to smooth transitions from one waveform to another. Of course, single waveforms can be played as they are, but it is the sweeping across of waveforms that creates the signature wavetable sound. Sweeping can be controlled manually or by using traditional synthesis modulation controls such as LFOs and envelopes, allowing for evolving sounds not possible in other kinds of synthesis.

Wolfgang Palm released a few different wavetable synthesizers with his company PPG before striking gold with the Wave 2 in 1981, which combined wavetable oscillators with analog filters. It was an instant hit and its clear, metallic sounds proved incredibly popular with synth pop bands. Compare the rounded analog tones of Depeche Mode’s Speak And Spell with the expanded sound pallet of their next album, A Broken Frame, and the comparative advantages of wavetable synthesis will be made clear.

Depeche Mode - Leave In Silence

Wavetable synthesis was soon superseded by FM and the DX7, which offered similarly clear digital sounds at a fraction of the cost of the prohibitively expensive Wave systems. Wolfgang Palm continued working with wavetable synthesis for manufacturer Waldorf, and the company’s Microwave series ensured that wavetable synthesis was still available for the adventurous synthesist.

As computing power increased, wavetable synthesis became a more viable option for computer-based music production. With Massive, introduced by Native Instruments in 2007, a whole new generation was turned on to the power of the wavetable. Wavetable synthesis has become one of the most popular forms of software synthesis, with the long-awaited follow-up Massive X, plus other instruments like Xfer Records’ Serum, keeping Palm’s creation in the spotlight.

Fast-forward to 2020, and we find ourselves in a crowded hardware synthesizer landscape, with manufacturers both big and boutique competing for space. Wavetable synthesis has once again emerged as a viable form of hardware synthesis, with high-profile releases such as the ASM Hydrasynth and Modal Argon8, and eurorack modules such as the Erica Synths Black Wavetable and Intellijel Cyclonix Shapeshifter.

Enough history. We know where it came from, but how can we use wavetable synthesis in the here and now?

Clear And Precise

While there’s no denying the wonderful woolliness of analog synthesis, sometimes you need something a little more clean. Wavetable synthesis is perfect for this, as, at its most basic, it plays back sampled waveforms. Depeche Mode’s "See You" is an excellent example of this, with its bright bell and brass tones, as is Tangerine Dream’s landmark album, Exit (1981), which made extensive use of the Wave 2 and other Palm-created wavetable synths, like the 360 Wave Computer.

Depeche Mode - See You

Compare it to earlier records like Phaedra, which sound like they’re underwater compared to Exit. The album is almost a masterclass in wavetable synthesis, and it’s full of the kinds of sounds that wavetable does so well: haunting, choral sounds; gritty, metallic timbres; and above all, clear and precise sounds.

Another musician besotted with wavetable synthesis is Ulrich Schnauss. In both his solo material and as a member of Tangerine Dream, he has used hardware wavetable sounds extensively. While often associated with analog, one look at his studio will reveal a number of classic wavetable synths, such as Wave 2, various Microwaves, and even a Wave (1993). These he used as crystally, toppy sounds to complement the traditional analog pads underneath. Listen to tracks like "Her And The Sea" to hear how he layers analog with wavetable to create depth and interest.

Ulrich Schnauss - Her And The Sea

A Wide Pallet

Unlike your usual analog or even FM sounds, because wavetable synthesis uses samples, almost any kind of sound is possible. While the sounds do tend towards the more digital end of the spectrum, with haunting choral pads and toppy bells and chimes a specialty, it’s also happily at home with bass and lead sounds.

We spoke with Glen Darcey, Director of Product Development at Ashun Sound Machines, whose Hydrasynth series has been receiving accolades since its recent release. Known as the "father of the Hydrasynth," he had this to say about the appeal of wavetable synths:

"Synthesizers that use wavetables offer a wider array of sonic options than does a synthesizer that only has two or three different waveforms. A traditional analog synth might only have four waveforms that you then take harmonics away from using filters. Most wavetable synths have the traditional saw, square, triangle, (and) sine waves that synths have had since the ’60s, because those are great, iconic sounds but they also then have the ability to go beyond those sounds by having waves that have more complex harmonic structures. You can also do more tonal shaping at the oscillator level than you can on a traditional four-wave synth. It allows you to create sounds that have a wider range and opens the door to new creative options."

Internet gear guru Bobeats echoed this in a comment he made when we reached out to him about his use of wavetable synths. "I find that I more quickly get away from the standard waveforms like saw (and) square and move into uncharted territory quicker. I enjoy this explorative nature of wavetable synths."

One advantage of wavetable synthesis is that because of the variety of waves on offer, you might not need to do as much sound shaping post-oscillator. Indeed, Wolfgang Palm initially didn’t include a filter in his pre-Wave 2 instruments for this very reason, deeming them unnecessary.

Wavetable Synthesis Explained | Reverb

Andrew Huang, who prefers to use wavetable synths as part of his extensive Eurorack modular rig, agrees, and had this to say when we contacted him for comment: "Because there are an infinite variety of possible waves, and combinations that can be morphed between, it makes for a really flexible and dynamic way to shape timbre without resorting to the usual filters and EQ."

"Most great artists or chefs want a wide pallet to work with," says Glen Darcey. "There may be a chef who only works with potatoes, but his potential is going to be narrow and his work may not be very interesting. I would hope the Hydrasynth is a tool that people would use to create their own sonic flavors and be inspired to do something unique and interesting."

Evolving Pads

Beyond just tone-shaping though, thanks to its ability to sweep across sampled waves, wavetable synthesis is capable of powerful movement. This can result in sounds that change and move in ways that other kinds of synthesis would struggle to achieve. When asked how he uses wavetable synths, Bobeats responds, "I use them for evolving things, like for example atmospheric pad sounds."

Using wavetable synths within Eurorack can open up even more possibilities in terms of movement, as Andrew Huang explains. "All my wavetable hardware is in Eurorack so I like throwing various CV at the wavetable positions for all kinds of movement from super slow to audio rate."

Tech Talk: Ulrich Schnauss

Although this is particularly suited to pads and atmospheres, you do not have to restrict your use of wavetable synths to effects. "I'll use a wavetable synth for anything where I want that tonal movement within a sound," says Andrew. "Bass, chords, leads, sound effects. These sounds can find a place in many types of productions, from drone to dubstep to IDM to pop."

Ulrich Schnauss also likes working with wavetable synths because of their ability to create unique, evolving sounds. "Wavetable gives you the opportunity to create rather organic textures that people would probably associate with analog because it’s warm and alive," he said in an interview with Electronic Beats TV.

Unorthodox Sounds

Put all of this together—unusual waveforms and tonal shaping, wave position sweeping, the power of hardware—and you’re capable of creating some very unique sounds indeed. Take the possibilities inherent in the architecture of the Hydrasynth.

"Most wavetable synthesizers have a bunch of fixed wave tables that morph from one wave to one other wave, A to B," explains Glen Darcey. "Some wavetables may have three or four sounds that they morph through but most are just the two waves. Our system is much more interesting in that the user can create their own wavetable with eight different waves that the user chooses from a pool of 219 different single waves. This leads to many more sonic options than are found in most other traditional wavetable synths. While others might say they have 64 or 256 wavetables, we have over 5.48 quadrillion combinations."

When asked to sum up wavetable synthesis in a few words, Andrew Huang replied, "Alive/textured," and Bobeats answered, "Exciting exploration of sound." Limits are truly few and far between when it comes to wavetable synthesis. Bobeats’ latest release, "Renewal," is available now. It features presets he made for Softube’s Parallels, a software synthesizer that incorporates wavetable-like functions.

Andrew Huang is hard at work on a new modular-heavy album featuring wavetable synths such as Qu-Bit Scanned, Intellijel Shapeshifter, and Mutable Instruments Braids. Visit his YouTube channel for release date information.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

iOS app store button
Android play store button