Multi-technologies are trendy. Not only in the automotive industry, where hybrid automobiles will be part of our future. In the music electronics industry, hybrid systems are omnipresent as well.
Rarely a synthesizer has been awaited with such high expectations as the Waldorf Quantum. Announced in 2017, great buzz words were soon glittering through the media: “Granular Synthesis”, “Re-Sampling”, “Wavetables”, “Dual Analog Filter”, “Digital Shaper”, “Complex Modulator”, and so on and so on … The hype was further enhanced by the exquisite design of the instrument. Graceful and noble: The Quantum quickly became an object of desire.
Whether the synthesizer meets these high expectations is the subject of this report.
Key word “body mass index”
The Quantum’s relation of size to weight is almost perfect. 100 cm wide and 40 cm deep, the instrument offers enough space for a multitude of switches and knobs. Its 18 kilos indicate massive hardware. Once the Quantum is on the table (or on the keyboard stand), it won’t move – no slipping, no wobbling!
Well, simple specifications are just one side of the coin. But it’s the design that turns an instrument into an instrument. And as so often, Axel Hartmann has once more demonstrated his skills by creating one of the most elegant synthesizer designs of all time.
Quantum looks stunning! High-tech-layout in absolutely every single aspect. The unusual connecting rod on the underside (ideal for carrying the Quantum!), the myriad of LEDs (individually color-adjustable), the aluminum wheels (ribbed inwards – an adaptation of the classic Moog design?), the luxury display with touch function and through-the-glass-plate-mounted pots.
The latter point – the display – was one of the two main problems during the first production batch (the keyboard being the second problem). Quite a few instruments had to be returned, as, after several hours of operation, strange stains appeared on the display. But those teething troubles have long been solved …
Waldorf has spared no expense in coming up with one of the most stylish and elegant synthesizers available. But in fairness it must be admitted that Quantum does crash from time to time (it simply stops operating for seemingly no reason). A side effect of our digital age …
By the way, the Quantum’s user guidance is absolutely exemplary. Be it the oscillators, LFOs, envelopes, modulation assignments, the sequencer or the routing of the signal path: the programming procedure – a mixture of hardware-operation and touch-display-operation – is always clear and straightforward.
The inner core
Quantum is an 8-voice synthesizer. This might raise questions as to whether such limited polyphony is justifyable in 2018. The clue: the question behind the question is sound quality, not sound quantity!
Synthesizers with 16, 24 or more voices are of little use if their sound seems to be emiting from a Coke tin. We prefer 8 voices of excellent sound to a myriad of voices of questionable quality.
The key question is: IS the Quantum sound good enough to justify its restricted polyphony? We’ll try to give an answer … and time will tell if we’re right. But first, a few more facts …
Quantum sound-path features:
- 3 oscillators per voice, with four synthesis algorithms each
(Wavetable / Waveform / Particle = Granular, Sampling / Resonator)
- 2 analog filters per voice (12dB / 24dB Lowpass)
- 1 digital filter -“Digital Former” – per voice (23 filter types!)
- 6 envelopes (Amp / Filter 1 / Filter 2 / Free 1 / Free 2 / Free 3)
with Loop- and EnvelopeVar(iable)-Function
- 6 LFOs (each with Sine / Triangle / Square / Sawtooth Down /
Sawtooth Up / Sample & Hold)
- Various amplifiers
Further sound-path aspects:
- Flexible routing system (Osc, Filter, Digital Former, Amplifier …
the signal path is freely routable)
- Comprehensive modulation matrix
- Komplex modulator
- Effekt unit (with a maximum of 5 effects slots)
- (digital) modulation-pad
- Glide function
- Hold function
- Chord function
- Mono function
- Unison function
- 61 keys with VEL and (monophonic) AT
(incoming polyphonic AT messages are recognized)
- Microtonal pitch configurations capable of importing Scala scl files
- Single / split / layer sounds
- Oscilloscope / Analyzer
Further Global Features:
- Patch capacity of up to 10,000 (!) sounds
- Favourit lists for quick recall of sound patches (e.g. set-lists)
- Export and Import of presets, samples and wavetables via SD card
- Sample recording (Audio Input or “internal” sampling of own sounds)
- All parameters with MIDI CC function
- Visualisation and in-depth sound editing via multi-touch display
At this point, it would make little sense to explain every single feature of the Quantum in detail. Technical explanations are of limited use when talking about the actual “value” of an instrument. Instead, we would like to contrast the – from our point of view – welcome special Quantum features with its few peculiarities that may require getting used to. And to recommend those musical uses for which the Quantum is in our estimation the most suitable.
The many positive aspects
This is obvious. Wavetables, classic waveforms, sound design using particle elements, multi-sampling or resonators … all in a 3-way oscillator design and in any imaginable combination. In addition, a myriad of sound shaping details (analog / digital filters / flexible routings / tons of modulation options and effects). Such a comprehensive “Synthesizer Engine” is almost exclusive with the Quantum.
Not obvious, on the other hand, is Quantum’s quick sound-design. The instrument may abound in details and features, but the user will never get lost in a jungle of choices and menues (or so we find). The combination of hardware and software, of real buttons and touch display is a nearly perfect work environment for the accomplished sound-tinkerer and programmer alike.
A few inadequacies concerning the Touch Display will be discussed later …
Broad stereophony, massive unison, ascetic monophony … Single Mode, Double Sounds … everything a question of a few seconds. Arpeggiator with direct access, a step sequencer as simple as it is flexible to handle. Pattern-transpose in realtime via the keyboard. Here’s the chord function, there’s hold, then the freely assignable modulation wheel, and much much more. Not to forget the audio recorder – for spontaneous recordings of your performances, or to create your own samples and then re-process the sound through the numerous forms of synthesis.
Quantum offers up to 10,000 sounds … who needs 10,000 sounds? But actually, the number is irrelevant. All sounds are organized in groups / sound areas, so searching for sounds is easy and access to the huge sound-pool is as simple as can be – via a central dial button or a (virtual) numeric keyboard. By setting favourites / set lists, you can limit yourself to a few dozen sounds, should the myriad of presets be more frightening than enjoyable for you. And sounds as well as samples can be easily imported / exported via SD card (key words: extension of sample material, sound backup). Everything is taken care of, everything is simple to operate.
Workplace Design Of High-Quality
Both its exemplary layout and its excellent feel contribute significantly to the intuitive operation of Quantum. After a relatively short training period – after 2 or 3 days, we’d say – operation of this complex instrument should have become a familiar work process to you. Familiar and pleasant, that’s important. No wiggling knobs here, no inadequate and annoying hardware … Apart from those rare system crashes, working on Quantum is a thoroughly relaxing and, yes, sensual activity. The possibility to adjust the LED colors according to your own needs (your own logic) is another advantage of its intuitive operational system. Renewed praise!
What might need some getting used to
Stereo – Mono – Stereo … Huh?
One great surprise: The analog filter acts monophonically. Although the oscillators can be individually positioned in their panorama – a big “hurray” – the soundpath is anything but stereo. Once sound passes the analog filter, you’re stuck to mono. Ok, ok, special signal routings – oscillators via the digital filter or routed directly to the amplifier(s), for example – do allow for stereo images. And double sounds can be adjusted just as comfortably within their panorama. Last, but not least, stereo effects (ping-pong delay, etc.) are there, too. So, there “is” some sort of stereo quality available, but (sadly) not in the instrument’s inner core, in its plain osc-ANALOG filter-amp signal path.
Harsh basic sound?
True, “harsh sound” is a very personal opinion. If you don’t agree, please skip this paragraph and go on. What we do know for certain is that the basic Waldorf sound is clear and digital rather than warm and analog. It’s harsh and, well … shrill. Full of exciting acoustic moments, sure, but tiring and exhausting at the same time, affording little relaxation for your ears*.
Part of the “problem” is the effect section. Especially the reverb algorithm, producing a hard digital sound of somewhat disturbing character. There will be an indication later of how the harsh Quantum sound might be perfectly suited to the “overall” studio sound, when combined with other synthesizers / sound modules.
[* By the way, sound quality in its historical context is interesting. The unique sound of those great-great-great-grandfathers PPG Wave 2 / 2.2 / 2.3 has never made it into the new millennium. Wavetables with all their refinements: Yes. Warm and vivid (dynamic) sounds: No.]
Touch-Display – perfect for “slim” fingers?
The touch-sensitive display is an excellent tool. It is the key to effective operation and detailed sound design of the Quantum. Graphic Waveforms, Filter Resonance Peaks, Envelope Forms, Samples, Routings, Active Voices – it’s all visualized. The display (including its silver pots) is a wonderful tool.
But then, long thin fingers would be a real asset. Some of the “digital” buttons on the display are devastatingly small, hart to hit and sometimes a little stubborn (how “firmly” should you press?). Furthermore, scrolling down a drop-down menu or through a list of options sometimes unintentionally leads to the selection of unwanted functions. Slipped off, not precisely scrolled, wrongly wiped – everything is possible.
Acoustical experiences: Presets and Performance
Those first hours with Quantum were exhilarating. Many, many hundreds of sounds, uncountable presets (a good part of which sound really good) styled by well-known specialists and sound-designers. And we found ourselves – albeit unintentionally – amused. Because so many of those elaborate sounds were reminiscent of times long ago.
Some sounds, for example, were reminiscent of the famous “Universe” preset no. 001 of Korg’s M1 anno 1988. That atmospheric sound with its characteristic “Lore” sample in the background that became world reknowned. We stifled a smile, thinking: “Aha, so so much has not really happend in the last 30 years.” Classic wavetable sounds, aggressive arpeggio lines … we all know.
But that’s not to the point. The Quantum preset material can form an excellent basis for your own, extended sounds. Which is the way it should be. Because as soon as you leave the LOAD (Preset) area and dive into sound programming, Quantum brandishes its weapons. It’s down to the real nitty-gritty. Every sound aspect can be manipulated, every fiber of the sound structure influenced, (almost) every modulation itself modulated with (almost) everything else.
The Waldorf Quantum as a thousandfold (!) tool for creative sound design. The limits of the feasible exist only in the head of the user … taking into consideration the time available.
The creative performance potential is vast and comprehensive as well. A sequence is easily set up, velocity values are quickly converted and routed in the modulation matrix to any desired destination(s). Once you add additional controller data, that pattern transforms into something more: an ecstatic, a groovy performance. Some quick mod-wheel movements here, some fast sound adjustments (touch-display!) there … the performance becomes more and more lively, delving into new musical territory … and … and …
… and suddenly something interesting happens. Or something bizarre, to be exact. As soon as you stop the performance and just listen to it (as an exemplary studio musician, you certainly recorded everything in realtime) … so, as soon as you listen to the whole thing once more, you raise your eyebrows and state: “Oh, it sounds … very … nice!” Not more, not less – just nice. By magic, the wonderful ecstasy of performance got stuck somewhere. Maybe in the monophonic filter section, in the D / A converter or in the “Endless Reverb”. Or it was deformed by the Quantum compressor. Who knows.
Now, this doesn’t happen very often, but every now and then. We come to realize that performance experiences and sound results are perhaps two different pairs of shoes.
No matter how much you tweak knobs, turn here and there, modulate this and that and try to program special tricks – somehow, the sonic results are occasionally unexplainably sober and distanced.
Evaluation of sound
So we come to one of two conlusions: Either Waldorf Quantum is not suitable to be your only solo synthesizer, your only tool for sound production. All in all, its character is somewhat cool, it lacks vividness and dynamic vibrance. And that, despite all its (theoretical) musical possibilities. Warmth and under-the-skin presence are not the top strength of Quantum. That this does not necessarily have to be, is demonstrated by our sound example “Classic Analog”, a lively lead sound that is adjusted directly during recording and enriched with beats or subtle stereo effects.
Or you reach the following conclusion: Waldorf Quantum is an excellent sonic complement to your existing composite synthesizer- / sound-module-setup. A distinctive component in the mix (a certain arpeggio line / sequence, a certain granular solo-sound, …), or an enriching supplement to layered sounds. Very often, it’s a combination of factors (characters / timbres / instruments) that leads to that sought-after “high-quality” overall sound you’re really looking for. To the amalgam sound that no instrument alone is able to produce, full of sonic details – many of which are indispensible and unique to Quantum.
Thus, the Quantum is ideal for the production and enrichment of all kinds of pads and atmospheres. Have a hear: sound example “Emptiness in space”, an indefinable, wonderfully mysterious emission of the highest quality. Quantum is also perfectly suited to modulation pads, as heard in the example “Astral Vocal Tables” (one of the factory presets, by the way). “Particle Samples” – another recommended soundfile.
Further highlights: remarkable rhythm-based soundscapes (as in the “Evolving” soundfile), all kinds of arpeggio / sequencer patterns (“Arpeggio 1” / “Arpeggio 3”), and FX creations as in “FX (Mixdown)”.
Brief wish list
We feel free to utter four wishes. First, the addition of a “printed” user manual. Costs: minimal. Kindness to the user (who has just spent 4,000 Euros for the instrument itself): maximum. An online PDF may have its advantages, but for a careful study of the instrument’s details, there is nothing better than a printed manual.
Second, a keyboard of higher quality. The Quantum keyboard (supposed to be a Fatar TP/8S, we’re not so sure about that) is certainly sufficient, but an instrument of its quality would gain from that high-end Fatar keyboard with its slightly roughened surface that was used in the Waldorf Wave / John Bowen Solaris / Schmidt Synthesizer / Baloran The River.
Third, a ribbon controller and / or a joystick. For even finer control of the myriad parameters (sound synthesis, effects and performance). Fourth, higher polyphony. 8 voices is quite OK, but 12 or 16 voices would bring all musical applications into safer terrain.
To sum it up
The Waldorf Quantum meets the highest demands as a sound design tool. Its cool sound character admittedly makes it only partially suitable as a pure solo instrument, its greater value lies in its capablity to combine its sound with that of other sound modules / synthesizers …
It’s in the mix that Quantum reveals its unique features, its tricks and peculiarities: groovy patterns with multi-samples (different sounds “per” key), lively wavetable-resonator combinations, shimmering self-resonance modulations and much much more.
Sounds that might not be too sexy or exhilarating on their own, but which are, in combination with other sound modules, the very spice that makes the difference.
Addendum 01/2019: The latest Operation System OS 1.2.3 is now available (free download via the Waldorf Website). Highly recommended – the calibration of the (analog) filters as well as the simplified workflow take the Quantum a big step forward!
Addendum 01/2020: The current Operation System OS 1.3 is available for Download. And Waldorf is already working on a major update OS 2.0. However, it’s still in its beta testing procedure and thus not available yet.
Polyphonic Digital/Analog Synthesizer
Price: 3,995 Euros / 4,299 USD