Waldorf Pulse (original)
Waldorf Pulse (original)
image - Wikipedia (public domain)
Waldorf Pulse - Introduction
The 1990s; a time of generally horrible fashion, barely passable music trends, and a plethora of really bland music workstations. No, I'm not a misanthrope, but there were plenty of clunkers in this decade. However, the 1990s also saw the move back towards analog or analog-like synthesis. There was the Nord Lead, the Access Virus, and then there was the Waldorf Pulse. Waldorf is an odd company, decidedly German in its design and overarching methodology to synthesis. Often partnered with industrial designer Axel Hartmann, Waldorf cut a mold of its own with their unique take on synthesizers. Picking up where Wolfgang Palm left off with the PPG Wave, in the late 80s they released the Microwave, a rack mount, analog / digital hybrid wavetable synthesizer. At the turn of the decade there was the monster keyboard Wave, a fully knobby version of the Microwave, that on today's market trades for over 10k USD!
When they decided to take a break from hybrid and wavetable synthesis, unlike their competition, which was largely obsessed with digital simulations of analog synthesis, they bit the bullet and went head first into analog. Enter the Waldorf Pulse, a rack mount, three oscillator, monophonic powerhouse of analog synthesis. And in 1996, when the Pulse premiered, there was not much competition, especially in regards to monophonic synths. This was going against the grain and being daring, something that Waldorf are no strangers to. So, what does the Pulse have under the hood…
Waldorf Pulse - Basic SpecsThe Pulse is a monophonic rack mount synthesizer that features three digitally controlled analog oscillators. It has one analog filter,
which is a direct clone of the Moog Source filter. It also has two Low Frequency Oscillators, however only one of which is multi waveform. There are two standard ADSR envelopes, patch memory, MIDI (but no CV / Gate), a very handy and responsive arpeggiator, and interestingly, stereo outputs. And that's it really. Pretty standard fare. But, as you'll soon see, it's the sound and fast editing that makes this synth not only unique, but a killer value in today's world of inflated vintage synth prices.
Waldorf Pulse - Feature Details / Architecture
A user edits the pulse via 6 knobs and a button to cycle to different parts of the editing matrix. The button let's you jump very quickly through groups of parameters that make sense (i.e. the oscillators are all lumped together, same as the ADSR envelopes) and pressing a shift button gives you access to Page 2. Now, this next feature might definitely fall into the "love it or hate it" category, and for me, it's definitely love it; the knobs are not endless encoders, instead they are standard pots with a defined minimum and maximum travel. This makes for very smooth parameter editing especially tweaking the filter live, however it also leads to parameters jumping. Say that you are setting the Attack time of the Amp envelope and then scroll down to the Filter cutoff. When you tweak the knob again to set the cutoff, the parameter will jump to whatever value the knob is at, which in this case, is at the level set for the Attack time of the envelope.
This, truthfully, isn't a major problem because the ability to quickly tweak parameters, in my mind, trumps the endless encoder sluggishness and the inability to visually tell where a parameter is set to. Waldorf sought to mitigate this a bit by allowing the user to hold a modifier button down and tweak a knob to have the LED display show the value of the parameter pre tweaking (and effectively set the knob to this value without actually sending a parameter change), but you can also clearly see where a parameter is set by looking at the knob marking, permitting you are editing the correct line of the matrix. If you really need this LED display function, it is there. And in all honesty, if you've never worked with a matrix style editing method, this really is one of the best in the business because it's fast, responsive, and logical.
Waldorf Pulse - Sound
All editing quirks aside, if there's one place that the Pulse absolutely, unarguably delivers, it's in the sound department. The Pulse is easily one of the most aggressive, upfront, and biting analog synthesizers. While it can handle many different kinds of sounds, it really is the proper business for baselines. And not just one particular style of bass, but truly any. It has a sheer weight to the bottom end that only a vintage Moog can contend with and this bottom does not disappear traveling up the keyboard. It's one of the few synths where the mid range has as much weight in the bottom department as the lower octaves. The trick to getting the most and best out of the Pulse doesn't lay in the filter, but rather in how the filter works with the pre-filter oscillator mixer.
The DCOs on the Pulse are slightly different than other DCOs. They are a little more buzzy and a little more, for lack of a better word, punchy. But, they are truly at the mercy of the pre-filter mixer. As explicitly stated in the user manual, the pre-filter mixer can severely wave shape these oscillators into total distortion if not carefully setting the level parameters. This is probably the reason why most people have a difficult time with the Pulse, and think that it sounds harsh. With three oscillators running at full bore, it will sound distorted. More distorted than I've heard this similar configuration yield on any other synth. That's why, at the rightful advice of the manual, if you are running more than one oscillator, setting the individual levels at no louder than 30 units will yield a clean and even sound. And this is truly where the Pulse, to my ears sounds the best. You still get a subtle saturation that bumps the mid range up a bit, but there is no biting distortion to be heard and you can get a full, even bodied, bass line that shakes a dance floor down to its knees without hurting anybody's ears with unnecessary distortion.
As stated earlier, the filter is indeed a Moog design. A little bit of internet research shows that it is based on the Moog Source and that Waldorf went as far as using similar transistors in building the Pulse filter. And it definitely shows. It should be noted that increasing the resonance does lower the overall volume and bass response, but this is nothing a bit of clever gain staging and EQ in the post can't fix. It is a very creamy filter and can do the proper, 24dB low pass sounds we all expect from a Moog-ish design.
The envelopes are fast and punchy, and while digital, can hit Pro One speeds (probably the fastest and most musical analog envelopes). If setting envelopes to very fast settings, it is possible to create a kind of click-ish distortion, but simply back off the speeds a little and you will be fine.
Waldorf Pulse - Applications in todays world / How it fits in hybrid modern set up
The Pulse is just as relevant today, maybe even more so, than when it was first released. Gone is the 303 obsession with every rack mount monophonic synth (MAM Freebass, …) that was happening in the mid 90s and back are the other tone colors, which just so happens to be where the Pulse excels. Getting a Moog style filter on today's market can be a dense and expensive affair. However, looking at the Pulse prices these days, it's safe to say that it is probably the cheapest and most feature packed gateway to this sound. As it stands it costs about 500 USD on the used market and there are no other 3 oscillator, Moog filter equipped monos that compete in that price bracket.
Waldorf Pulse - Conclusion
If you see one, snatch it up as soon as you can, before the word gets out and the prices sky rocket.
Review by Matia of INHALT