In this Waldorf Quantum review, we are looking at one of the most highly-anticipated synths to hit the market in recent years.
Waldorf is a name that you might not know if you are new to synths, as it doesn’t attract the same mainstream attention as a Korg, Yamaha, or Roland would. However, if you know your synths, then you’ll know that Waldorf is a name that has been helping to shape the future of synth music for many years. The Waldorf Quantum was promised to be powerful, unique, versatile, and ambitious; let’s see what it has to offer.
Who are Waldorf?
We won’t go too deep into this because you probably already know the answer, but for the benefit of those who don’t, here’s a short reminder.
Waldorf has been disrupting the synth world with innovative technology for over 30 years. The German manufacturer has released several landmark synths that changed the shape of the industry. In 1989, Waldorf’s Microwave synth was the first made outside of Japan or America to really challenge at the elite level. The Microwave 2 came almost a decade later in 1997, becoming Waldorf’s first completely DSP-based synth.
The company did have some rough patches, like in 2004, when they filed for bankruptcy. Like any great story, there was a comeback, and 2007 saw them release the iconic Blofeld synth followed by the keyboard version in 2008. The Waldorf Blofeld, in its day, was widely regarded as the best mix of performance and value for money available. It’s still a highly desirable synth today.
Multiple years and releases later, the Waldorf Quantum came along in 2018 after much anticipation.
What is the Waldorf Quantum?
The Waldorf Quantum is a 61-key, 8-voice hybrid analog/digital polysynth. On the surface, there is nothing unique about that or the three oscillators per voice that it offers, but in this case, you have to dig far deeper. Along with the three oscillators per voice, there are two filter sections, six LFOs, three effects sections, three contour generators, and a Komplex Modulator.
The hybrid nature of the Quantum builds on the technology of past models like the Waldorf Wave. The heart of the Quantum is Waldorf’s unique wavetable oscillator technology. It’s the same core technology, but the Quantum pushes it to new levels with the number of oscillators, modulation options, and sheer processing power. It’s like like going from a calculator to a supercomputer, kind of, it paints a nice picture anyway.
Waldorf’s stunning analog filters perfectly compliment the power of the Quantum. If you haven’t experienced them yet, they are so good that some other manufacturers come to Waldorf for filters.
The success of the Quantum depends on how well the user can harness all of this power. So, let’s break down some individual sections.
An 8-voice polysynth
As an 8-voice polysynth, the Quantum offers up to three oscillators per voice, giving you a maximum of 24 oscillators. No matter what synth you are talking about, 24 oscillators is massive, and it’s where the Quantum starts to show its power. It’s not only the number of oscillators; it’s the number of algorithms that are immense.
Along with the 24 oscillators, you get up to 16 analog filters, and as we already said, Waldorf filters are gorgeous. When you get a digital/analog hybrid synth, you sometimes get a great digital synth and an OK analog section.
The Quantum is multitimbral, so voices can be split or layered in a variety of ways. So, yeah, it’s an 8-voice polysynth, but definitely not your average one.
The main aspect of the oscillators is that they offer four different sound generation modes. The different modes are represented by different color LEDs and are as follows: Wavetable, subtractive waveforms, particle, and Resonator.
When you have selected a mode, there are seven knobs on the front panel that give you complete control over the most prominent parameters. You can then use the rather amazing touchscreen to make further adjustments. Having so much scope to adjust your oscillator setup is awesome, but it’s a process that can see 5 minutes turn into an hour or more quickly. This isn’t because the Quantum lacks intuitive control; it’s more due to the fact sound design is a very deep and addictive area, in a good way. Luckily, Waldorf realizes this and makes it possible to save/recall oscillator setups individually as well as complete sounds.
Let’s take a closer look at the four sound generation modes.
Wavetable is the default sound generation mode, and that’s no surprise given Waldorf’s history in advancing this technology. The Quantum is packed with 85 wavetable presets that can be used in several ways. These 128-stage wavetables offer real depth to your sound creation.
Once you have selected a wavetable, you can begin by setting the pitch and pan and keytracking. You can then get a bit deeper and apply (or not) drive or gain, set the noise level per step, and adjust the wavetables spectral envelope. The Quantum also allows you to decide precisely how you move through the wavetable, whether it’s fast or slow, smoothly, or grainy. Right away, you have a lot of choices available that can contribute to your overall sound.
Waldorf takes even the standard functions and gives them an added depth that you won’t find in many synths. For example, the playback position of the waveform can be dictated by the MIDI note number. So, while all of the notes might use the same wavetable, each one can have a unique approach, providing slight changes in timbre.
There are a couple of different ways to make your own wavetable, too. The first way is by text to speech to wavetable conversion, which isn’t as complicated as it sounds. It’s done by typing a phrase into the Quantum via the massive touchscreen. The second method is by audio file analysis via flash memory.
When you think about wavetable synthesis, you think about evolving sounds and textures. You think of sounds that are epic and cinematic; Waldorf has been generating those kinds of sounds for decades. So, it’s no surprise that the Quantum excels in wavetable synthesis, and if that’s what you like, you’ll love it.
If there is any downside, it’s that while saving your wavetables is easy, recalling them isn’t as easy because you can’t give them custom (easy to remember) names.
Waveform is where you will find the classic sine, sawtooth, square, and triangle waves. The waveforms can then be modulated in a few ways, like pulse-width modulation via the warp function. You also have the more basic option to add white or pink noise.
Now, this is where the Quantum starts to expand what would otherwise be pretty simple functions. There is a sync oscillator, but when in use, it becomes part of the current oscillator being programmed rather than using another of the three available per voice. It’s intelligent functionality like this that make the Quantum much more than it might seem on the surface. Each oscillator permits up to eight kernels, all sharing the same waveform. However, kernels 1-4 can vary in pitch as you choose, kernels 5-8 mirror the first four.
In this mode, you can almost mirror the sound of classic synths from the Roland Juno through to Prophets and Oberheims. Starting with one oscillator per voice, building up to three takes you from that Juno range through to the meatier sounds of Prophets and so on. Having said that, there is something inherently different about the sound of the Quantum. In no way is that a negative, the reason we spend hard-earned money on instruments like this because they have a sound of their own.
What we are talking about here is granular synthesis, and that’s something you might not be familiar with yet. In short, it works by playing short chunks (grains) of samples in various programmed or random ways. The result of that is a sound with a vastly different texture than the original sample. You can, of course, play the samples conventionally, too.
To get started right off the bat, the Quantum ships with 1 GB of sample data and an internal memory capacity of 4 GB. Beyond the onboard samples, there are a number of ways to import/capture sample material. The most common way is to simply import samples (WAV, AIFF, AIFC files) from an SD card. Alternatively, you can use the onboard recorder to capture external sounds or record and resample Quantum sounds.
If you are someone who is serious about samples, you might find some limitations with the Quantum. But, you have to keep in mind that it isn’t built to be a dedicated sampler. Creating patches in Particle mode on an oscillator doesn’t take as much time as you might think, even when recording new samples. It’s a great way to get away from the usual, too. Remember, having the granular option means that you can wildly transform any samples that you record. Placing your samples across the keyboard and assigning them to different zones doesn’t take long, either.
Whether it’s singing, instrument, or just ambient noise, particle mode opens a lot of possibilities. When you are playing back grains of your sample, you get to decide where each grain starts, its duration, attack, and so on. You can even get into adjusting pitch for different grains. For some, it will be overkill, but if you are hooked on sound design, you will lose yourself in the Quantum, it’s so vast.
Resonator is potentially the most simple and most overly complicated sound creation method available on the Quantum. The thing that makes it so complicated is that Waldorf, rather surprisingly, doesn’t explain it very well anywhere that they talk about it. So, it almost becomes easy to ignore because you aren’t quite sure what to do with it.
In simple terms, Resonator is a reactive sound creation tool; it reacts to an exciter in various ways. An exciter could be a sample, a click/snap, a hit, anything that energizes the Resonator. When that happens, the Resonator then produces sounds in response. The intensity of these sounds depends on the exciter and the parameters set for the exciter, like attack, decay, etc. You can also then control different aspects of the generated sounds, like the decay and spread.
As a sound creation tool, it’s not as in-depth as the other modes. It also has more potential to do whatever it wants due to its responsive nature. But, when you strike gold with it, you really strike gold, and it produces some absolute magic. It seems to react best to short stabbing or plucked sounds, like plucks strings or piano strings. In response, it offers some shimmering, glassy sustained tones that are just beautiful.
Once you get past the initial sound creation, whether it’s a single oscillator per voice or something more complicated, you have a sophisticated routing display via the massive touchscreen. We are talking about filters, amps, and effects, and how you route your signal will play a part in the final output.
Despite being massively impressive, we won’t do an entire section on the touchscreen. Instead, we will try to sum it up here. It’s fair to assume that most users will spend far more time being hands-on with the many knobs on the panel than they will use the touchscreen. That doesn’t mean it’s a waste, for a start, it’s an easier way out if things start to get confusing and you got trigger-happy with the knobs. Beyond that, it’s in areas like routing that it shows its worth.
As we said earlier, different oscillator types are represented by different colored LEDs. These colors continue into the routing display so you can see exactly where each oscillator is being sent, perfect.
We talked about Waldorf’s analog filters, and how appreciated they are by musicians and other manufacturers. Once you get to the filter section, you have two filter blocks; the first is the parallel dual analog filter block; the second is called digital former. The two blocks can be placed in parallel, or the output from one can feed the other. The oscillators can feed into these blocks in any combination that you like or go directly to the amplifier.
The top panel’s filter section is assuringly simple, with controls for cutoff, resonance, and type/mode buttons. There are four filter modes to choose from: 12 dB/oct and 24 dB/oct low-pass filters with optional overdrive. Eight filter modes are available, and they are another example of Waldorf’s somewhat cloudy explanations. The name and description of the modes don’t give much insight into what each one has to offer. It’s very much a trial and error process, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, that’s part of the sound design process. The modes are Single, Boost, Twin Peaks, Opposition, Endless, Escaping, Linked, and Independent.
The Digital Former block provides 23 different processing types, including low-pass, high-pass, and band-pass filters. It also offers many ways to modify the signal through overdrive, a decimator or comb filters, etc. It’s easy to underestimate the potential of this block initially as it has only three controls on the panel, but it’s a little powerhouse.
Amplifiers and effects
The next step in your signal path is the amplifiers fed from the filter blocks and any oscillators that bypass the filters. The amplifier section doesn’t have any dedicated physical control, but one of the envelopes is hardwired to the amp section.
After the amplifier, your signal moves on to five effects blocks, each offering multiple effects. The effects include chorus, delay, flanger, reverb, compression, overdrive, phaser, and a 4-band EQ. Controlling the effects is split between physical controls for the first three effects units and the touchscreen for more in-depth control. The most impressive thing about the effects is the range of parameters available. If you choose to, you can really get into it and create something unique each time. You can also save user effects presets, which are recalled a little easier than user wavetables. Strangely, only one instance of each effect is available at any one time. You can go on happily without multiple instances of the same effect, although we say strange because most things about the Quantum are so vast.
The last point of the signal chain is, of course, the output section. This section offers a master compressor and a master volume control. Adjusting the compression and volume at this stage affects the main output, but not the AUX or headphone output.
On the top panel, you will see three DADSR envelops, with a further three available via the touchscreen. These contour generators are velocity-sensitive, assignable in the modulation matrix, and offer a maximum attack, release, decay length of around 60 seconds. The max length of around 60 seconds is pretty impressive, and an envelope variation parameter mimics the inconsistent nature of analog.
Each contour generator’s attack stages can take any of three forms and be set independently of each other. The three forms are exponential, linear, and logarithmic. The decay and release stages offer the linear form or two types of exponential forms. Like most things about this synth, Waldorf allows you to get the most out of the envelopes, including the ability to loop them. Another excellent addition to the envelope section is a fantastic display of the contours onscreen.
There are two ways to look at it, does the Quantum let you get the most out of the contour generators on offer? Yes, absolutely.
Could Waldorf have offered 6-stage contours? Yes, they could, but I don’t think this will be a major complaint for most users. Something that may annoy users more is that you don’t get the option control envelopes four, five, and six via the top panel. Maybe, there could have been an option to assign physical control to the first three or second three envelopes.
You run into the same problem if you want to call it a problem when you come to the LFOs. Three LFOs can be controlled via the top panel, while the others are accessed via the touchscreen. There are six LFOs in total, each offering six waveforms, along with warp and slew parameters. The warp and slew parameters allow you to morph the waveforms into a far greater range of shapes. The LFOs provide a frequency range of one cycle per four minutes to 100Hz, and they can be clock synchronized. The best thing about the LFOs is that they can be very precisely controlled. For example, the amplitude contour will let you fade the LFO in and out smoothly. They can function independently per note played, and free functioning or key-triggered. Alternatively, they can be locked together for global control.
Now, we come to something that we mentioned at the start, the Komplex Modulator. The Komplex Modulator can generate two waveforms that you select via the touchscreen. If that doesn’t sound too interesting, it’s because it isn’t until you blend both of them together. That’s where the Komplex part comes in, by blending the two waveforms together to create more complex waves.
Once you have your new complex curve, the modulation doesn’t stop there. You can do things like smooth the curve, add jitter, or warp the new blended waveform, which brings some crazy results. The combined effects of the Komplex Modulator can also be faded in and out. Three modes of the Komplex Modulator let you make use of it in different ways. The first is to apply the modulation globally, second is on a per-note basis, and the third is to use the new curve as a one-shot. If you use the curve as a one-shot, it becomes a 32-step contour generator that can be introduced and manipulated in various ways. It was pleasing to see that you can save user presets for the Komplex Modulator as these could be presets used on multiple projects and sounds.
The Quantum’s modulation matrix can be summed up as 40 slots that can be fed from 43 different sources. The 43 sources include all envelopes, LFOs, the Komplex Modulator, wheels, pedals, the touchscreen as an X/Y pad, MIDI CCs, and more. If you have a suitable MIDI controller, you can also control the sounds using polyphonic aftertouch.
Layers and splits
In a way, we can look at the Quantum as two synths in one. Despite being an 8-voice polysynth, there are two layers of 8-note polyphony available. Which, in a way, gives you two synths to use.
The layers can be split or layered across the keyboard in a few different ways. Split mode can be a straightforward two-zone split, or you can overlap the zones. A good use of this might be to have the high end of your bass zone to meet the low end of your lead/pad zone. So, essentially you can have three unique playing zones.
Another way to make use of both layers is unison mode, which lets you accurately allocate individual voices. For example, your left hand could be playing a 4-5 note pad while your right hand has the rest left for a huge lead.
Then it gets more complicated but fascinating. The Quantum allows you to take audio from your external signal inputs and direct it to one or both layers. Routing the audio like this offers granular synthesis of the incoming signals. Alternatively, you could just route the incoming audio signal via the filters/effects. Each layer can respond to different MIDI channels, have different effects sections, and route to different outputs.
How does it feel?
Usually, the feel of any keyboard would be near the top of our list of things to discuss. But, in this case, it wasn’t one of our main concerns. The reason it wasn’t a huge concern is that we see the Quantum as more of a studio synth than a stage synth. That’s not to say it can’t do a fantastic job in both areas, but for us, the sound and modulation options were far more critical than the keys.
What we knew from the start is that the Quantum comes with the Fatar TP8 keybed. Fatar has been making keybeds for the industry’s biggest names for a very long time with an excellent track record. Personally, I tend to find far more things to complain about when it comes to hammer-action keys. I’ve played very few high-end synths and hated the feel of the keys, and this is no different. There are some people out there who just don’t like Fatar keybeds, but unless you are one of them, the TP8 will feel premium to you.
The build quality of the Waldorf Quantum is outstanding. We should expect nothing less for the money it costs, but it’s perfect in that area. It feels solid, and everything from the mod wheels to the knobs, buttons, and touchscreen feels and looks expensive.
|Image credit: Waldorf Check Sweetwater||
The first thing you need to consider with any synth as expensive as this is, do I need it? I mean, we are talking about over $4000 here.
To avoid wasting anyone’s time, if you just want a synth with amazing presets that you can use for your band, you don’t need the Quantum. You can get something for under a quarter of the price that will do the job, check out our other synth reviews.
If you are a performer who is involved in something a bit more advanced or experimental, then the Quantum is starting to look like a better choice. You’d struggle to find anything with more potential to create unique sounds.
If you are a composer who wants a powerhouse synth for your studio projects, Waldorf’s Quantum is phenomenal. Any serious sound designer will love this synth, and most likely not sleep for the first week after buying it. So, to answer an even bigger question, is it worth the money? 100% YES! as long as you are going to use everything it has to offer.
There are a few minor issues with the Quantum that we mentioned, things like naming your saved user presets. However, overall, Waldorf has done a great job expanding the potential of basic functions in an intuitive, easy-to-use way. When it comes to the significant areas we can’t seriously complain, the sound design potential is incredibly huge, it’s well built, looks, and feels great. It’s just an absolute beast of a machine in every way.