The contents of this page are excerpts of an article in the German "Keys"-Magazine, August 2000 edition, translated by me. They have given me their kind permission to use it here - thank you very much for that!
Wavetable-Synthesis - History
Ahead of Time
Since more than 20 years and in defiance of all fashion streams, a synthesis method, whose origins for once don't have their roots in the USA or in Japan, holds its own: the Wavetable Synthesis of the deceased German company PPG.
The company name 'PPG', which is, by the way, the abbreviation of Palm Products Germany, has a similar magical cult factor as "Moog", "Oberheim", "Synclavier", or "Fairlight". Mere mentioning is enough to put synthesizer freaks into a state of sentimental extasy. Not without a reason: with PPG, the prominently blue Wave synthesizers are associated, that became a legend for their sound variety and their character, and greatly influenced the music of the early eighties. A lot of producers around the world used the synthesizers from Hamburg, many albums of famous artists from that period live not least from the exceptional Wave sounds.
Since the PPG Wave just sees its rebirth as a PlugIn-synthesizer, we would like to take this occasion to introduce you a bit to the interesting and really remarkable history of the company PPG and its founder, Wolfgang Palm.
We're in the year 1974. Wolfgang Palm, active as an organist in various local bands, is, like many of his colleagues, enthusiastic about the upcoming synthesizers. Since the devices are very expensive, he decides to build one on his own. The engineering study just finished came in very handy for that project, and it doesn't take long until Palm really finishes his first synthesizer - a modular system. Enthusiastic about synthesizer building and not wanting to work on shabby projects as an employed engineer, Palm sets up his own company PPG.
Since the modular system is very expensive and not really suitable for stage usage, Palm develops another synthesizer, the PPG 1002. This is a much more affordable compact synthesizer, analog and monophonic; its classical architecture is guided by the popular Minimoog. Soon after that, the next development appears, the PPG 1020. This is the first synthesizer at all that uses digital oscillators - this at a time when most musicians had at best heard something about digital alarm clocks. Wolfgang Palm obviously doesn't find analog sound generation satisfying, and therefore fully concentrates on digital technology. 1976 another PPG synthesizer appears on the market, another innovation: The PPG 1003 Sonic Carrier is the first synthesizer that allows storage of sound settings, and additionally it isn't monophonic any more, but can be played duophonically.
At the end of 1978, the first polyphonic digital synthesizer appears in form of the Wavecomputer 360. The Wavecomputer 360 is built on a completely digital base, with either four or eight voices, and can store up to 70 sound creations. This instrument offers, together with the specialty of being able to play every voice with a different sound, for the first time the famous PPG-typical Wavetables.
The basic idea behind the wavetables is as simple as ingenious: a typical analog synthesizer offers only some basic waveforms; their harmonic content can be reduced by a following filter - in an always more or less equal fashion, as a lowpass filter always reduces the treble and a highpass filter always reduces the bass part. The wavetables, in contrast, offer a greatly expanded stock of 64 waveforms - since the Wavecomputer 360 has 30 wavetables, this sums up to about 2,000 waveforms. The important point about the wavetables, however, isn't this big number, but the ability to use these waveforms one after another, to go through the wavetable dynamically; using this method allows the creation of sound sweeps that can't be realized with a filter. Consequently, the Wavecomputer comes without filters and does the whole sound processing with this newly developed "Wavescanning".
The Wavecomputer 360 as well as the later developed System 340/380, that looks more like an industrial computer than like a musical instrument, were no commercial success. Some musicians like, for example, Thomas Dolby, are fascinated by the new sound creation possibilities and use the devices intensively, but for most musicians, the unfiltered digital sounds of the Wavecomputer sound too alien and strange. Dispensing with a filter, although conceptionally logical and desirable in view of a total digitalization of the instrument, is simply incompatible with the sound and hearing habits of the keyboard players of 1978: Wolfgang Palm is too far ahead of his time.
The Wave Generation
Finally, in 1981, the deserved breakthrough comes with the Wave 2. This eight-voice synthesizer combines an enhanced version of the wavetable synthesis of the Wavecomputer with analog lowpass filter and combines, as world's first instrument, digital sound generation with analog processing. In addition, the Wave 2 offers - other than its predecessor - a more common user interface with lots of controllers. In short - this instrument successfully builds a bridge between the analog and the digital world and becomes a hit. One of its numerous prominent fans is Anne Dudley, who becomes famous later with the cult band "Art Of Noise".
On the Musikmesse 1982 the successor of the Wave 2, the Wave 2.2 is presented. This synthesizer offers two oscillators per voice, an integrated sequencer and of course filters, but before all it's not alone any more, but part of the PPG System.
The most important component of this system is, beside the Wave 2.2, the Waveterm, a computer unit with screen and disk drives, that allows creation of new Waves and Wavetables, offers extensive sequencing possibilities, and not least allows to record samples that can be downloaded to the Wave and played there - and that in 1982, when you had to pay three times as much for the only other available sampler, the Fairlight.
In 1984, the Wave 2.2's MIDIfied successor appears under the name Wave 2.3. While the Wave 2.2 offers 2 different sounds at a time, all voices of the Wave 2.3 can use different sounds for playing, a possibility that becomes especially rewarding in conjunction with the sequencing and sample processing in the PPG System. Additionally, with the Wave 2.3, the resolution is increased from 8 to 12 bit, the redesigned version of the Waveterm, the Waveterm B, now allows recording of 16-bit samples. Other components of the PPG System are the PPG Processor Keyboard PRK, a weighted keyboard that allows velocity-sensitive playing of the Wave sounds and, amongst other things, offers extended sequencer memory, and the eight-voice expander version of the Wave, the Expansion Voice Unit EVU.
The PPG synthesizers are an impressive proof of the genius and the innovativeness of Wolfgang Palm, but they weren't yet the peak. In 1985 PPG presented the Hard Disk Unit HDU, a device that could record samples on a hard disk and could play them back with up to 10 voices - this at a time when MIDI sequencing was just coming up and about 10 years before HD recording gained broad acceptance. And wait, there's more: The HDU even allows independent control of playback speed and pitch, offers integrated effects and resampling and is completely MIDI-controllable.
But the absolute PPG highlight is the Realizer, a DSP-based system that is introduced as a prototype in 1986 and that should allow the software-based emulation of any synthesizer - again, ten years before virtual and software-based synthesizers can gain a foothold in the market. The Realizer consists of a rack with the DSP-hardware and a desktop device of very futuristic design with a screen and freely assignable control elements. A contemporary promotional photo shows the panel of a Minimoog on the Realizer screen, the circuits of which had been translated into DSP code by Wolfgang Palm. Correspondingly, other synthesis forms, such as FM or the own Wavetable synthesis, should have been realized with the Realizer.
Unfortunately, the Realizer never left the prototype stage; its development swallowed up enormous ressources and probably was, together with the appearance of the DX-7 and more affordable samplers, responsible for the end of PPG. At the end of 1987, the innovative company ended its business.
Time after PPG
Waldorf now offers a software emulation of the original PPG Wave with the VST synthesizer PPG Wave 2.V. The attraction of this PlugIn lies, together with the authentic sound character, not least in the fact that it offers the same simple parameterization as its model; surface and parameter equipment contribute much to the sounds that can be produced with a synthesizer. And the most authentic Wave sounds can be produced when there's no oscillator synchronization, multi mode filters, or superflexible modulation possibility available - sometimes, less can be enough or even more.
With the PlugIn synthesizer PPG Wave 2.V, the circuit's closed: it was Wolfgang Palm who had, among many other things, the idea of the virtual synthesizer. Now his most successful instrument is available in a virtual form - a fine confirmation for his Realizer idea, that was far ahead of its time, and a very welcome reminder of his ingenious and unique developments.
Uwe G. Hoenig/ig