Review – Waves Element Soft Synth
Waves introduces something new (for Waves, anyway), a software synth. Will it make waves in the market place? Find out more in this review.
by David Baer, May 2013
Waves is one of the largest players in the VST marketplace, having a wide market penetration and possibly the biggest catalog of offerings of any plug-in vendor. But until recently, they offered only effects. So when, after all these years, they decided to add a synth to their line, a great many people took notice, and much chatter was to be seen on the computer music forums like KVR. We’ll take a look at Element here, and you can decide if all the hoopla is merited. According to Waves, Element was “designed to provide fat analog sound in the tradition of the classic analog synths.” The secret sauce here is “Virtual Voltage ™ , which connects its various generators and transformation filters, envelopes and modulators” (again in Waves’ own words). Whether this promise holds substance or is an invention of the marketing department is a little hard to say. On the one hand, Element can sound very rich. On the other, unlike other recent synth offerings that promise analog goodness and gulp CPU cycles (DIVA and LuSH-101), Element merely sips at them, even with high polyphony and HD mode enabled.
One thing is immediately apparent about this instrument. Element is a down-to-earth subtractive synth that sports few bells and whistles compared to most of its competition. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that all the controls are right in front of you on the main (and only) panel, pictured above, makes for a very efficient work flow designing/tweaking sounds. In fact, a case could be made that someone wishing to learn the craft of subtractive sound design could not find a better vehicle upon which to hone their skills. I should hastily point out that Element is also capable of some fairly rudimentary FM synthesis as well, but that’s not what this instrument is really all about.
Quick Tour of the Basics
The documentation for Element is thorough and complete, and yet is less than twenty pages of large type text with lots of white space. In other words, the instrument doesn’t have all that many features to explain in the first place. Present are basic, bread-and-butter synth components with nothing exotic. This is not a bad thing in itself. If nothing else, it goes to show just how good sounds can be made with only the fundamentals at one’s disposal.
We start with the oscillators of which there are two mostly identical ones. Each has four wave types (sine, saw, triangle and pulse) of which only one may be selected. These are set to between two octaves down and two octaves up, with another twelve semitones adjustable via the Tune control. A PW control adjusts the pulse width if the pulse wave is selected. Finally, a VCO/DCO button switches between digital precision and analog “slop” in which the phase at note-on is random.
Unique to Osc 1 is a Sine Mod control that allows simple FM modulation with an auxiliary sine wave, the C/M ratio in this case being controlled by the Octave and Tune parameters. Oscillator 2 has an FM control that allows FM modulation by Osc 1. Further, the phase of this oscillator can be modulated by Osc 1 via the PhM control. Finally, a Sync button lets you make Osc 2 a slave of Osc 1.
Below the oscillator controls is a mix panel that allows you to add in triangle wave as a sub-oscillator (good choice!), noise and/or ring modulation. Typical mono/legato/portamento capabilities are on offer. A limited unison capability is present, but it only doubles the number of voices. Neither detuning nor pan position can be specified for unison mode.
The filter is simplicity itself, but this is one of the more attractive features. First and most importantly, it sounds good and has real character for a computationally efficient software implementation. Everything you need to control the filter is right in front of you: cutoff, resonance, envelope depth, envelope ADSR values, keyboard tracking and velocity modulation. There are four choices for filter type: HP, LP, BP and BR with 12 or 24 dB/octave roll-off available for all. You can FM modulate the cutoff with Osc 1. Finally, the Shape control dictates the convexity or concavity of the envelope curves.
When changing the cutoff (or other settable parameters) via mouse dragging the knob control, there is a “steppy” quality to the tonal changes as opposed to smoothly gliding changes. This seems to be attributable to some sort ballistic movement simulation of the knob controls, the perceived value of which mystifies me. Fortunately, this is not an attribute of the filter itself, the cutoff for which changes gracefully when modulated by an LFO or envelope.
Next we have the volume envelope, and again simplicity rules the day. The volume envelope sub-panel seen in Fig. 1 is self-explanatory, except for the Punch button. This “controls the dynamic transient enhancer which makes for a ‘snappier’ attack.” In other words, set by ear.
There are four LFOs, two of which are free running and which cannot be synced to host tempo. The other two are per-voice modulators that are always synced to host tempo, running at some multiple of a musical beat. Wave forms include the usual ones: up and down saws, triangle, sine and sample-and-hold random. Lacking is a gradually changing random option, an unfortunate omission in my opinion.
We’ve already looked at the two dedicated envelopes for amplitude and filter cutoff. Element supplies a third envelope that can be freely assigned to anything via the mod matrix. The mod matrix is a pretty limited affair with only six routings available. Worse is the fact that if you want to control, say, the amount of vibrato produced by an LFO via the mod wheel, you need to use up two slots.
An arpeggiator/sequencer is present. It is relatively basic but eminently serviceable. In fact, the factory preset category of Arps is an absolute delight which can easily distract you for an hour or more just noodling around. Personally, I’ve never regarded the Arp capability of any instrument to be a make-or-break feature, and I have nearly zero use for sequencers. For those to whom these features are important, you will no doubt have more well-established criteria upon which you judge these things.
Finally we have the effects section, offering distortion, delay and reverb and chorus. These are about as bare-boned as you could get and still call them effects. Reverb and chorus have only an “amount” control. Delay is a little more elaborate, with separate left/right times, feedback and wet/dry control. Apart from distortion, you have no control of what order these are placed in the signal path. Distortion does give you the useful option of having the effect pre or post filter, and it’s applied per-voice. In addition to distortion/saturation coloring, a bit-crusher distortion effect rounds out the distortion section.
OK, the above “finally” was a little premature, because there’s one more thing to mention. It’s simple but I found it to be surprisingly valuable. This is the four-band graphic EQ control that’s right there on the panel in front of you. I don’t recall another synth that makes this so easily accessible and therefore I never appreciated just how easily it can be employed in effective sound tweaking. I now wish every one of my instruments had something similar.
Element comes with a generous number of factory presets accessible via a two-level menu structure (pictured right). They all reside in a single file, so I can’t tell you the exact number, which would be easy to do if each was its own file. Suffice it to say there are more than you’d care to try to count.
They are organized by category: Sequences, Gated, Arpeggiators, Keys, Pads, Bass, Leads, Percussion, Motions, Polysynths, Inharmonic and SFX. Some presets are quite good while many are nothing special. But sound preferences being highly individual, you’ll have to judge yourself. Many of the unmusical sounds (those in Inharmonic and SFX plus some of the sequences) will be of extremely limited use. Others could become go to favorites. One thing you do get is as lot of variety.
So, is Element for you? This doesn’t have an easy answer except to observe that at its retail price of $199, there are better alternatives to consider. However this is Waves, and Waves gear (or at least most of it) seems to be perennially for sale at significant discounts these days. People have reported acquiring Element for less than $75 at third party Waves distributors like Audio Deluxe. At that price, it’s definitely worth considering.
If your budget does accommodate a $200 acquisition, you’d be well advised to compare Element with two other recent subtractive emulations, DIVA from u-he and LuSH-101 from the D16 Group. They cost more than a discounted Element, but they deliver much more. However, both those instruments have hearty appetites for CPU cycles, so if you’re stuck with an aging machine, Element still may be a good choice.
Element would also be an excellent first subtractive synth for those wishing to learn sound design. Element’s straightforward user interface makes it an ideal choice for such a pursuit. Furthermore, the variety of preset sounds offers an encyclopedic study guide.
Waves makes Element available for a largely unrestricted seven-day trial (although you can only run the standalone version). If you already have some Waves gear on your DAW, you’ll have the wherewithal to easily register the demo. Otherwise you’ll need to wrestle with the registration process a bit. However, don’t let this deter you. There are a lot of first-rate Waves plug-ins available at great prices these days if you’re willing to wait for the right sale. Sooner or later you may very well find the need to register something with them anyway. So it’s certainly worth a small effort to get the Element demo to play with for a week. Just stay away from the Arpeggiators bank until you’ve otherwise come to an informed decision. The Arp bank is simply too much fun!
But you’ll normally be able to get better prices at one of several third-party distributors.