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Korg DW-8000

I like analog synths. That should be obvious from this blog. I particularly like ‘70s mono synths and ‘80s polys. That being said, I’m not an analog purist. I’m not anti-digital, by any means. I have a CZ-101 and a Yamaha TX81Z, and I’d really like a TG33 and Kawai K1m. I prefer analog but as a composer and producer, I recognize that sometimes a song needs a different kind of sound.

It’s with this philosophy in mind that I jumped at the chance to buy a Korg DW-8000 for around $100. It wasn’t in perfect condition but it worked, and that was good enough for me. Why the DW-8000? If you have to ask, you probably haven’t heard one.

Released in 1985, the DW-8000 is an 8-voice polyphonic hybrid synthesizer, occupying an evolutionary branch that ended when Roland’s D-50 won the survival of the fittest. But for an interesting period in the mid-80s, synth manufacturers were trying to find a way to link the sumptuousness of analog with the realism and clarity of digital. Korg eventually caught up to Roland with the M1 but for a time, the DW-8000 was their wondrous chimaera.

The oscillators are basically ROMplers and play back tiny, single-cycle 8-bit waveform samples. They called it DWGS, or Digital Waveform Generator System. It includes typical analog waveforms like sawtooth, square and sine, but also samples of acoustic instruments like piano, guitar, violin and sax. You get 16 of these, with two oscillators, each able to play a separate waveform. Combining these creates all kinds of wonderful timbres, running the gamut from synthy to DX7-like, to completely unique.

The hybrid part comes next. Employing a traditional subtractive synthesis architecture, the DW-8000 sends these gloriously grainy 8-bit samples through an analog filter capable of self-oscillation. This warms up the waveforms and smooths them over, imparting a creaminess to the roughness of the samples, like warm butter on an English muffin. There’s also a six-stage analog envelope to shape things, and then lastly we go back into the realm of 1s and 0s with a 12-bit digital delay that can do reverb (well, almost), chorus, and of course delays.

On the hardware side, the DW-8000 has two polyphonic modes and two monophonic, the latter of which are basically unison modes. The arpeggiator is great (although I’ve never been able to sync it to external MIDI clock), and there’s even an external memory expander available, called the MEX-8000. Lastly, as was popular at the time, it comes with a velocity sensitive keyboard and responds to aftertouch. (Be aware that its older brother, the DW-6000, does not.)

All this results in a sound that is reminiscent of other ‘80s polys and yet is wholly unique. It does brass and strings well, and bass, and yet because it uses 8-bit sampled waveforms instead of VCOs (or even DCOs) it has a pleasing graininess that’s tempered by the gorgeous filters. I find it makes a lovely complement to the highly polished sheen of my Roland HS-80 (Alpha Juno 2 in disguise). Try it, you’ll like it.

Because I got my unit for so cheap, it was not without its issues. It bears more than a few scars and scratches, which makes me think it was a gigging instrument. A few keys were unwilling to respond, which required opening up the machine and cleaning the contacts. About that keyboard though. While the sound of the DW-8000 may be incredible, its keyboard is decidedly not. It’s the worst of all my machines, and rivals even the Technics SY-1010. Clunky, clacky and noisy, I much prefer to use my MIDI keyboard to control it remotely.

Another issue I had was with the tactile switches under the buttons. These wear out, and aren’t so difficult to replace, but as with my Poly-61, the heads of the switches were just a hair too big for the button caps. A bit of filing got them down to size though.

Lastly, a word of caution when changing out the internal battery. The soldering is easy enough to do but when you turn your machine back on, don’t freak out (like I didn’t) when all your patches have been wiped and all you get are nasally gurgles. The DW-8000 won’t hold patches for very long without the battery, unlike some other Korgs, and they’ll need to be reinstalled right away. Of course, be sure and save your patches as audio to your computer (or to tape if you’re dedicatedly retro).

The DW-8000 is my go-to synth for gritty pads, chimey bells, and surprising effects. It’s not as clinical as an FM synth, or as clean as a CZ model. It’s somewhere in the middle. I don’t use it in every song but when I need something unique, it never fails to deliver.

There are other hybrid synths I’d like to check out, including the Kawai K3 and Korg’s own DSS-1, which employs sampling and additive synthesis. So many synths, so little apartment space.

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