Waves Element Soft Synth Reviewed

August 22, 2013
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PROS

Classic subtractive synth design. Fat, analog-like sound. Good variety of well-programmed presets. Easy to program. Arpeggiator/sequencer section lets you create complex melodic and rhythmic patterns.

CONS

Classic subtractive synth design. Not all LFOs can be synced to tempo. Step sequencer doesn’t allow notes to be tied. 

Bottom Line: Element captures the vibe of all the classic ’80s polysynths without trying to emulate any specific one, and its “virtual voltage” modeling makes for superior analog authenticity.

$200 street | waves.com

 

Waves Element is a decidedly simple analog modeling synth whose classic throwback design is somewhat of a surprise considering that its developer is arguably the leading innovator in the audio processing plug-in universe. Indeed, Waves is a pioneer that has pushed the boundaries of what we’ve come to expect from the sonic characteristics and performance of third-party plug-ins. When Waves decided to enter the software instrument domain with Element, many of us took note in hopes that this would set a new standard, as Waves has done many times over during its 20-plus years in the business. So does this straightforward and seemingly humble polysynth have a place in Waves’ pantheon of plug-in titans? Read on.


Overview

With Element, Waves set out to create a synth that captures the punchy analog characteristics of classic ’80s polysynths, while also being dead easy to program. To this end, programming sounds is accomplished via a single-page user interface that’s sensibly arranged according to the signal flow common to subtractive synths: oscillator into filter into amplifier. There’s no need to dive through multiple pages or menus to tweak—an aspect of working with Element that I’m sure many users will appreciate, especially considering it can get tedious and mouse-intensive to craft sounds using many of today’s soft synths.

As for matching the juicy and somewhat gritty characteristic that many early polysynths are known for, Waves used what their marketing team cleverly dubbed “virtual voltage” technology. Presumably, this is akin to the circuit modeling used in other Waves plug-ins. In Element’s case it means that Waves modeled individual components along the signal path from oscillator to amplifier in order to create a more analog-sounding synth.

Continuing in the Waves tradition of developing plug-ins based around a particular producer’s aesthetic or specific piece of gear, a la the Puigchild (modeled after Jack Joseph Puig’s personal Fairchild compressor) CLA-2A (modeled after Chris Lord-Alge’s LA-2A compressor), or the signature series of plug-in bundles developed with the input of such famous recordists as Tony Maserati and Eddie Kramer, Element was developed in collaboration with Yoad Nevo, known for his work as a producer, engineer, and remixer with synth-heavy artists such as Air, Pet Shop Boys, Goldfrapp, and many others. In particular, Nevo was heavily involved in programming many of Element’s presets, which offer no shortage of production-ready sounds to work with.


Synth Specs

Element is essentially a two-oscillator synth that offers a choice of four waveform types per oscillator: sine, sawtooth, triangle, and square with pulse width modulation. Oscillator 1 also offers a triangle sub-oscillator for adding extra low end. Noise is also available, although there are no tonal shaping options, just a single knob for mixing noise into the signal with oscillator 1.

Adding to the analog-like sonics, both oscillators offer the choice of producing a “digitally controlled” waveform (i.e., more stable pitch) or a “voltage controlled” waveform (i.e., oscillation starts at a random point in the waveform’s phase). To my ears, the voltage controlled mode truly gives Element a more analog character.

Following in the tradition of many subtractive synths, Element also offers basic frequency modulation (FM), which is implemented in a couple of ways. Oscillator 1 has a dedicated sine wave oscillator, allowing you to modulate the frequency of oscillator 1 without tying up oscillator 2 as the source of your modulator waveform—though oscillator 1 can modulate oscillator 2 in classic FM style. In addition to modulating oscillator frequency, Element’s filter offers an FM knob for audio-rate modulation of the cutoff frequency—something many synths don’t offer. 

Element features a single, resonant multi-mode filter with lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and band-reject modes, along with selectable 12dB- or 24dB-per-octave slope. As for the filter’s character, I wasn’t able to dial in quite the amount of squelch as I was hoping for. The filter itself seems rather tame, but fortunately I was able to coax a lot more attitude by enabling the built-in distortion, which can be applied before or after the filter. 

Complex rhythmic and animated sounds are easy to create thanks to Element’s four LFOs, 6 x 6 mod matrix, and the Arp/Seq (arpeggiator/sequencer) section, which features a 16-step monophonic sequencer that can double as a traditional arpeggiator. Actually, it’s a little better than monophonic, as you can strike a chord and the sequencer will then play it back as a step in the sequence. You just can’t do polyphonic counterpoint—unless of course you open multiple instances of Element.

All of the LFOs offer the same six waveform choices, and curiously only LFOs 3 and 4 can be synced to tempo. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but an odd choice, given that it’s common these days to expect tempo sync from any rhythmic component.

The Arp/Seq section makes up for this thanks to the arpeggiator’s “sequence” mode, which makes it easy to create melodic patterns by setting the pitch for each of the sequencer’s 16 steps. You can adjust the gate time for notes globally (not per note, though), and massage the feel via the swing slider. It’s a reasonably flexible design, although I wish it were possible to tie notes together, which would allow for more sophisticated rhythms. Instead, you can only turn individual steps on or off.


Impressions

Element definitely has a more authentic analog-like quality compared to a number of other soft synths I’ve used. There’s a perceptible denseness to its sound that many soft synths lack. In fact, I compared Element to several popular synths including Reason’s Subtractor and Thor, Logic’s ES1, Spectrasonics Omnisphere loaded with classic waveforms, and FXpansion’s Cypher. Hands down, Element was thicker and I dare say more ballsy. That said, it was also darker in general, with less top-end bite. 

I was impressed by the quality and variety of the presets. There are a lot of great leads, sequences, basses, and pads to mine. And since the interface is dead simple, I found it easy to tweak the factory patches into interesting variations. When it comes to programming, however, Element could benefit from dedicated bypass controls for its built-in effects, which include chorus, bit-crusher, reverb, and tempo-synced delay. In particular, many of the sounds are polished with a healthy dose of reverb and delay, and I found I often had to turn down each control.


Conclusions

Waves doesn’t specifically claim to model any particular synth with Element, though it does have a definite analog character. It doesn’t evoke, say, the sound of a Roland Juno or Korg Polysix or Oberheim OB-8, and I think that’s a good thing. Element can be a chameleon and can be made to fit into many different musical contexts. If you don’t already have a go-to virtual analog soft synth in your arsenal, Element is a fine entry point into subtractive synthesis.

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