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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.