Waldorf Zarenbourg - The Allure of Simplicity
Waldorf, a company best known for its synthesizers, premiered the Zarenbourg at the 2006 NAMM show. The concept and design for the Zarenbourg, however, originated with Axel Hartmann, who conceived it as a Hartmann Instrument product. That’s why the first rendered images, which were created back in 2003, didn’t feature the Waldorf brand. Nine years later, the Waldorf name is now emblazoned proudly on the front of the Zarenbourg, and we’ve received one of the very first units for review.
And here it is standing in front of me, its design a combination of modern style and a cool, retro look. The build quality of the Zarenbourg, which measures 120 by 62 by 83cm and weighs 38kg, is very good; there’s nothing to fault here. I’m immediately struck by the Zarenbourg’s four chrome legs, which have been made especially for this instrument. They not only give it an elegant and timeless look, but also put it on a firm and stable footing. Letting my eye wander over the instrument, two things catch my attention. First, the two speakers mounted left and right of the front (aluminium) plate, part of the 2.1 speaker system designed by EMES especially for this keyboard. Secondly, there is no digital display. If you’re asking yourself, “why a 2.1 speaker system,” the audio signal runs through a digital frequency splitter which routes the bass portion of the signal to a separate speaker mounted on the instrument’s underside.
And it was the speakers which, at first, gave rise to a certain amount of scepticism on my part. I always associate built-in speakers with those tabletop keyboards used by one-man bands or solo ‘entertainers.’ I couldn’t have been more wrong. These speakers, aside from a clicking noise heard when I switch it on, strongly contribute to the overall impression that the Zarenbourg is a genuinely musical instrument. Now this next bit might seem a bit weird, but as soon as I turn up the volume I can actually feel the vibrations of the music through my fingertips. That’s a sensation that’s normally only available when you’re sitting in front of the original, mechanical instrument. How strongly you feel the resonance depends on the hardness of the skin in your fingertips. In summary, the sound is both balanced and immediate. The very positive impression here also extends to the speaker system, which obviously makes an important contribution.
Which brings us to the eight knobs on the front plate. They might appear familiar to some, as they’ve been supplied by Cosmo, a well-known component manufacturer. Apart from adding to the Zarenbourg’s retro look, they’re easy to read and add to the overall impression this is a well-built instrument. The functions of the two knobs on the far left are self-explanatory. The only one of the controls really worth mentioning is the one labelled “External,” which lets you set the volume for an external stereo signal which can be plugged in at the back. A nice idea, this; I tried it out with a DSI Mopho and listened through the built-in EMES speakers.
The sensitivity of the input can be set to one of four positions. That this functionality is available at all is grounds for praise. Not having to wait while your computer powers up before playing does nothing to dampen the enjoyment of playing; on the contrary. Heavy users of software instruments may disagree, but they are probably not the main target group for this instrument anyway.
Talking of positioning, the headphone output is mounted directly above the keys. This might be a throwback to the Rhodes Mark 1, but as far as the practicalities are concerned, it’s far from optimal. Also, the Zarenbourg’s speakers can only be deactivated by plugging something into the headphone socket. That might be good in theory, but in practice it means that you’ve got a cable dangling around on the lower notes. If you’re recording and monitoring solely through external speakers, it’s a good idea to have a plug without a cable attached close at hand so that you can turn off the built-in speakers quickly. Perhaps a more elegant solution could be made available by updating the onboard software.
As a matter of record, the 1.00 version of the software on my unit has a bug in which the panning on the headphone signal is the wrong way round. When I asked Waldorf about this, I received a quick and friendly reply stating that this was a known bug and had been fixed in the new version. Loading the operating system is quick and convenient, and uses SDHC a card which is inserted into a slot on the rear of the instrument.
The intensity and speed of the tremolo are set by controllers located to the right of the “External” knob. The button below the “Speed” controller toggles between Mono and Stereo modes. When Stereo is selected, the button lights up yellow and you hear a phase-shifted modulated version combining the two audio channels.
Let’s move on to probably the most interesting area: sound generation. The Zarenbourg generates sound in three different ways:
- Physical Modeling
- Direct Streaming Sample Playback
- FM Synthese
Technologically, that’s a pretty decent mix. Compared to the way that other manufacturers trumpet their offerings in this area to the skies, I like Waldorf’s more modest approach.
The Zarenbourg uses physical modelling to recreate the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. From the bottom left of the knob, there are controls for tines, bars and reeds; the tines and bars are part of two (Fender) Rhodes models.
Selecting an instrument and pressing the PRESET button gives the dry, factory sound. The memory slots A, B and C also offer pre-programmed sounds, but also make extensive use of the onboard effects. Simply pressing and holding the button for the respective slot overwrites the stored sound with the user’s own. Because the editor software was not ready in time for this review, we can only present some of the manufacturer’s screenshots. Looking at them more closely, it seems that users can edit some of the parameters for the Hammer, Tine, Bar and Pickup; this looks promising.
So much for the theory. But the question of how the Zarenbourg sounds is, surely, more important. The quick answer is: it sounds good. But that’s not only because of the sound itself; rather, it’s the combination of the sound with the keyboard and the speakers. This brings us to the keyboard. Waldorf have used Fatar’s TP100 keyboard with 76 weighted keys, a good choice. It’s not too heavily weighted and responds well when you’re repeating notes. The note repetition could be a bit quicker for my taste, but each player will have their own opinion. I am using the Yamaha CP1 as a reference here, and that will remain my favourite keyboard for concert grand sounds, not least because of the wider range of 88 keys. But as far as electric pianos are concerned, it’s edged into second place. And if I had to decide on one of them, I would keep the Zarenbourg. The reason is, as already mentioned, the way that a variety of factors come together and make for a remarkable sonic experience. On top of that come the instrument’s dynamics and the whole vibe that happens when you play the Zarenbourg.
Direct Streaming Sample Playback
The sampled sounds are accommodated by 4GB of memory. The factory libraries are a Steinway D grand, a Yamaha CP-80, a Hohner Clavinet, an orchestral library and a pad sound, which occupy some, but not all, of the total storage capacity. Yes, this is, as you might be suspecting, to leave room for the user’s own samples. But because there is currently no further information available on this, I’ll leave it at that.
Let’s kick off with the sounds one would have least expected to find here: the orchestral library. I was pretty surprised when I tried out the pre-programmed sounds and suddenly found myself playing an orchestra. Although I’m still unconvinced that these sounds really gel with the Zarenbourg concept, I have to admit that as I keep going back to them, they are increasingly winning me over through their sheer sonic quality. The various layers and the way they blend into each other have been painstakingly put together. But I do have a niggle here, namely the voice allocation, or rather the way the voices have been layered. That makes itself felt not only in the velocity switches themselves, which don’t always respond the way you’d like them to, but also in the way that lower notes cut off when playing legato. I’d like to see a way of editing the layers to suit my style of playing. The sounds themselves are of the kind of quality offered by today’s high-class workstations.
Let me be brief about the Clavinet: it sounds the way you would expect. The (positive) surprise here is the Yamaha CP-80. The Zarenbourg captures the CP-80’s idiosyncratic character and wiry sound brilliantly. In fact, it does it far better than Yamaha’s own CP1. The onboard Chorus is strongly reminiscent of many songs from the 1980s. The last instrument, though, is a disappointment. The grand piano does not reach the quality of the other, excellent sounds on offer here. That impression is not ameliorated by the fact that the piano sampled is a Steinway D. It doesn’t live up to the very high expectations created by the excellent Rhodes, Wurlitzer and CP-80 emulations. The dynamics simply aren’t there, and it lacks the breadth that one expects from stereo sounds these days. I don’t get the feeling that I’m sitting in front of the real instrument. The synthesizer pad sound is as expected. I would rather have seen a Solina string sound included, but that’s a matter of personal taste.
Frequency Modulation (FM) Synthesis
The Zarenbourg features an FM synthesizer with six operators which, unsurprisingly, bears similarities to the DX7, and offers a faithful recreation of that synth’s famous electric piano sound. In the current version, the customer is presented with an algorithm made up of three strands, each consisting of a carrier and a modulator (with no feedback). At the time of writing, it is not clear whether additional algorithms will be provided in the future.
As you can see in the FM Synthesizer screenshot, each element is editable in its pitch, level, velocity and envelope. Two positives here: the frequency information is displayed in a different way, and envelope parameters have been included which, one supposes, were deemed to be more intuitive to use. How does it sound? You will no doubt be amazed to learn that it sounds like a DX7. Because I have heard this particular electric piano sound so often over the years that I’ve got pretty fed up with it, I’m waiting expectantly for the editor software. To revisit the comparison with my CP1, the CP1 also has real FM synthesis onboard, but offers fewer ways of altering the sounds. I prefer my own CP1 patches, but this is a somewhat unfair comparison as the above-mentioned editor software is not yet available. According to Waldorf, it will be released in the next few weeks.
I’m still of the firm opinion that FM is often underrated as a synthesis form. Its strengths lie not only in the wide sonic spectrum available but also, perhaps more importantly, in the options available to control the way the sound modulates over time, which allows for highly expressive playing. This is exploited by the Zarenbourg’s high-quality weighted keys. The factory presets include, as well as the one from the DX7, a very nice patch combining a Rhodes with an FM electric piano. By the way, the Zarenbourg allows the combination of two sounds, regardless of how they are generated. The relative volume of the two sounds is set using the “Adjust” control on the instrument itself. Waldorf have not seen fit to include a pan setting for each, but, to be fair, this probably would not sit well with the overall Zarenbourg concept.
Before moving on to the effect section, let me state for the record that, with the exception of the grand piano, all the Zarenbourg’s instruments sound excellent without effects, and playing them is simply a joy.
The Zarenbourg includes the following effects:
- Auto Wah
The effects themselves are self-explanatory. Most offer at least a “Depth” and “Tempo” setting that are user-adjustable. What’s special about the effects section is that all the effects can be used at the same time. The quality is, at least partially, very good; the Chorus and Reverb effects are first-rate. The Equalizer shouldn’t go without a mention, either, as it’s a good, powerful tool for shaping sounds.
It includes four frequency bands:
- <120Hz (-18dB bis +8dB)
- 750Hz (-18dB bis +8dB)
- 3000Hz (-18dB bis +8dB)
- >6000Hz (-18dB bis +10dB)
If the band gain is set to plus/minus zero, the band glows dimmer. This is an example of the range of alterable parameters being kept to a bare minimum, while those made available are fully exploited to offer the maximum amount of sensible, useful control. The ethos here seems to have been: “Reduce it to the max.” And that’s what Waldorf have done very successfully with the Zarenbourg.
You’ve probably already noticed that the Zarenbourg has really caught my imagination. But let’s start with the downsides.
They begin with the grand piano, which from my point of view is not on par with the other instruments on offer, at least in the current version. That becomes especially obvious when playing the CP-80, the sheer quality of which is far above that offered by Yamaha’s CP1. But that’s not all.
My review unit showed a problem with incoming MIDI data, with polyphonic sequences not playing back correctly. This quirk seems to be confined to my unit, but should nevertheless be mentioned here. Waldorf confirmed the bug with the reversed panning on the headphone output, which will be fixed in the new version of the Zarenbourg’s operating system.
This Zarenbourg review was published first time in September 2012. Since then the Zarenbourg Editor never made it to market. I am sorry, but this is the kind of broken promise I dislike.
The 21 rewritable memory slots available to the user might seem a bit meagre when compared with the 6,000 sounds available in a 19” rack instrument. But Waldorf have based the Zarenbourg on an entirely different product philosophy. The aim is to provide quick and direct access to a manageable amount of sounds. The same idea has also shaped the way that parameters are accessed.
With a recommended retail price of €3,290, the Zarenbourg is cheaper than both the Clavia Nord Stage 2 and the Yamaha CP1, bearing in mind that both have 88 keys. Korg’s SV1 competes in a lower price range than the Zarenbourg, and like the Nord Stage is likely to be favoured by live musicians because of its lower weight and smaller dimensions. In comparison, those gleaming chrome legs have to be screwed out and the Zarenbourg safely packed up to avoid damage on the road or on stage.
The Zarenbourg will likely carve out its niche in the studio and in the living room, just as the Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos did before it. While the purists among you will probably still prefer the original instruments, the emulations on offer here are of an outstanding quality. And it’s not just that all those classic instruments take up a lot of space, there’s also the cost and maintenance to consider. But even if you’re happy to take all that into account, I would urge you to try the Zarenbourg out. You will certainly be forgiven for falling under the Zarenbourg’s spell.
Let’s be honest: We’re all familiar with the seemingly endless cycle of buying and selling musical instruments. It might be motivated by a collector’s passion, where the next addition has to be funded by selling old equipment. Or it might simply be an interest in new instruments, with old ones sold on to buy something that is, supposedly, newer and better. If you regret having sold your Rhodes, your Wurlitzer or your CP-80, you’ll find these classics authentically recreated in excellent quality in the Zarenbourg.
How does the Zarenbourg stand out from the crowd of competing products? It is, first and foremost, the striking immediacy of this instrument. It dispenses completely with a digital display and menus, there’s no tedious waiting. Instead, there are knobs and buttons that give direct access to a manageable number of well-chosen parameters. The music and the person playing it have been put into the foreground, and everything else is a means to that end. I’ll make it short: standing in front of me is a musical instrument, and that’s meant in the truest and best sense. There’s simply no way of expressing my admiration for the Zarenbourg more concisely.
Translation: Angus Baigent