The Technics SX-WSA1

By Thor Zollinger, writer/musician/engineer at large.  2018

I recently acquired a new piece of hardware, a very rare Technics SX-WSA1R virtual acoustic synthesizer from 1995, the rack mount version of it.  I like instruments I can reprogram, they have an unlimited sound potential unlike most modern keyboards, which can be limited by their presets and ROM samples.

Back in the early 90’s several  manufacturers including Yamaha, Technics, and Korg took us on a technology adventure.  They used the parametric equations developed at universities to model acoustic instruments to produce a collection of amazing synthesizers.  The first into the market place was Yamaha with their revolutionary VL1.  The VL1 can model any wind or string acoustic instrument electronically without resorting to recordings.  The mathematical model is capable of reproducing all of the quirks of a real instrument right down to the reed squawks of a saxophone and the shrill squeaks of an over-blown flute.  However, the VL1 is limited to only one or two notes at a time.  It’s a solo instrument, not a complete midi instrument like the Technics SX-WSA1. 

In the 90’s Technics was a manufacturer of stereo equipment, electric pianos, and organs.  Someone inside Technics made the bold decision to take on Yamaha one on one in the synthesizer market, and developed the SX-WSA1, their very first electronic synth.  They took a shortcut in the mathematics in order to increase the polyphony up to 64 notes by using modified recordings of the acoustic drivers, an instrument’s source of sound.  The driver transients are the most difficult to calculate in real time, and removing this burden from the microprocessor dramatically increased the number of notes that were possible.  Technics included 307 drivers to select from, mateable to a broad selection of 63 resonant bodies.  For example, you can select a plucked Spanish guitar, mate it to a String instrument resonant body, and adjust a few parameters  to create a custom instrument sound.  It works extremely well, and gives the user a full 64 notes of polyphony, usable over 32 midi channels (32 different musical instruments at the same time!)  The keyboard can be an entire ORCHESTRA all by itself, not just a single solo instrument like the Yamaha VL1.  There are even drum kits included, along with the ability to create custom percussion instruments using the programming models. 

Technics also did a number of other things right in the design.  First, they used a large display screen so you can see a large set of instrument settings all at once, with a nice collection of buttons just like the instruments of today.  In contrast, the Yamaha VL1 uses a ridiculously small display with parameter names that are all but incomprehensible, and it can only make one instrument sound at a time.  The WSA1 can also layer up to four instrument sounds into each voice, and it can play up to 32 of those custom instruments all at once.  It can play all of the Star Wars cantina alien acoustic jazz band instruments at the same time!  Beat that, Yamaha.  

The programming model in the WSA1 is also very easy to use.  You select a set of driver/resonator pairs like a Clarinet mouthpiece and a flared tubular body, layer it in with a plucked instrument sound like a guitar, add some effects to your mix, and viola!  You have a custom instrument designed, simple in comparison to the Yamaha VL1.  The only drawback to the method is it doesn’t recreate all of the instrument squawks and squeaks like the VL1 can.  I have a Yamaha VL setup in my studio just because it CAN do all of those crazy sound quirks.  Sometimes that’s what you want, sometimes it isn’t.

The real problems Technics ran into with the WSA1 came after the instrument was developed, in the marketing phase.  They priced the keyboards initially at around $5000, about the same price as the Yamaha VL1’s, and handed sales over to their organ salesman; big mistake.  The electronic piano and organ salesman had no idea how to sell the WSA1, which costed far more than any of their $500 pianos and $1500 organs.  The WSA1 sat in the corner.  Sales never got off the ground and Technics panicked.  They cut the price to $3000 and were able to sell a modest number of instruments, but ended up eventually slashing the price all the way down to $600 to get rid of the rest of their inventory.  Technics wanted out of the synthesizer business and never went back.  Yamaha had a much better game plan, they ended up creating an entire line of VL instruments which only just went out of production.  The VL70m was in production up until 2015, which retailed for about $600.  The VL70m was still just a single-note solo instrument, but it was a very good one.  As a result of bad marketing, only 600 Technics SX-WSA1 keyboards and only 300 SX-WSA1R rack units were ever produced, making this synth a very rare bird. 

To hear what the Technics SX-WSA1 sounds like, listen to the following YouTube video.  The synth creates amazing synth pads and very smooth acoustic voices.  I think you’ll like it.  Some people think the sounds are a bit thin since they’ve only explored the factory presets, but if you add in a bit of crosslinking to the resonators the sound thickens up quite nicely. Custom acoustic sounds are where this synth really shines.

So there you go, a unique synthesizer I’ll bet only a few of you have ever even heard of, capable of creating amazing custom acoustic instrument sounds.  All you have to do now is find one!  Prices vary widely, I've found them listed for anywhere from $400 up to $1200.  You just have to look hard and be patient.  Mine was about $700, somewhere in the middle.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ SPECIFICATIONS:

Acoustic Modeling Synthesis (PCM waveform Driver with DSP Modeling Resonator)

64-Note Polyphony over 32 midi channels

Large graphic display (320 x240 dot)

Drum kit edit by Acoustic Modeling Synthesis

Controller: Realtime Creator (no centering spring), Realtime Controller (WSA1)

Preset sounds: 256 sounds, 128 combinations

User sounds: 256 sounds, 128 combinations

Remap function

GM compatibility, SMF direct play

307 waveform Drivers, 223 instrument samples + 86 percussion samples

Up to 4 waveforms per patch

63 Resonators in 6 main categories, String, Cylinder, Cone, Flare, Plate, Membrane, + Special

Envelopes for Pitch, Filter, Amplitude and 2 LFOs

Digital Drawbars

56 DSP effects, including 3 blocks, 44 algorithms, and 12 reverb algorithms