"Emulation is boring!": Wolfgang Palm on the past, present and future of synth design

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Wolfgang Palm is the driving force behind PPG, the company responsible for introducing wavetable synthesis to the world with its legendary PPG Wave instruments. Today, he’s still innovating and inspiring, thanks to a steady stream of imaginative software synthesisers, comprising WaveGenerator, WaveMapper, Phonem and the recently released Infinite.

In a rare interview, Wolfgang shares some of his ideas and insights regarding synthesis. 

You have an uncanny ability to predict - sometimes even shape - the future of music technology. The most striking examples are the HDU hard disk recorder in 1986, as well as the Realizer - essentially a computer dedicated to virtual synthesis - in which you offered what must be one of the very first commercially available virtual clones of an analogue synth. What did you think when emulative plugins like the Model-E and FM7 began to appear, over a decade later? 

“I thought then - and even more so now - that emulation is boring! Maybe this
is because I’ve had all these instruments in my hands before and know what they can do, function-wise. However, I understand that people who didn’t have the chance to play with the originals are happy with these products.” 

Analogue filters are all the rage these days. While the first PPG Wave lacked filters, the later models added them. Was this a deliberate decision, or were you forced to just work with what was available at the time?

“When I started developing the wavetable system, I wanted to simulate the typical low-pass effect, but then it turned out that these wavetable sweeps sounded very harsh; not at all like an analogue filter sweep. This was mainly due to the restrictions of the available 8-bit technology, but also because of the inability of the first systems to interpolate in real time.

I was thinking of a system based on sine waves with this sort of freedom as far back as the 1990s.

“Later, I added the VCF to satisfy the customers who wanted that typical analogue sound. From then on, the success of the PPG Wave was unstoppable, because we had both - the new waveforms and the analogue filter sound.”

Your innovative wavetable synthesis techniques have been adopted by countless synth manufacturers and software developers, yet your own virtual instruments give only the slightest nods to the past. Is it safe to assume that PPG is never likely to cater to the current trend for retro synth clones?

“Well, for me, it’s more challenging to go further and try new ideas. You see this in my current project, Infinite, which adds another dimension to sound creation by using free frequencies for each harmonic and thus creating very lively sounds. 

“This is, in fact, something I’ve always wanted to do. I was thinking of a system based on sine waves with this sort of freedom as far back as the 1990s, but it wasn’t possible with hardware at that time. With today’s computers it is possible - even with an iPad.” 

You seem to be committed to software synthesis, and your iOS and desktop synthesisers are some of the most forward-thinking instruments available. What can we expect from PPG in the future?

“It all needs time to develop. The basic technologies for my new synths include complex analysis systems which took me many years to develop to the point that it was applicable. So I really can’t tell now  what will be the next thing!” 

Do fads and trends like the current love affair with all things vintage come into play in your development process, or are PPG instruments purely a labour of love?

“Yes, you could say so! Maybe it’s because I don’t depend on any business and (the associated need for) efficiency. I’m happy to run my own small company with some selected people, and do what I’m interested in.”

The modern PPG instruments share a unified aesthetic. Are you behind their distinctive GUIs?

“I’m working very closely with Cornel Hecht, who is a very talented graphic designer and musician. He was the one who encouraged me to build synths for the iPad.” 

What PPG features or innovations (old and new) are you most proud of?

“In retrospect, it all seems like a continuous process to me… but the wavetable system is what most people connect me with, so yes, I’m proud of that.”

Check out PPG’s amazing instruments at Wolfgang’s website.

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