Unraveling Korg DW-8000 SysEx

For a few weeks now, I’ve had a Korg DW-8000 wavetable synthesizer in the studio for two projects. The first project was the creating of a “SoundEngine Rebuild” – part of a series of compilations of public domain and SoundEngine generated presets and patches for “rebuilding” interest in a vintage synth. The purpose of these is to save users time in the long search for sounds on the internet, and to give them new ideas of using the synth again – whether they are a new or existing owner. The second project – well, I can’t tell you about that yet, sorry.

Read more: Unraveling Korg DW-8000 SysEx

Before we dive into SysEx details, let’s talk about the DW-8000.

The Korg DW-6000 was the first wavetable synthesizer I had a chance to play with. Newly minted as a Software Engineer at Sequential Circuits, the DW-6000 was back in the development lab on a shelf. The Prophet VS was just starting to ship in volume, and I didn’t have a chance to borrow one of those, so I took the DW home for the weekend and really liked the sound. It had the classic “crunch” of a wavetable synth – that digital attack and warm analog filter sustain – just like the Prophet VS with less sophisticated synthesis capabilities. The DW-8000 is its bigger brother, with increased polyphony to 8 notes and 16 digital waveforms, as well as velocity sensitivity, aftertouch, an arpeggiator and a chorus / delay unit.

There are some compelling demos of the Korg DW-8000 on YouTube – it features a lot of classic 80’s synth sounds, and has an interesting enough synth engine to still be a good source of unique sounds and a decent time sink if you can get your hands on one (they are somewhat rare in appearance). It has 64 built-in sounds, with the ability to load more – and the ability to have 4 more banks online with the very unique MEX-8000 memory expander. We’re going to focus on just the stock DW-8000 and loading sounds over MIDI in this post.

In addition to a tape interface for loading and saving sounds to cassette, the DW-8000 also implemented MIDI System Exclusive (SysEx) messages for dumping and loading sounds that way. It’s a bit of an odd implementation – more on this later – and not without its challenges. The main concern, though is knowing the basics of MIDI SysEx sound loading. The best approach for this, and I admit this is subjective, is to use a computer. The computer has to have a MIDI interface of some sort, and you’ll need two MIDI cables to connect to the DW-8000. Connect the MIDI Out on the computer to the MIDI In of the DW-8000 and the MIDI Out of the DW-8000 to the MIDI In of the computer. You’ll also need either librarian or editor software for the computer – I recommend MIDI Ox for PC and SysEx Librarian for Mac, if you don’t have an editor like MIDIQuest, cntrl:r, or similar. On the DW-8000, use the following settings:

Write SwitchENABLERear Panel slide switchThis allows patches to be written into memory on the synth
MIDI ChannelFront Panel Parameter 841This assigns the MIDI Channel to 1
MIDI EnableFront Panel Parameter 852This allows all MIDI messages to be processed

With these settings, you should be ready to go. It’s HIGHLY advised to back up your sounds at this point, as the DW-8000 does not have a way to “reset” the machine and restore the factory sounds. That said, I mentioned before that the DW-8000 has an odd MIDI SysEx implementation, and you can’t just command the unit to dump its internal sounds from the front panel. That’s where a full-blown DW-8000 MIDI Editor will come in handy as opposed to a simple Librarian. If you really just want to restore to the Factory sounds, they are included here for your use.

When you search and find Korg DW-8000 downloads on the internet, you find a combination of results – banks as well as single programs, some on MIDI channel 1, some not. That’s the advantage of picking up our rebuild – we’ve sorted and organized all that for you. In any case, let’s get to loading both banks and single programs.

For loading banks into the DW-8000 – it’s fairly straightforward – you send the bank file (.SYX) from your computer to the synthesizer. You’ll see the front panel incrementing through presets as the sounds are stored in memory. Once completed, you’ll need to select a sound to hear it as downloaded. The issue to watch for here is that many of the banks on the internet are not SysEx dumps from a synth that was on MIDI Channel 1. The downsides of this are that 1) the SysEx dump won’t work and 2) you get absolutely no feedback from the DW-8000 that it’s not working (only when a dump works to you see activity on the front panel). To fix a bank load not on MIDI channel 1, there are two ways to proceed: 1) Figure out the MIDI Channel of the bank dump and change the DW-8000’s MIDI Channel to match or 2) use a Hex editor to modify the MIDI Channel in the file. You’ll need to be a fairly savvy user to pursue option 2.

A quick summary of changing the MIDI Channel within the file for savvy users is: change the second nibble of byte 3 of the SysEx Bank Dump to match the MIDI channel of the DW-8000 – below is an example:

Wrong channel message (channel 4)Corrected channel message (channel 1)Notes
F0 42 33 03 10 …F0 42 30 03 10 …By changing the 2nd half of the third byte from 3 to 0, we’ve reassigned a SyEx message on Channel 4 to Channel 1

For loading individual sounds into the DW-8000, it gets a bit trickier, largely because of no description in the manual on the process, and no feedback from the synth itself. Assuming that you have a single sound in SysEx (.SYX) file that is on the correct MIDI Channel, use your Librarian software to send it to the DW-8000. Note that at this time, the sound is in the “Edit Buffer” of the synth, but you will not hear it as you play the keyboard. This is the tricky and somewhat frustrating part. You then need to write the sound to memory by pressing the “WRITE” button, then selecting the target memory location – we’ll use “1 1” in this example. So, press “WRITE” then “1, 1” and you have written the edit buffer sound into the first memory location. Sadly the frustration does not end here, because until you select a different sound, say 1 2, then return to 1 1, you still do not hear the updated sound. To recap, you send the single sound to the edit buffer, write to a location, select a second program location, then return to the location that you wrote the edit buffer before you hear the Single program that you sent to the Korg DW-8000. 

Cumbersome, but manageable.

Using this practice, you can build individual custom banks of single sounds in the grouping and order you choose. The methods described above have shown consistent results in the few weeks I’ve had a DW-8000 here. If you know of better methods – please let me know and I’ll pass them on. In any case, rather than chase down calls for help on various vintage synthesizer forums on the web to make these sounds work for you – I’ve consolidated my learnings here to share. I hope that it’s been helpful. One of the plans here for SoundEngine is to relate tips and tricks for programming vintage synths – so please stop back by from time to time.

DW8000 image generously licensed from Joshua Schnable under Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en



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