Expressive E’s Touché is a hardware controller like no other.
The use of touch to control music has a history as long as that of music itself, giving musicians a physically intimate and essentially intuitive relationship with their instruments. Once synthesis arrived on the musical scene, note production and the modification of pitch and sound began to be mediated by relatively crude, mechanical means that often struggled to become an integral part of the musical process.
With the release of the Touché, French company Expressive E have brought to market a USB/MIDI/CV hardware controller whose raison d’être is to deliver an intuitive, touch-based approach to controlling the parameters not only of hardware synthesizers, but also of VST software instruments running within a DAW. Currently the Touché and its supporting Lié software (recently upgraded to v1.2) are limited to working under Mac OS (10.10 and above). A Windows 10 Lié beta is imminent, but no release date for the actual program has yet been set.
Physically, the Touché is an attractive and well-built unit whose black, soft-touch base measures a fairly substantial 24 x 10 x 2cm. Its smoothly tactile wooden control surface almost appears to hover above the base, but closer inspection reveals that it is attached by magnets to an underlying assembly that ‘floats’ on a pair of silicone cylinders, thereby allowing the control surface to be pushed downwards at any point along the length of its longitudinal axis. A second suspension, sitting within the first but independent of it, allows the control surface to be moved left or right in the horizontal plane. Four independent sensors detect these vertical and lateral movements. A slider concealed under the control surface sets the physical ‘sensitivity’ of the lateral movements via a pair of steel springs.
Expressive E call these vertical and horizontal motions ‘Shiftings’ and, since the wooden control surface is suspended at either end, a Top Shifting describes a tilt down at its far end and a Bottom Shifting a tilt at the near end. Depending on where and how hard you press it along its length, you can produce either subtle or extreme Shiftings of either type. A Left or Right Shifting moves the wooden surface in the horizontal plane, and a combination of the two types of shifting produces that which you’d expect. It is worth noting that all shiftings have to be accomplished by pressure in the desired plane as any attempt to twist the control surface will simply result in it coming off in your hand.
The Touché’s other controls consist of a circular encoder knob with integral push switch and four associated miniature LEDs whose variable intensities and colours denote various functional states, and two rectangular, stylishly illuminated multi-functional switches (‘Buttons’ in Expressive E-speak).
All connectors reside on the rear edge of the base, and there you’ll find four independent CV outputs on TS mini-jacks, each of which corresponds to one of the control surface’s directions of movement; MIDI in and out/thru on TRS mini-jacks (TRS to DIN adaptors are supplied); and the USB2 connector that can be used to connect either to a computer or to a source of USB power, should you be using the Touché in Stand-alone mode. In addition to a high-quality USB lead, Expressive E also supply an adaptor lead that allows you to power the Touché from an external source whilst it is connected to a computer.
The Touché has two operational modes: Stand-alone, in which it functions independently to control hardware instruments via MIDI or CV, and Slave, where its functionality is under the control of the Lié VST/AU plug-in. Stand-alone mode is slightly misnamed in that Lié is essential not only to program the Touché’s internal 24-preset memory, but also to automatically upgrade its firmware when necessary. In Stand-alone mode, with no presets loaded, the Touché sends its default data of MIDI CC16 to CC19 (Rear, Front, Left and Right Shiftings respectively) and 0V to +5V on each of the four CV outputs.
The Touché automatically recalibrates itself each time that power is applied to it, making stable and level positioning essential. However, if necessary, the unit can also be recalibrated manually by pressing its two buttons simultaneously and holding them down until their LEDs stop blinking.
A Touché hardware preset defines which CV voltages are output and the MIDI CC messages that are sent as a result of moving the wooden control surface. As we’ll see later, the Shiftings can be individually programmed via Lié to transmit either single or multiple simultaneous MIDI CC messages from an overall maximum total of eight, whilst on each of the CV outputs, there’s an individual choice of either 0V to +5V, -5V to +5V, 0V to +10V or -10V to +10V.
Once some slots have been loaded with hardware presets, they can be recalled in Stand-alone mode via the rectangular buttons that step forwards and backwards through the available list. In Slave mode the buttons retain their preset recall function and, in addition, the left button sends CC80 and the right, CC81.
In both Slave and Stand-alone modes, the Encoder knob adjusts the sensitivity of the Top and Bottom Shiftings in eight steps, the active step being indicated by the illumination level of the white LED indicators. In Stand-alone mode, these LEDs always indicate the sensitivity level. In Slave mode the sensitivity level is only displayed when the encoder is being turned. The encoder has an additional Freeze function in which the data being sent from the Touché is frozen at the point at which the encoder switch is pressed. The LEDs flash when the Touché is frozen and pressing the encoder again unfreezes its data.
In Slave mode, the Touché operates entirely within Lié, a VST and AU plug-in that at this point in time can only be run under Mac OS 10.10 and above. Once loaded in a record-ready MIDI track in a DAW, Lié not only allows you to create Touché hardware presets for any external MIDI or CV controllable hardware, but can also host any VST instrument plug-in, enabling you to create and save Touché presets for the parameter controls available for that VST instrument. The create/save/browse/load preset portion of the Lié user interface occupies about 25 percent of the UI screen area and is divided into four functional areas:
- Menu, which allows you to access the program’s Settings menu; to create, save and load presets for both hardware units and VST instruments; to view the contents of the Touché’s 24 internal memory slots and to store hardware and software presets in those slots.
- Browser, where you can browse and recall the hardware and VST instrument presets in your library; choose which category of preset to view (All, Hardware, Plug-in); view presets created by a specific ‘Instrument’ (software program) — multiple Instruments can be selected, allowing you to view presets created on a selection of originating programs.
- Tag, in which you can assign single or multiple categories or ‘Tags’ (Bass, Keys, Favourite, etc) from a fixed list to presets and use these tags singly or in multiples to refine your searches.
The fourth is the area in which you assign controls (parameter/CV/CC) to Shiftings, and is known as the Slot Center. Here you’ll find eight slots, each of which can have either Top or Bottom Shifting or one (or both) horizontal Shiftings assigned to it simply by clicking on the on-screen location of the desired Shifting.
Once you have assigned a Shifting to a slot, you can then assign a control to it. Assigning the control on a per-slot basis gives you the flexibility to change the Shifting without having to reassign the control. The control that you can assign depends on the type of preset that you are creating — hardware or VST instrument. In a hardware instrument preset you first select either MIDI, which gives you access to the full eight slots (each of which can have any CC between 0 and 127 assigned to it), or CV, where you are given four slots corresponding to the four CV outputs, each of which can carry any of the four available voltage ranges. In a VST instrument preset the full eight slots are present, but you are only able to assign the parameter controls that are defined in the VST instrument itself. Once you’ve assigned your controls, you can then either pick a pre-defined linear, logarithmic or exponential response curve to the force you’ll be applying to the Touché, or create your own custom response using the Curve Sensitivity Editor (CSE). Finally, you can assign minimum and/or maximum values to a control, either in the Slot Center itself or when modifying its curve in the CSE.
Since you can assign a single Shifting (or both horizontal Shiftings) to any or all of the eight slots, by assigning different controls to that Shifting you can create very complex changes in a sound when you touch the Touché.
Opening up the Instrument View in the Slot Center’s toolbar displays MIDI messages that can be sent when a hardware preset is loaded — Channel, Bank Select MSB, Bank Select LSB and Program Change — and, in the case of a plug-in preset, its control panel is displayed. The instrument view also allows you to assign a control to a slot either by selecting a slot and moving the chosen control or, using the speed-mapping function, simply selecting eight parameters on the plug-in’s control panel and then linking them, in the order that they were selected, to a displayed slot tab.
The Slot Center toolbar has four further facilities: Random, which assigns shiftings to slots at random; Flip Curves, which displays and gives you access to the control curves for all eight slots; Autoset, which automatically sets the min/max values of assigned controls in a preset to their current values in a hosted VST plug-in, thereby allowing you to browse through presets that you have created for that plug-in without changing its current sound; and Clear, which removes the contents of the current preset.
The rest of the Lié user interface is occupied by the Scope, a graphic representation of the amount of force that you’re applying to the Touché control surface. Although Scope is not going to mean much when you’re actually playing, it is useful when you’re exploring the effects of sensitivity levels and learning to gauge how much force is required to produce a given result at which sensitivity. Just above the control surface graphic sits the pitch-bend control, whose status can be stored in both hardware and software presets. When pitch-bend is active, the horizontal Shiftings control the pitch-bend via MIDI. Although there is no similar dedicated pitch control in CV, you can achieve the same result by assigning both horizontal Shiftings to the same CV output, and using that output, with min/max values scaled appropriately, to change the pitch of your hardware synth.
Since Lié comes loaded with presets for a selection of over 130 VST software synthesizers that were created in UVI Falcon and that can be played within the included UVI Workstation, you won’t need to have built your own presets before you can dive in and experiment with the Touché. Lié v1.2 also includes 50 templates covering a selection of synths and other hardware from Arturia, Behringer, Dave Smith Instruments, Elektron, Hypersynth, Korg, Kurzweil, Meeblip, MFB, Moog, Nord, Novation, Oto Machines, Roland, Strymon, Studio Electronics, Waldorf and Yamaha. You can also download a file of instrument-specific presets from the Expressive E web site, although not every unit with a template is covered at the present time.
When it comes to downloadable software presets, the selection is rather more limited, although VST instruments from Arturia, Lennar Digital, Native Instruments, Reveal Sound, Synthmaster, U-he and UVI are represented.
The Touché’s user manual contains specific Lié setup instructions for Ableton Live, Logic Pro, Cubase, PreSonus Studio One and GarageBand. Extrapolating these instructions to my DAW of choice (Reaper) was extremely simple. Once Lié loads into its track, any movement in Touché is reflected in the Slot Center. Both the hardware presets and the UVI Workstation VST instruments and presets load very quickly when selected and I had no issues working with either type.
The pre-programmed VST instruments and their associated presets (you can check their sounds out on Expressive E’s Soundcloud page) offer superb examples of what you can create with the Touché/Lié partnership. If a parameter is available to be controlled, it can be mapped to the Touché, enabling you to create control layouts and to ‘play’ them in a very intuitive and musically satisfying manner. Stacking a number of parameters on one Shifting gives you the possibility of creating subtle combinations of concurrent changes with the smallest of hand movements or of hitting huge crescendos with a bit more force — a most inspiring and satisfying experience indeed, and one that also transfers to hardware analogue, digital and modular synthesizers. The Expressive E web site contains demonstration and tutorial videos that illustrate just how powerful the combination of Touché and Lié can be.
On the hardware side, the Touché/Lié combination isn’t restricted to controlling only synthesizers, as its templates for Elektron’s Analog series, Strymon’s Big Sky and Timeline, and Roland’s TB-303 demonstrate. Configuring the Touché as a controller for the Elektron Analog Heat made the experience of playing through that superbly musical audio processor even more satisfying, as I could now access its controls via an interface that provided the touch and physical feedback that I get from a real-world, physical instrument.
It is very difficult to describe in words the way in which the Touché not only contributes to, but also feels part of, the sense of making music that I felt when using it, either with software instruments or with a hardware unit like the Analog Heat. Again, the Expressive E web site has a range of example and tutorial videos that give an excellent overview of what you will be able to achieve with the Touché and Lié.
I can’t think of any other hardware controller that offers the intuitive and three-dimensional physical freedom of expression that the Touché and Lié deliver. Perhaps the closest, similarly-priced functional equivalent that I can think of is Roli’s combination of their Seaboard Block, Equator Player and Blocks Dashboard with Max/MSP. However, as a controller, the Seaboard seems to me to be more akin to a cleverly and creatively reimagined piano keyboard with aftertouch and a ribbon controller, rather than a unit with the Touché’s ‘expression pedal for the hands’ approach. In fact, thinking about it, a Touché re-engineered as a floor expression pedal could be a killer accessory for hardware and software guitar rigs.
Being a guitarist rather than a keyboardist, one of the main joys of working with the Touché and Lié is the fact that I don’t need to possess great keyboard technique to draw out a high level of expression from a keyboard synthesizer. Another huge plus in the pairing’s favour is their CV and stand-alone MIDI compatibility with the rapidly burgeoning world of self-contained and modular synthesis. Taken together, the pairing of the Touché and Lié represents a cost-effective solution for anyone looking for an intuitive approach to manipulating pitch and timbre in both hardware and software synthesizers.