Paul White, with a little help from Rachel Fletcher and Paul Farrer, gives a blow-by-blow account of a controller that allows MIDI modules to harness the power of wind.
Despite numerous attempts by various manufacturers over the last 15 years to promote alternative hardware controllers, MIDI remains predominantly associated with keyboard‑based instruments. This is, as I have opined in many past SOS Leader columns, mainly due to the nature of MIDI itself; being an electronic system, it prefers the unambiguous nature of data created by a series of on/off switches, which is, of course, all a MIDI‑equipped electronic keyboard is. MIDI guitars, on the other hand, can be played very expressively, but the technical challenges of converting the string vibrations to MIDI information have still not been fully resolved.
Wind instruments, however, also lend themselves reasonably well to 'MIDI‑fication; hence, for example, Yamaha's original foray into the realms of wind controllers in the late '80s, which produced the original WX7 (reviewed way back in SOS December '87, pre‑history fans). The keys of a wind instrument can be used to operate note on/off switches in much the same ways as the keys on a piano‑style keyboard, and it is then relatively simple to convert breath pressure into MIDI controller information to determine, for example, the loudness of the note. Beyond that, it's also easy to add sensors to enhance the degree of musical expression — for example, lip‑pressure sensors, bender thumbwheels and so on.
Which brings us to Yamaha's new WX5, a MIDI controller for '90s wind players. With no sounds of its own, the WX5 is analogous to a dumb master keyboard — you'll need to connect it to a MIDI sound generator of some description. The most obvious choice for a monophonic wind controller is Yamaha's own VL70m physical modelling sound module, not least because the VL70m has a dedicated WX connector that obviates the need for a MIDI cable.
Physically, the unit is arranged much like a saxophone with 16 keys. Though the construction is largely of plastic, the unit feels substantial and nicely engineered, with a smooth, positive key action. Power comes either from six AAA batteries or from a conventional external PSU (although this is not supplied). The latter is obviously cheaper and you could probably live with it in the studio, but it would be rather less elegant on stage, as you already need one other cable to carry the MIDI or WX signal. There's a cable clip on the body of the instrument to prevent the plugs being pulled out inadvertently, as well as a fixing eye for a lanyard.
The reed‑style mouthpiece has a hinged and sprung simulated reed, and putting pressure upon this enables pitch‑bending to be accomplished. There are two modes available: the delightfully named Tight Lip and Loose Lip. Tight Lip mode means that some lip pressure has to be applied at all times to maintain a normal pitch (so lessening the pressure will cause a pitch drop, while increasing the pressure causes the pitch to rise). In Loose Lip mode, the normal resting position of the reed causes no pitch change so that only upward bending is possible. Substituting the reedless, recorder‑style mouthpiece precludes the use of any lip pressure techniques. In either case, both the wind and lip sensor sensitivity are adjustable to suit the user.
Along with the choice of a reeded or reedless style mouthpiece, the WX5 provides a choice of four selectable fingering modes: three saxophone modes and a flute mode. Saxophone A is essentially the same as regular sax fingering, except the fingering is the same for all octaves and the separate octave keys are used to change octaves. Saxophone B is similar, but incorporates a pair of trill keys for whole‑tone and semitone trills. Saxophone C allows alternate fingering, which produces slight changes in pitch and timbre. Flute mode uses a similar fingering system to regular flutes, but the lip pressure sensor, if used,will cause a one‑octave jump to occur rather than a continuous bending of pitch.
There are four octave keys operated by the left thumb that provide octave shifts of one or two octaves in either direction. Smooth pitch‑bending is possible via a sprung rocker wheel operated by the right thumb, and this provides a much greater bend range than the lip sensor. The wheel is contoured and has a notch to accommodate the thumb, giving positive control. It's possible to reconfigure the wheel so that different directions from the centre position produce different MIDI messages, the choices being pitch‑bend in both directions, pitch‑bend down and mod wheel up, MIDI controllers 16 and 17 (non‑reserved), or brightness (controller 74). Just in front of the wheel is the Key Hold button that may be used to hold one note while continuing to play others over the top (although this, of course, relies on the use of a sound module that is at least duophonic). There are four choices as to what exactly the hold mode does, including functioning as a MIDI sustain key or a portamento switch. Also located beneath the instrument are Program Up/Down keys, though it's also possible to call up a patch directly (including bank selection) using combinations of these buttons and note keys.
I make no claim to being a wind instrument player, other than occasional dabblings on wooden flute or didgeridoo, so I enlisted the help of Rachel Fletcher, a professional wind player and music teacher, as well as SOS regular Paul Farrer, who used to play clarinet and sax in his school orchestra (for detailed comments from Paul, see the 'Going Back To My Flutes' box).
Rachel felt the key action was rather lighter than on 'the real thing', but added that this could benefit certain players. She thought the octave switches were too easy to press by accident, and suggested that a dimple between the two groups of switches to help locate the thumb might be helpful. Similarly, she felt the bend wheel required quite a lot of thumb movement, which could interfere with the playing of more complicated musical pieces. While operating the bend wheel, it is also quite easy to press on the Hold button by mistake. She felt that it was possible to adapt your playing style to all of these differences, but that the instrument would be best suited to playing non‑wind instrument sounds, as it doesn't respond in anything like the same way as a true acoustic instrument. In particular, the amount of expression that could be introduced via breath pressure and lip pressure fell far short of what could be achieved with the real thing.
Rachel's conclusion was that it was wrong to expect the WX5 to drive a VL70m or other sound module with a wind patch selected and then expect it to be as organic as the real thing. The transition is rather like a piano player moving over to a synth with a plastic keyboard and limited dynamics, then complaining that the natural resonance of a large piece of wood is missing. It has to be treated as a new instrument that just happens to let wind players use their existing fingering and breathing skills. Her overall verdict was one of enthusiasm, although with the proviso that the WX5 was used creatively and not simply to produce 'fake' wind sounds.
The ability to play different sounds using a familiar fingering technique could be very creative.
Reviewing a piece of gear by committee is a little unusual, but in this case, I think the results more than justified the approach. The WX5 is a well‑engineered instrument and its mechanical action is very similar to that of its acoustic counterpart, albeit a little lighter. There was general agreement that the octave switch arrangement could be improved by providing a thumb depression. Both players felt the experience of controlling a real wind instrument by breath was rather different from the way the WX5 plays, and that there was little to be gained from trying to play, say, sax‑like sounds from the WX5 when a real sax would do the job significantly better. That said, it was acknowledged that the ability to play different sounds using a familiar fingering technique could be very creative. Paul Farrer seemed more positive about the WX5 on the whole, which isn't surprising given his less 'acoustic' background. Then again, he was the least happy with the lip sensor as a means of pitch control.
Yamaha have tried very hard to make this a professional quality controller — a fact which is reflected in the price — but musical instruments are very personal devices, and it is clear that not all wind instrument players will take to the WX5. However, it seems that anyone who already knows how to play the sax or flute could adapt to it reasonably quickly, if they wanted to experiment with non‑traditional wind sounds. In the right hands, there's no doubt that the WX5 is capable of great musical expression.
The WX5 offers a choice of Mono or Poly MIDI operation while other interface customisation can be done using DIP switches found beneath a rubber cover on the underside of the instrument. Here you can set various parameters relating to fingering style or breath and lip control, or you can set normal or fast response and whether the high D and D# keys should function as playing keys or control change switches for real‑time performance control. It's also here that the bend wheel function is selected. Rotary presets beneath the body allow the wind gain and zero to be adjusted, lip zero. These come preset to sensible values, but individual players will probably want to fine‑tune them to their own playing style.
Prior to my teenage years, I was quite happy playing my beloved clarinet and tenor saxophone in the school orchestra. However, from about the age of 15 onwards, the idea of blowing down an oddly‑shaped wooden or metal tube to produce a rather uninspiring monophonic noise became increasingly rather strange to me; and my fascination with the piano (and, more importantly, keyboards and synthesizers) became a bigger and bigger part of my musical life. When I was 15, I bought my first synthesizer, a Yamaha DX100. This had more sex appeal than a million clarinets and loads of cool sounds too (even some clarinet and saxophone presets!). What use did I have for mere wind instruments when I could now become a Jedi master of FM synthesis? First, the clarinet was stuffed into a box behind the piano, and a few years later my shiny gold sax waspart‑exchanged for a second‑hand DAT machine.
Fast‑forward a few years; the editor of SOS asks me to have a look at the new Yamaha WX5. He sets me up in his studio, plugs the WX5 into a VL70m tone module and leaves me to it. After just a few moments of blowing away the woodwind cobwebs from my mind, I was impressed.
The fingering styles and general layout of the instrument are very much in keeping with the saxophone, the main exception being the four Octave Shift buttons on the back. As traditional saxophones only have a single one of these, it took a while to get used to the fact that I now had up to seven octaves to play with. Having said that, the layout and function of these four buttons is logical and allows you a much higher degree of flexibility and, of course, playable range via MIDI than you would perhaps expect.
The other big performance difference is the pitch wheel located next to the thumb rest on the back of the instrument. Obviously this is going to take the traditional sax player a while to come to terms with, but after the initial shock of having a completely unfamiliar controller to use, I found it to be most effective, and it can be assigned to transmit a wide range of standard MIDI commands (such as Modulation, Control Change, and Brightness). Once you have mastered it, this will prove to be an undoubtedly valuable and expressive performance tool.
I found the pressure sensor under the reed on the mouthpiece a little more difficult to cope with. Acting as a sort of additional pitch controller, it allows you to bend notes up or down slightly, depending on the Lip Mode you have selected. I'm sure many users will have fun with this, but for my money the whole concept felt just a little too alien. Luckily, the WX5 comes with an additional recorder‑type mouthpiece without a reed (and therefore with no lip‑bending potential). On the whole, I felt more comfortable playing with this than the sax‑style mouthpiece.
One niggle I do have is that the left‑hand thumb plate on the back of the instrument is often difficult to feel; I found that my thumb slipped off more than just a couple of times, hitting one or other of the Octave Shift keys and causing sudden pitch leaps. Perhaps a slightly concave indentation or more of a slip‑free surface could improve things a bit. Having tried the WX5 with its perfect partner the Yamaha VL70m, I can honestly say that wind players in search of expression with full MIDI control and realism are not likely to be disappointed; although I would add that using the WX5 on its own as a simple MIDI controller for a sampler or tone module does limit its expressive potential slightly. Despite this, the WX5 has to be seen as a triumph of intelligent design.
After they've overcome the novelty of having more features than they are used to, I think sax players should find themselves feeling reasonably at home with the WX5. Using it as a studio‑based programming tool, the competent player will be impressed by the range of control over MIDI sound sources that this instrument can offer.
As a performance instrument the WX5 looks the biz, and although it would be easy to dismiss it as a gimmick, if you take time to get to know it, it will make you realise just how inexpressive and lifeless simply triggering notes from a keyboard can actually be. After luring me away from my clarinet and saxophone all those years ago with the DX100, Yamaha have now finally given me a solid reason to start thinking seriously again about the expressive power of wind! Paul Farrer
- Wide range of MIDI control options.
- Alternative fingering modes.
- PSU not included.
- Octave keys too easy to operate inadvertently.
A well thought‑out and nicely engineered controller that allows wind players to capitalise on their existing skills to play MIDI instruments expressively.
£549 including VAT. Some dealers will also be packaging the WX5 with the VL70m at £699 including VAT.