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A wind controller, sometimes referred to as a "wind synth", or "wind synthesizer", is a wind instrument capable of controlling one or more music synthesizers or other devices. Wind controllers are most commonly played and fingered like a woodwind instrument, usually the saxophone, with the next most common being brass fingering, particularly the trumpet. Models have been produced that play and finger like other acoustic instruments such as the recorder or the tin whistle. One form of wind controller, the hardware-based variety, uses electronic sensors to convert fingering, breath pressure, bite pressure, finger pressure, and other gesture information into control signals. Another form of wind controller uses software to convert the acoustic sound of an unmodified wind instrument directly into MIDI messages. In either case, the control signals or MIDI messages generated by the wind controller are used to control internal or external devices such as analog synthesizers or MIDI-compatible synthesizers, softsynths, sequencers, or even lighting systems.
Since a wind controller usually does not make a sound on its own, it must be connected to a sound generating device such as a MIDI or analog synthesizer which is connected to an amplifier. For this reason, a wind controller can sound like almost anything depending on the capabilities of the connected sound generator. However, Ewi models like the Akai 4000S have a true sound output, as well as a Midi output. The fingering and shape of the controller put no acoustic limitations on how the wind controller sounds. For example, a wind controller can be made to sound like a trumpet, saxophone, violin, piano, pipe organ, choir, or even a barnyard rooster.
Analog Wind Controllers
The first widely played wind controller was the Lyricon from Computone which came about in the 1970s era of analog synthesizers. The Lyricon was based on the fingerings of the saxophone and used a similar mouthpiece. It set the standard for hardware-based wind controllers with a number of features that have been preserved in today's MIDI wind controllers, including the ability to correctly interpret the expressive use of reed articulation, breath-controlled dynamics, and embouchure-controlled pitch variation. The Lyricon also expanded the playing range several octaves beyond the accustomed range for woodwind players. Tone generation on the Lyricon was limited to a dedicated analog synthesizer designed specifically to interpret various wired analog outputs from the instrument. Notable early recording artists on the Lyricon include Roland Kirk and Tom Scott. Third-party adaptations would later bring the Lyricon into the MIDI era.
The next analog wind controller of note was the EWI-1000 from Akai which, like the Lyricon, was paired with a dedicated analog, voltage-controlled tone module, the EWV-2000. The EWV-2000 had no MIDI IN, though it did have MIDI OUT. The EWI-1000/EWV-2000 pair were actually a hybrid digital/analog system. Analog signals were derived from the various sensors (key, bite, bend, etc.) on the EWI-1000 controller unit, then converted to digital signals by a front-end microprocessor in the EWV-2000. These digital signals were then altered by the microprocessor and D/A converted to internal analog control voltages appropriate for the analog synthesizer IC's within the EWV-2000. The D/A used within the EWV-2000 used a very high resolution and conversion rate, such that the responsiveness to the player felt immediate, i.e. "analog." The subsequent EWI-3000 and EWI-3020 systems also used this A/D/A scheme within their dedicated tone modules, though these later models of the EWI would support MIDI IN and OUT.
The MIDI Controller Revolution
With the advent of MIDI and computer-based digital samplers, the new music technology of the 1980s ushered in a variety of "alternative" MIDI controllers, making it possible for non-keyboardists to play MIDI synthesizers and samplers for the first time. These new controllers included, most notably: MIDI drums, MIDI guitar synthesizers, and MIDI wind controllers. Leading the way to demonstrate the virtuosic potential of this new arsenal of MIDI technology on the world stage through extensive touring and big-label recordings were guitarist Pat Metheny playing the guitar synthesizer and saxophonist Michael Brecker playing the wind controller, each leading their own bands.
Digital Wind Controllers and MIDI
The most widely played purely digital wind controllers include the Yamaha WX series and the Akai EWI series. These instruments are capable of generating a standard MIDI data stream, thereby eliminating the need for dedicated synthesizers and opening up the possibility of controlling any MIDI-compatible synthesizer or other device. These instruments, while shaped something like a clarinet with a saxophone-like key layout, both offer the option to recognize fingerings for an assortment of woodwinds and brasswinds. The major distinction between the approach taken by the two companies is in the action of their keys. Yamaha WX series instruments have moving keys like a saxophone or flute that actuate small switches when pressed. Akai EWI series instruments have immovable, touch-sensitive keys that signal when the player is merely making contact with the keys. In the hands of skilled players each of these instruments has proved its ability to perform at a high level of artistry.
The now defunct Casio Zanzithophone (DH-series) was a toy-like wind controller introduced in the mid-1980s and had its own external speaker (with limited sound sources) as well as being usable as a midi controller.
A recent addition to the wind controller category is the Synthophone, an entirely electronic wind controller embedded in the shell of an alto saxophone. Since the electronic components take up the open space of the saxophone, it is not playable as an acoustic instrument; however, since the exterior matches that of the acoustic instrument, it is significantly more familiar to play.
Additionally, keyboard-based breath controllers are also available. These modulate standard keyboards, computers and other midi devices, meaning they are not played like a woodwind, but like a keyboard, but with breath controller (similar to melodian.) Yamaha's BC series can be used to control DX and EX units. Midi Solutions makes a converter box that allows any midi device to be controlled by the Yamaha BC controllers. TEControl also makes a USB device that is simply a jump drive with a breath tube attached that can be plugged into any standard computer.
The Software Based Wind Controllers
Through the 1990s the major hardware-based wind controllers improved through successive models and a number of minor, and less commercially successful, controllers were introduced. These controllers remained the only viable bridge between the woodwind or brasswind player and the synthesizer. But dating back to the 1980s a lesser known software-based alternative began to emerge. With a software-based wind controller the musician plays an ordinary woodwind (or brasswind) into a microphone at which point a software program (sometimes with dedicated computer hardware) interprets the pitch, dynamics, and expression of this acoustic sound and generates a standard MIDI data stream just in time to play along with the performer through a synthesizer.
While the first commercial product attempting this approach dates back to the Fairlight Voicetracker VT-5 of 1985, a more successful modern approach using software on personal computers (combined with a digital audio workstation and softsynths) is relatively new. Two recent examples of this approach are Thing-1 from ThingTone Software, and Digital Ear Realtime from Epinoisis Software.
Range of Expression
Due in part to their sensitive key switching and breath sensing systems the hardware-based wind controllers put precise demands on a player who hopes to play with technical mastery. An accomplished woodwind player may find that a hardware-based wind controller will produce an unwanted note (called a "glitch") even at the slightest imperfection in fingering or articulation technique. As the better recordings show, these difficulties can be overcome with practice.
In contrast to live performance with a wind controller, and in response to these technical challenges, some "performances" are achieved through careful post-processing or note-by-note insertion and editing using a notation or sequencer program.[original research?]
Virtually all current synthesizers and their sound libraries are designed to be played primarily with a keyboard controller, whereby the player often reserves one hand to manipulate the many real-time controls to determine how the instrument sounds, and perhaps using a foot to manipulate an expression pedal.[original research?]
Wind controller players do not have access to as many of these controls and thus are often limited in exploiting all of the potential voicings of their synthesizers, but the technologies of physical modeling (Yamaha VL-70) and sample modeling promise more expression control for wind controller players. Furthermore, sound designers are paying more attention to the different playing idioms in which their sounds will be used. For example, certain percussion sounds do not work well with a wind controller simply because playing a struck instrument it is not idiomatic to the woodwind, whereas synthesized instruments that model the acoustic properties of a woodwind will seem fitting and natural to a wind controller player.[original research?]
A few of the many hardware (Yamaha, Roland, Akai, Kurzweill) and software (Native Instruments, Garritan, SampleModeling, Sample Logic, LinPlug) synthesizers provide specific support for wind controllers, and they vary widely with respect to how well they emulate acoustic wind, brass, and string instruments. A new technology, devised by SampleModeling has specific settings for Yamaha and EWI wind controllers and has succeeded in producing very rapid natural responsiveness with their trumpet and saxophone synthesizers. That said, virtually all current synthesizers respond to MIDI continuous controllers and the data provided by wind controller breath and lip input can usually be routed to them in an expressive way.[original research?]
An example of a popular hardware synthesizer with wind controller support is the Yamaha VL70m. However, although the responsiveness is admirable, the emulation of acoustic instruments leaves a lot to be desired.[original research?] It is able to connect directly to the Yamaha WX series of controllers and via MIDI to the Akai and other controllers. Similarly, an example of an excellent software synthesizer with support for wind controller playing is the Zebra synthesizer from Urs Heckmann.
The major manufacturers of wind controllers are Akai, and Yamaha. Available production models include the Akai EWI4000, Akai EWI-USB, and Yamaha WX-5. Older models out of production include the Akai-3020, Yamaha WX-11, Yamaha WX-7, and offerings from Casio including the DH-100, DH-200, DH-500 and DH-800. Martin Hurni of Softwind Instruments in Switzerland is the inventor and builder of the Synthophone.
There are also controllers intended to be played by brass instrumentalists.
The software-based wind controllers currently in production are manufactured by ThingTone Software with a Mac OS X product called "Thing-1", and Epinoisis Software with a Windows product called "Digital Ear Realtime".