Wind controller

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San Francisco musician Onyx Ashanti playing a wind controller

A wind controller, sometimes referred to as a wind synthesizer, is an electronic wind instrument and usually in the form of a MIDI controller associated with one or more music synthesizers. 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 or action information into control signals that affect musical sounds. Another form of wind controller uses software to convert the acoustic sound of an unmodified acoustic wind instrument directly into Musical Instrument Digital Interface (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, synth modules, softsynths, sequencers, or even non-instruments such as lighting systems.

Simpler breath controllers are also available. Unlike wind controllers, they do not trigger notes and are intended for use in conjunction with a keyboard or synthesizer.[1] A breath controller can be used with a keyboard MIDI controller to add articulation and expression to notes sounded on the keyboard. For example, a performer who has pressed a long held note on the keyboard with a sustained sound, such as a string pad, could blow harder into the breath controller set to control volume to make this note crescendo, or gradually blow more and more gently, to make the volume die away.

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.



Already in the 1930s Benjamin F. Miessner was working on various electroacoustic instruments. Among these was an electroacoustic clarinet, that featured an electromagnetic pickup for the reed vibration and was connected to a variety of electronic filters. Miessner’s patent [2] from 1936 marks the birth of the electronic wind instrument family.[3]

Early experiments with fully electronic instruments started in the 1940s. Leo F. J. Arnold invented an electronic clarinet that featured an on/off-switch controlled by the human breath. This instrument is documented in Arnold’s patent [4] from 1941.[3]

The Frenchman Georges Jenny and the German engineer Ernst Zacharias played an essential role in the development of the first analog wind controllers in the 1950s. Jenny applied his first patent [5] for an electronic wind instrument in 1951. It features a breath transducer for variable volume control, that works with a piezo element. The prototypes of Zacharias, who started to work on electronic wind instruments in 1956, lead to the first commercially produced wind synthesizer – the Hohner Electra-Melodica, released in 1967.[3]

Analog wind controllers[edit]

Computone Wind Synthesizer Controller
(essentially, Lyricon II without synthesizer)

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 (e.g., 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.

MIDI controller revolution[edit]

With the advent of MIDI and computer-based digital samplers in the early 1980s, the new music technology ushered in a variety of "alternative" MIDI controllers. In the 1960s and 1970s, the main way for a musician to play synthesizers was with a keyboard. With MIDI, it became 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[edit]

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 brass. 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 DH series were toy-like wind controllers introduced in the mid-1980s and had a built-in speaker (with limited sound sources) as well as being usable as midi controllers.

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 a breath controller (similar to a pump organ.) 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.

Software based wind controllers[edit]

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 brass 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 wind instrument 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[edit]

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" in recordings 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 and articulation changes of their synthesizers, but the technologies of physical modeling (Yamaha VL-70), sample modeling and hybrid technologies (SWAM engine) 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, Aodyo) and software (Native Instruments, Garritan, SampleModeling, Sample Logic, LinPlug, Audio Modeling) synthesizers provide specific support for wind controllers, and they vary widely with respect to how well they emulate acoustic wind, brass, and string instruments. The SWAM technology, devised by Audio Modeling, has specific settings for Yamaha, EWI, Sylphyo and Aerophone wind controllers and has succeeded in producing very rapid natural responsiveness with their woodwinds and bowed strings virtual instruments. Also Samplemodeling has specific settings for wind controllers on their Kontakt-based brass. 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 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 a 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 EWI5000, and Akai EWI-USB. Older models out of production include the Akai-3020, Yamaha WX11, Yamaha WX7, Yamaha WX5, 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. Last coming is the french Startup AODYO with their Wireless MIDI Wind Controller, the SYLPHYO.

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".

Wind controllers with saxophone fingerings[edit]


The Synthophone is a Wind Controller synthesizer. It is a MIDI sax offering real sax fingerings and a standard sax embouchure. The MIDI hardware allows the key action as well as breath and lip pressure to be read as MIDI data. Since it is a saxophone, the fingerings are the same with some additions - Several combinations allow real-time editing of patches and harmony. The instrument has made several appearances in NAMM, including 1997.[6] "'The design of the Synthophone goes back to the "pre-MIDI times" of 1981, where the first prototype (a wood-stick with Boehm-like keys) was designed by Martin Hurni. It was connected to a dedicated analog synthesizer system. This first stage of Synthophone was followed by a REAL alto sax with keys connected to a switching system to give a more realistic playing feel'".[7]"' At the ARS ELECTRONICA 1984 contest, the first prize was given to the design of the Synthophone for its "most original and future-oriented development in the field of electronic sound production'".[8] After, the MIDI capable prototype was developed to increase its functionality to a Wind controller. The Synthophone is an evolution of the acoustic saxophone into the information age. The Synthophone is made by Softwind Instruments in Bern, Switzerland.


After the Synthophone, several other MIDI saxes have been released that offer real sax fingerings: in 2019 the Travel Sax by Odisei Music,[9] and in 2020 the YDS-150 digital saxophone by Yamaha.[10] These MIDI saxes have sensors for breath pressure to adjust the volume, but they do not read lip pressure and thus do not allow the pitch to be controlled by the embouchure or by the manner of breathing. With the YDS-150, pitch bend can be achieved using a separate input on the instrument. Both the Travel Sax and the YDS-150 provide for settings customisation using a Bluetooth-connected mobile app.

Distinguishing features[edit]

The Synthophone requires different maintenance than a saxophone. It differs from other wind controllers by not having onboard presets, it must be used with a computer or MIDI synthesizer. The reed is glued to a machined metal piece (lip sensor).[11] The additional finger combinations allow the instrument to produce polyphonic effects to make it a chordal instrument or it can be played as a homophonic instrument.[12] Some other distinguishing features are selectable diatonic tonality, six chord variations (inversions, subs, number of voices, unison/chords) adjusted with lips, freeze harmony, sustain, and obligato or portamento.[13] Programmable to change to the keys of Bb, C, Eb. The electronics are within a Yamaha YAS-275 saxophone.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Breath Controller". Sweetwater. Aug 14, 2003. Retrieved 2020-01-14.
  2. ^ [1], Miessner, Benjamin F., "Apparatus for the production of music" , US2138500, 1936.
  3. ^ a b c Swoboda, Andreas (2017). Die Anfänge der elektronischen Blasinstrumente (1 ed.). Osnabrück: epOs. ISBN 9783940255709. OCLC 978263084.
  4. ^ [2], Arnold, Leo F. J., "Electrical clarinet" , US2301184, 1941.
  5. ^ [3], Jenny, Georges, "Improvements in or relating to electronic musical instruments" , GB703733A, 1951.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Julian Horsey (2019-03-14). "Travel Sax super small electronic saxophone". Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  10. ^ Paul Ridden (2020-09-24). "Yamaha blows out authentic-sounding digital saxophone". Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^

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