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Alternative Controllers: Part 1 from The Synthesizer by Mark Vail

Alternative Controllers

A keyboard isn’t the only means of playing a synthesizer. Synthesist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Kevin Fortune (http://www.kevinbrahenyfortune.com) is one of many who enjoy using alternative controllers. He believes the kind of controller you use not only directly influences the type of music you create, but it also can lead to “something less habitual and more spontaneous,” Fortune submits, than you’d otherwise play on a standard piano or organ keyboard. Kevin is grateful for manufacturers and individuals who actively create more kinesthetic controllers because they lead to music that is different and more expressive.

The universe of alternative controllers is vast and the following list is nowhere near comprehensive. It’s intended to get you started on a path of discovery to find the alternative controller(s) with which you’ll enjoy making music. Since the subject of modular synthesizers often comes into play here, I’ll refer you to my favorite modular website — Modular Grid (https://www.modulargrid.net) — where you can learn about the different formats and nearly every module available.

There are two very popular instruments — guitar and voice — I won’t cover here because players must drastically adjust their performance techniques in order to successfully convert their performance input into reliable MIDI data. Purposeful and essential inflections such as pitchbends and vibrato can significantly confuse a conversion device and lead to unexpected and undesirable results. For example, I’ve tested and reviewed a few voice/pitch-to-MIDI convertors and discovered that, in order to get accurate pitch detection, I had to sing with absolutely no vibrato and even certain vowel sounds can cause problems. In the end, I wouldn’t want anyone to hear the boring voice I had to sing with in order to get accurate results from a pitch-to-MIDI converter, and I’m sure there are similar obstacles with which to deal in guitar-to-MIDI converter systems. That said, many singers and guitar players may still want to try out such devices themselves and might have good or at least acceptable success.

If you want an expressive MIDI controller that looks and straps on like a guitar, Starr Labs (http://www.starrlabs.com) may have what you’re looking for within its Ztar lineup. Instead of actual guitar strings, their Z6s (http://www.starrlabs.com/product/z6s-in-stock) has what they call “string triggers” that you can pluck and strum to your heart’s content. Where there are frets and strings on a guitar, on the Z6S you’ll find buttons arranged in rows of six on a pseudo-fretboard. The Z6S also sports a joystick, knob, and connectors for MIDI and controllers.

Musicians who crave a guitar-like instrument capable of more accurate MIDI note generation than many MIDI guitar controllers should check out the Z6S controller from Starr Labs. (courtesy of Starr Labs)

Lacking the string triggers and looking less like a guitar — unless it’s one of the cigar-box varieties — but sporting 144 velocity-sensitive, backlit, multi-colored LED buttons laid out on a guitar-like fretboard and capable of transmitting MIDI wirelessly is Starr Labs’ Clipper (http://www.starrlabs.com/product/clipper-in-stock). It reportedly works really well with Ableton Live’s Session View mode to record and launch clips and scenes, and its LEDs can display text and images and add visual spark in performance onstage.

The latest MIDI guitar from Starr Labs, the Z7S (http://www.starrlabs.com/product/z7s-in-stock), looks more like the Clipper than the Z6S, but it features six string triggers along with a matrix of 6×24 touch-sensitive keys on its fingerboard.

Within Starr Labs’ keyboard series are controllers with various arrangements of non-piano-like keys. For example, the Microzone U-648 Generalized Keyboard (http://www.starrlabs.com/product/microzoneu648) sports a Matrix Hex array of 288 keys arranged so a musician can explore different tonal and fingering systems and microtonal divisions of the octave (more on that below in the Controllers for Microtonal Tunings section). The Starr Labs ZB12 Z-Board (http://www.starrlabs.com/product/zboard) offers a 12-row by 24-column key arrangement that combines the aspects of both the guitar fretboard and piano keyboard. Its little brother, the ZB6 Z-Board Array keyboard (http://www.starrlabs.com/product/zb6), has six rows by 24 columns of keys. Finally, the ZB2424 Z-Board Array controller (http://www.starrlabs.com/product/zboard2424) provides a matrix of 24 rows by 24 columns of keys.

Starr Labs also carries a variety of other products, including Airpower wireless MIDI systems (http://www.starrlabs.com/product-category/airpower-wireless).

Don’t forget to explore the DIY controller market. Among the great resources are Eowave Electronic Arts & Sensor Systems (http://www.eowave.com), I-CubeX (http://infusionsystems.com), and Livid Instruments (http://lividinstruments.com/products/builder), all of which offer plenty of tools for exploration in this field. In October 2015, Livid Instruments introduced the Builder Boxes series (http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2015/10/27/livid-instruments-debuts-diy-builder-box-midi-controller-kits/#more-66692), prime DIY kits for soldering-proficient and explorative makers.

Wind Controllers

One of the most popular wind controllers, Nyle Steiner’s Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), has been around since the 1970s, is favored by many brass players who want to play electronic sounds, and is still available in refurbished and occasionally new forms from Patchman Music (http://www.patchmanmusic.com). Nyle has hand-made many EVIs himself and, in 1987, Akai manufactured the EVI1000 controller and EWV2000 synth module, which were based on a custom EVI and synth-in-a-briefcase system called the EVI Steinerphone.

The prototype of Nyle Steiner’s Electronic Valve Instrument, or EVI, which he assembled in 1973. It took a few years before he started making them to sell to others. (courtesy of David Kean/The Audities Foundation)

Steiner’s goal was to create an electronic instrument that would play as expressively as a solo acoustic instrument like the violin, trumpet, or oboe, allowing the performer to produce human-influenced vibrato and breath-controlled dynamics. The pre-MIDI EVI functioned so well at translating the performer’s expressions into CVs and gates to drive analog synthesizers that Steiner was initially reluctant to rely purely on MIDI, considering it “an absolutely absurd idea because of the resolution of MIDI,” he admits. “There are only 127 steps, and when you do a crescendo you can hear it zipper. But numerous manufacturers of current sound modules have been able to smooth the response by interpolating between steps, so now I totally embrace the idea of playing using MIDI alone.”

The original production version of the Steiner EVI was the first synthesizer controller built specifically for trumpet players. While Nyle Steiner designed a model for Akai to produce, those he’s made himself are hand-built and each is in some way unique. Nyle also designed the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) for woodwind players. (courtesy of David Kean/The Audities Foundation)

Besides hosting the Nyle Steiner Homepage (www.patchmanmusic.com/NyleSteinerHomepage.html) and a comprehensive wind-controller website (www.patchmanmusic.com), Patchman Music’s Matt Traum has played, collected, repaired, and programmed synth patches for EVIs since nearly the beginning. He’s quick to share his enthusiasm about the EVI: “In addition to providing a huge pallet of sound possibilities for any brass player, Nyle’s EVI has been a blessing to brass players who simply can’t or don’t want to play its acoustic counterparts.”

Since 1987, Akai has manufactured several versions of another Nyle Steiner creation, the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI, http://www.akaipro.com/category/ewi-series), designed for woodwind players who want to explore the electronic-music universe. As of October 2015, Akai offers three models: the EWI USB, which supports plug-and-play functionality on Mac and Windows computers; the EWI4000S, which has MIDI output and a built-in analog-modeling synth engine; and the EWI5000, a sample-playback instrument introduced in 2013 that transmits audio wirelessly and offers MIDI and USB connectors for controlling external gear.

To provide an expressive voice for his Electronic Wind Instrument, Nyle Steiner designed a portable, two-oscillator, analog synth module during the mid 1980s. Kevin Fortune assembled five prototypes in attaché-sized flight cases for Nyle in 1984, including this one and the EWI that Kevin built for himself. (courtesy of Kevin Fortune, © 2004 Heartcall Music)

Woodwind players who want to play MIDI instruments should check out Akai Professional’s flagship wind instrument/MIDI controller, the EWI 5000. Besides coming with three gigabytes of sounds, it can transmit audio wirelessly for ultimate onstage mobility. (courtesy of Akai Professional)

Martin Hurni of Softwind Instruments (http://www.softwind.ch) has been producing a more traditional-looking woodwind controller, the Synthophone MIDI sax, for decades. He converts a Yamaha YAS-275 alto sax into a beautifully expressive and potent MIDI controller by hiding all of the electronics inside the instrument.

Although now you’ll only find them on the used market, in the past Yamaha made a line of woodwind-style MIDI controllers, including the WX5, WX7, and WX11. Their design was inspired by the pre-MIDI Lyricon. Not only can you buy refurbished WX controllers from Patchman Music, but Matt Traum also programs and sells wind-controller-specific patches for a wide range of synths. He recommends wind-controller players and those interested in taking it up check out the Wind Controller forum at groups.yahoo.com/group/windcontroller

Touch Controllers

Some of the earliest alternative controllers came from Don Buchla, who has mostly avoided implementing standard organ-style keyboards on his synthesizers. Beginning with the first modular synthesizer he developed for the San Francisco Tape Music Center (I highly recommend this book: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520256170), Don incorporated some form of touch-plate — two on the original 100 Series. “The input devices were an important aspect to that system,” he explains. “They were all capacitance-sensitive touch-plates, or resistance-sensitive in some cases, organized in various sorts of arrays.”

Morton Subotnick, co-founder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Ramon Sender in 1961, describes Buchla’s original touch-plates as being “pressure-sensitive. One had 12 keys and you could tune it straight across the board. You could get a chromatic scale if you chose to. It had three control voltages per position. The other one had ten keys and one output per key. We often used this one to control the amplitudes of musique concrète tapes during playback. You could literally play ten loops with your fingers.”

The 1970s-era Buchla Model 219 Compound Touch-Controlled Voltage Source, from Don Buchla’s original Series 200 modular systems, has 48 touch-sensitive surfaces configured like keys on a piano, notes C to B. It can generate control voltages monophonically and polyphonically — up to four voices — and the key pads respond to pressure. The 219 also has a separate eight-key section of independently tunable keys, two joysticks for single-point control of two variables each, three keys with independent pulse and pressure outputs, adjustable portamento, a bipolar CV output applicable for pitchbends and vibrato, and a buffered digital output to interface with external digital processors. (Rick Smith, Buchla Restorations, www.electricmusicbox.com)

Serge Tcherepnin, who began designing Serge Modular systems in 1974, also avoided organ-style keyboards. The Touch Activated Keyboard Sequencer (TKB) is the biggest and most complicated Serge module. Along with a matrix of 16 columns by four rows of knobs, the TKB sports a couple of switches, 30 banana jacks, and a strip of 16 touch-plates along the bottom of the panel. Not only will the TKB function as an analog step sequencer, but you can also select a specific column by touching one of these 16 buttons, making it a voltage programmer for triggering different notes or selecting a different arrangement of knob settings. Drew Neumann often turns to the TKB in his vintage six-panel Serge Modular system. He finds that not only is its touch-plate pressure sensitive, but it’s also unpredictably mood-sensitive. Its response can vary depending on the humidity, how dry your skin is, or the static-electricity and grounding conditions determined by whether you’re wearing socks or going barefooted. “Sometimes,” says Drew, “if you touch two TKB buttons you’ll get different intervals depending on which buttons you touch; other times you’ll get a garbled response. It depends on your overall resistance, the mood of the machine that day, or whatever.”

Numerous touch-activated controllers have appeared in the Eurorack modular format. Pressure Points from Make Noise (http://www.makenoisemusic.com/pressurepoints.shtml) is a four-column controller with each column providing a pulse-wave-like squiggle of copper at the bottom that senses finger pressure. There are three knobs to set CV levels to be output by each step. You can chain up to four Pressure Points together and with Make Noise’s Brains module (http://www.makenoisemusic.com/brains.shtml) you can convert one or two Pressure Points into a four- or eight-step analog sequencer. Tony Rolando of Make Noise also created René (http://www.makenoisemusic.com/rene.shtml), described as “the world’s first and only Cartesian Sequencer.” René features two four-by-four matrices on its front panel, one of touch-plate buttons and the other of knobs. It has four clock inputs, two CV inputs, and outputs for quantized voltages, non-quantized voltages, and two gate/pulse streams.

The Make Noise René Cartesian Sequencer. (courtesy of Make Noise Co.)

Tony Rolando of Make Noise poses with a Eurorack modular system containing some of his noise toys and controllers at the January 2010 NAMM show. (Mark Vail)

Synthwerks (http://www.synthwerks.com) offers several varieties of force-sensing touch-plate controller modules for Eurorack. The smallest is the FSR-1N, with a single finger-size pad; the equivalent of four of these make up the FSR-4, available in Classic (through-hole circuitry) and MkII (SMT and thus shallower) versions. Four larger force-sensing squares appear on one of the two modules in Synthwerks’ FSR-4C/B package. You can touch the squares with your fingers or cover them with included rubber pad overlays and strike them with drumsticks without damaging them.

On display at the January 2011 NAMM was this tabletop Eurorack controller panel filled with Synthwerks modules. Synthwerks designer James Husted and engineer Steve Turnidge both refer to the package as a “skiff” and tell me its enclosure consists of scrap Plexiglas and spare Schroff rails. From left to right you see a custom module that connects via a seven-pin DIN connector to the main modular cabinet for power and to conduct four busses of CV and gate signals; two FSR-4 MkII force-sensing touch-plate modules, clearly the newer version made with surface-mount technology for a shallower profile, not the Classic version with through-hole components and socketed ICs because it would be far too deep to fit in this enclosure; a dual-component FSR-4C/B combo, comprising the output section and a four-pad sensor module; an FSR-1N single-channel Force-Sensing Resistor module; and a Lamp-1 module, which combines a four-way mult with a dimmable gooseneck LED lamp that isn’t visible here. (Mark Vail)

In August 2015, Sputnik Modular introduced the Multi-Touch Keyboard Controller (http://sputnik-modular.com/multi-touch-keyboard-controller), an 84hp Eurorackable touch-plate instrument with 29 pads laid out in keyboard fashion; Moog-standard one-volt/octave CV output; a pressure-sensitive ribbon for generating control voltages; two-, three-, or four-foice polyphonic and monophonic modes; an arpeggiator that will sync to internal or external clock, up, down, and random note-generation modes, hold, and a trigger input; and all of the necessary CV inputs and outputs in the form of 3.5mm jacks.

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Sputnik Modular’s Multi-Touch Keyboard Controller. (courtesy of Sputnik Modular)

Within BugBrand’s (http://www.bugbrand.co.uk) version of the FracRak universe — banana connectors instead of 3.5mm jacks — comes the BugBrand CTL1 Touch Panel. It combines four touch-plate “keys” with four-step sequencing and Tom Bugs’ special approach to clock-sync, which involves combining clocking signals from multiple sources to create a clock train that’s synced to a master yet avoids repeating a 4/4 pattern ad nauseam. Tom admits his interest in metric variety comes from his drumming background and says he loves odd polyrhythms.

The BugBrand CTL1 Touch Panel is a FracRak-format module that combines touchplate and sequencing capabilities. Its four tactile “keys” generate CV output signals whose voltage levels depend on how much skin comes into contact with the keys themselves, also commonly referred to as “pressure.” Touching a key also results in the CTL1 transmitting gate and CV signals to common outputs and activating one of the CTL1’s four stages — identified as Columns A through D. Each stage transmits three CVs out of independent Row 1 through 3 outputs, their voltage levels determined by the corresponding knob in that row. A two-way switch allows you to set Row 3’s knobs to cover a range of either two or ten volts. Pipe in a clock signal and the CTL1 becomes a four-step sequencer, allowing you to switch to left or right playback direction, or stop sequencing altogether. If you touch a stage key while the sequencer is engaged, the CTL1 will stay on that column as long as you keep touching the key. It exclusively bears banana jacks, which is common for nearly all audio, CV, and gate connections throughout the BugBrand module range. (courtesy of BugBrand)

​Beyond modular-specific controllers, there’s a wide range of touch-activated alternative controllers from which to choose. Don Buchla extended his application of touch-plates in 1990 with Thunder, which offers serious performance programmability and 25 touch-sensitive performance pads, some of which can be split into two or three different response sections. Its configuration of touch-plates also appeared within the Buchla Series 200e as the Model 222e Multi-Dimensional Kinesthetic Input Port. Since Thunder, Buchla touch-plates have not only been pressure-sensitive, but many of them also track the position of a finger across their surfaces.

Buchla’s Thunder MIDI controller came out in 1990. You can split 13 of its 25 performance pads to transmit two independent MIDI notes per pad, and you can split another pair three ways, allowing a total transmission of 42 different notes. Every performance pad senses both velocity and pressure and can transmit MIDI control change commands and other data along with a specific note on any of the 16 MIDI channels. There’s internal memory for eight Thunder configurations, and its built-in “riff” function allows the storage of 99 notes divisible into eight riffs. You can create riff sequences ahead of time or capture and loop them improvisationally during performance. (courtesy of David Kean/The Audities Foundation)


Alternative Controllers: Part 2 from The Synthesizer by Mark Vail –

Touch Controllers (continued) If you’d prefer a surface that’s stretched much further, consider the Haken Continuum Fingerboard (http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum). Its control surface feels like silk and looks like a wide ribbon with alternating s