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A Breath Of Fresh Air

Catch your breath before reading - a new age in synth controllers is dawning and they'll blow you away. But where do they fit into the present scheme of things? No MT, no comment.

WHY IS IT that the advent of a new musical instrument - or significant variation on an existing one - invites comments and accusations of it bringing about the death of another?

Let me give you a couple of "Frinstances": the synthesiser supposedly threatened players of all sorts of "traditional" instruments to the extent that the Musicians' Union considered banning its use. And the drum machine was said to mark the end of the live drummer, particularly the session drummer. Remember all the jokes about keeping time, too many fancy fills and arriving at gigs hungover? Well some people didn't find them all that funny. The most recent "threat" to the status quo has been the sampler: capable of reproducing the sounds of almost any instrument (although, admittedly, with varying degrees of conviction), it's far more likely to bring premature retirement to the professional flautist than synthesisers ever were. And was there not a heated debate conducted through these very pages over whether or not FM synthesis had outdated analogue a short while ago?

But hold on a minute - there are still orchestras and drummers regularly checking in and out of studios and wowing audiences. And so many interviews contain references to combining methods of synthesis to produce sounds that it's becoming boring to read. So what went wrong? The truth is that there's enough room for these and many more developments in musical instrument technology.

Which brings me to my point: anyone attending this year's British Music Fair could not have escaped the presence of the Akai EVI & EWI and the Yamaha WX7 - the latest methods of controlling synthesiser and sampler modules. And so the next people to recognise a threat to their craft are...

Wind players. Yes, get the jokes out of the way and I'll continue. Simply, the EVI is a trumpet-style controller and the EWI and WX7 are sax-type controllers. So what's going to happen to all the "conventional" players of these instruments?

Essentially nothing except that they can make themselves a more attractive proposition for band and session engagements alike if they choose to play them. (Recognising the inherent limitations of the market, the designers have also attempted to make these controllers easier to play than their acoustic forefathers, and so invite more musicians to adopt them - who knows, they may even result in a few guitarists and keyboard players taking up "real" saxes and horns.)

Alternatively, we can compare these new controllers with the established ones: the keyboard and guitar. No matter how many wheels and footpedals you attach to your keyboard you're never going to get the same relationship with the instrument as, say, guitarists have with theirs - basically that of contact. The trouble with guitar synthesisers is that nobody's yet developed the ideal system of turning string vibrations into digital information: pitch-to-voltage is slow and subject to tracking errors, the SynthAxe/Stepp systems involve two sets of strings and so on. Wind instruments, though, offer designers fewer problems and players greater ranges of expression that can be applied to sound generating modules. It's not a new idea - the Lyricon and the Variophon first broke this ground as long as 13 years ago. But it's taken a while for the technology to catch up. Now playable and affordable wind instruments are here to stay.

FINALLY, AND ON a completely different note, I'd like to extend a welcome to Nicholas Rowland who has joined us this month as our regular Features Editor. Ex-drummer, now keyboardsman and would-be studio owner, Nick is no stranger to the world of publishing either. Previously he's been writing for our sister magazine Rhythm where he developed a passion for electronic percussion too, so he'll be looking after many of the artist interviews and a few reviews - particularly if they involve aggressive use of drumsticks.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Oct 1987

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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