Blowing The Digital Horn
Don’t be fooled by its toy-town looks - Casio’s DH100 comes with six sounds and a built-in speaker, but it is a remarkably good MIDI wind controller for £99. Tony Crowle decides to take it seriously.
Don't be fooled by its toy-town looks - Casio's DH100 Digital Horn comes with six sounds and a built-in speaker, but it is a remarkably good MIDI wind controller for £99. Tony Crowle decides to take it seriously.
I have played saxophones for about 30 years and have designed and built various sax-like controllers for about 12 years. One of my early designs (The Hornet) sent digital control codes to a Wasp synthesizer; more recent designs have used MIDI. Last year I heard that Yamaha were bringing out a wind controller, so I looked forward eagerly to attending the 1987 British Music Fair, where Yamaha showed off their new WX7 MIDI wind controller.
There was considerable advance publicity and the usual modest claims: 'The WX7 Wind MIDI Controller is designed for the professional saxophone player, and can perform musical miracles that are impossible on any acoustic instrument' said Yamaha. It looked like a black plastic copy of a Lyricon and it cost £750 or so. It didn't make any sounds - for that you needed a Yamaha TX81Z FM expander (or something similar) at a further £400. The demonstrator used the WX7/TX81Z combination plus a £650 Yamaha SPX90 effects unit and an £1100 Yamaha REV5 reverberation unit, and fed them all into a large Yamaha PA. The demonstrator was facile, and what he played was flashy and loud, but one couldn't help noticing that the new instrument offered no more mouth control than did the Lyricon of 15 years ago: you could blow soft or hard, you could bend the pitch, and that was it. I was disappointed.
In July of this year Casio released their Digital Horn, the DH100. Again, there was advance publicity, mainly along the lines of the Casio looking like something from a Gerry Anderson production. At £99 the Casio was affordable, and so I bought one at my local ABC Music shop as soon as it arrived. I soon realised that it was an extremely competent musical instrument, and so I was saddened to see that Casio themselves were not treating it with respect. The demonstration it received at this year's British Music Fair was perfunctory, while all of the Casio publicity material showed people (including Vince Clarke) 'playing' the DH100 with their hands round the wrong way! These pictures make the people, the company, and the product look stupid to a woodwind player - the only person I've seen who is playing the instrument properly, ie. with the left hand on top, was made of cardboard! This article is my attempt to say why I think the Casio DH100 should be taken seriously.
The Casio DH100 Digital Horn looks like a toy saxophone. The plastic body is smoothly rounded matt silver, the keys are highly polished silver, while the detachable mouthpiece is black. There are nine keys on the front and one Octave key on the back of the instrument. On the right side are Transpose and Tone Select buttons, and a Breath Mode switch, as well as a Volume thumbwheel. Right and left thumb supports are provided and a ring for the neck strap.
The bell of the horn contains a speaker grille, a 3.5mm headphone/line output, a MIDI Out port, a DC 7.5V external power-in socket, and an on/off switch with LED. The DH100 works off five AA batteries and there is an auto power-off function (which can be overridden) which is activated after six minutes of non-use, helping to prolong battery life. I use NiCad rechargeable batteries and find that an overnight charge is sufficient for about six or seven hours playing.
The DH100 comes with two completely different fingering systems built in, one or the other being selected on power-up. The default system is more or less like that of a recorder, having seven keys in the familiar BAGFEDC layout plus a left hand little finger 'sharp' key and a single octave key. The keys are light but positive, rather like those of a flute. By lifting the B finger while holding down the A and G keys, it is possible to play the notes from C to G# up another octave, making the effective range of the instrument two octaves and seven semitones. Where the range is located depends on which tone is selected and on whether the transposition feature is used.
Casio's alternative fingering system extends the range to four octaves but is probably incompatible with other, more 'natural', fingerings. As a saxophone player, I found I missed certain keys and fingerings. For instance, there is no bis key, no side A# key, and no 1-5 A# fingering. When I first started playing the DH100 I found I went for non-existent keys and inadvertently changed tones or transposed instead. Similarly, when I went back to playing my Buffet S1 Alto Saxophone, I found I was trying to use the Casio's fork Eb fingering, which does not exist on the Buffet. As I become used to the Casio, these problems are being overcome.
On power-up, the DH100 is in C. The first twelve pushes of the Transpose button shifts the instrument's pitch up an octave by semitone steps. On the thirteenth push the horn drops two octaves, after which successive pushes take you back up to the start by semitones.
So to play in C, you can do nothing, or play an octave up (press 12 times) or play an octave down (press 13 times). To play in Eb, you press three or 16 times; and to play in Bb, you press 10 or 23 times. The method is definitely not convenient but it does provide for fully chromatic transposition, allowing you to play parts in A or G, unlike the Yamaha WX7, which can only play in C, Bb or Eb. There is no provision for adjusting the A=442 tuning.
The DH100 has six preset tones built-in, namely Saxophone, Trumpet, Synth-reed, Oboe, Clarinet, and Flute. The Saxophone range is one octave lower, and the Flute range is one octave higher, than the other four tones. If the Saxophone tone and the lowest octave transposition are selected, then the notes produced are in the range of a baritone saxophone. If the Flute tone and the highest octave transposition are chosen, then the notes are in the range of a piccolo.
Each of the tones has a non-defeatable preset delayed vibrato effect. Just above the B key is a Portamento key which is operated by the side of the B finger - the only finger to have more than one job to do. The Portamento rate is also preset.
The DH100 is a self-contained instrument. You can play it anywhere, either by using the built-in loudspeaker or by feeding the audio output to headphones. I took it on holiday and played it in my room while it rained outside, and no-one was disturbed. The output will also drive an amplifier. I play it into a Carlsbro Cobra 90KB amp with a bit of spring reverb and an ancient HH Digital Echo unit. This combination of wide-range speakers, plenty of volume, and some signal enhancement completely transforms the preset sounds from slightly weedy to very impressive. I'm still working on getting the best out of the breath transducer by various kinds of tongueing, but I'm already pleased with the flutter-tongued Flute and the slapped baritone Saxophone.
The DH100 also works very well as a MIDI wind controller. I've hooked it up to synth expanders made by Kawai, Yamaha, and Roland with fine results. My own set-up employs a borrowed Roland MKS50 hybrid expander and a Casio CZ101 digital synth mixed with the analogue output from the DH100. When the MKS50 Chord Memory and the CZ101 Tone Mix functions are used, I can have up to nine simultaneous voices. As these voices come from three different sources which are not locked together, and which have different tuning, vibrato, and so on, the sound is huge. The Roland MKS50 responds to Velocity and, depending on the tone and patch used, can enable Portamento and Aftertouch to affect any combination of DCO, VCF and VCA, so the possibilities for breath control of expressive nuances are endless. In contrast, the Casio CZ101 ignores Velocity and Aftertouch, and globally enables Portamento. By setting up the Portamento times and tuning offsets, it is possible to have essentially unpredictable chord voicings with lots of internal movement. I'm just now beginning to create sounds reminiscent of Gil Evans, with ethereal flutes, broad tubas, and edgy bass clarinets, as well as the obvious Bebop unison ensembles and Third World ragged section sounds.
I find I'm not worried by the lack of mouth control of pitch. I think of the DH100 as a way of expanding my musical resources. I can do all the expressive solo playing I want on the saxophone, but when I set up a big ensemble I definitely don't want all the voices to track my pitching exactly. Instead, I want to be able to programme each of the different voices to have the rate and depth of vibrato that is appropriate to it. What's more, I certainly don't want to do imitations of Sixties' guitarists - complete with drones and whammy bars - I'm more likely to use the DH100 to control tight, percussive sounds like bells, marimbas, or tympani, for which vibrato is irrelevant.
I found a use for the DH100's non-breath mode: I plugged the DH100 into an expander and played the expander's string bass sound into the instrument input of a vocoder. I then plugged a bass drum output from the excellent Yamaha DD10 drum machine into the vocoder's voice input, the result being a very precisely played walking bass - all I had to do was select the correct notes on the DH100 between beats!
Like a Steinway, the Casio DH100 has very few user-tweakable parameters. I'm delighted with the breath controller, happy with the tuning and the portamento rate, but annoyed by the vibrato - it's too deep and too fast for my taste, and I wish I could turn it off.
Since Casio are no doubt interested in user feedback, here are my suggestions for a future model:
• Add mouth control of pitch. We know from hearing Wayne Shorter play the Lyricon that this facility can be put to good use in the hands of an artist.
• Add a MIDI In port. This would make it possible for users to configure the Digital Horn by downloading the settings they prefer. With suitable software, users could set up such parameters as the breath transducer threshold and gain, the MIDI Out channel, and even the fingering system to be employed (I have one that I would love to be able to implement on the existing keys of the DH100), all without cluttering up the instrument with knobs and switches.
• Add a Real-time Oral Cavity Analyser and Timbre Shaper (ROCATS). When Charley Parker borrowed other sax players' horns, he still sounded like Charley Parker. The sound a player produces is not due to the particular saxophone, or mouthpiece, or reed that he happens to be using - it is primarily dependent on the shape of his head and on what he does with his lips, tongue, throat and so on. Over and above the volume and pitch control that the Lyricon and its imitators provide, we need to have timbre control so that when I play an instrument it sounds like me, and when you play it sounds like you. And when I feel like playing sweetly it sounds sweet, and when I feel like playing harshly it sounds harsh. With a simple scanning device, a primitive Expert System ('when he does that sort of thing he wants this sort of sound'), and a suitable synthesizer architecture, we could have a useful rapid response ROCATS now. Because of their competence in all the technologies (check out their watches with integrated sensors, eg. pulse monitors and thermometers), Casio are in a good position to bring out the first affordable wind controller with timbre control.
The Casio Digital Horn is unrivalled. It has proper keys, a choice of fingering systems, six usable onboard tones, a responsive breath transducer, a capable MIDI implementation, and a built-in monitor speaker, and all this for £99. I intend to use mine in all my playing, from New Age noodling to R'n'B stomping.
Price £99 inc VAT.
Contact Casio Electronics (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).