Get the Horn
Jez Ford gets his laughing gear round the budget Casio MIDI wind controller - The DH100
Are wind controlled MIDI Instruments useful to the computer musician or just a lot of hot air. Jez Ford finds out
Yamaha got there first with the clarinet-style WX7 wind controller. Then came Akai EWI Wind Instrument and the EVI Valve Instrument. All of these looked and sounded good, all won acclaim but all cost too much. The professionals liked it but the semi-professionals (and let's face it guys, that's where the money is) were not quite confident enough to take it to their hearts and their wallets.
So Casio, knowing a good idea when it saw one, got its legendary laboratories into spinning motion and produced this - the Casio DH-100 Digital Horn. It looks hilarious, it sounds impressive enough - and it costs just £99. And it will sell. In fact it's selling already. Lots.
In the last couple of years Casio has been concentrating on building up its professional music range, its samplers and high-spec synths. It has rather let the budget ranges go the way of the amateur and the Christmas present. But with the DH-100, Casio returns to what it does best: a useful innovation at an irresistible price. Once again Casio dealers are hearing the words - "Good grief how amazing. I'll take two." "But why?" I hear you shout. Well, for a start the thing looks cute. It roughly resembles a stunted tenor sax and is finished in a matt silver plastic that shines like a prop from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Using the speaker built into the bell of the horn you can march around your bedroom blowing along to Clarence Clemons and sliding across the floor towards the mirror (what a weekend I've had...).
Casio has a large market on novelty value alone. But for us technically minded musicians the gates of pandemonium are thrown open by the MIDI OUT socket. The Digital Horn not only transmits the note on/off selected but includes velocity and aftertouch data relating to the initial force of blow and the sustain of breath thereafter. In addition it can transmit portamento on/off for gliding between notes and also program change information, although only for programs 1-6 (corresponding to its own internal voices).
There is also the facility to transpose internal or MIDI-driven voices in increments of one semitone. If you can remember your recorder fingering from school (unfortunately I can remember little else) then it is simple to breathe new life into those classroom classics of your youth. The keys of the horn look like chrome but they're not (plastic plastic everywhere) and the octave key on the back works right across the scale giving access to two and a half octaves.
Casio has added two additional teardrop keys - one as a simple method of getting sharps and flats without the tricky fingering (remember Bb and Eb?) and the second as the portamento switch. There's no way of varying the portamento and it is rather severe - perhaps best saved for special occasions.
The six on-board (on-horn?) sounds are standard budget Casio fare with a good clarinet, a pleasing oboe, dodgy trumpet and so on. However the breath control gives them a whole new expanse of expression that the equivalent keyboards never had. Take them through a reverb channel and they can sound well wicked.
The audio output is a minijack socket down on the left-hand side of the instrument. Why Casio chose a mini-jack I do not know, it is bound to get snapped off sooner or later (can you get 90 degree minijacks?). I can only guess that it was supposed to double as a socket for Walkman headphones. The level is high enough for this and consequently can be rather noisy when amplified normally. But never mind. If you're a noise freak you can turn to the MIDI implementation.
Here you can have hours of fun triggering bells, strings, Hammond, deafening white noise etc just by blowing down this plastic pygmy sax. It's a whole lot more fun than the old BC1 breath controller for DX synths, if only because you don't look like a prat with an electric dummy shoved down your throat.
Then again when I tried the DH-100 out in a London bar and a West End cinema I got some pretty odd looks so maybe I look like a prat anyway.
But it feels good, it's easy to play accurately on the move and (for the present at any rate) the audience will at least be surprised - which is always a good thing. Having said that, it is noticeably harder to achieve real expression through MIDI than it is using the internal sounds. The problem is exacerbated if you have a keyboard that doesn't respond to aftertouch data. Expander owners should also be aware that the Digital Horn will only transmit on MIDI channel 1, making it awkward for triggering Roland's MT-32 say. The spongy plastic buttons for voice change and transposition are halfway up the right-hand side of the instrument, which I found the perfect place for absentmindedly resting the inside of my hand and hitting them by mistake. This is probably just a matter of practice (or competence) but considering the market for a plastic saxophone I'm surprised the pads aren't a little more safely placed. Perhaps Japanese hands are a different shape.
With line out and MIDI cables trailing from the side of the unit, the mobility of the Digital Horn player twisting and turning across stage is considerably hampered - particularly if you're used to a wireless wind or brass instrument. Use the 7.5V mains adaptor and you get in a real tangle.
The most immediate problem is the usual one metre length of MIDI cables - you'll need a heck of a good cable quality to give you ten metres of posing distance without corrupting data. But I'm forgetting that it only costs £99. At this price you can forgive design compromises like the absence of any display to show which sound is selected or whether you've accidentally transposed yourself.
I wanted to say that Casio gave me the horn. Unfortunately they want it back. Ah well, I suppose it's only £99 (though I wonder if my Bank might disagree). It's a novelty but it's a useful novelty. And with software in existence that can turn the aftertouch data into modulation, volume, breath, portamento or even pan control, and software that can use the DH-100 to drive TX sounds intended for the Yamaha WX7, it really can wipe the smile off your face. Visit your Casio dealer and have a blow.