One In A Million
The Millioniser 2000, a synth harmonica that may sound as odd as it looks.
Chris Jenkins purses his lips around the Millioniser 2000, a harmonica type mouthpiece interfaced to a programmable analogue monosynth.
One of the great revolutions in synthesiser technology has been the move to make new sounds available to musicians other than keyboard players.
The first trend was the introduction of drum machines, which have now reached a high level of development in the digitally sampled units and Simmons-type syndrums. Next in line for improvement was the guitar, which can now be MIDIed and interfaced almost as easily as a synth.
But one field which has never fared too well is the wind section. Apart from the breath controllers on the DX's and new Casios, and ill-fated Lyricon, the wind instrument player has had to put up with the limitations of his instrument.
Until now that is; The Millioniser 2000, first of a whole line of "wind synths" is revolutionary in a number of ways, and promises to bring musicians limited by the old-fashioned image of the oboe, sax, flute or harmonica right back into the limelight. Developed by Ronald Schlimmer of SM Elektronik, from an idea by Swiss harmonica virtuoso Walter Muller, the Millioniser is basically a harmonica-type mouthpiece interfaced to a programmable analogue monosynth. Construction is being handled in the UK by Race Electronics in Wales, who also assemble equipment for Acorn Computers, manufacturers of the BBC Micro.
The Millioniser 2000's handset is about 10 inches wide, with a sliding mouthpiece and a number of programming and performance controls on the top and sides. The synth module, a separate unit connected by a multicore lead of any required length, is triggered by breath pressure on a pressure-sensitive circuit in the handset. The mouthpiece slides up and down, passing the pitch information to the synth module via photosensitive cells.
In power-up mode the Millioniser plays the same chromatic scale as a conventional harmonica. The same blow-and-draw technique is used, in conjunction with a semitone on the end of the unit, to play a scale. The sounds which come out are similar to those of a conventional monosynth - the Minimoog would be a good comparison - but the difference is the vast degree of expressiveness which Millioniser can introduce into the sound. The spec includes three DCO's with sawtooth and squarewave, high, low, and two band pass filters, ADSR envelope generator, triangle/sine LFO, and a noise source with separate filtering.
Demonstrator Rick Davie explained; "The Millioniser was originally intended as a wind instrument emulator, keeping the idea of analogue synthesis to achieve a 'rougher' sound than digital synths, but using digital programming. The idea developed with the production engineers, and the end result is an unusually expressive performance instrument which can be played equally well in imitation of a sax, harmonica, trombone, oboe and so on, or as a synth."
The performance controls, apart from a pressure sensitivity with a great dynamic range, include semitone, tone and octave up/down buttons, a volume slider, a filter slider, portamento control, and a pitch bender. The end result is an exquisitely expressive instrument which responds in a truly life-like way to the player's style. "The idea is that while few keyboard players are instantly recognisable by their style, with Millioniser you can develop your own instantly recognisable playing techniques. It's perfect for soloists, and as someone who plays sax and harmonica as well as keyboards, I find it ideal for all sorts of styles."
Rick's demonstration of the Millioniser 2000 on BBC's Tomorrow's World - cut short by a last-minute alteration of the programme's schedule - couldn't give much idea of the instrument's true potential. From throbbing bassoons to sleazy saxophones, tinny whistles to breathy flutes, and howling synth effects too, the Millioniser can do them all, and with a degree of expression which no conventional synthesiser can match.
Other presets include an eerily realistic Wurlitzer organ, cor anglais, synth wobbles not unlike DX7 presets, bursts of white noise, and a trombone which couldn't be bettered by George Chisholm.
There are 64 presets, selected with a keypad on the right hand side of the handset, in conjunction with an Enter key. The preset selected is shown on a large LED display on the base unit, which also gives tuning and parameter information. The instrument has a twelve-octave range, so to achieve its full potential it needs high quality amplification.
The base unit, which packs away into a flight case holding the handset too, has its own volume and tuning controls, headphone and line outputs, and a tape dump socket. Programmed memories can be saved and reloaded to an ordinary tape recorder, and Millioniser plan to sell programming tapes through instrument dealers. The whole case has been redesigned to be lighter and smaller in the production models.
The base unit also have a moving LED display showing which note is being selected by the mouthpiece slider, so that you can be sure to start playing on the right note. It's impossible to blow a discord though, which is good news for many harmonica players.
Like a MIDI synth expander, the base unit can be well out of the way at the back of the stage, leaving the performer to solo unencumbered. For players unfamiliar with harmonica playing, there's an alternative operation mode - "keyboard", in which blowing or drawing give the same pitch, and the performance controls are used to obtain semitones.
The primary market target is the harmonica player. With 28 million Hohner harps sold last year, it's not such a restricted market as it may sound, and in any case it doesn't stop there. Millioniser have already talked to the Eurhythmies, Duran Duran, Jean-Michel Jarre, UB40, Stevie Wonder, and many other performers interested in the possibilites of the instrument.
The 2000 should cost between £1000 and £2000, but for those of you unable to stretch to this sort of price bracket, don't despair. There are plans for a popular model at around £100, with battery/mains power, built-in speaker, and a smaller number of preset/programmable memories. We may see this in about a year, and in the meantime work is progressing on a poly/mono version, which could be preprogrammed with specific chord shapes, and could also have the equivalent of "keyboard split".
MIDI implementation is also on the cards, as well as more exotic ideas like a version tailored for trumpet players, where the mouthpiece is static and just three keys are used to simulate trumpet valves. Since only about 30% of the software potential of the machine has been implemented so far, and the development time to date is only eighteen months, it's fair to assume that there are many more exciting developments on the way.
It appears that after the false start represented by the Lyricon, which was widely regarded as being technically unreliable and limited in ability, the age of the synthesiser may have dawned for wind instrument players in the shape of the Millioniser 2000.
You can contact the company at (Contact Details). A flexidisc demonstrating the Millioniser will be available through the company, although full details on prices and availability probably won't be decided until after the Frankfurt Music Fair this month.
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Review by Chris Jenkins
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