The latest MIDI wind controller comes from Switzerland and uses a conventional sax body. Michael Andreas checks out the traditionalists' alternative.
Manufactured by a Swiss company, this new dedicated MIDI wind controller incorporates a new twist: it uses a traditional saxophone body.
SOME OF THE earliest wind synths were based on the concept of using sensors mounted on a real sax to drive a synthesiser. Bill Perkins' "Perkophone" and Sal Gallina's pre-MIDI sax tinkerings were pioneering designs of this type and forerunners to the Synthophone. Surprisingly though, the first "Synthophone" was not sax based. It was a wooden "stick" with a set of Boehm-based keys mounted on it, which was connected to a dedicated analogue synthesiser. Later, a saxophone-based instrument was developed, and then MIDI was implemented.
Upon opening the case of the Synthophone, the first difference you notice between it and a normal alto sax is the umbilical cord that connects the neck to the body of the instrument. It cannot be removed, so the neck and body of the sax are always attached. What if you have a favourite neck you want to use on the Synthophone? Save it. The instrument cannot be played like a normal saxophone because air does not flow through it. Basically this instrument is an alto sax transmogrified into a dedicated MIDI wind driver. The bell of the sax is sealed shut, and the body of the horn is filled with wires, contacts and circuit boards. You soon realise that the Synthophone has more in common with Yamaha's WX7 than their alto sax.
The value of such an approach is obvious: you don't have to learn a new instrument because you're playing one you (as a sax player) are already familiar with - and you'll have an easier time getting through airport security checks with something that looks like a sax than you would with an EWI or WX7. Given these advantages, how does the Synthophone measure up to the other MIDI wind synths on less obvious points?
FOR A SAX player, setting up the Synthophone is something of a new experience - the wire connecting the neck to the body is only the beginning. There is no cork on the neck; instead, there is a five-pin male MIDI connector which plugs into a female connector in the mouthpiece (you have to get used to not twisting on your mouthpiece). The mouthpiece (which is a customised and somewhat elongated version of a stock Yamaha unit) is like the body of the sax, in that the player's air column does not flow through it. Instead, it is vented through a hole which is drilled through the (supplied) reeds. The reeds are standard Rico cane reeds which have had a metal flange mounted onto their tables. At the tip of this flange is a small magnet which interacts with a sensor mounted in the mouthpiece.
Included with the Synthophone are four of the above-mentioned reeds in varying strengths (which didn't seem to make much difference), a small tool kit for making some fine adjustments on the instrument (which we'll come to later), a set of MIDI cables, a neck strap, polishing cloth, the power supply/interface box, and a fairly comprehensive and easily understood manual, all of which are enclosed in a very sturdy sax case.
After assembling the horn, you connect it (via MIDI cables) to its power supply/interface box (which has two MIDI Out ports but will transmit on only one MIDI channel at a time) and then into the synth(s) of your choice.
ALL THE MIDI controls on the Synthophone are extracted directly from the instrument and are triggered using fingering combinations that aren't normally utilised in the standard sax playing technique. Initially, this is akin to learning a new word processing program, in that you have to remember what each of these "function control" fingerings does (such as holding down the high D key and side C keys while depressing your low C key will transpose the instrument down an octave).
By employing these various Function fingerings, you can: play beyond the normal range of the saxophone; remotely change voices (presets) on your synth; change MIDI channels (1-16); and adjust breath control sensitivity, volume control sensitivity, aftertouch sensitivity and modulation control sensitivity (using lip pressure on the reed in the same way you would use the mod wheel on a synth). You can also use these Function controls to transpose the instrument up or down two octaves, pitch the instrument (in either Bb, C, or Eb), and adjust the Lip Pressure/Pitch Bend sensitivity. There is even a Panic function which resets all the basic parameters to their default setting (you'll want to use this only in real emergencies because you'll have to reset all your Function parameters).
However, the most impressive Function Key assignments are those which allow the performer to play harmonies of up to five voices, with a choice of inversions. You can even program these chords to play within a specified "tonality". For instance, if you set the "tonality" to the key of C, fingering a C will produce a C major chord, D and E will produce minor chords, F and G will be major chords, and so on. A Freeze-Harmony function is also available, which permits the harmonic voices to move in parallel intervals.
The basic range of the Synthophone (that which can be performed without the use of the instrument octave shifts) is the same as a saxophone's with the exception that you can extend down a fourth to E below the sax's low Bb and up a full octave above high F while still using basic sax fingerings. As mentioned above, the basic instrument can be transposed up or down two octaves, which gives it a total range of more than seven octaves. These octave changes, however, can only be activated during a rest (a couple of beats in a moderate tempo will suffice).
UNFORTUNATELY, I HAD some initial problems both with the setting up of the Synthophone and (probably more telling) with some of the basic design of the instrument. My first issue was with the reeds. Even though four of these specially mounted reeds are supplied with the Synthophone, where do you get new ones? Your choice is to either pull the mounting off your old reed and glue it onto a new one (and don't forget to drill a vent hole), or write to Switzerland for new ones. I would have preferred Softwind to use one of the several synthetic reeds available, and to include about a dozen of these in the package (real reeds start getting pretty ripe after a few months of use). I also had to use some tape to mask off part of the vent hole - if you want to use circular breathing you'll find it much easier with a smaller vent through the reed.
My next problem was that I couldn't get the harmony function to work consistently. I could add the voices to my basic pitch (all harmonies are added under the fingered pitch), but getting the inversion I wanted was at best an "iffy" proposition. (However, during the times when it did work, it offered some interesting and novel possibilities for live performance.) Part of this problem could be attributed to the Lip Pressure setting on the instrument (Lip Pressure is supposed to implement the inversion voicing of these chords). But, even after going into the body of the instrument and adjusting the Lip Pressure trim, I attained only a marginal improvement. I also tried several reeds, synths, and various timbres, all to no avail. This is the kind of thing that made me hope that the instrument I was using was defective, because there were other aspects of the Synthophone I really admired.
The most basic of these is that the Synthophone is an easy instrument to get used to. And having a sax that extends from low E to double high F (utilising what are basically normal fingerings) allows the player to cover a very wide range without having to readjust his or her technique. But most important is that the Synthophone's response is better than any of the wind synths I've played (there must be a quantising function included in the Synthophone's software, because I rarely had the octave glitch or extra note problems inherent in most other wind synths). The dynamic response was also excellent on the Synthophone (even on synths that don't respond to breath control). Speaking of which, the Synthophone can send MIDI Volume, breath control, aftertouch, modulation and pitch-bend messages, depending on how you program the instrument and how you play it.
I was also impressed by the Yamaha sax body. For a student model, it's a well-constructed instrument and the key design makes it immediately comfortable to anyone used to playing Yamaha or Selmer saxes.
WHILE WRITING THIS review I remembered that one of the first discussions I had concerning MIDI wind synths centred on the question of whether the ideal instrument would be one that assumes the form of an already existing instrument (in this case, a saxophone) or one that starts from scratch. Reviewing the Synthophone allowed me to address both sides of this argument.
Personally, even though there are some aspects of the Synthophone I really did like, I noticed that some of the "limitations" of the sax did creep into my playing. I found this particularly noticeable in the way I started approaching certain timbres. For some reason (which I haven't yet figured out), I feel more comfortable with wind synths in a clarinet or soprano sax based configuration (the EWI and WX7). Also, the concept of paying a hefty price for a wind synth that uses a real horn but precludes you from playing the horn seemed fairly bizarre to me (especially because the saxophone is one of the more difficult sounds to synthesise).
Because of this, it seems that in the realm of horn-based MIDI instruments, the Synthophone will get a lot of competition from the Pitchrider which is a pickup attached to a pitch-to-MIDI converter and sells for considerably less.
Although I did find some endearing qualities about the Synthophone (the ability to play very expressively on any voicing module, and the fact that the technical response on the Synthophone is the best I've encountered on any MIDI wind driver), I still think that the way the function keys work make them difficult to adjust to. I also believe that it wasn't really necessary to place all the "brains" inside the instrument. A remote foot controller (a la the Yamaha WX7 and Pitchrider) would be a much more effective solution and would also allow for storage of several presets of the Performance Controls.
But for someone who has money to spend and who wants to be able to access MIDI synths with the minimum of relearning a new instrument, I think the Synthophone could be an attractive alternative.
Price 4950 Swiss Francs (approx £1950 at time of going to press)
Review by Michael Andreas
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