Alternate Controllers - A Question Of Support
This month WX7 player Jim Mackay sounds off about Alternative Controllers.
As a saxophonist turned wind synthesist, I am a recent and enthusiastic convert to the benefits (and headaches) of MIDI. Thanks to the all-powerful five pin DIN, I have gained access to an apparently limitless variety of new sounds - some actually useful! The increasing number of different types of MIDI 'controller' makes it possible for virtually any musician, adventurous enough to tackle new concepts and techniques, to take advantage of recent technology. This sudden freedom brings with it the need to invest a considerable amount of time, effort, and money into understanding and becoming suitably equipped to take full advantage of these new creative possibilities.
This can mean a major commitment for anyone already trying to make a living out of playing a 'different' instrument, but it seems that there are enough of us prepared to make the effort for the big players (Yamaha, Roland, Akai, etc) to let us in on the MIDI game. For the moment, everything is rosy. We practice and gradually introduce our MIDI instruments at gigs (disastrously at first); we buy additional equipment, computers, etc; and gradually become MIDIphiles. Where previously, wind players used to talk about mouthpieces, reeds, or discuss saxes or trumpets, now we all seem to be comparing software! This seems to me to be a very good thing, since it broadens the user base of musicians familiar with recent technology, but for those of us specifically concerned with alternate controllers, there is also a significant but less obvious downside to consider...
Keyboard players have been using synthesizers long enough for keyboard controller technology to have become well established, so that should the original manufacturer discontinue a particular product (instrument), alternatives or improvements will probably be available from a third-party manufacturer. As a performer on a manufacturer-specific alternate controller (a WX7 wind synthesizer, in my case), I am totally at the mercy of the product strategists at Yamaha, and can only hope that they see fit to support and possibly improve the instrument, even if it is not instantly accepted by all wind players. This may sound trivial, but the clarinet and saxophone, for example, both took around 60 to 70 years from invention to gain general acceptance as anything other than novelty instruments. I accept that times may have changed, but any new instrument needs time to settle and find its niche. Also, the investment of time needed for a player to become proficient on a radically new instrument requires a corresponding degree of patience on the part of the manufacturer. And here I am not too comfortable with the long term situation, for several reasons:
• Firstly, the Japanese approach to 'consumer' electronics does not inspire confidence. In general, products have an allotted lifespan after which they are either upgraded or, if the product is considered unsuccessful, discontinued. The electronics industry doesn't allow for the concept of product longevity. There seems to be an almost cynical pushing of new gadgets, with lines of new models stretching off into infinity. I see no reason to believe that the WX7/11 series hasn't a similar strategy. Unfortunately, most musicians' incomes don't stretch off into infinity!
• Secondly, the marketing/promotion of the WX7 was (at least in this country) pitched so low as to be almost inaudible - which is a real pity. Yamaha's best advertisement was Michael Brecker's use of the Akai EWI, since it brought home spectacularly the possibilities of wind synthesis. There was a tremendous 'buzz' about wind synthesizers for a long time before any became available in the music shops. Yamaha could have really capitalised on this during the run-up to the UK launch, but somehow they blew it. I suspect that many of the players who bought the WX7 were really sold on it through hearing the Akai EWI. Even after almost two years, the WX7 still creates a lot of interest at gigs (since most audiences have never seen one before).
• Thirdly, the pricing policy of the WX7 wind synth and TX81Z sound module is infuriating, to put it mildly. Some 18 months ago the combination cost roughly £1100. Late last year, its price suddenly fell to around £600. I am able to accept that there is often a higher price to pay for being among the first to acquire a new instrument, but this new low price makes me suspicious that the WX7 isn't selling as well as Yamaha anticipated (hardly surprising, given its inadequate promotion). This bothers me, as it suggests the selling-off of a soon to be discontinued line. The newer WX11 (from looking at its specification) seems to offer fewer performance options, and is simply a budget version of its predecessor. The WX11's new partner, the almost superb WT11 sound module, is a step in the right direction, being an inexpensive dedicated wind module with reasonable onboard effects. But even it is not without fault, since a TX81Z is needed in order to edit voice or performance memories. If Yamaha had launched the WX7 with the WT11, and provided some way of editing the memory contents in the first place, then it would have been an undisputed winner from the start.
These points might seem minor, but having undergone the (lengthy) learning process, I am now finding the WX7/WT11 to be a really impressive instrument in many different musical contexts. As a musician, I expect my useful playing career to continue for at least another 35 to 40 years. But if Yamaha decide, for whatever reason, that the WX7 should no longer be supported, I will be left with an instrument that is definitely not built to be used regularly for that length of time. With a saxophone, this wouldn't bother me too much (for instance, my alto sax was made in 1930 and still plays beautifully). Also, personal preferences aside, wind instrument construction is relatively standardised between manufacturers, therefore changing to a different make of instrument doesn't create any great trauma. The position with the WX7 is very different, since it has to be treated as an instrument in its own right, with very specific techniques that are radically different from those of its (few) competitors. Also, it needs specialised (Yamaha!) maintenance.
My other concern is more general, but still addressed to the major instrument manufacturers. There is a lot said and written about the potentially unhealthy influence of the recording industry on the face of contemporary music, but equally the providers of desirable hardware have great power to shape the direction of music. The immense sums of money required to develop VLSI chips, together with complex hardware and software, mean that real innovation is gradually moving beyond the resources of all but the large corporations. This power should bring with it a degree of responsibility towards the musicians and composers who are the consumers. I become uneasy whenever creativity is too closely tied to market forces, since altruism isn't usually a feature of large corporations, whose primary purpose is commercial.
I feel very strongly that music is an art form first and foremost. The increasing tendency for music of all types to be treated as a commodity, rather than a form of human expression, may be a result of the current economic climate, but somewhere a balance needs to be struck. Since the corporate structure isn't going to change, corporate attitudes need to be influenced using persuasive means.
One solution might be to increase communication between musicians and instrument manufacturers, so that new instruments provide facilites that are genuinely useful. It is up to us, the end users, to keep reminding the corporations of our needs. We should register as users of hard/software and make use of customer support, in whatever form it takes. We should complain when we find fault, but also let the manufacturers know when they get things right. In this way, the needs of music can begin to dictate the nature of future equipment, rather than the opposite. This should ensure that manufacturers know accurately how their products are being received and also, hopefully, that minority needs such as alternate controllers are supported now and into the future.
I have concentrated on the Yamaha WX7 wind synthesizer as an example of an alternate controller, but every performer using MIDI controllers should think carefully about the long term prospects for their particular instrument (consider the fate of the Stepp MIDI guitar!).
The decision to learn a new instrument is not taken lightly. Companies which release innovative instruments are dependant on us to take a risk with untried technology. We, who gamble our careers on such instruments, therefore have the right to expect our faith in new technology to be rewarded. We do not have unlimited funds, and shouldn't have to act as marketing test pilots for new instruments. Alternate controllers, when properly supported, have much to offer, and having experienced the power of MIDI, I for one don't want to return to the dark ages.