The Search For Expression
A History of Wind Synthesizers
Could the wind of change be upon us? MIDI has already given guitarists and drummers the means to control electronic sounds, and the launch of the Akai and Yamaha wind controllers now allows woodwind and brass players to join in. John L. Walters takes a general look at the historical development of wind synthesizers, and the Akai and Yamaha products in particular.
Are wind synthesizers finally receiving the attention they justly deserve with the recent launch of Akai's EWI and Yamaha's WX7? Who better to put these new marvels in perspective than musician/producer John L. Walters, a leading exponent of the Lyricon, the wind controller that paved the way for today's 'new' instruments.
I didn't spot that many anoraks at last month's British Music Fair, but I could be forgiven for occasionally thinking that music technology has been taken over by the train-spotters and model-builders of yesteryear. People who discuss the relative merits of 16-bit and companded 12-bit sampling with a relish formerly reserved for Hornby double-0 gauges and the Age of Steam.
The idea of musician-oriented wind-controlled synthesizers seems diametrically opposed to the mainstream concerns of the music technology industry, but the 'new' wind instruments unveiled by Akai and Yamaha were undoubtedly the 'burning issue' - the hot topic for uninformed jawing at the tea-bars of Olympia.
Yamaha are now manufacturing the WX7, a MIDI wind controller "designed for the professional saxophone player". Akai have the Steiner EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) for trumpet players and the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) for woodwind and sax players. None of these hi-tech horns make any acoustic noise other than the player's huffing and puffing - they all rely on some kind of transducer system to turn wind pressure into synthesizer control information and, hence, musical sounds.
To talk about wind synthesis is to touch on topics far removed from the cut and thrust of cheapo-chip electro-muzak. Terms like expression, individuality, timbre, musicianship and practice turn up with alarming regularity!
We may be set for a battle of the wind synths this autumn as the two huge Japanese corporations slug it out in the instrument marketplace. But why has it taken so long? And are these instruments really going to catch on this time around?
I made or renewed contact with some of the people involved in the chequered progress of wind synthesizers.
I tracked down Nyle Steiner, inventor of the Akai EWI and EVI, at his home in California. There's Sal Gallina, the Lyricon session specialist who has been the main consultant for Yamaha's WX7; and Michael Brecker, currently touring Europe and playing the EWI considerably more than the biting tenor sax for which he is renowned. Ray Kitchen, Dave Simmons' original partner in Musicaid and one of the first dealers to make a commitment to wind synthesizers, spoke to me from his shop in the Channel Islands. Dave Bristow, another musician on Yamaha's payroll, who has been blowing the DX7 breath controller to great effect for many years, called me from IRCAM in Paris. And I spoke to Bill Bernardi, inventor (with the late Roger Noble) of the Lyricon family of wind synthesizers - possibly the first person to understand and articulate these concepts.
History is usually written by the winning side; Yamaha and Akai have already got their pens out but the story really goes back to the early '70s...
"A synthesizer's ability to replace or surpass conventional musical instruments as art forms will rely heavily on how well they are able to translate, in a natural fashion, the player's expression into sound.
"Traditional acoustic instruments have been evolving now for hundreds of years, especially in the case of the brass and woodwind families. The improvements that have been made in this last 25-year period of technological explosion have done little to better the instruments made 25 to 100 years ago as regards fundamental design."
That's a short extract from a piece written by Bill Bernardi. The date? July 21st, 1972. Before drum synths, polyphonic synths, or velocity-sensitive keyboards, Bill Bernardi and Roger Noble spent years researching the design and construction of musical instruments prior to developing the Lyricon - the first commercially available wind-controlled electronic instrument. Bill again: "We were awed by the incredible degree of skill and craftsmanship that was in evidence during the days of Antoine (Adolphe) Sax and Theobald Boehm (designer of the Boehm flute and fingering systems)."
They concluded that the instrument itself wasn't half as important as the total 'musical system' comprising player and hardware closely linked together.
"An acoustic instrument is basically a highly sensitive and articulate control system coupled to a human player who is capable of transmitting highly subtle degrees of control into the acoustic sound generating system. The awesome complexity lies with the ability of the instrument to interface and relate to the player."
These concepts have begun to concern the mainstream instrument manufacturers. They have invested much time and effort developing weighted, touch-sensitive, piano-style keyboards; better and more comfortable electronic drum pads; and guitar synths that attempt to wail like a Les Paul.
Nyle Steiner is the small, somewhat diffident muso in a tux who opens Akai's promotional video playing some convincing string and woodwind imitations on the EVI - the Electronic Valve Instrument. He played trumpet with the Utah Symphony in the '60s and conceived the idea of the instrument then, although it was the early '70s before he started serious work on a prototype. His electronics training was "informal", but by 1975 he had an EVI prototype that he could actually go out and play.
"I developed my own transducer using whatever - I tried a lot of things out. A lot of the main parts I had to build myself. The first one was just a switch. You blew and it turned on and off - just like pressing a key. Later, I built a proportional transducer."
"Have you ever met Nyle Steiner?" asked Bill Kitchen when I spoke to him about the problems of selling wind synthesizers. "Cos he's a weirdo. A bit like Bill Bernardi in a way. Absolutely brilliant, brilliant guys, but when it comes to business, absolutely terrible - not an idea at all."
Bill Bernardi is a tough-looking but very thoughtful electronics engineer who played music in the armed services. He started Computone in February 1970, working out of a tiny basement in Hanover, Massachusetts.
"Roger (Noble) and I put in our own money. It was a loan from my life insurance."
When funds ran out they sold stock in the company to friends and managed to complete the first Lyricon by 1974. Tom Scott was their first customer - you can hear him getting to grips with it on the Tom Cat album of that year. It took them another year to make six more, which went to Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, David Sanborn and others, and there are plenty of jazz-rock albums from the mid-70s which feature the Lyricon's distinctive, woody sound. In 1979 Bill Bernardi wrote to me:
'My favourite Lyricon player at the moment is Tom Scott. He is using the Lyricon in a way I hoped it would be used. His single sound uses nearly all the circuits operating at the same time.'
Check out his solo albums or Quincy Jones' Sounds to hear examples of his Stevie Wonder influenced solos.
Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, Nyle Steiner had set up his own small company, which he ran from 1975 to 1980. They also got involved in 'multiphonic keyboards' - one of the first arpeggiators. He is very secretive about the design of the EVI's wind transducer but claims that it is much more responsive than the Lyricon.
"I designed the mouthpiece from scratch - what would be the most comfortable shape of the mouthpiece, if I had total choice of how hard you blow and how the response shape is. I went from that basis rather than try to copy an existing instrument.
"In terms of technique, it's easier but quite a bit different. Woodwind players will find the transition easier than brass players."
Meanwhile, Selmer, the big woodwind and brass corporation, got involved with Computone, as Ray Kitchen explained: "Bill needed money. Selmer put money in and... filled their warehouses up with Lyricons and never did anything about promoting and selling them."
Selmer attempted to incorporate Steiner's EVI into an electronic wind package - an unhappy coupling. Bill Bernardi comments: "Nyle and I had a big argument - he said it wasn't necessary to have a reed as part of the transducer 'cos he was doing it with just the wind actuated system... it ended up that a couple of years later he came out with a second input from the lip."
By biting on the EVI mouthpiece you can control the amount of glide between notes. The EWI lip sensor, developed later, gives you some vibrato and modulation control but, unlike the Lyricon, you have to bend notes up and down with your right thumb. This means that you must support the instrument with a neck sling.
The Zildjian company took over from Selmer in late '76 and Computone began to develop two new, cheaper products.
In contrast to the Lyricon I (as the $3000 hand-built instrument became known), which was styled like a metal clarinet plugged into an short-wave radio, was the streamlined two-oscillator Lyricon II and the Wind Synthesizer Driver. The Driver was a control voltage generator which could be hooked up to the one volt-per-octave synths of that time with up to nine quarter-inch jack cords.
The principle, if not the hardware, of the Driver is exactly that of Yamaha's WX7. You assign lip, wind and key controls to different synthesizer parameters and learn to control them from the horn. And favourite keyboard patches can easily sound useless while an unpromising preset suddenly springs to life when you blow it.
A later Driver modification added an onboard VCA In and VCA Out, through which you could route the output signal of the synthesizer, and this, for most contemporary keyboards, gave the player a much greater degree of dynamic control.
This feature is present in the Akai EWV2000 voice module; the demonstrator at the British Music Fair had an Akai S900 sampler patched into it. In the brochure's words: 'sampled and synthesized sounds suddenly come alive and sparkle in an almost magical way... the only instruments that allow you to re-synthesize such realistic, sensitive human feeling into your music.'
The Akai spec is a little vague but I imagine that the VCA may incorporate a VCF as well to provide a bit of 'fairy dust'.
In the late '70s, Jurgen Schmitz's German-based Realton company manufactured the Variophon - a sort of electronic Melodica, or 'French loaf with keys', that came in three versions. In 1980 the company added a polyphonic keyboard version, which they called the SSAP-ZERO. Ray Kitchen imported them for a while: "Dave Greenslade, Dave Lawson and John Paul Jones bought them and Joan Armatrading used one for a concert. I even sold one to Oscar Peterson - handed it to him at the airport before he flew back to Canada.
"The idea was to make authentic acoustic wind sounds. It had plug-in sound modules - trombone, saxophone, harmonica and so on."
Musik International, a German magazine, recommended the instrument to schools: 'For the very first time, the Variophone permits group instruction with wind instruments. For this purpose the firm recommends hooking it into a language laboratory... so the teacher can give the pupil instructions whilst playing.'
This was an ingenious attempt on the lucrative schools market, which could well be emulated by Akai and Yamaha in countries that still take education seriously.
Ray thought that the "technology behind the Variophon was a little bit behind the times." With its "cheap, hygenic, dispensable mouthpiece" and the wind-only transducer, it was a much less ambitious instrument than the Computone or Steiner horns - more a keyboard player's add-on instrument.
In 1979 the Lyricon, played by Bruno Spoerri, won first prize in the annual electronic music competition at Linz in Austria. Bill Bernardi of Computone said: "Bruno picked it up - he's still got it - we didn't have the money to go over and pick up the prize."
Computone attempted to tap the rapidly expanding keyboard market by releasing another new product - the Humanizer. This was a wind and lip controller which could be patched into a synthesizer. This device, far more sophisticated than the Yamaha breath controller it anticipated, found favour with a number of American keyboard players but the $795 price tag scared off many more.
Steiner Synthesizers Inc, meanwhile, came up with a $200 wind controller called the Master's Touch, which Ray Kitchen describes as "a box of tricks with little plastic tubes coming out of it."
Yamaha first launched their breath controller with the CS01 monophonic portable synth, although, according to Dave Bristow, it never really caught on: "The sort of people who were using synthesizers at that time were more concerned about how they looked and didn't particularly want to be seen with a big hunk of plastic hanging out of their mouth. The new version is much better."
In 1980, the Linz prize was won by Nyle Steiner's EVI. The EWI/EVI analogue sound module (now known as the EWV2000) contains, in saxophonist Michael Brecker's words, "a couple of gorgeous oscillators." Nyle explains: "I found it was best to design my own synthesizer. Nowadays, with MIDI and some of the more advanced designs, there are some synthesizers that work pretty well with it without having to modify them, but it used to be that I had to modify the synthesizers so much that I just gave up and designed my own."
The Steiner company got involved with Crumar at the end of the 70s but Nyle's own career suddenly took a new direction.
"In 79 I worked on Apocalypse Now, commuting from Salt Lake City. I went down to demonstrate the EVI and they really liked the sound."
Nyle soon moved out to California and began to make his living playing in the studios. He's played on many movie soundtracks - notably Maurice Jarre's score to Witness - albums by Barbra Streisand and TV themes like Knott's Landing and St. Elsewhere.
"Most of the film composers use EVI in one way or another - it's really good as an expressive melody instrument; the vibrato flexibility, the bending - it's really easy to play that way."
Back in their Norwell factory, near Boston, Computone were in trouble. When the company went into liquidation in 1981, Bill Bernardi lost everything - even the transducer patents. He started up a new company, Innovations, and took on a day job to support his research into a totally new system for a Lyricon III.
"The market was just not developing - there was no demand. I think, in a way, if we'd had competition from someone like Yamaha, it would have helped. They can develop a market but we couldn't afford to. It can cost millions developing a market." Over on the West Coast, production of the EVI and the new EWI was a little slow. Nyle took orders and committed to build 12 of them. It took him a year and a half, working in his back room in his spare time between studio sessions. Michael Brecker was one of the early customers.
"I sent away for it and it came over a year later. I had already given up - figured I'd been ripped off or something."
Nyle Steiner seems a patient man and surprisingly nonchalant about Akai's involvement.
"It's a rather esoteric instrument. In the long run it has become very successful - now there's a lot of people who have gotten good enough on the instrument to be serious. Some players take about four months - but it's an individual thing - understanding how to manipulate the electronics.
"It's just as possible to play it badly as it is to play it well - just like a violin, say, although it is nothing like as hard to learn as the violin!"
As Bill Bernardi said in 1972: "The very reason that acoustic instruments are so capable of relating expression is the same reason why so few musicians become virtuosos."
Michael Brecker was unimpressed.
"I never felt comfortable with the Lyricon... I tried it and I couldn't get it happening. I could kind of sound alright on it at home but couldn't find a use for it in any real setting. The whole thing never felt like it was complete... I couldn't get my own personality into it."
In contrast, he has made the EWI his own.
"It felt awkward at first, although I knew the minute I blew it that it was exactly right - I was home."
Sal Galina is a tough, wiry New YorKer whom I first heard years ago, playing wonderful imitative sounds on the (Lyricon) Driver linked to a bunch of analogue CV synths. Screaming Hendrix guitars, brass, double reeds, Spanish guitar solos with convincing flourishes. Now he's raising the roof at Yamaha product demonstrations doing the same kind of stuff on the new Yamaha WX7 driving the miraculous TX81Z expander. I asked him about the forthcoming battle with the Akai EWI and he gave a derisive snort: "I don't think it's even a battle... Michael Brecker's a nice guy - he's a friend of mine - but basically he gets two sounds and that's it.
"For me, Michael is a great, great sax player. A monster! But when I go to a concert and I hear him get up on stage and play that EWI thing - I just can't believe it. He's such a great musician - so expressive with the tenor sax - and then he blows that thing and he gets two sounds?!
"I tried the EWI in Chicago - I couldn't play it. Let's put it this way - it's a toy. It really is. It's like going to the plumber's store and buying this thing and putting little washers on it! I'm being honest. Everybody I know who picked it up says the same - you can't play the thing - it glitches, there's no action to the keys, very clumsy to hold."
Naturally, Michael Brecker doesn't agree with this put-down of the EWI.
"I've always liked the way the EWI looked - so bizarre. It's very well made - they've done a good job.
"You're not dealing with, say... like on a Lyricon you have moving keys that complete the circuit and they glitch and make funny sounds. The EWI keys are touch-sensitive - there are no moving keys. That's a little odd to get used to at first, because as saxophone players we're usually taught to rest our fingers on the keys."
Brecker doesn't officially endorse Akai - he bought the EWI three years ago and gets a lot of musical satisfaction from playing and programming it. He reckons that playing jazz with his own band demands a more experimental approach to sounds, whereas the session players come up with timid imitative "little oboe and guitar patches".
Yamaha hired Sal Gallina about two and half years ago as a consultant to their team of engineers. Did they know what they wanted?
"They didn't know - that's why they hired me. It was a joint effort. The main thing was the transducer section: the whole instrument is the wind sensor and the lip sensor. Everything else is like a keyboard with sax fingering."
Sal has been involved with electronics and wind instruments since the late '60s. He took the neck off his sax and wired it up to logic circuits with relays to control an early ARP synthesizer. He was one of the first Lyricon session musicians and 'clinicians'. When I first met him four years ago, he was immersed in a huge computer-based system which used NASA-developed wind transducers, called the DevonSal. He worked on it for 18 months but the company backing it went out of business. Like Nyle Steiner, he's a trained musician who just picked up electronics as he went along.
"I was one of the kids who hung out in the neighbourhood with the little girls, fiddled around with radios and stuff, and played music. I wasn't the sports type. Baseball? I couldn't see the sense of it."
I asked Sal how the Yamaha WX7 compares to the Lyricon. The instrument is a lot lighter (about 380 grammes) and looks like a matt black 'designer' accessory. What is it like to play?
"It's about the same. Except now it's got MIDI. All the same stuff."
Lyricon designer Bill Bemardi sighs when asked about the WX7.
"I thought better of Yamaha - I figured they'd do something much better. Why didn't they call me?"
He's still working on the Lyricon III, with no major backing.
"I'm in no great hurry because if the best that Yamaha can do is a copy of the Lyricon, they're copying something that I designed 15 years ago."
Bill admits that he is out of circulation these days - he hadn't even heard of the EWI. He voices a mixture of philosophical amusement and bitterness at the turn of events.
But Sal Gallina is a Lyricon virtuoso.
He's made his living from playing the instrument for years, adapting and modifying it and adding MIDI circuits. He puts the Lyricon's commercial failure down to "bad marketing". Sal is quite candid about what he and Yamaha have done. He chuckles: "We MIDI-fied it and that's it. The keys are the same - the same kind of feel."
Bill Bernardi shrugs and gives a chuckle deeper than Sal's.
"It just goes to show you. I'm kind of disappointed in them. They had five or six engineers working on it from what I heard."
Wind players are a little late following the path trod by guitarists, pianists and drummers. The instrumental technique has to develop in relation to the volume and sound quality of the monitoring system.
Ray Kitchen recalled: "I got people like Tommy Whittle and others to try the Lyricon but to them it was disjointed - they didn't like the sound coming from another source."
Most wind synth players find a touch of reverb and/or other effects absolutely essential to give the sound a little space.
But many older players have felt uncomfortable blowing an instrument that makes no acoustic sound; where you can leap several octaves on a flute or trumpet-like sound without any change in lip pressure and hit high notes without the veins standing out on your forehead.
I asked Sal Gallina who he thought would buy the Yamaha WX7 wind controller.
"I think it will be a crossover instrument - I think keyboard players will get into it also. It helps to have some kind of fingering technique but you don't have to have any embouchure. If you know how to blow - that's it!"
Yamaha keyboard maestro Dave Bristow has used their little breath controller for a long time. What did he think?
"It's not an automatic process for a keyboard player, however good he is. It takes a bit of wind mentality. I taught myself the saxophone, trombone and flute - I used to play quite a lot of instruments just for personal pleasure. I also did a lot of bugle playing in the Boys Brigade. No question that it helped."
Michael Brecker, who suffers from a congenital neck disorder which makes blowing the tenor sax difficult, regards the Akai EWI as a godsend. Speaking more generally he says: "It's a way for wind players to be able to participate directly in this digital revolution that's been happening. It's an immensely wide direction for expression."
He believes it can never replace an acoustic instrument. Though after years of experimenting, the EWI replaces any desire to have to 'bug' or electronically treat the natural horn sound.
Tim Weisberg, the American flautist, drives a complex Oberheim synthesizer set-up from a Fairlight Voicetracker. I asked Sal Gallina if such pitch-to-MIDI convertors might be a more attractive direction for traditional players.
"For me - if I want to go electric, I'm gonna go electric... what happens if you want to get rid of the natural sax sound? If you want to get a violin sound and the sax is honking away what good is it?"
The performers I spoke to raised doubts about the ability of MIDI to cope with wind-controlled data.
"As an actual performance instrument, timing is what makes or breaks any of these things," said Brecker. Sal took up the same theme:
"There is a problem with MIDI itself. 256 steps of resolution is not a lot. [MIDI is an 8-bit system - Ed] If they would go to 12-bit or even just 10-bit, it would be better. You can get around it but it's there."
Michael Brecker uses the Akai EWI to produce some particularly arresting cadenzas full of different chords and moving voices.
"The Oberheim Xpander is the key ingredient - six independently moving voices. They were probably the most complete and developed analogue synths in terms of programming - the most flexible. I think they were way ahead of their time and not used by many keyboard players and will find their niche with wind driver people.
"Because it has both CV and Gate outputs and two pedal inputs which can be assigned to control anything, you can trigger breath and dynamics without going through MIDI. It means it's quicker - the MIDI system doesn't have to decipher wind and bend information so it has less to sort out."
So who are the other wind synth players?
In this country, as far as I know, David Roach, Martin Dobson, Steve Joliffe and myself play Lyricon and a film composer called Harry Robbins plays Lyricon and Variophon. Arranger Bruce Baxter has played the Variophon for a long time.
Session keyboardist Wix is renowned for the DX brass sounds he enhances with the Yamaha breath controller and Andy Mackay played Lyricon with The Explorers and Roxy Music, whose roadies used to refer to it as 'the drainpipe'.
In the States, EVI playing trumpeters have been around for a while: people like Sam Zambito, Judd Millar and Bruce Cassady, who used to play with Blood, Sweat and Tears. Joel Peskin and Fred Seldon are Los Angeles-based studio players who specialise in the EWI. Tom Scott can be heard playing Lyricon on many a TV theme. [Didn't he use a Lyricon for the 'Cagney and Lacey' theme tune? - Ed] And Chuck Greenberg has been playing a Lyricon I for many years in the acoustic-sounding New Age context of the Windham Hill megastars, Shadowfax.
However much the manufacturers may hype up the products, their real future belongs with the musicians who commit to playing them.
Sal Gallina comments: "If a manufacturer makes something, they have to make a commitment to the musician! They make a lot of money."
Bill Bernardi is looking to the future. "I've got a totally new system concept in mind that will be as much a change from the original electric efforts in wind instruments as the Lyricon was from acoustic instruments."
In the early '70s Lyricon designer Bill Bernardi, in what he calls "the passion of discovery", declared: "The acoustic instrument is highly overrated as far as being 'a system in itself' is concerned. The sound is not as important as the control over it."
The marketplace has not backed up his claims. What we all continue to demand from instrument manufacturers are great sounds, hi-fi quality samples, presets and pushbutton ease of use. Controls and performance systems have taken a low priority until recently. Such concepts as emotion, expression and intonation are often the sole preserve of the lead vocalist. Have we had to wait for synthesized timbres to reach the complexity of acoustic sound textures before such instrumental subtleties are worth worrying about? Or was it just bad luck?
Wind synthesizers have been with us for a long time without having any real impact on the nature and sound of music. Sampling, drum machines, digital processing and low-cost multitrack, however, have transformed the business of music-making in a few short years. Is wind control of electronic sounds an idea whose time has finally come? Or is it a brief distraction from the trend towards easier, more accessible ways of instant music-making? It takes a long time to really play a musical instrument, so maybe time will tell. Meanwhile, back to the new MIDI train set...
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