Yamaha's WX7 MIDI wind controller has already attracted the attention of professional sax players like Courtney Pine. Man Jumping saxophonist Andy Blake gets his second wind.
The days when "blowin'" referred exclusively to wind instruments is long gone; the days when "blowin'" referred affectionately to a band in full-flight are over - now you can go hi-tech "blowin'".
IT WOULD BE fair to say that Yamaha had a head start in the wind control stakes. Breath control, which appeared circa 1983 on the humble CS01, has always been available on the DX7 and its offshoots. The original Yamaha breath controller is a sawn-off melodica: a simple mouthpiece, built into a small piece of shaped plastic. Plugged into a DX, it can control the contours of any appropriately programmed sound. There are drawbacks. It looks a bit silly in performance; its design encourages hyperventilation (temporary oxygen poisoning and faintness) and anyway, the mouth-hand coordination required is tricky to learn. The WX7, which has been on the shelves of your friendly local hi-tech dealer for some time now, has been tailor-made to exploit the breath-control facility already available on the DXs, but in a far more user-friendly and versatile form.
The WX7 was developed by New York woodwind session musician Sal Gallina (interviewed in MT, December 1987). Like Akai's EWI/EVI, it is essentially a monophonic-wind instrument. Sound is produced by blowing a channel of air, directed by a mouthpiece, against a transducer; modulation and pitch-bend can be controlled by lip pressure acting against a flexible metal bar. Keys based on saxophone fingering produce the chromatic scale, and a series of thumb buttons control octave transposition - six octaves are always under the thumb. The signals thus generated are transformed by an A/D converter and passed from the instrument itself to a small battery-powered booster, which sends MIDI information.
UNWRAPPING THE INSTRUMENT is a real birthday treat. The package has been well-designed and looks like a serious instrument right from the start. A lightweight carrying case opens to reveal the WX7 itself, a sax-type mouthpiece complete with a plastic "reed" attached to two oblong sections: a control housing and a slimmer unit containing the keywork. On top of this are keys set out in the standard woodwind Boehm system, and underneath are octave switches for the left thumb, sling-hook, and three switches for the right thumb. One (a rocker) controls pitch-bend, one sends program changes, and the third sets up the Hold facility, which we'll discuss later. Then there are various accessories: the battery pack, with leather belt wallet plus six AA batteries, two leads to connect this with the WX, a MIDI lead, a sling, a spare mouthpiece, and a polishing cloth. A small package contains shims to adjust the riding height of the keys, and taps to block the air hole Yamaha have thoughtfully provided to clear spit - blocking this produces a more resistant, tighter feel. Each purchaser of the WX7 receives, along with the users manual, a copy of Sal Gallina's book and demo cassette, Expressive FM Applications, which shows what you can do with a WX7, a TX81Z or DX7, and one or two effects units, and lists all the presets you hear on the tape.
There is also a small screwdriver, in a box designed to clip onto the instrument lead, which is necessary to make the WX behave in the way you want it to. User-friendliness really has been built in. Open a flap on the underneath of the instrument, and you'll see four rotary pots and eight DIP switches, with which you can adjust its responses to suit your own playing style - and this doesn't have to have anything to do with saxophone technique.
Don't let the appearance of the mouthpiece put you off - the plastic "reed" is there to be used if you want it; if you don't, you can play it like a recorder. This is called the Loose Lip playing style. The reed can still be used for pitch-bend up, but you can disable this if you wish and give that right thumb some work. Then there is the Tight Lip playing style. In this mode, the reed is clamped to the mouthpiece while blowing, much as with a sax or clarinet. Relaxing or tightening gives pitch-bend. With each playing style, vibrating the reed will give modulation, unless you disable this. Two of the rotary pots allow you to adjust the threshold at which breath causes notes to speak, and the amount of Gain in volume changes in wind pressure will produce. The other two pots provide for adjustment of the instrument's sensitivity to lip pressure. The DIP switches allow you to choose between the transmission of aftertouch and breath control; to disable volume information; to transpose the instrument up an octave, or into B flat or E flat, should you wish to read band parts; to select either linear or exponential response to breath pressure, and to switch between Tight and Loose playing modes.
The DIP switches also allow you to select one of four versions of Key-hold mode, which as you can see deserves a paragraph to itself. In each instance, pressing the Hold key while playing a note will cause that note to continue. In Normal Key-hold mode, the hold you've initiated remains at the same pitch. You can play anything else meanwhile, but the drone will only disappear (except during pauses for breath) when you press the Hold key again. Follow Key-hold mode works out the interval between the note you pressed Hold on and the next note, and then plays parallel chords of that interval until, again, you tell it to stop by clicking Hold. Now it begins to get clever. In "Dual-play (no breath)" mode, the WX transmits the drone you've selected on a separate MIDI channel, and sustains it, independently of breath pressure, until disabled. At last - your chance to play the music of the bagpipes without learning the basics of octopus-wrestling. Finally, "Dual-play (use breath)" mode, enables you to play parallel lines using two MIDI channels. The possibilities are ably and impressively demonstrated on the Gallina cassette.
THAT'S ALL VERY well, but in order to play the WX7 you've got to plug it into something. Sal Gallina's book details a dozen patches for the TX81Z, which he used (with a REV7 and an SPX90) at last year's British Music Fair - to quite staggering effect. Hardened professional musicians were heard to utter words of appreciation. A good few were later seen emerging from music shops with WX and TX boxes. Needless to say, Yamaha recommend the use of a TX81Z, and will gladly sell this with the WX as a package. And a very worthwhile partnership it is. The TX81Z, as no doubt everyone knows by now, is an inexpensive rack unit which has breath control, and is sonically versatile. The first DX/TX to feature seven "waveforms" as well as eight (four-operator) FM algorithms, it offers two performance modes. Single Play mode provides 128 preset and 32 user-programmable memories, while the 24 performance presets give the possibility of combining these available voices. Up to eight can be used monophonically. This fits very well with the proclivities of the wind controller. You can, for instance, set up the equivalent of keyboard splits: say a bass sound to cover the lowest two octaves, a clarinet sound for the middle two, and a flute sound for the two highest. Or you can just pile sounds on top of each other, adding if you will, the TX's pseudo-reverb or delay effects, to produce rich and strange lead sounds. This TX also offers 10 preset and two user programmable microtonal sales - so you can play non-European music without constant pitch-bend adjustments. All in all, as I say, the partnership works extremely well. Of course, there remain problems with the TX81Z. Its tiny user memory is probably the most important. It is also extremely time-consuming to program (see review in MT, July 1987). And of course the WX7 works perfectly well with other synths and samplers.
ASSUMING FOR THE moment that you're using the TX81Z, with sounds carefully programmed to exploit breath control to the full, how does the WX7 behave as a MIDI controller? Most importantly, does it provide that warmth of human expression which FM synthesis so often lacks - does breath control actually breathe!
Well, yes, actually. Careful setting of EG Bias sensitivity and Key Velocity sensitivity, as well as the Breath control settings (Pitch Bias, Pitch Modulation, Amplitude Modulation, and EG bias) enables you to take synth playing in new directions, opening or closing components of the sounds you've programmed in ways you'd find impossible using a keyboard. The breath control system doesn't quite offer the massive flexibility of Akai's EWI/EWV combination, but the WX phrases like a wind instrument, and it also feels like one, with its responsive mouthpiece and well-designed key action. The wide range of adjustment available means that it should suit any playing style. Non-Yamaha synths and samplers respond equally enthusiastically to the WX's promptings: if you don't like FM, you don't have to use it. All in all, it should be another step in Yamaha's plan for world musical domination.
But it isn't perfect. The octave mechanism in particular is a problem. The octave buttons don't share the smooth action of the pitch keys. Furthermore, they are not ideally spaced: smooth movement between octaves is achieved more by luck than judgement. The pitch keys themselves, well designed as they are, are made of lightweight plastic; they wouldn't inspire great confidence in anyone setting out on a three-month tour of the Americas. I feel something more sturdy is required.
A GREAT DEAL of care has gone into the design of this instrument. Sal Gallina's demonstration book and cassette give purchasers a start in the creation of expressive and impressive sounds. Though the instrument is suitable for anyone to learn quickly, it is well-suited to existing wind techniques - unsurprisingly, many reed players have already taken to it, and more will surely do so. No doubt improvements to the octave mechanism are in hand - there are rumours of a second version, due perhaps this time next year. What we already have, however, is enough to make anyone thinking of taking up a wind controller stop thinking - and start playing.
Price WX7 £749: TX81Z £449. Both prices include VAT.