American Innovations in Electronic Musical Instruments

American Innovations in Electronic Musical Instruments


During the late ’60s and early ’70s, avant-garde wind players would outfit their instruments with acoustic pickups and plug the signals through synthesizers, waveshapers, and envelope followers, triggering sounds and applying distortion and effects of various sorts. Examples abound in the electric jazz experiments of the early ’70s by horn players like Miles Davis, Don Ellis, Eddie Henderson, and others. Wind players quickly adopted the early pitch-to-voltage converters produced by most synthesizer manufacturers (e.g., Moog, EMS). As wind instruments are essentially monophonic, they were well-suited to driving the single-voice synthesizers of the time, and although these pitch extractors could be readily confused from harmonics, attack transients, and artifacts of expressive playing, some degree of playability could be attained.

In the early ’70s, the electronic wind instrument started its metamorphosis into a soundless controller, where the valves and stops became switches, and mouthpieces and reeds were replaced with bite and breath sensors. As in the case of the interfaced guitar, this shortcut the need for intermediate pitch extraction, and the player’s gesture was able to be immediately mapped into dynamic synthesis and audio parameters. The first of these devices to gain any notoriety was the Lyricon Wind Synthesizer Driver, made by a Massachusetts company called Computone. This device produced voltages from fingering, lip pressure, and breath flux (measured by a hot-wire anemometer adapted from a small light bulb) that could drive an analog synthesizer; it was initially packaged just as a controller, but a small dedicated analog synthesizer was included with subsequent models to enable stand-alone performance. Envelope generators were not generally used with such wind controllers; the breath controller and lip/bite sensor signals were applied directly to control the amplitude and timbral dynamics, creating the level of intimate sonic articulation that wind players are used to expressing.

During the later ’70s and early ’80s the Los Angeles trumpeter/inventor Nyle Steiner, long working on electronic wind interfaces, developed two of the best-known devices, the Electronic Woodwind Instrument (EWI) and Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI). The EWI has the fingering protocol of a saxophone, while the EVI is designed for trumpet players. In addition to breath and lip pressure sensors, these instruments featured capacitive touch keys for fast pitch fingering, touch plates and levers for adding portamento, vibrato and other effects, and rollers for transposing and sliding pitch. The synthesizer/audio manufacturer Akai began producing these instruments in the late-1980’s, packaging the controller with an analog synthesizer and MIDI interface. They still produce a version of the EWI today, and as many purists feel that MIDI can’t adequately convey the streams of continuous data produced by this device, it remains optionally packaged with an analog synthesizer.

Yamaha has played an important role in digital wind interfaces, introducing a breath controller (a device which dynamically senses breath pressure) with its pioneering DX-7 FM synthesizer in the early 1980’s, opening up another channel of articulation in what was essentially a keyboard instrument. In the later 1980’s, they introduced the first real MIDI wind controller, the WX-7, with fingering switches laid out in a saxophone protocol, breath and lip sensors, a pitch wheel, and a set of control buttons; this device has now evolved into the modern WX-5. As a commercial manufacturer pioneering techniques such as physical modeling and waveguide algorithms in their VL-series synthesizers, Yamaha has designed many sound patches for these devices that require breath or wind controllers for fullest expression.

Many other wind controllers have been made by other manufacturers and researchers; for example, Casio has produced the inexpensive “DH” series of hornlike controllers, Martin Hurni of Softwind Instruments manufactures the Synthophone, and John Talbert of Oberlin College has built the MIDI horn. Perry Cook and Dexter Morrill have explored new concepts in brass synthesis controllers at the CCRMA in Stanford, where they mounted acoustic and pressure transducers at various points in standard brass instruments, plus monitored valve position, added additional digital controls, and applied new algorithms for realtime pitch and feature extraction from the audio stream.

Some devices in this family have evolved far from their parents. For example Nicholas Collins has turned a trombone into a multimodal performance controller by putting a keypad onto an instrumented slide, and using this to control, launch and modify a variety of different sounds; the trombone is never “played” in the conventional sense. An altogether different kind of wind synthesizer has been built by California-based Ugo Conti. His “whistle synthesizer” is essentially a signal processing device attached to a microphone into which one whistles. By adjusting its ubiquitous array of sliders (at least one is accessible to each finger on both hands), the sound of the whistle can be dynamically warped and modified through sub-octave generators and delay lines.

From American Innovations in Electronic Musical Instruments
by Joseph A. Paradiso
© 1999 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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