Breath control was built into the MIDI spec from the very beginning (it is Continuous Controller 2) but the number of devices on the market that generate it, and the number of players who take advantage of it, has always been relatively small.
This month, we look at three new products designed to help you exploit CC2 for greater expressivity, whether in performance or in the studio when using orchestra libraries. But first, here’s a quick overview of the field of wind controllers.
Breath is a powerful tool when it comes to playing music. Just ask anyone who plays a wind-driven instrument, from a shakuhachi to a sousaphone. But in the touch-oriented world of MIDI, breath control is often considered an afterthought.
The wind cries MIDI
The two dominant names in the field of breath-controlled instruments are Yamaha and Akai. Yamaha introduced the WX7 in 1989 and has kept the line alive ever since; the current model, the WX5, doesn’t stray far from the original design. More or less based on the saxophone, the instruments were designed to be comfortable for flute, oboe, and clarinet players as well. Yamaha’s controllers are just that: They make no sound by themselves. Originally, they were to be used with the company’s VL modules (which are no longer made), to which they connected with a custom cable, but they also have a standard MIDI connection.
Akai makes instruments designed by Nyle Steiner, whose first electronic wind instruments date back before MIDI. Steiner, a trumpet player, started with the Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), which used an interface based on a trumpet, and followed it with the Electronic Woodwind Instrument (EWI). Akai first licensed his designs in 1987 and sold complete controller and synthesizer systems. Today Akai makes one model that is just a controller, the EWI USB, and two that have built-in synths. All of them can be played either in EWI or EVI mode.
A few other companies have dipped their toes into the breath-controller stream–Casio with its not-quite-a-toy DH series, and the impressive but short-lived Synthophone, which was an actual alto sax packed with sensors and electronics–though none were able to achieve any market longevity.
Yamaha also made breath controllers that were not instruments themselves but were air-pressure sensors designed to be used with keyboards. The first, the BC1, was introduced in 1983 along with the DX7, which had a ⅛" input jack for it. It was followed by later models with more features, such as a headband, and adjustable threshold and slope controls. The last model, the BC3, went out of production in 2011. (Musicians who pine for a BC3, but who baulk at the $300+ price it fetches on eBay, should look into a Turkish company called MRTaudio. This company started out making a converter box for BC controllers to make them compatible with non-Yamaha instruments, but now they make their own breath sensors, too, filling the vacuum–so to speak–that Yamaha left behind.)
And that brings us to the topic at hand; three new items for introducing breath control into your MIDI system. Two are from new companies and are for non-wind players who want to use their breath expressively, while the other is a wind-powered instrument from a company you know well, but is new to this area of controllers.
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Hornberg is a German company whose first product is the hb1 breath controller. This is a serious piece of gear, designed for maximum flexibility and longevity. A bulb made from a rare European tree is the mouthpiece (the company supplies two in different sizes), which screws onto a metal tube with an adjustable vent, allowing you to set the backpressure, and it also acts as a drain. The air outlet from the metal tube connects with a thin silicone hose to a 1.5" long flattened cylinder of wood and stainless steel that hangs around your neck. This contains the actual pressure sensor, which reads both positive (blow) and negative (suck) pressure. It is wired to a control box, using 4-conductor ⅛" plugs, which processes the pressure information and translates it into MIDI.
The box, also stainless steel with rare-wood end pieces, has a USB input, which can connect with either a computer or a power adapter. It also has MIDI In and two MIDI Outs. This allows the system to be used in a variety of different configurations: It can send data directly to a computer over USB; it can send MIDI to a computer or a synthesizer; it can be inserted in the path between a MIDI keyboard and a hardware module or computer interface, merging its data with the keyboard; or it can, itself, be a MIDI-to-USB converter, also merging its data with an input source.
The system provides 12 parameters for massaging the data, which are accessed and adjusted on the control box, using a rotary encoder with a button underneath it, a second button, and a three-digit LED display. The parameters include MIDI channel, controller number, minimum and maximum output values, and data density. The sensitivity or “drive” parameter can be set to negative values, in which case the output value goes up when you breathe in. There are also settings for “attack” and “release,” which slow down changes in the data to make for smoother dynamic changes, and “boost” settings, which override those last two for dramatic dynamic changes; the attack boost kicks in when you blow sharply into the mouthpiece, and the release boost takes over when you suck in.
Parameters are stored in a preset, of which the box holds 25. If you want to send data on more than one channel or more than one MIDI controller, you can combine up to four presets to work in parallel. The limited number of parameters makes working with the single knob and LED not too painful, but the company also provides software for Mac and Windows that shows all of the parameters simultaneously, as well as a live display of the box’s output, and it lets you name and save presets on your computer (see Figure 2). Unfortunately, the MIDI In and MIDI Out 2 jacks have to be connected to each other (a 1-foot MIDI cable is supplied) to use the software, which limits the system’s flexibility while you’re programming it. But if you need to use those jacks, you can upload your presets to the box when you’re done designing them, and then remove the cable.
All of the parts of the hb1 feel very solid and built to last. The wood in the mouthpieces is claimed to reduce salivation, and it certainly feels more natural in the mouth than Yamaha’s plastic, but it doesn’t seem any less sloppy after playing for a while. The system also includes a Neck Set: a heavy flexible metal cable that lets you position the mouthpiece in front of you, like a Bob Dylan-style harmonica holder, so you can get it in and out of your mouth hands-free (see Figure 3). Unfortunately, the assembly that holds the mouthpiece in place gets loose if you roll the mouthpiece away from you, so this could use some rethinking.
Overall, the hb1 does one thing and does it very well. The programming parameters are extremely useful and are easy to understand and set up. Its only real drawback is its price: You can buy three Akai EWI USBs for less than one hb1. But if you have a real need for a flexible, well-built, and reliable breath controller that feels like it will be around for a while, it would be a good choice.
Tecontrol BBC2 €199
If you were to design a breath controller that is philosophically the polar opposite of the hb1, you would end up with the Breath and Bite Controller 2 (BBC2) from the Swedish company TEControl. This is actually the company’s fourth product: The USB MIDI Breath Controller–essentially a BC3 replacement with a USB cable–came out in 2013 and was followed by the “UNI” version with both USB and MIDI outs, and then by the Breath and Bite Controller, which added WX-style bite-pressure sensing. That has been replaced by the newest model, which adds even more: It responds to your head position on two axes. I have to say, it’s a trip.
The BBC2 consists of a little plastic box about the size of a thick cellphone battery, to which is attached a flattish tube with an air inlet (that’s the part you put in your mouth), an adjustable vent/drain, and a two-foot flexible tube you hang around your neck (not as solid as the hb1’s Neck Set, but adequate for the job). At the other end of the neck tube emerges a thin cable that terminates in a USB plug . That’s the whole thing.
There are no hardware controls, so the company provides a graphics-oriented configuration utility that lets you set up the device’s performance parameters, which are similar to the hb1’s. You can specify MIDI channel and message–controller, Aftertouch, or uni-or bi-polar pitchbend–and set up the input and output maxima and minima, change the response curve and apply attack and decay “filters” to slow down the data for smoother dynamic changes.
The breath sensor only responds in a positive direction; sucking on it doesn’t do anything. But the BBC2 lets you use far more than just your breath to control your sounds. The mouth tube contains a force-sensing resistor that responds to pressure from your teeth, like the “reed” on a Yamaha WX controller. (The sensor in the WX reads force from the bottom of the jaw, while the BCC2’s sensor reads the top, but the effect is the same.) Although the review unit started to show teeth marks after only a couple of hours of use, the company says is made of “food-grade” plastic and no user has ever broken one.
But there’s more. Inside the little box is a two-axis accelerometer that responds to your head position–Nod (forward and back) and Tilt (left and right). Each of the four dimensions–breath, bite, nod, and tilt–has its own independent set of parameters, including channel and message, so not only can you control four different functions within a patch, but also you can be addressing different instruments or devices. Consider that your breath might be controlling a synth’s volume and timbre, your bite the intensity on a distortion module, your Tilt position the decay time on a reverb, and your Nod position upward pitchbend.
The hardware only has room for a single preset, which is stored with the Make Permanent button in the software. So, if you want to change configurations, you have to keep the software running. But the single USB output (which also supplies power) more or less requires you to use the BBC2 with a computer, anyway. The lack of MIDI ports means that any merging or routing with other controllers will have to occur in software. Most DAWs are flexible enough to handle this, but in order to use the BBC2 with a keyboard, for example, in Reason, which doesn’t allow different input sources to address a common module, you would have to route the device’s output through a program like MIDIPipe, which can merge the signal with the keyboard’s before it hits Reason’s MIDI input.
While the BBC2 doesn’t feel as robust as the hb1, it’s much more solid than the rather delicate Yamaha BCs–although our BC2 is still doing fine after about 20 years. The amount of control that’s built into this modest device is really impressive, and we think a lot of musicians will have a lot of fun with it. The visual aspect of watching a keyboard player make changes in the sound with his or her head motion can be stunning, and it gives us players more of an excuse to bounce around.
The Aerophone is the venerable company’s first venture into breath-controlled instruments, and it’s an ambitious one. Rather than try to please all wind players, the Aerophone is modelled very closely after a saxophone, although it hardly looks like one. It’s a curved plastic cylinder with a sax-like mouthpiece on one end and an asymmetrical trapezoidal bulge in the middle (see Figure 6). On the front are six main finger keys, three chromatic keys, and clusters of palm and pinky keys very similar to a sax: In fact, if you close your eyes, you might think you were holding a rather light alto sax.
On the back are four-octave keys–two up and two down, providing more than a 5-octave range–for the left thumb, and a two-axis joystick for the right thumb which is usually set up for pitchbend (vertical axis) and vibrato or growl (horizontal).
There is a USB port for sending MIDI Out or connecting with a mobile device (more on this in a moment), a ¼" TRS audio output jack, an ⅛" audio input jack (apparently so you can play along with songs on your phone), and an input for a 5.7VDC power supply. A power supply is provided that has a 6-foot cable, which feels quite short if you’re playing standing up. Two small speakers are built into the body, so you can practice it by itself. The unit can also be powered with six internal AA batteries: The USB connection does not supply power.
The mouthpiece is similar to a Yamaha WX, with a breath-pressure sensor inside and a plastic reed on the underside connected to a bite sensor. The latter improves on the WX model by introducing a second, independent mode; it not only measures the pressure of your lower jaw against the reed, but it also senses how far the mouthpiece is sitting in your mouth.
The sounds, which use Roland’s SuperNatural technology, are selected by holding a small button with the left thumb and pushing left and right arrow keys with the right. The instrument comes with 55 preset tones, which can be edited and saved into 100 user slots. The sounds include wind, brass, ethnic, vocal synths, a couple of organs and string instruments. Each sound has adjustable reverb and chorus, as well as two effects buses that can be loaded with any of over a dozen effects including phaser, ring modulator, compressor, auto-wah, or delay.
Editing the sounds can also be done onboard, using a small 2-line LED display, a Menu button, and the arrow keys. But, as is often the case with digital instruments with tiny displays, it’s an awful procedure. Fortunately, Roland has a free editing app available for iOS and Android devices which does the job really well, and we would consider it a necessity for doing any customisation at all on the Aerophone . A feature available on the editor, but not on the instrument itself, is the ability to layer four different sounds within one patch, each with its own pitch, volume, envelope and filter offsets, LFO, bend range, and effects sends.
The sounds in the Aerophone are very well-chosen and eminently usable in performance. Most sax players will feel totally comfortable as soon as they pick up the instrument and will be pleased with the quality and the variety of sounds. The controls and sensors do what you think they will do, and if you don’t like them, they are easy to customize (with the external editor).
There are a few things about it, however, that we wish Roland had done differently. For one thing, I would worry about its robustness onstage. The plastic body, although solid, feels like it could shatter if you dropped it hard enough. The palm keys, which protrude from the body like a sax’s, feel like they could break under rough usage. If you use the DC power supply, which we think most players would prefer, and the external audio output, and the USB output, you will have three different cables emerging from different places on the body, and that could easily lead to an accident, especially given how short the power supply cable is.
The data coming from the MIDI output is a little strange, which would make it hard to use with external sound sources. (Since there’s only one USB port, you would have to disable the editor when you want it to control another device.) How the device generates MIDI depends on the settings of the internal voice, which is fine since you can define all of the various controller outputs and their ranges. You can also specify a minimum and maximum velocity that is generated when you start to blow or change notes. But the velocities are inconsistent: if you blow hard initially, and then change notes while you’re blowing, the velocity of the second note will be much higher than the first note. Conversely, if you are holding a note and then re-attack it louder with your breath or tongue, the velocity of the second note will be lower than the initial note.
Within the instrument’s synth engine, these issues don’t seem to matter, as Roland’s engineers have apparently designed the sounds to behave under these conditions, but if you are using an external synth you may find yourself having to do some radical reprogramming, setting normally velocity-controlled parameters to respond instead to controllers and Aftertouch. And some synth features, such as velocity-controlled envelopes, may simply not be usable.
Finally, because the instrument is so closely modelled after a saxophone, it would seem that players of oboes, bassoons, clarinets, and flutes would have a harder time adjusting to it than an EWI or WX. The auxiliary keys follow the sax model a little too well; unlike on a WX, where any of the sharp keys raise the pitch of any note you’re playing, the Aerophone’s chromatic keys only work with certain notes. There are also a bunch of “altissimo” key combinations that seem rather arbitrary and that only sax players would be comfortable using. If that’s the only market Roland is interested in, that’s okay, but we can imagine plenty of other orchestral players who could benefit from this instrument but would have trouble with it.
Despite its quirks, we like the Aerophone. If you’re a sax player looking for an electronic wind instrument that’s easy to deal with and can handle a host of functions within your band, and you’re careful not to drop it, the Aerophone–plus an iPad and an extension cord–should fill the bill.