Expression and Alternative Controllers

  • by Kim Bjørn

There are myriad physical controls for drawing expression from electronic instruments. Here we explore some of the most common — and a few of the most esoteric.

Control Wheels
Since the Minimoog, left-hand controls have been the standard control accompaniment to the keyboard, with the usual suspects being the pitchbend and modulation wheels. Though you can (usually) map it as you please, many software instruments have the modulation wheel (MIDI CC1) pre-mapped to great effect. Typical uses for the modulation wheel include opening and closing filters, adding vibrato, or crossfading between sample layers.

Electronic music is far from cold, faceless or devoid of emotion — in fact, it is truly quite the opposite, as far as I am concerned. 
– Jean-Michel Jarre
Breath Controllers
If you’ve got two left feet, you might want to try a breath controller instead, meaning a device that allows the user to blow harder or softer to control parameters. Pioneered by Yamaha, their legendary DX7 synth offered this as an external control option (in addition to expression pedals). This compensated slightly for the lack of tweakable controls (beyond the pitch and mod wheels) on the front, which mostly consisted of flat membrane buttons supporting the design statement of a futuristic digital synthesizer of the 1980s.

Breath controllers aren’t as common nowadays, but that doesn’t diminish their potential for creative expression. In fact, a breath controller is an amazing tool for working with sample libraries and emulated instruments, or just to bring extra expression to your burning synth solos or evolving soundscapes.

In this video, Ramiro J. Gómez Massetti shows how the use of a breath controller and the Leap Motion motion controller can bring an impressive degree of expression to the KONTAKT instruments from Samplemodeling. These techniques can be explored with any software instrument with MIDI mappable parameters.

If you’d like to try one, the New-Type Breath controller developed in Japan is a good option — it allows the user to switch MIDI channels on the fly, and it can be mounted on a stand, as shown below:

breath controller Tatsuya NishiwakiPhoto: Tatsuya Nishiwaki

Gesture Driven
For more dramatic impact, hand- or body-gesture-driven controllers can create a great visual connection to sound shaping. Roland developed the D-Beam infrared controller which first appeared on the MC-505 back in 1998, and since then numerous controllers have emerged utilizing the movement of hands in the air. Not quite in fashion yet, finger rings seem to be on the rise. The Wave ring senses three kinds of movement: sideways, up/down and rolling of the hand. Such a controller is ideal for shaping your sounds while playing or DJing.

Sensors are devices which detect or measure physical properties and output signals in response. Sensors can be used to add expressiveness or provide alternative input to alter or generate sound. One of the interesting new controllers is the Expressive E Touché, which is highly touch sensitive and senses motion and pressure in four directions. Combine it with a modular synthesizer for extremely organic results.

Touch Strips
In designing an electronic instrument or controller, potential for expression should always be considered. For instance, the use of touch-strips on the MASCHINE JAM allows for expressive features like note strumming and performance effects control. Being able to use four controls with just one hand (or all eight with both) gives powerful potential for expression — knobs, for example, would not have permitted this number of simultaneous adjustments by hand.

Aftertouch and MPE

Originally a feature of the clavichord, and later the Mellotron, Yamaha introduced aftertouch in synthesizers with the CS-80. This feature allows the player to further influence the sound after its initial attack by applying pressure to the keys. The CS-80 featured individual aftertouch per note. This kind of individual aftertouch has been reintroduced in an even more expressive format: MPE (Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression). This MIDI standard requires compatible controllers — like the LinnStrument by Roger Linn, ROLI Seaboard, Haken Continuum, Madrona SoundPlane, or Eigenlabs Eigenharp — that often work with dedicated software.

The MPE standard allows the user to manipulate notes in a polyphonic passage — that is, notes within chords — much like a guitarist or violinist. Take a listen to the expressive capabilities of MPE in this fascinating performance where Marco Parisi plays “Purple Rain” on the Seaboard RISE at last year’s NAMM.

Devices such as Apple’s iPad have great potential for expressive gestures. Apps like Jordan Rudess’ Geoshred leverage the fluent playing style allowed by the flat surface, providing myriad possibilities for sliding notes or seamlessly changing parameter values. Adding an iPad to your setup is a quick and easy way to bring more expressive control to your software instruments.

In this video, electronic music pioneer, Suzanne Ciani performs with a few multi-touch surfaces alongside her Buchla system: an iPad with the expressive Animoog app, another using the motion detection features to control noise, and the Buchla Multi-Dimensional Kinesthetic Input port.

3 expression workflows 

Let’s look at the three slightly different ways we obtain expression in electronic music.

Performed. The first is in live situations, where you tweak physical controls to obtain a certain expression in real time. Having enough dedicated controls makes it easier. Using knobs on a MIDI keyboard controller, you can immediately get hands-on with the ready-mapped parameters — or rapidly remap them with the MIDI keyboard controller’s software editor. Expand the expressivity of your setup with additional controllers like an iPad or expression pedal.

Created. The second is during production, where we use automation of instrument and effects parameters to add expression. In DAWs, automation typically uses editable lines and curves that determine value changes over time.  Automation moves can also be recorded using the mouse or your control hardware.

Animated. The third method is a kind of in-between “fake” expressive playing, where automatic modulation — like triggered envelopes or LFOs — creates change in the sound. Some software synths have dedicated features for animating parameters.

So, go ahead: dive into your hardware interfaces and software tools for fully exploring the potential for greater expressive results. Have fun expressing yourself!

Absolute control of your instrument is the key to a compelling performance and often unlocks the door to inspiration. It’s what drummers, violinists, and other instrumentalists strive for. For many more alternative controllers and inspiring interfaces, check out PUSH TURN MOVE.

Thanks for stopping by! Stick around as we move into workflow.

This article was part of a blog-series originally appearing at who kindly allowed us to repurpose Kim's articles again – here in a version edited by Collin Russel.


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