Alex, Québécois-Swiss living in Ottawa. I’m an ethnographer and technopedagogue but what’s more relevant for polyphonic expression is that I’m a sax player trained in ethnomusicology.
(I’m actually conducting self-funded and self-directed academic research on what I’d call “electronic musicking”. By which I mean “any participation in music through electronic means”, but my focus has been on a notion of “technological appropriation through music”. If it sounds too academic, it’s partly because it is. It might also explain “where I’m coming from” more than most of the things I say about my musicking practice and love for musicking gadgets.)
When I went to college in music in 1989, the school’s “MIDI Studio” was a major part of my overall experience. We had access to pretty neat things at the time: Yamaha DX7, E-MU Proteus, MOTU Performer, Digidesign TurboSynth, Intelligent Music M, Passport Alchemy, Sound, and Opcode Max.
When I went to university in anthropology, I maintained a strong connection to music, including electroacoustic composition and musical acoustics. Though I did spend some time in the computer labs at the music department, I didn’t have that much access to electronic music tools. So I had some awareness of things like trackers DAWs, but I didn’t really get to play with them much. Until much more recently.
In 1996, I bought a Yamaha WX11 wind controller. My dream at that point was basically to practice saxophone with headphones.
As far as I can remember, the only sound source I had at the time was a Korg Poly-800. I eventually bought a Yamaha TX81z which has some support for breath control.
That kind of setup didn’t really work, for me. The sounds weren’t that satisfying, especially in terms of response. For instance, I could assign breath control to volume on the TX81z (in a bit of a cumbersome way), but it didn’t sound that expressive. While I had some training in FM through the DX7 and actually enjoyed this kind of sound quite a bit, playing those sounds with a wind controller didn’t satisfy me as much.
It’s only a few years ago that I found an appropriate soundsource for my wind controller(s): Sonosaurus Thumbjam, one of the first softsynths on iOS. Not only did it have a feature to accept breathcontrol (CC02), but it assigned it to filter cutoff which, it turns out, is probably the key to expressiveness through breath. (I eventually discovered this through free wind controller patches from Mkirino01 for iOS synths like Propellerheads Thor or Yonac Kauldron and Magellan.)
Since then, I got other windcontrollers, including an AKAI EWI-USB, a second WX11, and a Vindor ES-1.
As a sax player, I’ve always been polyphonically-challenged. At the same time, I enjoy expressiveness too much to be satisfied by what Roger Linn calls “on/off switches”.
So, my quest with electronic instruments has partly been about polyphonic expression.
My first MPE device was the Eigenharp Pico (which is how I first met (and potentially annoyed) @thetechnobear). On paper, this was fulfilling my dream: a windcontroller which allows for expressive polyphony!
I’ve had some pretty cool experiences with my Pico (either with the onboard sounds or with a third-party softsynth like ROLI Equator). But the overall setup with EigenD is way too finicky for my needs. (Which is why I was nagging Mark and other members of the Eigenharp group way too much.)
Another problem with the Pico, for me, was actually with the way the playing keys are set up. Not that it doesn’t make sense in and of itself. But it made less sense to me. I’ve had a hard time adapting to the instrument to produce something which would satisfy me. I’ve practiced a bunch of scales and arpeggios, which sounded pretty good with the cello or clarinet sound (including in polyphony). But any time I tried “jamming” on the Pico, it felt really awkward. I guess part of the problem is that the chromatic mode is too limited in range so I was mostly playing with scales. I thought about creating some scripts to switch from one scale to another or otherwise follow some chord setups. But it never panned out. It was one of those neat projects I have on my many backburners.
At one point, I got interested in the ROLI Lightpad. I was quite skeptical, in part because the overall opinion sounded pretty negative. So I wanted to try one in an Apple Store. Unlike some other places, that Apple Store didn’t have any ROLI controller we could try so I was advised to buy one and return it if I didn’t like it. Though it wasn’t really what I wanted, I never returned it. It did open my MPE world quite a bit, partly through ROLI Equator Player. Here was a sound source which worked really well with MPE. (I bought Apple MainStage at some point and MPE support in some of its instruments was also an ear opener. But factory presets in ROLI Equator make much better use of MPE so those were quite inspiring.)
I eventually bought a Lightpad M when ROLI gave me a huge discount. Though, on paper, the difference with the original Lightpad is pretty much incremental, the experience is a huge improvement, qualitatively. The Lightpad M quickly became my favourite MPE controller. And it’s been the one controller I’ve used the most in the past year. I almost always have it in my backpack (along with my iPad Pro and Sony MDR-7506 headphones) and I often have fun with it in a café, library, or park.
The learning curve on the Lightpad M has been relatively smooth (and steep in the sense of going up quickly). Unlike the Pico’s “playing keys”, the 5x5 setup on the Lightpad really suits me. As Roger Linn and other guitarists have realized, there’s something quite neat about having rows for continuous playing (like strings) which are a fourth apart. As Linn argued recently, this “Fourths String Layout” has been adopted by other products and it’s probably a good investment in time to learn it.
More specifically for me, the 5x5 grid has helped me take on polyphony in a way which makes a lot of sense to my brain. It’s almost like a “trick” but I’ve started playing a lot with pads in two columns separated by one (so, 1 and 3, 2 and 4, or 3 and 5). Which makes for an interesting form of pentatonic playing (e.g. C, D, F, G, Bb, C, Eb, F, Ab, Bb when playing columns 1 and 3). As with any form of pentatonic playing, it’s hard to play something which sounds bad, so it feels pretty encouraging. And because it’s MPE, it’s easy enough to slide some notes to create tensions.
(By the by, as an ethnomusicologist, I’m deeply interested in tuning systems which aren’t 12TET/12EDO (the piano’s “12-Tone Equal Temperament” or “12 Equal Divisions of the Octave”). In fact, I’ve been pretty vocal against “pianocentrism” in electronic music. In the future of polyphonic expression, I really hope we’ll have more ways to play in one of the approaches to “just intonation” which are so common in the World’s musics, as well as some more unusual ones. You might call the feature “microtuning” but it’s useful to acknowledge that most of the World’s music aren’t 12TET, from choirs to orchestras and wind ensembles to chimes.)
My most recent MPE controller is the Sensel Morph (with the Innovator’s Overlay). Based on my Lightpad experience, I’ve created a simple layout which is equivalent to two Lightpads, side by side, in 5x5 grid mode. So I still get the “Fourths String Layout” but I have a broader range than on a single Lightpad, especially for sliding. There are some quirks in my setup that I need to troubleshoot and I haven’t 3D-printed this layout as a physical overlay. But it’s really fun to jam with this.
At this point, my “ultimate dream” controller is something like the Pico form factor (with a better mouthpiece) which would be standalone (including some kind of MPE softsynth), battery-powered, Bluetooth MIDI compliant, USB-C, with a ContinuuMini-like playing surface.
Sure, it’s unlikely to ever come out and would end up costing more than anything I’ve ever owned. But the point of a dream isn’t to be realistic.
On the MPE soundsource side of things, I’ve mostly been in “collecting” mode, buying just about any iOS app which supports MPE and several of the ones on macOS, Windows, and Linux.
However, I probably end up spending most of my time with a few iOS sounds like Smoky Rhodes in ROLI Noise or Studio Jazz in Blue Mangoo iFretless Bass. I also have quite a bit of fun in GeoShred.
On the desktop, I really like ROLI softsynths (Equator along with FXpansion Cypher2 and Strobe2). There’s a number of MPE-compatible softsynths that I want to like (PPG Infinite, Apple Alchemy and Sculpture, KV331 SynthMaster 2.9 and SynthMaster One) but I have yet to set those up in a way which is fully satisfying.
In a way, though, I’m constantly waiting for the next thing in MPE sounds, whether it’s through inspiring patches in existing MPE synths or non-MPE synths adding MPE features. I’ve also been experimenting a bit with some DIY devices, including the Axoloti and Bela (yet more opportunities for me to annoy Mark! ). But those have mostly been sideburner-projects in the “maybe, someday, if I get more time to play with those…”.
Something close to a prediction is that ROLI might eventually come out with a hardware synth in the Block series, a bit like a first-party equivalent to the Axoloti-based devices @Kai and @mtyas have created. The fact that the company has EoLed its Seaboard Grand may be interpreted as a desire not to produce any hardware synth. But my sense is that they’re instead focusing on Blocks as a modular system emphasizing portability, battery power, Bluetooth MIDI, and “proprietary compatibility” with their other devices.
I think the MPE scene does need a small hardware synth which could fit in that range.
One of my favourite non-MPE devices is a Raspberry Pi with the Pisound HAT and MODEP system (“MOD Emulation for Pisound”). I’ve used it for jams, demos, workshops, etc. Since, allegedly, the MOD Duo itself is MPE-compliant (it just sends MIDI as-is), it might be fun to develop a little MPE synth in LV2. That might actually be among my next projects. This way, I could have my Sensel Morph and MODEP-enabled Pi for a “headless” performance instrument instead of my iPad.
I’ve said all of this (!) with a strong focus on MPE. I do realize that there are other approaches to expressive electronic instruments (including breath control). One which is intriguing me more and more is CV, especially through breath control. I’ve had a few sideburner projects which revolve around a lowpass filter controlled by breath through CV instead of MIDI. Of course, breath itself isn’t polyphonic. But this is part of “where my head is at”, in terms of expressiveness. The aforementioned “ultimate dream” instrument would also support CV, especially for filter(s) and maybe even for wavetable, waveshaping, ring modulation… I’ve started experiencing the “smoothness” of CV through an Arturia MicroBrute. Filter cutoff is where it makes the most difference, in this case. For some reason, pitch and waveform don’t demand this kind of smoothness, in my experience. But that might actually be something specific about the MicroBrute. Having polyphonic “timbre” control through CV could make a whole lot of sense.
All this to say (!), I’m one of those crazy people who end up dreaming quite a bit about polyphonic expression. Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Makes me which I had been born in the early 2000 instead of the early 1970s.