Evan Tate's SaxTips eZine

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Music, Midi and Sax

Here we are in the next Millennium! The music industry continues to evolve and musicians are being afforded more opportunities to create music.

What's definitely here to stay is the marriage of traditional acoustic music and computers. Whether you're performing music with a combination of acoustic instruments and electronic instruments (such as samplers and sequencers), solely electronic, or just using the computer to write your acoustic music scores, MIDI (that's Musical Instrument Digital Interface for those who've still shied away from electronics) continues to play an integral role in all of this.

In the electronic perspective, as synthesizers are for pianos, electronic wind instruments are for wind instruments. Over the years there have been many instruments that have sprung up to meet the challenge with varying degrees of success. Starting from the low-cost "toys" like the Casio MIDI sax, to more professional models like the AKAI EWI, Yamaha WX7, WX11 and WX5, and the seldom used or heard of Synthophone from the Swiss saxophonist and computer specialist Martin Hurni.

We've come a long way from the first electronically amplified saxophone using a wah-wah pedal or other effects to fully electronic instruments that use saxophone-like fingerings (like the EWI and WX-models) to actual saxophones jam-packed with electronics, such as the Synthophone.

Many saxophonists have experimented with this new challenge in different ways. Greg Osby and Gary Thomas electronically amplified their horns and used Pitch-to-MIDI converters in order to drive synthesizers and sequencers on various recordings with Jack De Johnette’s band "Special Edition" and their own recordings. Michael and Randy Brecker used a wah-wah pedal in earlier recordings of the "Brecker Bros", and Mike later picked up the EWI with "Steps Ahead" and his own recordings. Concert saxophonist John Sampen has used the WX-7 in specially hired works for the instrument. Saxophonist Chico Freeman used a Synthophone on a live recording while on tour in Germany. Steve Coleman has also used the Synthophone although solely in his home studio for sequencing purposes. I've even heard that Branford Marsalis has experimented with it.

Whether you're considering using one on stage, in the studio or just for fun, there are a few obstacles connected with these instruments, but may be well worth the effort to investigate them.

The Yamaha and AKAI models are what I call "new animals". They are intended to use saxophone-like fingers but they are not saxophones in any sense. That may please you in the way that you will treat it like a new, unfamiliar instrument. It may bother you because you have to learn to play another instrument and not just let loose and play as you do a sax. The Synthophone is an actually saxophone stuffed with electronics but mind you, it generates no acoustic sounds at all, just like the other instruments. You may like that because the learning curve is a lot smaller. Again, that may bother you that it is a sax because it doesn't really respond the sax way as a sax does. All in all it is a matter of personal preference which electronic wind instrument may be worth your time and money. They can be expensive.

If you use music software such as Steinberg's CUBASE, Elogic or CODA's Finale, you can hook up your "e-sax" to your computer to enter notes into your scores the same way you would do with a MIDI keyboard. Instead of struggling to play a piano solo for your sequencing project, maybe you want to play it with your "e-sax" instead.

I personally have experimented along this direction. I've used a Roland VP-70 Digital Voice Processor (in Pitch-to-MIDI mode) with Korg Poly 800 (Monophonic/Analog sounds) and Yamaha TX81-Z (Polyphonic/FM-Snythesis) synthesizers with a contact microphone on my sax bell. This worked very neatly in the studio, but it was a catastrophe on the stage. The problem there was that a Pitch-to-MIDI converter can only process one note at a time. Fine in the secluded cabin of a recording studio. But on stage you get "spill over" from the guitar, the drums, the bass, etc. - too many signals - the VP would just shut down. I had to change programs in order to get it to kick in again. I should have used a built-in microphone, but really didn't want to have a hole drilled into the neck and I really didn't want to change necks in the middle of gig.

Anyway, while using an "e-sax" many things have to be learned and taken into consideration. Sounds are the biggest issue in my opinion. I've heard many failed attempts at it. The most common mistake of the "newbie" is to use synthesizer sounds that are really made for a keyboard instrument in mind. If you try to play the sound as though it's a wind instrument, it really sounds terrible. One really has to pick sounds that are more adept for a wind instrumentalist's technique.

Have fun,

Evan Tate


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