VL1 Controllers

Overview and Perspective

With acoustic instruments, the basic control interface, i.e. 'what you do to play it', is pretty much fixed. You can select an instrument, you can select reeds and mouthpieces, bows and strings, but fundamentally, you must play a given instrument the way it was designed to be played. If you have to blow like heck to get it to make a sound, then that's the way it is. With the VL1 there are lots of control options, in addition to lots of different virtual instruments that you might play, so you will have to consider carefully what is optimum in the way of controllers and controller assignments for what you want to do. In reality, the question needs to be approached anew for each type of voice, and a decent exploration of the subject goes beyond what I want to present here. So I will merely outline some basic considerations and sketch some possibilities in the VL1 editing screens for some representative voices. The going-in assumption, however, is that a VL1 musician has a serious interest in actually playing the VL1, not just triggering notes. This implies a learning curve -- time spent gaining familiarity with a voice and its possibilities, then another voice, and so on. You may want to start with a single instrument family, for example. You probably already have some leanings in terms of an established preference for a keyboard or a wind controller.

There is a potential problem, however, if you are accustomed to playing a non-sustaining instrument, such as a piano or an acoustic guitar. With a piano, for example, emphasis is placed on playing with both hands, mastery of chords, playing soft or loud, using the sustain pedal, and so forth, but once you strike a note or chord, you cannot 'play' it after that. Furthermore, there are limitations to the effects that you can get in legato play and in note attacks. In essence, you are triggering the notes, albeit with different velocities. There are voices on the VL1 that you can play this way if you stick to melodies (no chords), but that is not really what the VL1 excels at. If you are used to playing a sample-based synth, you have probably tried your hand at altering the timbre of sustaining sounds using your left hand on a controller, or using a foot pedal. Perhaps you have tried programming controller assignments, too. But even this falls far short of what the VL1 can do. The whole issue of controller assignments is intimately tied to the real potential of physical modeling, and if you try to shortcut it or avoid it, you are going to miss the boat entirely. Thorough mastery of a solo voice is where we're headed, and central to this is breath control.

Breath and Wind Controllers

In normal parlance, a 'breath controller' such as the Yamaha BC2 is simply something that you blow into to control the 'breath' pressure input. That pressure could be assigned on the VL1 to control any number of voice parameters. When sent over midi cables, it is usually called controller #2, 'CC02', or 'Breath'. The modern BC2 is just an improved version of the breath controller that many keyboardists used on the DX7 synth. It is easy to blow into, and the headset mount greatly facilitates using it. You can adjust the amount of breath pressure required to send a full-scale signal. You can also adjust the amount of air required during blowing.

By contrast, a 'wind controller' like the Yamaha WX11 is a complete note controller that includes breath pressure, and perhaps lip pressure or a thumb-actuated controller. A wind controller roughly resembles a clarinet in overall shape, mouthpiece, and fingering. It makes no sound, but transmits midi notes and control values just like a keyboard, and can be used to control a VL1.

In acoustic wind instruments breath pressure, often combined with embouchure or lip pressure, is used to dynamically control note attacks, loudness, vibrato, noise components, decay, pitch, and related timbre effects. That's a lot of control, but the most important thing is the fluid, organic way that the control can be executed. If you had the power to constrain a trumpet player to playing standard, straight-ahead notes for the rest of his career, with no variation in attack, no vibrato, no swells, no trills, just playing loud or soft, he would just hand you his trumpet. He knows that he has been assassinated as a musician, and he won't pretend otherwise. Even more outrageously, imagine trying to tell a sax player that he shouldn't do all of the fun things that he likes to do with his instrument! He would look at you like you were the devil himself. People who have not played a wind instrument do not understand all of the neat things that you can do with breath control. Even musicians who have played one wind instrument often don't realize what can be done with another. Keyboard players may think that they can do these things with wheels or sliders. You can't. You haven't got a shot. What you'll end up doing is a bunch of programming, setting up lots of layers, and so forth. All of this nerdy work is not as much fun as playing an instrument. In the end your performance will have too much uniformity in the attacks, and it won't have the organic feel of an acoustic performance. Not so with a VL1 and a breath controller. Take my advice and hang onto your skill with wheels, sliders, ribbon controllers, and foot pedals, and add breath control to your skill list. You won't regret it.

The fluid ease with which you can control the VL1 with a good breath controller is hard to believe until you have done it yourself. With simple, quick motions of the tongue on the mouthpiece you can achieve quick, staccato attacks and decays, or controlled quick swells, or soft, billowy attacks and sustains. Combined with diaphragm control, you can produce wavy, organic-feeling vibrato and volume control, with feeling and attunement to the part being played. Acoustic brass players learn a technique called double or triple tonguing, which uses two parts of the tongue to achieve very rapid notes in succession. This can be done with the BC2 and the VL1. The key fact here is that it is much easier to do these things fluently and expertly with breath pressure than any other way.

On top of the above possibilities, with the VL1 you have an advantage over an acoustic player: you have your left hand free (if you use a keyboard), plus a foot or two to work other controllers. You see, the possibilities are better than they ever were before. Furthermore, it is one heck of a lot easier to play the VL1 in, for example, a brass voice than to play a real brass instrument. Brass musicians spend years building up their lip muscles to play high notes. The lip strength required for the BC2 is trivial by comparison. Have you ever tried to get a note out of an oboe or bassoon? How about a tuba? You had better be one magnum blow-hard to do very much with some of these instruments. With the VL1 the breath feel and pressure is mild, and it is the same, regardless of the virtual instrument you play.

To be sure, there is a learning curve with a breath controller, and you will not be an immediate expert in all of the techniques mentioned above in your first week of practice. If you are a keyboard player by background, you will not be accustomed to all of this breath control, and you will have to learn phrasing like other wind players. We're not talking about a completely free lunch here. Consummate skill in any field does not come without practice, but we are talking about greatly expanded expressive capabilities for you, even if you have only modest skills with a breath controller. Most of the music that people like, and that performers enjoy playing, does not require virtuoso-level skills. You can have a heck of a lot of fun just playing around with breath control. You will have to start, however, in that uncomfortable beginner's position of learning the basics. You have to do drills and practice. You have to do it to the point that it seems natural. Instead of weeks or months of practice to get to a modest skill level, you will probably find that you are enjoying yourself and doing fine after just a few days of using breath control.

Another point is worth making about breath control. When a person expresses him or herself through the breath, whether as a vocalist or as a wind player, there is something central and integral about the whole process that you can get into. You are applying yourself in a basic way, and there is something holistic and perhaps even spiritual about it that is difficult to describe, but it's there. You won't feel this way when you are first starting, you'll feel like it's quite a hassle having to devote your breathing to the music, but it gets easier and more natural as you practice. You have to finely adjust the air flow on your controller so that it doesn't escape too quickly, or you'll never make it. By and by you'll find that you have added an entire new dimension to your music, and what a dimension it is! With the VL1 you can apply that breath-control skill to a huge array of instrument sounds.

Of course, for you wind players I'm preaching to the choir. You learned the advantages of breath control years ago. However, with acoustic wind instruments, you cannot alter how your instrument responds to your playing. With the VL1, not only can you design the timbre and the characteristics of your virtual instrument, you can design how it responds to breath pressure and other controllers. We've got a whole new toy box here.

Controller Assignments

With regard to breath pressure, I think that it's important to emphasize that in the VL1 we're not just enveloping here. When pressure changes the VL1 executes complex timbral changes, which can be illustrated with the brass voices. All brass instruments exhibit a very noticeable increase in 'hardness' and eventually reach a strong 'brassy' timbre as you play louder. The exact way that they do this depends on the particular instrument, e.g. French horn has different timbral changes from trombone, which is different from trumpet. There are, in fact, noticeable timbral differences between one trumpet and another, and especially between different mouthpieces. Furthermore, there are pronounced differences in how this occurs when different notes are played. High notes played strongly on a trumpet gain a 'brilliant' quality which most people find pleasing and triumphant. Loud playing of midrange notes can give a hard edge to the sound that bothers people if you're not careful. Lower notes played loudly acquire an interesting brassiness that conveys a more bombastic mood. The totality of these effects, plus the way an instrument behaves with various attacks, vibrato, legato, etc. is what gives an instrument its charm. Musicians get to know and love the sounds of their instrument, and they show them off to their audiences. Composers learn to write pieces that show off the strengths and charms of different instruments, and sometimes even specific musicians. If a synth cannot model these dynamic responses, it sounds sterile and mechanical by comparison. If a synth models them poorly, or a musician cannot control it well, it can sound downright ugly. The developers of the VL1 are attempting to model these charming acoustic characteristics, not always perfectly.

Considering possible controllers, a musician using a wind controller will have the main instrument, which transmits breath and one or two others, controlled by lips or thumb. He may also have foot pedals and switches. A keyboard player will have a breath controller (which plugs into the VL1), pitch wheel, mod wheel, velocity, aftertouch, and typically some other controllers such as sliders, ribbons, knobs, foot pedals, and switches. Besides these, the VL1 supports a 'controller' called 'Breath Attack', which sends a signal proportional to the rate of change of breath pressure. The breath attack controller can be used to control attack-related noises and so forth.

Any of the above controllers, or any midi controller at all, really, can be used to control one or more of the 'Controller Parameters' listed below. These parameters make sense in the realm of physical modeling, but they take some getting used to. They are:

  • Pressure: the breath pressure applied to a reed or mouthpiece. For bowed string instruments, the speed of the bow across the string. Affects volume and timbre.
  • Embouchure: For woodwinds, the pressure of the lips against the reed or mouthpiece. For brass instruments, the taughtness of the lips together. For bowed strings, the pressure of the bow against the string. Affects pitch and timbre.
  • Pitch: In essence, the length of the air column or string, which determines note pitch. When pitch is bent, depending on the voice, the VL1 simulates natural pitch glides to harmonic notes characteristic of the instrument being modeled.
  • Vibrato: Depth of vibrato. In the VL1 this controls pitch variation and embouchure variation. Since embouchure affects timbre, you can get a rich, complex vibrato effect.
  • Tonguing: This mainly applies to sax voices. It refers to a sax player tonguing the reed to change the sound of his sax.
  • Amplitude: Simple volume with no timbre effects.
  • Scream: A chaotic, usually high-pitched sound that can be a component in some voices during attack or sustain.
  • Breath Noise: This turns out to be an important component of many sounds.
  • Growl: A saxophone growl sound, but you can add it and control it in any voice.
  • Throat Formant: Modeling the effect of the player's oral cavities on instrument sound.
  • Dynamic Filter: This filter can be set to fixed or note-tracking mode, and then controlled up or down from its original setting relative to the fixed point or the note.
  • Harmonic Enhancer: The amount of effect by the harmonic enhancer. This thing can have major timbre effects.
  • Damping: Simulated acoustic losses in the body of a wind instrument or due to air friction on a vibrating string.
  • Absorption: Simulated loss of high frequencies at the end of an air column or string.

Now, in reality, you will rarely want to control tonguing, growl, throat formant, damping, and absorption unless you are playing a sax. On the other hand, adroit control of just pressure and embouchure can add a lot of character to your playing in just about any voice. With all parameters you can control both the depth and the shape of the effect curve that determines how much the parameter responds to a given control value. For vibrato there are several parameters that you can use to customize the way it works. Going beyond that, using breath pressure you can achieve natural vibrato in concert with or in place of automated vibrato.

In addition to the standard parameters that would normally be controlled by a musician listed above, the VL1 allows three other parameter controls: an effect parameter and two other parameters, called QED or quick edit parameters on the VL1-m. Each one can be controlled by any midi controller. The effect parameter (such as flanger frequency or reverb send level) can be selected from a list. The two QED parameters can be chosen from a whole slew of possibilities from numerous edit screens. There is a QED screen which allows you to monitor your QED settings during playing. The QED parameters allow you to continuously control or 'play' such wild things as the type of mouthpiece or the structural shape of the virtual instrument.

There are many different moods and qualities that can be expressed in music. There are many unique musical genres, styles, and compositions. Musicians of all sorts adopt their own playing styles and preferences. What physical modeling promises, and the VL1 delivers to a significant extent, is an expanded toolbox with expressive possibilities rivaling and exceeding those of acoustic instruments. With only one fingering to learn (keyboard or wind controller) and one breath controller to master, a musician faces a much smaller learning curve than he would face with acoustic instruments. The skills that a musician develops with one virtual instrument will readily apply to an entire instrument family, and to a certain extent to the entire voice list. Remember, though, that the strength of the technology centers around the controller interface, and how the virtual instrument can respond to control.