Yamaha Wind Controllers: A Brief History

by Brae Grimes

Friday, 06 Nov 2020


Even though the first iteration of the WX-7 was released in 1987, our story starts in 1983 with the introduction of some Yamaha icons; the DX-7 FM Synthesizer, and the second generation of YIS music computers (the MSX computer system). These were followed by the KX-5 keytar in 1984, which utilised a variety of MIDI control sensors (including breath control) as well as assignable parameter components.

This foray into music technology empowered Yasuhiro Kira, chief designer of the WX-7, to create a new instrument, capable of taking wind instruments into the dynamic and exciting world of electronic music.

Music in the 1980s

A little known fact; Electronic music has been around since the late 1800s. The Theremin made its first appearance in concert in the 1920s. By the 1930s, composers like Paul Hindemith, Olivier Messiaen, Percy Graigner, and John Cage were already experimenting with electronic instruments and recording techniques, encouraging the development of new and exciting instruments including the trautonium and rhythmicon.

Skipping past generations of popular music styles, and innovations, the pop music of the 80s was very ‘synth-forward’. The introduction of MIDI (as well as the introduction of digital drum sampling) meant that it was now possible to have dynamic, realistic, and versatile setups for electronic music making, which could be synced together with much more ease than relying on controlled voltage (CV).

We knew that the WX7 would need complex circuitry. It had to recognize the strength of the player’s breath and reflect that in the volume of the sound, as well as altering the pitch based on the player’s bite on the mouthpiece. The WX7 employs the same performance methods as the saxophone, meaning that we had to give the instrument an accurate sensor that would normally require a larger circuit board. – Yasuhiro Kira

Refining the circuitry and balance to make a fully functional instrument was the subject of much trial and error. In 1987, the first generation of Yamaha MIDI Wind Controllers was released into the market, complete with hefty sound module.

Moving Forward, Looking Back

After many generations of the WX series (WX-11 and WX-5) as well as experimental instruments (such as the EZ-TP Electric Trumpet), Yamaha have made a triumphant return to the digital wind controller market with the new YDS-150.

The YDS-150 retains the slick, saxophone key layout, and now features an alto saxophone mouthpiece and receiver. This means that you can get even closer to the feel of your acoustic saxophone by using the same mouthpiece setup.

The combination of the breath sensor and acoustic channel through the body of the instrument provides a realistic blow with top-notch dynamic response in all registers. This leads to the soprano-saxophone style bell, which helps mimic the balance and feel of a saxophone, and allows it to be stored on compatible saxophone stands. These features improve the overall playing aesthetic significantly by comparison to the original wind controller design, while retaining some of the design principles of the WX-7.

Long-gone is the bulky module, with technology enabling over 70 on-board sounds borrowed from Yamaha’s extensive collection of synth engines. This is also complimented by 56, all new saxophone voices which are modelled using the latest in full-scale sampling techniques; a bank of tones form some of the finest professional soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones players are now at the click of a button. In addition, you can play your favourite patches in your DAW via the USB to MIDI cable.

In addition to these new features, the YDS-150 also has Bluetooth audio and auxiliary audio inputs, a built-in speaker, and an iOS and Android application which allows to control and modify parameters on the fly (including switching to flute, clarinet, or other fingering systems: Robo-oboe anyone?).

The Applications: A New World

Versatility is one of the principles of success. Today’s saxophone players are usually expected to arrange, compose, play in multiple styles, as well as often record and produce. The right MIDI controller can make parameters within software much more accessible. The YDS-150 can help these modern musicians shave a heap of time off of their ritual of manually inputting notes via a MIDI keyboard or clicking in notes on a piano roll.

For decades, the quest for a ‘silent’ woodwind instrument has been unanswered. Yamaha have been at the forefront of Silent Strings, Silent Brass, Silent Piano, and Silent Guitar technologies. The YDS-150 is the new era of silent instruments able to emulate the feel of an acoustic saxophone with less than a fraction of the noise.

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