Let’s take a look at alternative input devices for synthesizers, rather than the standard keyboard. Although these unique devices are not always able to control every aspect of a synth, they provide unusual methods of modifying particular aspects of a sound, and make a great addition to any synthesizer setup.
First on the list is the classic ‘foot pedal’ – a staple of practically all electronic musical instruments for decades. They can be used to modulate a part of the synthesizer, or to change patches – making them especially useful in a live situation. Suitable MIDI pedals are relatively cheap, but make sure to shop around for a solid, reliable one – it will get an awful lot of bashing from your foot.
‘After touch’ is a capability of many modern MIDI keyboards and synthesizers, and is based on the concept of the player pressing harder on the key(s) to create a modulation effect. ‘Polyphonic after touch’ is a more advanced version of this, which allows different levels of after touch modulation to be processed simultaneously – similar to concept of having polyphonic or monophonic envelopes.
MIDI knob/fader controller boxes have been around for a while, and are useful in particular for controlling software synths. They also come in handy for programming tricky synths, which started with dedicated controller units for synths, such as the Waldorf Microwave controller made by Access, or the bizarre ‘Jellinghaus’ for the Yamaha DX-7. For something even more special, check out the ‘Monome’ – a box of buttons that light-up like a Christmas tree for controlling MIDI applications.
Ribbon controllers are useful for creating spectacular pitch-bending effects, and are often also able to modify other aspects of a sound. Although not included on most synthesizers, they are currently available separately from Doepfer, and several synthesizers feature dedicated ribbon controllers, such as the Alesis Andromeda A6 and Yamaha CS-80. A recent product based on the ribbon controller idea is Analogue System’s ‘French Connection’, which features a finger-controlled ring moving up and down the keyboard to create abnormal modulation effects.
Joysticks have a use apart from video games, and these can be found most popularly in the Prophet VS and Wiard modular synth systems. They can be programmed to control most aspects of the synthesizer’s sound, and are particularly useful in the Prophet VS to control the blending of the oscillator’s wave shapes. The Korg ‘Kaoss Pad’ follows a similar idea to joysticks, and uses a touch sensitive pad (controlled with the finger) to send out MIDI data based on the X-Y position of the finger on the pad.