When it comes to making music, we often think of conventional instruments like the keyboard and guitar to form the foundations of our musical expression. While both of these are well established, perhaps there may be a way of interacting and expressing music in a different way.
Over the last 20 or 30 years, we've seen a host of alternative controllers which have sparked new forms of performance and playback - quite possibly started by the Keyfax PhatBoy*. As great as they are, we'll skip the Novation Launchpads, Akai APCs and Korg NanoKontrols to focus on some of the more out-there alternative controllers.
Alesis Air FX
Let's kick off with one of the most talked about controllers of the late 90s; the Alesis Air FX. It resembles a futuristic HAL computer and is controlled without touch via an infrared source which is picked up over three axes via an array of sensors. It has a nice selection of effects, most notably the bit-crusher style decimator. Although with no input level metering and a lack of MIDI, it'll always be one of the more obscure left field effects. You may get a bargain on the second hand market.
Second Hand Price: £50
For those who play guitar, there's a huge number of options for fully MIDI-ified instruments (have a look at the Jammy, the SynthAxe and Rolandf GR-300) as well as adapters to send MIDI via a conventional guitar. The Fishman Tripleplay is a wireless guitar pickup which fits onto your guitar and interfaces with an app packed with features for looping, sequencing and more. It's very affordable for what it offers, with precise, low latency playback - however it may take some practice to get the best results.
Nu Desine AlphaSphere
Released in 2012, the AlphaSphere is a complete rewrite of MIDI controllers, with 48 pressure and velocity sensitive pads housed within what looks like a 3D Printed Coronavirus particle! It comes with the extensive Alphalive software which allows you to customise and fine tune the performance options using both OSC and MIDI. While it doesn't have much external integration, its ergonomic style and out the box thinking are to be commended.
Second Hand price: £??
Expressive E Touché
One of the most recent controllers on this list, the E Touch uses MIDI, CV and USB control for a tactile and intuitive form of expression housed in a beautifully-made enclosure. Like the Alesis Air FX, it offers three axes of control, meaning that even a novice synth player can use it to map parameters and greatly increase their expression. It comes with software to map the parameters and was clearly an influence for Arturia and the Arturia Polybrute Morphee controller.
Following the release of their Seaboard, ROLI came up with Blocks; a modular control system which offers multi-touch capability, velocity recognition and pressure sensitivity. Focusing on the Lightpad (three versions are available), you have 5 dimensions of control, colourful visual feedback and a well-built good-looking unit. Blocks will integrate with the ROLI proprietary software and while they may come with a high price tag, the new take on generic MIDI controllers may inspire alternative ways to interact with your music.
DJ Tech Tools MIDI Fighter 3D
Crossovers between video games and electronic music happen frequently, chip music and FM synthesis being the main perpetrators! For the MIDI Fighter 3D, we have an MPC-style 16-pad layout loaded with (non velocity sensitive) arcade buttons which offer immense durability and an accessible way to interact. We recently reported on Paradise MIDI's gorgeous controllers, which must have been influenced by the MIDI Fighter. You could even build your own if you have a USB controller and some soldering skills.
Akai EWI Wind Controllers
Wind controllers are probably the rarest form of alternative devices, but that doesn't mean they're not hugely expressive. The Akai EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) are a set of controllers which offer breath control with fingering for various instrument styles - later models offer wireless connectivity and internal sound generation. A lot of old synths have expression controls for wind instruments - known as breath control, which you may be hard pushed to replicate any other way.
Artist Imogen Heap rose to fame using the Mimu gloves to control and effect her vocal performances live. The gloves are a dexterous way of controlling musical elements with a wireless connection which not only send messages from a variety of sensors but will also recognise your own set gestures. Numerous flex sensors, buttons and axis controllers are housed within the gloves for a range of expressive possibilities. The price tag is high, but they do now offer their glover software for anyone with other motion-based controllers.
Price: £2,599 (pair)
Artiphon Instrument 1
Here we have an extremely innovative MIDI controller, complete with MPE support and a pressure-sensitive 12 fret fingerboard. The gorgeous Instrument 1 will allow you to strum, bow, tap, slide, and drum any sound; offering a range of performance options which can be set using customisable user presets. It's a highly desirable and expressive unit, with built in speakers and a long battery life - followed up by their Orba last year.
Touted as "the most expressive electronic controller ever made", the Eignenharp certainly defies convention. Three models are available (Tau, Pico and Alpha) each with keys, breath controller and ribbon strip on board - all located in accessible and ergonomic locations familiar to wind instrumentalists. As each model is built to order, prices for the upper models are pretty significant, but the sense of expression and control could well be unsurpassed.
There we have it, what are your favourite controllers for making music? Do you have any on the list? Are there any alternative controllers that we missed? Please post them in the comments!
All prices correct at time of going to press.
*If you want to hear the story of the Keyfax MIDI Phatboy, I interviewed it's creator Dave Spiers here.
A detailed look at the new Wavetable synth
With Jim Heywood
Oh and NAMM too