Review: Expressive E Touche

Can a mechanical device make your music sound more human?
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Can a mechanical device make your music sound more human?
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Playing electronic musical instruments with the emotional depth of acoustic instruments is a constant challenge. To meet that challenge, instrument makers have harnessed wheels, joysticks, touch pads, and other devices for manipulating expressive parameters with one hand as you play the keyboard with the other. Polyphonic multidimensional controllers go furthest toward enabling a broad range of expression, but most are expensive and require many hours of practice to master.

The Touché is so sensitive and responsive that barely grazing its surface or lightly tapping it rhythmically can produce wonderfully nuanced effects.

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Enter French newcomer Expressive E with an ingenious tactile solution. The Touché is a uniquely expressive MIDI controller designed for one-handed operation. It transmits MIDI data to whatever parameters you choose in response to where and how much pressure you apply to its upper surface, called the Skin. Made of wood, the Skin is magnetically mounted atop a rigid, slightly rubberized plastic housing that sits on any flat surface. The Touché is built to last, and works standalone or paired with a VST and AU-compatible plug-in called Lié. Although it’s currently available for the Mac only, Expressive E is developing a Windows 10 version.

EN GARDE

The Skin tilts in four directions called Shiftings—left, right, top, and bottom—and responds to the slightest touch, transmitting MIDI CCs 16 through 19 by default. You can route them to bend pitch down when you nudge the Skin to the left, for example, bend pitch up when you nudge it to the right, lower filter frequency and increase resonance when you press on the top edge, and boost effects depth when you press on the bottom. You can assign multiple parameters to each Shifting, as long as they total no more than eight. Physical gestures such as stroking, slapping, and wiggling the Skin make the Touché an integral part of your musical performance.

On the 9.5-inch-long housing are two large buttons and a clickable rotary encoder with four LEDs that change color to indicate status. Each of the buttons sends MIDI On/Off messages and lets you select presets. The encoder adjusts the unit’s sensitivity, and pressing down on it freezes the values of the four Shiftings (indicated by blinking LEDs), thus freeing your hand for other tasks. A USB connector in back powers the hardware. Also in back are four CV outputs on 3.5mm jacks that can connect to modular synths and other CV-compatible gear. Included miniplug-to-DIN jack adapters connect to two additional 3.5mm jacks, which function as MIDI In and Out/Thru ports.

PRETTY LITTLE LIÉ

Fig. 1. The software component, Lié, is used for setting up controller assignments and serves as a VST plug-in host.

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Lié’s primary function is as a communications hub between the controller and whatever is being controlled. It includes templates for more than 70 hardware synths, ranging from the Arturia MatrixBrute to the Yamaha Reface series. You can program your own presets for almost any hardware or VST instrument by defining MIDI or CV assignments, value ranges, and so on, using Lié’s graphical controls and displays. Once programmed, you can instantly load as many as eight parameter sets on-the-fly.

Lié also includes more than 300 Touché-optimized patch presets. Most are for the free UVI Workstation, which means you can begin using the device right away. This excellent patch collection takes full advantage of the Touché’s capabilities right out of the box.

Lié also functions as a plug-in host that can run VST instruments in software that supports only Audio Units, such as Logic Pro X. After it scans your VST folder, it displays the GUI for any instrument plug-in you select. If a plug-in is incompatible, it tells you so, but it worked with almost every one I tried. Thanks to Lié, VST instruments are no longer off-limits for Logic users. However, because it does not recognize AU instrument plugins, you’ll need to have VST versions installed to use the Touché with software instruments. In addition to live performance and recording, the Touché is ideal for entering controller information after you’ve laid down a MIDI track. The only issue I encountered was deciding where to position it. It’s perfect for a tabletop, but most keyboard control panels and keyboard stands have no place to put it.

Nonetheless, I like it so much I’ve made it a permanent part of my rig. If you want to see the Touché in action, check out the videos on Expressive E’s website.

STRENGTHS
Enables subtle expressivity. Transmits any controller message. Includes presets. Software VST-to-AU converter.

LIMITATIONS
Requires a flat surface. Works only with VST instruments. Incompatible with Pro Tools.

$399
expressivee.com

Writer, synthesist, and Electronic Musician editor-at-large Geary Yelton lives in Asheville, North Carolina.