Yamaha WX5 - EMusician

Yamaha WX5

The latest generation of MIDI wind controllers has it all—almost.
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Yamaha is one of the only manufacturers that has remained committed to developing MIDI wind controllers over the past ten years. Back in 1989, Yamaha introduced the WX7, which was followed by the WX11 in 1993. Unfortunately, the WX11 omitted many cool features of the WX7, but it was the only game in town for wind players who wanted to control MIDI synths.

Well, the next generation of Yamaha MIDI wind controllers has finally appeared. The WX5 offers many improvements over the earlier models. Many of the features from the WX7 have been reinstated, and many new and useful features have been added, thanks in part to input from players like Tom Scott, Brandon Fields, and Matt Catingub.

Keys to the Kingdom

The WX5''s key layout is basically the same as its predecessors''—much like a standard saxophone—with the addition of two keys at the very top (see Fig. 1). These high D and D# keys are useful for certain fingerings, and they can be programmed to send other MIDI messages (more on that in a moment). I have always wished for a low C# key in addition to the low C and D# keys at the bottom, but none of the WX models have it.

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The Yamaha WX5 offers many improvements over previous generations of MIDI wind controllers.

Yamaha has completely redesigned the octave keys. The previous models have a row of identical buttons under the left thumb, with a blank space in the middle that corresponds to a central or nominal octave. On the WX7, the blank space is in a straight line with the octave buttons, which I find somewhat awkward. On the WX11, the blank space is raised, which is much more comfortable. In both cases, each button shifts the pitch by one octave.

On the WX5, the octave buttons are crescent shaped and nested above and below a circular blank space (two above, two below; see Fig. 2). In addition, they behave differently than buttons on the previous generations. Pressing the one nearest to the blank space shifts the pitch one octave up or down; pressing both buttons above or below the blank space shifts the pitch up or down by two octaves; and pressing only the button farthest from the blank space shifts the pitch up or down by three octaves.

Although this arrangement seems more elegant than what you get on the WX7 or WX11, I find the buttons to be uncomfortable to play for any length of time. The points of the crescent shapes quickly irritate my left thumb. Moreover, the buttons are very sensitive; if you don''t push and hold them just right, the octave can jump around erratically.

Don''t Give Me Any Lip

The instrument comes with two types of mouthpieces: saxophone and recorder. The sax mouthpiece includes a “reed” that sends Pitch Bend or Modulation (CC 1) messages when you bite on it. As with the other WX models, you have the option of playing in Tight Lip or Loose Lip mode. Tight Lip mode requires moderate nominal pressure on the reed while playing; more pressure bends the pitch up, less pressure bends the pitch down. Sax players normally find this mode more natural.

In Loose Lip mode, you apply no nominal pressure while playing. When you do apply pressure, the pitch bends up only. (If you set the instrument to send Modulation from the reed, nominal pressure sends a value of 64 in Tight Lip mode and a value of 0 in Loose Lip mode.) The recorder mouthpiece has no reed, so you can''t send Pitch Bend or Modulation from it.

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FIG. 1: [Click to enlarge] The WX5''s playing keys resemble those on a standard saxophone. The high D and D# keys at the top are new to the WX5.

Two tiny red LEDs near the mouthpiece are oriented so the player can see them in normal playing position. One LED indicates breath pressure (which is called “wind” in WX parlance), and the other indicates pressure on the reed (which is called “lip”). The Lip LED usually remains on whether or not you apply lip pressure, which is a bit disconcerting. (Even though I play the recorder rather than the saxophone, I use the sax mouthpiece for bending the pitch, and I play in Loose Lip mode.)

Under the Hood

The controls and connectors are found on the underside of the WX5. One significant improvement over the previous models is the MIDI Out jack on the body; a belt pack is no longer needed for sending MIDI messages to a sound module. You can also send MIDI messages by using the WX output (which has the same type of multipin cable and connector found on the WX7 and WX11) to control a Yamaha VL70-m sound module (see the sidebar “Yamaha VL70-m”).

Unlike its predecessors, the WX5 is powered by six AAA batteries in its body. (The belt pack provides power to the WX7 and WX11 with six AA batteries.) You can also use a wall-wart power adapter, although having an extra wire dangling around would be highly cumbersome. If you use a WX cable to control a VL70-m, the sound module will provide power to the WX5, which is a significant advantage of this configuration.

Unfortunately, the WX5 does not power down automatically after a period of inactivity. This is a real drag if you use batteries; I burned up quite a few batteries by forgetting to turn off the power. Including an automatic power-off function can''t be that difficult to do, so I don''t understand why Yamaha decided against it.

In addition to the lip sensor under the sax-mouthpiece reed, the WX5 includes a spring-loaded rocker under the right thumb. The WX7 has this control, but it was omitted on the WX11. I''m very glad to see it return. The rocker sends Pitch Bend messages and can be programmed to send other MIDI messages, making it a flexible and powerful controller.

The new rocker also offers another improvement over the WX7''s. On the earlier instrument, the right-thumb rest gets in the way of pushing the rocker all the way up. On the WX5, the position of the thumb rest is adjustable, which lets you move it out of the way to allow unobstructed rocker motion while supporting the weight of the instrument with a neck strap.

Wind and lip set-screw adjustments are available under little rubber covers. Wind and Lip Zero set the minimum breath and lip pressure needed to send a Note On and Pitch Bend or Modulation message, respectively. Wind and Lip Gain adjust the change in output for a given change in breath and lip pressure. Players can adjust these to suit themselves.

Chips and DIPs

Most user parameters are set with a series of DIP switches under a rubber cover. Again, this was implemented on the WX7 and omitted from the WX11. Yamaha expanded the available functions on the WX5 beyond those found on the WX7.

Both the WX7 and WX5 allow you to select from three transpositions—C, Bb, and Eb—which is great for sax players. The WX5 uses two DIP switches to make this selection, so another transposition could have been included; I''d like to see an F setting for recorder players. The DIP switches on both units also let you select Loose Lip or Tight Lip mode, as well as one of two breath-response curves.

The WX5''s new parameters include a selection of four fingering patterns: Sax A, Sax B, Sax C, and Flute. The Sax fingerings are similar to the standard saxophone fingering patterns, with alternate fingerings and trill options available. The Flute pattern resembles standard flute fingering. In this case, lip pressure jumps up one octave instead of bending the pitch or sending Modulation messages; this is meant to resemble overblowing a flute.

One of my favorite new features is the Response mode, which determines how quickly the WX5 will respond to each note as it''s played. In Fast mode, a new Note On is sent the instant any key is pressed or released. This generates “glitch” notes when you are not absolutely precise in your fingering, especially when several keys must be pressed or released simultaneously. In Slow mode, fewer “glitch” notes are generated by imprecise playing. This feels more like an acoustic instrument, which takes a few milliseconds to establish a new note.

Hip MIDI

Many of the DIP switches determine which MIDI messages are sent in response to various gestures; these settings provide a much more flexible MIDI implementation than the previous models. As mentioned earlier, lip pressure on the sax mouthpiece can send Pitch Bend or Modulation, and the range of values can be normal (restricted range) or wide (full range). You can further set the instrument to send General Control #3 (CC 18), along with Pitch Bend or Modulation, in response to lip pressure.

On the WX5, you can select Breath Controller (CC 2), Volume (CC 7), or Expression (CC 11) to be sent in response to breath pressure. The WX5 uses two DIP switches to select this message, so Yamaha could have implemented Aftertouch as a fourth choice, or possibly a combination of Expression and Volume, which would have been great for synths with no response to Breath Controller messages and limited controller routing.

The Velocity of each Note On message can be determined by initial breath pressure or fixed to a value of 100. Variable Velocity is great for sounds that don''t respond to continuous control, such as basses, guitars, and pianos. On the other hand, fixed Velocity is preferable for sounds that do respond to continuous control messages, such as winds and bowed strings. The WX7 and WX11 offer only variable Velocity, which makes it difficult to play wind-instrument sounds that start soft and crescendo to a loud volume. This setting is a very welcome addition to the WX5.

The spring-loaded right-thumb rocker can be set to send four different sets of messages when you move it toward the mouthpiece (up) and away from the mouthpiece (down): Pitch Bend up/ down, Modulation up/Pitch Bend down, General Controller 1 (CC 16) up/General Controller 2 (CC 17) down, and Brightness (CC 74) up/down. This assignment can be specified with the Setup button and octave keys as well as with the DIP switches. I appreciate this level of flexibility.

As I mentioned, the high D and D# keys can play notes or send MIDI controller data. Specifically, the high D key sends General Controller 6 (CC 81) in a momentary fashion (value 127 when pressed and value 0 when released). The high D# key sends General Controller 5 (CC 80) in a toggle fashion (value 127 and 0 alternately each time it''s pressed). This is another example of the WX5''s improved MIDI implementation compared with previous Yamaha wind controllers.

Hold That Program Change

Like the WX7 and WX11, the WX5 includes three buttons near the right-thumb rest: Setup, Key Hold, and Program Change (see Fig. 2). The Setup button is used to set certain parameters, including the Wind Gain (one of five sensitivity settings, not to be confused with the hardware Wind Gain setting), Octave Transpose (±2 octaves), and Audition mode, which sends MIDI Note On/Off messages without breath.

The Key Hold button lets you select one of four Hold modes, in conjunction with the octave keys, and activates the selected mode while playing. Normal Hold mode sustains one note while you play other notes over it. Follow Hold mode plays a second note at a fixed, user-specified interval from the fingered note, resulting in a parallel melodic line. (Of course, these modes work only with a sound module that can play polyphonically.) Sustain mode sends a Sustain On/Off message (CC 64) each time the Key Hold button is pressed, and Portamento mode sends a Portamento On/Off message (CC 65) each time the button is pressed.

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FIG. 2: [Click to enlarge] The octave keys have been completely redesigned for the WX5. The right-thumb rocker is between the Setup and Key Hold buttons.

Another improvement in the WX5 is its ability to send any Program Change and Bank Select message. As with the previous models, you start by holding the Program Change button. Under this condition, the high D and D# keys increment and decrement the program number, respectively, and the B through E keys send Program Change numbers 0 through 9.

The low D# and C keys are used to specify Bank Select MSB (Most Significant Bytes; CC 0) and LSB (Least Significant Bytes; CC 32), respectively. When you hold one of these keys with the Program Change button, the B through E keys specify bank numbers. However, a Bank Select message isn''t sent until you also specify a Program Change message; I wish that the WX5 would send the Bank Select message separately.

It is great to be able to send any Program change and Bank Select message right from the controller, although this procedure takes some getting used to. I especially love being able to step through programs by using the increment and decrement keys. The Program Change button also lets you change the MIDI transmit channel, reset all parameters, and send Mono/Poly On and Portamento On/Off messages in conjunction with other buttons.

Hot Wind a-Blowin''

I played the WX5 with a VL1-m and VL70-m in a variety of performance and recording situations. As you might expect, it blows much the same as the WX7 and WX11. The only real difference is the Slow Response mode, which feels much better and more natural than the Fast mode. I had no trouble playing fast passages in Slow mode.

As mentioned earlier, I usually play in Loose Lip mode with the sax mouthpiece. I typically use the reed to bend the pitch down by inverting the Pitch Bend curve in the sound module, at least with wind-instrument emulations. (Most acoustic wind instruments can bend the pitch downward more easily than upward.) I like to use the rocker to send General Controller 1 and 2 to invoke other sound-modifying parameters, such as Growl and Scream in the VL1-m and VL70-m. This provides a lot of immediately accessible control possibilities from the WX5.

The procedure for setting the Wind and Lip Zero points is much easier on the WX5 thanks to the LEDs, which let you know when the wind and lip sensors are at their maximum sensitivity. Setting the other parameters is also much easier than with the previous models. However, don''t lose the tiny screwdriver that comes with the WX5; it''s essential for adjusting the set screws and DIP switches.

Because of its larger girth, the WX5 has a more substantial feel in the hands than the WX7 and WX11. The keys feel sturdier than the WX11''s, but less sturdy than those on the WX7, which has a very solid, professional feel. All the WX instruments are much easier to play with a neck strap, which leaves the right hand free to manipulate the Key Hold and Program Change buttons, as well as the rocker on the WX5 and WX7.

The manual offers documentation in three languages. Each section is only 31 pages long, but the information is surprisingly complete and well organized; I had no trouble finding any information I looked for. A reasonable index is provided, which is all too rare for user manuals in our industry.

Gone With the Wind

The WX5 eliminates most of the limitations of the WX7 and WX11 and adds many useful features. In particular, I''m pleased with the Slow Response mode, fixed Velocity option, MIDI Out on the body of the instrument, and right-thumb rocker (with adjustable thumb rest), the ability to send any Program Change and Bank Select message from the instrument, and the much more flexible MIDI implementation.

For me, the only negatives are the new octave-key arrangement and the lack of an automatic power-off function. And I really wish Yamaha offered a hard case for the WX5, like the WX7''s; the included soft case provides too little protection for my comfort. (According to a Yamaha rep I spoke with, the company is considering offering such a case, which is good news.) Otherwise, the WX5 is a wonderful MIDI wind controller, giving wind players just about everything they need to join the MIDI band in style.

EM contributing editor Scott Wilkinson has been playing wind controllers for 15 years.

WX5 Specifications

Output Ports (1) MIDI Out; (1) WX cable output Sensors (1) wind sensor; (1) lip sensor Power Supply Options (6) AAA batteries; (1) 12 VDC wall wart; or (1) WX cable connected to a VL70-m Dimensions 2.5” (W) x 2.75” (H) x 24.06” (L) Weight 1.15 lbs. (without batteries)

Product Summary

YAMAHA WX5
MIDI wind controller
$749.95

FEATURES: 4.5
EASE OF USE: 3.5
DOCUMENTATION: 4
VALUE: 4

PROS: Slow Response mode. Fixed Velocity option. MIDI Out on the body of the instrument. Right-thumb rocker (with adjustable thumb rest). Ability to send any Program Change and Bank Select message from the instrument. Flexible MIDI implementation.

CONS: Awkward octave-key arrangement. No automatic power-off function. No low C# key. No hard case.

Guide to EM Meters
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good, meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed

Manufacturer

Yamaha
www.yamaha.com

SIDEBAR
YAMAHA VL-70-M
Longtime EM readers might recall my review of the VL1 Virtual Acoustic Synthesizer (June 1994), about which I waxed rhapsodic. It was Yamaha''s (and the world''s) first commercial synthesizer based on physical modeling, which has been near and dear to my heart since college. It was also very expensive, especially for a monophonic lead/bass synth; the keyboard version listed for $4,995. Soon thereafter, a rack-mount sound module, the VL1-m, was introduced with a list price of $2,995. Despite its high price, I bought a VL1-m because I love to play it with a MIDI wind controller. Its models are based on wind instruments, so this is really no surprise.

The next generation of Yamaha''s Virtual Acoustic Synthesis (VAS) is embodied in the VL70-m ($799.95), a half-rack sound module that lists for less than a third of the VL1-m''s cost. The VL70-m is designed to integrate with other Yamaha XG synths in appearance and functionality. The display is very bright and easy to read, with large letters and numbers. In addition, the display includes large Breath Controller (or Velocity, depending on program) and Pitch Bend bar-graph indicators.

The next generation of Yamaha''s Virtual Acoustic Synthesis (VAS) is embodied in the VL70-m ($799.95), a half-rack sound module that lists for less than a third of the VL1-m''s cost. The VL70-m is designed to integrate with other Yamaha XG synths in appearance and functionality. The display is very bright and easy to read, with large letters and numbers. In addition, the display includes large Breath Controller (or Velocity, depending on program) and Pitch Bend bar-graph indicators.

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The VL70-m offers monophonic physical-modeling synthesis in a half-rack package.

This sound module uses one element for each program instead of two. As a result, it''s strictly monophonic; the Hold functions of the WX are irrelevant with this synth. This means it is unable to play a bagpipe drone and chanter at the same time or have different models for two instrumental ranges simultaneously, as the VL1 can.

You get two ROM Preset banks with 128 programs each. Many of the programs in Preset 1 are not breath sensitive (for example, basses, guitars, and so on). Sending variable Velocity that corresponds to initial breath pressure is better with these voices than those that are breath based. Most of the programs in Preset 2 are breath sensitive.

You can save edited sounds in one internal bank with 64 locations. Although many of the VL70-m''s parameters can be edited, it doesn''t allow you to change the models or dump completely new sounds into these locations. However, one Custom bank has six programs that can be completely new, with sound models from the software editors available (for Mac and Windows) from Yamaha''s Web site (www.yamaha.co.uk/synth; click on Software Downloads). This requires a huge amount of memory, which is why only six such memory locations exist.

One of the things I like best about the VL1 is that all of its memory locations are writable. In the VL70-m, Yamaha returns to its normal design philosophy of including mostly presets with some user memory locations. I suppose this reversal was necessary to keep costs down. The VL70-m includes four effects as specified by the XG standard: Reverb, Chorus, Variation, and Distortion. The Reverb, Chorus, and Distortion effects are self-explanatory; Variation can be any one of 44 effects.

Most of my favorite breath-based emulative programs (programs that emulate acoustic wind instruments) from the VL1 are missing in the VL70-m. Many of the wind-instrument emulations in the VL70-m sound thin and electronic compared with the best VL1 counterparts (many of which also employ a single element). In particular, the saxes and brass are unconvincing, although some of the trumpets sound surprisingly good. There are a few really good emulations—for example, some of the programs with exclamation points at the end of their names—especially in the double-reeds category.

The VL70-m also has many emulative plucked-string voices, such as basses and guitars. Many of these are good, allowing wind players to effectively fill these roles (at least monophonically). However, they are not generally breath sensitive, so Velocity should not be fixed from the WX5.

In addition, some excellent synthetic sounds include hybrids of different types of acoustic instruments (for example, an oboe with a flute mouthpiece). Many of these hybrids are great fun to play.

Overall, you get a lot for your money in the VL70-m, and it''s a lot easier to carry than the VL1 or VL1-m. I wish it had more user memory, especially for new sounds from the software editor, but I suppose this would increase the price. Nevertheless, the combination of a WX5 and VL70-m is a great one for any wind player who wants to add electronics to their gig bag.

VL70-m Specifications

Audio Outputs (2) ¼” TS Additional Ports stereo minijack headphone output; breath-controller input; WX input; MIDI In, Out, Thru; serial port Polyphony 1 note (monophonic) Sound Engine physical modeling ROM/User RAM Programs 256/70 Effects reverb (12 types); chorus (10 types); distortion (3 types); variation (44 types) Dimensions 8.7” (W) x 1.8” (H) x 8.4” (D) Weight 2.9 lbs.