The joy of Synth playing – the main controllers

Guitarists, violinists, or the players of some woodwind instruments can influence the pitch of the played tones, either to bend the tone or to apply a little vibrato. Piano players can not. Synth enthusiasts can, as most electronic keyboards provide a pitch bender and a modulation controller.

The most common hardware used for those are two separate wheels. The pitch wheel is centered by a spring automatically, while the modulation wheel remains at the position where it was released:

The wheels of a Hammond XB-1 portable organ, besides its drawbars and sound control buttons

The wheels of a Hammond XB-1 portable organ, besides its drawbars and sound control buttons

Roland keyboards traditionally use a different approach by a combined pitch and modulation lever. Moving it left or right will bend the pitch down- respectively upwards. Pressing it towards the back of the instrument will apply modulation. The lever always is held at its origin position by a spring, e.g. the player cannot leave a little vibrato applied to the sound:

The (in)famous lever of a Roland A-50 MIDI Keyboard Controller

The (in)famous lever of a Roland A-50 MIDI Keyboard Controller

The Roland A-50 MIDI Keyboard Controller I’m still using offers both, the lever and two wheels. This allows the player to chose what suits the situation best. Frankly, I got used to the Roland lever and prefer it over the wheels when playing solos – but this depends on personal taste.

Some keyboards use ribbon controllers. Those are either small stripes (one axis for controlling one parameter only) or pads (two axes to control two different parameters), similar to the touch pads found on notebooks. The default behaviour is that the controller resets itself as soon it was released (»centered by a spring«). Sometimes an additional switch can be used to define whether the controller shall remember the last used position when releasing it (»spring is broken«). The Korg Z1 synthesizer provides both controller types, wheels and pad:

Wheels and pad of a Korg Z1 synthesizer

Wheels and pad of a Korg Z1 synthesizer

Other instruments use a joy-stick which can be moved in two axes. The Korg Kronos, for example, uses two of them. The smaller one will keep its position when being released. The second one, mainly used for pitch bending and vibrato, will return to its origin when being released. Here you can see two switches, the main joystick and the ribbon controller of the Korg Kronos synthesizer workstation:

Korg Kronos ribbon controller and joystick

Korg Kronos ribbon controller and joystick

Why am I blogging about those controllers? Because there is a cool video where Fernando Draganici demonstrates the power of the Kronos controllers. In case you are new to synth playing and have wondered how to use controllers, this one can serve you as a tutorial. The final fun starts at 5:50 – don’t miss it :) .

If comment spam wasn’t a problem, I was interested in a poll what other players prefer. Are you still using the wheels as introduced by the Minimoog? How many of us are addicted to Roland’s lever? Who prefers joysticks, and are there musicians using a touch pad all the time? And what about users of iPad controlled instruments?

Plenty of unanswered questions. Enjoy the video :) .

Edit: Here’s a further video, where the usage of the Kronos joystick can be seen e.g. at 6:53.

And here’s Jordan Rudess torturing the Kronos at Guitar Center Manhattan.