The first real journey into the world of synthesizers came when I bought a Yamaha DX7 in the early ‘80’s. To say it caused a sensation is an understatement. Among its revolutionary features was the BC1 breath controller that came with it. It was essentially a hard plastic mouthpiece that if the patches were programmed appropriately to respond to it, and many of the default patches were pre-programmed for it, allowed you to affect the sound via blowing into it with the patches responding as they were programmed, usually velocity. A brass patch, for instance, might get louder and brassier and I saw a guy at a live demonstration do very musical things with it with the famous DX7 harmonica patch. I was very excited at the prospect of using it.
Personally, however, somehow I could never make friends with it. Part of the problem was undoubtedly my ignorance at the point in time. In those days I had little understanding of MIDI continuous controllers and how to use them and to be fair, the DX7 was not the easiest device to program, especially for a novice like me. Another problem was that I found that it literally made my teeth hurt and my jaw fatigued. So after several days of working with it, I abandoned it, and frankly, I never missed it.
Fast forward a whole bunch of years to a few years ago and now I found myself wishing for a controller I could blow into to control Expression (MIDI CC11) or Modulation (MIDI CC1.) Clearly, the most complete solution would be a wind controller, like an E.V.I. or E.W.I. but I am not a reed or a horn player.
Sometime ago, I interviewed the well-known Los Angeles based E.V.I. and trumpet player Judd Miller for this column. https://filmmusicinstitute.com/?p=7718
Judd told me that even for a great trumpet player like him it took a considerable amount of practice to master the E.V.I. and that for a keyboard player like myself, it probably was not a practical choice.
So I began to wish for something like the BC1 that I could blow into while playing my keyboard. I felt that it would produce a more natural and musical result than an expression pedal while freeing up my hands. Apparently, I was not the only one. Many other keyboard based composers and even wind players were in fact clamoring for a device like that. Some people started to sell retrofitted BC1s but they tended to be expensive and my teeth began to ache at the memory of it. A few other options appeared and went but there was no groundswell of appreciation for the implementations, so the field was wide open.
Eventually, it came to my attention on a forum that a company called TEControl had built a new USB MIDI breath controller that was elegant in its simplicity, easy to use, and inexpensive.
When Mark Hollingsworth, a veteran Los Angeles reed player and composer, recommended it and assured me that you did not need to be a reed or horn player to make good use of it, I became very interested. So I contacted the good folks a TEControl (thanks Tom) and asked them to send me one to review and I am seriously impressed. I went over to Mark’s house and he showed me the ropes. (Thanks, Mark.)
The TEControl USB MIDI Breath Controller is so simple you find yourself wondering, “Why did it take so long for someone to do this?”
As you can see in the pictures at the top of the article it is just a USB device that looks like a flash drive, some silicon tubing that you could probably find in any hardware store, and a plastic “mouthpiece.” You control it’s behavior with downloadable software from the TEControl site. Cut the tubing to the desired length, connect the mouthpiece to the tubing and the tubing to the USB device, plug it in, set your settings, put your sequencer into record, and blow, baby, blow.
It was a little dicey for me connecting the mouthpiece to the tubing but Mark had already figured out that applying a little liquid soap to the mouthpiece made it fit in just fine and once it is connected, it is connected, so no real worries there. It also comes with a second, T-shaped slightly more complicated mouthpiece that allows you to control airflow, but both Mark and I agreed that for us it did not seem to bring much to the table that you could not do with the software. But a user on a forum reported that for him, it makes all the difference in the world in achieving the musical expression he is seeking, so horses for courses.
Similarly to the hardware, the cross platform software is a model of simplicity.
You choose the MIDI channel you wish to send and the MIDI CC you wish to control in the appropriate boxes. With the Input minimum and maximum settings combined with the Output minimum and maximum settings, you control how hard you have to blow to produce a response and how dramatic the response is. Somewhat counter-intuitively for me, the Input settings seem to matter more. With the bending and Symmetry settings, you can customize a response curve that feels comfortable to you. The Make permanent and Reset sensitivity are self-explanatory.
Simple, and it all works a treat. I found playing musically with it almost effortless after I adjusted the settings to my taste and guess what? It doesn’t hurt my teeth!
I played sample library instruments in Logic Pro 9 that use EastWest’s Play engine, Kontakt, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and Best Service’s Engine and they all responded well, with a little bit of individual tweaking. I then did the same with the instruments hosted in Vienna Ensemble Pro 5, both on my Mac and my PC slave connected to Logic Pro 9, and no problems there as well. Smooth as silk.
There are some enhancements to the software I would like to see. As different libraries make dramatically different uses of MIDI CCs and respond dramatically differently to them, it would be great to be able to make and save presets for all your various libraries that you could simply toggle between.
So how much will this easy to use and very useful puppy set you back? 110 Euro, which is at this point in time is app. $156 US.
A bargain, say I. Kudos to TEControl for this great little musical tool.