Guest article by Jeremy Cubert honoring Adolphe Sax
In Part I of this series, I introduced the topic of Getting “Real” on LinnStrument. In Part II, let’s explore playing a modeled saxophone on LinnStrument. As most keyboard / synthesizer / sampler players know, saxophone presets on keyboard instruments leave much to be desired. Often, the basic sound is fairly accurate, but any attempt to move the pitch or tonality around like a saxophone player gives away the fact the listener is hearing a poor imitation of a saxophone. Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax (inventor of several instruments including the saxophone) probably would have desired higher audio fidelity of his brainchild by electronic instruments 170 years later. Fortunately, the synergistic effect of some recent innovations have enabled dramatic improvements.
Roger Linn’s LinnStrument website has a handy page summarizing Recommended Sound Generators. Sample Modeling instruments are listed under Single-Channel MIDI Sound Generators With Special Advantages for LinnStrument. With respect to Sample Modeling instruments like “The Saxes,” this is a bit of an understatement. While missing certain features (like Y-axis control), these instruments have leapt ahead in realism, especially when combined with LinnStrument.
Sample Modeling “The Saxes” use their own SWAM (Synchronous Wavelength Acoustic Modeling) engine. While the SWAM engine has preferred features for use with LinnStrument (e.g., Y-axis control), it can only be used as a DAW (digital audio workstation) plug-in and is not a standalone instrument.
For those not experienced in the minutia of MIDI (myself included!), Roger provides recommended settings for using LinnStrument with “The Saxes.” There are two pages for settings on each saxophone instrument (Soprano, Alto, and Baritone) – main page and options page as shown below:
For convenience, I saved presets for each saxophone in Logic Pro to avoid the process of entering the various parameters each time I use an instrument. Your DAW may also have the ability to save instrument presets.
Although designed to be played on a standard piano keyboard or with a wind controller, the Sample Modeling instruments are ideally suited for LinnStrument because you can access multiple articulations without lifting your finger off the playing surface. For realistic playing, this feature is key.
Thinking Like a Sax Player
Unlike playing a note on a piano, playing a saxophone note is a complex combination of mouth and breath control and pressing the appropriate key combinations on the instrument. Not only does the sax player need to play a particular note at a particular time, she also needs to move from one note to another musically using articulations such as slide, slur, and staccato. Realism in imitating a saxophone is more about what happens between the notes using these articulations.
Thinking like a saxophone player requires not only thinking about the notes you want to play and their duration, but how to get from one note to another. Do you want to play staccato or legato? Slur the notes? Ascend chromatically? On top of these decisions, you need to be aware of the dynamics which can be carefully controlled through breath control.
Many advanced sample libraries provide these articulations through key switches (e.g., press a key to switch to a desired articulation). However, using key switching can be cumbersome and requires timing the key switching with one hand while playing with the other. What if you also want to bend the pitch? That requires another hand to move the wheel and yet another hand to change the modulation. The LinnStrument provides one surface to achieve all of these articulations.
As a wind instrument, dynamic control of a saxophone comes from breath control. On LinnStrument, pressure is the proxy for breath control. I found adjusting the velocity and pressure sensitivity settings on LinnStrument was helpful to varying degrees, depending on the saxophone instrument I was playing (Soprano, Alto, and Baritone). Velocity and Pressure Sensitivity can be adjusted under Global Settings as shown below:
Reducing the pressure sensitivity was helpful for higher register playing. Breath control was the most difficult articulation to control for me because of how sensitive the virtual instrument is to changes in pressure.
Sliding and Pitch Bend
After selecting the appropriate pitch bend setting (+/- 12) (under Per-Split Settings -> Bend Range -> 3rd button down from the top row), I found sliding between notes to be very easy and natural as long as I maintain control over the pressure. Slight variations in pressure can cause unwanted squealing from the instrument.
The instrument also has a very sophisticated slurring feature – if you hold down a first note and press a second note while still holding the first note, the note values will slide up chromatically in a very realistic way. However, if you do not want the “chromatic slide” you have to be sure to lift your finger off of the first note before you play the second (Note: These are all monophonic instruments).
Here is a video of one of my first attempts at playing the Sample Modeled Alto Sax:
At this point, I was still having difficulty fully controlling the pressure sensitivity. This improved over time, and I began to appreciate the dynamic range that you can achieve by combining the pressure sensitivity of LinnStrument with the breath control sensitivity of the Sample Modeling’s Saxophone instruments. I suggest adjusting the pressure control on the LinnStrument to find a comfortable setting for your playing.
Below is a video example in a trio context (bass, drums, soprano saxophone). Here, I am using a lighter touch which helps with control of the dynamics and pitch slides.
First, you will need to take the time to install the instrument and make the technical adjustments in the plug-in itself and the LinnStrument. The links above should help you with this task. It is very important to adjust the pitch bend setting to +/- 12 on the LinnStrument to take advantage of the full range (12 semitones) of the instrument for sliding.
Second, take the time to get used to the breath control/pressure sensitivity and make adjustments on the LinnStrument. There are three settings for High, Medium, and Low along the bottom row in the settings panel.
Third, practice articulating between notes – staccato, sliding your finger into the next note, and the slurring feature (holding down the first note and holding down a second note for the chromatic slur).
Above all, have fun!
Jeremy Cubert is a solo artist and member of the jazz fusion band Apothecary (www.apothecaryband.com) and international progressive rock band Formativ (www.soundcloud.com/formativ). He has recorded with Jon Anderson and Billy Sherwood of Yes and the bands Quest, Zapotec, History of Ties, and the Archaic Revival.
While primarily a piano and keyboard player, Jeremy has studied and played instruments including the Chapman Stick, LinnStrument, Zendrum, Eigenharp, guitar, Godin MultiOud, and trumpet.
All screen shots used in this blog post are used with permission from Roger Linn Design. The saxophone image is a Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.