Polyphonic aftertouch: what is the problem?

Anything about hardware musical instruments.
Torchlight
KVRist
327 posts since 10 Apr, 2010

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 7:06 am

Earlier this year I got a Seaboard Rise and was amazed at how it transformed my music. The same synths I had already been using now seemed so much more expressive. And this was true even of patches that made no use of the full MPE parameters. Just the polyphonic aftertouch alone was enough to massively upgrade the sound. It was like moving from black and white to colour TV.

So, when I became interested in hardware synths again this year, I began looking for ones that offered polyphonic aftertouch, only to find, to my surprise, that they're almost non-existent. There's the Moog One, but its cost is stratospheric, and the recently arrived Hydrasynth, but that is digital only.

When I heard the announcement of the PolyBrute, my hopes went up, only to be dashed when I learned it featured channel aftertouch only.

So my question is: what is the problem?

Why aren't companies offering us polyphonic aftertouch in their synth keyboards? (I realise some will respond to it from external controllers.)

Does polyphonic aftertouch require vastly more complex engineering? Is it so much more expensive than channel aftertouch alone? How can it be, then, that controller manufacturers are able to provide it?

It seems to me that polyphonic aftertouch is perhaps the single most important facility required to provide expressive electronic music. It gives synthesizers the same potential for subtlety of intonation and scope for virtuosic mastery that a non-electronic instrument has.

One reason that electronic music tends to be characterised by simple, repetitive loops is most likely the lack of expressiveness in the instruments themselves.

Ever since Vangelis hit a high point with his poly aftertouch Yamaha CS-80 in the score for Bladerunner, we have regressed in important ways, although, of course, there have been advances on other fronts. Decades of potential for expressive electronic music have been lost simply because manufacturers took the facility away from us. My question is: why?

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Niowiad
KVRian
726 posts since 25 Jan, 2017

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 7:50 am

Torchlight wrote:
Wed Sep 16, 2020 7:06 am
There's the Moog One
Not even that
https://moogmusicsupport.zendesk.com/hc ... ftertouch-

I have no idea why polyAT disappeared.
But I completely agree with your view, polyAT (or MPE used as polyAT) is by far my favorite thing to emphasize chord voicings, bringing the instrument to the next level of expressiveness.
And I personally don't like channel aftertouch, I mostly rather use an expression pedal.

I wish the PolyBrute featured poly expression or polyAT but I didn't want to get my hopes up.

I considered the Hydrasynth and Osmose (both 4 octaves) just for the controller part, but for my personal taste, 5 octaves is the bare minimum for unconstricted two handed playing.
Both those options seem like steps in the right direction, which is important.
If nothing comes out in the next 1-2 years, I might have to settle for one of those two.

My ideal controller would be something like the KeyLab88, with poly aftertouch.
But I'll gladly buy any hypotetical 61 keys synth-action polyAT controller.

All my hopes are on the Behringer CS-80, or even better a derived midi controller, but who really knows when it will actually come out.

I have so many great softsynths which support polyAT (or MPE used as polyAT) and not a proper keyboard for them. Very frustrating.

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foosnark
KVRAF
5356 posts since 9 Jan, 2003 from Saint Louis MO

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 8:46 am

Torchlight wrote:
Wed Sep 16, 2020 7:06 am
Does polyphonic aftertouch require vastly more complex engineering? Is it so much more expensive than channel aftertouch alone? How can it be, then, that controller manufacturers are able to provide it?
The simple answer is, poly AT costs a lot more than channel AT, and there's not enough demand for it to be considered a required feature on most instruments.

People who are really into poly AT are probably going to buy a Roli or other expensive controller anyway.
Torchlight wrote:
Wed Sep 16, 2020 7:06 am
It seems to me that polyphonic aftertouch is perhaps the single most important facility required to provide expressive electronic music. It gives synthesizers the same potential for subtlety of intonation and scope for virtuosic mastery that a non-electronic instrument has.
i disagree. You don't even need polyphonic synths to make expressive electronic music.

Poly AT has no equivalent outside of synths. Certainly not among other keyboard instruments. With bowed strings, wind and brass instruments, and vocals you can vary intensity/pressure across the course of a note but those are not generally polyphonic. (A violinist, cellist or a throat singer has some limited duophony, but extremely limited control over individual pressure on those notes.)

Pianists, guitarists, drummers, etc. all manage to play expressively without any equivalent to aftertouch.

I'm not saying polyphonic aftertouch doesn't have its uses. It does, and Vangelis is the canonical example. But again: since there are controllers and synths that do support it, not every controller and synth needs to support it.
Torchlight wrote:
Wed Sep 16, 2020 7:06 am
One reason that electronic music tends to be characterised by simple, repetitive loops is most likely the lack of expressiveness in the instruments themselves.
I would argue that it's because simple, repetitive loops are easy for inexpensive electronics to produce, and people find those sorts of loops attractive and hypnotic. It's one of the things people actually like about certain forms of electronic music.

Vangelis wrote a lot of other music besides the Blade Runner soundtrack -- Albedo 0.39 is an enjoyable album and it involves a fair number of simple repetitive loops :)

JCJR
KVRAF
3001 posts since 17 Apr, 2005 from S.E. TN

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 1:14 pm

Four oct keyboard ala Hydrasynth might be OK. I would probably have trouble properly playing Poly AT in 2 fisted fashion. Too many details to keep track of, both hands, velocity, note-on timing, note-off timing, plus Poly AT.

The only Poly AT keyboard I had was an Ensoniq EPS Plus sampler, 5 octaves. I played it most often two-handed, and most always had the Poly AT disabled because I had too much to think about just playing two hands half-ass correctly. Did not have enough brain cells left over to control the Poly AT.

If I played it two-handed with Poly AT enabled, most of the Poly AT gestures turned out to be accidents of pushing some keys too hard or too soft while paying attention to getting the timing and velocity correct, and not having enough control left over to avoid messing up with too much Poly AT on some keys and not enough Poly AT on other keys.

Other more talented folks probably got more brain cells and can do two-fisted playing while also giving proper thought to the exact pressure that strong fingers exert on easy-to-reach keys versus matching it to the proper "artistic" pressure of the weaker fingers stretching for hard-to-reach notes. :)

If I was to get a Hydrasynth I would use the Poly AT and also that nice long ribbon controller, but when trying to play with Poly AT would probably do it one-handed, so enough brain cells would be left over to pay proper attention to artistically using the Poly AT rather than "accidentally triggering" random Poly AT depending on the strength of each finger and the ease of fingering of each key.

AdvancedFollower
KVRian
694 posts since 8 May, 2018 from Sweden

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 1:49 pm

If I played it two-handed with Poly AT enabled, most of the Poly AT gestures turned out to be accidents of pushing some keys too hard or too soft while paying attention to getting the timing and velocity correct, and not having enough control left over to avoid messing up with too much Poly AT on some keys and not enough Poly AT on other keys.
This tends to happen for me with channel AT as well. The only time I actually remember that my MIDI keyboard has channel aftertouch is when I accidentally engage it while holding down chords too hard so the filter goes zooooiiink :hihi:

Also I don't find AT very accurate, at least not on the keyboards I've used. It's either too sensitive so you immediately go to maximum AT, or you have to really mash the keys to get any reaction at all. There's also very little tactile feedback to let you know how much AT you're applying. It's a skill that can be learned I'm sure, but for me, an extra mod wheel would be much more "expressive" than poly AT (why do synths still only have two wheels? My left hand has five fingers). When I'm playing poly-phonically, my brain and motor skills are already used up trying to hit the right keys, in time, at the intended velocity.
Last edited by AdvancedFollower on Wed Sep 16, 2020 1:55 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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EvilDragon
KVRAF
20290 posts since 7 Jan, 2009 from Croatia

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 1:53 pm

Most boards that have channel AT actually don't have very controllable ways of tweaking it. If a synth has a lag processor at least (Kurzweils and Korg Kronos and a few others do), you can smooth out the response of aftertouch to make it not do anything when you play more forcefully. Hydrasynth actually has the most parameters to control AT response out of any board I've ever seen.

BBFG#
KVRAF
6091 posts since 28 Apr, 2013

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 5:05 pm

Most manufacturers won't even include release velocity. And most players don't know why they would need it anyway. Same is true for P-AT, except that even a person with no technique can key it (and more often when they weren't trying to.)
I've actually heard the same type of argument from guitar players concerning the "whammy" bar.

But IMO, release velocity needs to be part of a minimum standard. And far more important for basic musical technique than P-AT. When you're modeling instrument mechanics and actions, it's the subtle thing that that brings in realism. Absolutely necessary, except that not enough of the market understands that technique matters.
And while I've played both P-AT and C-AT, (and equally love the Poly-AT) I've found the Channel AT fine as long as you can split the keyboard. The most common use is for single note/single instrument inflection anyway.
Start with the basics. Give us all RV first.

lfm
KVRAF
5429 posts since 22 Jan, 2005 from Sweden

Post Wed Sep 16, 2020 6:39 pm

Torchlight wrote:
Wed Sep 16, 2020 7:06 am
Earlier this year I got a Seaboard Rise and was amazed at how it transformed my music. The same synths I had already been using now seemed so much more expressive. And this was true even of patches that made no use of the full MPE parameters. Just the polyphonic aftertouch alone was enough to massively upgrade the sound. It was like moving from black and white to colour TV.
Isn't it more like
- look mom, I can do vibrato with just index finger note, and others held down don't?

As many stated, uncalled for and of no importance for the music itself. Just more things to avoid while playing fully expressive as up/down goes. Especially these keys with multi featured options pressing a key - how do you avoid pressing all the unwanted expressions is what is boils down to.

Organist use swell pedal, otherwise just on/off on notes.
Many instruments are monophonic, like saxophone - and breath and timing of notes is the expression.

If Jupiter X/Xm have poly after touch. I don't think standard patches had it enabled in general even in one demo I saw, reviewer enabled himself just demoing it. Even that tells a story how important it is - or not.

Some libraries for drums support doing cymbal mute with either channel or poly aftertouch. But if to play drums on keys, that also means you don't by accident do AT.

How these with 4-5 expressions each key even allow you to play anything fluently. It's hard enough for a concert pianist to do up/down and hitting notes in 180 mph and practise that 6-8 hours a day for a lifetime.

Possibly useful for a solo where one note can do more expressions. For sound designers to map all kinds of things over the keyboard, sure, also useful.
And foley artists for films in general, very useful, with one sound each key, and some expressions of that sound right there.
- But how large is that market?

It's 35+ years since midi specs came about, and kudos to those people that did that really well. That really, really changed how music was made.

MPE controllers
- who cares?

Will a certain piece of music be talked about like
- you know he did those expressions on one key only

and the crowd goes
- wow, that is impressive
- one key, you said...

Will I be touched more by music made with these features - I don't think so. There are loads of expressiveness in the instruments around that takes a lifetime to master already.
- press keys properly timed and with sensitivity
- breath out in a certain way as you press buttons
- strike a bow over strings while fretting notes
- hit a string and let it ring with a bend and/or vibrato.

This universal language of music performed just hits you - or not. Art - or not.

Maybe focus more on how to reel in the listener so time stops and you are just in another elevated state - in the music. The world around you does not exist anymore.

Torchlight
KVRist
327 posts since 10 Apr, 2010

Post Thu Sep 17, 2020 12:42 am

Does anyone have any idea of what it would cost the manufacturer of a synth like the PolyBrute or Korg Prologue to add a polyphonic aftertouch keyboard? Is it just a question of a couple of hundred or are we talking 1000?

imrae
KVRian
1316 posts since 2 Jul, 2010

Post Thu Sep 17, 2020 6:13 am

Keep in mind that the Roli instruments don't have "proper" velocity sensitivity, the pressure sensor is doing double-duty. A traditional velocity-sensitive key plus per-key pressure sensing is more complex in terms of wiring and mechanism.

anomandaris1
KVRist
450 posts since 26 Nov, 2009

Post Thu Sep 17, 2020 6:42 am

My limited experience with some kind of poly aftertouch is Launchpad X and Roli keyboard. Aaand... I don't know.
It makes little sense, maybe if the keys are super high quality (like these from upcoming Osmose)? Even in this case, I am not sure how useful it will be. I find it actually the least useful MPE parameter on Roli, because of how hard you have to press.

BBFG#
KVRAF
6091 posts since 28 Apr, 2013

Post Thu Sep 17, 2020 2:13 pm

Torchlight wrote:
Thu Sep 17, 2020 12:42 am
Does anyone have any idea of what it would cost the manufacturer of a synth like the PolyBrute or Korg Prologue to add a polyphonic aftertouch keyboard? Is it just a question of a couple of hundred or are we talking 1000?
At one time in the '80s, my Roland Rep spouted it would increase their cost by $800. And then they would have to mark that up to make it worth it to them. He also talked about the increase in quality control and warranty repairs because of it. This showed some truth as we sold some Ensoniq in the '90s that were in the shop more than the stage. We even used to make jokes that "EPS" actually stood for "Everybody's Piece of Shite". I hated the Ensoniq feel. The other one I played regularly was the SC T-8, which was great, but much of it's cost was due to that poly scanning technology. Have no idea how much truth was in all those company rep dismissals, but it did put into focus why most don't see it as a profitable feature.

Again, put Release Velocity in every keyboard first. Anyone with basic MIDI abilities can trick a split keyboard with C-AT in to a poly AT effect. But release velocity requires both the hardware and the musician that has the technique to use it. And is much cheaper in production cost...

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foosnark
KVRAF
5356 posts since 9 Jan, 2003 from Saint Louis MO

Post Thu Sep 17, 2020 4:37 pm

What sort of things would you use release velocity for that make you think of it as important? All I can think of is release time, which... yeah, I could see it maybe.

BBFG#
KVRAF
6091 posts since 28 Apr, 2013

Post Thu Sep 17, 2020 7:22 pm

Heh, isn't that enough?
Imagine asking a guitarist what's so important about palm muting.

However, more has been done than that. Think how one can bring in nuances with initial velocity and then we can do similar things on how quick or slow we pull up from the key. (Squelches, harmonics, ghost hammers, micro tune bends/sides, pull offs, etc.)

Albeit relative to the plugin you're using and whether they even included it in their MIDI spec. But having it actually improved my playing simply because it responded better to a better technique.
e.g. I hadn't been a great fan of harpsichords until I had one programmed with this feature. The action of a real one responds by dropping the plectrum as quick as you release. In turn, this inspired my technique across all keys and in some cases, organs. (Older Hammond's often have quirky things happen by how fast or slow you release or where you hold in the middle.) Then my imagination started taking this simple thing and applying it to non-organic sounds in the ways I listed above. It really should be standard on all controllers as it is as basic and necessary as initial velocity.
The market is geared mostly towards entry level players. And all those specialty boards seem to eventually reach an end. (I still remember practicing on a dummy VanderHooten. HA!)

Chrisk-K
KVRist
120 posts since 4 Jun, 2020 from USA

Post Thu Sep 17, 2020 7:42 pm

I couldn’t care less about AT. Liszt didn’t need it. Chopin didn’t need it. Rachmaninoff didn’t need it.

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