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Pros and Cons of Midi Concertinas


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In another thread, Frank Edgerly said:

  • admire the knowledge to be able to do this, and understand the functioning etc. But I am not sure why anyone would want to make such an instrument. I know you could make it sound like anything you wanted with such an instrument, but there are other platforms that you can do that already eg. keyboards, Would it only be for the appearance? A concertina that can be made to sound like a trumpet, for example? What's the point? Do that on a keyboard. Sorry if this sounds disrespectful.. That is not my intention.

 

I've put this as a new thread, to avoid cluttering the original question.

 

I have a Midi concertina - a conversion of a Lachenal English (https://pghardy.net/concertina/lachenal_30566_midi/lachenal_30566_midi.html), so feel qualified to respond.

 

The main advantages of are Midi concertina are:

1) if mass-produced it could be two orders of magnitude cheaper than traditional concertinas (tens of pounds rather than thousands of pounds), so introduce a new generation of players to our instrument family, in the way that electronic keyboards enabled many more players to emerge than traditional pianos.

2) If you put headphones on, you can practice quietly, without offending neighbours (or spouse).

3) You can take a single lightweight midi concertina, and at press of a button, play it as a baritone, a piccolo, or a bass - baritones are available at great cost, but bass concertinas are las rare as hen's teeth.

4) you can play in any transposed key - for an Anglo, instead of carrying instruments in C/G, G/D, and Ab/Eb, you have one instrument and it transposes as requested. Or have a transposing English, and play in Bb in a session to prevent melodeons joining in!

5) you can be any instrument you want - I used to play Cello as a child, and love the sound, but it is a totally unwieldy instrument to carry around. Instead, I can take a Midi concertina, an iPad and a smallish speaker, and be a very realistic cello, an organ, a bandonion, an oboe, tubular bells, or anything else.

 

The main cons at the moment are:

1) cost - you have to start with a wreck of a traditional concertina, and adapt it using contactless switches instead of reeds, plus a tablet and external speaker.

2) complexity of requiring external synthesiser software on a phone or tablet, plus an external speaker - a mass-produced instrument could include these capabilities internally at less cost and avoiding cables.

3) current designs use physical midi cables to connect components - recent advances in the Bluetooth protocol for audio and for Midi over Bluetooth or WiFi would allow wireless solutions without the latency that early Bluetooth had.

4) no big producer has got involved, so no cost reductions of large-scale production.

5) very few small-scale operators offering to produce Midi concertinas, even though the basic technology has been around for decades.

 

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I once bought a cheap electronic keyboard with the intention of deconstructing it into some sort of electronic concertina, but haven't yet found the time to actually do it.

 

I've long imagined having a polished chrome cylinder with EC touch buttons on either end, (and maybe lights?), that could be mounted on a mic stand and run through a midi controller and an amp. The musical group Renaissance used to do something similar on stage with guitars mounted on stationary stands.

 

But for Anglo, the old push-pull adds quite the extra quirk to replicate electronically.

 

Either way, they are not traditional concertinas by any means, but something you can do a lot of unusual things with. I remember seeing a set of electronic bagpipes years ago that could change keys, etc., and the piper was thrilled that he could sing or smoke his pipe while playing!

 

Gary

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Posted (edited)

I've tried three midi anglos and they all had the same defect... they didn't respond musically to my touch.

 

On a traditional concertina, the harder you squeeze, the louder you get and a gentle squeeze plays quieter. For me, the dynamic responsiveness of the reed/bellows connection is what makes the concertina so much fun to play.

 

Midi can represent volume from 0 to 127 but the midi Anglos I tried couldn't make full use of this capacity and changed volumes in unpredictable ways. They were ok when playing loud but anything less than that caused sudden dynamic changes and drop-outs. Useless.

Edited by Jody Kruskal
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3 hours ago, Jody Kruskal said:

Midi can represent volume from 0 to 127 but the midi Anglos I tried couldn't make full use of this capacity and changed volumes in unpredictable ways. They were ok when playing loud but anything less than that caused sudden dynamic changes and drop-outs. Useless.

 

The same holds true for pitches which are hard coded by the target sound font. While a MIDI concertina would allow a key press action to, say, sound like a mouth harp, the ability to bend reeds (which I believe is essential to mouth harp players) can not be emulated by the "input side" of any keypads driven instrument. Of course, one can define MIDI extensions that open up the pitch range which, along with more refined sound fonts and elaborate "input measurement techniques," can approximate microtonal effects, but it is a moving target; apt players will always be able to conjure sound effects of an "analog" instruments that any range of sounds defineable by MIDI generated sounds will not be able to map.

 

I would suggest to add these limitations to Paul's contra list.

 

None of that contradicts anything on Paul's Pro list; the ability to practice with a head set would certainly open a wide range of opportunities for ambitious players. Yet practicing, say, 90% of your time on a MIDI instrument - no matter how technically sophisticated - will help quite some with dexterity and muscle memory, but very likely not in exploring the sound opportunities a "real" concertina can offer. 

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I like to play a naturally constructed instrument .  By this I mean, NONE electronic, with all its wheezes, buzzes, or good days and loud and quiet notes. All purely dependant upon just air, leather bellows, bits of metal, and yourself to make it work. No batteries, power required, to make it sound..except for one's own tendons in making it work, of course.🌝🌝

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I agree with much of the above, including the benefits for some players of an electronic substitute for a real concertina, but I personally have no interest in that application, even despite the facility for transposing instead of having multiple real Anglos in different pitches.

 

The OP mentions "other platforms eg. keyboards". Yes, but – I for one can play an Anglo concertina much better than I can play a piano or anything else with that type of keyboard, which means almost all the readily available MIDI ones.

 

One feature that is desirable with any electronic concertina is responsiveness to "bellows" pressure, whether with real bellows or a simple force sensor. The latter is my preference, simply to avoid ever running out of air in either direction, though it also avoids either needing newly made bellows or recycling an existing real concertina. At least responsiveness to the force direction, pull or push, is of course essential with an Anglo-style keyboard. Jody points out the importance of loudness reflecting pressure. I agree and have designed that into my Anglo-pattern MIDI keyboard, although it could do wth some refinement.

 

I had a Zoom conversation the other day with Bruce of this parish. His ideal, realised in his NOVA 2 and now awaiting production engineering, is to avoid the layer of MIDI instructions and instead have key presses directly causing WAV files to be played. I am not entirely convinced about that, but good luck to him.

 

 

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14 hours ago, Paul_Hardy said:

5) you can be any instrument you want

Paul, do you know if the musical tones of these existing digital instruments (including the free reed versions) are sampled or synthesized? Sampled means they are constructed from the waveforms of the conventional acoustic instruments, through a microphone, and synthesized means they are constructed by combining harmonics in the musical range; i.e., constructing a Fourier series that sounds acceptably close to the conventional acoustic tones.

 

Sampled sounds are much more sophisticated than the synthesized sounds, but they require much more digital memory, data processing, and larger bandwidths in signal transmission. In addition, with many acoustic instruments, the perceived waveform depends on the volume of the tone and sometimes even the portion of time in the transient of tone progression. For instance, with the piano, the best sampled sounds account for how hard the key is struck, and they are called "velocity sensitive" digital pianos. 

 

Some instruments, like the harmonica, cannot be adequately represented by either sampled or synthesized waveforms. They are an extreme example because of the importance of pitch bending in their use. I think the memory and data processing required with them would not be economically possible. Digital keyboards do have pitch wheels that bend pitch, but they sound mechanical or "too pure" to be used very much, with a boring "Hawaiian guitar" sound.  

 

Thus, the instruments most amenable to digital imitation are those having tones with a simple on/off character, and concertinas are in that category. With them, you can get by very well with a simple synthesized waveform that doesn't change with volume. But as Jody points out, that may not be good enough for some musicians. 

 

Best,

Tom

www.bluesbox.biz

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I suspect that one of the main reasons why someone would want to make such an instrument is mankind’s natural curiosity and love of a challenge - just to see if it can be done. If someone is interested in concertinas and in the technology of electronic instruments I’d be surprised if they didn’t wonder if they could combine the two.

The pros and cons listed are then the results of this, not necessarily the reasons for it.

Personally I don’t have any of the technical skills/knowledge needed, and no great desire for any electronic concertina, but I am still be interested to see/hear what others can make, purely out of curiosity (and maybe a stereotypically male fascination with gadgets).

 

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I wonder if anyone told Charles Wheatstone that he was wasting his time inventing a concertina when a violin could be used for any of the music that he wanted to play and that a violin player was able to change the pitch of notes as they are played which is not possible on a concertina.

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I pay attention to threads like this, for many of the aforementioned perceived "benefits" of a MIDI concertina.  And, of course, it isn't the same as acoustic.  But in at least my STRISO board (a Wicki-Hayden button board with rubbery buttons) the similarity to my "real" Hayden Duet concertina keeps me playing it.  And, the responsiveness is quite amazing, IMHO.  It can be louder when pressed harder, or pitch bent when keys wobbled, or who knows how the young savvy tech folks can set up these things for other variety (glissando, instrument switching in one button press, etc.) It spans 3.5 octaves, weighs about a pound, fits in a 9" square an inch thick.  I love it.  Of course, far better musicians have done much more with it:  Didier (soloduetconcertina) comes to mind, but there are others.

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I had a Wakker MIDI Anglo for a couple of years and with the right MIDI instrument software (I was using Native Instruments Kontact with my own per-note concertina samples) it was an amazing and extremely expressive instrument.

It was wireless and rechargeable and built on one of Wakker's standard concertina designs with the reeds removed and replaced with air flow restrictors of some kind. Could map pressure to various MIDI controls both for initial note velocity and expression and felt exactly like playing one of my acoustic instruments.

The only fundamental design issue I ran into with the instrument was the choice of using a physical switch contact for each button with one side of the switch being the button lever and the other a gold-plated L post for each button.  Pressing the button would open or close the contact as the lever moved and made/broke contact with the L post.

In mine, if I didn't play it all the time, I found that the tops of the levers would get enough oxidation that I'd start getting switch bounce, and would have to every month or so open up the instrument, polish each of the levers, and reassemble the instrument.  The issue was that the chassis of the instrument, again just one of his standard mid-grade models really wasn't designed to be opened/closed that often, I was concerned about stripping the screws repeatedly opening and sealing up the instrument. 

Ultimately, I traded it to a gentleman who needed a silent instrument for a lovely 1860s vintage Lachenal Bb/F Anglo restored by Dipper that I still have today for playing with flat sets of Uilleann pipes in C.

The same instrument with some kind of threaded metal insets for the assembly screws would have been a nice improvement, but ultimately, since I wasn't playing it that often, the need to deal with the switch bounce issue due to oxidation on the levers nearly every time I took it out was a deal breaker for me.

I'd love to see exactly the same instrument done today with Hall-effect or other non-contact switching.

Edited by Michael Eskin
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In general, my number one criteria for how well a concertina plays (midi or not) is based on how wide its dynamic range is. Most can play loud, only the better ones can play cleanly at super quiet volumes as well. I like to play down there in the pianissimo range. The best concertinas, for me, will play down to a whisper... down to nothing, but evenly so, across the entire pitch range of the instrument.

 

Contrary to popular belief, I actually do prefer playing concertina quietly like that.

 

For a midi instrument to approximate the real thing in functionality, a real bellows would need to control the pressure and the entire 128 levels of midi volume should be available, smoothly and seamlessly shifting from loud to soft and back to loud in an instant. at the players whim, with unnoticeable lag. Just like the real thing.

 

My additional wish list for a midi Anglo would include:

* Internal speakers and amplifier

* USB rechargeable battery

* Dedicated buttons for transposing and voice selection. Perhaps user customization to let you select among a few favorite voices in performance.

* Bluetooth audio out as well as standard audio mini out and midi out physical connection ports.

 

I'm sure such an instrument could be built... by NASA... at taxpayer expense. 

 

With headphones on your space suit, you could play it solo on the moon, or join with your bluetooth tune buddies on jamkazam broadcasting from the nearby crater. Playing tunes together would certainly keep those future bored lunar pioneers entertained.

Edited by Jody Kruskal
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14 hours ago, David Barnert said:

 

Careful, there, Jody. USB (that is, USB-A) is on the way out. USB-C is the future (for now).

 

USB-A rusb2ac2mb.main.jpg

                  USB-C

David, I'm unclear what point you were trying to make with this image.

Most likely a new USB enabled device, particularly one that charges from USB would use USB-C, but could use any other flavor of USB without issue.

For example the new WARBL2 wireless wind controller is rechargeable via USB-C, while the previous WARBL was wired via micro-USB. 

To use the older model on a device that only has USB-C you need an adapter dongle, but it works fine.

Edited by Michael Eskin
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55 minutes ago, Michael Eskin said:

To use the older model on a device that only has USB-C you need an adapter dongle, but it works fine.

 

Thanks. I didn’t realize this. I was only aware of having read in several places that USB-A was being gradually phased out, for instance, here:

 

Quote

Is USB-A being phased out?

 

Yes, USB Type-A is gradually phased out as devices transition toward the newer USB Type-C. USB Type-C has become increasingly popular, particularly among high-end gadgets, due to its greater versatility and enhanced features. However, USB Type-A is still prevalent in many devices, so it's a gradual transition.

 

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