Yamaha WX5 Wind Controller First Impressions

WX5 Wind Controller Reviewed by Art Whitfield

I've had the good fortune to own and play a Yamaha WX5. This playing has afforded me a unique opportiunity to compare Yamaha's latest offering to others in my collection: WX7, WX11, EWI3000, DH-100. The comments below I offer with the following caveat - they are only a "first impression", not one of a careful study after several months. I've offered "first impression" reviews of every wind synth controller to cross my path, so I hope I'm being consistant.

Bottom line: BIG DISAPPOINTMENT! I would not recommend this horn over a Yamaha WX7 or the Akai EWI3020. This does not strike me as a professionl horn, but more of a student model. Yamaha has brought the Casio DH-100 feeling to the WX11 playability.My specific reactions:

Feel - Plastic, plastic, plastic. The WX5 is fatter, yet lighter. It has the girth of a straight soprano sax, yet is so light as to give the impression of a Casio DH-100. It's just plain too big. Length of my WX11, yet wider. No feeling of robust precision.

Keys - The key action is fast, yet so plastic feeling that you don't get any confidence that this is a professional horn. The key clicking is totally unacceptable. Surely it is no louder than a sax, but this is a plastic "click", not the satisfying "plop" (lower freq) of a pad covering a hole. Ever had the Selmer MkVII side Bb key click at the ball joint, or the top keys on a clarinet (D?) click - that's the sound. The click is not due to the switches, but the key-lever hitting the horn body. The switches should be silent. Again, no feeling of robust precision.

Mouthpiece - The lay of the "reed" appears to be significantly reduced from previous designs. In fact, from the side view, the tip opening is reduced, hence reed travel is reduced. From the end view, the reed opening is typical, but you can see that the reed is really riding on a pair of side rails, and to get a good solid bend from the reed you end up biting such that the reed flexes up between the rails, making a concave cylindrical shape that's parallel with the mpc axis. Tough to describe here in words, but when you look at it, it's logical that this won't physically bend much. By cranking the lip gain, it you can indeed get decent bender performance, and I can see this being great for players who favor small, subtle, surgeon-like playing gestures. But if you are a sax player who likes large tip openings, this mouthpiece feels foreign.

Pots and Dip-Switches - Reasonably well done and easy to use. Each pot has an individual rubber cover like on the WX5, and the dip switch has one cover over it. The covers are super easy to loose. I'll venture a guess that these covers will be lost more often than the WX7 screwdriver. The single rubber cover used on the WX7 is superior.

Deglitching - the deglitching across octave breaks is really nice at first; you can't go wrong. But, as I played it more and more, I could easily detect the deglitch delay. Ultimately I came to find it annoying. Now I'm not a fast player, and from my work with EWI, I've learned that I don't nominally play fast enough to notice EWI deglitch settings much below 50% (10 from a 0-20 range). So, this gives me pause when I think about a pro-player who can pound out fast bop licks.

Breath Response - similar to the WX11, so it was very playable and musical. This passes more air than the WX11 - more like the air of a WX7, so I wasn't dying to drill holes in the mouthpiece for breath relief. This is good!

LEDs - these are really great. Nicely located so the player can see them. I found them to be helpful, especially neutral pitch bend. I'm concerned they may be visually annoying to the audience, but maybe some will like the blinkey lights.

MIDI Connectors - the dual midi connectors (WX-style and MIDI) are a nice feature, though not essential.

Thumb Bender - OUTSTANDING. This feels far more precise and professional than the somewhat mushy WX7 thumb bender. This control is like the bender on a keyboard. Plus it can be assigned to a controller other than pitchbend. For those that crave another controller on a Yamaha product, this is the answer. Like the WX7, it requires more rocking travel than is comfortable or practical while keeping your right hand in playing position. But, you can program your synth patch to respond more agressively, and hence need less thumb bender travel.

Octave Keys - Nice improvement. Certainly more sax-like, and getting to 2-up is easier. Different than the WX11 and WX7, but quite learnable in a short time. The octave switches are nicely submerged into the body, so you didn't have a discrete bump-style button to lift up your thumb to actuate. A thin little pad would be nice for tactile feedback that your thumb is properly positioned in the middle of the octave keys. I can imagine picking up the horn quickly between tunes in a gig and finding your left thumb not in the right place. Perhaps this is my sax HIB showing through.

Looks - Despite the overwhelming majority of comments to date about how cool this looks, to me it looks more like plastic than the WX11, and I honestly think it's ugly - too gawdy. I expect my gear to be professional black. But then again, I liked the color selections available for the Model-T!

In summary: Not a professional horn. YMMV. MMMV after a longer trial period.

WX5 Second Impressions (The Morning After)

After an extended period of ownership of the WX5, I'm comfortable sharing a "morning after" review. My original posting on first impressions was significantly negative. That negativism was greeted with many comments that I should live with the horn for a while, learn to play it as if learning most any new instrument, and truly get to know it. Well, I've done that. I have now played the WX5 for several months, taken it to jam sessions with friends, rehearsed my pre-baroque music with it, and tried recording a few tunes. I think I've given myself sufficient time to offer the following second impressions review.

I continue my strong dislike for the WX5. I find it to be a largely unmusical instrument and generally of student-instrument caliber. To me, this is not a professional quality instrument, paled by the WX7, EWI30x0, and WX11.

Specific comments:

The unmusicality largely is due to my intense dislike for the discontinuous reed bender control. Commonly called the "wide flat spot" on the windlist, there is a wide zone of no bender value changes around the lip zero position. For those of us who use a great deal of jaw vibrato, the bender feels unresponsive. Not even close to the bender performance of the WX7 or WX11, both of which behave similar to a reed instrument like a clarinet or sax. The WX5 has such a wide flat spot that most jaw vibrato is lost. Boosting the lip gain is of little help here, as the flat spot is still the same width, but when you *do* bend the reed enough to yield a response, the higher gain causes a non-subtle effect.

The key action continues to feel unduly light and toy-like. Spring forces are too light, and the annoying clicking of the key levers on the black key pins is unusable in the restaurant environment where I gig. There is some evidence that a Yamaha change to white plastic key pins improves the clicking and some reports of binding, but that's not the way my WX5 was made. Some on the windlist have added felt, duct tape, or glued rubber between the key levers and the key pins. Certainly I'm not sheepish about making modifications to my gear, but I find gluing felt to the underside of my keys to be unacceptable on a $600 instrument.

The breath response is slightly improved over the WX7 and WX11. Trills and double tongue techniques seem to respond better, but it's highly patch dependent, and I already have developed a workable technique with my other wind controllers. Of course, my breath sensor system died during this period, and I?ve posted the technical details of the failure (http://members.aol.com/whitfiel/wx5brth.htm). Early life failures do sometimes happen in electronics, so I can't be too critical here. But, it?s certainly not a good omen given my general opinion of the instrument.

The octave keys are a mixed bag. I like some aspects of them, especially the ease with which you can move beyond +1 up octave. On the WX7 and WX11 designs, you had to deliberately move your thumb to the current octave key in preparation to the "roll action" needed for a subsequent octave change. The flat, crescent shape octave keys on the WX5 are more natural for us sax players to just want to ?roll the thumb more? to access the next octave. I do find that the lack of tactile feedback as to which octave key you are actuating to be a problem, and it's somewhat difficult to find the "home position", but these are minor complaints. In general, there is some learning to do on the octave keys, but there is an improvement here. The EWI octave rollers are probably the superior octave change method, but that?s an even bigger learning curve for us sax players.

The pitch LED seemed to be a nice feature, but it's implementation ended up annoying me. Depending on how you center the bend zero and the bend gain, the LED can give a false indication of bender values being sent to the synth, when in fact, the actual midi data is still at bend=0. This is due to what appears the LED being implemented from a separate analog threshold that is different than the threshold used by the computer in the WX5 to send midi bend data. I do have to admit that this annoyment is largely due to my engineering background, but I suspect others might also find it troubling. There's something wrong with an LED that's supposedly telling you bender values are non-zero when in fact they are indeed zero.

The ability to use AAA batteries inside is nice. It's really a built-in BT7. I find it to be effective and useful, although I would prefer a 9V rectangular battery instead. If you are in a gig or traveling somewhere, 9V batteries are perhaps more readily available. You can probably find an instrument tuner from another band member with a 9V battery to borrow if you get desperate. Not so with AAA batteries. The dual midi-plugs are good too - an effective compromise to the nice mini-DIN with phantom power, yet the practicality of midi-DIN for plugging into most any synth around.

The software in the WX5 is it's real strength. Yamaha clearly listened to the customer when it came to programming. The thumb rocker, a very well physically implemented controller, is programmable for bend or as a separate controller. Other programming, such as multiple fingerings and alternate fingerings are superior to other commercial controllers excepting perhaps the Synthophone.

The general lightweight feel and painted silver plastic of the instrument is still not within my image of a professional instrument. Batteries for weight are not the solution here. This is a general, and personal opinion; one likely to be different for most everybody.

In conclusion, I find the WX5 to be a significantly inferior physical implementation with superior software programming. The wide flat spot on the reed bender makes it so unmusical that I can?t foresee using it as a gigging instrument. If I had to rank all of my wind controllers, I would put them in the following order of musicality and usefulness: WX7, EWI3000, WX11, WX5, DH-100.