Expression 1 – Defenition

Illustration of an ADSR envelope. ©Christoph Bus

For the Musician–Synthesizer Interface it is important to translate the pitch, Amplitude-envelope and note length. But those are the Basic values that define the most basic values of translating Music into the air. The pitch and the relative length are defined for example by sheet music and the envelope by the Characteristics of the instrument played. The most common  envelope found in synthesizers ist the ADSR shape standing for ‚attack‘, duration of the rising ramp of the signal, ‚decay‘, duration of falling ramp of the signal starting after the attack ramp is at its peak value, ‚sustain‘, value of the held signal as long as the gate is open and ‚release‘ duration of the signal falling from the last value to zero after the gate is closed. This is also one of the simplest ways to portray many acoustical instruments in their Amplitude envelopes.

Illustrations of different Envelope shapes depicting acoustic instruments. ©Christoph Bus

But the timbral structure of sounds are mostly not only described by their amplitude envelopes. Many musical instruments are defined by variations in pitch, and the color of the sound. So the simple amplitude picked-up by an envelope follower is a very basic tool to define the sound of a musician. Furthermore it only draws conclusions of the basic values a musician puts into his instrument. So to capture a musician more fully her expression plays a big role in the interpretation of control voltages.

So how can we define musical expression? As said before in most notation of western music pitch and relative length are written down, things like tempo and dynamics or direction for technique are written down in words or abbreviations. But the finer points of a performance which are mostly inherent to every musicians individuality are much nowhere to be found except the playing of the musician. So the common expression for tempo in italian are widely known as follows roughly from slow to fast: adagissimo, adagio, lento, andante, andantino, allegretto, allegro, presto, prestissimo. (Britanica)

As for dynamics roughly from quiet to loud: piano, pianissimo, mezzo piano, forte, mezzo forte, fortissimo and some changes in dynamics: fortepiano (loud then soft) sforzando (sudden accent) crescendo (gradually louder), diminuendo (gradually softer). 

So those are nowadays all the definitions which a composer uses to translate his musical thoughts to the performer. but it wasn’t always like this.

„…[I]n much 17th- and 18th-century music, the composer notated only the main structural notes of the solo part, leaving the performer to improvise ornamental figuration.“

Those figurations or ornamentations gave the musician the freedom to express themselves and influence the tradition of the then current music.

Excerp from a Sonate by Arcangelo Correlli Da Fusignano Opera Quinta

Here you can see the bottom two lines are the composers’ structure of the piece and the top line are the individual ornaments an artist put over the piece.

Reference 2 – Expression Hardware


In modern Midi keyboards, there are several possibilities to record expressions. The widest spread feature is the velocity control. This parameter is controlled by the velocity one hits the keys and thus can be easily added by keyboard performers in their playing like they would playing an acoustic instrument. With the synthesizer and the possibility to create the sound of the instrument individual to the performance also came the possibility to control parameters of a sound which in acoustic or electro-acoustic keyboard instruments with keys and pedals only really possible. The Pitch and Mod wheel were introduced to make such changes possible. The first was a spring-actuated week or stick which was mostly used to modulate the pitch like with a guitar. The other was an adjustable heel with which one could send fixed values or modulate them manually. The fourth modulation source developed for keyboard synthesizers is aftertouch. As the name suggests, it is applied by altering the pressure after the key is depressed. This can be applied mono- or polyphonically.  All of those controls added to the expressivity of synthesizer performances mostly. Only one of those controls is determined before the tone or as the tone is generated. The others are applied in the decay of the sound. So those are 4 control values that have been proven to add expressivity in performance. 

Ofcourse, these weren’t the only tools that were developed to do very expressive performances, although they are the most common ones. There is a multitude of midi controllers to add expression to an electronic music performance. The expressive E ‘Touché’ or ‘Osmose’, Buchla and Serge capacitive keyboards and joystick-controllers on synths like the EMS Synthy, Korg devices like the Sigma or the Delta and as controller module for Eurorack-, 5U-, Buchla- and Serge-modules. 

Other Concepts

Then there are control surfaces that take another approach to the whole concept of the Keyboard entirely. These Concepts go often but not always hand in hand with a synthesizer engine.

HAKEN Continuum

The Haken Continuum for instance is a Synthesizer with a control surface that can detect movement in 3 axes.

The Haken Continuum Fingerboard is an instrument born to be as expressive and as rewarding to play as an acoustic instrument. The uniquely designed sensitive playing surface has been symbiotically merged with its powerful synthesis sound engine to produce a truly unique playing experience. The  Continuum is a holistic electronic instrument that puts its player at the heart of a uniquely fluent, gestural and intuitive musical playing experience.

Roli Seaboard

The Roli SEA Technology which is implemented in rolis seaboard controllers is as roli puts it:

“Sensory, Elastic and Adaptive. Highly precise, information-rich, and pressure-sensitive. It enables seamless transitions between discrete and continuous input, and captures three-dimensional gestures while simultaneously providing the user with tactile feedback.”

Roli Seaboard Rise 49


The Linnstrument is a control surface developed by famous instrument designer Roger Linn. Interesting here is the approach to not apply a piano-style keyboard but rather use a grid-style keyboard which rather reminds of the tonal layout of string and guitar instruments. With the linnstrument there is also a release velocity recorded which places it even more into guitar territories where pull-offs, when one rapidly pulls of the finger of a string to excite it and thus making it sound, is a standard technique.


So few of the looked at control surfaces if any have more than 4 modulatable values. This would be then a minimum for a module that should be able to translate the expression of an instrumentalist into control voltages.