The ASM Hydrasynth & Why Polyphonic Aftertouch Is Important

In his latest video, composer & synthesist Tim Shoebridge shares his thoughts on the ASM Hydrasynth, focusing on polyphonic aftertouch.

Polyphonic aftertouch – and more broadly, the idea of per-note expressive control – is something that’s foreign to most keyboard players, because most traditional keyboard and synths only respond to initial velocity. If that’s what you’re used to, it’s hard to understand the importance of expressive keyboards.

On most synths, you press a key and the note can either die out, like on a piano, or sustain, like on an organ. And that’s it. And that’s a big part of why saxophones and strings and brass sounds have always sounded so static on synths. The keyboards of synths for the last 40 years have by and large not captured continuous per-note expression.

Shoebridge’s video does a great job of explaining why the polyphonic aftertouch of the Hydrasynth is important, and why it gives the synth unique expressive capabilities. He talks about how polyphonic aftertouch can take a ‘boring’ synth patch and turn it into something extremely expressive.

And he also touches on the fact that the level of per-note expressive control offered by the Hydrasynth can be a challenge to keyboard players, especially experience pianists. It’s something new, for most players, and takes some practice to get used to.

Check out the video and share your thoughts on the Hydrasynth – or more broadly, the importance of per-note expressive control – in the comments!

27 thoughts on “The ASM Hydrasynth & Why Polyphonic Aftertouch Is Important

  1. Huge fan of poly aftertouch and really glad that it is finally making a comeback on modern keyboards.

    The ribbon controller is a nice touch as well, and another throwback to the Yamaha CS-80.

    The 40 year mark isn’t quite right though – a number of synths and MIDI controllers of the 1980s and 1990s (including some models from from Ensoniq, Sequential, Roland, Kurzweil, etc.) supported polyphonic aftertouch, but it seems to have mostly died out in the 2000s with the exception of the short-lived VAX-77 (which I’ve never actually seen) as well as controllers that aren’t quite traditional keybeds (Continuum, Seaboard, Xkey, QuNexus, K-Board, etc..)

    1. 100% on point.

      I had been waiting and waiting for a good keyboard with Poly AT. It’s pretty dumb that we had to wait this long.

      Major manufacturers have been in a holding pattern for decades.

      First, though we may not need high-resolution velocity, we do need accurate velocity, so bump up the scan rates. Second, for people who need aftertouch– poly AT is both smart and immediately useful– andwe need it to be smart– e.g., ignore AT at moment of key-down impact, and we need it to be configurable: adjust the response threshold, range, scaling/curve (per key? why not?).

  2. A 6 octave keybed should have something other than velocity. It’s SIX octaves for cripes sake.

    Would love a 6 octave keybed on any number of other synths. I’m happy with CHAT though.

  3. Shame on Yamaha, Korg and Roland. I hope the Hydrasynth models sell twice as many units as Yamaha, Korg and Roland’s total sales combined.

    1. Why? PAT is not a feature that’s in demand like some people on here think. It’s just another added cost that raises the retail price which is why the major 3 synth companies have not put it into their keyboards. FYI: I worked for one of the mentioned companies and they all seem to be doing well despite all the criticism on sites like this. Most people don’t understand product development at all and latch onto features that most people don’t care about.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think the Hydrasynth is a fantastic synth with workflow that was better thought out than any of the big 3. Hopefully they will put more emphasis on UX design in future products.

      1. You’re right that poly a.t. is not a feature that appeals to a large percentage of users. I have some sympathy for how product development is complicated, and requires difficult choices to be made. It’s not just a bunch of synth-dreamers going “Let’s see how much of our wish lists we can cram in.” (Though I’d argue the K2xxx series instruments seem that way.) And yes, even if Poly AT was widely available, perhaps a similar small percent would try it, like it, and use it.

        Still, those of us who want Poly AT, aren’t merely “latching onto it”. When I bought my first poly AT keyboard in late 80s, I barely knew what PAT was, but as I started gigging with it in a creative band, it became immediately clear how useful it was, and I used it ALL THE TIME– for quite a few different tasks. It was fun.

        From the early 90s, I started using a K2000. It has other qualities, but poly AT wasn’t among them.

        Since probably 2000, I’ve been just watching to see if poly AT would ever again show up in some form that I could use. I even bought that VAXMIDI keyboard, which … well, didn’t fly. It has appeared in some few instruments, but there was always some catch that made it not right.

        I think the Hydrasynth is the closest I’ve seen in all this time.

      2. How do you know PAT isn’t in demand? Why do you think the Yamaha CS-80 is such a classic? Because of its synth engine? No. Ask Vangelis, Chick Corea (if he were still alive) and many others if it’s important. You don’t think it’s important because the big name companies like Roland, Korg, and Yamaha don’t want to have any kind of aftertouch except on their high end keyboards. If aftertouch isn’t important why have it at all? The Numa Compact 2 has channel AT and it costs $499. The new Hydrasynth explorer has Poly AT and it costs $599.00. Both are from companies much smaller than the big three. Don’t tell me they can’t deal with the “added cost”. The big three have got fat and lazy, and they are not controlled by music lovers, but by bean counters.

        1. The big point is that even if the percentage of keyboard players who want Poly AT is relatively low (less than 50%) –probably need to do a poll to know what that percentage is. The musicians who DO want it are not just getting caught up in someone else’s hype. It is a very valid, incredibly useful way to control sounds. I’ve seriously been watching this forum for many years, seeing wave after wave of same-old-same-old controllers come out. Or the creative, envelope-pushing ones are deal-breakers (for me) because they require me to completely throw my regular keyboard technique (such as it is) out the window.

      3. Just as a thought experiment: imagine a new synth keyboard was released– one that could easily be a main keyboard for live player, or a studio center-piece controller. Now imagine they released two versions one with poly AT and one without. There was an additional cost for the poly AT version, let’s say $200.

        How many people would balk at kicking down the extra 200 beans?

        Then decades later, how do their resale values compare?

  4. I’ve got the Hydra and it’s a next-level experience. I played it for a very accomplished guitar player friend of mine who knows very little about synths, and he said it was like an orchestra. I think that’s a good description.

    I find myself agreeing with the sentiment in many of these posts. ASM is doing great and innovative work with their keybeds, and they feel good to play. Contrast that with the feel of the major manufacturers where a large percentage of their keybeds feel like a race to the bottom. Back in the day, even low to mid-range synths had aftertouch – Kawai K1, Yamaha SY-22, CZ-1, etc.

      1. It was the top of the CZ range, yes, but still not in the same league price wise as a DX7II or a JX-10, D-50, etc. Even the Alpha Juno 2, DW-8000, DX-11, and the other synths mentioned earlier were generally low to mid price synths. I was referring more to how manufacturers are removing aftertouch and even a decent feeling keybed from all but their flagship synths. I feel that’s a shame.

  5. I’m liking this, because weak mono aftertouch reeks. Its not just a matter of a player learning how to draw the best from poly AT. Its one of people learning how to recognize it. Non-synth types (almost everyone) will be way down the list. Someone could certainly wow the Country Music Television Awards with a whopping pedal steel patch, but appreciating the weird delicacy of a three-layered synth chord creature takes a little more work on the part of the listener. A third of them will be listening to a murder podcast, so good luck.

  6. I remember there seemed to be an issue with the original Hydrasynth keyboard: many people reported that the velocity feel of black notes was very different from that of white keys. ASM was supposed to try and improve it via a firmware update. I wonder if the Deluxe has the same issue?

    1. The difference between black and white keys is a known mechanical challenge in making keyboards and in developing software to deal with it.

  7. I’ll be honest, the main times I’ve felt very restricted by mono AT is when I’m playing with two hands, but then it is probably better to just play a different keyboard with each hand.

    That said I’d l love to try learning to play interestingly with poly AT / MPE. Although I’m not sure whether to go for Hydrasynth Deluxe, Osmose, or (hmm) Roli. I know that they’re very different.

    1. I used to have the Ensoniq EPS with PAT. That was brilliant but the keyboard was unreliable so it had to go. Then came a Roli Seaboard block. That went out the door as well: although it does wat was promised the playing style was too different for me to enjoy, not intuitive, and it had a lot of connectivity issues. A Roli requires you to learn to play a completely different instrument that happens to look like a keyboard. That is no simple matter.

      The keyboard on my Hydrasynth is fabulous. Its expressivity is better than the Ensoniqs of yesteryear.
      But I expect the Osmose to even outplay the Hydrasynth when it comes to enhanced expressions in an inituitive manner.

      Question: did anyone already tried out using the Hydrasynth in MPE mode with for instance an OB6?

      1. The big question with Osmose is whether it will suffice as a “normal velocity” keyboard. If not, it would be a worthy (understatement) second board.

        1. yes, if I interpret you correctly, I’d be happiest with something where I can start from playing “normal” keyboard (which I have been doing for years) and gradually learn to include expressive poly pressure in my playing. And ideally still use it as a normal keyboard for when that’s needed. Hydrasynth looks fine for that, if Osmose can be learnt and used in this way then even better.

          I mean, the fancy things on the Osmose like a controlled glissando are incredibly impressive, but I have other ways of doing that already, and it would take some time to figure out how to include it in my keyboard playing style.

  8. As another data point, some of us were crazy enough to back the VAXMIDI, which was supposed to be a successor to the VAX-77, but it had some design and manufacturing/sensing tolerance issues leading to a very low success rate in terms of the kits working reliably across the entire keyboard (even on the 4-octave version), and their web site is offline now. I think the design could have worked with some modifications – basically it used optical sensors and a curved aperture on each key that rotated past the sensor to effectively expand as you pressed harder. Unfortunately keys were wobbly and not anchored properly in all directions, so they could easily slip out of their slots and/or the apertures could slip semi-permanently out of their somewhat narrow operating range.

    The KMI K-board Pro actually shipped and is a usable product that works as advertised (a bit like a full-sized version of the QuNexus) though it is more of a playing surface than a keyboard since the keys are basically pressure pads.

    1. Yea, I too was a VAXMIDI supporter/buyer. It was a clever idea. They either went with the wrong factory or there were some other problems. The fact that they had a successful previous product (VAX-77) didn’t help with this 2nd product. If they had kept assembly in-house, the units would never have shipped.

      But I infer from your post that other manufacturers (Yamaha, Korg, Roland, Fatar, Nord) could have approached INFINITE RESPONSE, bought/licensed their design, and put out a success model. If Fatar had done it, we could have seen quite a few keyboards with Poly AT as a result.

      If it was popular and wide-spread enough, we might see an increase in the pitifully small number of soft synths and hardware synths that respond to poly AT. (Hats off to the few companies who have consistently supported poly AT)

      1. > If Fatar had done it, we could have seen quite a few keyboards with Poly AT as a result.

        I think so – a company like Fatar could have added the design fixes and manufacturing improvements to build it reliably and at scale.

        I think Van Chandler is on LinkedIn – if he is (hopefully!) in good health, maybe he could be convinced… 😉

        Hopefully we’ll see more interest in polyphonic aftertouch now that the HydraSynth is out (with three different versions of its keyboard!) I’d like to see Sequential bring back the Prophet T8 keybed, which was also used in the Synclavier.

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