A few thoughts on the new Roland Aerophone AE-10

September 19, 2016

To be fair, I haven’t tried out the new electronic wind instrument from Roland, and probably won’t bother. (Unless you’re out there, Roland, and want to send me a review unit to change my mind?)

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to see another company get into this space, and I hope they will seek to innovate further in wind controllers and push other companies (Akai, Yamaha) to do the same. But Roland’s new Aerophone AE-10 seems like a misstep.

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Much of the promotional material gushes about how “innovative” the instrument is, but there doesn’t seem to be much to support this claim—it is essentially a very similar instrument to the Akai EWI series or Yamaha WX series, both of which have been around for decades. In implementation and marketing, it really reminds me more of the Casio DH—a novelty for casual playing, not a serious instrument in its own right.

Roland brags about the familiarity of the AE-10’s fingering system: “most digital horns make you master a new fingering system, which can be a major setback…” This positions the instrument as a toy: something saxophonists can pick up and play immediately without having to pay any additional dues. This unfortunately seems to be embedded in the philosophy of the AE-10’s fingering system: fully embracing the limitations of a real saxophone, while missing an opportunity to solidify wind controllers as viable instruments in their own right.

The AE-10’s faithfulness to “real” saxophone fingerings extends to, for example, palm keys. Why do saxophones have palm keys? Certainly not for agility or comfort—palm keys are a significant technical issue for saxophonists. They are Sax’s 1840s solution to the problem of needing to locate tone holes at certain places on the instrument’s body. An electronic instrument has no such constraints: the keys can be literally anywhere on the instrument. (The Akai EWI series does a better job of balancing familiarity with innovation.)

Additionally, the keys appear to move, and to do so in a rather noisy, clicky way. I don’t expect the noise is enough to really be a problem in an amplified situation, but it seems cheap and sloppy—not up to the standards a professional woodwind player demands. (And it strikes me as a very fixable problem on Roland’s end.) Beyond that, I’m not sure that moving keys really make much sense on this kind of instrument. I find the Akai EWI’s motionless keys to be very comfortable and intuitive, similar in touch to playing a recorder or simple-system flute. It’s a very free, agile feeling compared to the relatively clunky mechanisms of a keyed instrument. Why unnecessarily introduce moving parts?

Also from Roland’s website: “There’s nothing worse than a studio session grinding to a halt because you need an instrument that you haven’t brought along. That won’t happen with the Roland Aerophone AE-10, which gives you a variety of additional acoustic instrument sounds like clarinet, flute, oboe, trumpet, violin, and more…” I suppose the AE-10 is being marketed here toward unprofessional studio musicians, who happen to be working on low-quality projects that will tolerate substitution of a synthesized sound when the musician fails to bring the needed instruments?

Speaking of which, most of Roland’s promotional materials surrounding the AE-10 seem to focus on its sounds that imitate “real” instruments (“Choose from alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone sax types that all respond just like their acoustic counterparts…”). But the videos are unconvincing. The saxophone sounds, as usual for an electronic instrument, seem especially unsatisfying—a poor choice for a product that seems to be aimed at the saxophonist market. (My preference is to use wind controllers for “synthy” sounds rather than imitative ones, and the AE-10 does seem to include some.)

The AE-10 does boast some nice but ultimately minor features that I wouldn’t mind having on my Akai:

  • Fingerings are, to some extent, user-programmable (though still not as flexible as the Akai’s EWI fingering mode).
  • An onboard speaker, which seems convenient for practicing. (Roland doesn’t pretend it is usable in a performance situation.)
  • A line-in jack, again probably useful mostly for practicing.
  • A number of handy user-customization settings.
  • It comes with a case.
  • The “Brass section” setting makes it easy to layer sounds.
  • The “Full range” setting automatically switches to different saxophone sounds depending on tessitura. I was unable to determine whether this setting is specific to the saxophone sounds, or whether it is programmable. Could be handy to have several sounds on tap depending on the octave.

The AE-10 seems to be priced in roughly the same ballpark as the Akai 4000S/5000 and Yamaha WX5. (Bear in mind that the Yamaha requires an external sound module at extra cost, while the Akai and Roland have some sounds on board.) My take: spend your money elsewhere.

Comments

  1. ericdano

    I thought this was a toy as well, and then heard these….


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHlG_PwwvGY

    And now I’m not so sure…..some of those sounds sound pretty good. I think Roland is aiming more towards the EWI5000 with the builtin sounds. I’d have to listen to a 5000 to see (last I remember, I thought the 5000 sounded kind of meh). I guess it really comes down to how does it play. If it plays well, or plays well with Midi, like maybe with Apple Mainstage, I could see people using this. Just plug in a USB cable you could have a fairly good controller to use with your laptop to get some more realistic sounds.

    The marketing though needs to drop the chump with the hairdo though. He can’t play his way out of a paper bag.

    Reply

  2. Michael Webster

    Bret
    It hasn’t been released yet & the feature set hasn’t been finalised yet.I play all the woodwinds except bassoon & have all the wind controllers so far released except the sylpho.I am used to a number of different fingering systems but as my principal instrument is the saxophone,the wind controller I am most adept at playing is the synthophone (which as you know is a saxophone stuffed with electronics & is very expensive).Despite working hard with the ewis I still glitch from time to time.The appeal of a controller where you can feel comfortable on straight away is I think going to make it appeal to sax players particularly at the price point.As far as the sounds go I am not going to replace my acoustic saxes,clarinet,bass or contrabass clarinet,flute ,oboe,english horn or piccolo with the aerophone-but would consider using it for sounds of instruments I don’t play if needed.It may also be a quiet mobile practice tool.
    The marketing & product release method is unusual-more aimed at consumers.

    Reply

  3. Jan Jkincewicz

    I’ve played the WX series since they were invented. Also had both EWIs (sold both.) Woodwind synth is a different animal, but I think I’ve played the Yamahas long enough to consider them a separate instrument from the saxes (I play bari,tenor,alto and soprano.)

    I’ll give this a fair chance. I’ve tried teaching some world class sax players to use the WX with horrible results (but these guys are in their seventies / eighties. I think this might work for them.

    Certainly the firmware is WAY more advanced than anything we have experienced from controllers before. There is room for lots of potential customization.

    Reply

    • Brian Moulton

      Hi Jan

      I agree with your comments – I too have used the Yamaha’s WX series and the EWI’s before coming back to the WX 5 with the VL-70m with the Patchman Turbo chip
      I have had the Aerophone for some 2 months and despite trying to tailor the sounds to my taste I find it disappointing in the sound menu
      I have the RD700 and love the SuperNatural sounds on it but the chance to use this method to have near acoustic sounds it falls towards synth sounds which are boring
      Where is a Flugel horn – several trumpet and muted trumpet sounds
      The WX 5 + VL-70m with the Patchman Turbo chip is ,in my opinion far superior in providing realistic sounds
      I have just updated to version 2 expecting an improvement – but again dominated by extra synth sounds

      Reply

  4. Mike Abbott

    Bret, your initial thoughts were EXACTLY the same as mine! I question the business notion behind this device- who exactly do they think they’ll sell it to in mass quantities? I used to be a district manager for a large music retail chain, and Roland always seemed to view the wind synth market with great disdain. This is a big surprise, and I too thought of the Casio toy at first. I don’t really care about emulations or on-board sounds- I can get all I need out of my 2) VL-70’s and Motif rack with my WXs. I’ve been playing wind synth since 1978 (Lyricons) and have owned EWIs, too. The first AE-10 videos I saw were a joke, but then I happened across this guy Alistair in the links Eric posted, and he really plays it musically. Made me stop and wonder. Akai and Yamaha have not innovated much over the past few years, and with the advent of iOS synths and Mainstage setups, it would be neat to have a USB-based controller to consider. So I remain skeptical, but I’m interested in trying one to see if it’s a viable instrument- maybe even hopeful :).

    Reply

    • Daniel Lindholm

      I came in from the WX-11 platform until its brain (read breakout-box) got fried after 30! (!) years of service. A machine manufactured by Yamaha in Germany. So I had to find a replacement and the closest thing I had was AKAI since Yamaha stopped making the VL70’s and their WX5/WX7 hardware controller. I was stuck and I was taking a hard look at myself and what I did. All I really needed was a direct USB in to work with my wind-synths from Sample-modeling and I would be in the clear.
      The EWI 4000s was on the market at the time and I had no feeling for its sound, nor did it have a USB port. And the price at the time was really expensive. (Now it’s down to a good, reasonable price-point here in Japan.) There was only one solution. The Akai EWI-USB answered my need and I was a little bit scared to try it out in the store, however I can now recommend anyone who have gone sad for their old WX/WT/VL hardware breaking down, but still only using it to control VSTi’s. Look no further.

      The Akai EWI 5000 is doing everything that the Roland does. Akai’s has more value for the money and it also has a lot more offering for people from different backgrounds can come into the EWI series and learn a new instrument from scratch. It did take me 2 weeks to re-adjust my “thumb-rest” error on the EWI, but now it’s like a part of me. Using it live with my Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with Sample Modelings more superior acoustic/physics modeled sounds. Plus I also program my own lead patches in Omnisphere.

      The Akai EWI-USB is the most incredible piece of machine and I’m now glancing at the Akai 4000s as a cool thing to have on stage for the more synth-based stuff and hook it up to vocoders etc.

      For just MIDI-control if you don’t care about the machine not having any sounds, go with AKAI EWI-USB.
      If you want some acoustic sounds and a huge variety of sounds on the MOVE, Akai EWI 5000 does it better than Roland. (EWI 5000 has 100 patches plus user-banks, meanwhile Roland has only 40.)
      The EWI 5000 is also more reasonably priced than the Roland Aerophone 10.

      I’m not saying that any of those 2 instrument could replace any real winds or brass, but it could add an element of feeling when performed in a group, not by itself.

      So best value for many between Akai EWI 5000 and the Roland, the EWI wins, hands down.

      /Daniel Lindholm
      EWI-player, music-producer

      Reply

      • Stephan Koehr

        Spot on, Daniel. If you don’t want to spend too much, go with the EWI USB and some soundbanks from Patchman’s Matt Traum.

      • Peter Sheridan

        I have had the Akai 4000 and the 5000 and to be honest I would NEVER buy another instrument with a built in / purpose made battery,and the Akai are very prone to going wrong. Roll on the Roland with its replaceable batteries.

      • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

        My controller of choice is the Akai 4000s, which runs on replaceable AA batteries.

  5. Stephan Koehr

    itI’m working with EWIs since the EWI 1000 decades ago (EWI 5000 is my third one) and after watching the first promo videos of the AE-10 and listening to the clicking sounds of its keys on some other videos I was rather disappointed, so I share most of Bret’s resentments, despite the excitement of Roland finally launching a wind synth after my playing Roland synth keys and modules since the early 80’s. I still hope to find a wind controller with premium internal sounds and a fast CPU. The Akai, while having perhaps half a dozen usable presets, is awfully slow regarding patch loading, and the sample based engine has a lot of restrictions performancewise, so overall, I think despite the mature hardware itself the EWI leaves a lot to be desired. On the other hand, I like Roland’s Supernatural engine and the prospect of having wind gear using that is rather tempting. Additionally, as Michael Webster aleady mentioned, ir is almost impossible not to glitch on the EWI, so the mechanical keys are perhaps not so bad as it seems. As I mostly play synth sounds with the wind controller, it remains to be seen, if the AE-10 will satisfy the needs of professional musicians.

    Reply

  6. Thom

    Hey guys, y’all haven’t seen the real beast! So let’s wait and try it out. I have so much equipment from ROLAND and I’m using it for decades… Nothing they did was sh**. Would be happy to own one.

    Reply

  7. Marty Mikelberg

    I have played a Casio DH500for about 10 years, love it but wanted a bit more as far as various tones. I have a wireless midi set-up that attaches to a Casio Keyboard ( a small one) and that gives me a bit more in sound and novelty. I have scribed thousands of midis using Melody Assistant and Notation Composer ( at 78 I have the time and inclination to do so), scribing music from 1120 through 2016 – early music, classical music, jazz, Irish, folk music, etc. and look forward to experimenting with the Roland Aerophone ae-10. I perform only as a non-professional and play along with these midis. It seems from all that I read that we now have the replacement for my Casio DH500 ( I have three of them) that also has an internal speaker, has 40 voices and from what I have seen on YouTube meets all that I have asked Casio to manufacture, but they never ever answered my e-mails. Congratulations to Roland for having the courage to make this and enter the Wind Controller market.

    Reply

  8. Stephan Koehr

    Now that I’ve played on an AE-10 for two hours (and happily returned it afterwards) I sadly have to confirm all of Bret’s concerns and then some. I could write a list of things that bothered me when trying it out. One of them the mouthpiece being cheap plastic so you see wear from your front teeth on top after two(!) minutes of cautious playing. The ‘reed’ is just a kind of modulation on/off lever, so you cannot produce a sensitive manual frequency vibrato with your lower lip like on a real sax, or on an EWI. A woodwind sound like an oboe with preprogrammed, mechanical vibrato is just awful imho (being a professional woodwind player for about thirty years). Some of the sounds were better than expected, like the alto or the tenor. Others, like the few synth patches, were (considering Roland to be a mayor player in making synthesizers) just uninspiring. The chunky “palm keys” are really no joy to practice with, when you have to press two of them with one finger for certain fingerings. The dreaded octave glitches on the EWI are there, too, but at least on the EWI you know where you are. It’s easy to accidentally slide to the small octave buttons next to the main ones. And the “joystick” knob beneath the thumb hook is really awkward to use, as your thumb is important to support the instrument. Of course, if you practise many, many hours, you might be able to cope with that. And why is there a single joint output for headphones and audio? Why is there no option to change the type of controller message the AE-10 sends? It’s preset to CC 11, and all my synth modules are working with CC 2, so I would spend some time to accommodate the new gear with my MIDI setup. I could rant on and on, but I’ll stop here. I really wanted to like the AE-10, but in the end the weak impression persisted.

    Reply

    • Bryan Shane

      thanks for the review. Looks and sounds like a WX5 in a new plastic housing. zero appeal to me.

      Reply

    • Denis Hermans

      The cc 2 vs cc11 issue is solved by the firmware update.

      Reply

  9. Glenn Reither

    SO far as the comment re the bite sensor only an on/off switch for vibrato, that isn’t correct. You can set it to vibrato switch or to pitch in which case you do your own vibrato.
    Always pays to read the manual.
    Roland makes TERRIBLE demos. To hear someone who can actually play music, check this one out.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwQCfVVa8Kw

    For a laugh, check these:
    https://youtu.be/xwvE-zPm5rs?t=183

    Reply

  10. Justin Ward

    In terms of brass instrument replacement, marvellous for people who have to practice in small apartments – urban Japanese, for example; but it’s always going to sound like a stylophone in the end. And what do you do about spit?

    Reply

  11. Rene Juncker

    I’m sure your points are spot on if you cwant snider this to be an instrument in its own right. I don’t! I’m learning the saxophone, and thus the fingering system, I have young kids, and live in a semi-detached house. Basically I can practice when the kids are in school. Anything after 3 pm is just a nuisance. Furthermore, being a long haul pilot, I spend A LOT of time in hotels. Needless to say, practicing an acoustic sax at 3 am (due to jet lag) wouldn’t go down too well.

    With this instrument, I can practice where and when I want, without having to learn a new fingering system. That is unlike any other electrical sax on the market that I’ve found. This is a god send for people like me.

    The fact that the sound may not be spot on doesn’t bother me at all. As long as it sounds remotely like a sax, and is in tune, I can practice my playing on this, and then get the real sound when I get home to my acoustic.

    Is there a big enough market for this instrument. I don’t know. I don’t care. As long as I get mine in 7-14 business day, I’m happy!

    Reply

  12. Peter Loeb

    The most musical vid of the Aerophone that I’ve seen is this one of Andrew Oh playing “Killer Joe” and demo-ing a variety of the built-in sounds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdowsGXO9mM

    Reply

  13. Denis Hermans

    I bought an Aerophone – never played a wind instrument before as I am a guitarist- and have some much fun with it.
    The sax-like fingering was very important to me because I can start learning the instrument by using a regular sax course. Was not sure how to start with an EWI.

    I also prefer moving keys against touch keys.

    The EWI 5000 has also a built in battery and this is an ABSOLUTE NO for me.

    Reply

  14. Peter Loeb

    New vid by Alistair Parnell showing new features and tones in version 2.0

    Reply

  15. Gary Garner

    I’ve used the Yamaha WX series for well over 25 years now, but in a quite different way from what the other posters do, I’m sure. I’m a woodwind player and band director (now retired) and I discovered years ago what a great help the wind controller can be in working on intonation (if I’m playing a note in unison with the flute player and we’re not in tune, it ain’t my fault!). We’re approaching intonation from an entirely aural, rather than a visual perspective (using a tuner, that is).

    As I explain to the students, it has 3 great advantages: 1) I’m never “out of tune” (yes, I know, but temperament’s a discussion for another time); 2) I can be heard above the entire band; and 3) I can play in unison with the piccolo and the tuba and everything in between. Oh yes, and if need be, I can play as fast as any of you!

    I’ve use both the WT-11 and VL70m sound modules but I use only one (yes, one) sound, the clarinet. I’ve long dreamed of having a midi controller with onboard sound (just one) and speaker that I could roam around the room with. I do have a MidiJet Pro with the WX-5, which works well, though it’s a bit cumbersome and, worse, if I’m working with the tubas in the back of the room and the sound’s coming from the front of the room, that’s far from ideal.

    I tried the Akai, which meets some of those needs, but I do prefer keys that move, and I found the octave mechanism very unsatisfactory, so I remain in the Yamaha camp.

    My dream is a simple wireless wind controller with just one sound. I’ve visited with some of my friends at Yamaha about this, but to no avail. You’d be hard pressed to find a band room in my state (Texas) without a Yamaha Harmony Director keyboard, currently about $1,500. It’s a wonderful device, but hardly portable and, like most band director types, my keyboard chops lag far behind my woodwind skills.

    If someone—Yamaha or anyone else—could produce a simple, inexpensive device (say, $500 range or so) of the kind I describe, and marketed it properly, I haven’t the least doubt that band directors nationwide would be beating the doors down to get one.

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  16. Ken Crouch

    My biggest complaints about the Akai EWI are

    – I cannot rest my fingers on the keys as I do with other instruments
    – The EWI is a compromise that isn’t 100% intuitive for anyone

    I love that a company has created something for a sax player to give them something closer to the feel of their axe. There is no reason that a company shouldn’t be able to deliver something that’s intuitive to the player from day one.

    I recognize that the fingerings on the EWI are more flexible and that many people have invested time in learning the EWI. That’s great, but that shouldn’t preclude anyone else from having the option of an instrument that they can “just pick up” and feel at home with.

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  17. James Talmadge

    Excellent comments from most here — For a pretty good first impression review from a sax player on the AE-10, check out this video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T0hPzH6jhU

    A bit of background: I started playing oboe when I was 13, then sax and flute then in the late 70’s I got a Lyricon, then switched to Yamaha WX7 in the 80s which are my controllers of choice. I have all of them but favor the WX11 for its octave key layout and overall reliability. I also own an EWI 5000 — but anyone who thinks it’s onboard sounds are good is aiming way too low or has never played through a VL-70. I have two of those with Matt’s chips onboard and highly recommend this combo to ALL wind players. If anyone here knows of a better, more playable wind controller-geared synth, please post your thoughts.

    Reply

  18. Doug Earley

    I just saw the Aerophone 2.0 at NAMM 2017! I absolutely love it! I’ve been playing an AKAI EWI 4000s for about 5years. I’ve never felt comfortable enough to really use it at gigs. It’s temperature sensitive,unpredictable in the strange sounds which come out of no where and I’ve never quite figured those darned octave rollers. Yes, it came with 100 sounds built in. I have only found about 10 to be of any real value. So that immediately leads us to Patchman Sounds if you want any real synth sounds on an EWI 4000. He is basically a one-man shop supporting these upgrades. When I called him to to discuss an upgrade, he basically hung up the phone before I was really done inquiring. The EWI requires waay too much “tweeking” in order to play. As a saxophonist, I only wanted a synth for exotic and fun sounds and for music scoring. Why would I expect it to sound as good as my acoustic saxes, which I love playing and have heavy investments of time and $$$.

    We buy equipment for specific purpose and roles. The Aerophone more than fulfills that role.

    Reply

    • Peter Elliott

      I have just downloaded a free app for AE-10 from Roland, Aerophone Editor which looks exciting. I look forward to some expert comment on the usefulness as I am a bit old to be much more than casual user. It downloads to my Samsung S6

      Reply

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