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.
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.