Review: Characteristic Etudes for the Woodwind Doubler by Gene Kaplan

I’ve previously reviewed a couple of Gene Kaplan‘s publications, sets of duets for woodwind doublers. Recently Gene was kind enough to send me a copy of his latest, Characteristic Etudes for the Woodwind Doubler.

Unlike his previous doubling-duet books, this is intended for a lone woodwind doubler to use in developing his or her doubling skills on flutes (including piccolo and alto flute), oboe and English horn, clarinets (E-flat, B-flat, and bass), saxophones (soprano through baritone), and bassoon and contrabassoon. (Gene suggests that substitutions can be made, so, for example, oboe can be used if you don’t have an English horn.)

The book includes short etudes in a variety of formats, including ones to strengthen instrument switches within familes (e.g. piccolo to flute to alto flute) and switches between families (e.g. flute to clarinet to…). It also has a section of “Difficult Woodwind Pairs” etudes, plus some slightly longer and more advanced etudes for each of the single instruments addressed in the book.

The etudes are in varied styles and not overly technically demanding, sticking mostly to moderate tempos and comfortable ranges. The focus here is on the switching, which happens frequently and in short but mostly manageable windows. (Unlike Gene’s duet books or Paul Saunders‘s books with backing tracks, there’s no built-in mechanism to enforce the quick switches, so you’ll need a metronome to keep yourself honest.)

Here’s a video demo with a couple of sample etudes:

This is the only doubling book I’m aware of that covers such a broad woodwind family. It’s unusual to see books that include the double reeds or even complete-ish flute and single reed families, much less both. If you are interested in improving your skills on a large number of instruments for Broadway-style doubling gigs, this makes excellent sightreading, or more in-depth work for instruments or switches that you find difficult.

Get your copy from Gene’s website.

Thanks, Gene!

Review: NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

I don’t typically do reviews of new sheet music publications unless they have a specific woodwind-doubling focus, but I’m making an exception here because I think this is a project that is especially useful and has potential to change the landscape of “classical” saxophone repertoire (and other instruments, too).

I have a repertoire problem. My file cabinet is full of wonderful, important music that is written almost exclusively by dead white men. I would like to change that—to perform and teach music representing a greater diversity of composers, and particularly living composers.

But it’s hard to escape the inertia of the “standard repertoire.” And sorting through mountains of new pieces by composers I haven’t heard of (yet), to find the best ones, the ones at the right difficultly level for my students, and so forth, could cost me thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. It’s daunting, and so I fall back on the same pieces I’ve taught over and over.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1 is an elegant solution. For the price of a standard-repertoire concerto, it contains 16 works composed (or at least revised) within the last 20 years. The composers (listed on NewMusicShelf’s website) are diverse and distinguished. Many are young.

The collection is curated by Alan Theisen, a composer and saxophonist well-positioned to accomplish this task due to his interests and connections in the world of new music. (One of his own compositions is included in the anthology.)

For me as a performer and educator, this anthology helps solve several problems: the pieces are thoughtfully selected for quality and variety, the publication is very affordable, and its presence in my studio is a strong step toward currency and representation in concert saxophone music. All are for solo alto saxophone or saxophone and piano, so the performance logistics are simple (no large/unusual ensembles, electronics, or other potential barriers). The pieces are playable by undergraduate-level students (but, as Theisen points out in his introduction, “absolutely suitable” for more advanced players as well). It’s an easy, cheap, and practical way to grow my performing and teaching repertoire. (This is an unsolicited review of a copy I purchased myself.)

A couple of small complaints: the saxophone and piano parts are “perfect bound” (like a paperback book) and thus don’t lay flat on a music stand. NewMusicShelf indicates on their website that this is to facilitate library shelving (and points out that, hey, you can disassemble and re-bind it yourself if you want), but I’d rather see a more performer-oriented solution. And the books contain a web link promising composer headshots and program notes, but the link is currently broken and I couldn’t locate the content on the website. Still, a very worthwhile purchase.

The “Volume 1” label is hopefully indicative of more to come. A flute volume appears to be in the works, and calls-for-scores for clarinet, bassoon, and some other instruments are currently open. Collections for voice and for viola are already available. Kudos to NewMusicShelf and Alan Theisen for this extremely valuable aid for teachers and performers.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

Review: Duets for the ‘Double-Reed Doubler’ by Gene Kaplan

A few years ago I reviewed Gene Kaplan’s Duos for Doublers, a set of duets for woodwind doublers playing flute, clarinet, and saxophone. I was pleased to hear from Gene again recently about his new Duets for the ‘Double-Reed Doubler.’ It contains seven duets in a variety of styles, with one doubler playing oboe, clarinet, and alto saxophone, and the other playing clarinet, bassoon, and tenor saxophone. (No flute in either part.)

The books (a set of two, one for each player) are neat and easy to read, with well-placed page turns and spiral binding. Like the Duos for Doublers, this set currently costs $30.

I’m pleased to see more materials making their way into the world that address the growing pressure on woodwind doublers to be skilled double reed players. The idea of “doubling” meaning just flute, clarinet, and saxophone is increasingly a thing of the past. Working on doubling in a chamber music setting, like these duets, is a useful way to improve your skills as a soloist-level player of multiple instruments.

Here’s a demo of one of the duets, called “Machinations:”

I wouldn’t call these duets easy, exactly, but they aren’t overwhelming for doublers with a little background in each instrument. All the instruments stay mostly in their lower and middle registers. The oboe rarely ventures outside the staff, and the bassoon stays squarely in bass-clef range. There are some fast switches (catch me trying to play bassoon with the tenor in my lap in the demo video), some tricky navigation of the clarinet’s throat-to-clarion break, some articulated low notes in the saxophones, and other real but not unusual challenges.

These duets are a fun an interesting challenge if you have a doubler friend to practice with. Head over to Gene’s website to get your copy.

Review: D’Addario Evolution clarinet mouthpieces

D’Addario was kind enough to send me a couple of their new(ish) Reserve Evolution clarinet mouthpieces to try out.

The Evolution currently comes in a single opening/facing, but the two Evolution mouthpieces I received are different in appearance: one is the standard black, and the other is what’s called “marble” on D’Addario’s website, or “sandstone marble” on the box. I usually don’t care to have equipment that calls too much attention to itself, but this is pretty cool and subtle enough not to be gaudy on stage.

I can’t definitively say that there is a difference in how the marble/non-marble play or sound. For the two I have in hand, the marble is possibly very (very) slightly more dark/muted, and the non-marble has very slightly more brightness/presence. But this doesn’t match my experience trying the mouthpieces back-to-back at the ICA conference (“ClarinetFest®”) over the summer. In any case, if there’s a difference, it’s trivially small, and I think you can pick the one that you think looks nicest.

As I’ve pointed out in my reviews of D’Addario’s other clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces, these are made with very, very high consistency, which finally brings mouthpieces into the online shopping age: you can just order one from wherever you find the lowest price, and count on it to play just as well as any other. No need to order a bunch of them, put a deposit on your credit card, ship back the ones you don’t want, pay a restocking/sanitation fee, etc. And if you lose or break yours, you can get a replacement quickly and probably not notice any difference. They are great-playing, affordable mouthpieces, but the consistency is the unique, killer feature. I’ve personally adopted each new clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece as it has hit the market.

(I don’t have a formal relationship, endorsement deal, etc. with D’Addario. They do sometimes send me products to try, presumably with the hope that I will review them favorably, but there’s no advance agreement. And I think that the consistent quality is a significant development in the mouthpiece market, and worth comment.)

What I’m looking for in a mouthpiece is a good balance between response and stability. To some extent these may be two sides of the same coin. A very responsive mouthpiece “speaks” immediately, even on resistant notes or at softer volume. But sometimes the tone and/or pitch are too flexible, and keeping them in check takes a lot of work. A very stable mouthpiece has consistent tone and pitch, but may take more work to get notes to respond as desired.

The particular quality of tone is my third consideration. I don’t make this my first priority for a few reasons. One is that a mouthpiece that strikes a good responsive/stable balance is already likely to have an appropriate, middle-of-the-road, versatile tone. (Often, within that middle-of-the-road zone, more “responsive” mouthpieces tend toward “brightness,” “presence,” or “liveliness,” while more “stable” mouthpieces lean toward “darkness,” “warmth,” or a “covered” sound.) Another reason is that tone quality is one of the more malleable aspects of a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. If it functions well on the response/stability axis, then with a little time I will probably adapt my embouchure in minute ways (even without realizing it) to find the tone I want.

For the last seven years I have been using D’Daddario’s Reserve X5 clarinet mouthpiece, so I’m using that as my frame of reference. The Reserve and Evolution mouthpieces are both good, solid choices, and I can’t really say broadly that one is better than the other. But they have some differences in response, stability, and tone, which I’ll outline here in case it helps you pick one that best suits your preference.

Basically I find the Reserve to lean slightly toward responsiveness, with the expected tinge of brightness/presence, and the Evolution to tend more stable, with the darker/more covered sound. It’s subtle.

(Besides the mouthpieces, D’Addario also makes Reserve and Evolution reeds, which I find to have those same characteristics: Reserve = more responsive, Evolution = more stable. A D’Addario representative tells me the similarly named mouthpieces and reeds are “not meant to be exclusively paired together.”)

The following audio clips are all played using the same reed, a D’Addario Reserve 3.5. It’s just a little softer than I prefer for the X5, which accounts for some of the responsiveness and brightness but not all of it. Using a 3.5+ brings the sound and response just slightly closer to the Evolutions.

Evolution (black)
Evolution (marble)
Reserve X5

These photos are of the packaging for the X5 and Evolution mouthpieces. The measurements, oddly, are mostly in inches. (The X5 packaging is several years old, from when these were still sold as “Rico Reserve;” I don’t know if the box otherwise still looks the same.) The side view diagrams seem to indicate that both have a tip opening of ~.042 inches, which seems like a possible typo. Assuming the openings are precisely 1.05mm and 1.08mm (as also indicated on the packaging), these might be better expressed as .041 and .043.

I like both the Reserve X5 (my current favorite of the Reserve options) and the Evolution, and currently they are both living in my clarinet case. If forced to choose, I think at the moment I would fall back on the X5, because responsiveness feels important to me right now. But I can easily see myself switching to the Evolution at some point, perhaps depending on repertoire and performance situation.

In any case, the Evolution is another strong addition to D’Addario’s line of mouthpieces, and worth checking out.

Review: D’Addario Reserve alto saxophone mouthpieces

If you have read my reviews of the D’Addario clarinet and jazz alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of their new classical alto saxophone mouthpiece, too. (As with the last several reviews, D’Addario sent me some mouthpieces at no cost, with the possibility but not the promise of a review.)

I’ve been hammering on one point with all the D’Addario mouthpieces, but it’s worth bringing up again because it’s an important innovation in how mouthpieces are made and bought. D’Addario’s manufacturing process (precisely milling mouthpieces from solid rod rubber) produces mouthpieces that are extremely consistent, much more so than other mass-produced professional mouthpieces, which are generally finished a little by hand. The old system is that you try out a bunch of mouthpieces that are the same make and model (by going into a store or putting a big deposit on your credit card), and pick out the one that plays best. The new system is that you order a D’Addario mouthpiece from your favorite retailer, and know that it plays just like all the others. This is a game-changing development in the sub-$200 mouthpiece market.

And, of course, like the other mouthpieces in D’Addario’s lineup, the new Reserve alto mouthpiece plays great.

I’ve been playing on a Vandoren Optimum AL3 for the last 8 or 9 years (and used an AL4 for a few years before that). What I like about the Optimum is that it’s very easy to play, with good response in all registers, good dynamic range, a lot of stability (so pitch and tone are very consistent, without much effort from the player), and tone that tends toward a warm, almost muted quality (in a good way). It’s a mouthpiece for a 21st-century classical saxophone player.

The D’Addario mouthpiece has these same qualities, with some subtle but important improvements. When I started playing on the AL4 I liked its richness of tone, but ultimately decided I needed to sacrifice that a little to embrace the AL3’s superior high register. The D’Addario Reserve does an impressive job of blending those qualities, and even improving upon both.

In particular, I have been impressed with scalar movement in the altissimo register, which on my Vandoren mouthpieces could be just a little lumpy as I crossed from one partial to another. The D’Addario mouthpieces make this feel really smooth, effortless, and secure.

I have been using mostly D’Addario Reserve reeds for classical saxophone playing, and with my Vandoren mouthpieces I sometimes wished I could get a reed strength between 2.5 and 3.0. I did hope that switching to the D’Addario mouthpiece would eliminate that need, but after trying them I still feel like a 2.5+ would be a useful option. (D’Addario does make some “plus” reeds, such as the Reserve alto saxophone 3.0+.) If I have one complaint about the Reserve mouthpiece, it’s that I don’t get quite the ease of low-register response I would like with the 3.0 reed. A 2.5 helps that but plays a little brighter than I want.

The Reserve mouthpiece comes in three flavors at the moment: D145 (1.45mm tip/medium facing), D150 (1.50mm tip/medium-long facing), and D155 (1.50mm tip/medium facing—yes, it is the same tip opening as the D150). The mouthpiece has what D’Addario touts as a “unique oval inner chamber.”

I’m really quite impressed with all three of the Reserve options, and not 100% settled yet on which will be my go-to. But I recently used the D150 (with a Reserve 3.0 reed) for a concerto performance with band that involved some double tonguing and plenty of altissimo. The D150/3.0 setup worked well for that situation—just the right amount of resistance to make the double-tonguing comfortable and easy, good security in the altissimo, and enough guts to be heard over the band without getting spread or edgy.

Here’s a quick comparison between the D’Addario Reserve D150 and the Vandoren Optimum AL3. I’m using the same ligature and reed in both clips.

D’Addario Reserve D150:

Vandoren Optimum AL3:

To my ear, the D’Addario has a richer, fuller, and more even sound, and also responds better to dynamic changes.

So far D’Addario is scoring 100% with me on their mouthpieces: each new mouthpiece they have released has replaced my former setups (clarinet, jazz alto, jazz tenor, and now classical alto). I look forward to whatever is next.

Review: “Double Troubles” by Paul Saunders

A few months ago I wrote a review of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a book of woodwind doubling etudes by Paul Saunders. Recently Paul sent me Double Troublesa new collection of etudes. Like So You Want, the new volume includes a piano part plus access to downloadable backing tracks. As I said in the previous review:

This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? … Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room.

Like in the previous book, these etudes are musically interesting and in styles typical of contemporary musical theater. Double Troubles is overall somewhat more challenging, including some saxophone altissimo and flute third octave up to C (though most of the extreme high register playing on both instruments is marked as optional—Paul clarified to me that the upper register is preferable, and the optional 8vbs are to make the etudes more approachable if needed). The book also incorporates soprano and tenor saxophones on some etudes, in addition to the flute/clarinet/alto used in the first book.

Two of the etudes are by guest composers, Darren Lord and Jennifer Whyte. Here’s a quick-and-dirty demo of the tune “Disco Nap,” which is Darren Lord’s contribution:

I had fun playing through these, and recommend Paul’s doubling etude books as one of the best sources of practice material for the flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler.

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz tenor saxophone mouthpieces

I’ve already done thorough reviews of the D’Addario clarinet mouthpieces (twice) and alto saxophone jazz mouthpieces, both of which immediately replaced the competing Vandoren products I was previously using. So, naturally I’ve been very anxious for the release of the hard rubber tenor saxophone jazz mouthpiece, and I got my hands on some samples earlier this week. (Full disclosure: D’Addario sent me the mouthpieces for free, but with no strings attached. This is my best attempt to give an unbiased review.)

I’m pleased to report that everything I like about the clarinet and alto mouthpieces is true of the tenor mouthpieces as well: these are well-made, utterly consistent, easy-to-play, affordable, versatile mouthpieces. Like the clarinet and alto pieces, the Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is going to be my new mouthpiece for the foreseeable future.

I like to be as low-fuss as possible about my gear. This is a sub-$200 mouthpiece, fully machine-made to fine tolerances, by a major woodwind accessory company. That means if I break or lose mine, I can quickly and easily get another that plays virtually identically from just about any online or brick-and-mortar music store. (Soon; the tenor mouthpieces don’t seem to be in many stores yet.) Check out my previous reviews for more in-depth discussion about that—in short, the days of having to order a half-dozen and pick the best one are gone.

The Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is currently available in a medium chamber and medium facing, with tip openings from 6 (2.54mm/.100”) to 9 (2.92mm/.115”). I’ve been wanting to move to a little smaller tip opening, and the 6 is just what I was looking for.

The tip openings differ in the ways you would expect. The 6 likes a medium- or medium-soft strength reed, and the 9 needs a medium-soft or soft. The smaller openings are very slightly mellower in tone, softer in volume, and oriented toward stability rather than flexibility, while the larger ones are brighter, louder, and more flexible/less stable, but the differences really are pretty minor. The 6 is my favorite, but I could use the 9 on a gig in a pinch. Choosing your tip opening will probably be more a matter of comfort zone than a question of differences in sound or application.

My previous mouthpiece was a slightly older model Vandoren V16 metal mouthpiece, the T75 (2.67mm/.105″, I think). It served me well for quite a few years, but recently I’ve been less satisfied with its difficult low notes and overall edginess. (After having it for a few years the gold plating started to get some discolored spots, and ultimately got some pitting on the table, so it may not be playing as well as it once did.) Playing hard rubber for jazz on tenor is actually new for me—I’ve played a string of metal mouthpieces since high school—but the transition to the Select Jazz has been seamless. Eyes closed, I don’t think I could tell the difference material-wise.

For tenor in particular I want a mouthpiece that can do lots of things—a sweeter, mellower sound for small-group cocktail gigs, a punchier, gutsier sound for amplified rock and blues, precise articulation and rock-steady intonation for studio playing. The Select Jazz has a nice middle-of-the-road quality that moves easily between straight-ahead jazz and funkier sounds. I find that at a scream I don’t get quite as much bite in the tone as I do with the V16, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of bottom end in the sound at maximum volume. In other words, the V16 gets bright and aggressive when I push it, but the Select Jazz just gets big and powerful. I’m liking the tradeoff.

The Select Jazz also wins hands down for ease of playing (against the V16, which I originally selected for its ease of playing). I could just about play a classical recital on the #6 if I had to—the articulation and response are easy from low B-flat up into the altissimo. Like the V16, it strikes a nice balance between stability and flexibility. It’s easy to play in tune, but there’s also plenty of room to bend the pitch around when I want to.

I’m not going to do a thorough play-test comparison this time, because I don’t think it’s really necessary. My V16 is an old model, in poor shape, and metal, so the comparison isn’t really fair and they are perhaps somewhat different animals anyway. But here’s a quick demo of the 6, moving through a few different styles. (It was supposed to be one uninterrupted take, but I ended up having to re-record the last segment standing a little farther from the mic.) First a snippet of Body and Soul, then a few bars of a Brecker tune that I can never remember the name of, then Night Train, then the horn break from Sir Duke.

I don’t see myself as a guy who gets snobby about brands, but D’Addario’s pro-line mouthpieces have hit the mark for me 100% so far. Looking forward to what’s next.

Review: “So You Want to Play in Shows…?” by Paul Saunders

I got a review copy of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a new woodwind doubling etude book. The author, Paul Saunders, is a woodwind player in London’s West End.

The book includes seven studies for doubler playing flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone. It also includes a piano accompaniment book, with piano part recordings available for free on the publisher’s website. This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? Chris Vadala’s book provides rests and trusts you to observe them. Gene Kaplan’s duo book pairs you with another woodwind doubler. Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room. (For a real-world challenge, cue up the recordings in a playlist, and sight-read the book beginning to end with no breaks between etudes.)

Saunders’s tunes are fun and musically satisfying—to my tastes, the best among the doubling etude books so far. Styles are what you might find in contemporary rock/pop-based musical theater. Here is a quick-and-dirty demo of etude #3, “How Cool Can You Be:”

Mr. Saunders emphasized to me that the etudes are intended for aspiring woodwind doublers, and therefore are of moderate difficulty. I would say So You Want to Play is not as challenging as the Vadala book, comparable overall to the Kaplan book. The most technically-demanding material nearly always falls to the clarinet. The flute parts tend to stay in a comfortable register, rarely breaking into the third octave, and maxing out at a high G. There is a note or two of saxophone altissimo. There are frequent instrument switches, a few of them very quick.

Mr. Saunders was also kind enough to send me early drafts of some a couple of etudes that will appear in a forthcoming second volume. They appear to be more difficult, with some swing feel and doubles on soprano and tenor saxophone.

As I’ve mentioned in reviews of previous materials, I wish there were more resources available for doublers that included the double reed instruments and/or auxiliary instruments. But, as you may know, double-reed doubling is less common in the West End than it is on Broadway, so this book is probably a good fit for most British woodwind players (like Mr. Saunders), and quite a few American ones. So You Want to Play is a solid addition to the flute/clarinet/alto materials available, challenging but fun for an up-and-coming doubler.

Low reed stand showdown: K&M vs. Hercules

I’ve had a König & Meyer bassoon/bass clarinet stand for years now, and recently picked up the Hercules version and tried it out on some gigs. I was hoping to form a strong opinion and make a nice clear recommendation here between the two. But the bottom line is that both are really quite usable.

left: Hercules; right: K&M

The exact model of K&M stand that I have doesn’t seem to be in production anymore. There is a newer one with a black finish (nice for onstage use) and slightly different hardware. I would be interested to hear if anyone is aware of any significant difference between the older and newer models.

The big question of course is stability. I spent some time knocking both of these around to see what it would take to tip them over, and based on that non-scientific approach they seemed about equal. (No instruments were harmed.)

I don’t have any concerns about either stand scratching my instruments. The K&M has a rubbery cup for the bottom of the instrument to sit in, and a felt-covered brace at the top. The Hercules has a harder (but not hard) plastic cup and a foam-covered brace.

The K&M’s large, soft, and somewhat grippy cup is a nice feature for quick instrument switches. The Hercules’s I wouldn’t trust quite as much—I would need an extra moment to be sure the instrument is secure. The Hercules has room to add a couple of additional instrument pegs, which is a nice feature for doublers.

Note also that the Hercules’s cup can be rotated 180° from the way I have it oriented, if desired. It is mounted on a leg that is adjustable, which I suppose you could use to change the angle of the instrument on the stand. I like it at full extension for maximum stability at the base.

For quick switches, I like to be able to play bass clarinet with its peg still in the stand if needed. Both stands accommodate this without any trouble.

Upper braces on both stands are height-adjustable to about the same height. At around full extension the braces are out of the way of keys on the bassoon’s long joint (the bell key is on the side where the braces don’t touch it). Neither quite adjusts as high as I would like for a low C bass clarinet (with the peg extended a little), so unfortunately for me the left index A and A-flat keys rest against the brace.

Both stands fold up, but neither is tiny. The Hercules is more portable if you remove the cup, but that means fussing with a wing nut and then having one extra piece to carry around (or lose).

The Hercules does win on price, at about 60% of what the K&M costs.

Overall, I guess I lean toward the Hercules a little for bass clarinet, mostly because I could add, say, pegs for B-flat and E-flat clarinets and be ready for a utility clarinet gig. And I like the K&M slightly better for bassoon because its larger, softer cup makes a better target during a quick instrument switch. If you’re still torn, the Hercules’s lower price point may be a good tiebreaker.

A few thoughts on the new Roland Aerophone AE-10

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.