Experiments with electric woodwinds

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I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)

I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.

Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.

Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.

Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.

Here are a few examples of my experiments:

There are eight audio tracks here, but each one is performed “live.” I’m trying to somewhat replicate sounds from the original song: two vocal parts, two guitars, piano, electric piano, and electric bass, plus various synthesizer lines that I’ve consolidated into one. I’m using harmonizers and pitch shifters on the “guitars” and “keyboards” to perform chords in real time. I’m also pitch shifting the “bass” to let the English horn play much lower than its natural range.
I’m using a harmonizer here similarly to how I used it in the English horn video, but you can get a better view of what that involves footwork-wise. I’m using several carefully-programmed footswitches to change the harmonizer’s parameters as I go, in order to get the chromatic harmony that I want. On the A sections of the tune, I’m also using a pitch shifter to double the melody up an octave. The separate bass part that starts at about 0:28 uses pitch shift to drop the sound down an octave.
This is an example of using a looper (the red unit) to layer multiple lines, while using the multi-effects unit (black) to do real-time harmony and some other things. The “bass” part, shifted down two octaves, isn’t as convincing as I would like (you may have to use earphones to hear it).
Here’s a live-performance example using looper plus multi-effects unit.
Here I’m using the multi-effects unit to perform the melody “call” and harmonized “response” (unfortunately distorted and too soft), and using the looper to provide backing for an improvised solo.
Here’s an attempt to replicate one of Paul Hanson’s incredible electric bassoon “hocket” performances (I fell a bit short). The technique uses a delay to create a single well-timed echo, with the result being that I’m only playing every other note you hear; the in-between notes are echoes of previously-played ones. To get the full effect, check out Paul’s video.
This one you can actually buy sheet music for; the arranger, Melissa Keeling, provides parameters for using a harmonizer and a delay (which could be separate pedals or functions of a multi-effects unit).

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