From WindWorks Design: Wind controller in a pit orchestra

Photo, mabel.sound

“Gertjan” at the WindWorks Design blog posted some interesting comments about using a wind controller in a local production of Seussical the Musical. Gertjan (I wasn’t able to positively identify him from the WindWorks website, but maybe he will find his way here and let us know who he is) played saxophones in the show as well, and used the wind controller to cover a number of wind and non-wind instrument parts.

Although it gives me a little indigestion to see a wind controller substituting for woodwinds that might otherwise have been played by a doubler, I do think there is application for wind controllers in orchestra pits. Keyboard-driven synthesizers are ubiquitous in recent shows (or are sometimes used to replace other instruments, especially a string section), and, in some cases, a wind synth might be even better suited to certain kinds of synthesizer parts. Gertjan mentions some synthy sounds like “vocal doo,” “scary voices,” and “ghostly shimmering breathy sound,” all of which strike me as likely to be very effective with a wind synthesizer’s breath control. Some others, like “harp” and “tinkle bell” seem like they might be more intuitively assigned to a keyboard.

In the comments section one of my previous articles, I said this:

EWI seems like such an individualized thing—what with all the options for sounds, effects, etc.—that in most typical doubling situations it would take a fairly EWI-savvy orchestrator/musical director to use it effectively, beyond just using it to cover acoustic instrument lines (what a waste!). I think most would have to work directly with the performer to compose for the available sounds (or create new ones).

This certainly seems to have been the approach that Gertjan and his musical director took:

What followed was an intense e-mail conversation between the musical director and myself about the possibilities, what sounds I would normally use, etc. It ended with him visiting me at my house where we talked about it in great detail, with me demonstrating the various options and abilities.

It’s worth taking a look at both of Gertjan’s posts about his experience. Part 1 deals with the collaborative process between wind controller player and musical director, and Part 2 discusses some technical tips and other practicalities of using a wind controller in the pit.

Comments

  1. Doron Orenstein

    This sounds really cool, as long as the EWI is used for synthesized sounds and samples, as opposed to replacing live musicians.

    Thanks for sharing Bret!

    Doron

    Recent blog post: The Week In Saxophone: Dec 17, 2010 (December 17, 2010)

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  2. ericdano

    Oh God, this is stupid. Ok, so his two-bit theater company can’t afford a whole orchestra. So, like most theater companies, they have to boil it down to essentials. Since this guy doesn’t play another other than saxophone and EWI, he does the piccolo/clarinet/oboe sounds on it. Yuck.

    I play orchestra pits a lot. In fact, just got done with a production that boiled down Cinderella to 8 people from the 20 in the original score. No one used EWI. There was one keyboard player doing the strings. I can’t imagine how bad doing piccolo parts on EWI would sound. I mean……ugh. And the Yamaha MU100R is over 10 years old. So…….double ugh.

    I could see maybe…….maybe using a EWI with something like a good Kontkat library patch…..or maybe……not.

    I think the company would have done better to just have a keyboard player do it. I’ve done Seussical…..it sounds great with real instruments.

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  3. Bret Pimentel (Your host)

    Thanks, Doron and Eric, for your comments.

    I have no doubt that everyone involved—Gertjan, the musical director, everyone—would agree that having a fully-staffed orchestra would be ideal. But budgets are tight and good doublers are sometimes hard to find.

    I tend to think that if you have to resort to synthesizers to replace orchestral instruments, a clarinet on wind controller is better than a clarinet on a keyboard, since you get at least some crescendo/decrescendo control, and hopefully some smooth slurs. And nobody is out of a job in this situation—you still need a real live musician to play the EWI.

    An argument could be made that even using woodwind doublers is an unacceptable substitute for a full orchestral woodwind section plus a saxophone section.

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  4. Paul Shimmons

    I have to agree with Brett! I’ve played keyboards for years in many different settings and would rather have someone playing parts on an EWI to fill in for missing wind players than on a keyboard! Unless of course you are using a breath controller with the keyboard. I think everyone would agree that it would be great to have a real player on a real instrument but who lives in THAT world?

    Recent blog post: Live Performance and my iPad (December 15, 2010)

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  5. Gertjan

    Yes, I did find my way here. ;-)

    Thanks for your insights, Bret, and others for their comments. I’ll try to address some of them. First of all, our “two-bit company” can’t afford a full-scale orchestra, unfortunately (none of the players are paid!). The doublings that the Seussical orchestral score calls for are rare to find, and not cheap if and when you do find a professional that fits the bill, so we have to make do. Given the circumstances, I think we do a great job. And no, I’m not replacing any ‘live’ musicians (at least, I think I still have a pulse…), just “filling the gaps”, as it were.

    Some of the sounds I did (like harp) could have been done by keyboard, but at these points both keyboard players were busy playing other sounds. As for e.g. piccolo: the PLG-VL, that uses physical modeling, does a great job. Even both flute players in the orchestra were convinced. “This guy” plays other instruments as well (including duduk, hah!), but either they weren’t in the score or the positions were already filled. I’m guessing ericdano didn’t read my whole post, or he would have known that yes, we did it with real instruments. :-P (Curious to hear whether he thinks a keyboard is a real instrument, and whether a wind controller would be less so and why…)

    As for my hardware synth: I find my trusty ol’ MU100R is still a worthy competitor, especially the PLG-AN (virtual analog) and PLG-VL (physical modeling) cards. And in terms of reliability it sure beats a laptop with a software synth/library. Most laptops wouldn’t last three years, let alone a decade…

    Cheers all,
    Gertjan

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    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Thanks, Gertjan, for stopping by and for the clarifications. Using electronics in music is a hot-button issue and probably will always be.

      It would be cool to see some future shows (if there are any currently, I’m not aware of them) that use both traditional woodwinds and wind controllers, each for their own strengths.

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