Problems of wind controller sounds for classical performance

July 8, 2013

I’ve been working on a little Baroque repertoire on the EWI in preparation for an upcoming recital. It’s not especially common to play recital-type music on wind controllers—they are far more often used in jazz and popular styles—but I think the instrument has great potential for “classical” performance. (I mean “classical” here, and throughout this post, in the record store sense, not in the more specific musicological sense.)

My EWI is customized with the really excellent Patchman soundbank which seems to be more or less de rigeur for EWI players. It has 100 different sounds designed especially for wind controllers. But it has been difficult to find sounds that work well for me for the music that I’m trying to play.

Before I continue, I should pause to point out that I’m not at all criticizing the Patchman bank, which I’ve unabashedly recommended to everyone I know. These sounds are fantastic. And really, some of the ones that seem worst-suited to this particular application are some of my favorite ones that I’ve used in other situations.

There are also plenty of additional sources for sounds. I personally like the convenience of on-board sounds, rather than plugging into external modules or a laptop, though those are certainly viable options. I also am personally uninterested in playing sampled or acoustically-modeled sounds that attempt to mimic the sounds of “real” acoustic instruments; I want to play a synthesizer as a synthesizer, not as a substitute for something else.

So I’m looking for good synthy sounds that align with the aesthetics of classical performance. But many of the sounds that work really well for other styles of music have features that don’t fit classical music ideals of wind playing. For example, some of the sounds:

…are breathy or airy.

…”split” (produce a multiphonic) or “break” (change to a different pitch) when “overblown.” In most cases, the sounds split or break up to a partial, the way a traditional woodwind might. In some cases they split downward, such as adding a lower octave. For many of these sounds, as you approach forte it’s a fine line between adding some upper harmonics at and actually creating the impression of a multiphonic, but some clearly change to or add a different pitch at high breath pressure.

…are detuned. Sometimes there’s a distinct pitch “rub,” other times it’s more subtle and comes across like chorus or vibrato.

…are harmonized.

…have a “scooped” or other destabilized-pitch effect.

…have a non-wind-like attack, such as a plucked or struck effect.

Also, not all of the sounds really work well throughout the instrument’s 8-octave range; some get weird-sounding in the very highest and lowest octaves. It is, of course, a bit unfair and unnecessary to demand this for playing transcriptions of repertoire written for instruments with only 2-3 octaves of range. However, classical musicians and their instruments certainly are expected to sound great in every tessitura no matter how many octaves (piano, organ, harp…), and were this instrument more commonly used in classical performance, I think there would be greater demand for synthesized sounds that can be used successfully throughout the instrument’s available range.

It may also be worth pointing out that many of these sounds also have built-in reverb, which doesn’t sound wrong for classical performance but is usually a function of the performance space rather than the instrument itself. Perhaps sounds created with classical performance in mind would be better “dry?”

Patchman lists their EWI soundbank as “Volume 1,” so perhaps there are more sounds forthcoming, some of which might present additional possibilities for classical music performance.

(If you’re curious, there is actually a tiny original “classical” repertoire out there for electronic wind instruments, though I don’t know of anything specifically for the Akai EWI.)


  1. Morrie

    I am considering the purchase of an EWI5000 to use as a substitute for obo in one of the concert bands I play in. I have 40-50 years experience playing clarinet and sax so the conversion to the EWI shouldn’t take too long. I plan to use a small keyboard amp to route the sound through. What do you think would be the best amp to purchase. FYI, the band has about 70 members, so the vol. level can get loud at times.


  2. Petra-Sue

    For classical pieces you might consider alternative synths like the DynaSample XPression. It is not a physical modelling synth in the narrower sense of the word, but dissects natural instruments samples and reorganizes them back again into facette-rich, quite realistic sounds. Most of the sound inferiorities that you show in your article are absent from the provided set of patches.

    In response to Morrie’s question: As the replacement is intended for a natural instrument it should take its place also w/r/to its volume. From my own experiences in a small hobby chamber orchestra I consider calibres like the two way Samson Expedition Express with its 30 W of power and a 5″ bass reflex system as quite appropriate, whereas a Roland µCube with its 2 W of music power is definitely to weak. It is self-contained w/r/to power provision, light-weight, and lasts long enough for an extended playing session.


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