I recently got my hands on one of these:
Believe me when I tell you that this is a seriously cool instrument.
Even after hearing and reading a number of rave reviews of the Akai EWI 4000S, I was pleasantly surprised by its playability, responsiveness, and capacity for expression. In my opinion, this is a real instrument, and a viable option for serious music-making.
A few highlights:
- It has a nice heft to it, and feels in my hands like professional-grade gear.
- The breath sensitivity is easily adjustable, and it only took me a moment to get it set up to really suit my preferences.
- It is packed full of all kinds of sensors: the breath sensor (of course) which even responds well to flutter-tonguing and growling, a bite sensor, and various sensors for the thumbs that can control things like portamento and pitch bend. These are all programmable to some extent, so if you’re clever you can remap them to control different things.
- It has an on-board synthesizer, unlike its primary rival, the Yamaha WX5. That means you don’t have to plug it into a sound module (although you can if you like). It also means it’s relatively cheap: the Yamaha currently has a street price of about $750 and requires an $800 sound module. The Akai goes for about $700, and doesn’t need a sound module.
- The on-board synthesizer is actually a synthesizer, not just a collection of canned sounds. That means you can create your own sounds (using a computer and the free Akai software), or buy professionally-developed sound banks. It does come with a selection of pre-programmed sounds, so you can just play it right out of the box if you prefer.
- It has an 8-octave range, which is sort of mindblowing to me as a woodwind player.
- The proprietary EWI fingering system is quite intuitive for a woodwind player, very saxophone-like. But the fingerings are very flexible, with lots of possibilities for alternate or trill fingerings. (There is a very basic fingering chart in the user’s manual, downloadable from Akai, but it does not tell the whole story. Stay tuned for a future article taking a closer look at EWI fingerings.) The EWI also has additional fingering modes, including “saxophone,” “flute,” “oboe,” and an apparently trumpet-valve-like system, which might ease the transition from another instrument but lack the power of the EWI fingering system.
- It has a nice set of on-board effects and other tricks: reverb, delay, chorus, portamento, the ability to play in octaves or another interval of your choice, and the ability to sustain a note while you play a phrase.
- It can be powered by an AC adapter (not included), but seems to run for a good long time on 4 AA batteries.
- It has a 1/8″ headphone jack, a 1/4″ line out jack, and MIDI in and out jacks.
In short, I am very satisfied with my new toy. There are a few things to be aware of, however, if you’re thinking of getting into wind controllers:
- There isn’t any kind of speaker built in, so it doesn’t make any noise unless you plug in some headphones or an amplifier. For casual playing at home, I’ve also had success plugging a nice pair of computer speakers and subwoofer into the headphone jack.
- The most difficult part of the fingering system is the left-thumb octave rollers. These make the huge pitch range possible, but take some getting used to.
- The included sounds are quite playable, but the custom sound bank from Patchman Music really takes the EWI to another level. You haven’t experienced the true potential of the EWI4000S unless you’ve used the Patchman sounds. (From what I understand, the same is true of the Yamaha wind controller.)
- Also on the subject of sounds: the best application of the EWI4000S’s synthesizer is synthy sounds. If you want to convincingly imitate acoustic instruments, you will need to plug the EWI into some kind of sound module. This wasn’t a negative for me, but it’s worth knowing ahead of time.
Here’s a small taste of what the Akai EWI4000S sounds like, using one of the Patchman sounds. I didn’t add anything to the recording after the fact—all the effects, etc. are coming from the 4000S itself.