Review: Akai EWI4000s wind controller

June 24, 2010

I recently got my hands on one of these:
Akai EWI 4000s wind controller

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.

Comments

  1. Ron Pimentel

    Thanks for the sound clip. Very cool.

    Reply

  2. EWIChris

    Nice review. It is indeed a very cool instrument.

    I have one, and my bandmates have remarked “that is an awesome tool!”, which is how I view it. By using it with Propellerheads Reason, I’ve been able to ‘double’ on violin, slide guitar, and all manner of synth bass and leads for the more electronic, pop tunes we do. I’ve even played flutey solos with it. (I’ve got sounds and a blog about my experiences at http://www.ewireasonsounds.com).

    One reason I got it is because I found myself laying out more and more because the music our band was playing didn’t have any horn parts. Now I can be a auxiliary keyboard player. I can honestly say it has increased my value as a woodwind player and made me more marketable.

    Will there come a day when doubling on EWI is expected, kind of like doubling on flute and clarinet?

    Reply

  3. Bret Pimentel (Your host)

    @EWIChris – Until fairly recently I played saxophone and flute in a band that was similarly synth-heavy. It has crossed my mind more than a few times since I got my EWI how much I would have used it in that group. Oh well.

    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).

    Reply

  4. Ross

    I have been playing EWI for 5 years and finally jumped up to the 4000…what an instrument! I am currently in an original fusion-jam band and this thing just blends so well when harmonizing with the guitar.

    Reply

  5. randy

    Just purchased the EWI4000s. Looking forward to reading the next installment of your review.

    Reply

  6. G Crocker

    I just purchased an EWI4000s.I tryed out some software synths and I well hated them.2 reasons 1: setting up sounds.I didn’t really have any time left for practicing.2:playing those sounds sound different when played through the ewi as opposed to fixing them with a keyboard. I do however have what I believe to be the best solution.Just plug your ewi into your trusty moog using it’s handy midi out, turn the amp on adjust the volume so the neighbors can’t hear (or the windows don’t rattle)and start playing.

    Reply

  7. juan

    hi i just got my ewi 4000s as a trumpet player I want to try this new thing , I saw that web site w/ free sound altougth
    how can i convert or transfer those sound to my ewi since file ext are different from akai software..
    thanks for ure help
    juan

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      There won’t be any simple way to “convert” the sounds, since the EWI uses an onboard virtual synthesizer, rather than a bank of sampled sounds. If you have a MIDI interface and computer software that can play the sounds, it may be possible to use them that way. Good luck!

      Reply

  8. john

    I’m a horn player and do a lot of work. Like a previous post, I want to get a controller to double more and not sit out while the band continues to play. After looking at the video of it in action – doesn’t it drive you crazy with not being able to touch the keys without activating them? I kind of like the Yamaha version just for the ability to hold the thing like a real instrument.

    Thoughts on this vs using the Yamaha synth? Thanks!

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      I have little experience with the Yamaha, so I can’t compare them fairly.

      I don’t find the keys on the Akai to be a problem at all. To me it feels very similar to playing a recorder or pennywhistle—no moving keys, just contact points.

      Reply

  9. Dan Tong

    You haven’t really had any idea of how good the EWI is until you use the sounds from samplemodeling.com, for Trumpet, French Horn, Tuba, Clarinet, and the new Saxophones. The quality of the sounds, the responsiveness is light years ahead of anything for those who want realistic sounds.

    Let me know what you think.

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      There are a number of companies doing impressive things with sounds imitative of “real” instruments. Personally, I’m more interested in the “synthy” sounds for EWI; if I’m going for a great saxophone sound, I’d rather work on my saxophone chops instead of playing an electronic version that sounds almost like the real thing.

      Reply

  10. Lance Jordan

    I’ve been playing on a Yamaha wx11 for about 15 yrs. run through a vl 70 with a Patchman chip upgrade. My primary instrument being the flute. About 5 yrs. ago I bought a wx5 and was very disappointed in the lack of response in the pitch reed sensor. For my own sound, I use a personalized jaw technique.
    This is the one feature I find crucial to giving organic life to an acoustic patch, through sensitive and expressive vibrato. I’m not really sure why Yamaha did this. If it works don’t fix it !
    I was wondering how the Akai 4000 compares with the older WX’s with this feature ?

    Reply

  11. Roger324

    Can anyone help me. I just received my AKAI Professional EWI4000s lastnight. I put on the batteries to test it. Unfortunately no sound is coming out to the headphones i’ve plugged. I tried to plug into an amplifier but still no sound is coming out. I’ve checked the power and volume and they are fine. Can anyone please help me.

    thanks so much!

    Reply

  12. Lance Jordan

    I just purchased the EWI 4000 and am having the same problem with no sound like the last inquiry. I also checked volume, power etc. Tried several chords, wondering if that was the problem, went with midi into VL 70m sound module, still no sound.
    I also would be most appreciative with some help.

    Thank You

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      For help I suggest you visit the Wind Controller Forum.

      Reply

    • Bobby Neal

      Just got my EWI 4000s a few days ago. I couldn’t get any sound either until I went through the steps to adjust the Breath sensor. If you haven’t tried that, see the manual for instructions.

      Reply

      • Lance Jordan

        Thanks for the tip, that worked ! Now for the fine tuning and learning curve. The up and down octave setup however is similar in concept to my trusty old wx 11

  13. Jeffrey Rainey

    I’ve played an Akai ewi USB before, are the octave rollers the same as the 4000s? 4 metal rollers but only the two in the middle move, and it takes a long time to get used to. Or are there some design differences there, because they’re all together different animals with my guess being their touch pads as their only similarity. Thanks in advance.

    Reply

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