Wind controllers as “practice” woodwinds

"Yet another view.." by Jon Delorey is licensed under CC BY-NC

Can you use a wind controller, like the Akai EWI, the Yamaha WX, or the Roland Aerophone, as a convenient and/or quiet way to practice a “real” woodwind instrument, like the saxophone or the flute?

No, not really.

You can practice some very limited aspects of woodwind playing. For example, each of those wind controllers has fingering patterns that resemble (but are not identical to) the fingerings of standard woodwinds. If you are in the very early stages of playing a woodwind instrument and still trying to memorize fingerings, I suppose you could use a wind controller to help you with that specific task, to the extent that the fingerings do match.

The Akai instruments have saxophone, flute, and oboe modes, plus the more flexible “EWI” mode that is quite saxophone-like, and even a couple of variations of a valved-brass-inspired mode. The Yamaha WX5 has several saxophone modes and a flute mode. The Roland instruments are set up to map fairly directly to saxophone fingerings, even going so far as to include some of the saxophone’s more problematic features like “palm” keys. However, with that exception, none even have all the keys needed to learn proper saxophone, flute, or oboe technique.

(None of the instruments currently has a clarinet mode, presumably because the real-clarinet phenomenon of overblowing to odd-numbered partials raises some complications for an electronic instrument capable of many octaves of range. And none of the instruments has the physical keys to reasonably approximate bassoon technique.)

Plus, in all cases, including the Rolands, none of them can fully imitate the “feel” of a standard woodwind. Beyond the very basic stage of learning fingering patterns, much of the fingering work that woodwind players practice has to do with nuances of the fingers’ interactions with the keys. Even switching from one flute to a slightly different model of flute can mean having to re-adapt to the keys’ precise locations, spring tensions, etc. Switching between a flute and a wind controller is a much larger leap.

And, of course, no major wind controller currently provides a realistic approach to tone production. None has a reed that functions as such, and none has a flute-like embouchure hole. There are some superficial similarities like breath pressure being mapped to volume, or a bite-able mouthpiece that allows for something like saxophone-style jaw vibrato (or to the ill-advised reed instrument technique of bending pitch with jaw movement).

So, can you practice on it? Not really.

But the good news is that wind controllers (particularly, in my opinion, the Akai EWIs) have lots of potential as instruments in their own right. (If you aren’t familiar, look no farther than Michael Brecker’s playing for an eye-opener.)

Rather than looking at wind controllers as a “practice” instrument or a low-budget stand-in, consider a wind controller to be an additional avenue for expression. Playing it well requires just as much hard work, but also brings worthwhile creative rewards.

3 thoughts on “Wind controllers as “practice” woodwinds

  1. I am a flute player and I acquired an AKAI EWI 5000 as an additional instrument in order to play by myself all parts of ensemble music. The EWI is most useful for its bassoon and French horn emulations.

    However, I am somewhat disappointed at the difficulty of playing the EWI correctly. There are three points I find disturbing:
    1) The touch sensitive keys are tricky because the slightest accidental touch can produce false notes.
    2) The octave rollers are problematic because they force the hand to go to a different position when playing low register instruments. The actual range of notes covered by a specific roller pair remains the same, no matter what the instrument. Resting the thumb on the knurled pair always produces C3 when all “holes” are covered. That means that the hand position will be very different for playing the bassoon or the piccolo. One would wish the rollers to be “centered” for the instrument sound selected.
    3) The EWI does not require much air flow. It senses air pressure, not flow. That means that one can play for a long time with the same air in the lungs. That air is not expelled. Of course, it becomes depleted of oxygen for the body uses it up. When it becomes a necessity to breathe, the lungs are still full and the breathing first requires emptying the lungs before fresh air can be taken in. This is quite different from flute playing, where air is abundantly expelled from the lungs and the breathing pause is a brief gulping in of fresh air.

    I know there are many models and makes of wind controllers on the market. Some, like Yamaha or Roland, have mechanical keys. I would very much like to know about models that would be able to reproduce (or approximate) the flute fingering, produce the sound of classical woodwinds and brass (such as oboe, horn, trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, tuba) and solve the above mentioned problems of octave selection and air flow requirement.

    Thank you for your suggestions.

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