Experiments with electric woodwinds

I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)

I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.

Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.

Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.

Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.

Here are a few examples of my experiments:

There are eight audio tracks here, but each one is performed “live.” I’m trying to somewhat replicate sounds from the original song: two vocal parts, two guitars, piano, electric piano, and electric bass, plus various synthesizer lines that I’ve consolidated into one. I’m using harmonizers and pitch shifters on the “guitars” and “keyboards” to perform chords in real time. I’m also pitch shifting the “bass” to let the English horn play much lower than its natural range.
I’m using a harmonizer here similarly to how I used it in the English horn video, but you can get a better view of what that involves footwork-wise. I’m using several carefully-programmed footswitches to change the harmonizer’s parameters as I go, in order to get the chromatic harmony that I want. On the A sections of the tune, I’m also using a pitch shifter to double the melody up an octave. The separate bass part that starts at about 0:28 uses pitch shift to drop the sound down an octave.
This is an example of using a looper (the red unit) to layer multiple lines, while using the multi-effects unit (black) to do real-time harmony and some other things. The “bass” part, shifted down two octaves, isn’t as convincing as I would like (you may have to use earphones to hear it).
Here’s a live-performance example using looper plus multi-effects unit.
Here I’m using the multi-effects unit to perform the melody “call” and harmonized “response” (unfortunately distorted and too soft), and using the looper to provide backing for an improvised solo.
Here’s an attempt to replicate one of Paul Hanson’s incredible electric bassoon “hocket” performances (I fell a bit short). The technique uses a delay to create a single well-timed echo, with the result being that I’m only playing every other note you hear; the in-between notes are echoes of previously-played ones. To get the full effect, check out Paul’s video.
This one you can actually buy sheet music for; the arranger, Melissa Keeling, provides parameters for using a harmonizer and a delay (which could be separate pedals or functions of a multi-effects unit).

Favorite blog posts, February 2023

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, January 2023

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, October 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Recital videos, August 2022

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital, featuring the compositions of Yusef Lateef. A few are my own adaptations for altered instrumentation.

Favorite blog posts, April 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, March 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Recital videos, August 2021

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I performed for a reduced in-person audience due to COVID-19 precautions.

All the repertoire involves electronics of some kind: prerecorded tracks, a looper, an actual electronic instrument (the Akai EWI), and/or live signal processing. This was my first time doing something so electronics-intensive, and I was learning to use some new equipment, so I’m including here some videos from the live recital and some from a dress rehearsal depending on audio quality, etc. (You will still notice some distortion and other issues, which I’m learning from and hoping to improve in future performances.)

Favorite blog posts, April 2021

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Fox bassoon crutch modification

I use an inexpensive Fox plastic crutch on my bassoon. The shaft has always been a little too short for my preference, and I wasn’t interested in paying for a custom-made one, so I decided to attempt removing and replacing the shaft. I’m sharing this information here in case anyone else wants to do the same.

I wasn’t sure if the stock shaft was glued or molded into the plastic or if I would be able to remove it without destroying the crutch. But a little heat, slowly applied to the shaft not too close to the plastic, did the trick and the shaft pulled right out. (It’s hot! I used pliers.) The plastic inside the hole was slightly mangled, so I reamed it out a little with a drill bit.

I replaced the shaft with some brass that I had on hand. 3/16″ turned out to be too thick to fit into the bracket on my bassoon, but 5/32″ (just under 4mm) worked. The stock shaft seems to be somewhere in between. I cut the brass a bit too long with a Dremel cutting wheel, so I could gradually trim it down until it was just right.

I cut some shallow notches into one end to imitate the stock shaft, hopefully giving the glue something more to hold onto. My 5-minute epoxy had hardened, so I substituted some gel-type cyanoacrylate (“super”) glue.

After a little trimming I found the length I wanted. (I use my crutch in this position, which I think is less-common, but gives me the “ball” of the crutch right in the palm of my hand which feels good for balance.)

With my minimal skill set and tools, plus a little trial and error, this was a manageable and successful project.