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.)
The Akai EWI series’ “EWI” fingering mode is powerful and flexible. It bears a resemblance to basic saxophone fingerings (while wisely eschewing saxophoney compromises like rollers and palm keys). But with a little imagination EWI players can “borrow” a number of useful fingerings from other woodwinds, too.
For clarity, I’m considering any fingering that appears in the EWI 4000s’s Reference Manual under “EWI Fingerings” as a basic, non-borrowed fingering. Some of the fingerings I’m listing do appear in the manual for other fingering modes (saxophone, flute, and oboe). Some of the fingerings aren’t great-sounding fingerings on the “real” (non-electric) woodwind instruments, but work beautifully on the EWI, which of course isn’t subject to the acoustical problems of air-filled tubes.
And of course these fingerings work in any octave, which is not always the case with “real” woodwinds. I have arranged them octave-wise here in ways that will mostly look familiar to woodwind players.
Right C-sharp Borrowed from: oboe, clarinet Provides a useful alternative in left-hand-pinky-heavy passages.
Left E-flat Borrowed from: oboe, some clarinets In the example, prevents having to “jump” the right pinky from one key, over another, to another.
Side F-sharp Borrowed from: saxophone, clarinet Similar to using the saxophone’s side F-sharp key or clarinet’s side F-sharp(/B-natural) key (shown here in the wrong octave for clarinet), except using the right pinky rather than the ring finger. Useful for avoiding the right index-middle flip-flop.
Right G-sharp Borrowed from: oboe Provides a useful alternative in left-hand-pinky-heavy passages.
1+1 B-flat Borrowed from: flute, saxophone, clarinet Similar to a standard flute fingering, or to a problematic saxophone or clarinet alternate fingering (shown here in the wrong octave for clarinet). Of course on the EWI there are no pitch, timbre, or response issues with this (or any) fingering.
1+2 B-flat Borrowed from: saxophone A slightly lesser-known alternate fingering for saxophone (which, on saxophones, often sounds better than 1+1). Useful for transitions such as F-sharp to B-flat.
Right B Borrowed from: clarinet Similar to the sensation of using the clarinet’s right B(/E) key, but in this case you must use the right pinky to press two keys at once. In the example, this allows you to keep the movement in one hand, rather than having to coordinate both pinkies.
Side C Borrowed from: saxophone Useful in chromatic passages and trills for avoiding the left index-middle flip-flop.
These fingerings of course only scratch the surface of what’s possible with the EWI-mode fingering system. But because of their familiarity and time-tested usefulness to players of “real” woodwinds, they can be adapted easily and fruitfully to EWI playing.
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.
This year I played all jazz at my Delta State University faculty recital. Program and some selected videos are below.
I’m very much a part-time jazz player, so it was fun to spend the summer trying to get my chops in shape to play tunes in a variety of styles on a variety of instruments. This was my new record for number of instruments on a recital: flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon (electric bassoon), soprano/alto/tenor saxophones, and EWI, 9 in all. I’ve written previously about the challenges of improvising on multiple instruments, which I suspect might be surprising to non-doublers or non-improvisers.
An additional challenge is that I live in a small town in an isolated area, so I had to bring in some rhythm section players from out of town and rehearsal time was extremely limited. Enjoy the videos warts and all.
I have previously done some things with bassoon and electronics, but I took that to a new level this time around with a Little Jake pickup and a few new effects pedals. This was lots of fun and I’m already brainstorming how I can use the Little Jake with some other instruments.
There are afew stands commercially available for the Akai EWI, and lots of folks have made their own or repurposed other items. I wanted one that was inexpensive and compatible with the Hercules stands I mostly use these days, and decided to try the DIY route. I came up with something workable but not perfect, so I’m sharing my finished project in case anyone is inspired to improve upon my design (please share!).
I built mine mostly from 3″ (~7.5cm) plumbing pipe and fittings. (I’m including some product links in case they are helpful, but mostly I was able to buy these things locally for much cheaper.)
It’s more stable than it looks, even on this small Hercules base, because its center of gravity is so low. The end cap and elbow are heavier PVC while the taller part is made of lighter foam core pipe. As always, don’t leave instruments on stands any farther than you can sprint to catch them falling over.
Things I like about the stand:
It was cheap and not hard to make. The worst of it was cutting and shaping the foam core pipe, and someone with cooler tools than I have could probably make quick and accurate work of it.
Does work with the Hercules stands I already have. If you can figure out what bolt thread to use, you could easily adapt this to other commercial stand bases.
The instrument just rests in the stand, no clips or straps to unhook. Plus the whole upper key “stack” is exposed 360°, so the EWI is easy to grab even during a quick instrument switch.
No interference with any of the power/line/MIDI jacks.
Things that I don’t especially like:
On the 3-peg Hercules base shown, the stand has to be oriented as shown to stand up properly, which puts the EWI a little bit in the way of using other pegs on the stand. It works better on one of the larger Hercules stands, like the saxophone or bass clarinet stands.
Since the stand isn’t symmetrical like a typical flute/clarinet peg (because it leans 22.5°), it doesn’t always work to just screw it all the way into the base—it may end up leaning in an inconvenient or unstable direction. The nut helps lock it in place when it’s leaning the right way, but it’s fussy and not as secure as I would like (the stand tends to rotate a little if I bump it wrong).
It’s pretty chunky. I made a previous attempt to build this from 2″ pipe, which would work okay except that the EWI’s side keys protrude too much. (I did consider sticking with the 2″ pipe and making little cutaways for the keys, which could still be a possibility.)
The plastic-specific spray paint I used didn’t turn out well. I had trouble getting an attractive finish, and the paint tends to scratch off without too much effort. I’m not sure if the paint just isn’t well suited to these specific plastics, or if maybe it’s because I applied it in the extreme humidity of a Mississippi summer.
Anyway, this is a usable though imperfect design, and may be a jumping-off point for future versions by me or you.
To be fair, I haven’t tried out the new electronic wind instrument from Roland, and probably won’t bother. (Unless you’re out there, Roland, and want to send me a review unit to change my mind?)
Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to see another company get into this space, and I hope they will seek to innovate further in wind controllers and push other companies (Akai, Yamaha) to do the same. But Roland’s new Aerophone AE-10 seems like a misstep.
Much of the promotional material gushes about how “innovative” the instrument is, but there doesn’t seem to be much to support this claim—it is essentially a very similar instrument to the Akai EWI series or Yamaha WX series, both of which have been around for decades. In implementation and marketing, it really reminds me more of the Casio DH—a novelty for casual playing, not a serious instrument in its own right.
Roland brags about the familiarity of the AE-10’s fingering system: “most digital horns make you master a new fingering system, which can be a major setback…” This positions the instrument as a toy: something saxophonists can pick up and play immediately without having to pay any additional dues. This unfortunately seems to be embedded in the philosophy of the AE-10’s fingering system: fully embracing the limitations of a real saxophone, while missing an opportunity to solidify wind controllers as viable instruments in their own right.
The AE-10’s faithfulness to “real” saxophone fingerings extends to, for example, palm keys. Why do saxophones have palm keys? Certainly not for agility or comfort—palm keys are a significant technical issue for saxophonists. They are Sax’s 1840s solution to the problem of needing to locate tone holes at certain places on the instrument’s body. An electronic instrument has no such constraints: the keys can be literally anywhere on the instrument. (The Akai EWI series does a better job of balancing familiarity with innovation.)
Additionally, the keys appear to move, and to do so in a rather noisy, clicky way. I don’t expect the noise is enough to really be a problem in an amplified situation, but it seems cheap and sloppy—not up to the standards a professional woodwind player demands. (And it strikes me as a very fixable problem on Roland’s end.) Beyond that, I’m not sure that moving keys really make much sense on this kind of instrument. I find the Akai EWI’s motionless keys to be very comfortable and intuitive, similar in touch to playing a recorder or simple-system flute. It’s a very free, agile feeling compared to the relatively clunky mechanisms of a keyed instrument. Why unnecessarily introduce moving parts?
Also from Roland’s website: “There’s nothing worse than a studio session grinding to a halt because you need an instrument that you haven’t brought along. That won’t happen with the Roland Aerophone AE-10, which gives you a variety of additional acoustic instrument sounds like clarinet, flute, oboe, trumpet, violin, and more…” I suppose the AE-10 is being marketed here toward unprofessional studio musicians, who happen to be working on low-quality projects that will tolerate substitution of a synthesized sound when the musician fails to bring the needed instruments?
Speaking of which, most of Roland’s promotional materials surrounding the AE-10 seem to focus on its sounds that imitate “real” instruments (“Choose from alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone sax types that all respond just like their acoustic counterparts…”). But the videos are unconvincing. The saxophone sounds, as usual for an electronic instrument, seem especially unsatisfying—a poor choice for a product that seems to be aimed at the saxophonist market. (My preference is to use wind controllers for “synthy” sounds rather than imitative ones, and the AE-10 does seem to include some.)
The AE-10 does boast some nice but ultimately minor features that I wouldn’t mind having on my Akai:
Fingerings are, to some extent, user-programmable (though still not as flexible as the Akai’s EWI fingering mode).
An onboard speaker, which seems convenient for practicing. (Roland doesn’t pretend it is usable in a performance situation.)
A line-in jack, again probably useful mostly for practicing.
A number of handy user-customization settings.
It comes with a case.
The “Brass section” setting makes it easy to layer sounds.
The “Full range” setting automatically switches to different saxophone sounds depending on tessitura. I was unable to determine whether this setting is specific to the saxophone sounds, or whether it is programmable. Could be handy to have several sounds on tap depending on the octave.
The AE-10 seems to be priced in roughly the same ballpark as the Akai 4000S/5000 and Yamaha WX5. (Bear in mind that the Yamaha requires an external sound module at extra cost, while the Akai and Roland have some sounds on board.) My take: spend your money elsewhere.