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.
Lately I have been enjoying Sal Lozano‘s recent CD, Everything’s Gonna Be Great (available from CD Baby and iTunes). The album is 13 charts by Tom Kubis for 5-piece saxophone section with rhythm section, and Sal plays all five of the saxophone parts. It’s a lot of fun, Sal sounds great, and there’s an all-star lineup of guest soloists.
Even if you don’t know Sal Lozano’s name, you have almost certainly heard him play saxophone and woodwinds. He has recorded with artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Stevie Wonder to Christina Aguilera to Mel Tormé, played on movie scores for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and National Treasure, and performed in TV orchestras for the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Grammy Awards, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars, among many, many other projects. He plays in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, which just picked up another four Grammy nominations to add to an already-impressive list. (Also check out my interview with Big Phat Band saxophonist Jay Mason.) Sal also teaches at California State University, Long Beach, is a clinician for Disneyland music education programs, and is available for masterclasses and clinics.
Sal is very generous with his time and expertise, and was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and his new album. (He also asked me to let my readers know that they are welcome to contact him.)
What you do for a living?
“I’m a sax player.” That’s what I say to anyone who asks. I also teach saxophone at the university level. Just private students, about six, which has paid for my daughters’ education.
What education (formal or otherwise) and experience prepared you for the work you do?
I studied at California State University, Long Beach as a performance major on saxophone. Four years of private lessons with Leo Potts. Prior to that I studied with Greg Adams at a music education studio owned by Gary Foster. After college I studied flute with John Barcelona and Jim Walker (he kicked my butt). Then clarinet with Jim Kanter. I also have enjoyed playing in ensembles for many many years which is just as much a learning experience as any teaching I’ve had. I also started playing at Disneyland when I was 19 and that was a great learning experience. Too much to talk about now.
If you could do it over, is there anything you would have done differently to prepare for your current career?
Interesting. (This is my third rewrite of this question.) I’m not sure I knew of a plan then. I just wanted to play. Having said that, I wish I could have learned a little more theory and harmony, but maybe things happen for a reason.
What is a typical work week like for you?
Long tones. Oh… work? It’s all “maybe…” Maybe a recording or two (motion picture, TV show, CD recording, etc.), or if I’m doing theater my nights are busy with that (usually six nights a week if I happen to have a theater run). Teach on Friday. Perhaps a concert with the Phat Band, which is mostly out of town. That band is a lot of fun and travels well. Sometimes weeks can be very busy and some are sporadic. However, I try to do something musical every day.
What projects are you excited about right now?
I have the new CD out and have been getting great response. I am hoping to put out a playalong book based on the tunes on the CD. In April I will be on a solo tour in Japan playing with several local big bands. I’m also in the orchestra for the Oscars so things are great right now.
What instruments do you consider part of your current professional toolbox?
I play all the saxes, flutes, clarinets, whistles, ethnic flutes, and the EWI.
Are there others you are working on or would like to add at some point?
I was asked to play the ocarina last year on a Robbie Williams CD so I learned that. This year I’m on a project where I’m playing a bamboo sax from Argentina. Another calls for the shakuhachi flute so I may learn that.
Do you self-identify as a “doubler?” A saxophonist who doubles? Something else? Is it your intention to play all your instruments equally well, or are there one or more that you would prefer to focus on?
I’ll answer these in order: no, no, yes, and all equally well. To explain, I consider myself a woodwind player (I know, I don’t play double reeds, I tried and said “no”). When I pick up the sax, I’m a sax player; flute? a flute player, etc. That’s the attitude I’ve taken when approaching these instruments. I dive into the deep end when playing these because most of the time I’m sitting next to great players who only play flute, clarinet, oboe, etc. Many remarkable players.
What kinds of teaching/educational activities are you involved with?
I teach at California State University, Long Beach, which is a four-year university, teaching private saxophone lessons. For about 23 years I also have been a clinician for a program at Disneyland called Disney Performing Arts where we take students through a 1½ hour recording session, reading music written for that level and recording a soundtrack of a short clip of a Disney animated motion picture. We use a click track and everything that is involved with recording. Great program because the students react quickly when they hear themselves on the soundtrack. It turns out that they fix problems quickly. I also enjoy very much going across the country and playing with music schools of any type. Clinics, masterclasses, etc. I really get a kick out of that and would like to do more.
What is the best part of your job? What is the worst part?
The best part is playing music. Doing something I love to do. Hanging and playing with great players and writers and the joy of watching a student excel and succeed. Not sure if there is a worst part because I really enjoy it.
Do you have time for other interests, hobbies, etc.?
Oh yes. MLB baseball. College hoops.
Your new album is in sort of a Supersax vein, with a big-band-style saxophone section playing with rhythm section and guest soloists, but you recorded all the saxophone section parts yourself. How does that process compare to recording section parts with other saxophonists?
Well, first of all, I didn’t have to tell anyone in the section where to breathe and how to phrase. No one shows up late or has to leave early. I don’t have to tell the second alto he’s playing too loud. Tom Kubis told me he had written these charts and wanted to record them with the guys in the big band. I told him that I would record all the parts, and that was it. It is really fun to play in a section, or play chamber music where you have to listen and react.
In the liner notes, Tom Kubis (who wrote all the charts) compares your lead playing to Marshal Royal and Jerome Richardson. Does that ring true to you? Do you have other favorite lead players?
Marshal is one of my idols and heroes. I had the honor of sitting next to him with the Ray Anthony big band and he still commanded a lead alto presence in his mid- to late 70’s. He was the first guy I heard way back in junior high school and I was hooked. I’m a huge Basie fan and collect bootleg recordings from the 50’s of that band with Marshal playing lead. Great sound, great time. Jerome was a great influence while he was with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band, especially on soprano. There is a huge list of lead alto players I love. The list is quite extensive and it wouldn’t be right to start to list because I can’t think of all of them. They all have this confidence in their sound, the way they go from one note to the next, in many, many styles, not just traditional big band.
Some of the charts on the album use the “standard” alto/alto/tenor/tenor/baritone saxophone section, but some use the less-common soprano lead. Any thoughts on soprano vs. alto as lead instruments? Other than paying dues on the horn, are there any other special considerations when you play lead soprano?
To me? Soprano saxophone requires a hard reed and a slightly open mouthpiece. Mine is an old S80 Selmer E with #3 traditional Vandoren reeds. I need to have the resistance to help me get from one note to the next and hold the pitch and sound I want. I’m not going to change this setup, only the reed. This goes for any playing situation. I most certainly put more air into lead alto playing than I do soprano.
Although the album seems to feature you primarily as a section player, you do take some nice solos, including one on flute. Are you as comfortable improvising on your doubles as you are on saxophone? I think a lot of doublers (myself included) really learn to improvise on the saxophone, and then discover that the vocabulary and fluency don’t automatically transfer.
I would suggest learning technical patterns on the other instruments as you would with saxophone. However, my overall objective is to play flute and clarinet with more of a “classical” approach, so I have had to catch up when improvising on those instruments. Listening to great jazz flute and clarinet players as much as I have listened to “classical” players is quite helpful. I have to remember that each of these instruments requires its own discipline, which is why I don’t consider them “doubles.” It just doesn’t work that way for me.
Any other behind-the-scenes information about the album that you would like to share?
For this project we started with bass and drums and a scratch lead alto/soprano part. Then, the following week, I sat down and played the parts, which took two six-hour days to play 13 charts playing all five parts on each. Eventually we added soloists, guitar, percussion, and piano.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who want to do the kind of work you do?
Practice everything, learn to write, arrange, play the piano, enjoy what you do, get into teaching once you feel comfortable in your playing. With the computer age, ProTools or other recording software makes it very easy to record anywhere.
So, with that comes a responsibility to music. Practicing scales with a metronome, playing long tones with a tuner. The reason is that these recording techniques require us to play along with instruments that are fixed pitched. Record yourself using GarageBand on a Mac or the PC equivalent and it will become apparent. [Ed. note: Audacity is one free, basic recording program for Windows or Linux computers.]
Play in every situation you possibly can, listen to music. A lot. To anything.
Do you have any favorite woodwind doubling (or general woodwind-playing) tips?
One thing I began to realize when studying was that the approach to putting air into these instruments grew to be similar. How I phrased and how I went from one note to the next and playing everything between the notes sort of became the same to me. Obviously embouchure is different but the air thing became the same.
Get a great mouthpiece/reed combination as soon as you can. Look for a decent flute or maybe a head-joint. Ask around, try out everything.
As you play keep in mind four things:
When you read music, the second time you see it you are no longer sightreading.
Always look for beat one.
Thanks, Sal, for the music and for taking some time to share a bit of your experience and expertise!
I gave a presentation at the International Clarinet Association conference (“ClarinetFest”) last week on woodwind doubling, with a particular focus on the rising expectations on woodwind doublers to play more instruments at a higher level (including “world” and even electronic woodwinds). Here is the blurb from the program:
The typical working woodwind doubler in the 20th century was a strong player on one or two instruments, with a lesser level of achievement on one or two more. Woodwind doubling continues to be a marketable skill in live performance and studio work, but the expectations of woodwind doublers have changed with the music industry; 21st century “doublers” may be expected to play a much larger group of instruments (sometimes including “world” woodwinds and electronic instruments), and to play each of those at a more virtuosic level and in a variety of styles. This places increasingly high demands on woodwind players, but also offers a variety of rewards. This presentation profiles the modern woodwind doubler, and includes practical information for developing valuable doubling skills.
The crowd, as usual, was small but enthusiastic. I got to reconnect with some old doubler friends and meet some new ones. I was gratified to have many of them mention that they follow this blog (hello!) or make use of other resources on this site.
I understand there are several doubling-related events going on at the International Double Reed Society conference this week, as well!
It’s time again for the annual post-mortem on my on-campus faculty recital. This year’s program was all Telemann, which was fun. Since some of my most formative years as a musician happened back when I was primarily a saxophonist, I still feel a little out of my depth with Baroque style, and preparations for this recital turned into a great opportunity to study, listen to recordings, and work on my ornamentation skills. (I found Victor Rangel-Ribeiro’s Baroque Music: A Practical Guide for the Performerto be invaluable, and it even has a chapter specifically on Telemann.)
I’m fairly pleased with how the A-minor oboe sonata turned out. My intonation has improved in leaps and bounds since I got some excellent reed advice at the John Mack Oboe Camp a summer ago (what a difference a change in tie length can make!). I did struggle a little bit on stage with the Mississippi Delta August humidity making its way into my octave vents, which you can hear in places in the following clip.
I have also been working on my double-tonguing on the oboe, and while it’s not perfect yet, I think it turned out quite well here. The fact that I wanted to use it on this piece probably belies some issues with my Baroque interpretation: it might have been more authentic either to slow down or to slur more, but I liked the effect and felt good about at least partially mastering the technique.
And, of course, it is great fun to play with harpsichord and cello. As we sadly do not have a full string faculty here at Delta State, I had to convince a cellist to come in from out of town. It’s scary to meet and rehearse with someone for the first time on the day of the recital, but the recommendations I had gotten for her turned out to be solid, and she played like a total pro.
I was determined to finally perform some recorder repertoire on this recital. My initial thought was to do the Telemann recorder suite, but since I already had the basso continuo lined up, I did some more research and discovered the delightful sonata in F major. The humidity had a fairly significant effect on this instrument, too, especially with me perhaps over-practicing on it in the weeks prior to the recital, so my tone and stability aren’t what I would have liked them to be. Too many cracked notes and response issues in the extreme upper and lower registers. Still, bucket list item checked off.
One definite doubling blunder: I went from oboe to recorder on stage, and wasn’t fully in recorder mode when I started the first movement. The recorder’s breath requirements are much lower than the oboe’s, and so I started off the movement with a rather ugly cracked note (not included in this clip…). But I am quite happy with how the slow movement turned out; here it is in its entirety:
Bret Pimentel, woodwinds Kumiko Shimizu, piano Nicole Davis, cello
Works by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)
Faculty Recital Delta State University Department of Music Recital Hall, Bologna Performing Arts Center Tuesday, August 27, 2013 7:30 PM
Sonata in A minor for oboe and basso continuo, TWV 41:a 3 (c. 1728)
Sonata in F major for recorder and basso continuo, TWV 41:F 2 (1728)
Sonata in F minor for bassoon and basso continuo, TWV 41:f 1 (1728)
Fantasie no. 8 in E minor, TWV 40:9 (1732)
Concerto in A major TWV, 51:A2 (c. 1728)
Sonata I from VI Sonates en duo, TWV 40:118 (1738)
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) was a leading composer of his time, celebrated both critically and popularly. He is reputed as one of the most prolific composers of all time, with over 3,000 known works (count among his honors an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records). His output is not only staggeringly large, but also very diverse, sometimes to the chagrin of the churches that employed him; his operas and other secular projects were sometimes regarded as unseemly. Still, composers of the stature of Handel and J. S. Bach were students of his works.
I’ve been working on a little Baroque repertoire on the EWI in preparation for an upcoming recital. It’s not especially common to play recital-type music on wind controllers—they are far more often used in jazz and popular styles—but I think the instrument has great potential for “classical” performance. (I mean “classical” here, and throughout this post, in the record store sense, not in the more specific musicological sense.)
My EWI is customized with the really excellent Patchman soundbank which seems to be more or less de rigeur for EWI players. It has 100 different sounds designed especially for wind controllers. But it has been difficult to find sounds that work well for me for the music that I’m trying to play.
Before I continue, I should pause to point out that I’m not at all criticizing the Patchman bank, which I’ve unabashedly recommended to everyone I know. These sounds are fantastic. And really, some of the ones that seem worst-suited to this particular application are some of my favorite ones that I’ve used in other situations.
There are also plenty of additional sources for sounds. I personally like the convenience of on-board sounds, rather than plugging into external modules or a laptop, though those are certainly viable options. I also am personally uninterested in playing sampled or acoustically-modeled sounds that attempt to mimic the sounds of “real” acoustic instruments; I want to play a synthesizer as a synthesizer, not as a substitute for something else.
So I’m looking for good synthy sounds that align with the aesthetics of classical performance. But many of the sounds that work really well for other styles of music have features that don’t fit classical music ideals of wind playing. For example, some of the sounds:
Barrick Stees is the assistant principal bassoonist in the Cleveland Orchestra, and a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the University of Akron. His blog is fairly new (started earlier this year) but is already full of good stuff. Professor Stees shares some insights on playing excerpts at a level suitable to one of the great American orchestras:
Two months ago I introduced the Fingering diagram builder, something that I hoped people would find useful for quickly and easily creating fingering diagrams for woodwind instruments. Since then, something over 1,000 fingering diagrams have been downloaded, which I think is a nice start.
Many of those have been saxophone fingerings, and I attribute this to some kind mentions among the saxophone-blogger community (thanks Doron, Eric, David, Neal, Alistair, and Anton!).
Now I’m pleased to announce the new-and-of-course-improved version 0.2. Go take it for a spin, or read on about the new goodies:
“Gertjan” at the WindWorks Design blog posted some interesting comments about using a wind controller in a local production of Seussical the Musical. Gertjan (I wasn’t able to positively identify him from the WindWorks website, but maybe he will find his way here and let us know who he is) played saxophones in the show as well, and used the wind controller to cover a number of wind and non-wind instrument parts.
Although it gives me a little indigestion to see a wind controller substituting for woodwinds that might otherwise have been played by a doubler, I do think there is application for wind controllers in orchestra pits. Keyboard-driven synthesizers are ubiquitous in recent shows (or are sometimes used to replace other instruments, especially a string section), and, in some cases, a wind synth might be even better suited to certain kinds of synthesizer parts. Gertjan mentions some synthy sounds like “vocal doo,” “scary voices,” and “ghostly shimmering breathy sound,” all of which strike me as likely to be very effective with a wind synthesizer’s breath control. Some others, like “harp” and “tinkle bell” seem like they might be more intuitively assigned to a keyboard.