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. Continue reading “From WindWorks Design: Wind controller in a pit orchestra”→
I recently posted a video of Jeff Kashiwa demonstrating the Akai EWI4000s wind controller. As part of his demonstration, he plays a movement from one of the Telemann Canonic Sonatas (well, sort of an arrangement of one).
Jeff Kashiwa plays the Allegro movement from the first Canonic Sonata all by himself, playing the first part on the EWI and using a delay effect to create the second (echo) part. Here’s the video again—it should start playing about a minute and a half in, and the Telemann goes until about 2:40.
With traditional woodwind instruments, the fingers work together to change the effective length of the instrument’s body tube by opening and closing toneholes. Woodwind fingerings at their most basic use the fingers in sequence. For example, a certain note might be produced with an “open” fingering (all toneholes open). When the “first” finger (the one closest to the mouthpiece) closes a hole, the pitch drops, perhaps by a whole step. Adding the next farther finger drops the pitch again, and so on toward the bell end of the instrument.
“Forked” fingerings, in which a lower tonehole is closed while one above it is open, often produce somewhat inferior results—notes that are mismatched in timbre and/or intonation. (Some modern woodwinds use special mechanisms to correct for this, such as the F resonance mechanism on a high-quality oboe.)
An electronic woodwind-style instrument, such as the Akai EWI series, uses a fingering system that is designed to be similar to a traditional woodwind, so that a traditional woodwind player can easily adapt to it. But this is an arbitrary choice. Since the instrument’s tone production system uses electronic circuitry and software, rather than a vibrating air column, the fingering system don’t necessarily have to use the fingers in sequence, and forked fingerings don’t have any inherent problems. The fingerings can be invented completely from scratch, with no acoustical limitations.
EWI fingerings are designed to draw upon the best of both worlds—the familiarity of traditional woodwind fingerings, and the flexibility of a non-acoustical fingering system.
Note that the current-model EWI4000s, using version 2.4 of the operating system, includes several fingering modes. The mode I am considering here is the “EWI” mode, as the “flute,” “oboe,” and “saxophone” modes sacrifice some flexibility for the sake of increased familiarity to traditional woodwind players. You might consider this article to be subtitled, “Why you should be using the ‘EWI’ fingering mode.”
The current manual (“revision D”) shows a mere 17 fingerings in its EWI mode fingering chart (11 chromatic pitches, with B-flat through D having fingerings in two octaves, and B-flat having one additional alternate fingering). But many, many more are possible.
We can consider the individual EWI keys as having individual functions, rather than being inherently interdependent. For example, pressing none of the keys produces a C-sharp:
Adding any key will alter the C-sharp pitch by a given amount:
If both LH 1 and LH 2 are pressed, LH bis has no effect
If LH 1 is not pressed, LH2 produces -1 (this makes LH middle finger C possible)
LH pinky 1
LH pinky 2
No effect when used in combination with LH pinky 1
If LH 3 is not pressed, RH1 produces -1 (this makes 1 + 1 B-flat possible)
RH pinky 1
RH pinky 2
RH pinky 3
If I press LH 1, LH 2, and LH 3, the pitch is lowered from C-sharp by a total of 6 semitones, producing the G fingering familiar to saxophonists, oboists, flutists, and clarinetists.
But that is only one possible combination. I could also produce a G with, for example, LH 1, LH 2, and RH 3. Or LH 3, LH pinky 2, RH 1, and RH pinky 2. These fingerings would be extremely unlikely to work on a traditional woodwind, but with the EWI the possibilities are wide open. As long as the total pitch change adds up to -6 (and accounting for any of the listed exceptions), you get a G.
Standard G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + LH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G
One alternative G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + RH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G
Another alternative G.(LH 3 + LH pinky 2 + RH 1 + RH pinky 2) = (-2 + -1 + -2 + -1) = -6 = G
These examples are illustrative but likely have few real-world applications. For a more practical example, consider trills, which among traditional woodwind players are a subject of endless discussion and books upon books of awkward, complicated fingerings. An ideal trill fingering involves moving only one finger, preferably one that can be moved in a rapid, controlled, non-awkward way. Continue reading for a musical example and sound clip →
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.