“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.
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.
After the 2:40 mark, Mr. Kashiwa uses more sophisticated looping techniques, using some kind of external device. But you can perform the Telemann duet without any extra hardware, using only the EWI4000s’s onboard synthesizer.
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:
pitch change (in semitones)
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.
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.