FIG. 1: The Akai EWI4000s includes a built-in analog-style synth, MIDI In and Out ports, and more user-definable messages than ever.
As far back as I can remember, I've had a natural ability to pick up just about any wind instrument and get a reasonable sound out of it, even if it's an instrument I've never seen before. But my brain balks at anything with keys or strings. Thus, I've always considered wind-instrument synth controllers to be my ticket to electronic-music performance. I've owned a Lyricon, all three models of Yamaha's WX controllers, and the Akai EWI 1000, the first commercial generation of Nile Steiner's Electronic Wind Instrument.
Akai has continued to refine the EWI since the 1000, introducing several models with new features and refinements. Now comes the EWI4000s, which promises to be the best EWI yet (see Fig. 1).
The EWI4000s implements a number of useful refinements over previous generations. For example, there is now a Glide Strip running alongside the octave rollers. By default, touching the strip sends Portamento On, but it can be assigned to send any Control Change message from 0 to 99.
Speaking of MIDI messages, the EWI4000s provides more user-definable messages than ever before. You can enable several different messages to be sent simultaneously in response to breath pressure and bite pressure on the mouthpiece. Continuous controllers 0 to 99 can be assigned to the Octave and Hold buttons (sent with a preset value) as well as the Pitch Bend Up and Down plates, which can send varying values depending on how much of your right thumb is in contact with the plates. You can even send Program Change messages by fingering different notes, a feature that Michael Brecker put to good use.
The EWI4000s offers several different fingering modes, including the regular EWI mode and a saxophone mode that more closely mimics a normal sax. In fact, this mode even lets you rest your left pinkie on the G-sharp key just like many sax players do; in this case, the only notes affected by the G-sharp key are G and C.
Also provided are two EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) fingering modes, which let you finger the main right-hand keys like a valve instrument (such as a trumpet or tuba), shifting registers with the left index finger. I play many brass instruments as well as woodwinds, but I've never been able to wrap my brain around EVI fingering, so I opted to use the EWI and sax modes.
Pièce de Résistance
Without question, the most important new feature in the EWI4000s is its internal synthesizer. With all previous models, the synth was an external unit that connected to the instrument with a special cable. This was like an anchor, tying the player to a relatively small area on the stage.
With a self-contained internal synth and AA battery power, the EWI4000s is finally free to roam. Of course, you must still connect its ¼-inch audio output to a sound system, but with a wireless transmitter on your belt and a receiver near the mixer or amp, you can move anywhere within the system's RF range. (If you want to control another synth via MIDI, you'll have to connect a cable from the EWI's MIDI Out to the synth's MIDI In, but this can be done wirelessly as well.)
FIG. 2: UniQuest''s well-organized editor window provides access to all synth controls.
As in previous generations, the synth is a 2-oscillator subtractive design — quaint by today's megasynth standards, but refreshing in its simplicity. Each oscillator can produce sawtooth, triangle, and/or pulse waveforms with independent level controls, and the pulse width can be modulated at a user-specified frequency and depth. Breath-controlled functions include level and pitch modulation as well as oscillator onset, and a crossfade function follows breath pressure to crossfade between the two oscillators.
The oscillators are mixed before being sent to the dual filter. The multimode filter can be modulated by breath, LFO, and/or a sweep function, and the filters can be linked to double the cutoff slope. A separate formant filter can apply woodwind or string formants, and a noise generator has its own pair of multimode filters with the same parameters as the oscillator filters.
The synth also includes three effects: delay, reverb, and chorus, the last of which provides separate controls for each oscillator. Rounding out the synth are several global parameters, including key trigger, bend range, and vibrato amount for both pitch and amplitude.
With two voices, the synth can play two notes at a time. This allows the EWI to hold one note while playing others or to play two parallel lines separated by any interval.
The older outboard synth module did have one advantage: all of its parameter controls were on the front panel and immediately available. Now the only way to program the synth is with the included editor-librarian from Sound Quest. Dubbed UniQuest for Akai EWI4000s, the software comes on a CD-ROM with versions for Windows XP and Mac OS X.
To use the editor-librarian, you connect MIDI In and Out from the EWI to your computer's MIDI interface and launch the program. As with most such programs, this one has a library window that displays all 100 presets in a given bank. Clicking on a sound in the bank activates that sound for playing on the EWI, which is very convenient when browsing for sounds. In addition, individual sounds can be dragged-and-dropped between banks.
The editor window is a well-organized, onscreen control panel for the synth (see Fig. 2), and you can hear the results of any tweaks immediately. However, the controls are slow to respond to dragging with the mouse, making it difficult to fine-tune your adjustments.
Also available is a basic 16-track MIDI sequencer (see Fig. 3) and a MIDI monitor, which displays all MIDI messages passing between the EWI and the program.
Unfortunately, I had some problems using the software. First, getting the factory bank from the EWI into the program failed due to SysEx errors. Also, the program wouldn't recognize the bank of sounds I got from Patchman Music (see the sidebar “Patchman to the Rescue”). I was finally able to get those sounds into the EWI using a function that sends SysEx data directly from a disk to the instrument, after which getting a bank from the instrument into the program started to work. Obviously, there are some bugs in the software that Sound Quest should iron out.
Shut Up and Play
The EWI4000s feels quite hefty, bespeaking quality construction. It cannot be easily played without a neck strap because both thumbs must be free to move (left thumb on the octave rollers, right thumb on the pitch-bend plates). Unlike the EWI 1000, this model allows air to pass through it, making it feel more like a real wind instrument.
The user interface consists of two 7-segment LED characters on the underside of the instrument. Though they can be quite cryptic, they're better than no display at all, as on the Yamaha WX instruments. Many of the controls are multifunction buttons, which adds to the initial confusion, but I got used to them eventually.
Playing the built-in synth is a joy thanks to its incredibly fast response. According to Akai, the connection between the controller and synth is 14 times faster than MIDI, making it feel like you're playing an acoustic instrument. The synth is so responsive that singing while playing evokes a ring modulator effect, and flutter-tonguing works like a charm. The Key Delay parameter helps reduce glitch notes caused by imprecise fingering; the default value is 7, but I found that 10 worked best for me without slowing things down appreciably.
FIG. 3: UniQuest also offers a simple 16-track MIDI sequencer.
As much as I love the response of the internal synth, I am not so enamored of the factory presets, which start to sound alike after a while. Of course, there are some good ones. My favorites include Judd4000 (a classic Lyle Mays lead sound), Stonehenge (a haunting, flutelike sound with wind noise), WoodNGlue (a chorused double pulse-width modulated sound), and NewWood (a clean clarinet type of sound). Patchman Music offers an alternate bank of sounds that I like much better overall.
Controlling a MIDI sound module feels slightly slower than using the internal synth. I used a Yamaha VL-1m sound module, which is designed for wind control, and I disabled Aftertouch from being sent in response to breath pressure to reduce the amount of transmitted data. Still, it felt just a bit sluggish; for example, some notes in fast scales seemed to get lost via MIDI, whereas they were clearly heard from the internal synth. Decreasing the Key Delay definitely helped, but it also increased the incidence of glitch notes. To be fair, this is a relatively minor difference that should not pose a significant problem.
Compared with the WX5, the EWI4000s is much heavier, and its user interface is better. Aside from the 2-character display, the onboard breath-sensitivity and other physical controls are small knobs that are much easier to manipulate than the set screws and DIP switches on the WX5.
As for the difference between playing the WX5, with its moving keys, and the EWI, with its nonmoving touch-sensitive keys, that's a matter of personal preference. The WX5 feels more like a sax in this regard, while the EWI feels more like a recorder. The same goes for the mouthpiece — the WX5 mouthpiece looks and feels just like a sax mouthpiece, complete with a “reed” that invokes Pitch Bend and other MIDI messages, while the EWI has a hard plastic tube. I definitely prefer the EWI's octave rollers to the WX5's nested octave keys.
On the downside, I found myself missing the WX5's fingering pattern, which lets you play an octave and a half without shifting octave keys. I kept doing this on the EWI and getting an unexpected note. I wish the EWI had a WX fingering mode, though that's probably not possible due to corporate competition and patents.
Integrating the sound module into the body of the EWI4000s is a big step forward for wind controllers. With the appropriate wireless system, wind players can now freely move around the stage. When you consider that the WX5 with Yamaha's VL-70m sound module lists for more than twice the price of the Akai, the EWI4000s is a very attractive package indeed.
Former EM technical editor Scott Wilkinson loves to make music by blowing.
MIDI wind controller
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3QUALITY OF SOUNDS3VALUE4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Self-contained synth with lightning-fast response. Solid feel. Much less expensive than WX5/VL-70m package.
CONS: Confusing user interface. Factory sounds are mostly uninspiring. No WX fingering mode.
PATCHMAN TO THE RESCUE
Patchman Music (www.patchmanmusic.com) specializes in creating synth programs for wind controllers, so it's no wonder the company offers a bank of sounds for the Akai EWI4000s. After some initial problems loading these sounds into the EWI, I finally got the sounds installed and started playing.
What a revelation — each and every sound is beautiful and very responsive. Some are acoustic-instrument simulations, such as Flute, Oboe, and Clarinet, that are more believable than their factory counterparts. (The brass instruments are less realistic than the woodwinds, but brasses are particularly difficult to synthesize.) Of course, they won't fool anyone into thinking they're the real thing, but they are wonderful sounds in their own right.
Then there are the purely synth sounds, such as Blow It Out, D-50 Lead, and Funkatron, which sing their electronic song with exquisite response to breath control. Also included are several excellent synth-bass sounds. Many of the Patchman sounds use the synth's crossfade and breath-activated oscillator-onset functions to vary the sound in a completely natural and — dare I say it? — organic way.
According to Patchman Music founder Matt Traum, the UniQuest editor's slow response to mouse manipulation made it difficult to tweak the sounds to his satisfaction, requiring more time and patience than usual. But it was well worth the effort. If you have an EWI4000s, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of these sounds. For $90, you won't be sorry.