The Electronic Wind Instrument, also known as the EWI, is a musical MIDI wind controller. While there are several similar such devices available, an EWI generally refers to a wind controller produced by Akai.
Essentially an electronic saxophone, allowing a player to control an on-board or independent synthesizer as if it were a real wind instrument.
So this may not really fit into the Saxophone Family category, but you’ll find quite a number of professional Sax players use one of these instruments both on stage, in the studio and for fun. They don’t have a reed like a traditional saxophone, but the fingering setup is similar.
How do they work?
As a saxophonist plays on a Electronic Wind Intstrument, the device records the intensity and duration of his or her breath, as well as keeping track of each key press the saxophonist makes. This information is then converted to MIDI data, which allows the instrument to interact a synthesizer. MIDI data does not create sound on its own, but merely tells a sound source what to do. This means that any MIDI data can be freely edited and altered even after a recording session. Live performances with the Wind Instrument are also possible, as MIDI information can be exchanged between for example an Akai 4000s and a synthesizer in a matter of milliseconds.
Unlike many other MIDI controllers, the Akai-4000s features a breath controller that precisely measures and replicates the player’s breath pressure to allow for very expressive performances. This is more like a traditional recorder and less like a saxophone mouthpiece with a reed. Essentially, Wind Instrument players can begin with almost any electronic sound and use the EWI to control that sound in the same way they could on a real saxophone.
This versatility is one of the Instruments greatest strength, as it gives players access to a nearly unlimited selection sonic possibilities. For instance, saxophone players could use it to replicate the sounds of a trumpet, piano or any other instrument, using the device’s breath control feature to mold those sounds however they see fit. It is important to note that while some Electronic Wind Instruments house their own synthesizers, other models must be connected to a tone generator, sound module, computer or other sound device that can read and interpret MIDI information. It is through this device that all the sound comes, with the EWI acting as an independent controller.
Of course, the Electronic Wind Instrument is different from a saxophone in many ways, which may prevent saxophonists from being able to immediately pick up the device and begin playing proficiently. Firstly, the newest models feature no moving parts, eschewing keys for touch-sensitive button and pads. While this can be hard for players to get used to, it lessens the chance of mechanical malfunction and allows for faster and more fluid fingerwork.
An Extreme octave range
The Akai Electronic Wind Instrument has a range of almost 10 octaves compared to the alto saxophone’s 2-1/2 range before altissimo. Unlike a real saxophone, it allows players to instantly select a new octave using a touch-sensitive strip. Many new players have reported difficulty in properly using this strip, but most are able to learn within a few weeks. Additionally, the EWI features extra buttons where players might be used to other fixtures, like thumb rests. Getting accustomed to these changes may take several weeks of play, but a player who does so can exert an unprecedented degree of control over his or her sound.
While the Akai Hardware and other similar devices are still unfamiliar for many, they are popular among saxophonists for a number of reasons. In addition to allowing for a greater range of sounds, these instruments also let players transpose their performances instantly, adjust volume on the fly and play with headphones, allowing them to practice at night or in crowded areas without disturbing anyone. Additionally, Electronic Wind Instruments do not require players to maintain an embouchure, making them a popular choice among individuals who do not have time to do the daily conditioning needed to play a real saxophone for long periods of time. Likewise, players with medical conditions or physical limitations that would prevent them playing a saxophone may be able to more easily use something like an Akai 4000s.
Some players find that the versatility provided by Wind Instruments make them more attractive candidates for positions in bands, especially groups that need to cover a number of parts without hiring more instrumentalists. Because players can quickly switch between instruments, they can occupy several roles simultaneously.
Akai manufactures several models, including the USB, 4000s and the 3020. These models vary greatly in regards to both price and included features. For instance, the EWI USB is cheaper than the other models, but requires players to plug directly into a computer or other sound source, while the EWI4000s houses its own synthesizer that allows it to be used without any additional equipment.