USB wind controller brings the power of MIDI to reed and brass players, and at a very affordable price
$499.00 MSRP, $299.00 "street"
By Phil O'Keefe
Like many musicians, I got my musical start playing in school band and orchestra programs. I began with reed instruments, and later branched out into other things, such as fretted instruments and keyboards. Because of this, I've always been a bit frustrated whenever I try to play "horn parts" on a keyboard controller. It has always felt like something was missing - especially the breath control that comes naturally to a reed or brass player. So I decided to try out the Akai EWI USB. (Fig 1) The EWI (pronounced "eee-wee") is a wind controller that transmits MIDI data over a USB cable. There is no standard 5 pin MIDI din output port, nor is there any audio output. The Akai EWI USB doesn't make any sound of its own - it is strictly a controller. As such, it is designed to connect to a computer via a standard USB port, and then control virtual instruments or "soft synths" that are running on the computer. The audio output is handled by the computer's audio interface.
Figure 1: The Akai EWI USB electronic wind instrument (click on images to enlarge)
While the EWI bears a superficial resemblance to a sax or clarinet, there are some notable differences. A typical woodwind instrument is a marvel of complicated mechanical design, with an intricate array of spring loaded keys and pads. The EWI takes a somewhat different, and much simpler (and less expensive) approach. There are no moving keys on the body. Instead, the EWI uses a series of 13 different electronic touch sensor keys on the top of the instrument for fingering. (Fig 2) Since these touch sensors don't actually move as you play, the "feel" is somewhat similar to playing a recorder, except without having to completely cover or seal any holes. The touch sensors respond quickly to your touch, with even light touches on the edge of the keys registering. I found the transition to be relatively easy to adjust to, although I did sometimes miss the tactile response of real keys.
Figure 2: The EWI USB uses immobile touch sensitive electronic keys for fingering
On the back side of the EWI you'll find a hefty strap attachment point. A basic strap is included with the EWI, which is a nice surprise, but you may want to budget for something a bit more comfortable. You absolutely must use a strap. Unlike a conventional saxophone, the bulk of the weight of the EWI is designed to be borne by the strap, and not balanced on the player's right hand thumb. There is a flat metal grounding pad, which the thumb must always remain in contact with, and two sensors above and below it for pitch bending. By rolling your thumb up and hitting the upper sensor, you can bend the pitch up, and by moving your thumb down, you can bend the other direction. Also on the back of the EWI, a series of octave rollers are positioned in the place where you would find a traditional octave key on a sax, and as expected, these are manipulated with the player's left hand. They allow you to quickly change octaves at will, without having to increase your blowing velocity as you would with a trumpet or flute. The EWI has a five octave range. A single status LED and a reset button, along with the USB connector and a cable lock to keep the included 3 meter USB cable securely attached (at least until you want to disconnect it) round out the rear of the EWI. (Fig 3) The reset button is used to recalibrate the instrument when needed, and also serves as a MIDI "panic button" by sending an all-notes-off command when depressed.
Figure 3: The back of the EWI USB, showing the left hand octave rollers, strap mount, ground and pitch bend plates, as well as the status LED and reset button.
The mouthpiece is removable, and dishwasher safe, which makes it really easy to clean and sanitize. A removable protective plastic mouthpiece cover is also included for when you're not using the EWI. Replacement mouthpieces (Akai EWM1) are also available, and list for $49, and "street" for $25 each. Having a spare around probably isn't a bad idea, but even with a lot of use, the mouthpiece on the review unit has held up quite well. The white part of the mouthpiece has a semi-soft, rubbery feel to it. There is a vibrato sensor built into the mouthpiece, and you can produce vibrato by lightly and gently biting on the mouthpiece with your teeth. Yes, this runs contrary to everything you ever learned about proper woodwind playing technique, and it's only one example of how the actual playing approach differs from a woodwind instrument. Another is the way you blow. You don't actually seal your mouth around the mouthpiece. Instead, you hold the mouthpiece between your lips and teeth and blow around it, and let some air escape to either side of the mouthpiece, out of the corners of your mouth. It's definitely a different embouchure for woodwind players as well as brass players, who obviously don't have to buzz their lips to produce a tone. For all, it will take a little getting used to, but I was able to adapt to it very quickly. Another sensor in the EWI detects the wind pressure, and can change the volume and timbre of the sound, depending on how hard you blow. Any saliva that enters the mouthpiece travels down an internal tube and exits the instrument through a small hole at the very bottom. There is no release valve, and it will drip whenever enough saliva builds up, so be aware of that so you don't accidentally drip all over your computer or other gear.
There are several fingering modes that you can select from on the EWI USB. These include Akai's traditional EWI fingering mode, as well as modes that closely emulate flute, sax, oboe, and brass fingerings. The brass mode is based on the Akai EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) fingering approach. This lets the player use three fingers of their right hand in a manner similar to how they'd control the valves on a brass instrument, while additional note information is provided by the left hand, with either all three fingers "down", or only the second and third finger, depending on the note desired. The octave keys also are controlled by the left hand thumb in EVI mode. The included multi-language quick start guide includes all the information you need to get up and running. I nearly missed the fingering charts though, which are located near the back of the guide, starting on page 21, just before the MIDI implementation chart.
INCLUDED SOFTWARE AND SOUND LIBRARY
The Akai Professional EWI USB is both Mac and PC compatible. Because it is a class-compliant USB plug and play device, you don't need to worry about installing any specialized drivers. If you want to use it to control samplers and other virtual instruments running as plugins in your DAW, just plug into a USB port and go. The EWI is USB bus powered, so there is no need to connect a separate power supply or load batteries into the unit itself - all the power it needs is provided over the USB connection. For this reason, you should make sure to use a powered hub. In fact, Akai recommends connecting directly to your computer and bypassing a hub completely in the event of any problems, although I was able to use a powered hub without issues.
Unlike some MIDI wind controllers that include onboard synths, such as the Akai Professional EWI 4000S, the EWI USB does not contain a sound generator, nor does it have a five pin MIDI output for connecting directly to hardware synth and sampler modules or keyboards. It is instead designed for direct connection via USB to a computer. While the Akai EWI USB doesn't have any sort of sound generator onboard, it does come bundled with Garritan Aria software. (Fig 4) This is a sample playback instrument (standalone / AU / VST) that is designed to work well with the EWI. It features over 80 different sounds in five different categories - woodwinds, brass, strings, pitched percussion and synthesizer. Under woodwinds, there are four sub-categories, including saxophones (11 presets, ranging from bass to soprano), clarinets (six presets), flutes (three), and even three double reed presets. There are 22 solo and sectional brass presets. These cover everything from tuba to trumpet, with trombone, flugelhorn and french horn also included. You also get 10 solo and section string presets, 7 pitched percussion presets, and 20 synth type sounds. The sounds range from fair to pretty darned good. You can layer and mix up to four of these at once with the Aria software. A decent reverb is also included in Aria, which further aids the sonic realism. While the software isn't the main attraction here, it's great that Akai Pro gives you something to get started with that is of sufficient quality that you may still find use for it, even if you have other options available. Since it features MIDI over USB, the EWI USB can be used with pretty much any software synth or virtual instrument that recognizes MIDI data coming in over USB. Most of the major DAW applications and virtual instrument plugins allow this. I was able to use the Akai with a wide variety of different soft synth plugins. In fact, it worked with every virtual instrument plugin I tried it with. Of course, not all sounds are ideally suited for use with a wind instrument controller. It's obviously best suited for monophonic type sounds and lead instrument sounds as opposed to trying to play keyboard parts or emulating any other polyphonic instrument, such as guitar or banjo, although single note guitar or keyboard lines are certainly possible.
Figure 4: The EWI USB comes bundled with Garritan Aria, which serves as its only included sound generator, and also as the EWI's configuration software
The Aria software also allows you to configure various aspects of the EWI USB, including the fingering type, transposition, MIDI channel, controller assignments for the breath and bite controller data, pitch bend amount, and so forth.
One of the best things about using a MIDI wind controller is the expressiveness. For laying down brass and woodwind parts, a wind controller feels far more natural than a piano-style keyboard controller, and offers fingerings that more closely emulate actual brass and woodwind instruments. Additionally, because actual breathing is required, you're forced to approach parts and phrasing in a manner more consistent with the way a "real" wind player would play. This alone tends to lead to more realistic sounding sequenced wind parts. Rapid-fire tonguing, sforzandos, sustained single note crescendoes / decrescendos, and other dynamic techniques that are an everyday part of a wind player's world, and that would be difficult or impossible to pull off with most keyboards, are easily accomplished with the EWI USB.
Probably the biggest hurdle for me from a playing standpoint compared to a real sax is the right hand thumb's positioning and functions. On a "real" sax, the bulk of the instrument's weight rests on the player's right hand thumb. On the EWI, you have to adapt a bit. There is no traditional "hook" for you to sit on the right thumb. Instead, there is a flat ground plate which your thumb must remain in contact with in order for the EWI to function properly. Directly above and below this are a pair of angled black pitch bend "plates". While these allow you to use the right hand thumb to control MIDI pitch bends, the location of the upper plate is right where the thumb rest is located on a traditional sax, and I kept wanting to support and balance the instrument on that pitch bend plate. Eventually it got a little easier, but I still occasionally use a MIDI input filter at my DAW to make it ignore pitch bend data so I can just rest my thumb more comfortably against the upper pitch bend plate as if it were a hook. The pitch bend functions can also be turned off in the Aria software if so desired.
Another slight adjustment comes with the embouchure. Instead of rolling the lower lip over your teeth and tightening the corners of the mouth as you would when playing a real sax, the EWI embouchure is a bit different, as I described earlier. The mouthpiece has both an air pressure level sensor and a bite sensor. You actually blow "around" the mouthpiece as much as "through" it, and bite down on it (a real no-no with real reed instruments) in order to create pitch vibrato, instead of adjusting your embouchure. Tonguing also feels a bit different due to the slightly thicker mouthpiece end and the lack of a traditional reed, but it was still fairly easy to do, and I found that hardly any adjustment was required to my actual technique.
Unlike a traditional saxophone, there are no moving keys or pads. This posed less of a hurdle to the playing "feel" of the EWI than I thought it would, and I found it relatively easy to adapt. Again, it's somewhat like playing a recorder in that regard, or a wooden flute. All of this sounds like it requires considerable compromise and adjustment to technique, and while it does require some adaptation, I didn't find it as difficult as it may sound. I feel the EWI should probably be approached as a different instrument that is based on other wind instruments, and that bears many similarities with them, but that will require some work to master, just as when transitioning to any new wind instrument. However, most wind players will adapt fairly quickly, and once they do, it's a very playable and expressive instrument.
This isn't a saxophone, clarinet, flute, or trumpet, and if you rigidly approach it as if it were, you're probably going to be less than thrilled with the EWI USB. However, as a MIDI wind controller, it fares much better, providing a solid and reliable user interface that will be far more intuitive and comfortable for wind players than keyboard type MIDI controllers. While not identical to any particular traditional wind instrument, the EWI USB can be adapted to work similarly to several of them, so if you have any wind instrument experience at all, there's bound to be a fingering option that will suit you.
While it lacks an onboard sound source like its big brother the Akai EWI 4000S, the key interface is nearly identical, and for those who are willing to use a computer with their wind instrument controller, the Akai EWI USB makes a lot of sense. If you want to sequence more authentic sounding wind instrument parts, a wind controller like the Akai EWI USB is an excellent choice. It's also the lowest cost wind controller currently on the market, and by a significant amount. The bundled Garritan Aria virtual instrument software is a nice bonus, and features some sounds that users will likely still find useful even if they already own other MIDI sound libraries and virtual instruments. Add in the ability to use it with any virtual instrument, and your sonic options open up immeasurably. While it's not without its quirks, and some adaptation and acclimation is required before you'll be fully up to speed, the effort is not too strenuous, and the results make it more than worth it. The Akai EWI USB is a serious tool that is priced low enough to make it an attractive purchase for any modern wind player, as well as former wind players who want to expand their MIDI controller options. In the right hands, and with a little work, it is a very expressive controller, and a lot of fun.
|MIDI output channels over USB: 1
Dimensions: 23 1/8" x 2 3/4" x 2 3/4"
Weight: 1.3 lbs
Ports: 1 USB
Power: USB bus powered - draws ~100mV, 5V via USB
Included accessories: Garritan Aria software DVD (Win XP or later, Mac OS 10.5 or later), cleaning cloth, quick start guide, neck strap, 3 meter USB cable, mouthpiece cover.
Warranty: 1 year limited warranty
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.