Akai EWI-2000 & EWV-2000
Electronic Wind Instrument
State-of-the-art wind synthesis. Man Jumping's Andy Blake gets his fingers around Akai's wind controller and voicing module and finds a happy marriage between expression and analogue synthesis.
You might be a sax player looking for a new approach to your instrument; you might be a synth player looking for a new way to present synthesised sounds - you might need the EWI.
DRUM MACHINES AND keyboards triggered with numbing rhythmic perfection. Voices sing flatly of desire. Halfway through the song, a saxophone solo: 16 bars of human musicianship amongst the sequences. Nobody is interested in synth solos, even if their sounds fit better: "no feel..."
Enter the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), a synthesiser and MIDI controller based on the saxophone rather than the keyboard (or the guitar). So what's new? Monophonic synths often incorporated a mic/CV/gate input - sax players found the results difficult to control and any voltage fluctuations meant wrong notes. Then in the mid-'70s an American device called the Lyricon appeared, which was a purposely designed wind synthesiser (very few were sold in Britain). The Lyricon consisted of a tube with a mouthpiece, keys using clarinet fingering, and a cable leading to an analogue synth module. Jazzer Sonny Rollins experimented with this, but the sound of the instrument was made familiar by star session player Tom Scott and Landscape's John Walters.
The EWI is also American in origin, having been developed by trumpeter Nyle Steiner. In woodwind form, development was assisted by today's session star, Michael Brecker. Akai have bought the rights to the design from Steiner, and have continued to develop it with his and Brecker's assistance. The EWI, the result of Akai's investment, looks rather like the Lyricon: an oblong box with a mouthpiece, keys using saxophone fingering and a cable leading to an analogue synth module. So what is new?
THE EWI CONSISTS of a light grey metal box with fingering pads screwed into it, underneath which is affixed a dark grey plastic unit containing the mouthpiece, octave rollers for the left thumb, a hook for the neck sling supplied with the instrument, and a plate for the right thumb, incorporating separate, adjustable plates for pitch-bend. Underneath there is also a sensitivity control, adjustable with a small screwdriver (again supplied) and a plug, of Akai's own design, for the cable leading to the EWV-2000 sound module. The module at first sight seems to be a 4U-high piece of rack-fodder. Closer inspection reveals that the mountings have been added as an afterthought, for the unit has rubber feet on its back, and when sat on them, slopes to the front. Add to this that the power in, MIDI Out, memory protect switch, and tape in/out (¼") jack sockets are in a recessed space at the top, rather than the rear of the device, and it becomes dear that this box would rather stand on its own four feet.
The controls are clearly laid out. Reading from left to right, the Power on/off switch sits above a stereo ¼" jack socket for Program Up/Down footswitching, and the Instrument plug. Then four performance dials, with associated LED's, to control Vibrate, Bend, Glide and Breath Sensitivity. A data-entry slider stands to the left of the central block. Topping this is a backlit, contrast-adjustable LCD, and red LED's to indicate which of the two channels (or "Sources") of the synth is currently in operation. Down a line we have pushbuttons controlling incremental data entry and Preset Change, Preset Write, Auto Tune, MIDI, Tape Function and Transpose. Two more rows of buttons are used to Access, Edit and Store preset sounds. One key per Source controls Oscillator, VCF, VCF EG, VCA EG, Level and Breath Intensity functions, with global controls for Vibrato/Bend, Chord Play, Effect and the Label option. To the right there is the master tune dial, output and input level dials, and ¼" jack sockets for Phones, Line Out and Ext In.
THIS IS A performance instrument: you have to play in order to program. The basics are to put the sling round your neck and hook the EWI into it, connect the cable and power up. The first preset, 11 (bank 1, sound 1) will greet you. Two more steps should always be followed before you're ready to play. First, hold down the Auto Tune button. The display will read "Auto tune" for a few seconds, and then return you to the selected preset. (Remember that this is an analogue synth, and needs to be treated with more attention than its digital relatives.) Then adjust the outer ring of the Breath Sensitivity dial clockwise until the LED lights, and turn its inner ring to halfway. You should now hear a sound. Tum the outer ring anticlockwise until the LED goes out. Now place your left thumb between any two rollers, your right on the plate and your fingers on the keys. Then put the mouthpiece half-an-inch or so into your mouth and blow. If nothing happens, or all you an hear is a single pitch, out with the screwdriver and adjust the EWI's sensitivity control. Establish that you can control dynamics and intensity of attack with your breath, and you're ready to flip through the presets, and program your own sounds.
Editing follows the usual procedure: press Edit and then set the output Level of each Source, knocking out the one you don't want to hear. Pressing the various buttons calls up a sequence of parameters, whose values you change via the slider or the incremental buttons, blowing to monitor the result. The fundamental choices involve pitch, fine tuning and choosing from the waveforms offered (sawtooth, triangle, square and sawtooth & triangle). These are then modified by the VCF section's resonance, cutoff frequency, pitch follower and hi-pass filter, and the Effect section's global filters. Effect also offers a choice of Single or Multi-trigger settings. Single should be used for breath-controlled attacks and all legato playing. Multi will trigger an envelope at the start of each note - useful, for example, in brass section playing. All this is perfectly normal, and produces unsurprising results. More fun can be had by playing with the Osc 1 Wave Env FM, which uses channel 2's VCO, VCF and VCF EG to modulate channel 1's VCO. The resulting "non-integer multiple harmonics" change dramatically according to the waveform output by Source 2's VCO, and an add much-needed distortion to the basic sounds of the EWV. More dirt can be added with the VCF Osc Wave FM setting, available on either Source, which modulates the VCF by the same Source's VCO. Then the lungs take over.
The idea is to leave as much as you can to the breath. This means that for most sounds, you can ignore the VCF EG and VCA EG sections altogether. More useful are the Vib/Bend and Breath Intensity settings. Bend Width and Vib settings apply globally (to both Sources) and are used in conjunction with the real-time performance dials, each of which can be used to turn the other off. This is useful (in that a preset an be modified in performance without entering Edit mode) but confusing.
Pitch-bending is obtained by sliding the right thumb up and down its plate, which works well. Vibrato effects are obtained by varying the lip pressure on the mouthpiece. VCO vibrato, PWM modulation, VCF cutoff filter changes and VCA tremolo can all be introduced (simultaneously, if you desire) and varied by lip pressure. A little practice is needed, but once you're used to it the system works superbly. Unfortunately, the Glide setting is only available as a performance control and not as part of a preset. The Breath Intensity can be programmed separately for each Source, while the VCA can be set to the required width of dynamic range, and PWM and Resonance effects an be adjusted to add sharpness to the sound as its volume increases. Most useful in this section is the VCO parameter. Careful setting applied to one Source only, gives a breath-controlled detune effect which fattens the sound just when you need it. The final touch, having programmed both Sources, is to go back to Level and blend them. Then, having Labelled the sound, it's into the Write mode, where there are 128 spaces to fill, with backup storage by tape. You can save or load either the whole preset memory or a single bank of eight sounds at a time.
Thus far the instrument stands, and plays, alone. No late '80s synth would be complete without MIDI, but frustratingly the EWI/EWV appears not quite complete, as only a MIDI Out is provided. The reason behind the omission probably runs as follows: the EWV is designed for performance, and control by the EWI (and its brother, the EVI Electronic Valve Instrument), not by a keyboard or a synthesiser, so there wouldn't be any point in providing MIDI In or Thru, would there? Of course there would. If, say, you used a favourite EWV sound while playing a bassline into a sequencer, you would then have to go to the trouble of mimicking the sound on another instrument for playback. On reflection it seems daft.
Another word of caution is needed. As I say, you need to treat this analogue setup with care. Tuning and triggering are problems encountered by several MIDI instruments on their first link-up with the EWI, and anyone wishing to expand it by buying a modular synth/effects rack is advised to give the various units a solid test drive before proffering the plastic. Delays of a few microseconds are to be expected, however: as with some guitar controllers, the fundamental problems of A/D conversion are probably unresolvable given the specification of MIDI itself.
In the version under review, MIDI Out sends channel, note number, pitch-bend, portamento, and optional program change, aftertouch, breath control and volume information. Velocity data is fixed. The first, very necessary update promised by Akai will provide MIDI velocity information. Accessing the MIDI section of the EWV allows the user to change output channel, and to enable or disable program change, aftertouch, and so on. Another option provided is a threshold control, programmable for breath intensity. This is useful for bringing in an extra instrument or effect above a certain volume; with careful playing, impressive effects are possible.
For the user who finds that the MIDI link provides insufficient control, Akai have provided another control option. This involves taking a line out from the MIDI-controlled instrument to the EWV's Ext In jack. The line is then played through Source 1's VCF and VCA, alone or in combination with the sounds programmed into both Sources. This old-fashioned technique certainly enhances the dynamic and expressive possibilities of some sounds, especially samples. And it's not the only unusual facility offered by the EWV module. Rather more important for most users is the ability to send chords of up to four notes each over MIDI. A different chord can be applied to each note of the chromatic scale. This can be done completely autonomously - the chords do not have to be connected to the assigned note by any musical reason (if it's convenient you can assign a chord of G minor seventh to a C sharp...). Up to 15 chords assigned in this way can be saved as one preset. As presets can be changed up or down by footswitch, this facility gives you plenty of scope to annoy, and even replace, the band's keyboard player; a nice touch, after all the years of talk about samplers replacing saxes.
SO YOU'VE PROGRAMMED the EWV, and added a few MIDI items to hum along. How does the instrument actually play? By this factor alone it will stand or fall. If the EWI and EVI are rewarding to play, sax and trumpet players will flock to buy them, and youngsters may start with them from scratch. If not, then the new generation of wind controllers will go the way of quadrophonic hi-fi, unloved and unlamented.
The EWI isn't a saxophone, or any other woodwind instrument, and although wind players will be able to pick it up and play something, they will still have to learn a modified playing technique. Steiner himself says that six months are needed, and after a couple of weeks exposure, I tend to agree with him. The touch pads and rollers all take getting used to. The mouthpiece, though, is easy: it doesn't need an "embouchure" (the trained musculature which allows a reed to be vibrated or air to pass over the sound-hole of a flute), and it soon begins to feel friendly. By allowing air to escape from the sides of the mouth, really quick stab tonguing is possible. The flexible dynamic response the mouthpiece allows is immediately noticeable; because the breath is controlling the envelopes, the sound can hang in the air and flow in a way familiar to wind players but impossible on conventional synths. It's terrific; but there is a design problem here. The system is closed: air can get in, but not out, and so neither can water and the other bits and pieces we humans exhale. This is a problem well known to brass instrument designers, who put water keys onto sensitive parts of the trumpet and trombone anatomy (thereby saving players from having to re-drink their lunchtime pints during the afternoon session). Water (and bacteria) retention will probably mean that the transducer will fur up and burn out. A removable, cleanable part of the mouthpiece is the only solution.
The octave rollers controlled by the left thumb are an ingenious and well-designed means of obtaining seven octaves' range. Co-ordinating these changes with the fingers takes concentration but it's perfectly possible. The slightly tacky look of the finger-pads themselves may put off potential purchasers, but here again the system is playable, and its circuitry must be more reliable than electro-mechanical keywork. The instant response of the pads themselves can't be faulted. The right thumb plate performs well but there is another design problem here. Even with a sling, the absence of a thumb rest makes the EWI rather difficult to balance.
The oblong-box looks and screw-in keypads tell against it, but in performance, the EWI is far from being a prototype. Intending purchasers may have seen Michael Brecker playing his Steinerphone at the Festival Hall last year and there are already some current British users: David O'Higgins uses the instrument in jazz groups Roadside Picnic and The Gang of Three (which have both become very hi-tech minded in recent months). Dave Roach, once the only English Lyricon player in captivity, now uses an EWI, driving an Oberheim expander (a la Brecker) and two Roland effects units: he can be seen playing these in the current National Theatre show, The Pied Piper. Both these multi-instrumentalists have taken to the EWI like ducks to drakes; others will surely follow - or the quadrophonic grave awaits.
And the best thing about playing the EWI? Dirt. Using the two Sources to complement each other, even without MIDI extras, this instrument can make sounds which at low volume cry quietly, at medium intensities strut homily, and at full volume scream angrily. You can do all that on a sax (which is why saxes still play pop solos), but just try doing it on a synth, with just one preset. You can really get some animal expression on this instrument, and about time, after all this FM politeness. It's the most exciting new blown instrument since Adolphe Sax tried to improve the clarinet - and invented the saxophone. There's plenty of room for development, but this is already a significant machine.
Price EWI-1000 £699: EWV-2000 £599: both prices include VAT
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Review by Andy Blake
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