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Wind Synthesizers

Having explored the history and development of wind synthesizers in our September issue, record producer and wind player extraordinaire John L. Walters compares and contrasts the Akai EWI and Yamaha WX7. Are they the instruments that wind players have been longing for? Find out inside.


John L Walters compares and contrasts the Yamaha WX7 wind controller and the Akai EWI wind synthesizer.


Well here we are in late 1987 and one of the hottest new electronic instruments, would you believe, is a monophonic, dual oscillator analogue synthesizer! What's more, it gives you a choice of multiple or single triggering and three different filter slopes. (Older readers are already drifting into a pre-Thatcher, pre-MIDI reverie: those long hot summers when trade fairs could fit into Bloomsbury hotels and synthesizers had coloured knobs and real names like 'Minimoog' or 'Synthi A' or 'Lyricon'.) I'm talking about the Akai EWI (it rhymes with 'kiwi'), which hit the streets a couple of months ago after an indifferent launch at the British Music Fair in August. Their more experienced rivals at Yamaha managed to steal the thunder from the much-heralded EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). After weeks of circumspection, the Milton Keynes mob suddenly unveiled their secret weapon, a matt black MIDI wind controller called the WX7 and flew in a red-hot demonstrator - 'straight from the Bronx.'

Despite an indifferent PA mix, Sal Gallina's WX7 showcase went down a storm with most BMF visitors - including the editor of this magazine, who speculated enthusiastically in September's issue on the future of wind synthesizers.

Typically, the wind players themselves were more sceptical. Sure, the Akai demonstrations were a bit of a joke; sure, Sal Gallina is a good player. But have you heard Michael Brecker play 'In A Sentimental Mood' on the EWI? Some went straight out to buy the Akai horn and started practicing furiously; others decided to hold back until they could play and compare the instruments with each other. Unfortunately, it has taken Yamaha at least three months to get the WX7 in the shops, but one main outcome of their BMF tactics has been to throw a brighter spotlight on the whole idea of MIDI wind controllers, which must be good for Akai.

Having covered the history and development of wind synthesizers in a previous issue (SOS September '87), it's now time to take a look at both instruments in some detail.

THE LOOK



Both instruments look like nothing you've ever seen before, although the Braun/cult-object look of the black WX7 implies that a designer was involved somewhere. The silver EWI is best described as a 'broken kitchen table leg with washers screwed to it'. Despite Akai's involvement, it still looks much like the original instrument that inventor Nyle Steiner lashed together by hand on his own kitchen table.

Weighing in at 650 grams, the Akai EWI feels chunky and substantial, and most people will be surprised how comfortable it feels to play. Clocking in at 300 grams, the Yamaha WX7 threatens to get blown away in mid-chorus, but it fits snugly under the hands. Unlike the contact-sensitive EWI, the WX7 has moving keys which (I'm told) make the instrument feel quite similar to a Yamaha saxophone.

A non-standard lead connects the EWI to its analogue sound module, known as the EVW2000. This 19" rack-mounting unit looks similar to their S900 sampler and sports all the necessary sockets for mains power, MIDI Out, line out, headphones, and an input socket for processing external sound sources.

A 16-character back-lit green LCD displays information, and the programming buttons are laid out in a fairly logical manner. There's a data entry slider and the familiar up/down 'Value' buttons with which to control and edit most functions. Four non-programmable knobs on the left of the EVW adjust performance features, which are explained later.

A different non-standard cable snakes out of the Yamaha WX7 to what looks like a MIDI binoculars case! This is the power pack, which takes six AA batteries or hooks up to a 12V power supply, and the MIDI Out socket connects to your synthesizer, which Yamaha assume will be a TX81Z or a DX7. An LED indicates when power is on. You're supposed to hook the pack on your belt. This (plus the power and MIDI leads that tend to get caught round your legs) somewhat lessons the stylish impact of the WX7 itself.

Most impressively, Yamaha have come up with a really neat matt black plastic case which holds the WX7, power pack, leads, a spare mouthpiece and all the other bits and pieces. Akai provide a couple of cardboard boxes and it really irritates me that if you park the EWI horn in the most obvious place, on top of the EVW unit, you almost certainly knock the instrument out of tune! Some kind of stand would be very useful, here.

THE FEEL FACTOR



'Sounds undergoing continuous excitation can carry a great deal of information about the exciting source.' That's a quote from Trevor Wishart's 'Sound Symbols and Landscapes', one of the highlights of a recent anthology called The Language Of Electro-Acoustic Music. Trevor continues: 'This is why sounds generated by continuous physiological human action - such as bowing or blowing - are more 'lively' than sounds emanating, unmediated, from electrical circuits in synthesizers.'

The same essay refers to the work of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, who divided sounds into three main categories: Discrete, Iterative and Continuous. Think about the discrete piano notes of a Thelonius Monk piano solo, an iterative snare roll by Steve Gadd, or a continuous trumpet note played by Miles Davis.

Continuous control of sound from a keyboard, a drum pad, or a guitar is difficult without extra gadgets: wheels and pedals, wang bars, and so on. But with an instrument like the EWI or the WX7, it's as easy as breathing. When you blow a conventional acoustic instrument, your embouchure and diaphragm - your own body - is creating the energy that makes the sound of that horn. A tuba, for instance, 'feels' very different to a clarinet, which in turn feels nothing like a piccolo. The energy in a synthesized instrument comes entirely from electricity, so the feel and sensitivity of a wind synthesizer depends principally on the wind and lip transducers which translate physical effort into electronic currents. And as with all electric and electronic instruments, a small amount of effort can then be turned into an enormous blast of sonic energy.

WIND TRANSDUCER


The EWI and WX7 feel surprisingly similar to blow, although the mouthpieces are radically different. The rubber teat on the EWI covers a closed pressure system - the air doesn't escape anywhere other than out the side of your mouth - and you can sustain impossibly long notes at one volume by covering the hole with your tongue. The threshold, the point at which the instrument recognises that you're playing a note, is set by the outer 'Adjust' knob of the double 'Breath' pot on the EVW2000 sound module. The inner knob sets the sensitivity of the system.

Yamaha calls threshold 'Wind Zero' and sensitivity 'Wind Gain' - and uses tiny screwdriver pots that you have to twiddle on the back of the WX7 itself. You have a choice of a linear or an exponential response curve by flicking over one of the small DIP switches mounted below the pots. The linear setting felt more comfortable to me and more like the EWI. There is also the 'drain plug', a red plastic stopper which can be removed to allow the passage of air through the body of the instrument, and an alternative, crossheaded plug which just allows a bit of air through.

LIP SENSOR


When you squeeze the EWI mouthpiece, it triggers a 'vibrate' function in the EVW module. This is a single-shot sine wave which typically modulates the oscillator to produce a short legato turn, but can also be routed to pulse-width modulation, filter frequency or volume. The speed of this can be adjusted by the 'Vibrate' knob on the console, while the level and type of modulation can be programmed and memorised as part of an EVW sound patch.

This may sound a bit crude, but in practice you can achieve a remarkable degree of control, using the lips to add small amounts of vibrato all the time. It doesn't feel like any other woodwind instrument, but somehow it makes sense. An Akai representative advised me to bite on the mouthpiece but the manual sternly warns: 'Do not bite the mouthpiece with your teeth.'

The WX7 mouthpiece is like a smaller version of the Lyricon one - a sax or clarinet-type barrel with a plastic reed that doesn't vibrate. The lip sensor is a metal lever which is tensed against the reed. A small DIP switch on the back panel gives you a choice of 'Loose Lip' or 'Tight Lip' mode. The former is much easier, but you can only bend up in pitch. Tight Lip mode allows you to slur below notes by loosening the embouchure, bend above by tightening it, and add vibrato at will.

The 'Lip Gain' and 'Lip Zero' pots adjust the responsiveness of the sensor and set up a so-called 'dead zone' at which the pitch remains stable (no bend information going out over MIDI). In theory, this makes the WX7 a more expressive, natural instrument, but I found it hard work to blow, especially going straight from playing the EWI or the Lyricon (the forerunner of the WX7). On the prototype WX7 I played, the reed and lever were too inflexible, and the screwdriver adjustments too fiddly and insensitive to achieve a really comfortable embouchure with a usable 'dead zone'.

Either Yamaha will have to modify their design, or WX7 players will end up customising their horns to suit their needs.

THE KEY SYSTEM



Both wind instruments have 13-key, Boehm-influenced key layouts at the front with eccentric thumb key systems at the rear.

FINGERS


The WX7 has moving keys which - like the Lyricon's - operate tiny contact switches, have a very light action and don't glitch or click.

Always anxious to give us more things to fiddle with (and woodwind players like nothing better), Yamaha offer a choice of three different heights for each of the keys by providing a set of self-adhesive 0.2mm and 0.5mm plastic shims. The whole instrument seems impossibly lightweight and more fragile than it really is.

The EWI, on the other hand, feels decidedly weird because the keys don't move, they are purely contacts and appear to work by 'earthing' through the player's body. If your skin tends to dryness, hand cream may help make a better contact [does it come with a free jar of Nivea? -Ed]. The only screwdriver pot on the whole EWI body is used to adjust the touch sensitivity of the whole key system.

Saxophone players will find it tricky to start with - playing the EWI feels more like playing an open-holed flute or a clarinet. And you can't let your fingers rest on the keys. Neither can you permit your little fingers to dangle lazily around the side keys - one glancing touch and you're a semitone away from the desired note. A screwdriver adjustment enables you to reangle them. The fingering is straightforward and consistent over the seven octaves available - no crossfingering or 'knitting' is necessary.

THUMBS


The EWI boasts an ingenious octave key system which consists of eight metal 'rollers'. For any of the seven octaves the left thumb rests between two of these, and 'home' position is between the knurled third and fourth roller. You have to keep both thumbs in contact with the instrument at all times. The right thumb rests on an earth plate sandwiched between two pitch bend contact plates. These can be adjusted to suit the size of your thumb. Alongside the earth plate is the 'glide plate'. You rock your thumb over this to turn on portamento, which is set by the double 'Glide' knob on the EVW2000 console. The outer 'Adjust' ring sets the threshold while the inner 'Time' pot sets the speed.

So there are three new moves for a previously underemployed thumb to learn, but at least it isn't expected to support the weight of the instrument. Unlike straight horns like the clarinet or soprano sax, the EWI can't really be played without a neck sling.

The WX7 has to be played with a sling as well, and although there is a rest for the right thumb, there's even more to think about. Yamaha have mounted a 'pitch bend' rocker switch to the left of the thumb-rest, plus a 'hold' switch and a 'program change' button below. The left thumb has five octave 'keys' (actually tacky plastic buttons) to worry about. You can play two octaves below and three octaves above the keyless, home position. Someone at the Yamaha R & D Centre in London suggested smearing wax on the octave keys to make them feel better, but I found them unmusical and awkward to play.

By way of compensation, Yamaha have devised a clever set of alternative octave fingerings for all the notes from C to G#. You can jump up an octave by raising two of the left-hand fingers. This makes certain tricky written passages much easier to play than on other wind instruments and may result in EWI and WX7 players developing completely different sets of musical cliches.

TRANSPOSITION


The EVW2000 module includes a nonprogrammable 'Transpose' button which enables you to instantly transpose from C up to Eb (plus three semitones) or down to Eb (minus nine semitones).

The WX7 incorporates a tiny Eb DIP switch, which transposes three semitones up, and another which transposes two semitones down to Bb. This makes it easy for sax players to pick up alto or tenor sax parts and play them in the right key without bother. The whole WX7 can be transposed an octave higher by flipping both switches over to the right, so it does cover the same eight octave range as the EWI.

Transpositions are transmitted over MIDI by both instruments and, of course, there is plenty of scope to store complex transpositions as patches in the Yamaha TX81Z synth expander.

THE SOUND



The EVW2000 sound module is quite straightforward to operate. It consists of a dual analogue synthesizer, each 'sound source' comprising a (VCO) voltage controlled oscillator (with a variety of waveforms), filter (VCF) and amplifier (VCA), envelope generators for the VCF and VCO and another for the VCA. Each 'source' can be controlled differently by breath pressure. You can modulate the VCO, pulse width (if relevant), VCF cut-off frequency and resonance, and the VCA.

The 'vibrate' function modulates both sets of VCO, PWM, VCF, VCA simultaneously, but otherwise you can treat them like two separate synthesizers. Except for a few things like waveforms, pitch or sync on/off, most parameters are programmed as values between 0 and 100 using the data entry slider or the single increment buttons.

There are some useful features like a High Pass Filter, Oscillator Sync, and Wave Envelope FM, but I'd like to see some more modular synthesizer niceties: what about breath controlling envelope attack times; inverse modulation (by EGs, vibrato or breath); and a noise generator?

64 different patches can be 'written' into the EVW memory and backed up on cassette tape if wished. There is an 'Edit/Compare' button and a program change footpedal jack socket. With the right pedal you can step back and forth between patches. Editing patches when you have to keep both hands earthing the EWI is a nuisance, although sometimes you can release your right hand without the note going off.

In concept, and maybe in sound, the EVW is like a baby brother of the Oberheim Xpander, and reaction to the sounds is mixed. Some people worry that it sounds a bit 'thin', and immediately start talking about MIDI-ing up samplers and other synthesizers. Personally, I don't think many people have scratched the surface of what is possible from the EVW/EWI and Akai don't help by supplying it with the duffest set of factory presets I've heard in years! Many of these sounds can be improved immediately by adding a bit of breath control to a couple of parameters, but really! To quote Jimmy Jam: 'If the presets aren't happening, I don't want it... People get paid at the factory to put programs in it... I'm not getting paid to get sounds out of a machine. I'm getting paid to make a record.' (Keyboard, May '87)

One confusing aspect for regular synth programmers is the conflict between breath control and the envelope generators, which are virtually redundant in the most expressive sounds. When you start to use the ADSRs in the normal way, the EWI sounds become less sensitive and less wind-like. This is going to open up a whole new area for clever programmers to make their mark in.

The EVW2000 manual, which drones on about things like 'a release effect after releasing a key' and claims that VCO vibrato 'changes the tone', is not going to inspire or help anyone. Where was Nyle Steiner (its inventor) when they wrote this stuff?

The 23-page Yamaha WX7 manual is clear and well written, but it has a much easier task: the WX7 doesn't make a sound - it is merely a controller.

EXTERNAL SOUND



Since the WX7 has no sound of its own, Yamaha have taken some trouble to provide the WX7 user with some sounds for the TX81Z and the DX7II, cleverly programmed by Sal Gallina, who has also written a book ('Expressive FM Applications') to go with them. This is OK, but some of the information could have been presented in a more muso-friendly fashion. Many of Sal's most impressive sounds are imitative of acoustic instruments - trumpet, string bass, clarinet, etc - and some musical examples in manuscript form would have been useful. I'd also like to have been told how to adapt regular FM keyboard sounds for use with the WX7. A lot of people will get a nasty shock when they discover how horrible their favourite keyboard patches sound when played from the WX7.

Ironically, some of Sal's TX patches sound equally good played from the Akai EWI!

The expressive nature of both wind controllers highlight some of the limitations of MIDI. Sal's TX81Z sounds require the careful use of reverb and/or delay to mask grainy quantisation effects, though this varies from patch to patch. You can sometimes hear a 'stepping' effect as you apply a gradual crescendo. Expressive electronic instruments really are pushing MIDI to its limits and it will be interesting to see which manufacturers (and programmers) meet the challenge first.

As already mentioned, some synths and samplers respond much more efficiently than others: the Roland D50, for example, was very slow and difficult to trigger, whereas the Yamaha TX81Z expander, the Akai S900 sampler, the Emulator II and the oft-mentioned Oberheim Xpander all performed quite happily.

POLYPHONY



The idea of playing a whole brass section's worth of notes at once is a megalomaniac fantasy for many horn players. In 'Chord Play' mode, which is available on any EVW patch, the EWI transmits anything up to a four-note chord over MIDI and you can programme a different voicing for each of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale. This is a staggering feature which I understand wasn't available on the old Steiner EWI. (Michael Brecker achieves his impressive chordings by programming the six-voice Oberheim Xpander.) The independent 'Chord Memory' can store up to 16 different voicings, which are programmed in semitones up to an octave above or below the note played on the EWI itself. By mixing the EVW sound with the polyphonic instrument, you can blast out a five-note chord.

The WX7 'key hold' features are quite different. You have a choice of four modes by flipping different DIP switches. The 'Dual Play (No Breath)' mode will undoubtedly prove the most popular because it enables the player to play solo (on MIDI channel 1) while accompanying him or herself with sustained pedal notes or chords (on MIDI channel 3). Yamaha demonstrator Richard Ingham performs Joe Zawinul's 'In A Silent Way' like this.

'Follow' mode on the WX7 sends a single parallel harmony over the same MIDI channel. 'Normal' mode grabs a note and repeats it with every note you play until the 'hold' key is hit again; and 'Dual Play (Use Breath)' mode is like 'Follow' but with the harmony transmitted on MIDI channel 3.

On the whole I feel that we'll have to wait for musicians and composers to explore the multi-play modes before we discover what they can really do. The WX7 can be impressive in solo performance but the EWI's chord feature appears better suited to playing with a band.

EXTERNAL INPUT



The Akai EWI/EVW offers a unique feature that the Yamaha WX7 can't rival: analogue amplitude and filter modulation of synthesizer or sampler sounds plugged into the external input socket on the EVW. This external sound can replace or be mixed with the 'Source 1' oscillator and controlled in the same way. There is a gain pot by the input jack socket, but the internal balance and control setting can be memorised in EVW patches. This immediately adds expression to sounds or samples which are not responsive to breath control, aftertouch, or volume.

THE LAST BREATH



Both Akai and Yamaha are expecting their customers to take a leap into the unknown. Wind instruments take time to learn, and the WX7 and EWI demand a higher level of involvement and commitment than most keyboards. It will be maybe six or twelve months before lots of really good EWI or WX7 players start to emerge in the professional music arena. The recordings and live performances by such musicians will be the best marketing devices the manufacturers could wish for.

It's happening already. I've recently heard classically-trained saxophonist (and Coda recording artist) David Roach making some marvellous sounds on his EWI-driven Oberheim Xpander. (He'll be using it in the forthcoming production of 'Pied Piper' at the National Theatre, London.) Phil Todd has also been working very hard at the instrument and has already played it on sessions and on jazz gigs with Ian Carr's Nucleus. I've done a few simple sessions myself, and I've found the EWI to be a very useful tool for my own work as a record producer. Using the external input, the EWI adds life to the most unlikely noises and samples when putting the final sweetening touches to a commercial pop track.

Time will tell; there's always so much more to learn about a new instrument, and I haven't had as much time to discover what a fully operational WX7 can do. The road-tested Akai EWI is something like six to twelve months ahead of the WX7 in maturity. What's more, a world-class musician has achieved virtuoso status on the horn. Michael Brecker, who commands enormous respect amongst professional saxophone players, has already developed a personal style and sound. There's been a 'buzz' about the EWI ever since the release of Steps Ahead's 'Magnetic' (Electra) LP in 1986 and Brecker's recent UK concerts and solo album on MCA/Impulse have provoked more interest.

Ultimately, a handful of musicians will determine how we all view and use these wind instruments - I don't see them becoming as ubiquitous as the DX7 or the Linn Drum though.

Comparing the WX7 with the EWI is a bit like comparing a KX88 mother keyboard with an old Yamaha CS80, but in general you might say that the WX7 feels more like a saxophone and the EWI feels like nothing on earth. The WX7, of course, is only as good as the synth it is playing; and as responsive as the MIDI bus will allow it to be, whereas the EWI has its own sound source and speed.

Yamaha are already listening hard to musicians' reactions, and I feel sure Akai will continue to do the same. The EWI and the WX7 are far from being perfect instruments. Each has features you might like to see on the other. Each one has idiosyncracies which might put you off wind synths altogether. But both horns represent brave, serious attempts by major manufacturers to open up one of the most fruitful areas of expression for electronic instruments. They deserve our attention and encouragement.

MIDI

Both the Yamaha WX7 and the Akai EWI transmit enormous amounts of MIDI data compared to the average keyboard - a simple blues number completely filled my MC500 sequencer before I reached the out-choruses; playing the WX7 in Tight Lip mode eats up even more memory space.

Think about it: a continuous stream of emotional nuances have been translated, more or less efficiently, into byte after byte of MIDI data which now threatens to clog up your whole system. MIDI delays are a real problem once you start linking up sequencers or daisy-chaining synths, and your favourite keyboards will not always respond as well as you might expect.

Both instruments generate MIDI note-on, note-off and note numbers in the normal manner.

The EWI/EVW gives you a choice between transmitting breath control as breath control (Continuous Controller 2), volume (CC7), channel aftertouch or not at all, and can transmit on any MIDI channel from 1 to 16. There is also a 'threshold' function, which increases the breath intensity at which the note-on message triggers, and a program change enable/disable function.

The MIDI menu, with the perplexing exception of volume, is memorised when you turn the power off but cannot be stored with any of the EVW's 64 programmable patches. The WX7, on the other hand, only transmits on MIDI channel 1 unless you're in 'Dual Play' mode, but permits you to have volume as well as either breath control or aftertouch. These are selected by more tiny DIP switches.

(Incidentally, there is no such thing as true aftertouch on either instrument - this is merely a convenience to allow you to control synthesizers that don't recognise breath control or volume.) The WX7's pitch bend has only 7-bit resolution compared to the 8-bit resolution of the EWI. This is a shame, considering that the WX7 mouthpiece is potentially much more 'organic' and expressive than the EWI thumb plate. The WX7 does transmit what you might call 'breath velocity', where the EWI just puts out a standard value of 64.

Wind synthesizers turn MIDI on its head, and some keyboards don't perform very well at all - so take care.


Price Akai EWI £699; EWV2000 synth module £599 (both incVAT).

Contact Akai (UK), (Contact Details)

Price Yamaha WX7 "around £750" inc VAT.

Contact Yamaha-Kemble (UK), (Contact Details).


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Great Audio Concepts

Next article in this issue

The Intelligent One


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Dec 1987

Review by John L. Walters

Previous article in this issue:

> Great Audio Concepts

Next article in this issue:

> The Intelligent One


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