I have had an Akai EWI-USB for several years now – all the photos in this post are of my EWI and it has lasted well being from being taken to many venues and being kicked over by band members. I’ve played it for live performances and studio recording, so I have a pretty good idea of its pros and cons. This review is purely based on my own experiences with the EWI. I have not tried any other make or model, so any comments I have on there options are by observation only.
Before you begin reading this: if you are a saxophone purist then this post is not for you. If you think that MIDI instruments are not real instruments then that’s fine, but stop reading now. I do not pretend that I am actually playing a saxophone when blowing into my EWI, triggering pre-recorded saxophone samples. It cannot match the small nuances of sound, style and character that a real saxophone has. It can ‘fool’ some people when played properly that they are listening to a real saxophone. Nobody is pretending that the EWI is bettering any ‘real’ instrument. I didn’t pick up the EWI because I couldn’t be bothered to learn the intricacies of a real instrument – I actually can play a sax (tenor and soprano) and many types of whistles and uilleann pipes.
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The Akai EWI Models
The Akai EWI sell in three different models. The EWI5000, EWI4000s and the EWI-USB. EWI stands for Electronic Wind Instrument. They are also called Wind Synthesisers and MIDI Wind Controllers. There are other manufactures of EWIs, e.g. Yamaha.
I want to mention the other two Akai EWIs first, so you can see my reasoning for going with the EWI-USB. The EWI4000s and EWI5000 have built-in sounds, including sax, cello, synth, clarinet, brass etc. They can also deliver MIDI via a USB connector. There is a jack output for the sound to connect to a stereo DI box/Amplifier. The EWI5000 also incorporates a wireless audio interface for wire-free connectivity. However, it does not send MIDI commands via wireless.
I’m not a fan of the built-in sounds, especially of the saxes. Have a look at the YouTube link below to hear the examples of these sounds.
They don’t sound authentic enough for my liking. I wanted to use better sound samples than these, so I needed the device to be a MIDI Controller. I didn’t see the point of paying out the extra money on the built-in sounds.
I think Akai missed a trick with the EWI5000 by not sending MIDI via wireless connection. Perhaps they’ll create a model in the future that will do this.
Details of the EWI-USB
The EWI-USB is purely a MIDI Controller, i.e. it has no built-in sounds and no audio output. The output is a USB port at the bottom of the controller on the underside. The cable is secured by a plastic cable grip and then goes into your computer, where the magic happens. You are left with a cable to trip up on, so you need to take care. Also, I have trod on the cable a few times during a performance and pulled the cable out of the socket – that’s a bit embarrassing when it happens! The USB powers the controller and it is ready when the little green LED shows solid at the back.
It has 13 note ‘keys’, arranged something like a cross between a sax, a clarinet and a recorder. The keys are actually touch sensors; they do not move. Several of them have indentations in them so that you can places your fingers easier. You place your finger pads on the keys like you would on a sax or clarinet, not how you would play uilleann pipes or a low whistle (centres of your fingers).
It can play notes in the range of 5 octaves. There are 4 octave rollers on the back where a traditional octave key would be for the left hand; only the centre rollers move. For many woodwind instruments this is not realistic and produces some interesting sounds.
At the traditional lower hold position for the thumb on the right hand is a ground plate and two bend sensors. A ground plate is needed to form an electrical circuit through you and the instrument. It is only a tiny, harmless current so it won’t harm you! The bend sensors are interesting as they bend a note upwards or downwards depending on the amount of pressure you apply to them.
Just below the sensors is a reset button, which resets the Wind Controller hardware.
Halfway up the back of the controller is a metal loop, to which you attach a neck strap. The instrument is not heavy at all; it weighs about 590g. In fact, the designers added weights into the controller to give it a better feel in the hands.
The mouthpiece is quite strange but works well. It is made of silicone rubber and contains a bite sensor that can be used to modulate a note. A gentle squeeze between your teeth adds some vibrato. The mouthpiece is replaceable in case you chew it off one day. I have never needed to replace mine, though I have removed it a few times to clean it in warm soapy water. I keep the protective cap on when not using the EWI as it could be damaged.
Blowing – How Not to Explode
Blowing the EWI-USB if very different to playing a sax or a whistle. The breath goes down two channels in the mouth piece used to measure how hard you are blowing. There is quite a lot of resistance to the breath, so much so that it can be hard to play without letting out some of the air in your mouth. I have learned to allow air to escape through the sides of my mouth while playing to relieve the pressure. It does make a bit of noise but not noticeable to your audience. This is my method and others may have other methods. If you don’t relieve this pressure you can feel faint and run out of breath!
The Aria Player
The EWI-USB comes with the Aria Player from Garritan, who are a producer of music software and excellent sound libraries. I particularly like their World Instruments library. This is a standalone music player that runs on both an Apple Mac or a Windows PC. I use mine with a MacBook Pro running MacOS Sierra. It runs well with this and have not had any issues with it. I did try it on a PC running Windows 7. There were some issues with latency (the time it takes between playing a note and hearing the sound), and ended up using a low latency sound driver called ASIO4ALL; a life saver!
The Aria Player comes with VST, AU and RST support. I have used these with Logic Pro and GarageBand on the Mac and Reaper on the PC.
The sound samples are usable. It doesn’t do a bad cello and violin with added vibrato. I have used the flute samples a few times too. My main interests were the sax samples. I found these to be quite weak and thin. I decided to look for some better samples.
Better Sax Performance
Sample Modelling have come up with some pretty amazing sax samples among others. I original used Mr Sax T. but now use ‘The Saxophones’ using the SWAM engine. These samples have a very authentic sound and allow a huge range of expression of sounds. I thoroughly recommend Sample Modelling sax samples.
Here is an example from my own composition of Soprano Sax using the SWAM engine from Sample Modelling :
I have really enjoyed using the EWI-USB, it is a very versatile instrument. I have used it with Logic Pro X, GarageBand, Reaper and Kontakt 5, for saxes, cello, french horns, trumpets and even uilleann pipes. I wouldn’t recommend it for drums, guitar or keyboards – it can get ridiculous.
For performance purposes using the MacBook Pro I use MainStage, which does the job well with the SWAM Engine.
Even though the sounds are sampled, it is your expression and timing that people hear. Expression and playing sensitively to the music is everything. These are skills that need to be learned to play any instrument well.