Akai EWI USB and me

Published on Fri 12 November 2010 under music

At the recent Bratislava Jazz Days, I was intrigued by the sight of Marián Jaslovský of Silvia Fourporation playing the Akai EWI 4000s electronic wind instrument. I used to play tenor saxophone as a hobby but I put it on hold a few years ago mainly due to the fact I had no way of practicing without disturbing the neighbors (I live in an apartment). The EWI seemed like a great way around that as it can be listened to via earphones. I had considered buying one before but I was put off by the expense. With my interest now re-kindled, I looked into the matter again and found the prices much more likeable. Crucially, I discovered the new USB variant.

The difference between the older 4000s and the USB model boils down to the latter being strictly a MIDI peripheral for a computer. It has no audio output (i.e. no built-in synthesizer) and it's powered only via its USB connection. Compared to its older sibling, the EWI USB is a no-fuss, light, inexpensive affair. Still, it is by no means a toy. It features a robustly built body with virtually no moving parts (there are touch-sensitive metallic pads instead of keys) and the sound one can produce is only limited by the quality of the synthesizer the instrument is plugged into.

Having spent some time with the unit since I purchased it, I must say I'm thoroughly satisfied. It feels very natural in my hands. The mouthpiece is completely different from the saxophone but I knew I wasn't going to replicate the experience perfectly anyway. The tactile feedback is different as well since the "keys" don't move but I find the experience very much similar to what I was used to. Touching a pad feels just like finishing a key-press in that there is a definite, solid limit to the motion of the finger. And when I set the software synthesizer to the right sound it really does feel just like an acoustic wind instrument, albeit not a saxophone. The feeling is quite thrilling and has to be experienced to be believed.

There are quirks as well, of course. The instrument cannot be simply picked up and played - I have to uncoil the cables, plug the USB cable into the EWI, plug the other end into my notebook, plug in the headphones - oh, and boot the notebook and log in, obviously. So there is a "transaction cost" to every session, one cannot just pick the thing up for five relaxing minutes. This would be different if I had a dedicated netbook just for the EWI as many people seem to prefer (especially those who also perform) but I don't really mind. I need hundreds of hours of practice to get back into form, anyway.

Another difficulty is the mouthpiece which puts up a lot of resistance. I once tried playing an oboe and this feels similar - it takes more energy to push air through the mouthpiece than was the case with my saxophone. I believe this is something I simply need to get used to but right now I often end up out of breath.

One last quibble I have with the instrument is the feeble neckstrap that simply doesn't do it justice. I already had to mend it with superglue. But that's really a minor point and I'm sure most wind players will have a quality neckstrap lying around.

One thing I haven't mentioned is the veritable odyssey involved in making the thing work with my computer. I use Linux so I knew it wouldn't be that easy; it wasn't and there are still a few details to work out. That's a topic for another post, however. My main point for now: the EWI wants to be played. When I come home from work and look at it I immediately feel like picking it up and taking a few practice runs. I find that simply priceless.

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