Basics of Wind Sythesizers

Akai EWI Series of Wind Synthesizers Yamaha WX Series of Wind Synthesizers

So What is a Wind Synthesizer Controller?

A Wind Synthesizer, also called a Wind Controller is an electronic musical instrument that is played like a saxophone, recorder, trumpet, or clarinet. In fact, some people who watch us play wind controllers indeed call these instruments "electronic clarinets". There is no sound made directly by a wind controller, just electrical signals. These signals travel through a wire to a synthesizer module that converts these electrical signals into audio signals that can be played through ordinary amplifiers and speakers.

Wind Synthesizers are not nearly as popular as keyboard based synthesizers, but wind synths are often labeled as being significantly more expressive in making music. This is because the volume of the musical notes is controlled by the player's breath. It is this breath control which is central to the expressive feeling of the music. Couple the nuances of breath control with other controllers such as pitch bending via thumb or jaw, and a musician can create emotional, expressive music with synthesizers in ways most electronic keyboards cannot. Keyboards use velocity based volume control, but a wind synth uses breath based volume control for a more natural sound.

WX5, WX11 and WX7 Wind Controllers

The Yamaha WX5 wind controller is the current state of the art from Yamaha in wind synth and the most popular wind synth controller for all types of players. Before the WX5 there was the WX11 (now discontinued) and WX7 (also discontinued), all very popular while being produced. WX7 and WX11 wind controllers are still widely available on the used instrument market. WX11 Wind Controller The Yamaha WX series allows a wind player access to a wide variety of synthesizer sounds through the expressiveness of a wind instrument. These controllers do not make any sounds by themselves, but generate a MIDI data stream to any external MIDI synthesizer (tone generator). WX7 Wind Controller

If you are a sax player, then a wind controller like the WX5, WX11, or WX7 is just the thing for you. In addition to the expected note selection through saxophone fingerings, the WX wind controllers also send MIDI continuous controller information (like pitchbend) through a pressure sensor attached to a plastic "reed", and breath control information (like volume) through a blow pressure sensor. The combination of these two continuous controller data streams combine with the MIDI note fingerings to create an expressiveness unmatched by typical keyboards.

VL70m Wind Synthesizer (Physical Modeling)

VL70m Synthesizer VL70m synthesizer was designed as the companion MIDI tone generator for all the Yamaha WX series wind controllers, although other controllers like those from Akai work very well with the VL70m too. This synth was specifically designed to work with breath control and has an on-board set of patches (voices) that can be immediately played via breath control. Unlike more typical keyboard based synthesizers which are velocity based, the VL70m synth was designed for breath based control of voices. The VL70m is by far the most popular synthesizer module for wind synth players. There's a direct plug-in port to connect any of the Yamaha WX series wind controllers.

The VL70m can only play one note at a time. This usually isn't a problem for wind players, but if you want layering, drones, or double stops, you need to add a second synthesizer. The VL1-m synth described below has two synth engines internally, and can play two notes/voices at one time, allowing layering and other effects.

Note: In mid-2013, Yamaha discontinued the VL70m. We are currently talking with Yamaha to understand what they are recommending as a companion synth to go with the WX5 controller.

VL1-m Physically Modeled Synthesizer

VL1m Synthesizer The Yamaha VL1-m synthesizer module is one of the most expressive synth modules ever bult for wind control. While physically large in its 3U rack mount chassis, the user interface and on-screen editing is incredibly flexible. The VL1m synth generates its sounds through 'physical modeling' (PM) which is essentially a set of math equations that describe how vibrations would occur within an object. There are math equations for the object which creates the vibrations, such as mouthpieces, reeds, violin bows, and buzzing lips. There are also math equations for instrument bodies (tubes: like in a clarinet; boxes: like in a cello), as well as other aspects of musical instruments - real or imagined. The VL1-m synth takes these equations and computes the behavior of the vibrations using very fast math computers, commonly called DSP chips (digital signal processing chips). The result of all this intense computation is an audio waveform which can then be amplified and brought to the real world through speakers. The result is a synthesizer which sounds beautiful, and more importantly behaves like real tubes with vibrations (i.e. clarinets, saxes, cellos). For a wind synth player, where there are many variables which can be adjusted while playing (i.e. wind velocity, bite pressure, etc.), the physically modeled synthesizer can be made to behave like a physical system would. The VL1-m has been discontinued by Yamaha, but the less expensive, single voice physically modeled synthesizer, the VL70m has replaced it and is described above.

WT11 Wind Synthesizer (4-operator FM)

WT11 Synthesizer The WT11 is the companion MIDI tone generator to the WX11 controller. An older technology "4-operator" FM synthesizer, the WT11 is no longer manufactured by Yamaha. It is nearly indentical to the TX81Z and DX100 synths from Yamaha. With patches (sounds) specifically designed for wind control and an onboard digital reverb/effects capability, the WT11 allows for quick access to the enhanced expressiveness of a wind controller. While the 4-operator FM technology isn't the latest thing on the block, it does indeed work well with wind control. There's a direct plug-in port to connect any of the Yamaha WX series wind controllers. Don't expect "sample quality" sounds of saxes, horns, and guitars, but do expect a nice fat sound with lots of range to explore timbre changes as you change blow pressure or reed pressure.

EWI-USB Wind Controller

USB-EWI Wind Controller Akai's most affordable, turnkey wind controller is the the EWI-USB. Because it's USB, you plug this directly into your computer and play the included software synth (softsynth). This is an outstanding, instrument for any wind controller player just getting into wind control. It's pricing is exceptionally low compared to other controllers currently available. This is our current recommendation for people new to wind controllers.

EWI5000 Wind Controller

EWI5000 Wind Controller At the 2014 Winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants), Akai announced the EWI 5000 Wind Controller. This is a wireless controller in the familiar Akai EWI format including glide strip and octave rollers. Major retailers are reporting a selling price of $799. From the Akai press release:

Akai Professional unleashed the EWI 5000, a new wind controller that delivers “authentic wind-instrument performance and response for the digital era.” The EWI 5000 automatically calibrates and adapts to your playing style, and it ships with 3GB of acoustic and progressive sounds by SONiVOX. It also sports USB and MIDI, plus wireless operation for freedom of movement onstage. Akai Professional EWI 5000 Features:

  • Wireless electronic wind instrument
  • Genuine wind-instrument feel and performance for the digital era
  • 3GB of acoustic and progressive sounds by SONiVOX
  • Automatically calibrates and adapts to your playing style
  • Wireless audio for on-stage freedom (includes receiver)
  • USB port; MIDI out; 1/4″ audio out, 1/8″ headphone out
  • Includes neck strap, charger, USB Cable, and wireless receiver

EWI4000S Wind Controller

EWI4000 Wind Controller Akai's premier wind controller is the the EWI4000S, (soon to be replaced by the newly announced EWI5000). This 4000S controller allows outstanding breath response with additional controllers for pitch bend (up and down), vibrato, and glide. The keys are touch sensitive, and hence are lightning fast. This touch sensitivity, coupled with the wide array of controllers makes this wind controller from Akai very popular with players. Unlike older Akai EWI models, the new EWI4000s has an on-board internal synthesizer so you don't need to buy a separate synthsizer module. This internal synth is analog style, so don't expect perfect digital samples like on a modern synthesizer, but it's an organic, nice feeling synth very well suited for wind control. And you can always connect the EWI4000s directly into any MIDI synthesizer of your choosing. This is an outstanding, professional instrument for any serious wind controller player.

EWI3020 Wind Controllers

EWI3020 Wind Controller Akai has produced many fine wind controllers prior to the EWI4000S, specifically the EWI3020 electronic wind instrument. Now out of production, the EWI3020 wind controller allows outstanding breath response with additional controllers for pitch bend (up and down), vibrato, and glide. As noted on the EWI4000s, the keys are touch sensitive and very fast. This touch sensitivity can be a challenge for sax players used to resting fingers on the keys, but it's a short learning curve to get used to the touch keys. This controller does not make any sounds itself, but just generates 6 analog voltages (key, octave, breath, vibe, glide) that are fed to a "brainbox" synth module. There are two models made by Akai as required companions to the EWI3020 wind controller. There is no built-in synth, as that was part of the required rack modules (see below).

EWI3020 Synth Module The Akai EWI3020m is a 2U rack style "brainbox" and analog synth module designed specifically to go with the EWI3020. Like the EWI3020, this is out of production now, but available on the used instrument market. The interface portion of the module sends power to the EWI wind controller, as well as conditions and digitizes the 6 analog voltages that control the synthesizer. In addition to control of the included analog synth, the unit also has MIDI in, out, and thru for connection to other synths. One big feature of this module is the ability to play chords, as well as a unique "External Analog Input" function that allows the Akai EWI3020 wind controller to control externally generated analog signals.

EWI3030 Synth Module The Akai EWI3030m is a 2U rack style synth module like the above noted EWI3020m, but based on digital samples and control. Unlike the analog synth engine in the 3020m, the 3030m is equipped with digital synthesizer electronics for sound production. This module, also discontinued, performs all the same "brainbox" functions as the EWI3020m, as well as External Analog Input and chord playing. EWI3020 controllers can plug into either the EWI3020m or EWI3030m. Only one is required.

EVI1000 with EWV2000 Synth Module The Akai EVI1000 is a wind controller from the late 1980's that used trumpet style fingerings. Despite it's trumpet fingerings, the mouthpiece is a pressure sensor with bite sensor of a design common with all EWI instruments. Because you don't "buzz" your lips or overblow, to access the 4th you touch a sense button on the canister. Speaking of the canister, it's a rotating plastic housing that allows your left thumb to roll over the octave keys. This cannister looking octave housing gives the instrument it's distinstive shape, and the original players sometimes called this EVI the "bug sprayer". The EVI1000 controller required the EWV2000 3U rack style synth module to interface with the controller, produce sounds with it's onboard analog synthesizer, and produce midi output.

Morrison Digital Trumpet Wind Controller

Morrison Digital Trumpet The Morrison Digital Trumpet (MDT) is one of the newest wind controllers available today, and it is based on a trumpet fingering. Modern in every respect, this wind controller is a more familiar holding and blowing configuration than the EVI or other early trumpet controllers. With a solid state pressure sensor, 10 octave range, this wind controller will produce midi output directly, providing 10 controllers (2 buttons, 3 sensors, and 5 assigned to the breath sensor).

XPression Synthesizer Module

XPression Synth Module The XPression synthesizer module is considered the current best in class synthesizer module for wind controllers. It combines sampling with modeling to create excellent wind voices. While we have not tried this module here at WindWorks Design, many of our trusted wind synth players are very pleased with the XPression and recommend it. The downside it that it's quite expensive.