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Pete and the Akai EWI USB

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
DAY 1:
I was gifted an Akai EWI USB. (Thanks again, gifter!) I finally got my PC set up so I could install the software for the EWI (short for "Electronic Wind Instrument"). As mentioned elsewhere, I used to own a Yamaha WX11 wind controller and used to own a plethora of electronic instruments. I even taught a (as in one) class at college regarding electronic instruments, MIDI, sequencers, and music publishing software. So, I'm not a newbie, but it's been about 20ish years since I sold my Yamaha WX11.

The Akai EWI (which Akai pronounces as "ee-wee") is available in several flavors: the top-of-the line is the EWI 5000 was introduced in 2014. It's also $800. The EWI USB was introduced in 2008 and is the introductory model, with a much lower price: $300. The main similarity of all the Akai EWIs is that they don't have real keys to press down, like you'd find on a real woodwind. They're touch sensitive capacitive keys. It's like touching a screen on an older iPad or something: nothing really "presses down." That's a disadvantage to me because I'm really used to the tactile feedback. Hey, I use mechanical computer keyboards, too.

* I've got Windows 10 Pro 64-bit. The box says that the EWI supports XP and Vista. However, if you go to the Akai website, there's a note that says that Windows 10 is supported.
* Setup of the software was relatively pain free. You get a CD that contains drivers and a virtual instrument player. The virtual instrument software is a custom version of Garritan's Aria player that supports breath control 'n' related MIDI data. I also downloaded and installed the Aria update from Akai's website.
* Connecting the EWI was dead simple: connect the provided 3 meter long USB cable to the EWI and to a USB 2.0 or 3.0 port on your computer. There's a note in the manual that if Aria doesn't recognize the EWI, you should use a USB port on your computer, not a USB hub. However, it worked fine with my powered USB 3.0 hub (Tripp-Lite brand), though.

That's about all the manual mentions. The rest is more-or-less up to you to figure out.

* I knew that the mouthpiece on the EWI was removable and washable. I did that first. There are no instructions on how to actually remove said mouthpiece. Luckily, that's easy: one "captive" screw in mouthpiece. Required a long Phillips jeweler screwdriver, but I have a set.
* I wondered how the heck to change the fingering system. It's supposed to support basic sax, flute, and clarinet fingerings (the EWI doesn't have the keywork to support most alternate fingerings), but how to switch between them isn't in the manual. It's actually a setting in the Aria player. This, to me, also means that I might have to use the MIDI output of Aria into a different virtual instrument, should I want to upgrade the sounds and continue to use saxophone fingerings. However, it's possible that the software makes a setting for the EWI and it's set in the EWI. I'm going to have to explore a bit on that.

So, with that done, I got to play with the EWI a bit. I decided to test with the flute sound, because the sax sound isn't that great and the clarinet sound is a bit below average. The flute sounded decent in the demo.

* According to the manual, you have to have your thumbs touching a couple metal pieces to make the keys work. Completing a circuit or some such. The metal piece for this on the right hand is below what I'd use for a thumbrest if the "thumbrest" wasn't set to do pitch bending (I could disable the pitch bend in software, I know, but the manual doesn't mention how to do this) and the metal piece for the left hand is a really thin strip next to the octave roller keys. That doesn't feel very good.
* I also felt I was blowing really, really hard to get notes to come out. I went looking for the breath controller controls in Aria. Sure enough, the control was completely off. Let's jack that up to 50%. Much better. Again, not in the manual.

I know that the feel will take a lot of getting used to. As an example, if you look at that demo link I posted above, you'll notice how high the guy lifts his fingers from the EWI after he plays a note. That's because if you play like me, a guy who was originally a clarinet player and almost never lifted my fingers higher that the keys on a clarinet or sax pop-up, you're probably going to accidentally hit one of the "keys" on the EWI and that'll make the thing play the wrong note.

The mouthpiece was relatively comfortable for me. The mouthpiece tip that you put into your mouth is moderately soft rubber or some other synthetic. I was pleasantly surprised at that. I had thought that the mouthpiece wouldn't feel very good because it's not saxophone- or clarinet-like.

I feel that it weighs a little less than a clarinet. There is a neckstrap hook on the EWI and I used the included neckstrap, even though I really didn't need it. I can say that my thumbs kept slipping off the capacitive touch pads, so I might have to play with the angle I hold the thing at.

So, overall, I'm cautiously optimistic about playing with this in the future. I do think that the lack of info in the manual is a real negative for most folks. However, it's the cheapest EWI on the market.

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A final note, for this initial article. Garritan also has a newer version of the Aria Player. (Available HERE and HERE. It's free, BTW, so grab a copy, and grab the free sound pack). I did download, install, and try this. It doesn't support breath controller data.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
A COUPLE MORE DAYS IN ...
First, I did mention that there's that new version of the Aria Player. If you're wanting to use it with the Akai-provided Aria software, skip it. I found out that the Akai version of Aria became crashtastic. Additionally, while I could uninstall the NEW version of Aria, I couldn't uninstall the Akai version. Even going back to a System Restore point didn't work. It's going to be a Windows reinstall. Not a terribly big deal for me, but it's a tad annoying.

Second, when I did get my computer up and limping and got the EWI playing, my wife, who's a clarinet, sax, and flute player asked to give it a try. She ... didn't like it.

Anyhow, I did play with the EWI a bunch more. I mentioned, last time, that one of the really big problems I had was that thumbrest. I couldn't find a setting anywhere to turn the pitch bend sensor off. Low tech solution: I put a couple layers of tape over the sensor. Works fine. I'll do some research online and see if there's a better solution.

I've also gotten somewhat used to the octave "keys." There are four rollers for the octave keys, with the highest and lowest roller in fixed positions. My opinion is that this layout doesn't quite work very well. If there was a bit of space between the rollers and if the rollers didn't roll (and if they were a bit bigger) I'd be a lot happier. I don't necessarily think that the setup on the Yamaha, which has a couple buttons both above and below the left thumbrest, is better, but it feels like it makes a bit more sense to your average sax player.

One thing I do have to keep reminding myself is that there aren't extra chromatic keys. I keep trying to hit a side key for C and Bb and I'm hitting either air or one of those EWI touch-sensitive keys, which means you hear a sound like "phttttb! :TrebleClef::Line3:."

More later!
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
TL; DR: Core 2 Duo computer with > 4gb RAM and a better sound card that supports AISO will help bunches.

===============

Latency used to be a much bigger problem than it is now. That's one of the reasons why you can get all those virtual instruments now. Today's computers are good enough and fast enough that a keyboard with built-in sounds is kinda obsolete.

There are two things, in the case of latency and the EWI. If you have less than an Intel Core 2 Duo processor with less than 4gb of memory, you'll probably have latency problems. Full stop. However, if you have the world's fastest computer with a really old sound card, you're also going to have latency problems. The Akai software setup allows you to use AISO emulation software because a lot of computers, straight out of the box, don't support AISO and Aria wants to use that. So, the entire route is EWI -> computer -> AISO -> sound card. If you have a sound card that supports AISO -- like mine, an external sound "box," a Scarlett Solo -- you're eliminating one of the "stops" between the EWI and the thing that generates the sound.

Another "stop" between the EWI and computer is the USB interface. USB 2.0 is speedy enough, but what's happening is (probably) the EWI is trying to convert MIDI data to USB and the EWI driver software is trying to convert that USB data back to MIDI so the Aria player can have something to play.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
Speaking of articulation, I mentioned I like the feel of the EWI's mouthpiece. I still do, but tonguing the thing is very different from tonguing a sax or clarinet. There's no reed to close; there's just a hole in the mouthpiece. That means that you have to close this hole with your tongue. So, instead of going "dat dat dat dat," it's kinda like just sticking out your tongue like you're a frog trying to catch a bug.

I have started to hit some EWI info and forum pages. I'm not finding much on technique, yet. One thing I am finding is that a lot of EWI USB players trade them in for Yamaha WX5s.

I have started to enjoy the flute and bass clarinet sounds that come with Aria. I have definitely heard better, but these are fairly expressive and sound decent enough that someone would do a double-take.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
One thing I am finding is that a lot of EWI USB players trade them in for Yamaha WX5s.
Called it!

Today I bought a very inexpensive, used WX5. About 1/2 retail. Before I did so, I asked the person that gave me the Akai if "they" had any problems with me selling the Akai to get the WX5. Nope. Cool. So, expect to see my Akai listed for sale, soon. I should get it in 5 to 7 days. I think it's shipped from Wisconsin.

The major reason for me to get the WX5 is because I'd also like my wife to be able to play the EWI, too, and she just couldn't get over the Akai's keywork. I was starting to get used to it. Really. I would still have to do a lot of work with tonguing. I also have a relatively rare opportunity to be able to compare the WX5 to the Akai, side-by-side and that's cool. One disclaimer, of course: the Akai retails for $299 and the WX5 retails for $549. In other words, by paying more, you get more features. It's a little unfair to say that because the Akai USB doesn't have a 7-octave range it's inherently not as good. Again, the main difference between the Akai 4000/5000 (which have 7 octave ranges) and the USB models is that the 4000/5000 has a built-in synth. The fingering and keywork is the same on all three. And, FWIW, the horns I'd emulate generally only play in a two to three octave range and the Akai USB more than covers that.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I had one for awhile...the high end Akai 5000....I could never figure out the rollers used in place of the octave key.

I was in a restaurant where a jazz guitar was backing something that sounded hideous....yup, the ole Akai 5000. I sold mine on ebay the next week at a little bit of a profit. I suppose I'm a bit of a Luddite: I don't feel electricity needs to be a requirement to play music.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
The main reason why I'm currently interested in EWIs is because playing sax and/or clarinet hurts my head. Helen has a similar but much worse version of the neuro problems I have and I have absolutely no idea how she can still play. That impresses me to no end. So, for me, playing an EWI scratches the itch I have to play a "woodwind" and it doesn't cause as much pain, and it'll be even less if I can configure the breath control for volume a bit better :).

The reason why I picked up a Yamaha WX11 way back in the late 80s was because I had intended on trying to play bass parts for the orchestra I was in and to input music into Finale/Composer faster than I could with a keyboard (I couldn't). IIRC, I had to trade an acoustic instrument for the WX11, but the details of said trade now escape me.

I think electricity is required for some things musical. I don't think that a lot of 60s to today music would exist without synthesizers and electric guitars. Some of the stuff by the Beatles wouldn't sound the same without some of the electronic instruments of that day -- although, arguably, they were skilled enough to get around that. They'd sound a lot different, though. :p
 
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