Akai EWI4000s Review

EWI stands for electronic wind instrument; this one is basically an analog modeling synth within a wind controller, so don’t expect realistic sounds without hooking the MIDI out to another sound generator that has high quality samples or physical modeling. I’ve recently been experimenting with playing the clarinet over ambient/spacey landscapes and after reading a review of this instrument in Keyboard magazine I decided to check it out. I first heard the EWI back in the 1980s with its very thin portamento sound played by Michael Brecker (RIP) and the guy from Shadowfax. It always sounded like a cheap synth, but not anymore. This thing is an analog modeling beast, and hooked up to another synth is positively monstrous...and fun.

I took up the clarinet about five years ago. I always wanted to play a horn and settled on the clarinet because it was the cheapest horn available. No one told me it had the most difficult woodwind fingerings to learn. The EWI uses saxophone fingering, although a recent software update also added brass fingering as well. You need a totally different embouchure from woodwinds; you’ve got to let some air escape from the sides of your mouth or you feel like your blowing through a thin straw. You gently bite the mouthpiece to produce vibrato; blowing can control — and send to the MIDI out — breath, vibrato, glide time, and bend width info. If you play the sax it may take a bit to get used to the EWI. There are no tone holes per se, but instead they are more like touch plates. There’s a metal plate on the back for the right hand that you use for pitch bend by moving your thumb up or down. The eight-octave range on the EWI is controlled by your placement of your left thumb between metal rollers on the back; effectively moving through the octaves is the toughest learning curve on this instrument. You can step up and down through patches via two buttons on the side or you can set it up so each touching each tone “hole” calls up a different patch.

There’s a two VCO analog modeling synth inside the EWI, each with an adjustable mix of sawtooth, triangle, and square waves with pulse-width modulation. There’s a shared VCF selectable between low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and band-reject that can either be two or four poles with adjustable resonance. There’s a formant filter, and also a separate noise generator with its own VCF. There’s no envelopes because those are defined by your breath. You can’t edit any of these parameters on the EWI itself, but it comes with software that makes it easy to edit and create new sounds. The onboard sounds range from fat sawtooth and singing square wave lead sounds to classic sweeping two-voice pads. A nice selection that are very warm and not too digital sounding. There’s also built-in effects — reverb, chorus, and delay — that can be set at the patch level. There’s a line out, a headphone jack, plus MIDI in and MIDI out ports. It sends out a variety of MIDI information simultaneously if you want to control the patches on your other synths. You can run this unit on four AA batteries or an AC adapter. With the batteries the weight is similar to a clarinet; not heavy at all even though there’s a lot of metal on this instrument, but not light as a toy.

At first I thought I wasn’t going to adapt to the mouthpiece, but it’s very comfortable and adapts easily to different breath levels. This is a very sensitive instrument, and you can tweak the sensitivity of all the controls if you need to via small dials on the back of the unit. By lightly biting the mouthpiece you can add and control vibrato via the internal LFO. I was a little afraid of biting through the mouthpiece but it seems very sturdy. There’s also a hold function you can press to basically set up a drone and then play note over that, with the choice of either having the drone end when you’re done blowing a phrase or have it continue to sound. There’s also an octave function that will play an octave below the note you blow or you can set it for any interval. In combination with the hold function you can create some interesting sounds with just these two features. Add the delay and it really starts to take off. I’m using a Boss DD-20 delay pedal to create some complex soundscapes with just the EWI, and may add another delay to take this road even further. I haven’t had this much fun making music in a long time and I find myself going in directions I’ve never considered before. All in all a nice alternative to banging keys with your hands.