Frequently Asked Questions
About Wind Synthesizers
Q: Which Wind Synth should I buy? (short answer)
A: Yamaha WX5 Wind Controller with Yamaha VL70m synthesizer module, or the Akai EWI-USB which includes a software synth and requires a computer.
Q: Which Wind Synth Should I Buy? (long answer)
A: Essentially, you have two choices - Yamaha or Akai.
Yamaha currently manufactures the WX5, and previously made a WX7 and a WX11. The WX11 and WX7 are both available on the used market. WX5 is the most popular, but some here personally prefer (and hence play) the WX7 for its superior feel and reed-bender action. The WX family of wind controllers have fingerings that are sax friendly, so with any controller you won't have much of a learning curve.
WX5: The WX5 has better software than any other wind controller made by Yamaha, but medocre key action and a reed bender that's not as responsive as past controllers. The less responsive reed bender on the WX5 makes it an excellent choice for a beginner, but frustrates some experienced sax players. The better software supports several different fingering modes, including a sax mode that has altissimo and a flute fingering mode. There is a right thumb bender that's software assignable for several continuous controller modes, keys to toggle other controllers on/off, and a note hold button. Expect to pay about $600 for a new WX5.
WX7: The WX7 is the first wind controller that Yamaha made. It features a reed bender and right thumb bender, but the thumb bender is not assignable to anything but pitchbend. The key action is very fast and professional, and the look, feel, and response of the instrument is superior. This is my personal favorite wind controller. The WX7 has been discontinued for a while now, and Yamaha no longer is stocking repair parts. For a gigging pro, that could be a serious issue. Expect to pay about $350-$400 for a used WX7.
WX11: The WX11 was produced after the WX7 and before the WX5. It is essentially a defeatured WX7. With a lighter plastic body, it features the same keys as the WX7, but with a lighter feel. There is a reed bender, but no thumb bender. This is an excellent entry level wind controller, that can handle pro gigging. If you don't want/need the programmable controllers on the WX5, or the thumb bender of either the WX5 or WX7, then the WX11 is an excellent choice. Expect to pay about $250-$300 for a used WX11.
Akai currently manufactures the EWI4000 with built-in synthesizer sound source, and in 2014 announced introduction of the EWI5000. Older, now discontinued models are the EWI3020 with EWI3020m and EWI3030m synthesizer modules. While the EWI plays like a sax, there is a significant learning curve for the touch action key buttons, octave rollers, and non-reed style mouthpiece, but it's definitely a professional quality controller.
EWI5000: The new EWI5000 is a wireless wind controller modeled after the EWI4000. Since the EWI5000 was just announced at the time of this writing, we have not yet had a chance to play it.
EWI4000s: Akai's current offering is the EWI4000s and it's an excellent wind controller. Very professional touch and feel, but will require some learning to use the rubber mouthpiece and touch button keys. It's the first EWI with a built-in synth, but it's an analog sound, not modern sax and similar emulative sounds (voices). It also is the first Akai wind controller with a MIDI data jack right on the instrument for direct connection to other synth modules. This is a serious wind controller and worthy of your attention.
EWI-USB: Akai's excellent "direct to computer softsynth" is the EWI-USB. As the name says, this is an EWI style wind controller that outputs via USB directly to a computer such as a laptop. The EWI-USB comes with a companion software synthesizer (softsynth) and is the perfect entry level instrument. Not quite in the same league as the EWI4000 and EWI5000, but an excellent wind controller. Expect to pay about $200 at the time of this writing.
EWI3020 with EWI3030m or EWI3020m modules: Now out of production due to the intro of the EWI4000s and EWI5000, the EWI3020 is still widely used by many players. The part you hold to play (controller) is called the EWI3020, and it is a very professional instrument controller that operates on analog circuitry. This analog circuitry allows the instrument to have not only breath and key/octave, but also a glide controller, right thumb bender, and a bite-type mouthpiece controller. The instrument requires a rackmount synthesizer/brainbox module to convert the analog signals to MIDI. The rackmount modules also have built-in synthesizers - the 3020m is an analog synth, the 3030m is a digital sampled synth. Both are considered pretty lame, and most users use the rackmount module primarily to connect the instrument to another midi synth. Expect to pay about $800 for a used EWI3020 with EWI3030m module.
EWI3000 with EWI3000m module: Well out of production, the EWI3000 and its companion analog module are functionally the same as the EWI3020 mentioned above. The synth/brainbox module is a tabletop unit, but is still required for operation of the EWI3000 controller instrument. Expect to pay about $800 for a used EWI3000 with EWI3000m module.
EWI1000 with EWV2000 module: Long out of production, this is Akai's first wind synth. Again, the instrument controller requires the EWV2000 analog synth/brainbox to operate. This instrument again features all the same controllers as its younger siblings, but has a different breath sensor that's prone to wear out and fatigue. This controller also is more prone to temperature drift than the newer designs.
Casio used to make a beginner wind controller called the DH-100 (silver) and DH-200 (black). Casio also build some others (DH-500, DH-800) that were available in Japan. These were inexpensive, all plastic wind controllers that looked like a plastic saxophone. With a built in tone generator that sounded like a child's toy, the DH-100 did put out a controllable midi stream that could drive any midi synths. The keys are lightweight and click a lot, there is no reed bender or other controllers on the instrument. This is only a beginner's instrument. Yes, it is a wind synth, but it's not even close to the offerings from Yamaha or Akai. While some people do gig with the DH, it's not considered a professional instrument. Expect to pay between $40 - $90 for a used DH-100 or DH-200.
Synthophone is the high-end of wind controllers. Built into a pro-Selmer or pro-Yamaha saxophone body, this wind controller features many controllers, customized fingerings, and other custom programming options. Expect to pay upwards to $5000 for a new Synthophone - $2500 for the sax, $2500 for the electronics and programming.
So what's the right choice? We suggest the Yamaha WX5, though any Yamaha WX will be very quickly playable for a sax player. The Akai instruments are fine, especially the EWI-USB for the beginning wind controller player. Any of the wind synths, Yamaha WX series or Akai EWI series are advanced student/professional quality instruments. All are easily learned by woodwind players, and all can add expression to any synth playing that's difficult, if not impossible to match on a keyboard synthesizer.
Q: Which Synth Modules work best with a wind controller?
A: Up until 2013, we used to say that Yamaha's VL70m is the favorite synth module. It's "physical modeling" synthesis is by far the most expressive for wind control. Unfortunately, the Yamaha VL70m was discontinued in 2013 and we don't have a good recommendation yet. It's still an outstanding solution if you find one used or new-old stock. With a WX input jack on the front panel, it's an ideal companion to the WX5 wind controller.
The Roland JV series of synths, while also older and out of production are excellent choices for wind control due to a number of breath controlled voices (patches) being available both free and commercial. The author is especially fond of the JV1010 synth module.
Look also for other tone modules that use the VL synth engine internally - Yamaha MU100R and EX5, as well as the PC soundcard by Yamaha called the SX1000. Most of these are out of production but very expressive for wind control. Most modern synthesizers, including software based synthesizers can be easily programmed for breath/wind control, but they are not setup that way "out of the box" like the VL70m or VL1m. Finally, the older synths that used FM synthesis technology work very well for wind control: Yamaha's TX81Z and WT11 are both excellent choices for synths' and there are many patches available for use with a wind controller. But they will indeed sound "older".
Q: Where can I buy a wind controller?
A: Many fine dealers will special order a wind controller for you, although sometimes they will not allow you to return the controller if you don't like it. The following mail order companies sell the popular Akai and Yamaha wind controllers. The following list is provided only as a resource, not as an endorsement:
- WoodWind & BrassWind: 1-800-348-5003
- American Musical Supply: 1-800-458-4076
- Musician's Friend: 1-800-776-5173
Q: Who can repair my wind controller?
A: We recommend WindWorks Design. They are a fully authorized Yamaha repair center, as well as experienced in repair of Akai, Casio, Steiner, Lyricon, and related controllers and synthesizer modules. WindWorks Design also sells accessory products and spare parts for wind synthesizers, wind controllers, and synth modules, as well as being the sponsor of this site. You can learn more about their repair services directly from them at the following page: http://www.windworksdesign.com/repair_services.html
Q: Why won't my wind synth sequence properly?
I recently purchased a WX5 and what I really want to do is get the music into my pc... I can get random notes to play, but my software is not understanding the parameters of the wind controller and I see no way to adjust it. I see that you use Sonar/CakeWalk and I was wondering if that has the capablility to adjust the different controllers like velocity and such (as the notes are being played).
A: It depends on what synth module you are using with your WX and Sonar/CakeWalk. If you using the synth on your soundcard, the problem is that the patches on your soundcard are designed for keyboard MIDI data, and hence respond properly to Velocity MIDI messages instead of Breath MIDI messages. You will need to (a) make sure the WX dip switches are set to send Volume data, or (b) edit the patches to get them to respond nicely to the Breath data from your WX5.
Q: How do I adjust the pitchbend reed on my WX5?
A: Here's how we adjust the LIP ZERO on my WX5:
- hook up the WX5 into the VL and sit in a chair next to to the VL.
- while biting on the mouthpiece, look at the bargraph display on the second line - this shows you pitch bend relative to the center on-pitch vertical mark. Bite and relax your jaw to see this bargraph swing to and fro. If the lip adjustment is way off, you may not see much, but likely you can see some change as you clench and release your jaw.
- hold the tail of the WX5 with your knees and hold the WX with one hand higher up. Don't worry about pressing any keys.
- clench your jaw with your normal in-tune playing bite, and with your free hand reach up to the flat knob called LIP ZERO and twist it right or left until you see the pitch bargraph center on the on-pitch vertical mark.
- play some music as you normally would, watching the VL display to see if you are staying centered on pitch. If not adjust some more.
Page 26 in the WX5 manual explains how to do this, although they have you look at the little red LED on the WX5 instead of the VL70m display. That will certainly work well also.
Q: How easy is it for a flute player to learn WX fingerings?
A: While flute and sax both share a boehm keyworks origin, there are some differences that may or may not bug a flutist. Since many flutists say they do not know how to finger a sax, then I take that literally. Here are what we see as the differences (we play sax, flute, WX, and clarinet). B and C are fingered differently between sax and flute. The WX11 fingers almost like a sax, so a flutist would have to learn the sax fingerings for B and C. In the third octave, flutes use all sorts of alternate fingerings that are not the same as the lower two octaves, and here we are significantly divergent from a sax, and hence divergent from a WX11. On the Yamaha WX5, they have several selectable fingering modes, one called WX, two sax styles, one for flute (just to show you that a flutist is not unique in choosing not to learn sax fingerings, even though flute and sax do finger similarly in the lower octaves).
Most have little trouble learning the transition from sax to flute, and learning WX took no time at all except for learning rasor sharp technique to stop "note glitches" when making the octave transition between C and D - the electronics can sense that when closing a bunch of keys at once (going to D) as discrete notes, where an acoustic horn is more forgiving and doesn't notice a bunch of key closing before the note sounds.
In conclusion, the WX5 is an outstanding wind synth, and will be pretty easy for a flutist to learn - if he/she wants to. Everyone is different. The WX5 has a flute fingering mode that is closer to a true flute, although the overblow mechanism is still not exactly what some flute players say they are looing for. Don't forget the EWI either, although it is signifanctly more expensive than a WX5. No matter what a flutist chooses, there will be a learning curve. Electronic wind controllers are their own unique instruments with their own quirks and pleasures. The WX controllers cater really well to sax and many flute players, but should be viewed as being different, just as a sax is different from a flute.
Q: My Casio DH-100 (or DH-200) has a nasty squeal noise. How can I get that fixed?
A: WindWorks Design can repair that for you. You can learn more about their repair services directly from them at the following page: http://www.windworksdesign.com/repair_services.html
Q: If I purchase the Yamaha WX5, do I also need to purchase the VL70m, or can I start out simple, and connect the controller directly to my PC with a MIDI Cable?
A: You can use your WX5 directly with your PC-synth, but you will have to make sure your WX5 is set in what's called "volume mode" instead of "breath mode". Even with that, you will be underwhelmed, as the voices in your PC-synth are designed for a percussive type attack such as a keyboard would offer. Even the saxophone voices are specifically designed to be "ok" when played via a keyboard. By setting your WX5 in "volume mode", it can more properly activate a voice like a keyboard, and then your breath can adjust the volume. The voice samples are fixed though, and hence my statement that you would be underwhelmed. Playable - YES, especially keyboard type sounds like piano, harpsichord, percussion, bass, and guitar. Outstanding emulations of flute, clarinet, sax, and other wind blown instruments, only OK at best.
Now, if you were to learn voice programming, you can pretty easily alter the behavior of the voice to more expressively respond to breath data from the WX5. PC-synths and low-end GM synth boxes are not particularly strong for breath programming, as that's not what they were designed to do. Mid-priced and high-priced synths are very flexible and highly programmable, and hence can be programmed for outstanding breath response. Here I'm thinking of synths such as Yamaha TG55(old), TG77(old), EX5, Kurzweil, Alesis NanoSynth and related QS6,7,and 8's. There are others too including the Roland JV series. If you don't like to program, there are commercial voices (patches) available for many synths.
Now, about the VL70m. It was designed specifically for wind control. Out of production like the VL1m, the VL70m uses a mathmatically based synthesis called Physical Modeling. This is such a highly flexible and complex synthesis method that it can be easily configured to respond supremely to wind control. The VL-series synths are considered the best for wind control. Yamaha even included a direct plug-in port on the front for a WX5, and most of the patches built in are designed for breath control. That's why we all like it so much. As with the other synths, there is a wealth of voices (patches) for the VL70m.
Q: Yamaha no longer makes the BT7 (BT-7) power unit for my WX7 or WX11. Where can I buy one?
A: WindWorks Design manufactures a replacement for the Yamaha BT7 called the WW-BAT(tm). You can learn more and purchase this directly at the following page: http://www.windworksdesign.com/music_wwbat.php
Q: How can I eliminate the need for the Akai rack module when playing my EWI3020 controller? How can I plug my EWI directly into a PC without needing the large 2U rack module?
A: Short answer: Purchase an Akai EWI-USB.
Long answer: WindWorks Design used to manufacture two different interfaces for the Akai EWI 30x0 series controllers, but has now discontinued them. One was a small computer interface for the EWI3020 (and EWI3000) that allows you to plug directly into a laptop. No Akai rack module is required! There's cool software that allows for note doubling and transposition, all from your laptop. You can learn more and purchase this directly from them at the following page: CV-MIDI PRO (tm) WindWorks Design also manufactures the BrainBox (tm), which is now in it's final phase of manufacturing and will be discontinued by the end of the year.