Question About USB-Midi Wind Controller

From a guest poster:

I came across your excellent WindSynth website, and I hoped you wouldn’t mind me asking you a question.

I was learning clarinet for a couple of years, having started as an adult. I’d like to pick it up again, but I live in an apartment where I can’t practice as it would disturb the neighbours (particularly as I would like to practice when I get home from work, which is often after 8-9pm). I was wondering if something like Akai’s USB-Midi Wind Controller might provide a solution. It seems I could plug it into the computer and listen with headphones, thus not disturbing the neighbours. But would it be a good way of practising clarinet? Or could I just end up with a lot of bad habits? (initially, I’d plan to practice without a teacher, till I’ve remembered the basics, but then I’d plan to take clarinet lessons again)

I’d be very grateful for your advice.  Many thanks.

Kind regards,

AG

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7 Responses to Question About USB-Midi Wind Controller

  1. artw says:

    Thanks for your note. It’s always good to chat with another wind synth player. All of your thoughts about being able to play silently are right. And the Akai USB-Midi controller is a good, low cost way to start. But there are some drawbacks in general, so I’ll list them in no particular order:
    * All wind controllers (Akai, Yamaha) work in octaves, not registers (12ths). Most clarinet player I know don’t find this to be too much of a problem, but it is a difference. If working in octaves isn’t an issue, then wind controller is perfect.

    * Akai controllers (USB, EWI4000s, EWI3020) don’t have a reed on the mouthpiece, and instead have a bite sensor. The way the sensor is built it just senses change in jaw position, not absolute position. So you embouchure will not be developed to the same extent as a real reeded instrument.

    * Yamaha controllers (WX5, WX11, WX7) have plastic reeds to sense bite pressure and they do measure position, so your embouchure will stay in better shape. But it’s still not the same as biting a real reed. Like the Akai, it’s fingered in octaves, not 12ths.

    * Yamaha controllers are not USB, but you can still run them on a laptop if you get a USB midi interface. But the standard voices (patches) on a stock laptop are not setup for wind control and it won’t sound right. Look at the FAQ on http://www.windsynth.net about 3 up from the bottom – that will explain it. This will happened with any wind controller, and the Yamaha has a switch setting to help, though it’s not as good as having breath controlled voices. These voices are available, but you have to either buy them, or instead buy a Yamaha VL70m or older WT11 standalone synth to just “plug and blow” with a Yamaha controller. Akai solves this problem with the USB-EWI by including decent breath voices in with the laptop software.

    In summary, the Akai USB-EWI is the lowest price, most turn-key solution. Plug into a laptop, install the software, and start playing. The downside is a bite sensor vs reed. Both brands of controllers are octaves, not 12ths.

    I hope this helps. Let me know if you have more questions.

  2. The EWI is fun, challenging, and capable of powerful artistic expression, just like the clarinet, but it’s not a substitute for it. If your goal is better clarinet playing, then the only way to get there is by practicing the clarinet. If your goal is to play music without disturbing the neighbors, then the EWI is an ideal solution, but it won’t improve your clarinet skills in any significant way.

  3. AG says:

    It was more the fingering than the embouchure that I was wanting to use the controller to practice, so it does sound like one of them would suit me reasonably well. I hadn’t realised they finger in octaves not 12ths, and that’s a slight worry: as I’m not highly competent or experienced clarinet player already, I wouldn’t want to learn bad habits. On the other hand, I’d probably make more progress being able to practice (which is difficult at present) and then having to adjust, than not practising at all. I may go for the Akai and see how that goes.

  4. artw says:

    Most clarinet players I’ve met don’t have issues going from octaves to registers (12ths), but as a lifelong sax player, I had a horrible time trying to learn how to play my father’s clarinet. It’s a wonderful F.Barbier clarinet that sounds nice. The first hurdle going from sax to clarinet was the mouthpiece, but getting a Vandoren Jazz mouthpiece gave me the large tip opening and bend range that I was comfortable with from my sax. And I stopped squeaking. But getting my mind around top three fingers not always being a “G” drove me crazy. My ultimate solution was to buy and learn wind controller. That solution allowed me to embark on a wonderful learning experience (perhaps obsession) with wind controllers. So I now see wind controller as it’s own instrument, not just a clarinet substitute. I still can’t get my mind around 12ths vs octaves, and woodwinds just feel nice in the hands when playing. And there’s still no substitue for an acoustic flute in my hands. But wind controller is where I live mostly, but it’s beyond solving my 12’s problem. The range of instruments I can play, and feel other emotions while playing, is it’s own reward. While I’ll never truly learn to play the clarinet, I see each instrument as unique: sax, flute, clarinet, harmonica, WX, and EWI.

    Good luck in your musical studies. Let us know how you make out so we can learn and share that with others.

    Best regards,
    Art

  5. artw says:

    Hi Bret,
    Thanks for chiming in. Love to have lots of opinions here. And I think you come from a significantly more clarinet oriented background. Thanks again. Feel free to comment any time.
    Rgds,
    Art

  6. Gertjan says:

    I’ve thought about this for a few days, and will post my experience. I come from a saxophone background, then started playing wind controller (Yamaha WX5), and only later started playing bass clarinet. Contrary to Art’s experience, the different nature of fingering a clarinet as opposed to sax never bothered me, I just considered it a different instrument and studied it as such. Much the same as I did with wind controller, actually. Even though superficially it might seem quite similar to a sax, it isn’t. The WX5 has many alternate fingerings not available on sax, the octave system is obviously quite different, there are no left hand palm keys (I have set up my WX5 to use the top two keys as controllers, not D/D#), etc.

    So if I’m honest, I would advise against using a wind controller as a substitute for sax or clarinet (or flute, the WX5 can also be configured to use flute fingerings). It is clear that for developing your tone (on sax etc.) the wind controller is no substitute. And I also believe that if your goal, as for the original poster, is to study technique (play technical etudes etc. to develop your fingering fluency), that too is best done on the actual instrument itself.
    (Note that it is possible to study technical etudes with your instrument without making a sound [e.g. start by removing the reed and put the mouthpiece in your mouth as you normally would]; for the more advanced player studying technique away from the instrument is quite good exercise!)

    However, since I don’t want to discourage the original poster and I welcome anyone who wants to try their hand at playing wind controller, I would heartily encourage AG to do so. And maybe you’ll find that playing the wind controller is fun in and of itself! At which point you will become an actual wind controller player, perhaps doubling on clarinet. 😉

    Cheers, and let us know what you decide!
    Gertjan

  7. AG says:

    Art,
    What you say about sax v clarinet is interesting. My first hope was to learn sax, but the teach recommended I start with clarinet as it would give me a better basic embouchure, would be easier to manage (ie. lighter and smaller) when learning fingering, and it would be much easier to switch from clarinet to sax than vice versa. As it turned out, I liked it so much I stuck with it. I do have a sax too, but I’ve never had lessons on it and my self-taught efforts are horrible! Maybe having a wind controller will help!
    A.G.