There aren’t many electronic wind instrument choices out there.
Frankly, not enough people appreciate the instrument’s many wonderful attributes.
It isn’t a direct alternative to a saxophone, trumpet, or clarinet, but it doesn’t need to be. The EWI is best enjoyed when treated as a different instrument.
With the lack of enough viable EWI shopping options, you think that would make shopping for one easy.
Well, choosing one with the best features should be easy enough.
But singling out the best EWI for the money? Not quite.
I have researched the electronic wind instrument thoroughly.
I will now distill my findings and review the best choices currently available. After that, I will reveal the one that rose to the top as the number 1 electronic wind synthesizer for the money.
What is an EWI - Electronic Wind Instrument?
Sometimes called digital wind instruments or wind synthesizers, EWIs are the electronic representations of acoustic wind instruments like your saxophone, clarinet, horn, or trumpet.
But instead of carrying the sound characteristics of just one wind instrument, an EWI will have a bank of sampled sounds for all wind and other non-wind instruments.
Best of all, MIDI compatibility enables you to connect to an external sound bank with sounds that are more to your individual taste.
In effect, an EWI relates to acoustic wind instruments as do digital drum sets to acoustic drums and as digital keyboards do to acoustic pianos.
How Does an EWI Produce its Sound?
This is, in fact, what marks the difference between EWIs and their acoustic cousins.
The sound an EWI produces are actually pre-recorded notes that are stored in, and controlled through, the sound module.
The sound module is where most of the magic happens.
What we commonly refer to as the EWI is, to use the technical term, just the controller. It controls sounds in a compatible sound module, which is a standalone device you have to plug in independently.
The EWI should be looked at as two parts, the controller and the sound module, with the controller serving as the user interface.
Yes, it is basically just a controller that produces sound in the same way a typical MIDI controller does.
But its design and interface allows for a greater level of expression and feels far more natural for wind instrument players. An EWI emulates wind instruments far better than any other controller can.
However, there are some EWIs where the two are combined into one compact instrument. These are EWI controllers with built-in sound modules.
An inbuilt synthesizer really is a big deal.
Consider the Yamaha WX5 that does not have an onboard sound module. The compatible sound module retails for roughly the same price you would buy the controller itself. That would make the Yamaha WX5 twice as expensive as the Akai EWI14000S, for example.
On the balance of benefits, not least because you will have one less piece of equipment to lug around, it would seem EWIs with in-built sound modules are more attractive.
Let’s answer a few common EWI questions before we discuss the features you must look out for as you shop for your EWI:
Will Playing an EWI Hurt Your Sax Chops?
Perhaps the best piece of advice I have heard from people who have played both the EWI and the saxophone is to treat the two instruments as different instruments.
While EWI designers have tried to model the instrument around its acoustic cousins, with features like breath control, sax-like fingering, and for others, real keys, the experience of playing the two instruments and the character of the sound they produce is noticeably distinct.
Those with experience playing both the acoustic and electronic versions of wind instruments advise those serious about playing these instruments to invest equal time in playing and practising both instruments.
In terms of feel and the character of the sound, EWIs and acoustic wind instruments have significant differences. However, some EWIs have more sax-like key action than others.
Generally, playing an EWI may not necessarily harm your technical skills on the sax, but the experience may not do much to improve them either.
What to Look for in an Electronic Wind Instrument
Portability for any musical instrument is never a bad benefit to have. Neither is a headphone jack that allows you mute the speakers and play your instrument without disturbing your housemates or neighbours.
But these benefits are now standard on most EWIs. They are guaranteed and aren’t features you will jot down as you start shopping around for your EWI.
That is not to say there aren’t special features you should watch out for:
Breath Control Gives Your EWI a Natural Expressiveness Uncommon with Electronic Instruments
This is an important feature and one most people look for to achieve the natural playability that sax players, for example, are used to.
The ability to control the volume of your sound by the pressure you put on your breath is a handy tool that helps players put some character on the stock sounds that come with the instrument’s sound module.
An inbuilt wind sensor actually detects the pressure at which you blow on the instrument and uses it change the timbre and volume you play at.
The instrument’s mouthpiece is also shaped the same way as a saxophone’s for sax players players who may be worried about the EWI hurting their embouchure.
On some models the mouthpiece also has a vibrato sensor. You can produce vibrato by gently biting on the mouthpiece. That is a feature you won’t get on a saxophone.
It may be argued that an EWI cannot reproduce all the sounds a competent saxophonist can get out their sax. Others may even say the sounds coming out of an EWI can sound too synthetic sometimes.
Yet it can also be argued that features like breath sensitivity lend a natural expressiveness to EWIs that, in the hands of a skilful player, the EWI can produce sounds hardly distinguishable from those coming from a trumpet or sax.
How Good are the Stock Sounds on Wind Synthesizers?
Even though the stock sounds on some EWIs do allow for some flexibility there is generally no room to create your own sounds.
But the stock sounds on some are very good.
With 80+ sounds available on most models, it may be a while before you have to consider hooking up an external sound module.
The truth is you have to invest time in learning your instrument before you can get the sound you want from it.
Can You Create Your Own Sounds?
But there is a lot you can do with the cool features at your disposal to inject some emotion and expression to enrich and to put a personal stamp on the sound you produce on your EWI.
For example, pitch bending allows you to adjust the pitch of the note you are currently playing.
Transposition, on the other hand, determines the pitch level you play at, whatever note it is.
Octave rollers, a tool whose fingering technique can be tough to master, shift the octave range up and down while you play.
If you play sax a lot, EWIs with touch sensitive contacts in place of traditional keys may prove a challenge at first. Many have found it difficult to keep their fingers off the contacts.
But, once you get them figured out, they will help you play faster. If using them will be tricky for you, get one with conventional keys instead.
Now that’s out of the way, time to reveal the best electronic wind instruments on the market, and then, the best one for the money.
The Best Electronic Wind Instruments on the Market
We would rather it wasn’t, but budget is often our biggest concern when we go out shopping for musical instruments.
For that reason, we will start with the most affordable EWI and move up the price scale from there.
Akai Professional EWI USB
The Akai brand is a pioneer and still the dominant force in what is a very narrow field.
This Akai Professional EWI USB is at the low end of the EWI scale and has a matching price. It does not have an inbuilt sound module nor any MIDI output so you can hook it up to an external sound module.
You will have to hook it up to a computer running a compatible software or, if the provided software is inadequate, use another software that allows for MIDI over USB.
The instrument dispenses of spring loaded keys and uses touch sensitive knobs on top of the instrument for fingering.
However, compared to other, high end wind synthesizers, this Akai’s interface looks quite plain.
Other Features and Benefits
- A removable, dishwasher safe mouthpiece, which means it is easy to keep clean and sanitary
- Comes with a PC and Mac compatible software that also does not require any specialized drivers
- Being USB powered, the EWI draws its power from the computer, thus does not require a separate power source
- The software that comes bundled with the EWI has up to 80 different sounds, with different presets for sax, clarinet, flute, as well as percussion and synth type sounds
- Has a great price, by far the lowest on the market
- The lack of an onboard sound module means you can’t use it without a computer, which adds another gadget to what you have to carry around
Akai Professional EWI4000S
When it was released, this instrument created a lot of excitement because of its wireless playing.
The ability to play your EWI without being tethered to an amplifier is a benefit that every player will appreciate.
To go with wireless playing, the Akai Professional EWI4000S also has MIDI output, an 8-octave range, and onboard sound processor that is more a synthesizer than a just a sound module loaded with stock sounds.
The sax-like fingering will excite sax players. But there are other great features and benefits that make this a worthy option.
Perhaps not a con but more an irritation while you get the hang of it, the octave rollers can be a pain to master.
Other Features and Benefits
- Has all the sensors you have come to expect from wind controllers - bite, breath, and pitch bend sensors that are all programmable to some degree, which enables expressive dynamics and responsive playing
- Multiple fingering modes, including electronic valve instrument (EVI), as well as saxophone, oboe, and flute
- Adjustable breath sensitivity that isn’t difficult to set up
- On-board synthesizer is complete with an effects processor that gives you reverb, portamento, and chorus effects to truly enrich your sound
- Has options for both AC and battery power, which gives you great convenience when travelling
- The touch sensitive keys will prove quite handy for players used to instruments like the recorder and the pennywhistle
- That you can’t rest your fingers on the keys without activating them will tick off those used to readitional keys
Roland Aerophone AE-10 Digital Wind Instrument
Roland is a late entrant to the electronic wind instrument market.
But that does not necessarily count against a brand that boasts a stellar reputation for making electronic digital instruments of the highest quality.
That it was late to the EWI game also means Roland knew exactly what people needed in a wind synth.
It is easy enough in theory:
Just incorporate the best features from the most popular EWIs on the market. While at it, avoid those features that cause the most friction with players for both models.
What you get, at least in theory, should be the best-in-class EWI on the market. To some extent the Roland Aerophone AE-10 succeeded on that score.
The wind synth has inbuilt speakers and sound module, a battery power option, as well as a headphone jack, which allows you to take and play your instrument anywhere.
Other Features and Benefits
- Tactile palm keys that have a more natural feel, especially for sax players
- A complete sax fingering system, possibly the closest you will get for all wind synths on the market
- Instantly transposable and realistic sounding saxophone sounds that include baritone, alto, soprano, and tenor
- A sound bank for instruments like the flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, and oboe that also sound as close to their acoustic originals as you will find
- USB connectivity and sound output expands your options for better sounds and sound amplification
- Remarkably lightweight for maximum comfort when playing
- The onboard sounds may not be as appealing if you are an experienced player
- Quite a few early reviewers have bemoaned the fact it looks a lot like a toy
Akai Professional EWI5000
This Akai Professional EWI5000 will set you back by almost a $1000. That’s not synthophone expensive, but it’s still no small change.
What justification has Akai for pricing this instrument higher than their other EWIs?
Well, the brand claims this is the most versatile and expressive wind instrument in the world. That is a bold claim that, if properly tested, may soothe the considerable dent it will punch in your bank balance.
Well, besides the ultra-low latency USB connectivity, on-board 3 Gig+ SONiVOX sound bank, and a built-in rechargeable battery that lasts up to 12 hours, what other evidence is there that the EWI5000 is worth it’s price?
Other Features and Benefits
- Automatically calibrates itself to adjust to your playing style
- Wireless audio eliminates the need for a speaker cable, which gives you maximum freedom on stage
- Comes with a neck strap, charger, USB cable, and wireless audio receiver all included
- Besides the USB port, there is MIDI output that gives you another option for connecting an external sound module and other devices
- The built-in rechargeable battery can be charged via the USB port, which is convenient
- When fully charged, the battery gives you up to 6 hours of continuous wireless playing
- Has a steep learning curve and may take a while before you get all the settings figured out
And Our Pick is…
The Akai Professional EWI4000S.
This instrument ticks the most boxes at an fairly affordable price.
The Roland Aerophone AE-10 is a fantastic instrument that would still would be a good buy.
But, for me, it doesn’t quite convince as an instrument a professional would want as part of their gear. The stock sounds are also on the flat side.
The Akai Professional EWI5000, is actually a better instrument, but a bit pricey.
For its price/benefits balance, the Akai Professional EWI4000S is the best EWI for the money.
If budget is really tight, and you need something to play so long, the Akai Professional EWI USB could be a viable option.
Now, go get your EWI.