EWI Corner – The Virtual Years

So I already talked about my old hardware setup for the EWI and how it progressed over time.  Those years are mostly behind me these days as I have moved completely over to virtual synths on a laptop.  It’s a very flexible setup but I still have my last rack as well as some other backup stuff handy just in case although my virtual rig hasn’t failed in nearly two years.

I’m using the EWI 4000s as my main controller even though my EWI USB is very capable and MUCH lighter.  The primary reason for this is the extra octaves available on the 4000s since I end up making a lot of splits (assigning different patches to different ranges for quick transitions in songs or also useful for layering multiple sounds to play on the same key) for different songs.  In addition, all of the octave rollers are connected whereas the USB version uses a software trick for the highest and lowest octaves.  I have both EWI set up so they feel very comfortable and I generally use the USB version when I’m practicing or learning songs at home.  One more thing, it’s also great to be able to take the 4000s back to the dressing room with a pair of headphones and play the internal synth without having to have anything else.

The rest of the hardware starts with a 2010 MacBook Pro (i7 processor).  I’ve never been a  big fan of the whole Mac/PC feud because I feel both are very capable.  In my day job I make video and computer games so I could easily say without a shadow of a doubt that gamers should have a PC but everything else is pretty much equal in my experience…except for music stuff.  I spent many years doing music stuff on my PC before getting this MB Pro and I can say categorically that things are just easier with a Mac.  You can definitely get a PC to do all the same things but sometimes you have to jump through some serious hoops to make it happen.  For this purpose a Mac is just the better choice and that’s that for me.  Your results may vary.

Finally I use an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra as an audio and MIDI interface.  It has very powerful hardware routing capabilities built in as well as a virtual mixer on the computer.  That allows me to submix all of my microphones for my acoustic gear (Shure Beta 98 for saxes and a Countryman ISO Max for flute) with the internal synths and give one mix to the main board rather than taking up 3 channels.  It’s a great interface for a home studio as well because it has decent routing for separate headphone mixes built in.  For home use and for other, less intense situations I have either an M-Audio Ozone keyboard/audio/MIDI interface and an Audio Technica AT2020 USB microphone.

For sounds I am using Reason 6.5 from Propellerheads Software, Sample Tank (as well as several other software instruments) from IK Multimedia, and Garage Band when I need a VST host.  Reason is an amazingly versatile DAW (digital audio workstation) with robust audio recording/mixing/mastering tools and several world class virtual synths.  It’s an incredibly complete package with sampling, granular synthesis, subtractive synthesis, FM, and a HUGE powerhouse called Thor that is nearly a fully modular synth.

There are a couple extra things that really make Reason powerful – one is something called a Combinator (a holding container for synths and effects that makes it easy to create powerful splits and layers with tons of real-time control options.  The other is CV (control voltage).   Before MIDI, most synths that could “talk” to each other used control voltage and the original Lyricon made excellent expressive use of it.  CV in Reason allows many things to control other things without the “steppiness” of MIDI.  The concept seems simple (like you could have the LFO (low frequency oscillator) of one synth change the frequency cutoff of another but once you start patching the virtual wires you see how amazingly powerful and flexible the system really is.

If there’s one thing that Reason is slightly lacking in, it’s in the area of “real” sounds – emulations of real instruments.  Out of the box, Reason is great at synth stuff – it’s used for dance music a LOT – but when you’re used to having the VL-70m or the Roland XV 5050 (or even my old Kurzweil K2000r) this software feels pretty light in this department although there are packages available that add more sounds.  That’s why I purchased Sample Tank…it has thousands of sounds and has WAY more “real” instruments although it has some great synth stuff as well.  If you only had the money to buy one piece of software, though, I would easily recommend Reason for all of your EWI uses.

It’s pretty easy to make your own patches once you know what you’re doing but there are two guys you should definitely check out: Bernie Kenerson and Chris Vollstadt.  Bernie has been playing EWI (and Lyricon before that) for many years and has achieved an extremely high level of proficiency on it.  He’s also a prolific and talented creator of wind control patches.  You can buy several Refills (packaged banks of sounds in Reason) on his website including combinators, three sets of Thor patches and an entire bank of Sample Tank patches that you can use with the free version of Sample Tank so you are only out the cost of the patches.  These run the gamut from simple to incredibly complex and you can even learn from the patches so you can make better ones yourself.  His website also contains a ton of helpful tips, exercises, and sound examples.  Bernie even teaches EWI lessons via Skype.  I own pretty much everything Bernie makes patch-wise.

Chris Vollstadt has a website called EWI Reason Sounds and not only does he have sounds for sale, he’s also very good at writing EWI and Reason tutorials.  You can learn a lot from Chris and he makes even complex concepts seem easy and understandable.  Chris also has several Refills available for sale and they are also quite good.  First, he has a windcontroller bank (you could just as easily use a Yamaha WX controller as an EWI) called Cyclone that has 56 patches, 14 custom effects, and a user guide to explain everything.  He also has two Refills of some very advanced “Rotator” patches based on things Michael Brecker used to do on the Oberheim Expander…non-static chords with a variety of sounds.  One Refill is more synth sounds and the other is more sample based (orchestral or big band for example).  As with Bernie, I own everything Chris makes because the price is reasonable and the value is excellent.  Even without the refills, though, Chris’s site is a must as he provides those excellent tutorials and lots of free downloads.  Some of the free stuff I’ve gotten from him has become part of my “go to” sounds.

All in all, I love my virtual rig and don’t see myself going back to a hardware rig any time soon.  It’s lighter, more flexible, and just as easy to set up.

An Opinion

A couple weeks ago Amanda Palmer, formerly of the Dresden Dolls and current musical diva of Kickstarter, announced that she was going to have volunteers supplement her touring band and that they would be playing for free (well technically for beer and hugs).  This announcement literally lit up the intarwebs where the righteous indignation meter was absolutely pegged.  People pointed to her past career, the “fact” that she was worth millions from previous deals, and the million plus dollars raised by her Kickstarter.  One of the interesting things here is she walked away from the potentially lucrative deals she had and spent several years writing and getting ready before re-launching herself as an independent artist.  Sure she raised over a million but that was to support the new album.  Before that money was raised she had already shelled out for recording, paying the musicians, mixing, and mastering.  That was a lot but she was raising money on Kickstarter for  duplication, cover art, printing, packaging, and worldwide distribution not to mention all of the art books and other extras that were to be part of the Kickstarter promos.  Add to that the cost of taking a group of any size on the road and I’m seriously not sure what would be left…it might be a lot or it might be nothing.  Of course, you can make a lot of money on a tour in support of the album if you handle the merchandise correctly and keep your costs down…which brings us back to the original “problem”.

MANY people decided to judge the situation based on their own preconceived notions and there was much vitriole and tons of recriminations but I see it another way.  Here’s one example: I’ve definitely played open jam sessions before so I’ve played for free in front of anywhere from a handful to a large roomful of people.  This usually took place in commercial enterprises called clubs in which “someone” (i.e. not me) was making money but I did it for my own reasons: to get better, have fun, network with other musicians who might call me for gigs, be seen by fans or potential fans, etc.  At the time, I weighed those potential benefits vs. the idea of not making any money and decided that the benefits outweighed the costs.  This situation should be no different.  In fact, the potential payoffs are much higher.  You would most likely be playing in front of many more people and could network with national caliber musicians.  The ability to hand a business card to players that are connected well beyond your region is priceless not to mention that you can put the gig on your resume and possibly get more gigs based on that.

If you always choose to make a decision about a gig because of what the headliner might be making or what you think they should consider reasonable then you will probably sit home a lot.  If, instead, you choose to make a value judgment based on what the gig means to you and you can look at it objectively based pon what you can get out of it (not always money) then ultimately you will probably make better decisions for your career or at least for your sanity and my experience has been that I make more money in the long run but I have no way to prove that.  I recently learned that she decided to go ahead and pay the local musicians who join the band in each city but I’ll say right now, if I was open and the opportunity came up I would probably do it and I don’t even like beer.  It would be fun.

In Pursuit of a Shiny Horn

I love my Mark VI…I mean I really love it. I’ve been through more than 32 years with the same main horn and I pretty much know it like the back of my hand. There are only two things that could be better. For one thing, this horn (like it’s owner) has seen a lot of wear and tear over the years so it seems to be ever so slightly more susceptible to having things go wrong than it used to be. Recently I’ve had several things go wrong like screws coming loose or falling out – I even had one fall out on a gig and I couldn’t find it to put it back in…had to try to transpose all of my tenor parts to alto for the rest of the night…not fun but definitely interesting. This is not a huge deal but I feel like I need to get it to my repairman more often these days. Of course, the other issue with all that wear and tear is the horn just isn’t as shiny as it used to be. There is a lot of lacquer missing and there are places that like to turn green if I don’t stay up on them. This is sometimes a cool thing as players know that this is a player’s horn and it’s been played hard but non-players look at it and they don’t understand that the lack of lacquer and the green spots are a badge of honor and not a sign of a bad horn. 🙂

None of that is the real issue here though. The real issue is that since my VI is probably going to the shop more I need to potentially be using my backup horn more. I really don’t like my current backup horn that much. As I mentioned in my gear post, it’s a 10M but it’s not one of the sought after ones. In addition, the horn is so different from my VI in sound, intonation, and especially ergonomics that I just don’t have that much fun playing it. People tell me they like the sound just fine when I’m on it but the adjustment factor is very high on this one. It’s also shinier than my VI but not by much and this particular 10M is not that pretty a horn in my opinion. It’s also good to have a possibly less valuable horn than my VI to take out to outdoor gigs or to places where a horn might be open to mishaps. So because of all this, I’ve been saving money from each gig I play in order to get myself a nice shiny new backup horn.

I’m not looking at anything vintage even though I know there are good values to be had out there. I want something that is ergonomically similar or even superior to my VI and I know I probably won’t find that in many of the vintage horns out there. Also, vintage horns that have all of their lacquer and look nice are very pricey for what they are. I’ve been doing a lot of research, talking to techs, reading reviews and articles, and talking to some reps from various companies and I think I’m at least going to start by looking for a Taiwanese horn. I already have a Taiwanese-made soprano (Barone) and a Chinese-made alto (Buffet) so I think I know what I am getting myself into. Both horns feel great, have great intonation, and seem to be very well made. The price also falls comfortably into the range I am willing to spend for a backup horn…somewhere between 1500 and 3000 dollars. Oh, and many of these horns have some rather adventurous, unique, and pleasing finish options as well.

Some of the brands are off the table because I feel their price is much too high for what they really are. P. Mauriat and Theo Wanne horns fall into this category. Some are too risky to the point where I don’t know what kind of support I would get if something went wrong and others are just too hard to get real information about. Because of all this I am currently looking at several brands that look promising: Viking/TK Melody, Cannonball, and Barone. I’m hoping to get a chance to try these horns and others in the next couple months and I will post my findings and other updates as I go through the process.

Wish me luck. I know I’ll have fun trying some horns out but it’s always tough to pull the trigger on spending that kind of money and I’ll also likely have to travel a bit to really get to see as many horns and finishes as possible.

A Fun Night

I had a really great night on Friday.  I was playing with Technicolor Motor Home at the Recher Theatre in Towson, MD.  This band is one of my greatest pleasures right now.  First off, it’s a great bunch of musicians and a tremendous bunch of people to hang out with.  It’s incredibly gratifying for me to be included in such a wonderful group.  Second, the band is a tribute to Steely Dan but rather than trying to go the whole “Beatlemania” route and dressing up in costumes, we are content to be a tribute to the band’s live concerts.  That means we are doing arrangements that are in many cases more complex than what was done in the studio recordings and we’re also able to solo much more freely rather than trying to mimic whatever was played on the original recordings…not that there’s anything wrong with Tom Scott, Pete Christlieb, Wayne Shorter, and Chris Potter but Walt Weiskopf and Cornelius Bumpus really pushed the envelope in the live shows.  Another great thing is that the fan reaction to the band has been phenomenal.  Of course, we don’t get to play together too often since people would get sick of us doing the same music over and over.  Also a group of people this talented and sought after in the area (and a large group at that) is very hard to schedule.  So it goes without saying that we end up cherishing the time we do spend together.

Playing behind the "mastermind" Glenn Workman.

Playing behind the “mastermind” Glenn Workman.

One more thing, above and beyond all that, this band has probably the finest total package horn section I have ever had the pleasure to work with.  The Retox Horns, Dave Makowiecki, Jim McFalls, and I seem to have a rather special bond when we play together as a section and our ability to have fun while hanging out is second to none.  We originally started playing together in another band called Expensive Hobby and have been together as a section for at least 5 or 6 years but I think it’s been longer.  Currently, we are the section in TMH as well as for a band called Crack the Sky (where we are called the Crack Pack Horns).  We’ve also been together in the studio for a few very fun projects recently.  I’ll have more on that as details become more available.

We tried to do our soundcheck as quickly as possible because some good buddies of ours were playing a block party type thing right down the street from us and we wanted to check them out.  Rumba Club is an outstanding group featuring some of the absolute best jazz and latin players in Maryland if not anywhere.  The band is always a great musical experience to see and it’s never less than a blast of a hang.  If you ever get the chance to see this band please make sure you do it.  We only got to hear a couple songs but it was worth the effort and a couple of the guys came over to see our show when they were done which was very nice of them.

Food was provided by the club…I had a turkey burger.  🙂  In deep rotation in the dad van this week is the new Pat Metheny album called Unity.  Pat Metheny and Chris Potter playing together…how can you pass that up?

ReedGeek Universal Tool

I’ve talked about my reed break-in process but I didn’t really mention this tool that really helped make everything even better.  The ReedGeek Universal Tool has been an incredibly helpful addition to my “arsenal” since I purchased it about 6 months ago.  For me, it provides the perfect blend of effectiveness with low maintenance that I desire in most parts of my life but especially in music.  I feel like the bang for my buck on it is very high but let’s talk about what it is and what it does.

The "Geek"

The “Geek”

The ReedGeek is a milled rectangular bar of steel with sharp corners for flattening the table as well as various shapes that are useful for working on more specialized parts of the reed like the rails or the vamp.  It feels very solid and heavy in my hand and that’s helpful to help make sure only small amounts of material are being removed at any given time.  It comes in a nice plastic case with a velvety drawstring bag for protection.  It came with an instructional card to help teach how to use it but I actually learned more about using it from videos on their website and from their YouTube channel.

Probably the most important thing about the Geek is that it is not a knife even though it does many things that a knife could do.  On the website they make a big deal about how you can travel and get past the TSA checks with it but for me, it’s much more important that I can feel safe using it or forgetting about it with my three-year-old around.  Any parent knows that turning your back on a child for even a second with a sharp knife around is a possible recipe for disaster.  Even though it’s not a knife it’s still sharp and accurate enough to make precision adjustments but it cant easily cut you.

I mentioned the heft of the Geek above and that’s one of the genius touches of the tool for me.  When I used to use knives and Dutch rush and all that back in my college days it wasn’t uncommon enough that I could go just a tad too far and I think that was because it’s hard to judge minute changes in pressure when scraping or cutting with knives.  With the Geek I can use its own weight as a gauge without ever having to add any pressure of my own.  I think this helps keep everything under control when I’m working on reeds.

I primarily use it to flatten the table.  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe the act of “adjusting” the vamp or the tip is a good return on investment compared to the time, effort, and frustration involved in doing it.  On the other hand, I’ve become a firm believer that swelling of the table (especially in the center) from the reed absorbing and evaporating moisture unevenly is the cause of most of my reeds not playing or ceasing to play.  Reeds always seem to swell in the center of the table and then they don’t seal on the mouthpiece correctly and then they don’t play as well.  The Geek is absolutely perfect for flattening this out.

First I lay an edge on the table near the butt and I look to see if light is coming in from the sides or whether everything looks well connected between the reed and the edge.  If there are gaps then I hold the Geek at about a 20 degree angle and – without placing any pressure/only using the weight of the tool – I start to scrape all of the parts that come in contact with the table of the mouthpiece.  I keep checking for gaps as before and I stop when it’s flat…the whole process takes maybe 2-3 minutes per reed and I can do it while talking to people, listening to music, or watching television.  I feel like I can tell when the table is flat without even looking because the Geek feels and sounds different while scraping.  Once I’m done I will sometimes scrape closer to the tip to “blend” the changes in but I’m taking off so little material that this is rarely necessary.  One of the beauties of using the Geek on the table of the reed is that it also seems to seal up the fibers…just like rubbing them on white paper.

So far I haven’t seen a reed that didn’t improve from this technique.  As I said there’s lots of other uses for the tool but it’s just not something I feel the need to do.  The Geek sells for about 40 bucks and I’ve been very happy with it since I got it.  I think they have a 14 day return policy in case you don’t like it or find it’s not better than your knife.

EWI Corner (The Hardware Years)

It's a little freaky looking but still kind of cool.

It’s a little freaky looking but still kind of cool.

I remember the first time I heard Tom Scott play a Lyricon a very, VERY long time ago.  I was instantly intrigued and I was pretty much hooked on the idea of playing a wind-driven synthesizer even though it would be quite a few years before I even had the chance to start playing something myself.  In the interim I started listening to Michael Brecker playing his early EWI’s and I went out to hear a great local guy named Paul Soroka tear it up on a Lyricon pretty much every week for several years.  Both of them just made me more interested in getting a wind controller for myself.  I finally got the chance when Yamaha released the WX7 in the mid ’80’s.  I had to have one.  My local music store got one in and I went in, tried it, and bought it on the spot even though I was demoing it through a synth that wasn’t set up for breath control at all…of course, I didn’t know that – I was still in heaven.  l picked up a Yamaha TX81Z to use with it so I could use the Sal Gallina patches that came with it.

The TX81Z was a decent place to start but I never sounded like Sal did on any of the patches…maybe because I had no other effects other than the pseudo reverb that was built into the unit.  I soon added a Korg M1 keyboard to the mix and that’s when I started buying patches from Patchman Music – a relationship I maintain to this day.  Matt Black is Patchman and he’s a gifted player and an inventive and knowledgable patch programmer who provides a great value for anyone playing any type of wind controller.  I used these two synths for several years and really started to learn a lot about wind synthesis and using the WX7 in performance.  I did everything from wind-driven solos to helping cover keyboard parts.  Even though I liked playing the WX7, I was drawn very much to the Akai EWI.  Maybe it was because Michael Brecker played one or maybe it was because it was analog like the Lyricon but I had to have one and I finally made the leap with the 3020 and the 3020 module.

The 3020 module was the analog version…they also made a 3030 at the same time that was sample based with more effects.  I kind of wanted to go more analog anyway but the fact that the 3020M was cheaper was probably a deal sealer for me at that time of my life.  Of course, all of that dreaming about an EWI did not prepare me at all for the adjustment of actually playing one.  I had remembered reading how MB had to completely change his way of playing and learn to keep his fingers off the contacts and I can say that if you are the kind of person that keeps your fingers on the pearls, then the adjustment to the EWI will be long and somewhat arduous.  Anyway, I can go more into technique building in another post but for now I will say that for a long time I actually brought out both the EWI and the WX7 using the EWI for more flowing and expressive sounds and using the WX7 for more percussive attacks and for very technical things.  However, keys started to stick on the WX7 and it seemed like time to make the move so I eventually switched to the EWI full time.  Around that time I also got rid of the M1 keyboard and the TX81Z and moved to an M1 rack and a Kurzweil K2000R (also with Patchman patches).  I also switched to an Ensoniq TS10 keyboard but did not use it for wind patches…just as a controller.  This was an incredibly versatile setup for the time.  Finally, I bought an new EWI 3020 and a 3030 module as a backup during this period although it has remained largely unused in that capacity.

TurboVLEventually, I got rid of the TS10 and moved to a less expensive and lighter Yamaha CS1X but that sits at home in the studio now along with a lot of other gear.  I added a Yamaha VL70m which is just about the holy grail for any wind controller player.  It used advanced physical modeling so you can easily emulate a wide array of woodwind, brass, string, and analog synth sounds.

I started with Patchman patches but eventually upgraded by swapping out for the Patchman Turbo chip (an aftermarket mod for the VL70m that adds custom banks designed by Matt) and that was one of the best purchases I ever made.  So by then my rack was down to just the K2000R and the VL70m and the then newly-released EWI 4000S which didn’t require a module to convert to MIDI and also had built-in sounds.  The rig was incredibly flexible and musical and I had a really high level of comfort with making my own sounds in that environment.  Unfortunately, the display on the K2000R started to get dimmer and dimmer until it was practically unreadable and I knew the time had come to put the old workhorse out to pasture (in the studio or what passes for a studio at my house).  I made that decision in no small part because the thing is big and HEAVY…three rack spaces and super deep.

After a lot of research I decided to replace it with the Roland XV5050 since it is both lighter and still capable and expandable (oh yeah, and it also has Patchman patches installed – I’m sensing a pattern).  I bought an Alesis Quadrasynth+Piano rack at around the same time (used from Patchman and of course I installed his patches) with the intention of adding it to the rig but I never pulled the trigger on that even though it’s actually a great wind controller synth.

Also in the rack are a mixer and my wireless in-ear unit. It's all pre-wired and it's on wheels so set up and tear down is a breeze.

Also in the rack are a mixer and my wireless in-ear unit. It’s all pre-wired and it’s on wheels so set up and tear down is a breeze.

This was my last hardware setup before switching to my current rig which is entirely software based and probably something for me to talk about in another post.