News and Reviews in Progress

A couple of things to catch up on:

I’m not quite ready to do a full review on my new Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series tenor but early reports are really good.  I would never want to do a full review without first playing it on the gig since for me nothing I do in the practice room is quite like the way I play live.  I do have a big band gig this weekend and I have a couple of louder concerts later in the month so I will definitely have some opportunities to put it through it’s paces.  I played it in a rehearsal for the big band this past weekend and I tried both necks – fat neck for the first have and the regular neck in the second half.  I tend to like the fat neck better but my wife came to my room to listen and she instantly said she liked the regular neck better…we’ll see how this plays out.

I’ve also been playing on Rigotti Gold reeds for a couple months now and I really like them so far.  The problem is I’ve only tried one box because of the way I break them in and my rotation system.  I would definitely want to check a couple more boxes before being sure about a full review.  I was playing Van Doren Java 3 1/2 and I switched to RG 3 1/2 M…so far I think that was the best choice…I got the comparison from a RG reed chart I think.  One interesting effect of switching reeds is I’m now firmly back on my Phil-Tone Eclipse HR mouthpiece rather than the Phil Barone Super New York I had been playing for the last year or so.

On the EWI front, I just bought a new Refill from Chris Vollstadt at EWI Reason Sounds called Analog Dreams.  I’ve been playing them for a few hours and I’m pretty happy with them so far.  The entire Refill (for Propellerhead’s Reason) is comprised of some emulations of vintage synths and they’re all very tweakable.  This Refill is also a new approach for Chris containing less sounds at a very reasonable price.

Finally, I just took delivery of a mouthpiece to try from Pete Thomas of “Taming the Saxophone”.  It’s a new metal mouthpiece called the PPT he’s been working on and I received it as part of a passaround through Sax on the Web Forum.  I’ve signed up for several passarounds in the past and this is the first time I actually got to play the mouthpiece in question…usually the passaround seems to fall apart I guess because someone buys the mouthpiece and that shuts everything down.  Since this is a first I’m kind of excited to actually get to try something new and comment on it.

Look for these and other reviews along with some audio recordings in the near future.

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.

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.