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.

By Barry

I've been playing the saxophone professionally for over 30 years mostly in the Baltimore/Washington DC area. I've been through a lot of trials and tribulations trying to learn and play this wonderful instrument and my hope is to pass some knowledge along to others and maybe save them some of the trouble. At the very least I want to give you some things to think about even if you do something different or disregard what I say completely.


  1. Hey Barry!
    Can you share a little more about how to assign Splits? Using the octave keys on the EWI4000s to switch patches sounds like a great idea!

    1. Splits are handled at the software level. In Reason you can easily make a combinator that combines whatever internal synths you want and then you can choose where they split or how they layer. So you could have a bass patch and have it only go up to say C3 and then starting at C#3 and going up you could have a lead patch or whatever you want. Using splits is a great way to quickly switch patches as long as none of the patches needs the whole range.

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