The overall classification of these instruments is termed: 'wind controller'. A wind controller is an electronic instrument similar to a keyboard. They can be MIDI or USB based, and they play every sound that one can imagine. This concept is a little difficult for many to grasp. A modern synthesizer has a piano keyboard with hundreds of sounds that can be played from that piano keyboard. If it is not plugged in, it makes no sound at all. Many of the sounds are different types of keyboard instruments like grand piano, organ, Rhodes, or synthesizers, but many of the sounds are also real acoustic instruments or synthesizer sounds.
A wind controller is the same idea – a fingering system similar to a sax, clarinet or flute, with hundreds of sounds you can play on that wind driver. I get asked all the time, "What is that!" The answer is easy, but the next typical question is the difficult one, "What does it sound like?" And I would say, "It sounds like anything I want it to."
Let's take a look at the wind controller options available today. Wind controllers are available from Yamaha and Akai. The Yamaha WX5 has a woodwind friendly fingering system with the ability to change fingering for different woodwind instruments. It has no internal sounds, so it requires a sound module to make any noise. The synth module used by most is the VLM70 Virtual Acoustic Synth; a half rack space box with lots of great sounds ranging from brass, woodwinds, strings and ethnic instruments, but you can connect the WX5 to any sound module with a MIDI cable.
The Akai EWI has a very different fingering system without moving keys, utilizing touch sensitive metal buttons. The EWI 4000 has internal analog sounds but can also be connected to other sound modules via a MIDI cable. Many woodwind players have found the fingering on the EWI more difficult than the WX5, but there are advantages in the expression and control on the EWI.
Another noticeable difference between the Akai and Yamaha is the octave key system. The EWI has the full range of a piano and the octave key mechanism is an 8 roller system that can take a while to play well on. The Yamaha has a large center octave key and 2 octaves up or down from there. Both will take time to learn but the Yamaha is a little more user-friendly.
With the explosion of computer based 'soft synths', many keyboard sounds are now being triggered from a laptop. Akai has an EWI USB wind controller that just plugs into your laptop with a USB cable. These controllers have no internal sounds, like the WX5, and need to be connected to a computer to make any noise. They are MAC or PC compatible. They utilize the same fingering system as the EWI 4000, but cost a lot less without internal sounds or effects.
The most important thing to remember is – this is not a saxophone! Wind controllers are their own breed of instrument. They are designed for woodwind musicians, but they require time to learn how to play well, like any new instrument. If you are a wind musician, you can enter the world of electronic music for a fraction of the cost of a dozen new instruments, and play a rock guitar solo or violin part from the same instrument. You can even practice on your wind controller with headphones on at midnight and no one will be banging on the wall!
Check out the Yamaha WX5, EWI 4000 or EWI USB and remember where the sounds come from. EWI 4000 is a package with internal sounds – EWI USB requires a computer with onboard sounds – WX5 requires an external sound module like the VLM70 – both the WX5 and EWI4000 can MIDI to any sound module.