Posted January 30, 2011 by Stephan Earl in Reviews

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind Controllers

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind Controllers

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind Controllers

The electronic wind instrument, also called a MIDI wind controller or wind synthesizer, has been around since the 1970’s. Affectionately known as the EWI (pronounced E-wee), it’s typically designed to emulate the fingerings of either a saxophone, other woodwind instruments or a trumpet, and is capable of controlling music synthesizers or other devices.

Although EWI’s are designed to play expressively, the sound source it controls must be programed to take advantage of the MIDI continuous controller

Today’s line-up of MIDI wind controller includes the Akai EWI USB, Akai EWI 4000s and the Yamaha WX5. Each of these controllers is extremely expressive and use a variety of MIDI continuous controller messages in order to manipulate and control sound. Although EWI’s are designed to play expressively, the sound source it controls must be programed to take advantage of the MIDI continuous controller (CC) messages transmitted by the EWI.  Not all of today’s computer-based virtual instruments have the feature-set needed to take advantage of the power and flexibility of the EWI. Below are some of the virtual instruments currently on the market that are either specifically designed to work with a wind controller, or take advantage of MIDI CC automation and work very well when controlled by an EWI.

EWI 4000s Internal Synth

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind ControllersBefore I begin with the computer-based virtual instruments, I want to point out that the Akai EWI 4000s is currently the only electronic wind instrument that comes with a built-in analog modeling synth. The built-in VZX 4000s synth uses two tone oscillators and a noise generating oscillator to create its internal sounds. The preset sounds that ship with the EWI 4000s tend to be thin and leave much to be desired. You can create your own custom sounds using the Vyzex Editor which is available as a free download in the downloads section of the Akai EWI 4000s website. If programming analog synths is not your cup of tea, you can purchase EWI 4000s soundbanks from Patchman Music which is the largest developer of wind controller soundbanks in the world. Patchman Music creates some of the most warm and inspiring sounds available for the EWI 4000s internal synth and other wind controller tone generators.

Woodwinds & Brass

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind ControllersIf you’re looking for realistic sounding solo woodwind and brass instruments, Samplemodeling.com has a line-up of instruments designed specifically for the wind controller. Samplemodeling’s current line-up of instruments include: The Sax Brothers (Alto, Tenor and Baritone saxophones), Ms. Sax S (Soprano), The Trumpet and The Trombone. These instruments are built on Native Instruments Kontakt sampler platform, and use physical modeling and sample modulation programing techniques to create the most realistic interpretations of their acoustic counterparts available.

A few of the highlights of the Samplemodeling instruments include: complete volume and timbre control using CC2 (breath control) or CC11 (expression), an array of mutes on the Trumpet and Trombone instruments, growl and harmonic effects on the saxophone instruments, convolution reverb impulse responses (IR) of natural spaces, key noises, and vibrato behaviors specific to either the Akai EWI or the Yamaha WX5. The Samplemodeling.com website has audio and video demos available for you to hear these instruments in action.

Retro Flute by Bela D Media is another good product designed to work well with  your wind controller. While not as advanced as Samplemoding instruments at interpreting timbre and volume using CC2, it’s got a natural and breathy sound that responds well to breath control and velocity. Retro Flute is built on the Kontakt sampler platform and like Samplemodeling instruments, can be used with either the full version of Kontakt or the free Kontakt player. A few of the highlights of Retro Flute include: random player breath noises, a sung style which emulates the humming while playing technique, key noises, flutter, and sustained straight and vibrato tones.

Solo Strings

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind ControllersThere are many great ensemble and solo string sample sets out there, but few take advantage of MIDI CC2 as well as Dan Dean Solo Strings Advanced. Solo Strings Advanced is also built on the Kontakt sampler platform and includes: Solo Violin 1, Solo Violin 2, Solo Viola and Solo Cello instruments. It also includes small ensemble versions of each of the instruments as well as pizzicato, spiccato, arco and tremelo articulations. In addition to each of the instruments being very responsive to CC2 breath control, this set also includes convolution reverb IR samples and convolution timbre IR samples. These help to create an ultra-realistic sound of not just the solo instrument, but also emulates the tone of the instrument in various acoustic spaces. Visit the Dan Dean Productions website to hear good examples of these sample-based solo and ensemble string instruments in action.

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind Controller


Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind ControllersWhen you’re ready to turn your EWI into a hard rockin’ distorted Stratocaster or Les Paul Custom guitar, check out RealStrat and RealGuitarLPC sample-based instruments by MusicLab. I’ve got a few sample-based guitar libraries such as Electri6ity by Vir2 and guitar libraries by Pettinhouse, and they’re good for keyboard playing, but RealStrat and RealGuitarLPC work especialy well with wind controllers. MusicLab libraries are cleanly sampled raw guitar sounds, so they require a separate amp simulation effect plug-in such as Guitar Rig or AmpliTube for that amped distorted guitar sound.

Some of the features that make RealStrat and RealGuitarLPC well suited for a MIDI wind controller include:

  • String timbre controlled by breath velocity (just like plucking a real guitar string)
  • Vibrato responds well to the vibrato bite sensor on the Akai EWI and reed movement on the Yamaha WX5
  • Guitar effects such as palm mute, full string mute, harmonics and string bends can be assigned to be triggered from high or low velocity levels
  • An expression pedal can be used to trigger wah-wah effects real-time while playing (just like a real guitar)
  • A sustain pedal can be used to trigger harmonic feedback real-time while playing
  • Random string noises and scratches are triggered by “note-off” commands which means these cool effects sound as you pause or breath between passages (just like a real guitar player). This behavior is controllable to taste.

Many more features make these virtual guitar instruments real-sounding and fun to play. Visit MusicLab‘s website to see and hear demo’s of these instruments in action.

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind Controllers


Wouldn’t it be great if a virtual synthesizer could allow you to assign any MIDI continuous controller message to any function of the synth? Having the ability to assign CC2 to cutoff frequency, frequency envelope, amplitude; or assigning pitch bend to a delay effect; or assigning velocity to trigger alternate oscillators would allow you to create the most expressive wind controller synth sounds possible. Unfortunately, the majority of virtual synths on the market are primarily designed to be played by MIDI keyboards, and don’t often have the sophisticated MIDI learn and CC automation functionality needed for wind controllers.

However, one synth that will get the job done (and then some) is Omnisphere by Spectrasonics. Omnisphere is one of the most Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind Controllerspowerful virtual synths on the market today with over 2,700 sampled sound sources and a rich sounding synthesizer powered by its STEAM Engine. What makes Omnisphere a perfect match for MIDI wind controllers is its advanced MIDI learn and CC automation parameter handling. Omnisphere allows you to assign any oscillator, filter, envelope, sound effect, or layered sound to any MIDI CC transmitted by your wind controller. Another reason Omnisphere is a great match for wind controllers, is because you can layer up to eight complete patches (provided you have a powerful CPU and lots of RAM) to create an awesome Michael Brecker inspired multi-patch.

Programing Omnisphere can be daunting, especially learning all of the functionality needed to make a good EWI patch sound expressive. However, your time spent learning to program Omnisphere will be well rewarded with unique sounds that respond well to breath, pitch, vibrato and velocity controls. Spectrasonics has many tutorials on its website for you to get started learning Omnisphere. You can also find really good in-depth Omnisphere video tutorials here at macProVideo.

Lastly, there’s a fantastic wind controller player who creates EWI sound refills specifically for Propellerhead’s Reason. You can purchase and download sounds directly from his website at EWIReasonSounds.com.

Virtual Instruments for MIDI Wind Controllers

The products mentioned above are just a few examples of virtual instruments that will work well with a MIDI wind controller. If you have a favorite sample library or virtual synth that you use with your electronic wind controller, please leave a comment and let us know.

Stephan Earl

Composing, recording and producing music in the home studio environment for over 25 years, musician and author Stephan Earl now enjoys sharing his home studio setup experience with other home studio recording musicians via HomeMusicProduction.com.