Digital Wind Instruments – Slow Motion Innovation by Iain Cameron

Techcityblog.co.uk is very lucky to have a sixth guest blog from Iain Cameron who worked for 25 years in the Department of Trade and Industry and Cabinet Office. He also worked for over ten years on business improvement in the UK automotive supply chain. Recently he has been developing a start-up, Industrial Strategy Communications and has worked on projects with Oxford University, the UK Commission for Skills and SMMT Industry Forum.

Technical innovations often take a while after their invention to come into use  practically. This certainly applies to electronic wind instruments or EWIs. In this case the inventor was Nyle Steiner who in the 1960s started experimenting with linking a brass instrument to a synthesiser – strictly speaking he invented the electronic valve instrument or EVI first. In 1975 he started to market the Steiner Horn. His adaptation, the electronic wind instrument,  was launched a few years later. As is so often the case with pioneers, he didn’t make money and his firm was dissolved in 1979 although he continued making his instruments privately.  Steiner moved to California where he made a living using his inventions on film soundtracks.

The term EWI is now the property of the Japanese firm Akai who market modern EWIs – you can even buy one from Amazon. The cheaper version is the USB which as the name suggests works via a USB link to synthesizer software on a laptop. There is a more expensive design – the 4000S – which can operate in stand alone mode thanks to a synthesizer being incorporated into the instrument itself.

This configuration is used in the Casio Digital Horn which is what I use, having bought my Casio DH500 when I was on business in Tokyo about fifteen years ago. I also have a Yamaha WX7 which is a wind controller – a wind instrument which links to an external synthesizer via MIDI. Both these models are now discontinued.

I prefer my Casio because it is simple and effective. It claims to imitate six wind instruments but I think it is most effective on four – clarinet, oboe, tenor sax and soprano sax. There are two octave buttons for the left hand thumb and each octave setting allows over two octaves to be played in a fingering system which is similar to that of conventional wind instruments like saxes and flutes. There is also a MIDI socket so it is possible to link the instrument to an external synthesizer. I happen to use a M-Audio Venom which offers a very wide range of sounds for the at a very reasonable price.

For over ten years I have been making pieces using the Dhorn with Gilbert Isbin, a Belgian composer whose music is published by the Lute Society. Gilbert mostly uses a MIDI pickup on his jazz style electric guitar when we are building tracks together. We have a stock over nearly 1000 pieces that we have jointly created.

We are following in Steiner’s footsteps having set up IsbinCameron Film Music. We have recently entered a relationship with Phundee, an arts and entertainment oriented crowdfunding platform based in the Google Campus which has just launched. ICFM offer successful film projects on Phundee free sync rights for one piece from our Soundcloud show case. Hopefully this will lead to film makers using other pieces from our library on a paid-for basis.

A recent development with electronic instruments is the launch of the Morrison Digital Trumpet in Australia which has been developed by trumpet virtuoso James Morrison. This device offers has a trumpet mouthpiece and three valves and can produce 10 octaves of notes. It uses MIDI to drive an external synthesizer.

Patchman Music in the US offers the best service globally for maintenance, repair and has an impressive range of used electronic wind instruments for sale. Sadly it will only deal with customers in the US although their website is an excellent source of information and advice.

I have only ever met two other people in the UK with a Casio DH500 Digital Horn. All three of us happened to be at a recital at Hughes Hall in Cambridge. The recital was given by Michael Copley who used to be one half of the Cambridge Buskers. At one stage the Cambridge Buskers had great success in Japan and as a result Casio gave Michael his DH500.

Will EWIs ever gain a broader market in the UK?  I have been playing open mics in London for a few months using my Casio either playing solo or backing singer-songwriters. This has shown me that people are interested in the instrument and I usually have a chat with at least person in the audience at every gig about the EWI concept after that have heard what it can do.

When I am introducing myself at an open mic I sometimes say that the Akai EWIs can be bought at Amazon. Their USB model costs around £300 which is quite reasonable considering the sophistication of technology and the musical power of the device. Akai are still developing new models and I see on the Patchman website that a new model  has just been launched which incorporates wireless communication and many other new features.

It is also clear that EWIs have been taken up much more widely in the US. The saxophone star Michael Brecker who played with the likes of Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan was adept on his EWI and some of his performances can be seen on Youtube. But so far the uptake of this musical innovation has been a lot slower than, say, the spread of the electric guitar after Charlie Christian and Les Paul demonstrated what that instrument could do. All in all this makes an interesting case study for today’s would be innovators.

 

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