Creating A Unique Identity on the EWI

This originally appeared on my EWI website, ewilogic.com, on September 12, 2012:

​​I think ultimately the question becomes: “What creates a musical identity on an instrument?” I’ve posted this question before on other wind forums and have gotten minimal input from others. This is one of the questions that I have been asking myself for years, and has literally kept me awake some nights mulling it over!

My argument is, as far as the EWI is concerned, it’s ALL about the programming. Here’s why: If you take a default sine wave patch, you get just that – a sine wave. Take one EWI with average, middle of the road settings, and hand it to 20 different players of similar skill using that sine wave patch. Put them behind a blind screen, have them all play the same 16 bar piece of music, and then attempt to tell me who was who. I’d doubt seriously it would be possible. There would be minor differences in phrasing, articulation, time interpretation, etc., yes, BUT, I still maintain that isn’t enough within itself to provide a basis for individual identity, and is secondary to the sound for that purpose.

We all know our friends’, mother’s, father’s, or co-workers voices immediately when we pick up the telephone. I can identify a slew of saxophone, trumpet, and piano players by their sounds alone. Play me three notes of ‘Trane or Brecker or Cannonball and I’ll know them immediately. Then of course there’s no mistaking Sarah, Billie, Ella, Frank or Beyoncé, for that matter, just by their vocal signature. The identifying and familiar triggers are the sonic signatures of those individual’s voices whether they be human or produced by an instrument. An acoustic instrument is a malleable sound source. Based upon its physical properties, the physical properties of the person playing it – i.e., size of the throat, chest cavity, bone structure – and the performance environment (hot, cold, wet, dry) the same instrument will behave in wide variation from one person, or one performance (or both!) to the next. No so with a purely electronic instrument.

Using throat and tongue position alone, I can shape and color my sound in virtually infinite ways on saxophone, flute, clarinet, etc. On an EWI, this has no effect. Therefor the built in subtlety and variation of an acoustic instrument has to be pre-thought and thoroughly designed into the sounds for an EWI to allow true expressive performance. The majority of my “practice” time on EWI is spent tweaking or programming sounds to find my “voice” on the instrument.

No matter how many saxophones or mouthpieces I play, I sound basically the same with subtle variation because of my physiology, but also because of how I hear myself internally. I just hear “me” regardless of the equipment and that’s what comes out – “me.” I’m beginning to realize that it’s a similar thing on EWI. The more I program the more I find myself gravitating toward similar sounds and similar choices, so I’m slowly beginning to find me in there too. I’ve been playing saxophone for over 30 years, the EWI for almost 20 but I’ve only been serious about programming for it for maybe 5-6 years. In 25 years, I’ll have a much better handle on what it means to program EWI sounds for me that I like just as I have an entirely different concept of “me” on the saxophone than I did 25 years ago.

Remember that I’m taking about artistry, not emulation. You can spend a huge amount of time tweaking response settings on the EWI to get your favorite emulation of trumpet, saxophone, flute, et. al, to respond for you as you want. Or possibly so you can play that same well trodden Patchman patch everybody else always uses (I’m guilty too!) But the real challenge as an EWI player (or ANY electronic instrument) is to create a sonic palette of original sounds that is readily identifiable and associable with YOU.

How many electronic instrumentalists have an immediately identifiable sonic signature? You hear a few notes REGARDLESS OF CONTEXT and just immediately KNOW who it is? Very very few. Herbie has a couple of signature sounds, Stevie Wonder has that just amazing organ, Pat Metheny’s guitar synth. Mike Brecker’s mesmerizing sounds on “Sentimental Mood” and Itsbynn Reel. The synth work of Jan Hammer or Joe Zawinul There are others but it’s a SMALL clubhouse.
My guess as to the reasons this is so is it’s a many faceted issue. First of all it takes time. LOTS of time. It takes willingness to acquire the expertise necessary to program your synths to respond correctly to breath control. They all function basically the same way, but the learning curve is steep no matter where you begin. When you have a busy professional life and maybe a family, there’s only so many hours in the day to devote to new learning. Practice time (at least for me) is ALWAYS at a premium.

It also takes a certain amount of free wheeling imagination to step away from what’s been normal and risk creating an identity that is wholly your responsibility. Exposing yourself to the criticism that comes with individuality can be a difficult step. And allowing yourself the freedom to PLAY, as in just explore and have fun as an adult is very hard. To find that sonic identity means exploring until you grasp it, while simultaneously learning the tools to create it and the technique of the EWI to express it. It’s a challenge, no doubt.

So you may ask, how DO I find my voice? What works for me is pulling up sounds that I like that have already been designed to work with the EWI, whether it’s internal from the EWI4000 or from something like Reason. That way, you’re starting halfway there. I then will play the sound and take note of what I like about it while allowing my inner ear to sculpt possibilities that depart from there. I’ll then try to “find” the sound I’m hearing relative to the one that’s there by editing and manipulating the synth’s parameters. Sometimes I’ll just grab a control and go “Hmmm…., I wonder what THIS does?” I’ve developed some very interesting sounds that way. Pure chance and coincidence.

The Vyzex editor’s random mix and random creation functions are great in this way. Pick two sounds you like and have it generate a parameter mix from them. What you’ll get is mostly dreck, but every now and then something truly great will pop out.

My simple answer to the original question – after so much opinion – is patience, exploration and daily work at it. Learn your tools inside and out, learn all you can about music, listen to as much music as you can absorb in every style and allow yourself the peace and freedom to hear your inner soundscape. It will drive your choices.

Another thing I find useful is to spend a few hours at the museum looking at great art, then go home and PLAY that art. Go home and create a sound that evokes that Monet, or Degas. That lets you feel the Rodìn’s solidity or the Picasso’s angularity and angst. Or put on an old movie and turn off the sound. Play the soundtrack yourself with your EWI, changing sounds when you feel it’s necessary. Read a book and compose a 10 minute sonic synopsis, or read a newspaper story and program a sound that reflects that. I guarantee your choices will be different than mine and THAT is what makes your sound signature different from mine. There is NO right or wrong, there are no mistakes. Only choices.

Oh yeah, finding time to be absolutely quiet and still is VERY important. We often throw so much noise into our lives to avoid listening to ourselves, that it can indeed be hard to find the true voice inside all that cacophony.

May we all find the inner peace to hear our unique voice and the courage to sound it.

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