Innovation and Accessibility: Nyle Steiner and the EWI
Although synthesizers were becoming extremely popular during the 1970s and 1980s, all commercial synthesizers were in a keyboard format. This made live electronics and then MIDI controllers only accessible to those who had a basic understanding of the keyboard. After Nyle Steiner had altered his own synthesizers and “frankensteined” his own devices, he abandoned the idea of altering a preexisting synthesizer to make a “wind-like” electronic instrument from scratch. He created the EWI, or the Electronic Wind Instrument: an electronic synthesizer (and in some versions) a MIDI controller in a woodwind instrument format. Despite Steiner’s expectations that this would be adopted by brass and woodwind instrumentalists, the EWI made its way into jazz, rock, and fusion as well as in film scoring. One piece that utilizes the EWI is “Upside, Downside” by Michael Brecker. Brecker plays the EWI and utilizes both saxophone fingerings and a sound similar to a processed saxophone. This piece demonstrates the EWI’s built-in effects as well as the adaptability to use the EWI as a lead instrument, soloist, counter melody, or background texture. The EWI became a tool for wind instrumentalists to play live synthesizers in a format that is comfortable and flexible for them. Steiner’s innovation has changed the course of contemporary music and film scoring as well as the accessibility of synthesizers to a wider audience.
Nyle Steiner helped pave the way for woodwind and brasswind-based electronic instrument development. In the 1980s, Steiner designed EWI, also known as an electronic wind instrument. It combines the valve-like keys of a brass instrument, the embouchure of a reed instrument, and the sound of a synthesized woodwind to create a versatile, MIDI-compatible instrument. The EWI has been utilized by jazz, funk, and fusion players such as Michael Brecker to explore a synthesized sound palette within a format that is comfortable for wind instrumentalists and non-wind instrumentalists alike. Steiner has made electronic synthesizers more accessible and responsive to the player, making his work and influence comparable to other musicians, composer, and inventors such as Daphne Oram, Carla Scaletti, Mari Kimura, and Herbie Hancock.
The EWI can be categorized as an electronic synthesizer, as well as a MIDI controller. Unlike synthesizers and controllers before its time, the EWI has a wind instrument like format, able to switch between the fingers of the saxophone, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and the oboe. However, the EWI was originally the EVI, or Electric Valve Instrument, as Steiner was a professional classical trumpeter. Although the original was called the “Steiner Horn” the name and the instrument did not gain recognition until switching over to the woodwind format. Steiner used to consider himself a “legit trumpeter,” playing with groups such as the Utah Symphony. Despite not being a woodwind player himself, Steiner managed to imagine, design, and fabricate a uniquely versatile electronic instrument.
Two aspects of this synthesizer that have added to its popularity are the built-in effects and the physical responsiveness of the instrument from the player. Although additional effects can be added to the instrument either through pedals or computer plug-ins, the EWI has build in pitch bend, vibrato, octave selection, and chorus effects. Through these effects, the EWI has a wide range of timbrel possibilities, such as utilizing a wide frequency range, playing styles with and without vibrato, bending notes as musical ornamentation (including glissandi), and doubling the fundamental pitch above and below the initial frequency. In addition to all the exciting effects to discover, the EWI is capable of reading and responding in real time to the player’s expressions. The EWI does not require air to play, but there is a sensor on the inside of the mouthpiece that detects the air pressure and responds with the appropriate dynamic level. Secondly, the mouthpiece itself has a sensor that can detect embouchure pressure as well as any “bite” pressure. This allows the synthesizer to produce all the musical nuances a wind player would want to incorporate on their acoustic instrument. As a result, the EWI has be incorporated into funk and fusion genres for its versatility and responsiveness to the musician’s playing. Film composers have also taken a liking to the EWI for its a ability to translate these musical forms into a digital language. Synthesizers and electronic controllers enable film scorers to notate and record the tracks faster and cleaner than ever; however, they often lack the delicacies of acoustic instruments. The EWI is the best of both worlds, as it combines this digital data and electronic efficiency with the musical details the player desires to incorporate into the performance.
Regardless of keyboard formatted synthesizers and controllers remaining the standard in the electronic music and recording market, the EWI has been used in many types of music by prominent musicians such as Bob Mintzer, Marshall Allen, John Swana, Richard Elliot, Dev Hynes, and Michael Brecker. In addition to live bands featuring the EWI, the EWI has been used in film scoring, such as in the movie Apocalypse Now. As of recent, Akai has bought rights to the EWI and has further developed the instrument, giving it a cleaner look and making them comparable with most computers. Akai currently has three models of the EWI: EWI5000, EWI4000S, and the EWI USB. The EWI USB is much more affordable than the other two models, making it perfect for hobbyists and available to a larger population. The reason it is about half the price of the other two is that it must remain connected to a computer via USB and does not include the built-in sound bank the other two models include. For these reasons, the EWI USB is best used for home recording and as a MIDI controller, where the other two may be utilized for live performances. Michael Brecker used a “pre-Akai" version of the EWI during his live performances. In “Upside, Downside” Brecker utilizes the EWI as a live synthesizer, uniting his saxophone skills and ideas with the capabilities and analog sounds of an electronic instrument. The following is an analysis of “Upside, Downside,” examining both the nuances of the EWI in addition to the major components of this electric jazz and funk piece.
0:00 - 0:10 — The piece begins with an electric bass solo of opening bass line. E to C and E to C# (minor 6 and major 6) leaps. The meter is 4/4 but heavily syncopated, deemphasizing beat 1.
0:10 - 0:20 — The drums enter along with a scratching sound, similar to turntable’s scratching sounds. The bass continues the 2-measure riff. Despite forward momentum created with faster harmonic rhythm, the use of syncopation gives an ametric feel before the riff enters.
Here is my first snap shot of approximately 10 seconds to 20 seconds into the piece. It begins with only electric bass, which occupies the orange amplitude in the lower frequencies (>200Hz). However, the percussive attacks of the bass plucking are seen in the yellow streaks above the orange (1,000 - 3,000Hz). When the drums come in, there is much more yellow and orange as a result of greater amplitude. The cymbal crashes and hi hat closing produce the highest frequencies, peaking at ~17,000Hz. Also, the synthesizer producing the “scratching” tones creates stripes in the frequencies, as well as pushes the amplitude into a red-orange color. This sound sticks out most to the audience and can be reflected through its brighter color next to the dark-green background.
0:20 - 0:30 — The electric guitar plays repeated singular note with distorted tone and bends. Next, the EWI joins in with wide-vibrato on an electric string-like sound sample. There is ambiguity in a tonal center between A major/E mixolydian and A mixolydian. There is use of descending minor 2nds and major 7ths, creating angular lines.
0:35 - 0:45 — The EWI and guitar play unison off-beat staccato notes while the bass continues the same riff with 16th note fills.
The drums continue a funk groove, with a strong the backbeat. The tonal center shifts between G mixolydian and F# mixolydian while E remains in the bass.
0:45 - 0:55 — The EWI chorus is turned on, producing chords on the staccato notes with the guitar as bass and drums continue their patterns and fills. Everyone returns to the angular A major/E mixolydian riff and then repeats it in A mixolydian.
0:55 - 1:05 — The EWI holds longer notes with electrified saxophone-like sound. The chorus effect continues to hold chords under the rhythm section. There is a descending half steps in bass line, using dominant 7th chords and large leaps of octaves, minor 7ths, and minor 6ths in the EWI and guitar.
1:05 - 1:25 — The EWI returns to unison staccato hits with guitar and drum cymbals. The bass riff is thinned out and often overlaps with the ensemble hits.
1:25 - 1:35 — The EWI holds notes with the electric saxophone sounds, but with the fast, wide vibrato effect. Meanwhile, the bass, guitar, and drums start sparse and gradually increase harmonic rhythm.
This next snapshot features a “darker” zone in towards the left and progressively gets more yellow towards the right. The dip with less yellows is when there is a “drop” in the music, as a result of the drums “dropping out” as the EWI, bass, and guitar continue the main riff. The EWI later has a chorus effect, which is seen through the horizontal yellow-orange slashes. The production of perfect 5ths and octaves being played simultaneously occupies the frequency range of ~1000 - 6500Hz. However, there are spaces between the parallel lines, possibly due to the lack of overtones being produced by a synthesized instrument. Rather, the sine-like sound is hear more “perfectly” and has less frequencies that are “bleeding” into one another. The red amplitude in the lower frequencies is a result of bass drum, bass guitar, and sustain synthesizer whole notes playing forte in the chorus of the piece.
1:35 - 1:45 — The EWI plays staccato notes without guitar joining in. The riff is repeated twice and the rhythm section increases dynamics while keeping the texture sparse.
1:45 - 1:55 — The bass and guitar drop out, leaving the EWI riff and pianissimo drums on hi-hat and ride cymbal.
1:55 - 2:05 — The bass and guitar come back in, while the guitar, EWI and bass play the riff off on top of the fills. In addition electric keyboard joins in playing chords with the EWI on a synthesized sine-like sound to match the EWI chorus effect. They throw in a bar of 3/4 at the end of the last staccato phrase.
2:05 - 2:10 — The bass line aligns with EWI hits and the keyboard holds soft pads in the background.
2:10 - 2:22 — There is sparse texture from the EWI over ametric cymbals and soft, feathery synth pads. Then, bass and bass drum enter with elongated syncopated figure; there is more legato articulations played by the ensemble.
2:22 - 2:27 — The ensemble holds the chord and the EWI has tremolo and chorus effects to create a jarring chord all held by the EWI, guitar, bass, synths, and cymbal hits.
2:27 - 2:31 — The EWI glissandos downward and leads into a guitar solo over thinned-out bass line and drums.
2:32 - 2:50 — There is a guitar solo with a clean tone and use of space between phrases. The bass plays the original syncopated line with bass drum emphasizing off beats (1-e, 4-e, and 4-and). There are short phrases of 2 bars, 2 bars, and 3 bars, which continue behind the guitar.
2:51 - 3:00 — The guitar plays over sustained bass and synth pads while the drums hit on 1 and 1-and. The harmonic progression begins on F over a bass note E, and descends chromatically over the bass note E.
3:01 - 3:10 — The guitar returns over the original, staccato bass riff. Drums play on the hi hat on 2-and, 3-and, and 4-and, creating anticipation at the head of the section. The guitar plays 4-note rising patterns in G minor pentatonic over E and then glissandos downward at the end of the phrase.
3:10 - 3:20 — The guitar plays a pentatonic scale in 8th notes going up and 16th notes in 3rds descending and then becoming an E harmonic minor scale.
3:20 - 3:35 — There are whole notes in the synth patch, descending chromatically from E7 to C7. There is syncopation so the held notes begin a 16th note prior to the next measure. The guitar follows this chromatic descent, holding the root note and then playing the arpeggio ascending.
3:35 - 3:50 — The original bass line returns with heavy cymbal crashes on each beat and hi hat playing on the off beats. The guitar plays patterns using the dominant 7 arpeggios and their corresponding pentatonic scales (major, minor, 5th away).
3:50 - 4:10 — Descending dominant 7 chords occur while the guitar plays pentatonic digital patterns that are, too, descending chromatically. The keyboard synth returns to holding the whole notes plus a 16th note from the last measure.
4:10 - 4:25 — The original bass line returns with heavy cymbal splashes on all beats and the off beats. The synth drops out at this point. The guitar continues to play pentatonic and harmonic minor digital patterns until landing on the root note, E.
4:25 - 4:35 — There is more space in both solos and in the accompaniment as guitar passes off soloing to the EWI. The solo begins with 8th note patterns on the pentatonic scale, in descending 3rds. The guitar plays the bass line in unison with the bass, using heavy distortion. The drums are sparse with hi hat on the off beats.
4:35 - 4:55 — There is a return back to the descending 7th chords with keyboard synth holding the roots. The EWI plays large leaps of a 10th and then uses the arpeggios, pentatonic, and dorian scales descending after the leaps. Huge crashes are hit on beat one and strong back beats are hit on 3 and 3-and from the bass drum.
4:55 - 5:15 — The original bass line is played without guitar, but this time synth doubles the bass line an octave higher. In addition, the EWI continues to do leaps in a higher register and has an electronic-like glissando when returning to the bottom note.
5:15 - 5:25 — The EWI plays 32nd note digital patterns as the synth, bass, and guitar play the descending 7th chord notes. The drums remain the same, with sloshy hi hat and no use of the other cymbals.
5:25 - 5:35 — The EWI begins on a high-pitched note with distortion (almost like a growl) and gradually gets higher and higher, holding out notes that would be in the saxophone’s altissimo range. Then, it descends with more 32nd notes using the altered scale and at the end of the pattern, the augmented scale.
This third selection takes place about 5 minutes, 33 seconds into the piece at the beginning of Brecker’s EWI solo. On the left side of the image, there is gaps creating window-like shapes. This is while the band is sustaining piano notes underneath the EWI (as well as small cymbal crashes) and the EWI holds a high pitch, played cleanly at first. After a beat and a half, the same pitch is added, but it is almost like a square-wave, as it is slightly distorted and more present than the other timbre previously being held. Once the EWI returns to its normal sawtooth-like timbre, more frequencies are involved (mainly yellow in ~2,000 - 9,000Hz). The EWI is more blended/buried in the ensemble as a result and the lower pitches stand out less over the rhythm section.
5:35 - 5:45 — Thin texture returns as the bass drops out and just the drums and EWI remain. The bass returns after one 4/4 measure and one 3/4 measure, beginning with the original bass line. The keyboard synth joins in 4 measures later, doubling the bass line an octave higher. The EWI plays minor pentatonic digital patterns and utilizes bend features on the instrument (sliding up and down about a quarter tone in each direction).
5:45 - 6:00 — The whole ensemble participates in a chromatic descent, with the guitar playing chords using a distorted sound and only “up” strumming. The synth is thicker in texture, as more middle voices of the chords are filled in. The EWI does runs up and down with dorian and harmonic minor, taking the space of approximately three octaves.
6:00 - 6:15 — The EWI uses a chorus effect, producing perfect 4ths moving in parallel motion. There are continued runs up and down using the pentatonic scale in 64th notes. The guitar and synth sustain thick chords underneath the EWI and the cymbals fill up the higher frequencies.
6:15 - 6:35 — The EWI plays 64th notes while the guitar and synth continue to hold descending root notes (on dominant 7th chords) while the bass returns with the first bass line over the descending pattern. This unites the A and B of the AABA’ form!
6:35 - 6:50 — The EWI and distorted guitar play pentatonic scale patterns in unison, but with slight delay as the guitar is following the EWI in the live performance. In addition, the drums thin out, using less cymbals. Only the hi hat is played on the off beats to compliment the original bass line on the off beat hits. The keyboard synth holds half notes with descending dominant 7th chords from C to Eb.
6:50 - 6:55 — There is a brief return to the main melody in unison from bass, EWI, and guitar in octaves. The synth reinforces the melody with hits on major beats. The drums continue the original beat with sloshy hi hat. Although it is 4/4 in 4 measures, everything is syncopated, which makes the tune feel displaced.
6:55 - 7:05 — There is a transition period on Eb7 (below original the original melody’s E) where the EWI plays an octave higher than it was previously playing and the original bass line with more 16th notes filled in. This is a 4 and a half measure phrase.
7:05 - 7:20 — We return to the original melody with the EWI and guitar in unison, but the EWI drops out on some notes due to the fatigue of playing a wind-like instrument. It is a much quieter dynamic when the synth drops out. The drums play the melody on an opening and closing hi hat.
7:20 - 7:40 — There is a brief reveal of ‘B’ theme/transition section with the guitar doubling the EWI’s syncopated 16th notes in the same, high-frequency octave. Drums provide a steady rock beat with heavy snare hits on 2 and 4. This occurs for 3 measures then returns to the original melody but slightly louder, playing more cymbals while the two synths (keys and EWI) reinforce the first two hits in the melody.
7:40 - 8:05 — There is a run through the main melody and during the second half of the melody the synth enters with the descending half note dominant 7th chords. The bass emphasizes the melody by playing a version of the melody with less 16th notes. The EWI lands on the 7th of the final chord, an octave higher and holds the pitch before adding a fast trill. The drums adds cymbals in contrast to the 8th notes on the snare. (This reinforces the melody’s stronger hits.)
7:40 - 8:05 — The main melody returns and during the second half, the keyboard synth enters with descending half note dominant 7th chords. The bass emphasizes the melody by playing a version of the melody with less 16th notes. The EWI lands on the 7th an octave higher and holds and and then adds a fast trill. The drums adds cymbals in consistent 8th notes with snare hits to reinforce the melody’s stronger hits.
8:05 - 8:10 — The original melody returns at a soft dynamic, yet is doubled by EWI and distorted guitar. The bass returns to the original, 16th note syncopated line.
8:10 - 8:25 — The melody continues at a louder dynamic (mf) and EWI applies another chorus effect, doubling the melody down an octave. The EWI also uses pitch shift to bend notes on the sustained notes at the end of the phrase.
8:25 - 8:45 — The EWI runs up a dorian scale in 32nd notes, ascending 3 octaves. Then, the EWI trills on the top pitch and the guitar fills in 16th note minor pentatonic scales. On the last sustained note, the drums play a drum fill for two measures, utilizing the crash and ride cymbals. There is a short silence of 3 beats then a hit with cymbal, guitar, synthesizer, and bass without EWI.
This final snapshot features about the last 5 seconds of “Upside Downside” (~8:30 - 8:35). From left to right, the very left features a thick texture, as 0 to about 15,000Hz are sounding in one form or many. The EWI is hold a high note that is trilling, which adds to the strong yellow smear in the middle-bottom of the frequencies. Then, in the mid-right, all instruments but EWI and guitar drop out. Then in the right side, there are bold strips when the drummer hits the tom drums and then includes snare and bass drums. On the final tutti hit, the drummer hits the cymbal, and the EWI, guitar, bass, and synthesizer hit a chord on one final beat. This is seen as the thick yellow-green stripe on the left-hand border. The color shows a relatively loud amplitude, but that the extreme majority of frequencies are sounding on that final hit.
One early electronic music figure Nyle Steiner can be compared with is Daphne Oram. Although Oram was focused on making studios and recording equipment available to the public, Steiner’s invention allows more individuals to own and play synthesizers. Oram’s Oramics project helped create different platforms for synthesized sounds. In addition, her variophone was another invention she worked on shortly after. Both Oramics and the variophone utilized film strips and processing to create a monophonic output. I imagine Oram would be jealous of Steiner’s ability to work with analog synthesizers as the fundamental pitch-production for the EWI, rather than starting practically from scratch when developing the variophone. The EWI has now become digitalized, utilizing both a sound bank and being capable of working as a MIDI controller in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), enabling composers, musicians, and hobbyists to afford and work with a “wind instrument” synthesizer in many different formats. Throughout Oram’s career, she advocated for electronic music and its accessibility for everyone. The Oramics Studio was her way of bringing electronic music production to composers and musicians. Electronic music has gone from an “elitist” artform, to one that can be accessed in most households and in schools. Although the EWI has been prominent in jazz, rock, and fusion genres, but MIDI controllers and other electronic aerophones have opened up doors for those looking to experiment with synthesized sounds, which follows Oram’s ideology in accessible music technologies.
Steiner can be considered an inventor, specifically a musical engineer. Carla Scaletti is an inventor, composer, and musician who has designed and help create KYMA. These are hardware and software products that control and interact with synthesizers both in live performances and in electronic music recordings. Like the EWI, KYMA has been utilized in film scoring and has aided the composers for movies like Wall-E and Finding Nemo. One aspect of KYMA that is beneficial for the public and the company is their online tutorials; individuals can log onto the website and browse through a series of KYMA tutorials and examples of project samples. KYMA is surviving company as individuals can sign up for their email list and also purchase products that all work together through the computer. Although Steiner’s invention is a synthesizer and Scaletti’s work deals with a software that interacts with synthesizers, both have worked towards making live electronic performance as well as sound recording more accessible and efficient for consumers. An aspect that is similar between the two products is the responsiveness from the controller, as the computer is gathering data from the player(s) in real time. Not only does this eliminate perceivable input-output delay, but it also allows for more nuances in the playing of these electronic synthesizers, able to handle more details and more information without causing a lag or stagnant sounds produced. Both Steiner and Scaletti contributed to the production of synthesizers for both recording and live performance purposes and to the accessibility of these products to both professional musicians and average consumers.
Mari Kimura is an incredible violinist and an innovative engineer. She is best known with her work, the augmented violin, at the Juilliard School. This project began as a way to untie the technique, details, and performance practice of “traditional” instruments with the sounds, capabilities, and interactions of electronic instruments. The augmented violin began with a violin bow, rigged with movement and pressure sensors. Although the computer recognized the movements from the arm to the violin, it would pick up movements not associated with the horizontal bowing movement and did not provide enough control in transmitting other elements in the playing. Therefore, Kimura redesigned the augmented violin to have wrist sensors all build into a small cast-like device. Like the EWI, the augmented violin is capable of detecting and transmitting performance details from the player to the computer/output. However, Kimura takes the augmented violin one step further by having what she produces while playing be sorted through the computer and used as material, so she is in turn, interacting with the computer. Because of Steiner and Kimura’s traditional music backgrounds, they both found a way to incorporated the traditional performance practices and nuances into live electronic music production.
Another figure Steiner can be compared to is the keyboardist, composer, and jazz innovator Herbie Hancock. Hancock is known for his influence in bringing electronics into contemporary jazz music, specifically through his use of electronic keyboards, synthesizers, and organ sound banks. In addition, Hancock is known for utilizing the vocoder and using it both in his earlier compositions and in his live performances. Vocoders look like small keyboards with a an attached microphone and knobs for additional effects and nuances. Although Steiner was not known for playing his EWI, the EWI includes similar characteristics to vocoders in the fact they are able to capture small musical details, such as pitch bend, vibrato, and attack/release. Like the EWI, vocoders and synthesizers made their way into jazz, rock, and fusion genres. Lastly, Hancock is devoted to bringing musical technologies to the public, and specifically into schools. He is a music educator and has spoken for and worked towards making electronic music, specifically instruments and recording software, more accessible for others, whether they are professional musicians, students, or hobbyists. Through bringing new electronics into contemporary genres and pushing for public access to electronic musical equipment, Nyle Steiner and Herbie Hancock have both led to innovations in musical practice, composition, and impact.
Through Steiner’s innovation in creating and publicizing the EWI, more individuals have access to portable synthesizers in a format that is comfortable and effective for them. As a result, genres such as rock, jazz, and fusion have incorporated differently formatted synthesizers into their works. In addition, film composers have adopted EWIs and EVIs as MIDI controllers in their notation and recording softwares. EWI has become a valuable tool for both live instrumentalists and those who record or compose digitally. Because of Steiner’s dedication towards accessible synthesizers as well as his ability to unite acoustic and electronic instruments, he can be compared to Daphne Oram, Carla Scaletti, Mari Kimura, and Herbie Hancock. One prominent saxophonist and jazz, funk, fusion composer who utilized the EWI in live performances is Michael Brecker. In his piece “Upside, Downside” he puts the EWI to the test, incorporating several timbrel and harmonic effects to his synthesized saxophone sound bank. Although the EWI is now owned by Akai, Steiner should be remembered for his contributions to electronic music accessibility as well as a unique format of electronic instruments that bridges analog sounds and digital interfaces in a wind instrument format.
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