Best Electronic Wind Instruments – 2024’s Top Digital EWIs!

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Before choosing the piano as my main instrument, I was in love with the saxophone. It was the ‘90s, and I felt like the coolest players in jazz were saxophonists. They sold out concerts and had multiple platinum records!

To be fair, most of my exposure to the sax was through pop and smooth jazz artists like Kenny G, David Sanborn, and Dave Koz. But then I went to a jazz festival in Boston and saw the legendary Michael Brecker play, and my life changed forever. 

He pulled out this plastic flute-looking synth and started shredding like Eddie Van Halen on a distorted electric guitar-style sound! I turned to one of my sax colleagues and asked, "What is that?" And he replied, "That's an EWI." 

If you don’t believe me, just fast forward to 08:18 on this video. Ever since then, I've been totally obsessed with it.

The EWI is like a synthesizer for woodwind players, and it's incredibly cool for expression. Let's explore some of the best ones out there and how you can create incredible textures with them.

Best Electronic Wind Instruments - Top 5 Digital EWIs

1. Roland Aerophone Pro AE-30

Roland really knows how to make their products stand out. The Aerophone Pro AE-30 is definitely in a class of its own.

I had a chance to record with it once and immediately noticed how amazing the keys felt. They have a realistic saxophone action and are laid out similarly, so transitioning as a sax player is a breeze.

And of course, Roland doesn't stop there. Not only does it have full USB MIDI control, but it also has Bluetooth MIDI to play soft synths in a flash, and over 300 internal sounds if you just want to start playing right away. 

Their effects are top-notch too, because anything Roland does contains their pro-level studio effects.

One feature I really appreciate is the headphone output. When I'm practicing or warming up before a session or a show, it's nice to be able to do so without disturbing anyone.

But my absolute favorite feature has to be the breath sensor and how it interacts with the Roland superNATURAL modeling technology. It really lets you bring out unheard-of expression from sampled and modeled sounds. 

As someone who works a lot on film music, being able to write flute and oboe melodies this realistically for demos is unreal. It also plays well with Kontakt sample libraries, so I can literally breathe new life into my orchestral libraries. 

The only downside I've experienced so far is that because the action is so lifelike, it can tend to stick occasionally. But hey, real sax keys stick sometimes too. 


2. Akai Professional EWI 5000 

The Akai EWI 5000 is a cool upgrade to the EWI 3000, which was played by my hero Michael Brecker. It's not just another saxophone layout controller like the Roland, but a completely original wind instrument.

I actually own one of these and it's the most naturally expressive EWI I've ever played. The keys are perfectly placed so I can do some wicked portamento octave glides when playing synth patches.

Also, the MIDI timing is super tight. When I plug it into my Minimoog Model D reissue, there's no delay in latency when playing leads. The EWI 5000 was also designed to create unique textures.

The possibility for sound design is endless. From pads to soaring dubstep leads, you can play things you can't on a traditional keyboard. 

It also has a breath sensor like the Roland but has a more unique Bite sensor that lets you bend the sound like you would when biting the reed of an instrument such as sax or clarinet.

I usually play this at live DJ shows, and since it has wireless audio and a rechargeable battery, it's incredibly fun to use on dance floors. Nobody really knows that it's me playing the Minimoog lead they're hearing until I start going crazy; it's awesome.

The only downside is that the large sound library included is provided by Sonivox. I'm not a huge fan and have tried many of their soft synths and libraries, but they don’t come close to other libraries like Spitfire Audio. But hey, that's why we have MIDI, right?


3. Yamaha YDS-150

The Yamaha YDS-150 is a super cool hybrid instrument that combines acoustic and digital technology. It's a breath of fresh air compared to old-school EWIs.

What I love the most about this hybrid sax is that the feel is just like a real saxophone, but even better. Practicing the sax used to be a real pain, especially if you didn't have a professional setup or lived in an apartment. 

But the fact that they've included a volume control on an acoustic instrument is totally genius! I really wish I had this feature in college so I could have played without disturbing my neighbors. 

Another excellent feature is its tuning adjustment mechanism. It's a lifesaver! Playing soprano saxophone used to be tough for me because it was hard to keep it in tune. But with this instrument, everything is well-designed. 

It even has synthetic reeds, which saves you money by not having to replace expensive reeds constantly. The YDS-150 is battery-powered and has USB adapters, as well as Bluetooth, so you can pair it with your smartphone and play along to your favorite tracks.

Even if you're still using an acoustic saxophone, the YDS-150 is a dream come true for practicing. The one area that could be better is the effects section. 

Yamaha Reverb isn't known for its high-quality lushness. It's definitely not as good as Roland’s reverb. So I usually skip the effect section and add it later in my DAW instead.


4. Mooer Electric Saxophone

Sometimes, instruments come with some pretty bad preset sounds. But you know what? They're so bad that they're actually good!

I played around with the Mooer Electric Saxophone and I actually quite loved it. The sounds weren't very realistic, so they reminded me of those toy keyboards from the ‘80s that I still keep around when I want to get some purposely weird emulations of acoustic sounds. The Casio Portasound comes to mind as a good example.

As a sound designer for film music, I'm always on the lookout for sources that are a little unusual and that I can pass through some cool effects, like guitar pedals, synthesizers, filters, hardware saturators, reverb, and delays. 

I got the Mooer because it actually has some pretty awesome source sounds that you can manipulate to create really weird and interesting electronic textures.

I don't know if they intended it to be used like that, probably not, but it really works well. Because it has the expression of an EWI and it plays almost like an ethnic flute, you can create some very interesting sounds with some of their presets like their male chorus, female chorus, and bamboo flute. 

I also love its size and portability. I bring it to sessions with me because I can just take it out and pass it through a few really cool FX chains while still performing on an instrument that can be expressive, so it's different than just playing samples on the keyboard.


5. Roland Aerophone AE-01

The Roland Aerophone AE-01 is a seriously cool instrument that might not seem as impressive as other electronic wind instruments (EWIs) on the market at first glance. It's an awesome tool for anyone looking to get started with wind instruments or who just wants to learn the basics of playing an EWI. 

It's a lighter, more affordable version of its professional sibling, the AE-30.

While it doesn't have all the fancy features of the AE-30, the onboard tones and presets still sound great and can add a sweet touch to your recordings or songs. Plus, it's super lightweight, so you can take it anywhere.

I haven't bought this instrument yet, but I've played it a few times for my DJ sets, and it worked flawlessly. All I had to do was connect it to my system with Bluetooth and jam away.

The built-in speaker is pretty decent, making it easy to mic up. 

It reminds me of the Wurlitzer 200A keyboards that were originally meant for students and had terrible speakers so kids could hear what they were practicing during music class.  Now, those keyboards are some of the most legendary electric pianos in existence and have been used on recordings from Supertramp to the Beatles. 

One trick I use with the AE-01 is to mic up the speaker that comes with it. This creates a cool lo-fi sound that picks up some of the clicking sounds from the mechanism. I then pass it through some of those sweet Roland effects!


Choosing the Best Electronic Wind Instrument

Picking out the best EWI is similar to picking out the best saxophone – it can be tricky since wind instruments are subjective. Different brands have varying actions, breath tolerances, and sounds, making it challenging to know what to select.

Unlike traditional wind instruments that produce one sound at different dynamic levels, electronic instruments offer a variety of sounds to choose from. Furthermore, with MIDI capability, picking a favorite becomes even more challenging.

But worry not, I can help. The primary criteria to consider when selecting an EWI can be narrowed down to three basic categories.

Action

Alright, so every saxophone or woodwind player I've ever met chooses their brand of instrument based on how it feels to them. For EWIs, it's no different. 

So, just go for the one that has the layout that feels the most familiar to you, even though these are new instruments in their own right. They should also feel like an extension of your own saxophone, you know?

Personally, I love the traditional layout of the Roland and Yamaha EWIs, but I still get the best results playing the Akai. Maybe it's because, in a way, it's designed to go beyond just an electronic saxophone and is more of an innovative electronic instrument in its own right. 

It's like a wind version of the Roli controllers, which have completely changed the way we can play soft synths. But hey, at the end of the day, whatever you choose, make sure it's inspiring to play. That's the most important thing.

Internal Sounds

Even though many electronic wind instruments have MIDI capabilities, there is something extra special about how they react and play the internal sounds they come with.

MIDI has limitations in how it sends CC control messages, which doesn't quite capture the full expression in areas such as breath control, note bending, gliding, and in some cases, the bite of the reed sound.

Therefore, if you're aiming for realism and true expression, the Roland AE-30 and the Akai 5000 are probably your best bets, with the Roland being more traditional and the Akai more daring and innovative.

Expression Features

Woodwind instruments are all about expression! That's why I’ve always wanted to learn to play the saxophone because I feel that the piano is limited in how much you can express.

When you add all the possibilities of different controls and some of the synthesizer functions that go along with Electronic Wind Instruments (EWIs), they become a musician's dream come true, perfect for performers and recording beautiful melodies!

There are also some cool features to how you can add vibrato, jump octaves, and glide from note to note which are like a mix of fretless string instruments and synths. It’s hard to describe unless you start playing one yourself.

Once you do, make sure you have that credit card ready, because it’s super fun and addictive. So, get ready to jam out and maybe even throw down some killer guitar-sax solos a la Michael Brecker!

Final Thoughts

There's always this idea that any electronic version of an acoustic instrument is trying to replace it. It happened with the synthesizer when piano players used to criticize that the piano inside the synth sounded nothing like a piano.

The same goes for this particular instrument. When I saw Michael Brecker play an electric guitar sample through it, he wasn't trying to sound like a real guitar player. It was deeper than that.

He wanted to show you how he could express himself with different sounds, especially innovative and imaginative sampled sounds.

That's why I love synthesizers and that's why I love EWIs. I see them as amazing tools in our palette of creativity!

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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