So What is a EWI USB?
EWI stands for Electronic Wind Instrument. It is a synthesizer designed for use by woodwind players to give them control over electronic music with much the same level of expressiveness they would expect from an accoustic instrument. The EWI and it's close cousin, the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument, meant for Brass players) were first developed by Nyle Steiner back in the 1970's. The term EWI is currently the property of Akai Professional, so the generic term "Wind Controller" is used to describe competing products from the likes of Yamaha and Casio.
The EWI USB is the latest in a long line of wind controllers from Akai and the first to be readily available to the public within what could be considered the hobbyist price range. With a street price of $299 USD (circa March 2009) it opens the door to more people than ever. In addition to the traditional EWI "fingering", the EWI USB can be configured for fingering styles similar to Saxophone, Flute, Oboe or Clarinet decreasing the learning curve - it even includes an EVI mode so brass players can finally have access to such a device at a reasonable price.
Unlike it's predecessors the EWI USB does NOT include an integrated synthesizer, nor is it designed to be connected directly to normal synthesizer modules via MIDI. It requires that you plug it into a Windows or Mac OS X based computer which is used as the synthesizer as well as to configure the device. It ships with a software synthesizer called "Aria" produced by Garritan Software which provides a wide range of sounds.
Which is not to say you are limited to the Aria software - the EWI USB sends all it's information as "MIDI over USB" so that any software synthesizer that responds to MIDI input can be used for playback. While most MIDI synths are not configured to accept "breath data" or "channel aftertouch" for the breath control, many of the better ones are. In addition some software include options to send any MIDI data coming into your computer to any existing MIDI out, including not just internal synthesizers and softsynths, but external boxes. See our Software Page for reviews of just some of the programs that will work.
So where do I get one?
While the EWI USB is available through most music retail channels, including e-bay resellers, personally I suggest you get one from Patchman Music for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that unlike most other resellers these folks have not only been involved with wind controllers longer than most anyone on the web, the people running the site actually PLAY. That extra bit of knowledge goes a long way when you call up the person who sold it to you with questions or problems.
While over on their site you will also find information about hardware synthesizers that you can plug into your PC and route the EWI USB to - they have great sounding patch banks you can add to those modules designed for use with wind controllers like the EWI USB.