Interesting Controller Instruments


Here are some controller musical instruments that I've appreciated over the years, instruments that are not optimized for playing 12-tone notes and chords but rather for drum or controll applications. All of these have no mechanical sound generation but rather use a sensor-based interface and software synthesis.


SLABS is the creation of the late David Wessel, who was the director and founder of UC Berkeley's Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). It consists of 32 pressure-sensitive trackpads arranged in an 8 by 4 matrix. Each of the X, Y and Z signals is sampled at 8 kHz! Unlike most controllers or keyboard that use much slower rates merely to trigger envelope generators, the very fast signals captured here can be used directly as excitation sources for resonant filters, not unlike striking a drum head causes the head and drum body to resonate. For example, when playing SLABS with a software physical drum model, you can get a different sound by striking the pads with your finger, palm, or fingernail. I think this idea is a forerunner of instruments to come. Here's a video.


The Space Palette is an innovative instrument created by none other than Tim Thompson, who also wrote part of the software for the LinnStrument prototype. Based on the Microsoft Kinect, you play it in 3D by moving your hands left/right/up/down and at varying degrees of depth within a number of physical frames. Your movements directly play and control the timing of individual notes and drums, and can also change the sounds, keys, and scales being used. Not only is it a very creative concept, but the sounds and control methods Tim has chosen are inspiring and very creative, making this instrument a very addicting experience. Here's a video of Space Palette at 2013 Burning Man, and here and here are earlier videos of Tim performing on Space Pallette.


The Reactable is an interactive, collaborative instrument using a multi-touch tabletop. Several performers sit around it, placing a variety of physical objects of various shapes (representing synthesizer-style sound sources, filters and modulators) on the table. The table senses these objects, responding by producing sounds and projecting animations from under the table surface to indicate sound flow and other useful visual feedback. By rotating and moving the objects with their hands, the performers create and alter music in real time, guided by the visual and sound feedback. And Björk uses one in live performance. Here's a video.


The Yamaha Tenori-On is a hand-held instrument consisting of a matrix of 16 x 16 lit buttons that respond with musically-useful animations when pressed, guiding the performer to create and edit interesting note sequences in real time. Here's a video.




Similar in appearance to the Tenori-On, the Monome is an control surface consisting of a matrix of either 8 x 8, 8 x 16 or 16 x 16 lit buttons that--in conjunction with your computer and software--can be programmed to do whatever you want, from launching clips in Ableton Live to programming step sequences or whatever you can program. Here's a video.



The Radio Baton from "Father of Computer Music" Max Mathews, consists of a tabletop surface and two wireless batons similar to those used by an orchestral conductor. As the batons are moved over the tabletop surface, continuous MIDI messages are sent to indicate their left-right, up-down and front-back positions in 3D space, and these messages can be assigned to control any parameters in an external synthesizer or audio processor. Software is included that interprets the movements of the batons to vary tempo and dynamics of a sequenced musical score, similar to the gestures of an orchestral conductor. Here is a photo of Max Mathews with the Radio Baton. Here's a video. Sadly, Max passed away in April of 2011. He will be missed by many.


The Lightning II Controller from Buchla & Associates is a unique product consisting of 2 handheld transmitters resembling small drumsticks plus a stand-mounted main console. When standing in front of the main console in performance, it senses the elevation and left-right position of each transmitter and sends this as MIDI data, or uses it to control an internal synthesizer. You can configure it so that movement in a user-defined x-y region sends a user-defined MIDI message. Further, the console senses velocity of movement and can be set to interpret fast movements (like a drum strike gesture) to send event messages (like MIDI Note On). Here's a video.


The 222e Multidimensional Kinesthetic Input Port module for the 200e Music Box by Buchla & Associates is a flat control surface consisting of 27 zones that sense the velocity and pressure of finger movements, and sends this data as control voltages to other modules in the 200e system. Fourteen of the sensors also sense location in either one or two dimensions.

This product also uses technology from the Buchla Lightning (see above) to sense the elevation and left-right position of 2 wireless finger-ring transmitters, altogether providing exceptional use of the performer's subtle hand and finger gestures for musical expression. Here's a video of the precursor to the 222e, the Buchla Thunder.


The Yamaha Miburi is a body suit that senses a variety of body movements and emits MIDI data in response to them. This MIDI data can be subsequently used to generate or modify sound or any other media. Here's a video.




The Gypsy Midi Motion Capture MIDI Controller from Sonalog is sort of mechanical exoskeleton that attaches to the arms and shoulders, converting body movements to MIDI commands. Here's a video.

Roger Linn Design

Los Altos, CA