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Roger's Favorite New Tuned Instruments

Updated November 12, 2012


Here are some of my favorite new tuned musical instruments, instruments optimized for playing 12-tone notes and chords, as opposed to instruments designed more for control of sounds. All of these have no mechanical sound generation but rather use a sensor-based interface and software synthesis.

The SeaBoard from Roli Labs uses a soft rubber playing surface molded in the shape of a piano keyboard. Finger movements on this surface are sensed in three dimensions-- pressure for expression. left/right for pitch and forward/backward for timbre-- independently for each simultaneous finger touch. For keyboard players, this provides the advantage of a highly expressive performance polyphonic control in a familiar note layout. Click the link above for a video of this innovative instrument in performance.

The Continuum from Haken Audio has a soft playing surface (similar to a mouse pad) in which the notes are arranged like a piano keyboard except that each semitone has equal spacing. Further, each finger's pressure (expression), left/right position (pitch) and forward/backward position (timbre) are continuously sensed for all fingers polyphonically. The combination of the continuous left/right pitch control with the equally-spaced semitones permits you to slide between pitches, for example to play a middle C then slide the pitch up to C an octave higher. It also includes integrated highly-expressive sound synthesis for this three-dimensional finger gesture capture. A great idea as well as a well-designed and well-built instrument. Here are some videos: bowed-string sound, flute-like sound, plucked string sound, muted trombone sound.

The Eigenharp Alpha is not only an excellent collection of ideas but also a very beautifully hand-crafted instrument. Its main keyboard consists of 120 keys arranged as 5 columns of 24 keys each, and each key is sensitive to simultaneous pressure, forward-backward and left-right movement, simultaneous and polyphonic, all sampled at 2000 Hz and with 10-bit resolution (1024 levels). The rows can be configured as chromatics, major, minor or one of a large number of other scales, and the pitch offset between rows can be set to any interval you like. It also has two strip controllers, a wind controller, 12 additional larger keys for percussion, bowing or strumming; an accompanying Mac-based application for sound generation, and lots more. They also make a lower-cost version called the Tau, as well as a much simpler and very low-cost version called the Pico. Here are some videos: overview, acoustic guitar, jazz sax on a plane.

The Madrona Soundplane, now shipping from Randy Jones' Madrona Labs, is a force-sensitive, multi-touch surface in which the X (left/right), Y (forward/backward) and Z (pressure) positions of each finger are sampled 1000 times per second at 12 bit resolution, simultaneously for each finger. Its sensing surface promises to provide very high dynamic range from very light to very heavy touches. Their decision to construct the instrument from fine woods and finishes demonstrates an appreciation of the acoustic instrument nuances they aim to equal. Included with SoundPlane is their software plug-in Aalto, a very creative sound generator optimized for use with SoundPlane. There's a video of the instrument on their web site. Randy also encourages DIYers to create their own force-sensitive multi-touch surface and provides helpful information for doing so.

The above four instruments and LinnStrument share a similar quality: each finger's movement is captured in three dimensions-- pressure for note expression, left/right for pitch and forward/backward for timbre--independently and simultaneously for all fingers. This suggests a consensus building around three-dimensional  capture of finger movement as an effective method for expressive control of synthesis. Perhaps the time is coming when musicians will tire of the expressive limitations of performing music on an array of on/off switches, which is essentially what a MIDI keyboard is.

The Hyperkeys keyboard from Jeff Tripp's Perfect Fretworks looks at first glance like a normal midi keyboard, but it's much more. Its keys move in-and-out as well as up-and-down, and it tracks both z-axis position and the force on a key when down on a fully polyphonic basis. This gives it excellent note expression, as demonstrated in these superb performances by Jordan Rudess: Glass Segovia and Seetar.

The Opal Keyboard from Shape of Music. These unique keyboards consist of an array of hexagonal keys arranged in an ingenious note layout called a Sonome, conceived in 1983 by an Englishman named Peter Davies, the founder of Shape of Music. This isomorphic layout is unique in that the notes increment in minor 3rds as you move up/left diagonally, in major 3rds as you move up/right diagonally, in 5ths as you move up vertically, and in semitones as you move to the right. Here's a video of Für Elise (at 1:30 minutes in) and other music performed on the Opal.

This layout is also used in the Axis keyboard from C-Thru Music, which they call Harmonic Table. Here's a funny cartoon video they've created to explain the benefits of its isomorphic qualities.

The Thummer from ThumTronics is a small hand-held instrument with an isomorphic note arrangement known as Wicki-Hayden. A big bonus is that the keys are independently velocity- or pressure-sensitive and 2 thumb joysticks control pitch bend and modulation, or any other parameters you assign them to in the external synthesizer. The product actually includes 2 independent keyboards, one for the left and right hands, easily permitting different sounds from each hand. Unfortunately, the Thummer never made it to market despite the laudable efforts of its creator, Jim Plamondon. Here's a video.

Starr Labs' Z-Board is a novel keyboard consisting of a large array of parallel rows of chromatic notes with the rows offset by musical fourth intervals. This layout is similar to fourths tuning on guitar, in which the guitar's 2 high strings are tuned a semitone higher, thereby insuring that a fourth interval exists between all strings and changing the guitar into an isomorphic instrument. By the way, just about everything Starr Labs makes is innovative, original and well-designed.

Starr Labs' Microzone is another very creative hex layout. In this case, the hex keys are laid out similar to black and white piano keys except that the keyboard is angled slightly so that the octaves are on the same horizontal plane. This layout is used in Starr Labs' U-648 and U-990 Microzone keyboards, and you can see a video explaining the layout here.

The Chromatone Keyboard uses a unique isomorphic key layout called Jankó after its inventor Paul von Jankó, who created it in 1882. It consists of a row of keys at whole-tone intervals (C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, C, etc.), with another whole-tone row above it containing the in-between notes (C#, D#, F, G, A, B, etc.) These 2 rows are then repeated twice as rows 3, 4, 5 and 6. Given that the rows are offset from lower rows by 1/2 a key width, this was a precursor to the emerging hex key layouts. Here's a video.

The Marimba Lumina by Buchla & Associates looks like a marimba but is much, more more. Each of the "bars" can sense the position and speed of movement of each of its 4 color-coded mallets. In addition to its use as a electronic marimba, it provides a very wide range of possibilities for sound control in performance. In addition to sending MIDI messages, it has a built-in synthesizer. Here's a video.

Leon Gruenbaum's Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee is a radical keyboard idea from that uses relative pitch instead of absolute pitch as in a conventional music keyboard. You specify one of a number of scales, then hitting the +1 or -1 keys will move to the next higher or lower note in the scale. For example, if you specify a major scale, then repeatedly pressing the +1 key will play C, D, E, F, G, etc., and repeatedly pressing the +2 key will play C, E, G, B, etc. It sounds difficult but listen to this fast solo recording that was performed in real time on the device. Here's a video explanation and a video performance by Leon.

The Akai EWI and EVI, created by Nyle Steiner, are electronic controllers based on the note layouts of wind and valve instruments, respectively. However, the exquisitely design wind sensor and motion-sensing keys of these instruments provide a very high degree of note expression. Here's a 2010 video of Nyle Steiner demonstrating his latest wind controller.

The Yamaha WX7 is a similar controller for players of wind instruments.

Roger Linn Design  •  Berkeley, CA, USA

Roger Linn Design  •  Berkeley, CA, USA