Why is expressive touch control important?


LinnStrument is an expressive electronic music instrument. I (Roger) define that as providing the ability for each finger to control a note's continuous loudness (by pressure and strike velocity), pitch (by left/right movement) and timbre (by forward/backward movement) over its duration, thereby providing a level of performed musical expression approaching that of fine acoustic instruments or the human voice. By comparison, a standard MIDI keyboard consists of little more than on/off switches, albeit with velocity sensing, monophonic pressure sensing for the last 5% of the key's travel, and two sideways knobs to create unnatural-sounding pitch bends and mathematically-perfect vibratos.

So why is this expressive touch control important? Because under skilled hands, the ability to capture subtle musical gestures enables more interesting and expressive solo performances than a MIDI keyboard's on/off switches. Consider a guitarist's string bends, a violinist's skillful vibrato, or a wind player's subtle breath control, all of which can't be authentically replicated on a MIDI keyboard.

In my view, the limitations of MIDI keyboards have resulted in electronically-generated music being used largely for background music:

1) Background for singers in popular music. In contemporary popular recordings that are electronically generated, a dedicated instrumental solo section–a staple of other musical genres–has virtually disappeared. Apparently listeners don't find solos performed on a MIDI keyboard interesting enough for a dedicated instrumental section.

2) Background for dance. DJs possess great skill in creating music for dance, but the dance is usually the foreground, the focus of attention.

3) Background for film and TV. Many film and TV scores are very beautiful and highly valued, but mainly in a supporting role for the picture.

All of the above are created by skilled individuals and are compelling and expressive in their own ways, but I would argue that this music is valued mainly for its support of a different foreground element. I would also argue that few listeners would pay to attend a sit-down concert performance of the above without the foregrounds they support.

Generally when we think of great expressive acoustic instrumental artists, we think of past soloists like Miles Davis (trumpet), Jimi Hendrix (guitar), John Coltrane (sax), Itzhak Perlman (violin) or others, artists for whom large audiences would pay to attend a sit-down concert where the artist is the center of attention, the foreground.

I'm not saying that electronic musicians aren't as skilled as acoustic instrumentalists, but rather that on/off switches don't provide the opportunity to demonstrate such expressive solo skill. Imagine the talent that would be unleashed if in addition to turning notes on and off, they had the same subtle expressive control as skilled artists of acoustic instruments.

I think that in 50 years, music historians may look back at this time as the Era of On/Off Switches.


This is why expressive touch control is important.

Until recently, musicians have been faced with a false choice: the expressive control of acoustic instruments or the technological advantages of electronic instruments. LinnStrument–and other expressive electronic controllers like Seaboard, Continuum, SoundPlane, Eigenharp, K-Board Pro, Joué and others to come–offer a third way that provides both.


The opportunity

I believe that over the next five or ten years, electronic musicians will gradually embrace the value of expressive electronic instruments and stop using on/off switches. With that change will come a new wave of expressive electronic musical solo artists to introduce new forms of expressive electronic music, whose talents and fame will rival the great solo artists of acoustic instruments.

There has never been a greater opportunity than now to be one of those future artists.


Roger Linn Design

Los Altos, CA