Note Surface 5: Starr Labs

Starr Labs has been making MIDI controllers fro quite some time now. Their approach is decidedly guitar-centric. Your typical guitar does not make the best MIDI controller because the strings are not switches, and MIDI likes clean, simple data. To do away with having to translate a vibrating string into a pitch number, velocity number and a clear note off time, they designed a MIDI controller that plays like a guitar. This was a great idea, as millions of people already know how to play guitar.

They then went a few steps farther and made the Z-board and G-board, matrix controllers. The Z-board is laid out like a massive guitar neck, (rows in fourths) and the G-board is an even more massive with 576 matrixed keys. And because surely a bigger array can be built, they did the he Wilson 990 Generalized Keyboard with an array of 810 keys! A Generalized keyboard is yet another isomorphic system. Read about it here, and see an example, here.

These products are for the serious musician, or at least the seriously rich musician as you can see here.

Note Surface 4: More Isomophism

The Harmonic Table is implemented by the Axis. This system has six adjacent notes per key and so there are three axis. (Keys are shaped like hexagons.) Perfect fifths up, major thirds up and to the right and minor thirds up and to the left. Again, this is an isomorphic system, plus you can hit a triad chord with one finger. Very cool. I really like this system because it has chromatics in line and whole steps follow a somewhat logical pattern. Here is the downside: 29 notes per octave. That is a lot of real estate, and don’t forget, keys cost money.

The Chromotone uses the Janco or Wholetone system. Keys in this system are also hexagons except the three axis are horizontal, and up left and right. Whole tones go across, and chromatics are on the diagonals. Another isomorphic system, this one has excellent physical distance to pitch distance congruity. It doesn’t have the advantages of close chords that the two previous systems have, but I think this is likely the most intuitive and versatile of the systems discussed so far. Check out the videos, they are very impressive.

Same downside as the rest: lots of keys per octave.

Note Surface 3: Wiki-Hayden

I must note that I haven’t actually tried this system and so I’m going on impression and hear-say. Take if for what it’s worth which is what you paid for it: $0. Please defend/pile-on in the comments.

The Thummer is set-up using the Wiki-Hayden system, the same system used currently by concertina accordions. This system has buttons staggered and spread out, so that each button has eight adjacent buttons. One can think of there being four rows: horizontal, vertical, diagonally up & left, diagonally up and right. The way it works is, horizontal is whole steps, vertical is octaves, diagonally left and up are perfect 5ths and diagonally right is perfect 4ths. Read more about it here.

This layout is advantageous in part because major and minor chords and scales are always the same “shape”. In other words the fingering of a major chord is always the same, no matter what note you start on, a concept called isomorphism. The system also is arranged so that common western chord progressions are close to each other, and form simple patterns. Another advantage is that if you miss a note you are likely to hit a note that is not dissonant.

The Thummer is much more than just the Wiki-Hayden system and so the following is just a criticism of the key layout and not of the overall instrument.

What’s the catch with the Wiki-Haydn system? The system, as all do, has to make some compromises to achieve its benefits. For me the biggest problem is that chromatic notes are not close to each other; they are three and a half keys over and one up. This may be a minor problem if you stick to diatonic music, but I fear that it will feel unnatural. In all acoustic instruments there is a continuum and relation of pitch to distance that this system just does not have. With this system, if you move your finger an inch you may get a whole step, or you might get six steps depending on direction.

The second problem is that it requires a fairly large number of keys per octave. The piano has 12 keys per octave, but the Wicki-Hayden, usually has 17-18 keys per octave. That requires more space, cost, and adds (arguably) complexity. There is a lot of theory behind this system, but video examples of performances do not suggest that this system is easier than the piano keyboard.

With dedication and practice, all negatives could be overcome, but that is true of non-isomorphic systems too.

Note Surface 2: Key Systems

The piano/organ keyboard arrangement, with its two-tone keys has been very successful since the 15th century. But, why be satisfied?

I have gotten requests for different key layout systems, so I feel that I should do a critique of some of the different systems that have been put forward as an alternative to the piano organ/keyboard. Of course, I am biased as have designed my own system. And because, as far as I know, nobody else has previously published a description of my system, I’ll call it the Christensen System. But, I by no means think that my system is the “best” for everyone. One of the great things technology affords us is flexibility.
Now, because no two musicians think the same musically, or are the same physically, I believe that there will never be the “perfect” system for everyone. Anyone would want a key system that is physically and mentally easy to navigate.

All of the systems I’m going to look at here (over the course of the next few posts) have been designed with either western harmony (music theory), or traditional instruments in mind.

A great place to see a list of experimental electronic instruments is on Roger Linn’s page. I will focus on those that have interesting key systems for fingers, as opposed to gestural controllers (Theremin, Lighting III, Radio Baton, Miburi, GypsyMIDI,) or mallet percussion instruments (Marimba Lumina). And also I am talking about selecting specific pitches like a traditional instrument, and not manipulating sequences like the Reactable, Tenori-On, or the Monome. (Sure, you could assign locations/buttons to pitches, but they were really not designed for that style of playing.) The Lemur and the iPhone do not force a particular note system on the player; they are multi-touch screens. Unfortunately I’ve found both difficult for playing notes accurately partly because they currently have no tactile references. Plus, they have no velocity control (dynamics). Also, the iPhone is quite small.
That leaves the the Thummer, the Axis, the Chomatone, the ZBoard and the Riday T-91 MIDI Controller.
Check back soon for my thoughts on these instruments. If there are others you think I should discuss, please mention them in the comments.

Note Surface part 1

There is a little on the sonicpal.com site that talks about my philosophy on MIDI controllers. Allow me here to go into a little more detail on the control surface, with even more detail to come later.

As a recording engineer I spend an inordinate amount of time watching people play. I’ve noticed the kinds of instrument manipulations that are good when trying to be expressive musically. At the highest level I see two things: location and pressure. These correspond, of course, to the two elements of sound: frequency and amplitude.

As far as frequency or pitch in concerned, I’d like having the at least the kind of harmonic and melodic control that a piano keyboard has. However, I have a few issues with the piano keyboard. Not that it’s not good, it is actually really good, but it does have some problems.

  1. 1. The black keys were added later to a modal instrument, so it is not symmetrical.
  2. 2. Keys are mechanical and have a long throw.
  3. 3. It’s really big.
  4. 4. One had can reach only a little more than an octave.
  5. 5. Not really designed for aftertouch.

This is part of what led me to to designing an alternative key layout. I’ll go into more on the rational on my key system later, and also compare it to what else is out there, but let me just say that location is everything when it comes to pitch. (Like real estate.) In other words where your fingers come down determines the pitch. So just to get started I attacked the five points above. And a sensor matrix was my solution.

Now, of course there has to be dynamic control too right? I think so. Otherwise the music gets boring fast. So, I figured figure pressure is good. (Breath control would have been good too.) And therefore my sensors have to be force sensors. Originally I wanted to do a touch screen. This was even before I was aware of the Lemur. But I quickly found out that multi touch screens with z-axis sensing may exist somewhere, but I can’t find one. (Feel free to correct me on this one!) That brought me to using discrete FSR’s (Force Sensing Resistors) and later having a FSR array manufactured.

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