Let’s hear it for the ribbon controller. If you’ve never seen one, ribbon controllers are touch-sensitive strips that let you control pitch continuously (i.e., not fixed to the pitches of a keyboard). The original Martenot instrument of the 1920s had an early ribbon controller, but rocker Keith Emerson probably gets the most credit for popularizing the design, using a giant ribbon controller phallus to control a Moog modular onstage. (And, really, what’s better than an electronic music penis?) More recent ribbon controllers are decidedly less phallic, sitting flat atop a keyboard, as on some Kurzweil keyboards and the sought-after Yamaha KX-5.

A ribbon controller was also at the heart of the Tannerin, an instrument that sounds like a Theremin, but isn’t. (Tannerins, with their ribbon controllers, get touched when you play them, whereas the Theremin is a strictly no-contact, wave your hands through the air affair.) Never heard of a Tannerin, you say? Yes, you have. Contrary to popular belief, that’s a Tannerin, not a Theremin, playing on The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations. Incidentally, there’s good reason Tannerins were more successful than Theremins — while they’re gorgeous, subtle instruments, Theremins are notoriously difficult to learn because they provide no tactile feedback. Ever tried driving a car with no steering wheel blindfolded? Something like that. (That’s not a jab at the Theremin; on the contrary, that’s why it’s so impressive to hear a master virtuoso on the instrument.)

So, where can I get one of these fabulous ribbon controllers? Well, thanks to the good folks of Theremin World, who keep us posted not only on Theremins but Theremin-like instruments, word is spreading about DIY instructions for building your own ribbon controller. These aren’t just any old ribbon controller, either: not only are they much cheaper than commercial models, but they can play two notes at once. If circuit diagrams make you break out in a cold sweat, go play on the beach for the summer months and hold out for September, when PAiA will ship full kits to make the job easier, shipped for under US$60.

But wait — there’s more. MusicThing’s article yesterday The Greatness of PAiA discusses other DIY synth projects from the Paia people, complete with a message thread of readers using their kit.

Just remember: size matters not. Better practice your technique.

  • Indicator

    I always wanted to pick up one of the Kurzweil ExpressionMates…They looked like a cool mix between Ribbon Controller and MIDI Processor.

  • atomic_afro

    The natural evolution of both the ribbon controller and keyboard:

    Sonic State Vid

    Fingerboard Homepage

    The perfect companion to the Lemur, and something that none of us would EVER be able to afford.


  • admin

    Continuum Fingerboard is fantastic; I'm working on getting my hands on one (to try, certainly not to own)

    But yes, this ribbon controller — following the same basic concept — is actually affordable. Buy ten? 😉

  • Jake

    I wonder how hard it would be to build something like the Continuum. Anybody up for it? 🙂

  • s

    the paia link above ("DIY instructions for building your own ribbon controller") isn't working at the moment, try this one: http://www.paia.com/paia/LabNotes/index.htm


  • JollyRogered

    I 'mailed Paia about this a few days ago, and sadly the designer of this project died of cancer recently.

    They said it's unlikely that it will be available as a kit for some time, if at all …. bummer.

  • Russell

    Updated link ( I think it's the same):

  • Joseph.Stephane Lava

    I'm seeking for a ribbon controller same as Keith Emerson's to fit my modular synth.for live performance. Now does anybody have an idea where to get in touch to get one built or have tech.plans

    Thanks J.S Lavallee

  • I’m seeking for a ribbon controller same as Keith Emerson’s to fit my modular synth.for live performance. Now does anybody have an idea where to get in touch to get one built or have tech.plans

    Thanks J.S Lavallee

  • Just to let you know, I'm about to finish a short manual on how to make your own ribbon controller, well, the ribbon part, that is, for less tham $10, so wait patiently and one of these days you will be happy

  • Mikel

    I will wait for your manual: i want to make my own ribbon controler but i need to control midi messages. Tell us more please!!

  • Mikel

    Any news about this ribbon controller manual?

  • maup verwildert

    The basics for making a controller ribbon consists of kludging up a long resistor strip, but this is SO EASY: buy some CARBON BLACK PIGMENT (most artist supply stores have it at +/-$4/100 grams), mix this with water to have a thickish paintlike gel and add ordinary white wood glue (PVAc), experiment a bit to find the proportions that fit your design. Paint this as evenly as tou can on a wooden board, let dry completely and there is your resistor strip, homemade and cheap. Be creative in making the remaining hardware, and you will have your own controller ribbon at no cost at all. It works, so good luck. To know more about playing ribbons, check out Vongole, and you might get some ideas about making them on the way.

  • WHI

    Even cheaper, using paper and pencil:


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