Our first report from the Maker Faire is here, from forums regular Vlad Spears. And best of all, he’s got a Monome of his own, now back in his studio. The verdict? A controller filled with buttons may not seem like much, but this one’s all about the details:

The Monome is a deceptively simple device. An 8 x 8 grid of rubber pads lit by green LEDs, communicating and drawing power over USB . . . Built by forward looking people, the Monome is a future device available right now.

Even if you’re skeptical about a grid of buttons for music-making, Vlad has some excellent points on the subtleties of the design here. And, of course, you can always build your own interface if you don’t like this one, as being discussed in the CDM forums.

Vlad on Monome Release Party, Taking a Monome Home

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  • Richard Lawler

    I saw this device at the Maker Faire, and indeed it's nicely made, and it's pretty, but it's way too expensive. The people who are making it seem well meaning and honest and talented and everything good, except maybe they are living in a dream world. A little reality test might be a good idea. Hopefully that's what they are doing with their initial production run.

    On the otherhand, who knows? Musicians will pay a lot for some things. Maybe this is exactly what people want. But will they once the novelty wears off? $500 for 64 on/off buttons with leds? Compare what $500 buys elsewhere in controllers. If Korg made this it would cost $200 and include a drum machine and a sampler and simulate 64 different guitar amps. If Behringer made this it would cost $69 and ship with a manual the size of the Manhattan phone book.

  • Controllers are a personal choice for every musician. With electronics, the choice becomes crucial to performance and feeling "one with the instrument." If a controller comes to market which has not been seen before, and it expands the capabilities of its user, I don't think this is novelty. This is progress. Who else is making a high quality, completely customizable, open source, 64 pad controller?

    The Monome is built by a very small group of people doing the right thing for themselves. Even without the added cost of ethical fabrication, they would not be able to compete with the Korgs and Behringers of the world who enjoy much larger economies of scale.

    I don't believe they want to. The point, it seems to me, is this: they made it for themselves, and if it resonates with you, they made it for you, too. $200 for a poorly engineered, limited device which will pollute our world after its planned obsolescence, versus $500 for one with limitless capability, made ethically, built to last into the future we all must share…

    The value is with the Monome. I'll take two.

    I know doing the right thing is expensive now, but the price will drop when we all start doing it.

  • Richard Lawler

    I hope you are right for the sake of the Monome makers.

    > Who else is making a high quality high quality, completely customizable, open source, 64 pad controller?

    I'm not claiming there is any other product that does what the Monome does for any price.

    But if I go looking for an acceptable substitute I can easily come up with a lot of ideas. It depends on my application. Even a PC keyboard might work. They have more than 64 keys, support chording, and I can get a pretty nice one (even made from silicone) for about $40.

    And Max/MSP and Reaktor give me all the customizability I desire. I'm sure there are some applications for which these tools do not suffice. But I suspect given the sophistication of the tools available that it's a pretty small minority who need more cutomizability.

    I'm not trying to slam the Monome. I'm sure there's lots of subtlety in its design. But what I saw wasn't rocket science. There are no continuous controllers, no velocity sensitive or aftertouch sensitive pads. It's just 64 momentary contact switches with LEDs in a nicely made aluminum case. (I made something like that in high school.) $500 is just too much for that for most people who also have to eat and pay rent.

    This brings up some complex issues about sustainable design and foreign manufacturing for which I really don't have all the answers. If the answer is that things must cost five times what we are currently paying then I don't know how we get from here to there nor how the Monome makers survive until the revolution.

    > I’ll take two.

    Honestly? You would really spend $1000 for two of these?

    > I know doing the right thing is expensive now…

    Computer music is currently thriving on and to a large extent is driven by an economy of obsolescence. The Apples, Korgs and Intels of the world thrive on your needing to buy the next kool thing, and planned obsolescense is a large part of their designs. If musicians are serious about sustainable design, local manufacturing and recycling and reuse then maybe they need to take serious look into a finding different hobby. How about bluegrass music.

  • Well, Richard, I agree — this is not your only option for finding an instrument/controller that works for you. But how did Korg get lumped together with Apple and Intel? I don't really agree that any of the music manufacturers are planning obsolescence. Korg is the company that's re-releasing their old synths and building their flagship OASYS to be expandable as the culmination of over 10 years of research and development. (I'm not saying it's for everyone, but it's not something you'd throw away.)

    I would like to see more expressive instruments, and I don't see a box with buttons on it as being terribly expressive for instrumental playing (though it is pretty cool for sequencing and controlling software patches). That's been an elusive element of design, with only occasional breakthroughs (ranging from the keyboard we take for granted to the Theremin). I wouldn't fault the Monome people for it.

    Sure, this is not a terribly environmentally sustainable business, but I agree with Vlad: you should spend a little extra on something — whatever it is — if it means you'll love it for a while rather than dispose of it. And heck, that might apply to a cheap Korg box or a Monome or a QWERTY keyboard or anything else, depending on your taste.

    So, while I don't see myself buying a Monome right now, I can see why others might. And I think some of their attention to detail could inspire others.

  • Richard, it's true you can knock together some of the functionality the Monome offers using other controllers, including your computer keyboard. I've done it. But the Monome is designed for maximum usability in performance, with the LEDs decoupled from button presses and all 64 pads sitting perfectly under two hands. Your qwerty controller likely won't light up under software control to give you important feedback, though you could use your screen. The Monome will. I'm willing to pay extra to fully engage with the Monome and never have to look at the screen or touch the mouse, and instead fully concentrate on what I'm playing.

    Yes, I will pay the price for two. I've already purchased one, and will be buying another after the May 1st release date. A beautiful, well-thought feature of the Monome is the ability to chain them together. 8 x 8 becomes 16 x 8, automagically.

    Peter, I think what the Monome crew are doing is an attempt to show how this really can be an environmentally sustainable business. Richard's comment lays out their challenge:

    Computer music is currently thriving on and to a large extent is driven by an economy of obsolescence. The Apples, Korgs and Intels of the world thrive on your needing to buy the next kool thing, and planned obsolescense is a large part of their designs. If musicians are serious about sustainable design, local manufacturing and recycling and reuse then maybe they need to take serious look into a finding different hobby.

    The Monome, built locally and in small quantities to avoid waste, answers all of these problems. I don't know about you two, but I am hard on my controllers. I'm nomadic, and they go everywhere with me. I've broken my thin plastic $200 Edirol PCR-1M twice. Once it was fixed under warranty (taking almost three months), the second time I fixed it myself with parts from another broken unit. Many others would have likely discarded it and bought yet another controller to break. Poor quality products are a major part of planned obsolescence. Pay less three times or pay more just once?

    The Monome is solid. I'll be using it for years because it won't break as easily and is completely open and customizable. When it finally does give up the ghost, I'll be able to easily recycle it because its designers cared enough to make it non-toxic, even though this decision meant they wouldn't shift as many units at launch.

    It's not just the next cool thing. It's an electronic instrument built to last because it's built to grow. I'll be using it well into my hundreds, so (thankfully) there's no need for me to move to bluegrass. 😉

  • Hi Vlad — all great points.

    The ecological sensitivity is definitely a big issue for me. Certainly, most of what we use is filled with toxic parts . . . not having to throw them away is a big step in itself, and making them non-toxic another one! (I think ultimately this will prove to be more economically sustainable, too, as the production methods currently used for technology are dependent on the petroleum economy and non-sustainable materials.)

    So that's well worth observing. And I don't think we should have to start playing banjos just to be more sensitive to the environment. The trend in computers is already toward greater power efficiency, which is a very good thing, and we're already seeing some of the first "green" computers made of non-toxic parts. Even the mainstream manufacturers could do more to work on recycling and non-toxis parts. It's possible. And it's nice to see a small maker like this leading the way.

    I do think companies like Roland or Korg are passionate about what they do, too, and I hope they'll pay attention to small makers like this on both the ecology and longevity side.

  • Wired has an interesting story on environmentalism and technology:


    Green electronic music? Sounds good to me. (Many of these same principles would apply, including the quality over quantity issue.)

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