My God … it’s full of keys!

While the black-and-white piano-style keyboard layout remains the standard, designers still look for ways of reinventing pitch in music controllers. Sometimes the aim is to make it easier to play harmonies (top) … and sometimes it’s 211 keys-per-octave microtonal mayhem.

First, at NAMM we see C-Thru Music’s new AXIS, the “world’s first harmonic table MIDI keyboard.” Despite outward appearances, all these extra keys are designed to make it easier to play. By placing thirds and fifths as a adjacent to one another, you don’t have to reach to find chords — you can mash your fingers together and still hit a perfect minor thirteenth chord. (That’s one Giant Step for ‘Trane, one tiny finger squash for you.) According to its creators, “even DJ’s can use it.” You be the judge.

C-Thru Music AXIS (thanks, Carl, Keith, and others!)

Of course, if you’re trying to terrify friends with wild looking keyboards, the C-Thru has nothing on the H-Pi instruments. 12 keys per octave? Try 211 keys per octave, 1,688 keys. The Tonal Plexus, after eight months in development, will ship in June 2007, starting at US$1292.

I could try to explain this, but it’s better to watch the videos. And if you ever fantasized about playing a Lego base plate, your time is now.

What’s interesting here is that, unlike continuously-pitched controllers like the Theremin or Continuum fingerboard, it’s possible to find exact instruments. And somewhere along the line, all diatonic scales — plus whole mess of other tunings — manage to fit in the space of a single octave.

Of course, I don’t imagine myself learning 211 notes to the octave (even if I’ve taught some keyboard skills classes where it seems like that’s what the students were playing). Fortunately, H-Pi has a lot of useful goodies for tuning nuts, including notation software and MIDI gadgets.

Most promising is The Tuning Box (TBX-1), which costs just US$350 and can retune any MIDI controller on-the-fly to any custom tuning. At that price, it might appeal to anyone interested in exploring tunings easily.

Thanks to Aaron Andrew Hunt for sharing his beautifully unusual work.

H-Pi Instruments

Not new, but the Continuum Fingerboard as I said goes the opposite direction — continuous expression, rather than a bunch of buttons/keys. See it in action in a recent GearWire video from NAMM:
The Haken Audio Continuum Fingerboard Video- WNAMM ’07 [GearWire]

Lots more microtonal / alternative keyboard layouts: Mike sends this fantastic historical roundup, also via Aaron Hunt’s site at Eastern Illinois University. Stunning, comprehensive history of these instruments!

  • Dri

    Can it play Mary Had A Little Lamb? :0

  • typodaemon

    How about "Daisy"?

  • Damon

    Kind of cool in a bought it 20 years ago from Radio Shack kind of way. Or was that Toys R Us?

  • Rozling

    That’s one Giant Step for ‘Trane, one tiny finger squash for you.

    This is even worse than the Star Trek quote!

    Even one octave of the Tonal Plexus would be a lot of fun – esp. if you assigned each button to a tasty, crunchy sample. Kind of like digital bubble-wrap!

    Somehow I get the feeling that they're the same note only pitched up/down, but maybe you could separate them in Bidule or somesuch.

  • The layout used in the Axis instrument has been around for a while. From the 50s to the 80s Hohner has produced the Harmonetta, a chord free reed instrument with a 3 octave range.


    I wonder if the Axis machine can be easily reconfigured. The TBX-1 seems to do the job, but if it were native… even better. Unfortunately I have no experience with MIDI yet to be able to understand the specs.

    I still like the Thummer idea better. The great advantage of the Axis is that it actually exists

  • Right, Bresslau, I think the Axis gets to say "first" — for MIDI controller, at least, not necessarily for the layout itself — because it's the first shipping model.

    Rozling, I have a terrible sense of humor. Sorry. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    It would definitely be possible to "decode" the MIDI note and pitch information with software so that each step became a discrete trigger for something else. (Note that the Tonal Plexus is available with an optional internal synth, so if you really wanted, you could have it making its tuned sounds simultaneously.)

  • ganjjjj

    Wow, I thought the microKorg keys sucked ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • BassTooth

    hey, don't talk about microKorgs that way!

  • GovSilver


    The tuning community calls this type of keyboard a generalized keyboard.

    <a href="; title="Here is a quick Google link" rel="nofollow">Here is a quick Google link for your convenience.

    Generalized keyboards make it easier for musicians to get into the accidentals between the accidentals between the accidentals. If you look at a conventional keyboard, it's actually 2 rows of keys – the white keys representing a diatonic scale, and the black keys – on the 2nd row – representing the notes between the white keys. Generalized keyboards expand on this idea, by giving you more rows of keys to get at notes between the keys below them. I can see Middle Eastern musicians and others who use a lot of microtones having some interest – the Persian musicians that I know are sort of resigned to being stuck with Western style keyboards which do not easily allow them to use their quarter-tone based scales, but that's because they may not be aware of this kind of technology. Some of them play retuned Western pianos, which are a bit of a hassle.

    The Tonal Plexus looks like an interesting take on the generalized keyboard concept, getting away from the honeycomb look used on so many other generalized keyboards.

    I'm still holding out hope for the Thummer, as it is the most affordable generalized keyboard controller. Some microtonalists seem to think it only supports up to 19 tones/octave, though.

  • divbyzero

    Bresslau: your links to the Harmonetta are very informative, but they contradict your assertion that the Axis uses the same layout.

    Both layouts are isomorphic on a hexagonal grid, so they can be described by the interval (measured in half steps) between two adjacent keys as you move directly to the right, and the interval between two adjacent keys as you move diagonally up and to the right.

    The Axis uses 1 and 4 for these two respective intervals. The Harmonetta uses 4 and 9.

    Based a fair bit of experimentation with input mapping software, I've reached the conclusion that isomorphic layouts like the Axis which use a horizontal interval of 1 are much easier to learn and use than layouts with different horizontal intervals.

  • help! i'm covered in keys!!!!

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  • You're looking at the future of music here, and hats off to the guys that invented these…

  • Yes, Neil, Hooray For The Future!

    You've found some affordable hardware;

    Now find the most practical tuning system, to play with it.

    LucyTuning site

    Promoting Global Harmony


  • Mike

    Here are some more microtonals.

    I think the learning curve is the problem. Perhasp we need to learn the Sitar….


  • I still think the Janko musical keyboard layout, together with a circle of quint accompaniment (such as the accordion bass section) makes more sense. It enables us only learn one pattern in each scale (of major & minor)in order to play all 24 scales.

    See my project (at the bottom of):

  • Depending on what you consider "shipping", the Starr Labs Uath keyboards were first…

    I saw a working prototype in 1998, and I think the first one shipped a year later.

    Also, I didn't see the Cortex Design Terpstra keyboard mentioned in this thread…

    Not the first, but given that each key has a hall-effect sensor whose output can be individually mapped to a continuous controller, maybe the best…


  • Dri

    More keys than a flight out of Columbia…. eh? eh? Sigh. I'll let myself out…

  • Morgy

    just need a few companies to offer non12 refrets as custom extras on instruments

  • aaron

    C-Thru Music’s new AXIS

    The one with the hexagonal buttons … there is a program on UK tv called Dragons Den.

    It invites people to come in and present investment opportunities for a panel of millionaires. the best ideas get invested in.

    Anyway, there was a guy on the program last year that came in with an idea for a keyboard similar to this. the guy seemed a total eccentric and a bit of a stereotypical 'mad inventor'.

    I wonder if the AXIS was born from someone seeing his keyboard on tv or if they got him involved.

    anyone know?

  • intheknow

    C-Thru Music was two partners who split up. The one on Dragon's Den was the guy who thought up the keyboard layout, trying to raise money to do it on his own. The one at NAMM was the other partner.

  • GovSilver mentioned that "some microtonalists seem to think that the Thummer only supports up to 19 tones/octave."

    With an electronic instrument, and especially one with an isomorphic (generalized) keyboard, it is convenient to think in terms of intervals rather than pitches. For example, imagine that (a) the buttons of an isomorphic keyboard are labelled with Do, Re, Mi, etc. rather than with Bb, C, D, etc., and that (b) electronic transposition is used to associate the desired tonic pitch with the appropriate tonic button. (So, in Bb major, Bb would be associated with Do, whereas in Bb minor, Bb would be associated with La.) On the Thummer's Wicki note-layout (, this places the notes of the current key's diatonic scale on the central white notes. With (a) 19 notes per octave, (b) the current key's diatonic scale centered on the keyboard, and (b) the syntonic temperament (in which the major third is four tempered perfect fifths minus two octaves), the most common intervals of Common Practice 5-limit tonal harmony fall on the 19 buttons of the Thummer's keyboard, whether the current tuning is 7-tet (P5=686), quarter-comma meantone (P5=696), 12-tet (P5=700), Pythagorean (P5=702), 17-tet (P5=706), 5-tet (P5=720), or whatever.

    Furthermore, on such a keyboard, the shape of a given musical structure (such as the major triad Do-Mi-So) is the same all across the syntonic temperament's tuning continuum, from 7-tet to 5-tet. So once you've learned to play a given musical structure — a chord, a chord progression, a melody, whatever — in one tuning, you've learned how to play it in every tuning of that same temperament.

    This makes it possible for a performer to change tuning dynamically, at run time, while playing a song, without changing fingering. This makes it possible to play polyphonic tuning bends, temperament modulations, and even entirely new chord progressions (see The Wicki layout used by the Thummer is the optimal layout for this kind of "dynamic tuning."

    The point being: for any rank-2 tuning in the syntonic temperament's valid tuning range, 19 buttons per octave is quite enough. For the schismatic temperament, you only need 21. I'm not sure about other temperaments, but I can pretty much guarantee that 211 buttons per octave is excessive.

    An article on tuning invariance has recently been accepted by the Computer Music Journal, and another on metrics for comparing isomorphic note layouts is under peer review at the Journal of Mathematics and Music.

    A skeletal overview of the ideas on which these papers are based can be found at

    The advantages of the Thummer over the various other isomorphic keyboards available are that (a) it's more expressive, offering up to 13 degrees of freedom; (b) it's tiny, being about the size and weight of a thick paperback book, partially opened; and (b) it's cheap, at under US$500.

    Now, if only I can get the darn thing done and on the market! "Shipping" is also a very important feature! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Jim Plamondon

    CEO, Thumtronics Inc

    The New Shape of Music(tm)
    Austin, Texas

  • Jim Allan

    I really wish someone would just produce a standard full-size MIDI Janko keyboard like the original Janko design without reducing it to little buttons. The Janko piano got the best possible endorsements at the time:

    "If I were to begin my career anew it would be on this keyboard." – Arthur Rubinstein

    "This invention will have replaced the present piano keyboard in fifty years' time!" – Franz Liszt

    I think the only reason it didn't take off is because companies were reluctant to compete with traditional pianos. But now there's no excuse: I picked up a MIDI keyboard for $8 at a charity shop. They're just so cheap to make they get thrown out!

    Good Luck,


  • I have a few corrections to the text above about the Tonal Plexus. It should read "eight YEARS in development", not eight months. Also, I believe Peter meant to write "exact intervals" instead of "exact instruments". The 2 and 4 octave models are now shipping. The instruments are made one at a time by hand, so some lead time is required. These instruments are part of a comprehensive expansion of traditional music theory which includes the MegaScore notation system. The Axis and Thummer are not natively microtonal and have no hardware mechanism for retuning. Hi Pi TBX1 and Tonal Plexus keyboards use a patented hardware retuning system, and each instrument is completely retunable using free software you can download and try out. Retune your existing MIDI keyboard with TBX1 or forget 12 keys and get a Tonal Plexus. Please visit the H-Pi website.


    Aaron Hunt

    H-Pi Instruments

    <a href="” target=”_blank”>

  • … er, that should have been H-Pi TBX1, not Hi Pi : ) Also, the photos above are of an 8-octave prototype which I own. Please see photos of currently shipping keyboards here.

    Aaron Hunt

    H-Pi Instruments

    <a href="” target=”_blank”>

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