In June 2005, we first saw the Tenori-On, a futuristic music-making device covered in a grid of interactive, lit buttons, designed by the talented interactive artist Toshio Iwai as a prototype for Yamaha. Last week, Yamaha revealed some details about plans to make Iwai’s experimental device into a shipping product. (I missed this in preparations to fly off to Oahu.)

Basic specs: 16×16 grid of buttons, MIDI out, sequencing, and perhaps most surprising, built-in sampling and Motif sound capabilities with internal speakers (plus line-out, naturally). (Notably missing: any mention of network capabilities, which was arguably the most compelling part of the prototype. MIDI out would be notably limited in this respect. Perhaps these features will resurface.)

Anticipated price: £500.
Availability: Unknown, but soon — UK launch first, evidently.

Tenori-On specs [Future Music blog]
Hands-on Tenori-On video [Sonic State]
Tenori-On official site, Toshio Iwai Tenori-On blog, neither of which have been updated as I write this

Much like a car maker releasing a concept car as a factory model, it’s exciting to see this happen. Now there’s only one problem: a lot has happened since June 2005, and light-up buttons you can turn on and off aren’t exactly inaccessible technology. Here’s a quick review of what’s been developing in the world beyond Yamaha since 2005:

An open-source rival to the still-not-shipping Tenori-On, the Monome emphasizes hacking, customization, and open software support. And you can built it into nifty wooden cases like this one.

  1. Toshio Iwai goes Nintendo. We’ve all gotten a chance to play with Iwai’s brilliant sound toys in the form of the Nintendo DS game ElectroPlankton. At the same time, musicians got the first indication that interactive art doesn’t always translate to musical instrument use. As CDM’s Nat noticed, just a few key missing features could have made ElectroPlankton truly rock (like multiplayer capabilities). Now, the Tenori-On looks terrific and I won’t judge it until it ships, but I notice some similar conservatism when it comes to next-gen functionality, like the lack of a protocol that would easily network multiple Tenori-Ons.
  2. Korg goes on the grid. The KAOSS Pad KP-3 comes out sporting — what else — an interactive grid of lights. Now, unlike the Tenori-On, you can’t use these for visual effects onstage, it’s an 8×8 grid not 16×16, and they’re a touchpad rather than discrete buttons. But, powered by Korg’s experience building these sorts of devices, the KP-3 actually does more, with added effects and (as near as I can tell) more sophisticated sampling capabilities than the Tenori-On. It’s not nearly as elegant a design, with buttons and toggles hiding all these extra features, but it remains to be seen whether the Tenori-On will turn out to be musically useful or overly simplified.
  3. Grids go DIY in software. Froggy Frog built his own Windows app called gControl, with touch buttons, for use with a touchpad. Result: it works however he wants, and runs on cheap touchpad hardware that can double as a computer interface. More similar experiments may follow.
  4. Monome does Tenori-On, the open-source way. Most importantly of these, inspired by the Tenori-On, some enterprising hardware hackers built their own solution called the Monome. If the Monome were just a cheap clone, that’d be the end of the story. Instead, it shows how a simple idea (grid of buttons with lights) can yield very different results. (Ed. note: Vlad rightfully points out in comments that the Monome prototypes actually came before Tenori-On. Toshio Iwai, among others, likewise worked on similar ideas before. Ultimately, all of these ideas have been readily available, meaning this is even more a matter of execution — and your preference / working style. -PK) The Monome is 8×8 rather than 16×16, but it’s arguably more useful than the Tenori-On in that it’s completely hackable in hardware or software, and richly-documented by a user community. The Monome uses OpenSoundControl (OSC) for communication rather than MIDI, allowing much-easier communication with a computer. And its open-source nature has already yielded fruit in the form of community hacks. That’s just for lovers of soldering irons, right? Wrong: with roughly a year lead-time on Yamaha, the community have made the Monome better-documented and more widely-supported than the Tenori-On is ever likely to be.

Of course, I regularly advocate that music manufacturers talk about products they’re developing. In this case, you could argue that what’s happened is that the Tenori-On’s public demos inspired imitators or changed expectations. But I think something very different may be happening: open-source hardware may wind up beating the big manufacturer, not by cloning it but by doing something genuinely different.

Now it Heats Up: Which Next-Gen Hardware will Stick?

The Tenori-On already looks like a triumph of design and elegance. But Toshio Iwai didn’t invent the idea of grids of buttons with lights. As I look at the Tenori-On demo, I’m struck by all the things I would want this device to do — and then immediately wonder whether it will let me. Hardware makers just seem to believe the flexibility of computers is bad. On the contrary, a lot of us have been spoiled by it. That’s why Yamaha’s choice of MIDI over Monome’s OSC is disappointing. It’s simply going to be easier to send data between a Monome and a computer than a Tenori-On and a computer. It also makes it worth considering losing some of the nifty internal hardware capabilities on the Tenori-On, saving a little bit of money, and getting the far-greater flexibility of the Monome.

“But, wait!” you say. “The Yamaha is a pick-up-and-play device.” True. What’s wonderful about the Tenori-On is that it’s a fully-integrated hardware device. And what’s terrible about the Tenori-On is that it’s a fully-integrated hardware device. Flashy lights aside, what you get is a simple sampler / sequencer. Ultimately, this comes down to the question of how digital music will evolve — the question Iwai asked in his original design briefs for the Tenori-On. Anyone who can afford a Tenori-On probably already owns a laptop, and my question is, how easily will you be able to adapt the Tenori-On to your individual way of working? Iwai compared the Tenori-On to a violin. But violins have very steep learning curves, with lifelong payoff. Where will the Tenori-On sit on the toy vs. instrument continuum? Alternatively, which kind of tool would you want: one that immediately makes sense for a single task, or one that can be easily customized to adapt it to different tasks over time? There’s not a right answer to these questions, of course, but I don’t think the answer is as simple as “only hackers and geeks want customization.” My experience suggests that musicians of all types do.

Unknown: the status of “collaboration” features described in the original Tenori-On prototype. By supporting OSC, the Tenori-On could be made to work with any device, but it seems networking will be proprietary or possibly even nonexistent.

This is all speculation, mind you, until the Tenori-On ships — apparently in the UK first. I’m very, very eager to try the Tenori-On in person. I’m always inspired by what Toshio Iwai does, whether I use it in my own music or not. And I look forward to challenging this design with these kinds of questions — and, perhaps, even reconsidering the Monome in a new light.

But how times have changed since 2005. Whether successful or not, a succession of hardware (Monome, Lemur, the continued interest in the Haken Continuum and others) have demonstrated that we’ll never again think of a two-octave keyboard with eight knobs as the final answer for digital music. They’ve also proven that far-out interfaces can turn into shipping products. And, most interestingly, the rise of open-source hardware (through the rise of x0b0x, Monome, Arduino, and Make Magazine) has made DIY gear a serious alternative to commercial hardware for specific jobs. Musicians happily use this gear alongside commercial hardware and commercial software like Ableton Live, so this isn’t just for open source nuts.

Now, it’s time to see which of these experiments sticks in the long run. Which — if any of these — whet your palette? Or are you waiting for the Next Big Thing, while happily twiddling knobs on conventional hardware? (Hey, it gets the job done. You can always hook up flashing lights separately if you have to.)

  • Peter, you know I'm all about the Monome love… so for the record, Brian Crabtree and his gang of technology magicians have been at it since showing the first 16 x 16 100h prototype around back in 2002. I wouldn't say Yamaha bit their idea, just the time is right for new interfaces. With less resources than Yamaha it took Monome longer to get their idea to market, and when they did it was in the smaller 8 x 8 form of the 40h, but they've produced something open, brave and beautiful which can be anything the user wants it to be within the possible configurations of a grid of lights and buttons.

    Though I give Yamaha props for even releasing a stripped down, personal sound toy version of the Tenori-On, I do wish large companies would embrace modernity and step out on the wild side more often instead of playing it so safe for the bottom line. While I'm interested in checking out the Tenori-On, the 16 x 16 Monome 100h is nearing production… I can't wait!

  • Adrian Anders

    I'm very excited about the Tenori-On now that MIDI outs are availble. Personally, I think that with the superior marketing/distribution, and with the choice of a MIDI interface (despite the limitations of the platform) that it will 0wn the Monome in the marketplace.

    Let's face it, most musicains could care less about OSC, and "open-source" solutions. They just want to pick up a device and be able to play it. And that's what the Tenori-on offers over its rival.

    Sure it can't be easily hacked to do custom scripts, but it does come with a bunch of preset ones that judging from the videos freaking rock. Plus, I can unplug it from the computer and take it with me to jam on the bus, or with a friend at his place.

    Sounds like the better offering to me.


  • I agree with your point, Adrian. I think you can have it both ways. The challenge for the Monome community should be to release some plug-and-play software patches that do what the Tenori-On does. Sure, it won't be standalone hardware — but cook up a good enough app, and no one will care.

    But ultimately, I could see both devices being successful, appealing to different audiences. To me, there's a challenge on both sides: Yamaha, to show that what they have isn't just a toy, and Monome, to gradually broaden appeal. The pressure is more on Yamaha than Monome, though, because the Monome folks have actually been pretty modest about what Monome does and set it up for low-scale production and distribution.

  • inasilentway

    Although I love computers for music, as the price-to-what-you-get ratio is fantastic for a broke college student, I find myself longing for hardware. I want to get away from being tethered to a computer screen, and use something with a hands-on interface where I don't have to go around assigning knobs in software.

    Although I do agree that this thing should have networking capabilities, I disagree with your statement that MIDI is a disappointment. Although OSC is the bleeding edge, no hardware synths (that I know of) support it at all. So, much like the Lemur, your choice is computer or nothing. If Yamaha went with OSC, they would alienate a lot of customers who wouldn't be able to use it without a Max patch or something to translate it into MIDI.

    I see this more as a next-gen MPC. In this day and age, the MPC's specs seem laughable compared to how much computer you can buy for the money. But what you're getting is a different paradigm of creating music.

  • @inasilentway: That may well be. But if this is a new way of making music, I *definitely* want to have some time with it hands-on to see if it's flexible enough. So take this as just initial skepticism rather than judgment.

    And as for OSC, well, first I'd say that the ability to support computers is still a big one. And second, OSC would be the natural protocol to support the networking features — so one next-gen synth that would thus work with Tenori-On and OSC would be, instantly, other Tenori-Ons. And the whole point of this device was supposed to be going beyond conventional music gear, so looking back over two decades to MIDI is a little strange in that light. I hope that the Tenori-On's only connection with outside world isn't just MIDI and 1/8" line out. And if there is something else, I hope it's an open standard that allows interoperability for those who want it.

  • The Tenori-On likely is what it is: you turn it on and that's what you get. The next time you turn it on that's still what you get.

    While there are many community developed applications for the Monome, it's more what you make of it. It's more work, but you can customize it to be anything you desire.

    Adrian, I'm not disputing that Yamaha will probably sell many more Tenori-On units than Monome can move, but the trade-off between out-of-the-box capabilities and open-endedness is a fundamental divide, and will be with us forever. "Better offering" is subjective and depends on what you're after, not how many units ship. I'm interested in the Tenori-On like I'm interested in anything that looks fun and makes noise but my heart is with the Monome.

    Look at the continuing success of open-ended software for building your own musical tools like Max/MSP or Reaktor… people want to design it themselves. Look at the enormous library of downloadable Reaktor ensembles and Max patches created by users world-around. The Monome has this, too… I've created some of them.

    Judging by the small-scale success of a group of hackers with a miniscule budget, there are enough of us who want what the Monome has to offer that it would have been worth Yamaha's effort to step up to the plate and make the Tenori-On more open than a standard synth. They could have included capabilities like OSC and wireless communication without compromising any basic functionality and without significantly raising the price. Adding these kinds of functions moves music and creation forward, and breaks the more-of-the-same cycle. I'd wager that within weeks of the Tenori-On becoming widely available people will have hacked it to hell and back. Yamaha could have built openness in, and then used all of us as an ongoing research and development lab for Tenori-On II and III.

    Again, I give them props for bringing it to market at all: the interface is a new step for the majority of the buying public. I'm just sad that Yamaha obviously decided to play it safe and introduce only one new element to their consumers at a time.

  • dead_red_eyes

    I have been waiting for this day for a loooong time now. Toshio Iwai is a talented guy, I really loved Electroplankton for the Nintendo DS. Ever since I first saw the Tenori-On, I fell in love. I'd gladly pay a thousand dollars for one. Its been our dream to get 2 of them, and play them live with some loops, and samples. It looks like so much fun, and there's all sorts of crazy possibilites from the demonstrations videos I've seen.

    Sure the Monome looks pretty cool … but it's definitely not even as sexy as the Tenori-On. Plus, you can draw these cool envelopes with your finger on the Tenori-On, and on the Monome, you had to push in the buttons.

    Both Monome and the Tenori-On look cool, but I'm really shouting for the Tenori-On. And let's face it, music is what you make of it and how you approach it. 2 people can play an acoustic guitar, and sure .. it sounds like an acoustic and only offers as much as an acoustic can, but it's how you play it that matters.

  • Until somebody actually plays this like a musical instrument its just interactive lite-brite / tetris. I can see this being fun with controlling sequenced disco basslines.

    Give one to Daft Punk and Dr. Dre to filter their loops.

    That bouncing ball feature might be fun for the eq on some filter sweeps or delays? Creatively assigning this thing will be fun. I like the visual feedback of the lights.

  • I looked over the recent Tenori-On specs again at the Future Music Blog link above, and they do have Infrared Connectivity listed. Not the wireless I hoped for, and that a vendor with Yamaha's economy of scale production could have given users for dead cheap, but it's something. Infrared is generally only reliable for a meter or two.

    What I'm learning from the various responses to this story is that while the the Monome and the Tenori-On look similar in some ways, they are actually aimed at two distinct market segments. The Tenori-On is aimed at the more adventurous in the general market of musicians who, as Adrian described, "just want to pick up a device and be able to play it." The Monome is obviously for those of us who want to extend what we do into new areas.

    I'm not attacking the Tenori-On… in fact, I can't wait to try one out: it's small, it's flashy and it probably has nice-sounding presets. Dead_Red_Eyes mentioned two people playing Tenori-Ons live with loops and samples… and this is why I'm disappointed that Yamaha played it safe. Imagine if they had built in wireless and OSC along with MIDI. You would be able to synchronize any number of Tenori-Ons with each other, have other musicians with laptops grabbing and using the data for other sonic purposes, even sending parameter and performance information back to each Tenori-On on the fly so that it changed under the player's fingertips. Imagine spreading out and taking over a bus or literally performing in a crowd of people with your group of Tenori-On wielding musicians… without having to be in a circle pointed at each other. Wireless would have made this possible.

    That would be an amazing performance environment right out of the box, and a manufacturer of Yamaha's size could have given it to us easily.

  • Well, exactly — I have some reservations even for the casual market for the Tenori-On. (And, as I said, the casual market who use computers might still find the Monome or other open source projects interesting if they're documented well enough.)

    But this is a non-shipping product that we know primarily through *one video demo* and some outdated conceptual info. It's possible Yamaha will put better networking capabilities into it, or that we'll learn more. So I don't mean to rush to conclusions — just to express some skepticism of certain aspects.

  • dead_red_eyes

    Indeed. I still am interested in the Monome tho. I'm not crafty at all tho, and trying to use Max/MSP is like trying to speak Mandarin for me. I still have a long way of going to learn either Max/MSP or Reaktor … both programs have intrigued me for some time tho.

    Does anyone here use a Monome? For $500 it looks pretty interesting. The Tenori-On might be worth the $1000, but who knows until we actually see more concrete information. Sadly, I read the same thing about the infa-red wireless connection. You'd have to stay in sight of each other and pretty up close … but if it works good, then it might be fun. They have the ability to synch up with each other right? I swear that I saw that on a video.

    Forgive me for sounding like a n00b, what's this OSC thing about?

  • Sorry, I realized after I wrote this that I neglected to explain what OSC is. I was rushed. 🙂 You can find more information here:

    … but the short answer is that OSC is an open protocol that, unlike MIDI which is structured as a legacy serial protocol, is designed as a networking protocol. It's faster, far more flexible in how it assigns data (using variable names instead of rigid, often meaningless messages as with MIDI Control Change messages), and plays nicer with networks. It's especially easy to plug in via Ethernet and using standard IP addresses. Depending on implementation, it can be as easy or easier than MIDI, but the bad news — and the reason you haven't heard more about it — is that virtually no *hardware* has added support. Software widely supports OSC, from Flash and Director to Max/MSP to Traktor DJ and Reaktor, but this functionality is often via third parties or poorly documented. And MIDI is better for certain tasks just because it's a pre-existing standard — though not necessarily tasks like this. So, it's become another example of a superior technology that hasn't yet caught on.

    OSC is supported in the Monome, however, and can be translated to MIDI. So sometimes just one device can be reason enough to use something.

    I should actually put my money where my mouth is and do a demo / instructions on this. 😉

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  • I've seen the two demo clips. One with the English sales rep and the other longer one which people are referring to.

    If I demoed a tb 303 for a couple minutes I would present a musical context in which it can be used (a bassline)and then present the ways that the machine can manipulate and transform that musical idea. Tweak the sound and manipulate the musical notes.

    These videos seem kind of disjointed and random. At one point there are a couple parts of a drum pattern being sequenced and then there's this bouncing ball thing with the lights. Neither sound good together, connect, or really go anywhere. Its like they haven't quite got it figured out themselves. Maybe there are just too many possibilities without actually seeing any through yet?

    Is it just me or was anyone else wanting them to show how the bouncing ball screen, scrolling screen, or dispersion screen could be played to trigger and mangle some chopped up beats or even a simple bassline?

    I want to use this like an MPC on acid and a lemur connected to a sequencer. I'm not so interested in the weak onboard preset sounds and showing an audience that I can get a bouncy ball sound with corresponding low resolution light show.

    Can I use this thing as a multiband EQed crossfader (upper squares as high freq) and use the different patterns for strange and innovative crossfades and scratches?

    Show me that bouncing ball shit actually doing something useful in terms of notes being played or articulating a sequenced pattern.

    I'm sure you guys have much more interesting ideas and I'd love to see some of those followed through instead of these poorly presented demos.

  • Well, the best thing we could do is get it into a quiet room. I've done demos on crowded show floors; you're lucky if you can speak basic English and be understood, let alone try to make music! (So I feel for both SonicState and Yamaha on this one.) Video is clearly the right medium for things like this; hopefully we can get our hands on one and spend some time with it.

    Been thinking more about the MIDI assignment issue; I wonder if they went with 16 MIDI channels, one for each row? Then you could assign buttons to MIDI note, and on/off state to velocity. It'd be a little more complex than that, but MIDI may work fine … depends on how they set it up. I still love OSC; just want to make sure I'm not suggesting MIDI won't work here.

  • I personally like the open-ended approach of monome a lot. You do not only buy a box, but a perspective. This is intentional here.

    But then again, look at the Nintendo Wii. Maybe I missed something, but was it "officially" positioned to be used for anything except gaming?

    And look how "accidentally" open-ended it seems to be (all these well documented and easy-to-reproduce "hacks" to use the wii remote as a music controller – nothing is perfect yet, but you get the idea of the potential…).

  • anon

    The heck with OSC. Computers crash. IP gets bottlenecked. "cook up a good enough app, and no one will care."? Some of us are more choosy than others.

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  • MattB

    I happened to be one of the beta tester about 1 year and half ago back in UK.I must say that the comparison with teh Kaoss Pad is quite innacurate as this toy is more like an hardware sequencer rather than a sound processor.

    The closest feeling I had using it was more like some hardware version of a Reaktor or MAx Msp ensamble.

    The cells can be assigned in different way,i.e. controlling a reverb on a XY axis,as a step sequencer and so on.

  • Thanks for the beta info, Matt!

    I wasn't intending to compare the Korg with the Tenori-On directly. On the contrary, what's interesting to me is you can take a similar interface concept and do something very different. And I think what will matter to potential buyers is musical utility, so to them, this could be a reasonable choice — between apples and oranges, but a choice they might make, nonetheless.

  • NineTailedFox

    Will open hardware win? I don't understand the question. What would

    i "winning"

    involve? I don't know what kind of obsolescence EtherBomb thinks the 40h is at risk of being reduced to by touchscreens, either. This is all going way over my head.

  • Chris

    IANAM (I am not a musician), but I think you'll see both open source/diy and commercial products flourish for some time to come.

    The commercial products would include low end toy/dabblers segment up to the existing high end market. Most people want something that "just works" in a reliable and understandable way. It's the complexity of the options that distinguish the professional from the retail segments.

    However, it's always going to be that experimental edge that leads the way – which has clearly been the open source/diy end – even in this example.

    Now that open source in code and even hardware is a well publicized concept, I think you'll see the proliferation of such musical devices and instruments explode – much like Linux.

    MIDI has had it's turn, but it's decades old. OSC might not stick as the next standard, but something that allows much more flexibility and cooperation surely will.

    I suspect that, increasingly, people who are both musicians by training and comfortable with software development will be the leaders in the field. Open software, by it's nature, is synergistic in promoting creativity.

    One final note: there are a LOT more people who are both talented musicians and programmers than you might think. As a programmer, I know. I work with some in a small company right now.

    I think that alone means that most of the innovation will occur in the non-commercial space. The combination with open source pretty much guarantees it.

  • PIP

    Hi guys anyone seen anything about Tenori hacking, I'd love to get under the bonnet and get some development going on the Tenori, its a lovely piece of kit but limited by the software…