FRONT musical interface

Vienna-based design firm GP designpartners sponsored the FRONT musical interface design as part of its annual student thesis project. We’ve certainly heard these promises before for alternative interfaces: “a really new music instrument — without using classical paradigms. an instrument for new sounds, that gives the musician the possibility to express himself — even live at stage. with great expectation we are awaiting the jimmy hendrix of the 2010s.”

The design itself has simplicity going for it, certainly — but it may not live up to its radical promise. Basically, it’s a twistable knob, with touch-sensitive capacitance, in a slot (for use as a fader), connected via USB. There’s also a tack-on panel that you can bend up and down, for control of another parameter. Then there are lots of fiddly flaps and connectors and such which allow for right-handed or left-handed use, plus a belt clip that makes the FRONT into a FRONT-tar.

The result certainly looks beautiful, regardless, and I do appreciate the thought and restraint that went into the design. It looks stunning as a student product. Of course, wanting to play it is something else entirely. I mostly wonder how one would set the tension of the fader/slider element.

FRONT Project Page at GP designpartners
Via Electronic Music Interface, an interesting blog reflecting on new interface design.

I always enjoy new instrument designs, whether you might consider them successful or not. But I wonder if a better exercise for students, before they embark on trying to invent a new interface (though that is a worthy endeavor), would be to find some existing interface and make that work for music — ideally something mundane, that seems at first unsuited to the job. It seems that part of what’s essential about the musical performance impulse is not finding objects that work, but finding objects that don’t. Dedicated musicians sing in the shower, badly and out of tune, through blown-out cords, prod gadgets and instruments incessantly even as they sound awful, and drum desks and pant legs until they annoy their significant others. Do we, as the site suggests, “need new musical instruments badly?” Or do we really just need new music and new musicians? Discuss.

  • Peter

    I love it when musical instruments are designed by engineers with no musical background. Times like this I really miss guys like moog.

  • oh, yes. it's almost as awful as when a musician without an engineering background fools around with electronics. simply dreadful!

    seriously, though. how can you tell the guy doesn't have a musical background? or didn't do music research for his thesis?

  • "we are awaiting the jimmy hendrix of the 2010s"

    the only way we are gonna have new virtuosos is if people design their own instruments from scratch the idea that someone can develop a new product and expect others to become talented with it is preposterous.

  • In the designer's defense, as well, the glowing ad copy was written by the design firm, I think. I was just anticipating criticism of the design, and wondering how much we really need a *single* design to solve the "problem." (If there is a problem … there are an awful lot of instruments available!)

    In fact, that seems to be what's missing … taking the guitar as the example, obviously Jimmy Hendrix didn't invent the instrument. You have two elements that we often miss: one, lots and lots of iterations of a design over a long period of time, and two, someone *else* entirely to abuse the design or use it counter to its original intention.

    But then again, that's why even if these design experiments aren't successful they can still be interesting. And, even making the argument for more iterations of designs, you still have to start with a first iteration. Somewhere, an absurdly long time ago, someone made the first guitar. πŸ˜‰

  • Hungry Antelope

    Once again, high-end controller device, with no MIDI!

    I guess the future belongs to the laptop musicians. God forbid, someone might want to plug it in into, you know, an actual hardware synth.

  • Well, not so much high-end as nonexistent. As far as I know, this is a non-functioning prototype / design concept.

    So anyone making real hardware still has plenty of opportunities to add MIDI. And unless you're talking the Lemur, almost every bit of hardware I've seen has onboard MIDI, so not sure what you mean by "once again."

    There's also nothing stopping hardware synths from supporting other formats, like OSC over Ethernet. (Well, other than a complete lack of demand, that is.)

  • Patrick

    hey HungryAntelope.

    I encounter the same problem. I think that someone should put USB midi porting into the rack hardware world. Seems nuts, right, but I know plenty of hardware pieces I'd love to plug a usb controller into.

    Remember the AKAI z-series samplers that had a USB 1 HOST port on them. Imagine if someone made synth or sampler with both usb IN and OUT on it, so that you use computers to program it, take it on the road, and plug usb harddrives and controllers into it.

    Having seen the semi-extinction of the rackmount 8×8 midi managers interfaces (merging, etc), I'd love to see someone make a 1u rack piece with a mix of midi ports and USB ports… This would create an effective truce to the insurgent future of laptop musicains.

  • I'm a sucker for new tactile interfaces.

    This one has me curious.

    How it works specifically.

    I can think of about a 5 uses for it of the top of my head, but in order for me to plunk down cash i have to justify its long term use. The only way this thing would work for me is if the assignability was flexible scalable and could be switched a turn of the knob position or slider.

    I mean my tablet setup, my p5glove and my midiKeys never leave the house. I consider them all integral parts of my studio. The trigger finger is what goes on the road with me. For two reasons: I can make angry DJ faces while i smoke perform.its perhaps the least geeky piece of gear i own

  • proem, I don't think you mean the midiKeys software, so which hardware do you mean? Getting my names screwed up. πŸ™‚

    I don't think this thing will ever likely be a purchasable product, so the better question to ask would be, how could you make something like this (or even improve upon the idea)?

  • Todd Fletcher

    It might be cool if you could use the slider for pitch, like a trombone, and the knob for expression. If it worked musically, you could get snakey, smooth lines impossible on a keyboard. But, the downside, as with all new musical controllers, is that you have to learn to play it πŸ™‚

  • vvvoid

    I wonder why people persist with pushing the whole keytar thing, as if it wasn't blatently obvious that it's the most stupid-looking way to play music imaginable (the keytar, not specifically this controller) – and has never been, nor will it ever be, good.

  • Todd Fletcher

    vvvoid, there's only one answer to the keytar question:

  • The future of digital instrument controllers is modularity.

    You heard it hear first.

  • anon


    "I think that someone should put USB midi porting into the rack hardware world"

    USB MIDI sucks dude. Maybe you like the idea of an extra 10ms of jitter but it's not my favourite thing to listen to πŸ˜‰

  • Joakim

    This could be a great alternative to a MackieControl for controlling fades etc. Interesting IMHO

  • As a musician, I was very often unhappy with available hardware for live performance. I got me so many different boxes and devices and I was never really happy. In the beginning I was sort of waiting for "something new" to come and I was quite happy about the Kaoss Pad at that point, for example. But it did not take very long for the Kaoss to become boring or at least inappropriate for my needs as well. Today, I also really believe in the power of modularity, or call it DIY. Be it software or hardware.

    I think for people in the interaction/interface design field interested in music creation it's the greatest chance and challenge to learn building their own tools. Imagine, as a student, people telling you from day one that your tools simply sort of ARE your music (in terms of the tool's influence on the actual musical output). You can always step back to "closed" commercial approaches, but I think it's good to start with a very wide horizon. So, nowadays I don't see a mandatory need (or business model) for releasing singular "new musical instruments that everyone was waiting for".

    Or if you do so (designing, releasing, packaging, marketing a product can be a very fun challenge as well), release them as "open modules" such as the monome or nintendo wii remote (hehe) that are able to potentially add to different "bigger picturee", approaches, environments …

    Anyways, just some general thoughts. I would actually like to play with FRONT a bit before forming an opinion. Maybe the only "problem" is the decribing text being a bit lurid – I personally prefer it more modestly πŸ˜‰

    What I'm asking myself: isn't there one essential detail missing in the illustration for the standing use of the instrument? Compare it with the illustration on the right on the image above πŸ˜‰

  • dubbele lucht

    As Peter Kirn pointed out, concepts like this need many itterations based on people playing the instrument to become of value to musicians. The first logical step, after designing it on paper, would be to build a working prototype….

    That's what Arjen de Bruijn did with his remakably similar concept called the Skinner. You can watch and hear him play it in this movie. Unfortunately the development stopped with this prototype.

    p.s. Both concepts were developed in 2004, so I am not sure who inflenced who, or if there was just something in the air that time.

  • Michael Una

    I see this as being part of a larger movement to get people out from behind their secret laptop screens (where they may or may not be checking their email) and put them in front of the audience in a performance-oriented manner.

    The Lemur, Monome, and Tenori-On are all working towards this aim- throwing the audience a bone as to "what's going on here, and how can I understand it/"

  • anon

    The Sonic Manipulator is a busker in Melbourne Australia that's been circuit bending and DIYing synths since most of us were playing duplo block percussion πŸ˜‰ He has something similar that I really liked, it's like a throttle lever with a pot built into the shaft, so you get a single axis of travel with a rotating knob at the end of the actuator… I think his design takes precedence over both of the above, just for the record… Scope it here: THE CLAUDE-A-TRON

    Melburnians I highly recommend a chat with this guy. If you're in the city and you see the weird lookin dude in the silver space man get-up playing a theremin sounding thingy with a bunch of stompboxes strapped to his belt and numerous bizarre DIY contraptions surrounding him, that's your man. He's totally ahead of his time and has a lot of creative ideas… And no I'm not an employee πŸ˜‰

  • @dubbele, that's truly a *remarkably* similar concept in the Skinner. Fader with a knob on it, paddle on the end that bends up and down? Interesting.

    Of course, combining faders and knobs or something like that is always a decent idea.

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  • Anon.

    you are right.

    USB midi does suck. having that latency on notes make the music get bad. But for me, not having a way to get CC and PC messages in in and out of USB controllers and MIDI based sound modules is worse.


  • Zac Darko


    if this had midi itd be a sweet VJ controller…

    use it as a giant crossfader and turn the wheel at each end to select new loops =P

  • Chase

    It would be really cool to find a way to use this thing to quickly scroll through scenes and clips in Ableton. The nob being up and down and the slider being back and forth. It'd be totally mouseless!

  • Arjen

    I think I have to add this just for the record, I graduated in 2003 on the Skiller project and had a roughly working protoype at that time. I expanded and tinkered it into a well working prototype in the year after that.

    When I read his article on FRONT in 2004 I contacted the designer to talk about the resemblance between the two interfaces. It seems he developed his idea for FRONT without being aware of the existence of my Skiller. I just have to guess there was something in the air that time…