Game and film composer Gary Kibler is back from Tuesday’s TENORI-ON launch event with words and images reflecting upon this new instrument. (See comments for lots more discussion, of course!) And for some reason, he’s been playing with his mashed potatoes… -Ed.

See also: Yamaha TENORI-ON Launch: Photos, Videos, Interviews, Demos, Details, and a Music Box

THE TENORI-ON : I know this. This means something …

Literally what TENORI-ON means in Japanese is "sound in your palm" but what I came away feeling after hearing Toshio Iwai‘s story and later experiencing this innovative musical device for myself at Yamaha’s UK Launch event last Tuesday was more akin to the Richard-Dreyfuss-Close-Encounters quote. Never mind that the light-and-audio-synched performances can bring back visions of that film’s alien jam session.* I may not be articulate enough to explain fully why or how I was so affected by my short time with this snazzy gadget (my logical working-musician-self keeps on telling me that, measured by today’s music hardware standards, this is still just mashed potatoes, albeit in a very cool shape) but I do consider myself self-aware enough to appreciate the very real visceral impact it had on me. I’ve a sense the TENORI-ON is important, but not in a way most of us can fully appreciate today or probably anytime soon.

Let me start off by saying what the TENORI-ON is not:

  • It is not a programmable synthesizer or sound module.
  • Although it can hold some limited samples, it is not a sampler.
  • It is not a compositional tool, not in the traditional sense at least.
  • It has a tactile x/y matrix element but is not a Kaoss pad.
  • It is definitely not the type of highly flexible "soup-to-nuts" production workstation device most working musicians would use to compose and produce their next musical opus on.

I find it commendable that Yamaha’s marketing manager, Peter Peck, was very upfront in stating the first two points at the outset, especially in a market where so many new music products attempt to be everything to everybody. It also appears to be the reason, although this wasn’t confirmed, why they have decided to market and sell these in record stores rather than music stores here in the UK.

What the TENORI-ON is:

  • A well-designed piece of interactive art.
  • An innovative and fully-contained musical instrument that allows anyone to easily produce very listenable music.
  • A very tactile feedback-loop experience. The interplay of the lights with sound is incredibly mesmerizing and draws you in immediately.
  • Incredibly immersive.
  • Expensive – approx $1200 USD.

If there is just one particular point I would make in attempting to explain why it is I am so extremely smitten with this slick gizmo, I would have to say this:


I’m coining a term here, so allow me to explain: "Flow" is something most all creative people can easily identify with. That’s when your wife – your partner, your better self, whomever – comes to you at your desk or studio at 4:45 in the morning and says "Do you know what time it is?" and you really don’t. Now while many musicians certainly have established their own paths to get to this place, most find there are typically nowadays more than a few frustrating and time-consuming hurdles that must first be overcome.

Granted, I now live and work in a world made up mostly of DAWS, virtual synths, samples and plug-ins, not to mention hardware interfaces, mixers, outboard gear and more cables than I would prefer. As a result, I often feel several layers detached from dealing with my sounds and music, so it may be only natural that the direct, more tactile experience the TENORI-ON provided may have conjured up for me memories of twiddling knobs on my first hardware synth or working a beatbox in real-time.

Regardless, the real story here may not be about the TENORI-ON itself, but more about its artist/inventor Toshio Iwai (seen above). About how one’s lifelong artistic vision can sometimes, in what would seem to be incredible odds in a corporate environment, manage to manifest itself and make it onto the world stage as an actual retail product, and not just another one-off museum installation. Can you imagine what it must have been like persuading a huge corporate behemoth like Yamaha into investing who-knows-how-many millions on the making of what’s essentially a piece of "interactive music art?" I can’t. I have a hard enough time just shilling my little jingles and tunes for loose change to anyone willing to listen.

When you hear Toshio speak about his life-long passions for interactive music and art you realize this isn’t just another creative guy in touch with his inner-child, he IS his inner child! Toshio spends over half of his lectures focusing on his childhood – how his parents encouraged him to create his own toys and the profound impressions he had upon receiving his first microscope, his first tape recorder, his first synthesizer, his first computer. Apparently it was a much-loved crank music box that could read perforated cards that gave him first inspiration for the TENORI-ON and other interactive music projects. I found it most interesting that somebody instilled with the kind of drive and confidence to push an uphill vision in a corporate world, not to mention to speak openly about his inner childhood development, still shied away from calling himself a musician. This after spending a lifetime literally obsessed with music and providing performances like the one below. Alright, so Toshio’s not a musician in the exact same manner that Brian Eno said he wasn’t a musician while in Roxy Music. Get over it, you’re a musician already!

Perhaps that’s the real juncture here. As the lines between musicians, DJs, performance artists, and just "normal" people who happen to enjoy music continue to blur and even evaporate, this may well be where the real TENORI-ON impact could come into play. Case in point: the current Guitar Hero phenom. I consider myself a fairly shreddingly-adequate guitarist, but I was so intimidated by the virtuosity of some of those who played daily during our lunch-breaks in the office at Sony, I didn’t dare join in for fear of being shown up by one of these non-guitar-playing virtual guitar heroes (oh, the humility, the shame!). To hear these guys talk they were experiencing a "real" music-making experience and without a doubt it probably was a very real tactile experience of making music when you think of it.

Other game companies are suddenly jumping on to clones of Guitar Hero with other interactive music/graphics based games. Yamaha has had a long history of promoting music education and this could have definitely had some play as a basic thrust of that initiative. Even Toshio’s own previous work on his Nintendo DS title, Electroplankton, contains many of his TENORI-ON elements.

As for its immediate future, I would love to see this thing become a commercial success, for Toshio’s hard work if for nothing else. I believe Toshio’s intentions are good, that he envisioned setting out to provide to others something he himself had experienced as a youngster. But there are some real issues, the price point being the most glaring. There is no doubt that if this were a $299 product, and not a $1200 one, I and many others would own one right now. Just because I said the TENORI-ON could be important isn’t the same as saying it will sell. What will likely happen – and it could be happening as we speak – is some kid is going to reverse-engineer a virtual software-based version, which is probably not that difficult a thing to do. Perhaps a Monome coupled with a PC running this kid’s software may even come extremely close to that experience I felt the other night, who knows. At any rate, I still think this is just the beginning – I know this … this is important.. <long awkward pause> and "I guess you’ve all noticed that there’s something strange with dad."

Gary Kibler is a game and film composer who most recently worked for Sony Pictures in their Games Studio in Culver City. He recently relocated to the UK just outside London where he is now working on several new projects.

* Speaking of Close Encounters and alien jam sessions: Did that incredibly insipid effect of Spielberg’s having the synthesizer keys move up-and-down player-piano-style totally ruin that otherwise great movie for anyone else? I’ve always wanted to ask that.

  • bliss

    Great article! And I loved the Close Encounters of the Third Kind references. Mashed potatoes, indeed. But, no, the player keyboard didn't bother me one bit, but I know what you mean. It was a bit of cheese. There's always cheese to be found in Spielberg films, as much as I love just about everything he's done.

  • dead_red_eyes

    This is a great article!!! Kudos Gary!

  • bliss

    For fun, watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the sound off. It is still an amazing film sans music, dialogue, and sound effects. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • NineTailedFox

    Photo 3 suggests higher build quality than I'd expected, even with the talk of the first run being basically hand-made. Comments on the actual construction and feel of the device?

  • Very enlightening. I'm one of the skeptics from the previous thread, but it may be that I've been thinking about this the wrong way. I've been thinking "how can this help me create new things in the studio", and it might well be it can't. But as a new category of instrument, aimed at a different type of creator, it might just be the thing.

  • On the construction and feel question: It appears to be of real sturdy construction. Personally, when I held the unit in my hand it was smaller than I had first imagined, this after having looked earlier at literally hundreds of photos. Yet it was slightly heavier than I would have liked. (You have to remember, you've got 6 batteries, 512 LEDs(256 a side), alot of circuitry, not to mention the metal frame.) While much is being said about these being assembled mostly by hand, Toshio did go out of his way to show a video he had made during his tour of, what I assume was, the Yamaha factory. There was this incredibly immense(and hugely expensive, I imagine) programmable robotic arm that literally spends quite a bit of time forming and polishing the metal frame. I think they were showing this partly to address the price issue, to show that Yamaha had invested some serious change into making these things and didn't just arbitrarily coming up with this high price point for the fun of it. Surprisingly, one thing I noticed about the metal frame – and this was just on a few of the demo units – if you look really closely on pic #2 you can see it there, there seemed to be some discoloration or oxidation of some sort forming where the hands had been. Almost as if the metal was staining from the hand's oil or ph. Not sure, but it wasn't just simply dirty, I checked.

  • Joel Abbott

    Don't know if it's been posted yet, but the manual and other docs are up at

  • alext

    hah! that would be me in the background.

    I can attest that both myself and the gentleman in the foreground want this device with a lust bordering on obsessive.

  • If I had a child, I would totally buy it one of these.

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  • vanceg

    Hmmmm. I'm considering either having a child or getting one of these…. pricing seems about the same ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • If someone were to ask me:

    Odds of the TENORI-ON getting through this limited UK release and going global: 50/50

    Odds of these limited run units being worth a small fortune as collector's items 20 years down the road: 95/5

  • This was an absolutely fantastic article and it neatly expresses what it is that is so fascinating about the Tenori-On & Toshio Iwai.

    I feel a similar way about electroplankton. It's an amazing achievement to have something like it make it's way into the marketplace and it's a joy to use. It's still one of my favorite ds titles and with it in mind, I've been following the launch of the Tenori-On with close (perhaps a little too much) attention. I continue to wish for an expanded Electroplankton with a more genuine music feature set, but even in it's current limited format, it's damned compelling and I love it to bits. I can see the limitations of the Tenori-On, but that doesn't make me want one any less.

    Kudos also to ToddK above who made valid points of criticism in the previous post, but also has the perspective to appreciate what Gary's saying. Not many people once having committed their thoughts to writing ever come around to a different view on things. That's actually really cool from my point of view.

    And once again. Do want.

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  • Peter Peck

    Great article! Thanks Gary!

  • Damon

    Ok, I'm a believer now…

    The fact that this instrument has a translucent back and that the lights and images are relatively discernible, affording a genuine performance connection to an audience, makes it real for me.

    It could also make lap top performance a much more accessible or potentially mainstream idea. Think it would be a bit exciting if you could rig this to a computer running live, project live onto a screen, and trigger loops and automation (as well play some stuff), in live, while even triggering live wall paper and clip color changes via a program specifically designed to do so, making the laptop (or computer) something the audience can actually connect to.

    And though I am not really a student of interpretive dance, this would be perfect for that. And I think the price is fair. After watching the video of it being played, it is clearly much more sophisticated than your more "conventional future midi controller" concept, pardon the oxymoron.

  • Interestingly enough, although it gives the distinct impression, especially when being played, of being 100% translucent with the exception of the tube frame, I was surprised to find out myself that there are actually two separate grids of LEDs (256 a side), they're just wired to work in sync for that illusion. Toshia's original design concept was to have this be translucent but had to concede the point when it was found they simply couldn't get all the circuitry and everything else packed into just the frame. Still, it doesn't take anything away from the beautiful design and your suggestion that it does indeed enhance the visual performance aspect.

  • For those interested there's a good fidelity podcast that was just posted on of the entire Toshio Iwai performance and presentation from the Mint Lounge in Manchester last Wed, the night just after the London debut. The good thing about it is it was recorded directly off the board so you get a real sense of the fidelity and quality of the output of the TENORI-ON that you don't get from any of the YouTube videos.

  • COOL

    if the metal is polished and not anodised,u can have surface stains of oxidation …(caused by the sweat from the hands,note that this is salt and after some time it will look ugly)

    that is a bad thing if the dind't use anodized alu.

    What abouth the quality of the switches on the matrix Gary?

    because the sit out a bit to high above the matrix surface when u go over them u generate lateral forces onto it,i wander how log the will machanicaly resist before some whent wrong.

    (and probably will get very easy dirty!)

  • The LED buttons seemed to be of good quality and felt firm and solid, yet responsive to the touch. They are naturally the weak link in the chain, being plastic, but are protected somewhat as the plane onto which these are mounted is recessed somewhat under the metal frame.

    As for the discoloration I noted on a few of the demo station units, thinking back on it again, it seemed to be only on those two units that were in the section of the hall that had some sort of black-light lighting so I'm beginning to think it was more an artifact of the lighting more than an actual problem with the metal being stained.

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  • This looks like a lot of fun to play with. Does it have any functionality beyond normal software loop sequencers? Or is it basically a slick hardware version of something like Seq24?

  • It has incorporated a number of modes besides the straight-ahead step sequencer which it refers to as "score" mode. I'm afraid I don't know much about the Seq24 to make a comparison. The other modes are draw, random, bounce, push and solo. You can see short video examples of these on Yamaha's TENORI-ON site. For even more detailed info, Yamaha has now made available a pdf of the manual.

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  • COOL

    Seems the mail adress on the site for on-line order does not exist anymore.

  • COOL

    A very good desision from the designers is that all text is engraved in the metal.

    Did you see somwhere the brand name on the machine Gary?

  • Fintain

    I not sold to be honest.

    I have the feeling that the business men at Yamaha saw how the monome was selling and decided to finally put the tenori-on into mass production. The marketing is text book, with the hand drawn images, focus on the designer and myspace web page. I don't for one minute think that the guys in suits didn't sit down, analyze the whole make it yourself phenomenon and then draw up a plan on how to wrap it all up.

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  • The TENORI-ON just made the big time in terms of Web 2.0 exposure – Front page, second-from-the-top on the YouTube homepage. That's primetime, without-a-doubt. This is as of the last couple of hours – it's 9:40pm GMT Wed, the 12th. I had just noticed a crazy spike in my video comment numbers, like 50 in the past half hour, and that's exactly what it was. Over a 100K views right now, again it must have just been in the last hour or so. It will be interesting to see how long they leave it there and how high a viewer-ship it will receive.

  • gio

    hahaha I can't just believe this… 1200 US$

    Iwai was right with electroplancton: a 60 bucks generative toy…

    1200 bucks for this crap is just meaningless

    If this is the new frontier of electronic music then well… electronic music is just dead dead dead ๐Ÿ™‚

    and again dead…

    wake up folks this is just advertising crap

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