Donald Bell, aka electronic musician Chachi Jones, nabs what I believe is the first hands-on time with the LED-and-button-laden Tenori-On digital instrument on American shores. Yamaha’s Yu Nishibori stopped by the music tech boutique Robotspeak in San Francisco for a chat; I got to play Robotspeak in January and it’s a brilliant place. Donald recorded the conversation for CNET.

Hands-on with Tenori-On [Crave]

Not convinced? Here’s a very different Tenori-On demo on Music thing.

Tenori-On Stands Alone, and Praising Limitations

Donald shared some of his personal (non-official CNET) take on the Tenori-On. It sounds like seeing it in person changed his mind a bit and made him want it a lot more:

I have to say the two features that surprised me the most when handling the Tenori-On (that I should have known just from reading about it) were the built-in speakers (not spectacular, but glad to see them included), and the fact that you can record directly to the internal SD memory card. Both features speak to how the Tenori-On, unlike the Monome, is a truly standalone instrument that could be used entirely without a computer. Like any good piece of hardware, you could put the Tenori-On on a shelf for 100 years and still boot it up and play with it.

Comparisons of the Tenori-On and Monome were inevitable — come on, they’re two square music gadgets with a grid of buttons that light up, and each is most often used as a kind of sample step sequencer. But Chachi gets at the heart of two issues. First, the fundamental difference between the Monome and Tenori-On is that the Monome is designed to be tethered to a computer to control music and visual software, whereas the Tenori-On is a standalone instrument.

Living the custom life: Monome users love the ability to custom hardware (in a custom case, as here) and software (both the Monome’s behavior and the way it interacts with music software on a computer). Above, xndr has documented the process of making a custom Monome from a kit. But that’s not to say there aren’t unique advantages to the Tenori-On approach.

Second, there’s the question of whether instruments’ limitations actually make them (and you) more musical. That’s counter to the standard philosophy of our industry, in which "more is more." But useful limitations, as opposed to unlimited choice, could help you to make musical choices. It’s something Public Enemy producer (among other things) Hank Shocklee brought up when I heard him speak last week. I pushed Donald on this, who was a little worried he’d come across as a Monome hater just bringing this up:

I think you’re right, however. The same match of limitations and a well-designed instrument are what attract people to products like the MachineDrum or MPC200, or even LSDJ on the GameBoy. Because it isn’t open ended, you can invest your time into learning and pushing the instrument, developing more of a musicianship (possibly) instead of becoming an amateur software programmer.

On the other hand, you look at how Daedelus and Tehn are using the Monome, and it’s apparent that having some control over personalizing your instrument can make the connection between human and machine even stronger.

And that’s where it gets interesting. The Tenori-On chooses some limitations for you, whereas the Monome lets you define some of your own limitations. Which is better? I think that’s entirely personal. But maybe those two boxes of buttons are actually more different than they first appear.

PS, Hello From America?

Okay, having gone off on design issues, is Yamaha on the verge of launching Tenori-On in the US? I hope so. We’ll have to talk to them at NAMM. In a decade that started out with what seemed like a hundred different variations of identical MIDI keyboards, even if you loathe Tenori-On and Monome, I’d say life is getting more interesting.

Free, All Tenori-On Album: A Chat with Norman Fairbanks
Tenori-On Review, Tenori-On Limitations, Tenori-On Fatigue?
… and CDM’s own hands-on, though it technically took place in the UK, not my home in New York, New York, USA:
Hands On Tenori-On: Close Encounters of the Interactive Music Kind
Yamaha TENORI-ON Launch: Photos, Videos, Interviews, Demos, Details, and a Music Box

  • Jordan Colburn

    I think that limitations can be a good thing. It's what makes using circuit bent instruments to create music interesting. Finding the interesting, and predictable possibilities and using them to create something musical is kind of like a puzzle. Also, most of the music ever created was composed on instruments with significant limitations such as piano or acoustic guitar.

  • kobe

    bjork's been using a tenori-on as well as a reactable and a lemur in her live shows. 🙂 just saw her in vegas this past saturday & at nokia theatre in los angeles this past wednesday.

    what i like about things like the tenori-on, reactable, & lemur, or at least the way bjork introduced them into her show, is that they had cameras & screens on the performers. so they're bringing the physical performance BACK to the live show, rather than the 'checking your email' phenomenon that some people (ulrich schnauss was a recent one witnessed) have been displaying in live performances. it's nice that as technology progresses the visual performance aspect can still remain in the newest gear.

  • I definately find working within limitations a lot more creative as you are forced to try harder to get good results.

    In this day and age of cheap software instruments and effects vst's you tend to get bogged down with so much stuff that you never really learn one piece of software to its limits.

    When I rebuilt my laptop last month, I deliberatly picked only a few synths to install so I can learn them better.


  • yeh i have both machines and have just been interviwed by audionewsroom ( it will be up on the site soon)

    Both machines are very different and gt fun

    ive got videos over on youtube

  • Pretty much all creative output is influenced somewhat by working within limitations. Real and self-imposed limitations are important to the creative process, and this is a very common discussion topic.

    However, there is a difference between working within limitations and relegating creative decisions to a piece of software. Drawing only with a pen and paper is working within limitations, yet you are ultimately 100% in control of the expression. If you give 10 people these same tools, you'll see 10 very different results.

    The Tenori-On is a smart instrument. It controls much of the output, and the user is not so much expressing themselves as they are guiding the software.

    The real proof of this distinction is to listen to a number of pieces produced by a Tenori-On and attempt to determine who is operating the device.

  • Matthew, I agree on one level … but at the same time, I do think theoretically you should be able to warp the Tenori-On to something that doesn't sound like Toshio Iwai. It is still a sampler — one with small sample size, yes, but we used to have to live with that. 🙂 Now, whether it's worth spending that amount of money on Tenori-On just to do that, that's another question — and Toshio Iwai himself argued that the experience you're describing is exactly what he wanted.

    Iwai and Yamaha wanted to target Tenori-On at people who were more casual music makers. Ironically, my sense is that most of the actual customers are more serious musicians, because of the price, so if that's really the bar, I'm not sure the Tenori-On is a success. (Then again, a lot of successful instruments behaved differently in the marketplace than their creators expected.)

  • I agree with you about the target price. If Toshio Iwai really wanted to create a dedicated musical gameboy for casual music makers, then it should be priced at the gameboy level to address this market. As it is, the Tenori-On is really only affordable by a very different market segment. Anyone who spends that much on a controller is probably expecting to be able to find their own voice with the instrument. I have yet to see this happen with the Tenori-On, but obviously there hasn't been enough time for this to occur. The narrow deployment hasn't helped matters here.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with you about many successful instruments being used differently than their creators expected. This 'bending of purpose' spawned entire styles of music. Often when a new tool is announced, I immediately try to think of how to use it in a way they didn't intended.

    There is no reason why the Tenori-On couldn't be everything it currently is, AND support open-source community development via a USB port and OSC. The closed nature of the instrument is a lost opportunity.

    I applaud Yamaha for taking a chance on something like the Tenori-On, but I encourage the marketplace to give voice to the support of open standards which can only broaden the appeal of the product. Then we'll really have an opportunity to use something like the Tenori-On in ways the creators never expected.

  • I agree.

    Thats what i said in my intereview.

    Each instrument is playable differently by different people, however the limitations of sound from the Tenori make it more like give 10 people a picture to colour in and 3 colours. Youll get some pics that are identical. Thats how it is with 'Tenori music' if its done straight from the box. I will however say that i took it to some friends who are all electronic musicians and work differnt ways; both software and hardware. I popped in 3 user banks for sounds and we passed it around jamming. It was fun to see how each person operated it differently and how the sound changed.

    And also, if they work around the limitations of the device and build upon its successes as an instrument then it truly will excel for music makers, both serious and casual first timers. Roll on v2.

  • Hi Peter and CDM readers, I hope you don't mind if I post here the url for the interview (TENORI-ON & monome: sidey by side) mentioned above from arctic-sunrise:

    Thanks 🙂

  • Oops, just noticed that there was already a link to the interview. Probably I only read the latest comments or I was too tired, sorry! Feel free to remove these comments.