Richard Lainhart mans the Haken Continuum at an early installment of our Handmade Music series, back in 2007. Meanwhile, in 2011: among many options, four digital instruments challenge you to practice – really – with expressions that are deep and satisfying.

Is there anything genuinely new in digital instruments? Isn’t it just a load of repeated novelty, without the ability to actually make useful musical noises? Hasn’t the technology just gotten in the way of the music? Isn’t … (sigh) .. all you see … all you get … (repeat ad infinitum)

Even among technologist futurists, skepticism about the iterative process of new digital design runs rampant. But if you yearn for a bit more optimism, here are four strong counter-examples, projects that, building upon previous research, begin to reach a level of maturity and expressivity that could inspire. They’re inventions that you might want to pick up and spend time learning, play into late evenings for the joy of the challenge of them, creations with which you’d build a relationship. They’re not alone, but you can catch all four in the Bay Area starting today through this weekend, and I hope that they help kick-start a new conversation about what instruments can be. In place of the novelty of new invention, they might just start to raise questions about what could really last.

None other than our friend Roger Linn, creator of the LinnDrum, MPC, and new designs, is hosting the event. Geert Bevin of Eigenlabs fills CDM in on the details, and has some reflections on what’s special about these four examples:

One thing that makes these instruments so uniquely expressive is their ability to sense the precise movements of each finger in 3-dimensional space (for example, pressure for note expression, left/right for pitch, and forward/backward for timbre), and to do that for all fingers simultaneously. But each instrument also presents many other innovative ideas and improvements over the limitations of traditional mechanical-age instruments.

The instruments:

The Eigenharp, demonstrated by Geert Bevin, Senior Software Developer from UK-based Eigenlabs.

The Continuum from Haken Audio, demonstrated by Bay Area pianist Ed Goldfarb.

SLABS, a new instrument designed by David Wessel, director of Cal Berkeley’s CNMAT computer music department.

SLABS: Arrays of Pressure Sensitive Touch Pads

The LinnStrument prototype by Roger Linn.

If You’re Going to (Be Near) San Francisco…

Live event details, from Geert – if you make it and can help document for CDM, we’d be hugely grateful (hello from, for the moment, Montreal)

Here are the events:

Thursday, May 5 from 7 to 9 p.m.
Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Audio (CCRMA)
660 Lomita Dr. Stanford, CA 94305
At this event, the Eigenharp, Continuum and LinnStrument will be demonstrated and discussed.

Friday, May 6 from 7 to 9 p.m.
University of California Berkeley’s Center For New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT)
1750 Arch Street, Berkeley, CA 94709
At this event, the Eigenharp. SLABS and LinnStrument will be demonstrated and discussed.

Saturday, May 7 from 2 to 4 p.m.
Guitar Center San Francisco, Pro Audio Department
1645 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109
At this event, the Eigenharp and LinnStrument will be demonstrated and discussed.

Monday, May 9 from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m.
SF Music Tech Conference
Hotel Kabuki, 1625 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94115
At this event, the Eigenharp, Continuum and LinnStrument will be demonstrated and discussed.
Note: Conference entry fee is required–see

Please join us to see, learn about ~ and even try out for yourself ~ these radical new instruments that are changing the way music is made.

Please note that these instruments are not otherwise available in the bay area to see or try out.

Additional events might still be added, keep an eye on

Enjoy if you make it. Aside from these four, what new instruments would make your short list?

  • What do you guys think about the Misa Kitara?&nbsp ;  As a guitarist, and a electronic musician that can't really play the keyboards, I say "hell yea!"  As a I guy that doesn't easily part with $900 bucks…  

  • What do you guys think about the Misa Kitara?…  As a guitarist and an electronic musician that can’t really play the keyboards, I say, “hell yea!”  As a guy that doesn’t easily part with $900 bucks…

  • Stij

    Similarly, have you guys heard of the Madrona Soundplane?

    Looks really cool. I think the Linnstrument is the one I'm the most excited about, though. It's pretty much EXACTLY like a dream instrument I thought of a couple years ago. If it actually makes it to production, I will be overjoyed.

  • vanceg

    Indeed CDM discussed the original version of what would later become the Soundplane in late 2008:

    To me: Soundplane remains the most interesting of this new generation of expressive electronic controllers/instruments.

  • Genjutsushi

    The ubiquitous iPad must surely be the real game changer this year. Touchscreen for everyone.

    Although I wholeheartedly believe that more tactile feedback is required to truly operate as an instrument

  • Agree about the iPad Genjutsuhi. 
    What happened in the late 90s is that business switched from mass production to mass customization. It is now everywhere, from the "make" culture right through to McDonalds and even the above post by Peter.

    A caveat though is starting to emerge with mass customization, its too much to get into here ( check Prof. Barry Schwartz books for research on the subject ), but I think that over the next years it's this switch back to fewer customization choices, less options, less focus on old paradigms, but with new products having truly human centered design that will result in the greatest innovations in music technology, taking us out of the complex maze we have dug for ourselves. My view what this great innovation will have the result of large amounts of people starting to make  and distribute music through technology.

  • m.a.s

    No love for the Harpejii?

  • ben

    in the first picture, does anyone know what the box is just behind the Continuum, with all the patch cables is?

  • I don't want to be an A-hole, but I want to say that I don't think new control methods will definitely move music forward. Especially when the concept is protected by a patent.
    I really want to see new instruments that synthesize music in an honestly new way. We have subtractive synths, we have FM synths, we have synthesizers that merely manipulate and rearrange PCM data, we have all manner of physical modeling synths. Enough of those! Is there any other possible method that would yield honestly usable and pleasant sounds? Every "new" synthesis method is basically a regurgitation of one or more of the above methods.
    And I'm not talking about silly experimental synthesizers that generate drones and useless noise. I'm talking about a synthesis method that has a very broad scope of possibilities within with anyone could find useful melodic sounds. No sampling or PCM data. A true new SYNTHESIS method, generated from scratch.

  • looks like a buchla 200e system. the 250e is easy to be recognized.

  • Jonah

    @Alex, You are talking about a control method though. When subtractive synthesis first came about it produced "drones and useless noise".  

    You want a control scheme where unmelodious sounds are nearly impossible to make yet it is still possible to generate a wide variety of sound. I think that a combination of FM synthesis and physical modeling (there really aren't many physically modeling synths – due in part to patents I think) can achieve what you are talking about, but are in dire need of a new control scheme. In part it's about obfuscating the parameters that let certain sounds occur. This takes a lot of hard work to create. I'm working on it myself, but it's slow. 

    I will also say that much of what people determine to be pleasant or unpleasant sound is mostly culturally based. This is the other part you have to figure out when making a control scheme to generate pleasant sound. Obviously, I can't listen to every sound a synth makes and categorize it myself as pleasant or unpleasant and even then my perceptions will differ from others. There are certain rules you can apply to be generally more pleasing to western ears, but I haven't gotten them working well enough yet.

  • How about this&nbsp ;
    It detect x y and pressure and send tuio via usb. Seems all you'll need is some max software to map pitches and send midi or whatever and you'll have a LinnStrument.
    Available this summer apparently

  • only surprise of the evening. As soon as they exited the stage, the group I had assumed would be the direct support act started setting up. Laura Stevenson 

  • Peter Kirn

    Thanks for the tips! Yes, these are just the four instruments that happened to be at the Bay Area gathering, though I think each is worthy.

    I know Roger has also been tracking the SoundPlane — it's one he and I are I think both very excited by.

    I hadn't seen openmtproject, though; that looks fantastic.

    I think part of the idea of doing better control is that it facilitates greater live control over a variety of synthesis ideas, including new ones. It may not be a new synthesis "method," partly in that you have the open-ended architecture of the computer to do a variety of things, or to combine an arbitrary number of models.

  • Random Chance

    I myself am most intrigued by the Continuum. It seems to deliver what a traditional keyboard controller lacks: the ability to play glissandi (akin to a stringed instrument) and more dimensions of control that suit synthesized sounds. Historically there have been many attempts at keyboard like instruments that mimic some of the behavious of stringed instruments among other things. I think the Continuum is exactly the kind of incremental development that is necessary in order to move playing music forward without losing all the knowledge and training that went before. I can imagine playing traditional pieces on a Continuum whereas I would have to seriously adapt anything if playing one of the other "instruments" (to me there's a difference between instruments that also make a sound in addition to providing an interface for the player and controllers that only sport the latter).

  • Drkimono

    I've been practicing on the continuum for about 4 weeks, I've been waiting 30 years for an alternate to a piano type keyboard, despite aftertouch once you've triggered a note apart from a global pitch bend/vibrato, your done. With the continuum you have to learn to control the notes for their complete duration, in terms of pitch volume and timbre, takes a lot of practise, to play and emote in TUNE. The results are worth it, because even the most mundane sound once controlled this way becomes a much more interesting and expressive sound

  • You hit it on the head, Drkimono – the phrase we came up with at the CCRMA demo last night was "You are the envelope" – you're responsible for the entirety of the note. And that power turns a lowly 25% pulse wave into a highly expressive voice.
    By the way, I'm almost totally sure that the video above that's credited to me is actually Richard Lainhart 🙂

  • Alex – the control technology in the madrona soundplane is not patented. Not sure about the others on display here, but the soundplane is the most exciting one for me, and is totally unencumbered (even if it wasn't it would be easy to design around it).

  • Alex – let me also add more clearly what I think others are beating around the bush a little bit: what's been missing in electronic sound generation is NOT synthesis techniques, but control techniques. The full expressive capabilities of most synthesis techniques (particularly any kind of physical modelling, but all of them really) have barely been scratched with the control techniques that have been used to date. You need to read Randall Jone's paper on Intimate Control to really understand why this is, but here's a hint: the touch technology of the iPad and its cousins don't really change anything in this area at all because the sensing frequency is too slow.

  • watch this:

    other than being an exceptionally gorgeous piece of music and quite a nice video presentation of its construction, there on one screen is all you need to know (or more than you need to know, if not everything) about the paucity of contemporary synthesis control. there isn't an electronic device in existence that could get within 50% of what Manu Delago does with one metallic ellipsoid.

    i have as my next 5 year goal the completion of an instrument that uses physical modelling coupled to a "surface" that has the properties you can see in the Hang. don't lose sleep over it, it will be a while.

  • I'm just wondering when something stops being a controller and becomes an instrument. As far as I can tell, none of the above 'instruments' make sound by themselves. I built a multitouch table in the vain of a reactable in 2009. Part of that was removing the computer from the performance aspect, so the computer was hidden away beneath a false floor. I would consider this an instrument with the tangibles controlling it, because as a unit it procudes the sound. Thoughts?

  • I don't think that the sound generation engine is what makes something an instrument. I think that the degree of expression and detail that allows your fingers or mouth to become the envelope generators of every nuance of the sounds that are being produced turns something into an instrument. It gives you this feeling that the slightest movement is tied into the sound and allows you and the instrument to blend together as one. It creates this feedback loop between movement and sound that lets true emotion and creativity come out. The location of what generates the sound is a detail that is of no significance at all as long as the data's resolution and frequency is high enough.

  • Including the soundplane, they're all fairly similar instruments. Of course, the eigenharp has a bunch of extra goodies and each has it's own quirks, but all five are essentially a 3-axis controller. Perhaps a name for this category of controllers would help make it easier for the non-techie to understand. Much like a saxophone is to woodwinds, a name for this subcategory of controller would remove the brand/product from the general scope of instruments, thus allowing it to be written about and discussed without fear of being called product placement. Of course brands matter, but you don't always have to get as specific as say, a Continuum, when you want to refer to all types of 3-axis controllers.

    I'm not saying that there should be a specification for what constitutes a 3-axis controller, as I think there should always be room for experimentation in instrument design. But a label for these new instruments could bring them into the limelight, which would be fantastic for musicians.

    This also brings me to the subject of familiarity. Most people know what a guitar is and know what to expect a guitar to sound like, so they can safely put this in the back of their mind and just enjoy the music. Even keyboard controllers hold within them certain expectations (synths or samples). In these early years of electronic music, non-keyboard controllers are still somewhat of a mystery to people and that can be very distracting. As a musician, I want people to think about the music when I play, not about what gear I'm using or what all those buttons do.

    These will be some very exciting years.

  • nt of Venice, a beautiful wife to go out when the fear of misconduct, gave his wife a pair of custom-made high heel shoes, to prevent the wife was awa

  • Looks really cool

  • σκληρό καπάκι του μισθού, η κατάργηση των συμβάσεων προστασίας, και απαιτεί από τον παίκτη να Πληρώνουν το 33%. Παραχωρήσεις των εργοδοτών κατά τις τελευταίες 

  • wii

    I couldn't think you are more right

  • What a really great blog!!!

  • Journeyman

    here is a new stringed instrument that matters… the first stringed instrument invented in the USA in the 21st century: