The appeal of new controllers is melding gesture and sound, metaphor – in tangible form – and musical idea. So before talking about this controller, have a listen to the sounds it produces in the hands of one user, even if another user might do something very different. In a demonstration by Richard Devine, sparse percussive sounds reminiscent of early sonic experiments by the likes of Varese echo in clusters of water-like drops and echoing rumbles. (Richard is perhaps better known for dense, sometimes raucously relentless walls of sound; this formally more contemplative, which I really enjoy, even if it’s just a demo.)

Whether this immediate sonic application is your cup of tea, you can then have a look at the controller. Most of it is conventional, if nicely executed: encoders ringed by LEDs, pots, and buttons. But its central controller, looking like the exposed innards of a hard drive, is something else: the Spin is not a potentiometer, not a knob, not a faux turntable. It’s something different. Instead of just responding to rotation, it responds to inertia, built around the rotational movement but allowing new degrees of subtlety and control. As the creator describes it (well worth reading his entire description, but I like the ideas in this bit):

The spin allow the user to change a parameter with another feeling than a simple potentiometer:
large amplitude movement for a small variation.
control of the increment of the variation.
the spin can be launched and stopped, the variation stay under control using the increment parameter.
the spin can be automated, with 2 parameters for time control: increment and speed.
the spin can play a note and change its velocity, while a rotary controls the note pitch.
the spin can be assigned on any rotary and use its MIDI mapping to change his value, while automated or not.
the spin can fight against embedded sequencer.

(Because of a couple of grammatical errors translating to English, we also know that the spin is masculine. Odd – it seems actually kind of feminine to me. I’ll let you reflect on that.)

The notion of using inertia in a rotary controller isn’t entirely foreign to larger commercial projects; Native Instruments touted something like that in their Traktor Kontrol S4 controller. Here, though, freed from having to operate a DJ software and its turntable-derived sound ideas, inertial control can come to the fore as the principal interaction idea, applied to new musical parameters.

Richard Devine, who’s so on top of things I think he already owns musical inventions that I just happened to think about, is of course all over this. From his description:

The timeFrog II is a powerful and flexible MIDI device dedicated to music computer and MIDI applications.

The spin/inertial sensor provides a totally new kind of control surface, which opens new way for playing with parameters.

The 8 endless encoders, 4 potentiometers and 6 buttons form a functional and compact.

There is also a embedded 4 steps sequencer: 4×4 steps x 6 voices

This patch was setup in Ableton Max For Live using only two instances of SonicCharge’s Synplant software synthesizer. These two patches where customized and designed to work with the timeFrogII. Creating for some very unique musical gestures. All sequencing and note generation is from the timeFrog controller.

Richard tells us:

I recently received this really interesting MIDI controller from my friend Oliver over at Undead Instruments. I met Oliver in Belgium last month when I was on tour through Brussels. I was really intrigued by this midi controller he was working on called the timeFrog II. I only recently had the chance to sit down and play with it. Quite interesting and different approach from the other midi controllers I have seen and played with. I hadn’t seen any proper demonstration videos yet of this strange device so I thought I would do one.

More video demos, from other artists, show the gamut of what this instrument can do:

More info:

  • now I can definitely get down with this.

  • Amazing. That Richard Devine video was a great way to start my (late) morning. It is one of the few videos (outside of turntablist stuff) I've seen where watching someone use a controller _felt_ exciting, i.e. I really wanted to get my hands on it, and was reminded of the virtuosity demanded by a traditional instrument.

  • I like it! Hope they produce a standalone groovebox sometime. It would be nice to add a tilt axis to the wheel for more parameter control. What's the street price?

  • I've done something similar, although maybe a little simpler and more practical, with Ms.Pinky vinyl. Spin speed to set a cc value. It's a project I put aside a while ago, but I might pick it back up again, if only to make a video to show it off. 

    Good show!

  • confused. intrigued. confused.
    BirdsUseStars — that's exactly what i was thinking (yr Ms. Pinky experiment). spin/velocity makes sense. i don't understand how this is inertial. does that mean it is deriving acceleration? none of the demos give me any clue what the disc is "doing". along those lines: doe the disc then spin at a velocity proportional to the parameter it is controlling?

    also: that disc needs to be silk screened to provide practical feedback (notice the tape in the other vide). of course, people who like endless knobs probably don't much about feedback right?

  • 'the spin can fight against embedded sequencer.'

    i really need more detail, but this sounds very interesting…

  • adam

    i'd really like to know what's going on in richard devines macbook. peter, can you reveal the secret?

  • The great thing about this concept of inertial control is that its easily achieved with very cheap controllers like any DJ controller with scrub wheels. I have been using a Hercules controller that I bought used for $60. You can use Max or PD to create a patch that converts the +1/-1 midi cc data to real cc values that change as the wheels accelerate and de-accelerate. For example, at rest, the cc data value is 64.  As you spin faster forward it approaches 127. If you spin backward faster it approaches 0. I have mapped the midi cc data to NI Kore 2 preset morph matrix (or you could use Reaktor, Audiomulch's metasurface, or any app that has morph-able preset) and VOILA! you can control several parameters at once with a quick spin.  On a DJ controller you assign the X direction to one wheel and the Y direction to the other wheel to get even more control. I highly recommend it…damn I gave a way another of my secrets.

  • quick mention of my logitech performance MX mouse. disengage the "clutch" (ratchet, really) on the mouse wheel, and you have a fairly heavy spinnable "inertial controller".

    i've used it for playing around with volume and speed control in ardour – without MIDI, just as a regular mouse wheel – and the effects are interesting and not something you could really do "by hand".

  • Ollie

    I'm 95% sure that is a hard-drive platter and motor. The motors have to have very precise spin speeds (like stepper motors in floppy disk drives) so the box is just reading the data taken from using the motor as a dynamo.

  • I could watch Schindler's List and still be happy after radieng this.

  • edale

    I'm an industrial design student who is working on control surfaces and is looking to explore the tension between instrumentality and what software enables. I'm also interested in helping DJs connect with their audiences, which is hard to do with all the gear sometimes, I understand.

    Nice thing about being in ID is that I have the opportunity to work with interesting materials and sensors, and try things that are a bit outside-the-box with regard to current tech. 

    Can anyone point me to people that are currently pushing these boundaries, and help me understand how to streamline the composition process?