In June 2005, we first saw the Tenori-On, a futuristic music-making device covered in a grid of interactive, lit buttons, designed by the talented interactive artist Toshio Iwai as a prototype for Yamaha. Last week, Yamaha revealed some details about plans to make Iwai’s experimental device into a shipping product. (I missed this in preparations to fly off to Oahu.)

Basic specs: 16×16 grid of buttons, MIDI out, sequencing, and perhaps most surprising, built-in sampling and Motif sound capabilities with internal speakers (plus line-out, naturally). (Notably missing: any mention of network capabilities, which was arguably the most compelling part of the prototype. MIDI out would be notably limited in this respect. Perhaps these features will resurface.)

Anticipated price: £500.
Availability: Unknown, but soon — UK launch first, evidently.

Tenori-On specs [Future Music blog]
Hands-on Tenori-On video [Sonic State]
Tenori-On official site, Toshio Iwai Tenori-On blog, neither of which have been updated as I write this

Much like a car maker releasing a concept car as a factory model, it’s exciting to see this happen. Now there’s only one problem: a lot has happened since June 2005, and light-up buttons you can turn on and off aren’t exactly inaccessible technology. Here’s a quick review of what’s been developing in the world beyond Yamaha since 2005:

An open-source rival to the still-not-shipping Tenori-On, the Monome emphasizes hacking, customization, and open software support. And you can built it into nifty wooden cases like this one.

  1. Toshio Iwai goes Nintendo. We’ve all gotten a chance to play with Iwai’s brilliant sound toys in the form of the Nintendo DS game ElectroPlankton. At the same time, musicians got the first indication that interactive art doesn’t always translate to musical instrument use. As CDM’s Nat noticed, just a few key missing features could have made ElectroPlankton truly rock (like multiplayer capabilities). Now, the Tenori-On looks terrific and I won’t judge it until it ships, but I notice some similar conservatism when it comes to next-gen functionality, like the lack of a protocol that would easily network multiple Tenori-Ons.
  2. Korg goes on the grid. The KAOSS Pad KP-3 comes out sporting — what else — an interactive grid of lights. Now, unlike the Tenori-On, you can’t use these for visual effects onstage, it’s an 8×8 grid not 16×16, and they’re a touchpad rather than discrete buttons. But, powered by Korg’s experience building these sorts of devices, the KP-3 actually does more, with added effects and (as near as I can tell) more sophisticated sampling capabilities than the Tenori-On. It’s not nearly as elegant a design, with buttons and toggles hiding all these extra features, but it remains to be seen whether the Tenori-On will turn out to be musically useful or overly simplified.
  3. Grids go DIY in software. Froggy Frog built his own Windows app called gControl, with touch buttons, for use with a touchpad. Result: it works however he wants, and runs on cheap touchpad hardware that can double as a computer interface. More similar experiments may follow.
  4. Monome does Tenori-On, the open-source way. Most importantly of these, inspired by the Tenori-On, some enterprising hardware hackers built their own solution called the Monome. If the Monome were just a cheap clone, that’d be the end of the story. Instead, it shows how a simple idea (grid of buttons with lights) can yield very different results. (Ed. note: Vlad rightfully points out in comments that the Monome prototypes actually came before Tenori-On. Toshio Iwai, among others, likewise worked on similar ideas before. Ultimately, all of these ideas have been readily available, meaning this is even more a matter of execution — and your preference / working style. -PK) The Monome is 8×8 rather than 16×16, but it’s arguably more useful than the Tenori-On in that it’s completely hackable in hardware or software, and richly-documented by a user community. The Monome uses OpenSoundControl (OSC) for communication rather than MIDI, allowing much-easier communication with a computer. And its open-source nature has already yielded fruit in the form of community hacks. That’s just for lovers of soldering irons, right? Wrong: with roughly a year lead-time on Yamaha, the community have made the Monome better-documented and more widely-supported than the Tenori-On is ever likely to be.

Of course, I regularly advocate that music manufacturers talk about products they’re developing. In this case, you could argue that what’s happened is that the Tenori-On’s public demos inspired imitators or changed expectations. But I think something very different may be happening: open-source hardware may wind up beating the big manufacturer, not by cloning it but by doing something genuinely different.

Now it Heats Up: Which Next-Gen Hardware will Stick?

The Tenori-On already looks like a triumph of design and elegance. But Toshio Iwai didn’t invent the idea of grids of buttons with lights. As I look at the Tenori-On demo, I’m struck by all the things I would want this device to do — and then immediately wonder whether it will let me. Hardware makers just seem to believe the flexibility of computers is bad. On the contrary, a lot of us have been spoiled by it. That’s why Yamaha’s choice of MIDI over Monome’s OSC is disappointing. It’s simply going to be easier to send data between a Monome and a computer than a Tenori-On and a computer. It also makes it worth considering losing some of the nifty internal hardware capabilities on the Tenori-On, saving a little bit of money, and getting the far-greater flexibility of the Monome.

“But, wait!” you say. “The Yamaha is a pick-up-and-play device.” True. What’s wonderful about the Tenori-On is that it’s a fully-integrated hardware device. And what’s terrible about the Tenori-On is that it’s a fully-integrated hardware device. Flashy lights aside, what you get is a simple sampler / sequencer. Ultimately, this comes down to the question of how digital music will evolve — the question Iwai asked in his original design briefs for the Tenori-On. Anyone who can afford a Tenori-On probably already owns a laptop, and my question is, how easily will you be able to adapt the Tenori-On to your individual way of working? Iwai compared the Tenori-On to a violin. But violins have very steep learning curves, with lifelong payoff. Where will the Tenori-On sit on the toy vs. instrument continuum? Alternatively, which kind of tool would you want: one that immediately makes sense for a single task, or one that can be easily customized to adapt it to different tasks over time? There’s not a right answer to these questions, of course, but I don’t think the answer is as simple as “only hackers and geeks want customization.” My experience suggests that musicians of all types do.

Unknown: the status of “collaboration” features described in the original Tenori-On prototype. By supporting OSC, the Tenori-On could be made to work with any device, but it seems networking will be proprietary or possibly even nonexistent.

This is all speculation, mind you, until the Tenori-On ships — apparently in the UK first. I’m very, very eager to try the Tenori-On in person. I’m always inspired by what Toshio Iwai does, whether I use it in my own music or not. And I look forward to challenging this design with these kinds of questions — and, perhaps, even reconsidering the Monome in a new light.

But how times have changed since 2005. Whether successful or not, a succession of hardware (Monome, Lemur, the continued interest in the Haken Continuum and others) have demonstrated that we’ll never again think of a two-octave keyboard with eight knobs as the final answer for digital music. They’ve also proven that far-out interfaces can turn into shipping products. And, most interestingly, the rise of open-source hardware (through the rise of x0b0x, Monome, Arduino, and Make Magazine) has made DIY gear a serious alternative to commercial hardware for specific jobs. Musicians happily use this gear alongside commercial hardware and commercial software like Ableton Live, so this isn’t just for open source nuts.

Now, it’s time to see which of these experiments sticks in the long run. Which — if any of these — whet your palette? Or are you waiting for the Next Big Thing, while happily twiddling knobs on conventional hardware? (Hey, it gets the job done. You can always hook up flashing lights separately if you have to.)