As I’m located outside the UK, I’ve been unable to get a TENORI-ON for review. This may be just as well; I’ve got a custom Monome project that’s filling up a bit of my time. Nick has an extensive, detailed video review for Sonic State, since we don’t:

Review page from our friends at Sonic State

(Late in posting this, I know; behind as I’ve been on the road — thanks to all who sent it in.)

A number of revelations emerge regarding how the design works:

  • TENORI-ON is truly set up to work as a 16×16 beat sequencer. You can have multiple 16-beat sequences, and you can change length, but the hardware-only approach means you’re given a pretty rigid musical structure.
  • MIDI output is limited to note information.
  • MIDI input is limited to notes, as well.
  • The only non on/off controller is a roller on the bottom of the unit that affects note length.
  • The unit does sample, but think 1-second 1-hit samples.

Photo: Gary Kibler, for CDM.

Nick seems pretty balanced in the review, coming down somewhere in the middle (well worth watching the whole thing). Despite these limitations, the cumulative experience does seem greater than the sum of its parts. Whether that experience is worth the price may depend: for those wanting a tailored, game-like music interaction with the device, TENORI-ON could appeal. For those wanting more flexibility, though, it could be a major disappointment.

Personally, much as I appreciate the design, I find myself musically unexcited by the instrument. Again, this is just a gut reaction, as I don’t have one sitting here to judge in person, but I do know how I feel about some of the design compromises made on the unit. I don’t want to overuse the TENORI-ON versus Monome comparisons. But the comparison is in fact proving to be more and more apt, whether the creators of the respective projects wanted to invite comparison or not. Looking at the two designs side by side demonstrates that the same basic design concept, however simple, can take on very different meanings depending on implementation. One is not necessarily better than another, but the extent to which a design is open-ended may determine how “instrument-like” it actually is. And you can’t help but see the TENORI-ON as being, perhaps intentionally, more like a toy than an instrument in comparison to Monome. This has nothing to do with number of features, but simply the extent to which the design can be made personal — the definition of a musical instrument. That isn’t to say you can’t make a toy an instrument, too; I’ve played and written for toy piano, to take this literally. But there’s a big difference between a Schoenhut toy piano and a Steinway; it’s part of what we appreciate in both.

The counter argument could easily be, who is the gadget designed for? There is a cult right now in appealing to non-musicians, and the TENORI-ON is designed to make passive listeners into players. But I wonder, given the number of lapsed musicians, people with experience learning an instrument who gave up, if a different approach might be more likely to energize people about music making? And, on the other hand, in TENORI-ON’s defense, some of the people who have been most excited about the gadget are experienced musicians. So, clearly, this isn’t so simple, after all.

Ironically, my initial reaction to the Monome was one of similar skepticism: it seemed, much as the TENORI-ON actually is, to be limited to being a simple step sequencer. But Monome later changed my mind in that you could redefine what the instrument was in software. What you had was not a sequencer: it was buttons. What those buttons did was up to you. And I’ve also been impressed over time to see that people have been creative both in re-imagining the purpose of the instrument and in developing performance technique with it. The TENORI-ON is almost extreme in the extent to which it pre-determines how you use it. It’s a bit like a Toshio Iwai machine, whereas the otherwise similar Monome seems more like a blank slate.

The fact that you can easily load tiny samples from a computer and, as with Monome, could over time develop a unique performance technique with TENORI-ON could give it new potential. But even so, you’d still need very specific and limited needs in order to make TENORI-ON useful.

The other phenomenon happening now, aside from people realizing some of the limitations of TENORI-ON, is a general Web fatigue with the supposed “hype” around the launch. We’re certainly seeing that in comments on CDM and elsewhere. The fact that the manufacturer is Yamaha may only compound that issue; it means the bar is set higher for a large manufacturer, while at the same time the TENORI-ON may become the target of people not liking Yamaha hardware in general. I think this fatigue should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ll defend the blogosphere; we’ve followed this device over time because we’re interested in it and care about it. But behind the fatigue is some genuine insight: the TENORI-ON really isn’t a radical, new way of making music. What it really seems to be is a radical reduction of musical instrument design: the sequencer/sampler rendered in minimalistic, if elegant, terms. It’s a huge design statement, and certainly not one everyone will like.

And, moreover, there’s an opposite aesthetic in what objects should be, so great that you begin to realize the similar grids of light-up buttons on Monome and TENORI-ON are a more superficial connection than anything. TENORI-ONs are finished by robots in Asia (despite the claim from PR that limited runs were “hand-made”); Monome is hand-assembled from sustainable components in the US and has even been made available as a kit. Each is a design statement by a couple of primary designers (each a collaboration of two people, in fact), but Yamaha backs TENORI-ON while Monome is sold direct. The TENORI-ON has celebrity endorsements, the Monome (generally speaking) does not. The Monome is fundamentally about being a customizable instrument for use however you like; the TENORI-ON is described by its designer as being as much interactive music player as instrument. In fact, if there’s any real problem with the Monome/TENORI-ON comparisons, it’s that they really have very little in common beneath those light-up buttons.

Let us know if your thinking has evolved, as well. And we’re especially interested to hear from people who actually have a TENORI-ON to tell us what it’s like, since the rest of the world right now (myself included) is limited to armchair quarterbacking. (Erm … or whatever “quarterbacking” is outside of the US. Is there an equivalent in socce– uh, football?)