The grid is in. While the monome remains the standards bearer for hardware with grids of buttons on it, arrays of buttons are suddenly everywhere, in the commercial Akai APC40 and Novation Launchpad, and, from Livid Instruments, the Ohm64 and now the Block. I think it’s a real compliment to the monome’s creators – and the community that has authored ingenious open software for the monome – that there is this excitement around the design.

The latest entry is Livid’s Block, a compact, aluminum-and-wood controller that’s easy to carry and which weighs less than 3 pounds. It’s not a monome – it eschews the monome’s stringent minimalist design aesthetic and adds knobs on top, faders on the side. That layout has made the M-Audio Trigger Finger a blockbuster hit, so I think it could attract people who want more than just buttons. (That’s why choice is generally a good thing.) But just as importantly, the Block takes cues from the monome beyond the skin-deep. As with the Ohm64, Livid is working to open-source both the guts of the hardware and the software on the computer. The instruments are made by hand using sustainable materials and finishes, manufactured in Texas in their own shop rather than the lowest bidder overseas. The hardware itself encourages hacks and customization. These are principles championed by the monome’s Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain, and they’re badly in need of some company. Livid, like those monome creators, is a handful of individuals rather then a big company, but they give us new hardware that embodies sustainability, openness, and local production – and that makes the monome and its principles stronger. (Livid has been crafting performance hardware and Max patches for many years.) And while this bus-powered USB MIDI device doesn’t yet support (OSC) OpenSoundControl, that could come – without sacrificing conventional MIDI connections to outboard gear when you don’t have the computer connected. (Clarification: as with the Ohm64, OSC support is not yet available but should be possible. Stay tuned.)


Basic specs:

  • 8×8 backlit keypad with corresponding knobs, function buttons, and faders
  • Square layout that can be used at any rotation (so the USB port lies where you want it)
  • Runs a suite of apps built in Max/MSP from Livid – including a sampler, synth, sequencer
  • blockEditor for customizing layouts, lights
  • US$399, available November 1

I’m interested in more open software, so I’m working on making an editor in Java and would love to hear what else people might want. (SuperCollider looper? Pd algorithmic grid controller? Processing library?) These I hope to make work both with the Livid hardware’s added faders and knobs, and the monome’s more minimal design. Of course, OSC will be terrific for computer applications if that comes to pass, but I love the idea of gear that can also talk to MIDI hardware.

I really like Novation’s Launchpad, but for a little more money, you get a beautiful case, additional controls, and added flexibility, all in gear handcrafted by the maker and with an open approach to hardware and software. Without getting into a debate over the merits one way or another, consider this: you can choose. We didn’t use to have these kinds of choices in music hardware. The fact that we do now – not only the ability to choose the nameplate, but the very philosophy behind the device’s manufacture – I think can benefit everyone, users and manufacturers alike. It opens up the entire music tech industry to new ideas and new variety.