Alternative key layouts have popped up in commercial hardware and now iPad apps and such, but there’s nothing like trying to build something to grasp how it works. An intrepid group of makers who call themselves Louisville Soundbuilders are working now to clone the C-Thru Music AXiS-64. The goal: their own, original instrument that uses the isomorphic array of keys the AXiS does, which by organizing notes by harmonic interval makes complex melodies and harmonies much simpler than on traditional fretted instruments and keyboards.

You can see results in the video. (It doesn’t make sound until the very end. This is how instrument building goes — dedicate months to build, then months more to practice!) The discussion of how it’s made is especially interesting, and offers some tips to people who are building entirely different devices – check out what they learned about switches and velocity sensing. See the forum:
Soundbuilders Discussion

Thanks, Nick Sturtzel, for sharing your work.

And that really brings us to the value of cloning.

To me, the presence of these DIY boards shouldn’t detract from the value of C-Thru’s product. C-Thru’s gear is superb, and clearly, a lot of their market wants a pre-built project and not a few months in a local hacklab. In fact, clones could add value rather than subtract: by putting these instruments in the hands of people who can’t afford the C-Thru, the project helps evangelize isomorphic layouts. The real challenge for clever key layouts has been that their use is so limited, which means you never get a chance to build a scene and a practice around their musical application. Lastly, as the exploration of switches and velocity shows, building a clone of something else and getting involved in how something is made can yield entirely new designs – especially since this is a group of hacker musicians, not a factory making knock-offs.

I’ll be interested to see how this goes … and now I’m curious to build something like this.

Bonus points to this group for being from my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. (I was born and raised, before moving to New York. If I ever move to Baltimore, I’ll have the Triple Crown.) For the correct pronunciation, think not how the French who settled it would speak, but instead imagine stuffing a pile of these keys in your mouth, and try to say “Louisville.”

In fact, that “” domain isn’t really even some hacker thing. “lvl” is probably the proper way to spell what people in Kentuckiana actually say. Hope I get to come visit folks in Louisville soon; it’s always good to come home.