From frets to keys to finger holes, musical instruments in every culture have provided ways to easily access musical ideas quickly. But these are physical, acoustic instruments, so any solution they find is more or less restricted to a single set of choices.

Digital hardware can do what digital software can: it can be a blank slate for new ideas.

The monome and Tenori-On grid instruments, each in their own way, demonstrated that a radically simple grid can generate a surprising range of possibilities. The monome’s claim to fame, above its other applications, was the way a companion Max patch treated sliced samples (the mlr app). Tenori-on, drawing on earlier work by Toshio Iwai, excelled at playful, game-like mechanics.

If the piano had centuries of development, the digital grid is still pretty new. And now it’s adding color and velocity/pressure sensitivity. So now may be the best time to revisit its possibilities.

I’m now in London, about to take part in discussions tomorrow to work on the Novation Launchpad Pro’s open source API. I think this could be not only a font for some neat Launchpad ideas, but perhaps a template for how such a hardware API could be developed and supported, and some new thoughts on how to make a grid instrument work.

As I do that, by happy coincidence, developer Fabrizio Poce is back with his J74 ISO Controllers.

Fire up a standalone Mac or Windows application from J74, and you open up a range of new modes on Novation’s whole Launchpad line, from the original model (with a simple grid) to the latest Pro version (with velocity, pressure, and color). This isn’t anything to do with Ableton Live specifically, for instance – you can use any software you want. (I’m sure some of you will opt for Ableton, but not all of you.)

These melodic layouts are “isomorphic.” That is to say, they function geometrically so that a a particular shape produces the same intervals wherever you happen to be on the grid. That means that the distance between pads beneath your hands will always produce the same chords (or the same pitch relationships) wherever you are. Musical meaning is always under your fingers. Pianos and frets learn that way, which is why you can so quickly translate gestures into musical ideas – and why composers often favor working at instruments. These connect your muscles, your brain, and the resulting sound.

That concept isn’t new, but what this software pack does is extend what you can do with it.

There’s a drum rack, for percussion. There are layouts set up for chord progressions, diatonic melodies (so you’re never out of key), and octaves. One mode is set up diagonally. Others emulate guitar frets or the keyboard.

It’s not just a collection of useful layouts, either. You can also transpose pitches around, live, jump momentarily between scales (for combining scales in performance), and navigate by the Circle of Fifths. You can create your own custom scales. The Launchpad Pro hardware gives you the most power. You can simulate pitch and modulation wheel input, send Program Changes (for changing parts on another instrument, for instance), and still have full velocity and aftertouch support.

This works standalone via MIDI, so, whie you do need to have a computer connected, you can work with any software. With the Launchpad Pro hacks, we’ll be able to do this sort of thing even with the hardware operating as standalone.

The upshot of all of this is more than just some clever note layouts. It’s really down to accessing a range of melodic concepts without taking your fingers off the grid. And the grid is unique in that way, too, in that sometimes it’s about breaking habits and muscle memory to find new things rather than training it. I’ve never seen anything as liquid melodically as this is.

The patch is US$10, among a range of cool tool goodies from the author.

And this could be just the beginning of what people will begin to explore on grids.

Stay tuned.

Hat tip to Synthtopia on this one. You’ve added extra inspiration.