Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.
March 29, 2018
by Chris Randall
Long-time readers will know how I generally feel about "alternative MIDI controllers" when they come down the pike. I have two metrics for a new MIDI controller:
• Is it actually better than a piano-style keyboard?
• Would you look like a giant fucking douchebag on stage playing it?
The first one isn't so hard to overcome, I don't think. It can further be divided in to sub-categories that are context-sensitive. Modern music making breeds Jacks-of-all-trades, and if the device has buttons that have notes in some semblance of order, anyone that can push buttons in a rhythmic fashion can make music with one. It's just a matter of learning where the notes are. So then the question is: are the buttons in some sort of order that makes sense to me? Speaking strictly for myself, I've played keyboards and guitar for at least an hour or two nearly every single day of my life since I was in my tweens. (Honestly, I'd think I'd be better at it, but I plateaued somewhere in the mid-80s.) I'll be 50 here in a couple months, and my hands _hurt_ when I play a keyboard for more than a minute or two. So ergonomics are a big consideration for me, whereas they might not be for a 20-year-old who has full command of his or her digits.
The second point is harder to deal with. It's called a "show" and not a "hear" for obvious reasons, and looking like a giant fucking douchebag is going to negatively impact shareholder value, as far as live performance is concerned. The number of swing-and-a-miss controllers I've seen at NAMM, where I don't even bother to get a demo because whatever the device is instantly triggers my "man, I'd look like a douche playing that" sensors... Definitely in the hundreds. Lasers and spheres and light-up rings and any number of other douchey configurations. Of course you can use any one of these things to make music, and time + dedication = virtuosity, but ultimately you want to look at least a little bit cool doing it. I'm old enough to accept that "cool" is a moving target, one I can't necessarily hit any more, but even so...
Anyhow, let's go ahead and get to the point. Starting early last year, people began writing the Audio Damage info line asking for MPE versions of our synths. Despite being deeply entrenched in music tech, I only had a vague notion of what MPE was ("something for alternative controllers or something" was my general understanding.) After I'd received several of these, I knuckled down to learn about the format, and was intrigued enough to drop Roger Linn a line and ask if I could borrow a Linnstrument for experimenting. I know Roger pretty well, having had a booth next to him at many trade shows, and he very kindly sent a Linnstrument 128 to me. The only MPE-capable synths I owned at the time were Madrona Labs Kaivo and Aalto (as well as the Animoog synth for iOS) so I booted them up, figured out how the hell to get Live to pass MPE, and sat down to experiment. For reasons lost to the dark past, I decided to film my very first play-about with the Linnstrument and Aalto.
As you can see, it clicked pretty quickly. After a few days with it, I decided to move my Kontrol 49 off the desk and see how this felt as my main controller. After a couple weeks, the Kontrol 49 went in the Closet Of Forgotten Toys, and I wrote Roger to tell him I'd be buying this one. A couple more weeks, and I'd talked Adam in to buying one too, and now, the product we're unveiling at Superbooth is fully MPE-aware. There's no zealot like a convert.
I took to the Linnstrument pretty quickly because the notes generally follow a guitar layout, so I knew where everything was, and it was only a matter of getting used to the dynamics. Having three axii of control once you've hit the note is remarkably expressive, and since, at the end of the day, MPE is just MIDI Plus, it more or less works with everything, while synths that are designed to take advantage of the format (e.g. the afore-mentioned Kaivo and Aalto) really shine in new and interesting ways. I won't bother giving a technical description of MPE; Reverb has already done a fairly good breakdown of that here, and there's no reason for me to reinvent the wheel. Long story short, picture a pad controller with aftertouch (like the Push 2), and make it so that after you whack the note, you can move your finger on the X or Y axis as well, and send MIDI CCs with that. Then give each note on the synth its own MIDI channel, so you can apply those MIDI CCs to an individual note without modding the entire patch.
There are really only four MPE controllers worth talking about right now, in my opinion. They are the Roli Seaboard series, the afore-mentioned Linnstrument, the Madrona Labs Soundplane, and the Haken Continuum. So basically your choices are "guitar-like" with the Linnstrument and Soundplane, or "keyboard-like" with the Seaboard and Continuum.
The upshot of all this, and my takeaway: I can fit five octaves of extremely expressive MIDI control in a space that is smaller than the typical PC keyboard, and I don't look like an idiot doing it, nor did I have to learn anything new, since I can already play guitar. This is a net win no matter how you math it out. As I hinted, we'll be unveiling an MPE-capable product at Superbooth, and we will have both a Linnstrument and a Seaboard Rise there to try out with it. (We'd have a Soundplane too, except that is somewhat larger, and our booth is small, and Randy will be there anyhow.)
I'd like to hear about your experiences with MPE or alternative controllers, especially playing live. I haven't played the Linnstrument on stage yet, but I'm comfortable enough with it that I would feel pretty confident doing so at this stage.