Friday, June 25, 2010

Eigenharp: The Supreme Difficulty of Birthing a New Instrument

CDM posted a blog entry on the Eigenharp Alpha today and linked my video.

CDM on the Eigenharp Alpha

This is the perfect opportunity to write an entry that has been on my mind regarding this instrument. The topic being the supremely difficult task of bringing a radical instrument concept into the world.

I work in software technology and have been in and out of silicon valley startups, before and after the tech crash in 2001. One of the things that we talk about is the technology adoption curve. It takes awhile for a new technology whether it is disruptive or not to become accepted. Many times the companies that develop a new technology are not the ones to capitalize on it. This is because they may be a startup and can't stick it out for as long as it takes before the technology moves beyond early adopters and becomes mainstream. Many times a company that champions a new technology paves the way for others to take the concept further, once the market has started to accept it.

Take a look at at the adoption curve for a technology that I was involved with in the early days, "Web Services". It took a long time for Web Services to become adopted, but now it's a pervasive part of the technology landscape and the backbone of services such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and countless others.

Web Services Adoption Curve

Goeffrey Moore's famous book "Crossing the Chasm" has been required reading for generations of technology leaders. The chasm is the gap between early adopters and the rest of the curve.

Crossing the Chasm on Wikipedia

I think this is fairly relevant to the Eigenharp. Not only is it a revolutionary technology as far as the resolution of the keys and the bandwidth of the information flowing through it, but it is also radical in the sense that it doesn't copy an existing instrument form. Sure it has pieces of different instruments, keys. breath pipe, but really there is no previously existing instrument that prepares you for playing the eigenharp. There is no established method for technique or standard chord positions. It's really a new thing. This is difficult because beyond just the technology adoption curve, you also have a learning curve. It's as if the guitar was just thrown into the world new and there were a half dozen people trying to figure out how to play Stairway to Heaven.

Add to that difficulty, the fact that external software instruments and DAWs and such are still stuck at MIDI resolution, so you don't yet have a virtuous circle where the resolution of the eigenharp can be full expressed through the entire ecosystem of plugins and electronic sound engines.

Right now, the players are early adopters. And who is a candidate early adopter? Well I can see already that programmers are drawn to it. Why? We are comfortable with technology. We are drawn to the pure technical innovation it represents. We make a decent income and can afford it. We are already geeks, so we are not afraid to be labeled one? This is challenging because maybe it would be better to have early adopters that were "musicians" first and foremost. I think this will happen, but it will take time, and time is expensive.

Now the good news is that Eigenlabs seems to be fairly well funded and capable of riding the curve. If you can make a business with early adopters, then hopefully you can cross the chasm.

The one thing I do wish for is for the promise of open-sourcing the software to be realized, as that has enormous benefits for building a community of contributors to the platform. If your early adopters are programmers, that's a lot of talent that could be working for you. John Lambert, the chairman of Eigenlabs has already promised that this will happen although it is already 5 months behind schedule while details and licensing are worked out. I believe that this will be critical to their long term success. I do believe John when he says he is absolutely committed to doing it.

As I have said before, this is a wonderfully expressive instrument. It's a joy to play and I hope that we will see better and better things come out of it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

New Spectralis SoundBank - Analog Modulars 2010

This weekend I created my first soundbanks for the Spectralis II. Big deal right? What's significant about this is that I've finally come full circle to how I got started with synthesizers in the first place. The Spectralis was my first really serious synth. In hindsight it wasn't a great first choice since the depth of the machine requires someone who actually knows something about subtractive synthesis to get the most out of it. So I was pretty lost for a good long while. But some knowledge did trickle in and I read a lot of books, played around with other simpler synths, both hardware and software. I got involved with the monome and writing software and doing all sorts of other audio projects. The Spectralis languished.

During this time, I started building an analog modular synth and that was definitely the best learning experience I could ever have regarding subtractive synthesizers. Even though you can't save patches on the modular I did start getting in the habit of sampling patches that I liked before I tore them down. Fast forward a year and there is a growing list of sampled analog modular patches sitting here.

So to close the circle, I've gone back to the Spectralis which has suddenly opened up to me with my new found education. What was incomprehensible now makes perfect sense and I see the logic of this powerful machine.

The Spectralis has its own wonderful Analog/Hybrid voice (digital OSCs, true analog filters) which sounds as good as any modular on its own. This sample pack is not for that voice. This pack is for the three additional polyphonic digital synth voices that the Spectralis also packs inside it. These voices require a sampled audio source as raw material to work with. After that, you can adjust envelopes, filters, LFOs, pitch envelopes, pan, fx and many other parameters to sculpt the sound. Because these voices are digital, they can sound digital if the audio sources underneath are too predicable. Enter the modular.

This sample set is 400mb of analog oscillations that are raw and harmonically rich and unpredictable. Feeding these into the digital sections of the Specki give me a lot of raw analog clay to mold for additional voices. Notes may beat subtly out of perfect tune in a chord. Some patches are inharmonic or have large timbre changes across their range.

I quite like this idea and think this will be the first of more Soundbanks to get produced this way.

Its an almost 300mb download. If you have a Spectralis, you can get it here.

Analog Modulars 2010 - Spectralis Soundbank

Creative Commons License
Analog Modulars 2010 by bar|none is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hyper-Idiomatic Expression in Controllers

I came across this term today in a radio show on ImprovFriday. It was coined by one of the performers, Richard Bailey when describing his work which is wonderful. I encourage you to follow the link below.

Link is here:

Basic gist goes like so: Lots of music controllers are very good at certain distinct styles of performance, or at least impart the characteristics of the controller itself onto the music. While I'm not one to throw around academic and frankly obtuse terms for musical performance. It did get me thinking.

from Merriam-Webster

1. "of, relating to, or conforming to idiom"
2. "peculiar to a particular group, individual, or style"

"a style or form of artistic expression that is characteristic of an individual, a period or movement, or a medium or instrument"

Now the "hyper" part is debatable depending on the controller. Hyper being accentuated or extremely active.

If you look at classical musical instruments, their physical layout and properties whether, string, hammers on strings, wind, woodwind, percussion all play a vital role in how they are performed and also have influenced the styles of music that they are associated with.

There isn't a music controller in existence that leaves no trace of it's physical, mechanical and technical characteristics on the music it produces. Some have suggested the keyboard is so adaptable and can make any sound whether sampled or generated that it is such a device.

Yes, keyboards use the black and white keys of a piano which have a certain structure and pitch layout modelled after the western notion of tones and half tones. The act of striking the key does not have the same effect as breath or strumming or the physical properties of strings. It definitely is ideomatic of certain styles. There may be many styles but the instrument itself did play a part and does impart a footprint of it characteristics on the music itself.

Eigenharp is similar, it has the ability to sound like almost any instrument, it has the addition of breath controller and strip controllers for things like bowing a cello or violin. Yet even it has properties that will leave a distinct footprint over time. The fingering of the keys, their percussive nature, similar to a keyboard but different with multiple control axis. The fact that you can glide across the keys, make large movements in pitch and octave within a hands reach. Adapt the fingerboard to different scales and tunings. Yet even this adaptability can't play guitar like a guitar. I will influence the music and become idiomatic of some styles that are peculiar to itself.

Monome: The blank slate controller. The methods of interaction and the model of such exist in software. It can be a sample slicer, looper, keyboard, video controller, robot controller, whatever. Yes it makes music. It's even good at it. It does impart its idioms on the performance. Certain styles are dominant, the keys are strictly on/off so key velocity doesn't really work which forms the basis and bounds of the performance.

This Brings Me to Vagueness

Vagueness being the degree of predicability of interacting with the instrument and knowing the exact sound that will come out, based on having heard the instrument but not knowing how it is setup when walking up to it.

Ok, so on the vague'O'meter, we have the piano being slanted towards the non-vague side. I walk up to a piano, I hit a key and I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to get.

Keyboard, middle of the road. I may have an idea of the pitch, basic velocity of a hit, etc...but I am unsure of what patch is loaded. Once I know the loaded sound, I can probably play a known chord pretty easily unless someone has done a strange key mapping.

Eigenharp, same as keyboard. Slightly more vague, the fingerboard may be mapped to any scale even microtonal.

Monome: Way vague. Not only do I not know what sound will come out. I might not even get a sound, cause maybe the key I press changes a setting or maybe it's not even controlling sound. There may be some pattern of multiple presses I need to unlock to do something like reslice a loop. Maybe I just raised the curtains on stage.

Now the reason for taking the vague'0'meter test is to make a point.

Here it is:

"The younger you are, the more likely you are to be comfortable with or exposed to vagueness and accepting of such as constituting a performance"

Ok, a lot of older people totally grock vague controllers. But in general, if someone has not been exposed to these concepts they can be very difficult to grasp. Since these concepts are now more prevalent, we have more exposure and acceptance. Just try explaining a monome to an 80 year old that is used to going to the symphony. The 1:1 connection between the instrument and the idiom is not as strong. Likewise the concept of a performance also is spread on a vague'0'meter. For example, the connection of a piano to a musical performance is not vague. It's very linear and 1:1. The concept of a performance by scratching a turntable, playing a prerecorded record is more vague. There are certain prejudices and barriers involved in connecting a vague controller to a performance.

One last thought here and this is regarding the monome. Even though the monome is at the high end of the vagueness scale, there is a 1:1 connection between seeing a performer hitting a simple button and that button affecting a sound or performance. Even though our brains can handle abstract complex vague controllers, we still want to see the physical connection of human to controller to cause and effect. And the pretty lights don't hurt.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Dream of Iceland

I spent the day yesterday a prisoner in my house. We had a nasty layer of solid ice on everything. The bamboo in the yard looked like an ice sculpture. Winters here are the impetus for a lot of creative endeavors that we're too busy in the summer to make time for.

This was a perfect time followup my recent review of the Eigenharp Alpha with a video performance. I've only had it for a very short time so actually playing it with skill is going to take awhile. In my head I was imagining myself as Pat Metheny playing midi guitar back in the day, but of course I'm not and will never be.

The benefits of using the monome with the eigenharp should be apparent in this video. While you can control a lot from the eigenharp itself, or at least that is the promise, the monome is still king in that area. The eigenharp is the king of expression. Sounds that you may have thought seemed stagnant come alive.

One thing that should not be overlooked is how amazing it is to be able to play different scales on a grid. I've known this from monome apps like SevenUpLive but when you add an expressive controller like the Eigenharp in the equation, I feel that the possibilities are quite amazing. The difference is that rather than using years of muscle memory to play within a scale on a chromatic instrument, you are instead able to make the connection between where you want to go and getting there faster. I'm sure this can be debated. You can change the scales and tonic on the fly. So if you now how things will sound going from one to the other, the sonic connections I think can happen faster than what we've been used to doing which is learning scales for years on end.

I'm sure watching this video will not convince you of that. There was a lot going on and I hamfisted it a bunch. I still believe it to be true and I think we will see some amazing things come out of this instrument. Stay tuned.

A Dream of Iceland from bar|none on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

First Impressions of the Eigenharp Alpha

I was lucky enough to recently acquire an Eigenharp Alpha. I'm definitely one of the first which shows also that I had absolutely no self-control when this beasty was announced and was one of their very first orders right after the announcement. Well it has arrived and I've spent just a few days with it and here are the first impressions.

The Instrument

The instrument itself is stunning. The wood, the finish, the metal. Everything is indeed very high-end quality wise. I was actually concerned that the instrument would be almost too light weight when I read the specs but in fact it feels just right and well balanced.

The case is excellent and custom form fitted to the instrument. You could pack it on a plane no problem. The case is very long and so is the harp.

There is a leather strap that is quite unique with a rotating center metal bezel that clips into the harp so it can rotate at your waist if you want to stand while playing. Personally, so far I prefer using the floor spike and sitting or standing with it that way. I understand now why there is a floor spike. This is not a guitar, you don't just user your left hand on the frets and your right for strumming. In fact you use both hands for playing the buttons. This ergonomic fact makes it very comfortable to play with the floor spike and it feels very natural after awhile. If you've ever wanted to play a standing bass, this is right up your alley although it's not like playing a bass either.

The Buttons

Ok, this is the magic, the secret sauce, the real stuff. The buttons are magic. No really they are. They are so sensitive, it really needs touching to believe it. It takes a very light press to trigger and normal playing is a very light touch, especially after the first attack. Players who are new, death grip the buttons and that's where you hear pitch changes, since the x,y,z control kicks in at that point. For midi playing, I really want to just turn off the pitch wheel since it's too crude in midi anyway whereas with the native instruments and sound fonts, you can do wonderful things like vibrato/tremelo, if you've got the chops. You can also use these for other sound aspects like filter control, effect control, whatever.

Back to the buttons. They are so sensitive that it takes effort to hit them without triggering a note at a very soft velocity, yet they do not false trigger which is amazing, since I would think even shaking the instrument might trigger a button. Compare this with the force needed to hit a piano or synth key and you will understand that playing this will not only be different, but will have totally new capabilities for the player regarding speed and range of notes played. Since I can choose to use a chromatic mode or any of 80 scales, you can really cover a lot of notes easily and quickly, with a lot of control. I can do the scale thing on the monome, but I can't do it with the expressiveness that this instrument provides.

Bowing the cello is one of my favorites so far. Basically this can done two ways. You can use the large strip controller on one side of the Alpha for long strokes on the bow, OR move your finger slightly and quickly for tremelo of the bow. You can also hammer on/off the strip for tremelo which is probably easier and just as convincing. The second way is to use one of the percussion buttons on the bottom. This highlights how damn sensitve these buttons are. By gliding a finger from one side of the button to the other, you have the same control as the strip controller, but on a small button. You can use a very light touch.

I love how if the cello mode is on especially and I pick up the eigenharp it mutters and squeaks a bit just as an electric guitar does when picked up on stage. That is the sound of an instrument that wants to be played with expression and can be played with skill. Of course there is a dedicated button at the bottom that turns off input when you don't want accidental presses to make a sound.

You can select to play multiple instruments at one time. These could, be the native modelled instruments, sound fonts, Audio Unit plugins or midi and you can layer all of them. For example, layer a grand piano, cello and a synth pad. Because the cello needs to be bowed to play, you can bring it into the mix in a subtle way. Really incredible range of playing just by using different techniques.

The Hardware

The base station is good quality and burly. The instrument cord is high quality and plugs into the bottom of the Alpha. Nice thing, is there is just one cord. So you can walk around same as with an electric guitar. This really makes it a stage instrument. The protocol and technology that delivers so much data over this single mini XLR type connection is amazing.

The Software

OK, this is where it gets muddy. EigenD runs as a menu bar icon in OS X. It has very little UI per say and can run headless (no UI). The important part is really the core software engine and what little UI is in eigenD is a bolt on. It's definitely not going to work like you are used to working in a DAW or other music software. There is a browser window. But this is where the paradigm get weird. The browser is more informational than meant to be a UI that you would operate with a mouse. I would almost prefer that they pick one paradigm and stick with it, rather than part mouse control and part instrument control of what the UI is displaying, because this is confusing for sure. The software is designed to be controlled from the instrument itself. It's clear that was the original design and the UI seems hastily thrown on. I get the on instrument control part though and it is very powerful. Basically I compare this to monome software. You have a range of buttons and you interact with the software by using buttons to change modes etc. You need to bite the bullet and spend a day with this and get familiar with it because this is the way you interact with the software, the Browser UI is really a crutch. On instrument is excellent because you can get away from the computer entirely and play it as the instrument it is meant to be. There are holes however, mixer controls are avaliable on the instrument for example, and when you are changing values, there is no on instrument feedback at the moment, so you really need to look at the computer screen to see the value. Also, when you use Audio Units, you can't just do everything in the EigenD UI, you actually need to use the on instrument control on the Alpha to make the proper Audio Unit UI pop up on the computer. This is what I mean by mixed controls, interacting with a computer UI from the instrument itself. I do think that they will sort this out and it's partially because the UI part of the software is coming late and it feels very beta still, but progress is happening fast and they are obviously committed to making it better and better. Yes, if you buy one, you are an early adopter. This is high tech stuff and kudos for eigenlabs to have the balls to ever attempt what they are doing.

So back to the software. There are a few classes of instruments. Native modelled instruments like the cello, clarinet and piano. SoundFonts where eigenD can play sampled instruments. Then AudioUnits which are hosted in EigenD. You also can use AudioUnit effects. You have two effect slots avail that can be placed in front of any instrument and mixer controls for all these pieces. You also have midi instruments where eigenD simply sends midi, usually this would go to you DAW or an external midi instrument. In the case of the can't host Volta in eigenD because it requires a multitrack setup that uses side chain audio and there is no support for this in eigenD, so I pipe midi from eigenD to Ableton Live. This actually works OK, I have velocity and aftertouch velocity easily to use for controlling different aspects on the modular. A native CV controller however would be the bomb and I really hope they get around to releasing one. It would be amazing to have that kind of resolution with the modular.


I'm very happy so far. The playability is amazing. There are different levels of control. You have most control over the modelled instruments, next the soundfonts, then the AUs, the the midi. Even though we get reduced to midi at the bottom level, it is still extremely viable and just the velocity control and touch of the keys alone is enough to make the playability something extremely special.

The software still needs refinement. The was a product locked in secrecy for years. Now they need to expose it to the whims of the public. This is an important phase to listen to users but still stay true to the design and adapt to how the instrument wants to really be used by players.

The underlying software engine seems solid which is the core and heart of the system. The on instrument control is really what this is about. EigenD uses a special scripting language to create configurations called belecanto. Right now the configurations are presets but in the future, you can deeply customize your setups using it. The presets on the alpha will keep you busy for a long time though, so it's not really an issue.

The other aspect is playing the instrument itself. This is an instrument that on one hand you can do some amazing stuff out of the box, way more than say you had never touched a keyboard before and you are trying one for the first time. I mean that is really a good comparison. I know that over time I will be able to play this much more proficiently than I will ever play the keyboard. Guitar players rejoice...this is for you. But it is not guitar exactly either. So it is an instrument that you will need to learn to play. Some people don't want this. DJ's you might want to take a pass.

More Info

The Sound On Sound article from Nov 09 I felt had the most information and was also the most fair and truthful in it's assessment. Read it if you want to know more.

A Dream of Iceland from bar|none on Vimeo.