Buchla’s pioneering Thunder touch controller is back, on Sensel Morph

Software and hardware are finally becoming more responsive to expression from more than one finger at a time, via MPE. But how do you get those sounds under your hands? Sensel Morph is one answer. And now it has an appealing layout from one of the people who shaped synthesis – Don Buchla.

Human hands are pretty incredibly sensitive, capable ways of interacting with the world. And your brain – even untrained – has enormous capacity to imagine sound. So why is it that we’re still limited to simple grids of buttons and organ keyboards? (Nothing against those things, of course, they’re fine – but is that all there is?)

The answer to this has always boiled down to some chicken and egg arguments. You don’t have the hardware to control sounds. You don’t have software capable of making sounds for which you’d want more control. There isn’t a standard way of connecting the two. Even if there were, there wouldn’t be enough adoption.

And so the argument continued, in circles. And it was actally true – for a while. But now, software instruments from Sculpture in Apple’s Logic to the Moog and PPG apps on iPad to Softube and Cherry Audio software modulars have MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) support, which allows for more control information between your controller and your sounds. Hardware like Black Corporation Deckard’s Dream and various Eurorack modules do, too, so you can really get your Vangelis fantasies on. And sounds like physical modeling or granular synthesis or even just rich polyphonic patches suddenly make sense when you can intuitively connect all that finger sensitivity to electronic instruments.

That just leaves the missing link – finding a hardware interface you like. ROLI are big advocates, yes, as are some smaller boutique makers. But what if you don’t like those options? (Musicians certainly don’t agree about … anything.)

Sensel’s Morph is a compelling new option now for several reasons. It’s an affordable computer accessory. And while the sensor is a flat rectangle – looking a lot like a mousepad – you can swap overlays to give it different functions. (Joué have taken essentially the same approach.) Sensel in particular have unparalleled support for different third party use cases. There are overlays for various apps – from music production to video editing – so you don’t have to buy this just for the novelty of doing weird things with synths. (Yeah, the fact that you just change overlays and get some edits done in Premiere makes this a lot easier to justify as a purchase and as another thing taking up space on your desk.)

Okay, that handles a lot of rational reasons to consider this device. But to really feel passionate about something as an instrument, you actually need one layout that you stick with, and it has to resonate emotionally.

So here’s the interesting development. Sensel have partnered with Buchla U.S.A. to recreate a classic instrumental interface that might have just been a bit ahead of its time.

Don Buchla conceived the Thunder in 1989. The layout makes loads of sense — diagonal strips give you continuous control, but with guides that match a resting hand position and put controls where your hands would go. It’s a layout that looks like something out of Star Trek – and, well, it also proved to be mostly speculative, because few were made and there wasn’t at the time as much for it to control.

Now times have changed – both hardware and software are far more powerful, meaning they’re capable of generating the sort of real-time nuance that demands this sort of control. And apart from that, whereas for years Buchla’s designs languished because they seemed foreign, now more and more people seem to be ready to make weird and complex sounds.

It seems like the Thunder is poised for a comeback, that is. The Thunder overlay, combined with the Morph sensor, gives you 27 different continuously-sensitive note areas. That’s already useful for conventional MIDI, but with MPE you get independent values for velocity (how hard you initially hit it), how hard you’re pressing down at any given moment, and how quickly you release. You can bend notes by subtly shifting your fingers sideways, or map timbral parameters to position.

Buchla’s 1989 hardware. There have also been touch version for modular.

A pre–production prototype of the new overlay – final production run looks better, Sensel tells us. Courtesy the manufacturer, for CDM.

It’s also encouraging that Sensel involved Buchla designer/engineer Joel Davel. Joel has unparalleled bona fides on both the engineering and artistic side, having made circuits for Don from 1995 onward, and working as a composer and instrumentalist with ongoing collaborations with Amy X Neuburg and Paul Dresher. The recent history of electronic music is defined by nothing if not the spread of once-esoteric ideas from limited elite contexts to wider groups of curious minds. So even though this may be a piece of rubber you slap on a rectangle on your desk, it also represents the potential of some of those ideas getting in the hands of new people.

And you can do all of this for US$269 – preorders now, shipping in April. (If you’ve already got Sensel, the overlay alone will cost you US$59 – so that overlay scheme is definitely less costly than buying new hardware every time you want to do something a little different.)

Anything that has a USB port will work with this – so computer software is the natural companion, though if you have a USB host device that outputs control voltage, you can also hook it up to a modular. If you want to see it in action and you’re in Anaheim, Sensel are demoing the hardware and overlay at NAMM this year.

So sure, this won’t be for everyone. And yeah, it still looks like you’ve invested in a Klingon gamepad. But for the cost of a plug-in, you can now use this – and add some productivity on the side as you mix or edit in other applications.

I should have one to test. I’ve worked with the Morph – the sensing and physical experience are great – so now I’m just waiting to see what it’s like using this as an instrument. And I look forward to doing some practicing.

Announcing the Buchla Thunder Overlay [Sensel Blog]

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Haken’s ContinuuMini is expressive, post-keyboard sound for $899

Want some evidence that the future of expressive digital instruments and MPE is bright? Look to Haken’s ContinuuMini, which emerged over last year, bringing greater portability and a US$899 price to the out-there controller.

Forget anything else, and listen to this gorgeous video (using a clever setup with an Onde acoustic resonator*:

Why does the ContinuuMini matter?

Expression really is a combination of sound and physical control. Say what you will about piano keyboards (and some electronic musicians who hate them certainly do) – the reason an acoustic piano is still expressive has to do with the sound of a piano.

So when we talk about MPE, a scheme for allowing polyphonic expression through MIDI, we’re really talking about allow greater depth in the connection of physical gestures and sound.

If this is going to catch on, it’ll require more than one vendor. I think it’s wrong to assume MPE’s future, then, is tied solely to ROLI as a vendor. From the start, MPE was an initiative of a range of people, from major software developers (Apple, Steinberg) to hardware inventors (ROLI, but also Roger Linn and Randy Jones of Madrona Labs, for instance).

And Haken Audio has been a boutique maker pushing new ways of playing for years – including with MPE on their Continuum. The Continuum may look arcane in photos, but feeling it is a unique experience. The ribbon feels luxurious – it’s actually soft fabric. And the degree of control is something special. But it’s also enormous and expensive – and that means a lot of people can’t buy it, or can’t tour with it since it won’t fit in an overhead.

I believe that what makes an instrument is really finding that handful of people to do stuff even the creators didn’t expect, so if you can lower those barriers for even a run of a few hundred units, you could have a small revolution on your hand.

That’s what Haken have done with ContinuuMini, which closed crowd sourcing late last year and has started shipping of the first hardware.

Here’s what sets it apart:

It’s a Continuum. Well, first, nothing else feels like a Continuum. That feeling may not be for everyone, but it’s still significant as a choice.

It’s continuous. Because you aren’t limited by frets or keys, there’s a continuous range of sound. This is a controller you’ll want to practice, finding intonation with muscle memory and your ear. And there are artists who will want that subtlety.

It has internal sound. Like its larger sibling the ContinuuMini has an internal sound engine. That means that it’s not just a controller. Haken have conceived control and sound in a single, unified design. You can play it without connecting other stuff. And the builders have worked on both the physical and aural experience of what they’ve made. I think that’s significant to anyone making an investment, particularly in an age in which abstract controller hardware tends to stack in our closets.

It’s 8-voice polyphonic, as well. The ContinuuMini isn’t just a controller: it’s a complete, gorgeous polysynth and a controller, for this one price.

It connects to other gear, without software. Bidirectional digital control – MIDI, with MPE, MPE+ – and bidirectional control voltage analog (with converter) are possible. That means you can play the ContinuuMini with gear and software (like recording MIDI and MPE in your DAW for playback), and likewise the ContinuuMini can control your software and gear. There are also two pedal inputs so your feet can get in on the action.

It’s only a quarter kilogram. 9 oz. You can tote the bigger ones with a case but – the ContinuuMini is incredibly portable.

It feels like an extraordinary development.


* Synthtopia has a great, in-depth interview on the Onde and Pyramid, acoustic resonators that make an electronic instrument feel more like an instrument and less like “something disconnected that produces sound through speakers” as with conventional monitors:

La Voix Du Luthier & The New Shape Of Electronic Sound

The post Haken’s ContinuuMini is expressive, post-keyboard sound for $899 appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

ROLI Cypher2 Combines Circuit-Modeled Synthesis With MPE

Cypher2 is an analog-modeled synthesizer with an emphasis on advanced sound design and expressive performance. … Read More ROLI Cypher2 Combines Circuit-Modeled Synthesis With MPE

Audio Damage Intros Quanta, A Multi-Platform, MPE-Ready Granular Synthesizer

It offers powerful synthesis controls, MPE support, cross-platform patch sharing and a deep collection of presets. … Read More Audio Damage Intros Quanta, A Multi-Platform, MPE-Ready Granular Synthesizer

The Touché, adding expression to synths – just in time for Moogfest

After years of somewhat similar wheels and pads and keys that wiggle, we’re finally seeing the ability to get physically expressive with sound in new ways. The Expression E Touché is one of the most compelling cases of that – but to understand, you have to watch, and listen.

So the French company and its fearless young leader Arthur Bouflet have cleverly taken Moogfest as a chance to do just that.

You’ll spot the wooden paddle-looking device beneath Arthur’s hand. It’s something that looks simultaneously vintage and historical and futuristic – a design object whose origin and time can’t quite be placed. And your first reaction, probably, is some skepticism – until you watch just how sensitive and intuitively gestural it is. You may or may not be taken with Arthur’s musical sensibilities – hey, I find it rather cheery and groovy, myself – but pay close attention to the gestures that are possible with it, and I think you’ll be impressed.

There’s more than one connection here to Moogfest, the festival-cum-technology meetup coming to North Carolina this week. There’s the custom, limited edition overlay for festival goers, yes, and the fact that Expressive E are going to the festival themselves. But the company have also made great effort to make custom presets for loads of gear, Moog’s equipment included. So that includes apps (Moog Model D for iOS), and hardware (DFAM, Subsequent 37, just to name two in the video).

It’d be hard to demo an expression or sustain pedal, but there’s no need. And it’s easy enough to map those two inputs to any synth. Open-ended, gestural expression is something else – there’s some prep work involved. Hats off, then, to Expressive E for both making an exhaustive library of presets and producing lovely-looking video demos to show why this all matters. (They’ve even mapped our MeeBlip synth.)

With USB, CV, and, MIDI connections, there are all sorts of possibilities for connecting to instruments – hardware and software, digital and analog. And all of these connect to the high-resolution sensing data from the Touché.

I’ll do a full review of this hardware soon, with some advice for DIYers and musicians. But in the meanwhile, these videos really get the point across.

In the age of MIDI Polyphonic Expression, you’ll see a lot of new controllers adding dimension to the inputs they read. And that makes it clearer than ever that part of what was holding back more expressive electronic musicianship was simply the common standard to describe a wider range of human performance.

But this particular hardware is special, in that it suddenly opens up sound where it had once been static. Uh… well, the name fits. Touché.

Let’s watch some more, featuring Dave Smith and Ableton and Mutable and Novation and more:

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