I've had the Yamaha Tenori On for about five days now, so these are first thoughts. Summary version: It's awesome that this thing exists, that Toshio Iwai got a chance to make it. It's intuitive (in the pic on the right, Alex isn't just jabbing buttons, he's holding down a function key and selecting sounds). Does that mean you'll want to spend £599 buying one for yourself? Well, I can think of better ways to spend the money. Epic list of pros and cons after the jump. I'd also recommend Sonic State's video review if you want something more in-depth and less opinionated.
The good things:
1. It's unique. Almost every part of it - the shape, the look, the interface, the sound - is unlike anything else I've ever seen.
2. It's fantastic that Yamaha used a tiny slice of their profits from selling electric pianos and workstations to let Toshio Iwai get his dream manufactured and into the shops. Even if it's only in a few record shops in Britain at the moment. It must have cost them a lot, and it's the kind of thing that's normally left to passionate enthusiasts.
3. It's a complicated, sophisticated little machine. It's self contained, with a real operating system, a detailed display and so on. I LOVE that it has batteries and speakers. It's slightly unfair to compare it with the sexier, cheaper Monome, which is essentially a bunch of switches and lights in a pretty box, with all the heavy lifting done by the computer.
4. 16x16 step sequencing is great - very fast, intuitive, fun way to enter beats and chords.
5. It uses a clever key/scale system, which makes it even easier to enter notes. You can really just doodle with your finger and make something which sounds roughly like music.
6. In the dark, it looks incredible. The lights on the back look ace. Play it in the evening near a window and watch the reflections.
7. Many of the sounds are great - there's a definite Toshio Iwai sound, if you liked Elektroplankton, you'll like these. Warm and organic and original.
8. It's great while running on batteries - very compact, quick to load, nice to sit on the sofa and fiddle. The weight of 6xAA batteries also makes it feel a bit more sturdy.
9. Choosing presets with one key for each sound = Very nice. (I can see where Art Lebedev is coming from)
And yet... the bad things:
1. No getting away from it. It looks and feels like a toy. The main buttons don't feel great, and they all rattle. It may be deliberate, so you can run your fingers across a row, but it feels cheap cheap cheap.
2. I think the main chassis is aluminum, but coated in so much plasticy varnish that it looks and feels like plastic.
3. Maybe a third of the 256 sounds are non-great General Midi sounds - piano, strings, bagpipes(?).
4. There's no touch sensitivity, and I haven't found any easy way to add any dynamics apart from track mixing - which can only be automated in the 'record song' system.
5. There's no hardware volume control. You have to fish in a menu to change it.
6. It's designed for people with four thumbs. If you're holding the thing in both hands, you can reach the 'shift' buttons, but then can't reach the main buttons, so you have to put it down.
7. It's absolutely not a synth. You can't modify any of the internal sounds in any way - no filters, envelopes etc. They're mostly very short one-shot samples (some loop, and a few evolve interestingly). There are no musical sequences or loops.
8. Every note is fixed length across the sequence. You can't have a long and a short note together in any sequence. You can't slide or tie notes together in any way, even in the real time 'draw' mode.
9. It feels a bit churlish to say it, but the effects are hopeless - a reverb and a chorus/flanger, both master effects on the mix - and both on by default.
10. The MIDI out works - it was quite fun hooking it up to four channels on the Nord G2 and triggering sounds. It sends MIDI clock, but doesn't seem receive it (The manual is ambiguous, says it recieves clock, but also says it only syncs to another Tenori - anyone experimented with this more?). I briefly connected it to the MPC, which would have been great, except the notes ouputted didn't play nicely with my programs, so... it would be a blah to make a workaround.
But most of all... It costs £599. That's $1,200. I can understand there are reasons for the price - a limited run, a more sophisticated machine than most boutique gear. But if they're selling this as an ultra-luxe treat for geeks, then it has to look and feel sexy and expensive. It doesn't. Yes, the comparison with the Monome is slightly unfair, but I suspect it would be a simple job to recreate all the Tenori functions on a Monome.
Many of my objections might be fixable with a software upgrade, but I suspect the Tenori is in a tricky place: I don't know if it's really lovable enough to be on every rich kid's Christmas list, and I'm pretty sure it's not geeky enough to be on mine. Which is a real shame. Most importantly, it's a really good lesson for geeks like me. It's easy to complain that big synth companies never do anything innovative or exciting. Then one comes along and does exactly that, and we're left saying 'not good enough'. Which is a real shame. But feeling sympathetic to Yamaha and Toshio Iwai wouldn't make me spend £599 on this.