What is a Thummer? And should I really care?

Patti writes: "Check this out. Sounds great, but what IS it?" It's the Thummer, an Austrialian musical instrument, which seems to be a Janko Keyboard of sorts. There are no pictures on the website, and at the moment it's little more than hype, a baffling powerpoint presentation, and OTT quotes from people I've never heard of saying things like "The emergence of the Piano had a huge influence on the course of musical history, and I believe that the Thummer will, too."

1,2,3,4, I declare a Thummer war. That'd be cool.
The Thummer people aren't big on photographs, I see.
steve jobs has said that citys will be built arround thummers.
I'm just glad that I can "become a legendary composer" or "become a legendary instrumentalist" just by clicking on a link on their site... to think I've been wasting all this time composing and playing when all I really had to do is go to their web page!
Well, one would have to assume that any photograph kind of "gives away the jewels" of the Thummers unique control surface...

But this just sounds like so much hype like when the POD was going to revolutionize the world, etc, etc...

Check out this comment:
"[Thumtronics] built on this work by recognizing that the combination of an equally-tempered scale and appropriately-adjusted timbres would be devoid of the commas that inevitably arise from the Harmonic Series. These commas have complicated music and confounded musicians for thousands of years. Banishing these commas is an important advance in music theory."

I believe he is referring to the 19 tone scale, which everyone seems to promise will make music theory understandable by dogs. (YMMV)

Well, that won't help you when you're playing that funny ol' 12 note stuff.

So we have a Janko type keyboard, with the ability to use alternate tunings. Revolutionary. Hopefully it will be half as successful as the "Omnichord".

Big question is, will it actually be a nice instrument with pressure sensitive keys, a good selection of ins/outs, and more than a Yahama PRS synth engine in it?? Generally these types of products get aimed at "Enthusiasts" and so are made cheaply, and hence never gain acceptance with professional musicians. (It was previously called the "Jammer"... Draw your own conclusions.)

If it's a quality package, I can see where it would be an awesome piece of kit to add to any Musician's studio, but it'll run 5-6 Grand for one.
This system bears a lot in common with barre chords on a guitar.

One of the things I've discovered recently is the open D Minor tuning, that lets me play major and minor chords much more simply. This system has a similar applicability.

Personnally, I like it. It makes a lot of sense to me. It makes fundamental musical concepts a part of my "muscle memory" that applies to all keys.
Well, I read through the 130+ page Powerpoint presentation under ThumSolFa and it shows the key layout but not the rest of the instrument. There's a chart that says that it will REQUIRE a PC (I assume that means WinTel as this guy is a Micro$oft escapee) and that it transmits more data than any former synth ... little does he know how synths really work ... I'm having trouble caring yet.
Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a guitar lessons site.

Come and check it out later if you get time :-)
Wake me when the self-described revolution is over.
After a quick skim of the presentation, the Thummer key layout seems to be extremely similar to the Hayden Duet concertina button layout, but has a copy of the complete map available for each hand, rather than half of the notes played by the left hand and the other half played by the right.

Here it is, in poor ASCII art, the best I can do to get around the comment posting limits:


While it does have a high degree of isomorphism, I find that stretching my hand much wider to play a minor second than a major second to be very unintuitive. The Janko wins for me.
A little more to say:

1. I have no idea why they included B# and Fb in an otherwise 12-TET key layout. I didn't read far enough into the presentation to see if they meant for them to differ in pitch from C and E, respectively. The Bosanquet keyboard is a much more complete isomorphic layout for microtonal scales.

2. If you'd like to play with a software mapping of your qwerty keyboard into von Janko or Hayden layouts with MIDI output, check out my little [free, open source, win32] utility qwertymidi.
Still more:

Lest my previous comments mislead anyone, further reading shows I was wrong on an important point -- apparently the Thummer really is meant to be a microtonal instrument, not 12-TET. That means that the F# and Gb keys actually produce different pitches from one another. This is indeed different from the Hayden Duet concertina, which uses the standard equal temperment chromatic Western scale (12-TET).
From Thumtronics' CEO:

Great comments! :-)

To answer various questions raised:
1. No cities will be built around the Thummer. A couple of record labels, maybe...

2. No photographs of the Thummer are available because they would expose aspects of the instrument that are still confidential.

3. The Thummer is aimed squarely at the mainstream market, and therefore emphasizes 12-tone equal temperament (the tuning system used in pianos, guitars, the default on keyboard synths, etc.). However, the Thummer's keyboard has the SAME FINGERING in other interesting tunings, such as 7, 17, and 19-tone equal temperament, and can switch between these at the flip of a switch. This is not true of the guitar (which has to be re-fretted for alternate tunings) or the piano keyboard (which is a physical manifestation of 12-ET, and as such does not offer identical fingering in other tunings).

4. The Thummer keyboard includes buttons labelled Cb and E# -- despite these notes being enharmonic with B and F respectively in 12-ET -- because these “chromatic” spellings are correct when playing in very flat or very sharp keys, respectively. If, on the Thummer keyboard, one starts the geometric pattern of intervals that defines the diatonic major scale on Gb, then its fourth degree is labelled Cb; if one starts the same pattern on F#, its fourth degree is labelled B. In each case, the button is labelled with the correct spelling of the enharmonic note. As a side-effect, this pattern of note-naming is the same in 12-ET, 17-ET, and 19-ET, making these alternative tunings far easier to learn an understand on the Thummer than on the standard piano keyboard.

5. Yes, the claims made by the Thummers' reviewers DO sound "over the top." But then, so do the reports of billions of dollars worth of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, or hundreds killed in a stampede in Baghdad. Sometimes, truly extraordinary things happen. The Thummer's reviewers are just telling you the truth as they see it. Extraordinary products produce extraordinary reviews.

6. The Thummer provides both key velocity ("touch sensitivity") and polyphonic aftertouch (the latter being found in only the highest-end keyboard synths), under software control. It also provides control over four more degrees of freedom (e.g., pitch bend, vibrato, loudness, brightness). Controlling these variables does not interfere with playing melody and accompaniment (unlike a piano-style keyboard, in which you have to stop playing accompaniment to control pitch bend etc.).

7. Marty Heyman suggested that Thumtronics didn't know how synths really worked. Well, this may be true, although our lead software engineer, Dr. Leigh Smith -- the project lead on the open-source cross-platform "MusicKit" toolkit -- has a pretty strong background in that area. But our understanding of music synthesis is neither here nor there. We just need to understand how to make our computer-based software prune the Thummer’s raw data stream into MIDI or OSC (a more powerful MIDI-like instrument/synth interface protocol widely used in academia) at the user's discretion. Our support for these instrument/synth standards allows us to focus on building a great instrument, while leaving music synthesis for those who know it best.

8. divbyzero said that the Janko keyboard layout seemed more intuitive than the Thummer's keyboard layout. Of course, the Thummer's keyboard layout can be changed under software control, so divbyzero can use the Janko layout if he wishes. However, the Thummer's keyboard is quantifiably better than the Janko at both melody and harmony for all scales & tunings which are essentially tonal, specifically including the diatonic scale in 12-tone equal temperament, the most common scale & tuning in Western music. The ability of a Thummer-player to use a single fingertip to play single notes, perfect fourths, perfect fifths, suspended seconds, and suspended fourths, trumps the Janko hands-down for accompaniment, while providing a layout that is excellent for melody. On the Thummer keyboard, for example, the notes of the pentatonic scale (major or minor) are all mutually-adjacent. Improvising in pentatonic minor is very common, and can be done on the Thummer without the risk of hitting a wrong note.

9. In its first release, the Thummer is expected to be a USB-based computer peripheral. This allows it to control any software-based synth or hardware-based synth (through the computer's MIDI port). This allows purchasers of the Thummer to pay only for its unique strengths as an expressive, easy-to-learn controller, keeping its cost low. Rather than having a retail price of 5-6 THOUSAND dollars suggested by one commenter, we are targeting a price of just a few HUNDRED dollars, to make it easily affordable to any serious computer-based musician.

Thanks again for the excellent comments.

Jim Plamondon
CEO, Thumtronics Ltd
The New Shape of Music(tm)
is this new? The east-european accordian keyboard uses a wierd layout. I need to check out the differences. It goes back a little before the Janko.
I guess we need to see some proof or like a picture or something. I haven't even heard of this thing before until now and I still don't get it.

Usb? PC? Midi controller? I do have all of these. Why should I buy some vapourware?
High-bandwidth demos are now available on Google Video and at www.thummer.com, which also has the videos of the entire 45-minute ThumFest™ 2005 at which the Thummer(tm)-brand jammer was announced, described, and demonstrated.

A FAQ, forum, and a description of Thumtronics’ business model are also available.

Its reviews are as positive as ever. :-)
I just read the WSJ artical on the Thummer guy. He has developed, at the cost of mortgaging his home and usurping his childrens' college tuition, yet another fancy MIDI controller. This one has the equivalent of a volume pedal built into it - That you run with your thumb - Wow!
In the same artical there is a small inset photo of the Reactables. I saw the potential in those things over a year ago. Keep your eyes on the Reactables. The smart money says these things are going to change how music is both created and consumed.
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