Yamaha Tenori On review: Many good things, many bad

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.

Christmas Gift Guide 2007 pt 1: Price No Object

Buying Christmas presents for music geeks must be a nightmare. If you're rich and generous, this list might help. The guide continues with more affordable bits later this week.
1. Elektron Monomachine MkII The ultimate all-in one boutique synth, and it will look great on any coffee table. $1440 / €1290 direct from Elektron.
2. Something from Vince Clarke's studio For a long time, Vince Clarke has had the most awesome looking studio in the world. Now he's moved to Maine, and is selling off all his gear. eBay link
3. Recording The Beatles This book is a vast, beautifully-produced labour of love. Comes in a slipcase that looks like a reel of tape. It's $100 plus $52 shipping to the UK (Ouch!). Recording the Beatles.
4. A synth subscription Every month, you'll get a new module to build into a midi-controlled analog synth. The addiction to new modules comes free. $120/month for 12 months from Synthesizers.com
5. DSI Prophet '08 It's black. It's knobby. It's analogue. It's got so many twinkly lights, you won't need a Christmas tree. US: $1999 from Analogue Haven Europe: £1412 from Thomann
6. Tenori On I was a bit underwhelmed, but as a Christmas gift, it's unbeatable... US: Not available. Europe: £599 from Dolphin Music or Rubadub.
7. Little Boy Blue Modular Synth Its a sexy little battery-powered synth built by Jessica Rylan. $395 direct from Flower Electronics.
8. Manikin Memotron A gloriously unnecessary digital Mellotron. Possibly the most stylish synth available (all white lacquer). US: $2,699 from AH Europe: £1412 from Thomann
9. Monome 128 It's a beautiful wooden box, with 128 light-up buttons on top. It's a lot cooler than it sounds. $800, shipping from 14th Dec, Monome.org
10. Dan Armstrong Plexiglass Guitar Imagine finding that under your tree... US $1,399 from Pedal Geek UK £1069 from Dolphin Music
11. Nord Wave Huge, awesome Swedish-made megasynth with wavetables, FM and analog modelling. £1395 from Dolphin Music


Ezra Buchla, king of all geeks

Here is a flikr set of Ezra Buchla, (son of Don Buchla) rocking his 200e with two Monome controllers and two laptops. Ezra is part of the Monome development team, and plays with Mae-Shi. Damn, those Buchlas are small and cute. (The 200e, not Ezra...)

The Monome MIDI controller is real

Before you read on, watch this video [QT] - without seeing the thing in action, it's just a box covered in buttons... A year ago, I wrote about the Bitbox, a wooden box covered in buttons and LEDs, which worked as a very cool sample-triggering device, a bit like the perfect hardware controller for Ableton Live. The Bitbox is now the Monome, and they're currently building a first batch of 8x8 boxes for $500 (sample development blog entry: "2/23/05: today we ordered thirteen thousand diodes from digikey"). The box connects to a computer via USB, and is then pretty much open source. Various people (including Ezra Buchla, son of Don) are developing applications using MIDI and OSC - "The wonderful thing about this device is that is doesn't do anything really. it wasn't intended for any specific application. we'll make several, and others will make more. we hope to share as many of these as possible. drum machines, loopers, 1bit video transformers, physics models, virtual sliders, math games, etc." If nothing else, the upcoming 16x16 grid model will be the greatest xoxox drum pattern programmer ever made...

Audio Damage Automaton: 'Game of Life' vs glitch

This video makes me smile whenever I watch it. It's so clever, and so bonkers, and so much more fun than almost any other plugin I've seen. It's the first look at Automaton, the new thing from Audio Damage - a glitch/buffer override effects unit controlled by cellular automata a bit like Conway's Game of Life. Since starting again with Logic, the only 3rd party plugins I've used have been from Audio Damage, because they look incredible and sound right. If Automaton is getting you interested in Cellular Automata, you'll enjoy this clip of game of life running on a half-built Monome.

Handmade USB-powered felt-covered calculator synth

It's like the whole 2007 zeitgeist rolled into one. Last month, Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree, who are part of the collective who created the awesome and now-sold-out Monome, ran a four week workshop in LA called 'Felt Circuits'. They started by making vegetable dyes, then used them to dye wool which was then hand-rubbed into felt. Then they designed, etched and populated noise-making circuit boards which were then put into the felt creatures. Lots of Flickr pics of the process here. Kelli writes: "Here's the creature I made during the class to show each step... a roughly 8"x 6" calculator. it plugs into the usb port [for power] and makes a bunch of noise when you touch the metal contacts sewn on the bottom." There are not immediate plans for more Felt+Circuits workshops, although a NYC run could be possible.

Flame Echometer and Six-in-a-row - awesome experimental sequencers

Last year's most covetable boutique synth was probably the Flame Talking Synth - a little tweakable Midi speech synthesizer. For 2008/9, Flame have just announced two more beautiful little switch & knob-covered boxes (click on 'Preview 2008'). The Echometer seems to be a live-oriented sequencer, triggering loops from three red buttons, while Six-in-a-row is a bank of backlit, sequence-able buttons, like a self-contained Monome, or a boutique, midi-only Tenori-On. No word on prices or availability yet, but be sure to look at the Flame 'Projekte' page to see a whole mass of awesome handmade instruments. (via Matrix Synth)

Nintendo DS hacked into cool wireless MIDI controller

UPDATE: Here is the download.
This is what German hacker/student/musician Tob, who created the cool NitroTracker old-school tracker app for the DS has been working on: Software to turn put easy-to-use MIDI into the Nintendo DS using WiFi. Previously, you've had to use hardware. The DS obviously sucks as a keyboard, but is great as a little X-Y controller like a Kaoss Pad, and presumably there's no reason why he can't build a simple XOX drum programmer, a little Lemur clone, or even a virtual Monome. Tob is still developing the software - as you can see from the video, it's in a pretty early stage - but it will be released ASAP. And even if you don't have a DS, stick with this video long enough to hear the guy playing 'We Will Rock You' though the onboard sounds... (via the wonderful Robot Porn blog, which is currently building a MIDI Keytar. Thanks Philip)

Anonymous reader's cool DIY touch-screen interface

In the comments for this post about multi-touch interfaces, an anonymous poster tells this story: "I got my hands on a [mono] touch screen and use it as a second monitor on my music PC. I wrote a drum grid editor thing (inspired by those little LED-button-covered boxes you reported on [the Monome?] that syncs with a midi device. Anyhow, it's very cool to use." Slightly bigger picture here. UPDATE: He says "It's totally free if anybody else has a touch screen and wants it (it'll work on a non-touch screen too, of course)." I'll post a link as soon as he sends one.
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