Tenori Off: The unplugged, acoustic Tenori On

Kentaro writes with exciting DIY news from Japan: "TENORI-ON is one of the coolest electric musical device: it is portable, easy to play and good for audio-visual performance. But I have not purchased it yet because it is expensive and a shortage in Japan. That is the reason why I made an unplugged version of TENORI-ON, so-called 'TENORI-OFF'" Exemplary hacking skills, Kentaro.

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.

Live from the Tenori On launch in London

Well, I wasn't the Tenori On launch last night (babies!) but fortunately many people with YouTube accounts were. There's this interview with Toshio Iwai and a demo from Yamaha's Peter Peck here, and here's Toshio Iwai jamming on his music box. Over at Create Digital Music, Peter has been going a great job covering the Tenori On saga, as has Chris at Pixel Sumo, reporting a UK launch price of £599, which seems hella expensive, but - at this stage - the Tenori is a boutique, hand-made product. I'm sure if it takes off, they'll be churning them out in China for £69.99...
UPDATE: More interesting video from Sonic State.

Tenori-On & Scrambled Hackz live in Manchester

As part of the Futuresonic festival, the Instrument exhibition, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Castlefield, Manchester, is a bit like Music Thing Live. You can see the wonderful Scrambled Hackz, the so-weird-I-never-got-round-to-posting-it iLog, the first UK performance by Toshio Iwai with his Tenori-On. Best of all, Peter Hindle will be showing his Duelling Etch-a-Sketch project. The exhibition runs from 20-29th July, with the Tenori-On show on the 21st. Full details on the very trendy and hard to navigate website here. (Thanks, Sacha)

The Yamaha Tenori-On music box

Tenori-On is a new Yamaha prototype. It's a "personal digital instrument for playing sound and ambient light patterns." It has 256 light-topped buttons, stereo speakers, a scroll wheel, a few more buttons built into the frame, and some wireless function, so multiple Tenori-Ons can jam together. Looks awesome. Not many details, yet, but judging from the sine-wave blips on the Japanese Product Page, it could be the modern day Triadex Muse. More details at: WMMNA and Siggraph. (Thanks, Cikira) UPDATE: Here is a fantastically unhelpful movie. (via CDM)

The only Tenori On demo video you'll ever need to watch

The chaps at JBs Music in Tunbridge Wells have even more fun with the Tenori On than I did... (Thanks Alex)

Poo bum wee: More from the Tenori On launch

Dave Green (of the inestimable Snackspot) was at the Tenori On launch last night and captured this picture of how punters were actually using the £600 innovative alternative musical interface. I wonder if Yamaha are regretting launching in the UK... Incedentally, aren't those lights pretty?

Tenori-On video on YouTube

Awakened Yeti writes: "Hey man here is a 5 minute video of the Tenori-On in action, being demonstrated by the creator, Mr. Iwai - and as you can see its pretty freaking impressive... I've lusted after one of these things since I first heard about them on your site last year or so... It definitely looks like more than just a toy, however its still probably a longshot for this thing to actually make it to market... one can only hope." (First time I've posted an embedded YouTube clip. Let me know if it works OK.)

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)

Chimera BC16 mini synth review

After a week with the Chimera BC16, here's what I'm thinking...
The good bits:
1. Looks great, and feels fantastically well made.
2. Intuitive, fun, educational interface. You'll learn more about how synths work in a few hours with this than with years of VST plugins. My 5 yr-old son immeditately fell in love with it, making helicopters and sirens and turning the sound down, randomly turning knobs, then turning it up to see what came out. Nothing is labelled, so you have to listen.
3. It makes a huge range of noises. The digital multi-waveform oscillator will annoy purists, but it's versatile. A reasonably effective two-oscs-in-one system can sound pretty fat.
4. It's a quirky, unique synth, hand made in Britain and absolutely in the lineage of EMS, EDP, OSCar.
5. The sound is immediate, ballsy and gritty. Huge bass, huge brightness.
6. It's absolutely a real synth, not a toy. Compared with the Tenori On, this is a real (if simple) instrument. It makes any sound you can patch, not a bunch of presets.
6. It has no blue LEDs, but several red and green ones.
7. It's totally self contained - 6xAAA batteries last a few evenings. There is a power supply on the way (soon).
8. In theory, they can make these in any colour, including clear. That will be hot.
9. It's £136 shipped - the price of a Squier strat or an effects pedal, cheaper than many soft synths. The price is crucial, because it makes most of the other issues irrelevant.
The bad bits:
1. It's really hardware in Beta (track the updates on their blog). If you can wait a year, I think Chimera will either be out of business (and BC16s worth a fortune on eBay), or shipping a more refined version.
2. The output from the 1/8th inch headphone output is super hot, and fairly noisy. To get the best sound for recording, you need to make a mini banana plug -> 1/4 inch cable and take the sound direct. (They gave me one for this review and will be selling them soon)
3. The MIDI is being debugged as I write - barely works on mine, but should be much improved on the models being shipped now. If you can't imagine using it without midi, it's possibly not for you (yet).
4. There are a tonne of digital artefacts from the oscillators. I think it's cool, but if you're looking for silky analogue tone, buy a Moog Voyager at 14 times the price. Similarly, you're unlikely to write a love sonnet about the filter.
5. Delivery is flaky at the moment.
6. It's a perfect portable synth, but if you pull one out on a bus (let alone a 'plane), someone will call the bomb squad.
My recent computer woes mean I can't post any new sound samples, but the tried and tested 'loop random squiggles and add breakbeats' method was fun while it lasted.

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


Look what just arrived!

A Tenori On just arrived from Yamaha. I'll write more once I've got the hang of it.
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