A major challenge for manufacturers and music makers has been figuring out how to make electronic instruments as musically expressive as their acoustic counterparts -- or more so. There’s been some successes, Yamaha’s 1970s CS80 synth featured polyphonic aftertouch (keypress sensitivity), that was famously put to use by Vangelis on the original Blade Runner soundtrack. The Akai MPC enabled beatmakers like J Dilla to record a human-like swinging groove. Imogen Heap took things to the extreme and co-created MiMu Gloves - a set of wearable MIDI controllers. So where to from here?
The MIDI Polyphonic Expression protocol isn’t new anymore, but its implementation feels like it’s just starting to find its feet. Rather than being restricted by the original MIDI control standard that has a limited selection of controls for each note hard-coded in, MPE adds a large range of control parameters - usually reserved for controlling a MIDI instrument across all notes at once - to each individual note. An enormous amount of expressive power for a single note.
The challenge is to figure out what to do with it all and how to control it. And is it even needed? A growing number of software companies think so. Logic Pro X, Cubase and Bitwig are three DAWs that have opened up to support MPE enabled controllers, and quite a few software instrument companies have too - including XferRecords’ enormously popular Serum synth.
Controlling All That Power
So what is the ideal human-to-instrument interface for harnessing all that potential musical expression? Thst’d something the industry is now grappling with. On one hand, a controller that resembles a traditional instrument appeals to a wider audience - but then manufacturers are limited by a centuries-old interface that wasn’t designed to control all the parameters now available. So it’s a difficult spot to be in. But, some companies are giving it a red hot go.
Roli are probably the best known MPE controller manufacturer and have been championing MPE since its inception.Their Seaboard range resembles a piano in layout but the surface is made from a kind of soft foam with each note featuring five dimensions of touch control. The downside though, is that there’s not a lot of tactile feedback, so it’s a divisive design.
Expressive E, recently announced their new ‘Osmose’ instrument that is (their words) “A keyboard you already know how to play, but with new expression hidden in every single key”. This hi-tech design looks and plays like an ordinary piano, but with a heck of a lot more expressivity built into how you touch, push and wiggle the keys. This feels like some real progress, and is certainly a look into the future of keyboard controllers.
Then there’s designs that do away with tradition and boldly pursue a new direction. Roger Linn (creator of the MPC) came up with the Linnstrument, a 200 pad grid controller that arranges the notes like a string instrument, enabling all sorts of musical expression ordinarily reserved for guitarists and strings players.
Really, there’s not a lot of MPE controllers out there, so there’s still plenty of room for innovation and development here. It feels like we’re still waiting for a company to nail that mix of capabilities, functionality and affordability. And I can’t help but wonder, does virtual reality have a role to play? We’ve seen a number of musical programs like LyraVR pop up that are beginning to explore this area. So maybe the future isn’t hardware based at all? The theremin is quite possibly the most expressive electronic instrument around (and funnily enough, one of the oldest) - a quick YouTube search will demonstrate that there’s absolutely people who’ve mastered waving their hands in the air to create music with it.
One thing’s for certain, the next decade’s going to be interesting!
Missed last month's electronic music production column? Find it here.