In the last decade we’ve seen a number products attempt to reimagine how one plays a keyboard. The intention being to create a more expressive instrument out of the modern synthesiser, with its huge variety of controllable parameters.
This all comes back to MIDI and how a player might naturally and expressively control MIDI signals, rather than, for example, attempt a vibrato effect with a potentiometer or slider. Aftertouch and velocity sensitivity that send MIDI have been features on various synthesisers and controllers for decades, but evolution beyond those two features seemed to slow for a very long time.
Outside of keys, there’s been generations of MIDI guitars, pad controllers like the Ableton Push and Native Instruments Maschine, and even wind controllers like Akai’s EWI 5000 aimed at woodwind players. Don Buchla released a number of MIDI instruments throughout the ‘90s, such as the Buchla Thunder and Buchla Lightning, with experimental interfaces trying to make MIDI instruments more expressive. So where are we at with developing the way we approach playing keys? Well there’s actually a number of products on the market so I thought we could spotlight a few.
ROLI SEABORD RISE SERIES
Roli have a range of midi controllers on the market that don’t do away with a traditional piano layout completely, but evolve and extend its expressive capabilities. Rather than each key being a separate mechanical device, it’s a set of continuous silicone ‘keywaves’, with five dimensions of expression. There’s strike (velocity), glide (horizontal movements between keys), slide (vertical movements up and down a key), press (aftertouch), and lift (the speed of lift off from a key). Each dimension is mappable to control a parameter via MIDI. Each dimension can also be turned off too, if you wish to revert to a more traditional functionality.
KEITH MCMILLEN K-BOARD PRO 4
Keith McMillen has been on the pioneering edge of multi-dimensional touch control for some time and their K-Board Pro 4 is the latest offering for keys players. It varies from the Roli range in some key areas but explores some similar ideas. Each silicone key is a separate device, more akin to a traditional layout, so there’s no horizontal glide function. However, each key can modulate MIDI with pressure and movement - vertically or horizontally. There are also four programmable ribbon strips running along the top.
If you’re really not keen on re-learning keys on a spongy feeling silicone surface, there’s a solution for you too. TouchKeys is the project of Andrew McPherson, a professor at the Queen Mary University of London, running a group called the Augmented Instruments Laboratory. TouchKeys are thin sensor overlays that attach to any standard-sized keyboard that outputs MIDI. Each key uses capacitive touch sensing - the same technology used in smartphones and trackpads - to measure the location of your fingers while playing. TouchKeys can be bought in a DIY kit for your own keys, or you can buy them already installed on a variety of standard MIDI keyboard controllers.
Those are just a few products breaking new ground in the keys arena. Head to their websites to learn more and watch some videos that explain things better than text on a page ever could, or better yet, suss out your local distributor and have a look in person.