As I’m located outside the UK, I’ve been unable to get a TENORI-ON for review. This may be just as well; I’ve got a custom Monome project that’s filling up a bit of my time. Nick has an extensive, detailed video review for Sonic State, since we don’t:

Review page from our friends at Sonic State

(Late in posting this, I know; behind as I’ve been on the road — thanks to all who sent it in.)

A number of revelations emerge regarding how the design works:

  • TENORI-ON is truly set up to work as a 16×16 beat sequencer. You can have multiple 16-beat sequences, and you can change length, but the hardware-only approach means you’re given a pretty rigid musical structure.
  • MIDI output is limited to note information.
  • MIDI input is limited to notes, as well.
  • The only non on/off controller is a roller on the bottom of the unit that affects note length.
  • The unit does sample, but think 1-second 1-hit samples.

Photo: Gary Kibler, for CDM.

Nick seems pretty balanced in the review, coming down somewhere in the middle (well worth watching the whole thing). Despite these limitations, the cumulative experience does seem greater than the sum of its parts. Whether that experience is worth the price may depend: for those wanting a tailored, game-like music interaction with the device, TENORI-ON could appeal. For those wanting more flexibility, though, it could be a major disappointment.

Personally, much as I appreciate the design, I find myself musically unexcited by the instrument. Again, this is just a gut reaction, as I don’t have one sitting here to judge in person, but I do know how I feel about some of the design compromises made on the unit. I don’t want to overuse the TENORI-ON versus Monome comparisons. But the comparison is in fact proving to be more and more apt, whether the creators of the respective projects wanted to invite comparison or not. Looking at the two designs side by side demonstrates that the same basic design concept, however simple, can take on very different meanings depending on implementation. One is not necessarily better than another, but the extent to which a design is open-ended may determine how “instrument-like” it actually is. And you can’t help but see the TENORI-ON as being, perhaps intentionally, more like a toy than an instrument in comparison to Monome. This has nothing to do with number of features, but simply the extent to which the design can be made personal — the definition of a musical instrument. That isn’t to say you can’t make a toy an instrument, too; I’ve played and written for toy piano, to take this literally. But there’s a big difference between a Schoenhut toy piano and a Steinway; it’s part of what we appreciate in both.

The counter argument could easily be, who is the gadget designed for? There is a cult right now in appealing to non-musicians, and the TENORI-ON is designed to make passive listeners into players. But I wonder, given the number of lapsed musicians, people with experience learning an instrument who gave up, if a different approach might be more likely to energize people about music making? And, on the other hand, in TENORI-ON’s defense, some of the people who have been most excited about the gadget are experienced musicians. So, clearly, this isn’t so simple, after all.

Ironically, my initial reaction to the Monome was one of similar skepticism: it seemed, much as the TENORI-ON actually is, to be limited to being a simple step sequencer. But Monome later changed my mind in that you could redefine what the instrument was in software. What you had was not a sequencer: it was buttons. What those buttons did was up to you. And I’ve also been impressed over time to see that people have been creative both in re-imagining the purpose of the instrument and in developing performance technique with it. The TENORI-ON is almost extreme in the extent to which it pre-determines how you use it. It’s a bit like a Toshio Iwai machine, whereas the otherwise similar Monome seems more like a blank slate.

The fact that you can easily load tiny samples from a computer and, as with Monome, could over time develop a unique performance technique with TENORI-ON could give it new potential. But even so, you’d still need very specific and limited needs in order to make TENORI-ON useful.

The other phenomenon happening now, aside from people realizing some of the limitations of TENORI-ON, is a general Web fatigue with the supposed “hype” around the launch. We’re certainly seeing that in comments on CDM and elsewhere. The fact that the manufacturer is Yamaha may only compound that issue; it means the bar is set higher for a large manufacturer, while at the same time the TENORI-ON may become the target of people not liking Yamaha hardware in general. I think this fatigue should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ll defend the blogosphere; we’ve followed this device over time because we’re interested in it and care about it. But behind the fatigue is some genuine insight: the TENORI-ON really isn’t a radical, new way of making music. What it really seems to be is a radical reduction of musical instrument design: the sequencer/sampler rendered in minimalistic, if elegant, terms. It’s a huge design statement, and certainly not one everyone will like.

And, moreover, there’s an opposite aesthetic in what objects should be, so great that you begin to realize the similar grids of light-up buttons on Monome and TENORI-ON are a more superficial connection than anything. TENORI-ONs are finished by robots in Asia (despite the claim from PR that limited runs were “hand-made”); Monome is hand-assembled from sustainable components in the US and has even been made available as a kit. Each is a design statement by a couple of primary designers (each a collaboration of two people, in fact), but Yamaha backs TENORI-ON while Monome is sold direct. The TENORI-ON has celebrity endorsements, the Monome (generally speaking) does not. The Monome is fundamentally about being a customizable instrument for use however you like; the TENORI-ON is described by its designer as being as much interactive music player as instrument. In fact, if there’s any real problem with the Monome/TENORI-ON comparisons, it’s that they really have very little in common beneath those light-up buttons.

Let us know if your thinking has evolved, as well. And we’re especially interested to hear from people who actually have a TENORI-ON to tell us what it’s like, since the rest of the world right now (myself included) is limited to armchair quarterbacking. (Erm … or whatever “quarterbacking” is outside of the US. Is there an equivalent in socce– uh, football?)

  • http://myles.debastion.com/sonance myles

    I have hopes in a cheaper, more widely available Tenori On mkII.

    I sincerely hope that this instrument proves a 'success' in Yamaha's eyes so they continue to develop such concepts and bring us more unique and wonderful instruments.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @myles: for the moment, the TENORI-ON is already sold out — they're going like hotcakes. So, I think constructive criticism of the design, and the awareness that no one instrument design can ever be right for everyone, can only be healthy. I would even venture to hope that this means other manufacturers take on unusual designs, because it also demonstrates a model for gradually prototyping and ramping up production, while at the same time building enthusiasm.

  • http://www.electrozebre.com Lael

    After a short visit to London / Soho, I seem to understand that the first batch delivered was only the demo units, and so far, none at all have been sold. So hotcakes are planned for later this month. Or so it seems, regardless of what's stated on Tenori-on web site.

    Now that I had my hands on one, I can say it feels really good and you can work your way around pretty quickly. The software is very clever and straighforward. So I tend to think that as such and along with the Yamaha sound generator inside, it almost adresses "non musician" sort of clavinova for home DJs way. And therefore, for "us artists", it may become interesting once hacked a bit and/or connected to external gear and software. even with only the basic midi implementation offered.

    I have a Monome and I feel Tenori-On will offer me the extra buttons I miss when playing live, so I will definitely get one asap, even if it means perhaps flying back to UK at the end of the month.

    And if a TOV2 sees the light of the day, with a more reasonable pricing, I hope it will be built just as nicely as the current units, with brushed metal frame and all, because the current model feels nice to play with for sure…

  • http://www.pixelsumo.com Chris

    They weren't demo units, people were handing over cash and taking them home in shopping bags.

  • Patryk

    Since you brought it up, I wonder about the rigidity of the musical structure: you can change the length of any sequence layer to something

  • Patryk

    other less than 16 beats per measure, e.g. 7 or 9. Add that to the fact that you can duplicate blocks (sets of layers) and make subtle changes there. It seems to me that with those two mechanics, combined, one should be able to create digital music quite flexibly.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Patryk: you're right, you ought to at least be able to change the rhythmic structure a bit, though a 1s sample time is pretty lean these days. I do appreciate their simple sample loading software, though; I wish half the desktop software we got from the big hardware makers was as clear.

    @Chris/Lael: My understanding was indeed that at least a small batch of retail units was delivered and sold. It is still premature to gauge demand, of course.

    @Lael: Please do feel free to share the first Monome+TENORI-ON duo. Now that's something I'd like to see!

  • http://eshefer.com eshefer

    I've had the chance to check the thing at london too (@phonica), from what I understood Lael is right – you can preorder them, but the units will arrive later this month (the seller said something about the 21st).

    I have mixed fealings about the thing too. I think it's a great composition tool. the step sequencer is VERY usfull as a way to experiment with random produced patterns and get musical ideas. the other modes I havn't found as usefull, I think. there is a lot of random-ish type things going on when you play with the thing – I'm not sure how interesting this would be for an audience – maybe each tenori-on user will learn some things they can do live, but I'm not sure about it. anyway.. I hav'nt played with it enough to form a solid opion, regarding live stuff.

    I'm not too sure about it as a live performance instrument (at least not with the current spec and design) – the blinking lights are very cool, and the concept of holding the instrument with two hands is one I think is pretty good, as I've experimented with my own instruments in that configuration).

    The problems with the instrument, in my eyes (or ears) are mostly the rigidity of the sequencer. which tends to get a very mechanical type of musical result (kraftwerkish).

    Also the fact that with a 16*16 grid it is hard to get a good feal to what button on the grid you are pressing at a single time (this can be solved with some simple graphic reprisentation of the location of 1/4 notes on the grid, though).

    I do want one :-)

  • http://eshefer.com eshefer

    I've had the chance to check the thing at london too (@phonica), from what I understood Lael is right – you can preorder them, but the units will arrive later this month (the seller said something about the 21st). maybe they were avaliable for sale on the night they were annouced?

    I have mixed fealings about the thing too. I think it's a great composition tool. the step sequencer is VERY usfull as a way to experiment with random produced patterns and get musical ideas. the other modes I havn't found as usefull, I think. there is a lot of random-ish type things going on when you play with the thing – I'm not sure how interesting this would be for an audience – maybe each tenori-on user will learn some things they can do live, but I'm not sure about it. anyway.. I hav'nt played with it enough to form a solid opion, regarding live stuff.

    I'm not too sure about it as a live performance instrument (at least not with the current spec and design) – the blinking lights are very cool, and the concept of holding the instrument with two hands is one I think is pretty good, as I've experimented with my own instruments in that configuration).

    The problems with the instrument, in my eyes (or ears) are mostly the rigidity of the sequencer. which tends to get a very mechanical type of musical result (kraftwerkish).

    Also the fact that with a 16*16 grid it is hard to get a good feal to what button on the grid you are pressing at a single time (this can be solved with some simple graphic reprisentation of the location of 1/4 notes on the grid, though).

    in anycase Its great that Yamaha has invested the time and resorces to make and market this instrument, it helps open up the market for anyone who is into making and marketing non-traditional music devices – the more – the marrier.

  • Alex Pages

    I feel forced to quote this sentence about Big Briar instruments:

    "While Moog's Big Briar inventions have not had the sensational impact of the first Moog synths, they are creative, futuristic visions of alternative methods for playing electronic instruments. "Unfortunately, the trend is toward user interfaces that are simpler, not more complex. Most people don't care enough about the increased possibilities for expression to sacrifice years of their lives mastering an instrument," says Keislar. "They want to press a button and hear music come out. As a result, such systems are probably destined to remain experimental, even if elegant."

    In my opinion, the TENORI-ON clearly belongs to the "press-a-button" category, and represents very well the trend he's talking about.

    But maybe music should not be reserved to musicians anymore? After-all, Broadway theatres orchestras were threatened of being replaced entirely by machines like the Symphonia system (google "symphonia virtual orchestra") so I guess one day or the other, musicians will be optional…

  • jools

    I have a Tenori-on since last week (september 12th) and I really enjoy it. I preordered it quite a long time before its launch. I recognize myself in the category passive listener who wants to become in seconds a player (or at least make some sound). I've spent some time (as hobby) playing around with music software and hardware but I am really not a musician.

    The Tenori-on is clearly the instrument I was looking for, as mentioned in a review (sonicstate?), the learning curve is really impressive. You can understand how to use it in 5 minutes (at least for basic features).

    I have been looking for ages for a truly handheld "advanced" music sequencer, easy to use and I've found it. The interface is really great.

    Of course, I think there are some things that can be improved though, like the limited user sounds/sampling possibilities and I would also have liked the TNR to wait for end of the pattern when you switch blocks (like in some software sequencers). With more experience, I think I will be able to post a review (not a pro review, a review of the TNR from someone with a poor music level).

    I don't like the "press-a-button" category, I agree of course it is easy to use the TNR but it have many possibilities. Press-a-button, for me, also means that you can just make "one sound" with the TNR, that everyone makes the same music with it, that there is very few user interaction; it is false, to my mind it offers more possibilities than some grooveboxes or drum machines. But, well I agree it doesn't feature an analogue synth and that you don't have endless possibilities to tweak the sounds.

    In conclusion, I really love this instrument, I do not regret it and yes, the Tenori On is not only reserved to musicians.

  • http://airvent-media.co.uk arctic-sunrise

    http://www.youtube.com/airventmedia

    few clips… see what u think

    monome vs tenori-on willcontinue. BUT they are different so cant be compared. really have both if u want. one for beats etc and one for visual fun interaction.

    i love my tneori-on. its fun. i dont always want to perform with a laptop and look boring.

  • eventide

    Hi, I'm in London since tomorrow for a few days. I'd love to see (and hopefully try) a Tenori-on, any help? Is it still sold-out in the shops listed on the Yamaha's Tenori-on page?

    Thanks :-)

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  • Michael

    Thanks for the great and very informative review. I have one question however and I was wondering whether you could help me out.

    I would love to use the Tenori-on as a hardware device to come up with the basic structure of beats and songs. Afterwards however I would like to expand these songs in Logic.

    I am wondering therefor if it were possible to record the whole midi output of a complete Tenori-on song, all 16 channels across multiple blocks (only note events possible as I understand) into Logic so that I would have 16 MIDI tracks in Logic where I could now again assign the original samples I have loaded into the Tenori-on as well as any other sounds (including home made tenori samples if wanted).

    The advantage of this method would be that I'd get the ease of use and the fun of the Tenori-on plus the power of Logic to expand what was created in the Tenori.

    I guess I'm just worried that I come up with a good idea in the Tenori-on and then would have to copy every event by hand if I wanted to expand into Logic.

    What's your thoughts on this? I'd be interested to know your opinion.

    All the best from Oxford,

    Michael

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  • Michael (again)

    I am still not quite sure how well this thing works with Logic. What I really want to know is if Logic will be able to be steered as a complete 16 channel slave. In the review it looks like this shouldn't be a problem but I am just not sure if the Tenori-on only sends note on and note off commands or if it also sends note number comands on each channel (i.e. if it's all on C3 or if you can go up and down a few notes, at least the 16 steps that you can on the actual Tenori-on). I mean could you just link the Tenori-on to your DAW and play it exactly the same way as you would otherwise but with all the nice sounds coming from your DAW instead of the internal sounds and user samples? That would be all the extension I'd need for this to really be something for me. Any clue? Anybody?

    Michael

  • http://www.djthopa.net thopa

    Hi,

    As Michael points out, I would also like to know if note pitch is transmitted.. Guess I'll find out this weekend and try it with ableton..figers crossed!!

  • http://www.djthopa.net thopa

    I received the Tenori yesterday. It syncs to Abletons clock, and it send midi notes into ableton in the six different modes (score, random, bounce, push..)

    I hope Yamaha update the O.S and make some improvements….

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  • US PISSED

    when I first saw this thing i was really excited I have been puttzingwith trying to design something like this. I would be content with just owning one, but I live in the USA and I have to wait. I have called several of the shops that have it in the UK and they just will not sell it to me. I am so sad, but i guess its a good thing because when/if we get it here in the US its going to have more of the bugs worked out (hopefully)

    has anyone heard more about a US time frame

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  • jasonk

    Some of the points at the top of this article are inaccurate:

    <blockquote cite="TENORI-ON is truly set up to work as a 16×16 beat sequencer. You can have multiple 16-beat sequences, and you can change length, but the hardware-only approach means you’re given a pretty rigid musical structure.">

    The 16×16 grid is only the beginning. When you figure out how to use the "random" mode musically, there is no 16 beat limit within the layer, and the polyrhythmic cycles generated over many 16 step sequences from bounce mode make this far from limiting. You also have 16 blocks which can themselves be sequenced along with your unquantized solo parts. There are also ways to remove some other limitations built in.

    You can also turn quantize off if you like.

    <blockquote cite="* MIDI output is limited to note information.">

    I believe there are also sysex messages sent, making this much more than a music device given proper translation. If you use your imagination, the Tenori-on could be much more than just a musical instrument.

    <blockquote cite="The only non on/off controller is a roller on the bottom of the unit that affects note length.">

    Just about any realtime playback parameter that can be changed with the roller, can also be changed on the grid – just in bigger steps. This makes these buttons, formerly percieved as on/off controls for notes, function as a quick hands-on way to control things like layer volume, loop length, octave shift, and many more parameters.

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