I don’t know if it’s “the most revolutionary new musical instrument of the last 60 years,” but let’s be clear on one thing: the Eigenharp Alpha is utterly, beautifully insane. It combines breath and finger input in a bassoon form factor, but with quite a lot more physical control, a computer connection, and no internal sound source of its own. The breath input comes from a crooked tube as on a bassoon, with finger input in a touch strip, a fretted, light-up keyboard, and keys that have their own various forms of expression. Launched yesterday in London, the Eingenharp is getting a lot of attention. (And yes, some of you spotted signs of its launch all the way back in June, to which I say – I’m sorry I’m so late to the party.)

From BBC: Do you drum it, strum it or stroke it?

alphanecks

I hope to speak to the creators soon. Already, I see some indications that there are equal parts genius and madness here. The controller itself, even in the bizarre bassoon form factor, has an extraordinary amount of control, with high-resolution keys, percussion keys, elaborate control arrangements that can adjust tone or record samples, and extremely precise breath and touch. At £3,950, many computer musicians accused of “knob twiddling” by the creators probably won’t be able to afford the top-of-the-line model, but I do believe an instrument like this can easily, fairly cost this much, it’s a cost reasonable for musical instruments – and there is a £349 “Pico” edition for mortals.

There’s some madness, too, however. For the “instrument of the future,” the creators appear to have chosen MIDI, via USB, in place of a modern control protocol. Then, they plug the instrument into proprietary Mac software. (A Windows version is expected early next year.) There are software models of a Cello, a Clarinet, and a Synth, but there are also gigs of samples oddly loaded into SoundFont format. Given the futuristic ambitions and the sky-high price, closed software and antiquated I/O seem puzzling to me. I’m also skeptical of the approach here of piling on as many controllers as possible.

CORRECTION – CORRECTION! Yes, indeed – proprietary software and the limitations of MIDI wouldn’t make any sense – and apparently the creators agree. So the software will be open sourced, as will their custom-designed protocol. I’ve got all the details – required reading for anyone working on expressive instruments.

But don’t get me wrong. I think this fascinatingly bizarre instrument is worth exploring. The hardware design looks exceptionally luxurious, and there is some genuine design innovation in the controller the likes of which we’ve never seen in an instrument beyond a prototype or two.

Oh, and yes, I already want the Pico – and I think the Pico’s fewer controls may actually make more sense.

Basic specs:

Video of the key action, among others collected on YouTube:

The “Alpha,” the flagship:

  • 120 keys, plus 12 percussion keys. (Wait — 120? Yes, you read that right.)
  • Two strip controllers, one on each side.
  • Breath pipe and mouthpiece.
  • 11-bit resolution (2048 values) in the keys and strip controllers, 12-bit resolution (4098 values) for breath.
  • Internal audio interface with mic pre, converters, and headphone out – so you need to carry this and a computer, but not this, a computer, and an audio interface.
  • A “Base Station” with inputs for expression pedals and foot switches, which also contains the USB connection. This connects to a floor spike on which the instrument rests.

http://www.eigenlabs.com/alpha/

The Pico:

  • 22 keys (18 for playing, four mode switches).
  • Keys work via direct pressure and lateral pressure in both directions, as on the Alpha.
  • Breath pipe.
  • Strip controller.
  • Same resolution: 11-bit keys, 12-bit breath.
  • £349.

http://www.eigenlabs.com/pico/

pico

To be honest, I’m quite a lot more interested in the Pico, not because I think cheaper is better, but because I’m curious whether you can’t be just as expressive with the more limited set of controls as with the kitchen sink approach of its big brother. After all, 22 keys is roughly the number you’d find on most reed instruments, including the Bassoon. True, the piano has 88 keys, but it also doesn’t really have anything else – and it’s able to have so many because of its form factor.

In fact, I’m sorry, but I love the Pico. It looks friendly, it looks portable, it isn’t terrifying-looking like the Alpha, and it seems it’d be more at home in a variety of musical venues than the Alpha. Sometimes less is more. Let’s see if I prove to be correct.

The software, though I hope you could also customize your own software rig using the MIDI input:

  • Modular, allowing the routing of control inputs, sound sources and samples, loopers, and synthesis and effects.
  • SoundFont oscillator.
  • Physical models of the clarinet, cello.
  • AU host for adding your own plug-ins. (And yes, this is where I think you’ll have the most fun.
  • A system for triggering events, takes, key, and mapping scale.
  • An interactive arrangement system for step sequencing.
  • Oddly, an extensive Steinway D multi-sample. On the other hand, for years we’ve all have been playing bassoon and other reed samples on the keyboard, and in organ form for centuries, so now the reed instrument gets its revenge.

Source: Eigenlabs software specs.

The instrument’s creator, John Lambert, repeats the maxim heard at new instrument design conferences: “We’ve got pretty fed up with watching people twiddle knobs on stage.” Naturally, that means… turning to the Bassoonist, that sex icon of the orchestra? I’ll run with it.

One other tidbit from that article:

He says there is one high-profile musician who is about to take delivery of an Eigenharp, but won’t give any names.

Yeah, Herbie Hancock, we know it’s you. (Okay, they are an English company, so maybe it’s an English celeb, but really the question is whether Herbie is who they mean, or whether he’s filling out the pre-order as we speak. He’s like what we would all be like if we had a budget.)

Anyway, consider this a first look. I hope to get closer to the actual instrument soon.

  • robb

    i’d love to have an alpha but those are far out of my financial reach

    i’m tempted by having super expressive buttons arranged in a guitar-like grid, which is reason i’m not *that* interested in the pico but that may very well change if i ever get to play-test one

  • paul

    WOW… anyone want to buy a slightly used kidney :) as far as the "High Profile" artist i could totally see Tony Levin with one of these…

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

    @robb: Yes, in fairness, the button layout is more interesting on the Alpha than the Pico, and I like that the strips are on the side. And it'd be nice if the two had a more similar layout in general if the idea is to graduate to the larger instrument.

    That said, maybe I'm just rationalizing, but I do like the design economy of the Pico.

  • http://fallsastar.com Foosnark

    I'm really not sure what I think of this thing. Hardware and software both seem like they're taking the kitchen sink approach. And Mac-only is an instant deal breaker for many.

    Still, it's always good to see more kinds of expressive controllers around.

  • Stij

    Interesting….the only thing I'm not sure about is the note layout. I haven't really seen anything about that. I think it would be cool if it used something similar to the Harmonic Table layout, but who knows?

    Anyway none of this matters because HOLY CRAP SPACE BASSOON. I can totally see Jordan Rudess using something like this, or maybe Tony Levin, like paul said.

  • robb

    @Stij

    There are lots of different scales available, don’t know if you can set up your own though (i guess so)

  • http://niksilver.com Nik

    I was at one of the launch events, so found out a bit.

    While it does integrate with MIDI, that's not sufficient to get the best out of it (keys are sensitive in three dimensions to within one micron) so it has its own protocol(s), too.

    They keys are completely configurable so they can be switched to any scale (Hungarian gypsy was mentioned as an example) and transposition, so I guess you can set up your own as @robb says. They don't even have to play notes. They can be configured for mode changes, for example.

  • http://arcanumxiii.deviantart.com/ Sebastien Orban

    Nik so it's proprietary. When we have OSC. Nice.

    I'm not so sure about what's new in here – a loaded controller ? But well, I already have an Axis 49 – it would be nice that it would have this "touch" precision though. Very Nice.

  • yoyoman

    wow… that is one of the sexiest, most sophisticated controller i've ever seen !

    I want… no… i NEED the alpha model. Horrificly expensive though, especialy once converted in euros..

    The website isn't very good at explaining exactly how it works. Too many flashy videos and not enough info. I'm not even sure if you can output midi out to external synths. Is it only for playing their own synths and AU plugins ?

  • s ford

    THE 21ST CENTURY KEYTAR!!!

    I've watched a few of the videos and tbh, I am a little bit confused. I'm sure it could be used to make some great stuff though.

  • http://wileywiggins.com Wiley Wiggins

    I'm interested in the Pico, mainly because I've been looking for a controller with a really expressive mod/vel like maybe a midi concertina or a breath controller. That it has it's own software is a little mysterious, but I guess I don't mind. I certainly hope that you can send midi to other hosts as well though…

  • alan

    I probably have more questions than I can think of right now. I am interested in the possible added expressiveness with the keys and the strip controller.

    The extra bits (12 bits on the breath controller-a value of 4098, 11 or 10 on the keys and strip, 2048 and 1024 respectively) sound impressive. If it outputs midi, how would DAWs handle this higher resolution midi data? Or am I missing something about how this works?

  • adam

    this thing makes me wish for a monome with similar expression abilities on each button…

  • http://eshefer.com eshefer

    I'm all for the basic ideas behind the development of the eigenherp both in pico and alpha form – finding a way to free the electronic musician IE: "knob twiddler" from the kbd stand or desk. This is a topic I've been interested in for quite some time.

    whether those two products are the way to achieve this formidable goal, I don't know. lets just say I'm not convinced with the form factor, the ergonomics of the design, the method of playing, and most of the features they chose to implement. the button technology seems awesome, though.

    But, that said, I like it that there are a few companies that are being formed around this market opportunity, some funded using serious capital investment. who knows, maybe we'll see more new interesting companies forming to cater for music performance products.

    I'm all for that. and I hope the eigenharp succeeds.

  • gwenhwyfaer

    alan, RPNs and NRPNs can support 14 bits of controller data, so 12-bit controller values don't necessarily present a problem. However, it looks as though the thing doesn't necessarily use MIDI natively at all, not least because 2000 12-bit samples per second per key is far too much information to be sent via MIDI (an interface with a 3KBps bandwidth).

    And yes, I rather fancy the pico too :)

  • Barry Wood

    Those look very cool. I sure hope their at NAMM this January, I'd love to try one out.

  • Mudo

    It is cool!

    I have an idea to make a new instrument too but it is still in pre-alpha phase…

    ;)

  • Nesdnuma

    Have a look at this one.

    http://www.dafact.com/

  • alan

    Thanks for the clarification gwenhwyfaer.

    Close up photos including the breakout box at http://www.musicradar.com/news/tech/in-pictures-e

  • http://niksilver.com Nik

    @Sebastien Orban

    Nik so it’s proprietary. When we have OSC. Nice.

    I'll have to pass on that. I don't know the details, and am not a musician so wouldn't understand a lot of them if I did.

    What I do know is that they wrote a lot of their own software, and it does use protocols that have more expressive power than MIDI, and they'll be open sourcing (some of?) their software in the not-too-distant future.

  • yoyoman

    10.000 euros for the DAFACT !!!

    And i thought the Eigenharp was super-expensive… Now it almost looks like a very good deal…

    Funny how, while it's getting harder and harder for musicians to make a living, the instruments are getting more and more expensive…

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  • Polite

    I'm hoping they release a mid size model sometime in the future. For maybe sub 2k? Maybe when they have PC software. I'm a keyboard/guitar player so this seems nicely in the middle.

    I'm not really sold on the whole bassoon style of the design. They've definitely managed to make something even more uncool looking than a keytar. Admittedly I like the look of some keytars, so maybe i'm biased. I guess it's the whole guitar centric thinking. Everything has to be guitar oriented to be cool. Why?? Having said that, I wouldn't mind building a pico into a guitar as a second controller ala the kaos pad in matt bellamy's guitar(s).

    I'm hoping to see some crazy enthusiasts putting up some performance demos on youtube over the next year.

  • Polite

    Actually, what i'm really hoping for is for this to become a benchmark on which roland, korg and novation release similar expressive devices for live play.

  • vinayk

    As someone who's very seriously considering getting a Ztar 7zs with a breath controller attached – this looks VERY cool. Unfortuneatly the price is VERY high. I know it looks very pro, and is probably very very well built, but paying 7500 Australian dollars is a LOT.

    I'm with the people above, I hope there are some cheaper/mid sized models availible at hopefully a slightly cheaper price with the fretboard like layout still intact?

    Infact maybe the anti pico version, with just a fretboard and a mouthpiece and no keys?

  • yoyoman

    I don't think it looks like a bassoon. It reminds me more of the Chapman Stick : http://www.stick.com

  • yoyoman

    I meant it looks like the chapman stick if you remove the breath controller.. :-)

  • Justin Reed

    BBC has a nice little preview with three harpers getting jiggy.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8295813….

    those keys are pretty sweet.

    also breath controllers are really underutilized IMO.

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  • Checko

    Hey Guys! for the pleasure of many there will be a mid-size instrument in between the alpha and the pico along with many other bits and pieces to interface the three of them with anything you want to! I know that from a very reliable source ;-)

  • Damon

    Now THAT'S how you do that.

  • OSCsucks

    OK, you need to quit bashing MIDI like you do all the time. Yes it's ancient and limited, but it's still the only working industry standard peer to peer system for music, unlike every "superior" alternative which has a 2K computer attached to it, running an OS, running some software on top of that, before you even get a sound.

    OSC is a big mess of undocumented crap that nobody in their right mind should waste their time with. Visit MIDI org to find out how they are working to protect against a protocol as stupid as OSC.

  • Checko

    I don't think Eigenlabs didn't use MIDI just to annoy MIDI lovers… it is more fundamental, the "superior" alternative is necessary if what you want is to make a instrument with such sensitive "analogue" keys… how can you devlop an instrument with 132 keys responding to any direction (press, roll, yaw) and as sensitive as a micron (note that we are talking about keys with 12-bits resolution sampled at 2kHz each)? answer: MIDI is not the answer! and Eigenlabs supports MIDI as well accepting the fact that is a standard peer to peer system for music…

  • ron jeremey

    "Do you drum it, strum it or stroke it?"

    cough cough

  • godprobe
  • PooPoo the Korruptah

    MIDI bong

  • Alan M

    I wonder if it will catch on, pretty cool all the same.

  • Kathryn!!

    hmmm….interesting idead alright, could be fun! but to me it seems a bit odd…but in a good way! should make making music different and fun!=.