The Pico model may lack the impressive array of keys on the flagship Alpha, but when it ships next month it’ll cost well under a grand. And even the Pico promises high-resolution touch, velocity-sensitive keys that you can “bend” as well as press, and high-resolution breath input.

The “space bassoon” Eigenharp seems to have landed from another planet. Today, I’ve got good news: it’s bringing alien gifts with it. By next year, both the software and the high-performance protocol the instrument uses will be open source. Taken together with other advancements in the open source community and with protocols like OSC, that could mean we’re at the vanguard of a golden age for more open, more intelligent, more expressive digital instruments.

Genuinely new music controllers made available commercially don’t come along very often. So this week’s news of a strange but wonderful-looking instrument shaped like a bassoon with customizable key controls turned many heads. With high-resolution, high-frequency data and reliance on the computer for everything from sound generation to mapping the keys to different tunings, the computer connection matters. Eigenharp’s chairman, John Lambert, sets the record straight for CDM on the software, the way it talks to your computer and other gear, and how open the tools and protocol will be.

I’ll be talking more with John next week, but I want to bring you this news now. Part of blogging means that you don’t hold back – you share that first reaction and then learn more. I’m pleased to say I was dead wrong on the Eigenharp. What looked on the spec sheet like MIDI-only communication and proprietary software turns out to be just the opposite. Sometimes, being wrong is great. Here are all the details:

What protocol do the instruments use?

The instruments talk to their base station by a dedicated, high speed, differential, transformer-coupled, error-correcting digital protocol designed (and tested) for use in noisy stage environments by ourselves. The wire used is a 4 core, standard star quad mic cable and can be up to 40M long. The base station then talks to the control software running on the host PC (Mac at the moment) via a dedicated protocol over USB2. In the host system, the native protocol used between agents (our software components) is a network protocol called Eigentalk. This can run over Ethernet wires (with slightly increased latencies due to some smart jitter buffering we do). We will be making this public and freely available (when we open-source our main software) in Febuary next year. There is an open API, to be published at the same time, for our equivalent of AU’s or VST’s, hosted in our software, EigenD. This is rather richer than the AU and VST API’s, for reasons connected with the expressiveness and configure-ability (is that a word?) of our system. A couple of interesting AU vendors are looking at producing native EigenD instruments at the moment, and I think there will be many more in time. We try to avoid MIDI wherever possible as it has so many serious performance limitations.

Had you considered OSC?

We did have a look at OSC but there are a bunch of things that our protocol does that OSC didn’t (not least of which, for example, is clock syncronisation for jitter removal, utterly vital over ethernet for live performance) so we decided to grow our own and release it. Absolutely no reason whatsoever that we can’t interoperate fuly with it though, I suspect that an OSC EigenD Agent will probably come quite soon after the open source release.

Ed.: Actually, with OSC (OpenSoundControl) moving increasingly toward broader input and assimilating other standards, I can easily imagine that a future implementation of OSC could begin to implement these features. More on both protocols in the coming months. -PK

Is it possible to use this as a controller for MIDI hardware? MIDI software?

Yes, EigenD has in and out MIDI gateway programs. The incoming [MIDI] is mainly used for pedalboards at the moment (to control scale, key, tempo, etc.), although there is no reason you couldn’t use a midi keyboard to play notes. We’re using the MIDI out to do a wide variety of things, including playing MIDI sound modules, and controlling video DJ software and lighting systems. There is a huge reduction in effective bandwidth when ‘downsampling’ to MIDI, but for a lot of things it still works very well. And of course, the AU and VST standards (which we fully support) are a kind of MIDI interface.

Is it possible to access its native protocol for custom software / Max-Pd patches and the like?

Well, we’re open sourcing the whole thing early next year, and I think there’ll be a lot of work done to glue all sorts of external stuff in then. Max/MSP has attracted a lot of interest in this area. The whole of EigenD is kind of built for this really. We’re an Open Source company: my main personal desktop is Linux and I have a strong personal commitment to open standards. I offer a number of ‘programming bounties’ for Linux improvements on my personal website at http://johnhenrylambert.com.

Tell us more about open-sourcing the software. What tools did you use to build the software.

It’s written in a mixture of C++ and Python. It’s quite scary code, but very clean and pretty, with little ‘cruft’. I think the open source community are going to have fun with it. Its a big system too, 8 years of R&D in one huge release. I don’t think that there’s been anything quite like this open sourced before in the music world – it is a bit as if Logic or Ableton were GPL’d tomorrow.

Thanks, John! Stay tuned for more details, and let me know if you have specific questions for the creators.

  • bar|none

    Thanks so much for asking these questions. This is the sort of article that cuts through the hype and gives us information we vitally need. Thx again.

  • http://wileywiggins.com Wiley Wiggins

    That's enough for me. I'm getting one.

  • Mudo

    Cool! I want to get my hands over this protocol and the instrument is pretty too!!

    ;)

  • robb

    that’s simply great!

    I better start saving…

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  • http://corbucorbu.com hexatron

    this plus a moog voyager would be pretty ridiculous.

  • aws

    It is possible to do clock sync and jitter removal over OSC, in fact this was one of its original design goals of OSC and has been part of the spec since day one. More recently it has been demonstrated with jitter recovery down to sample-accuracy on a variety of platforms including microcontrollers.

    The ugly truth is that nearly all instruments and software that use OSC don't support this feature. In fact, it gets far worse from here:

    I did a study of the effect of jitter-induced noise for AC signals transmitted over typical asynchronous transports such as USB and Ethernet. The results are that small amounts of jitter (1-2msec) almost completely destroy the headroom of the channel. (you can find more info on the CNMAT website under "research").

    The observation that jitter causes noise is not a new one as it is a well known problem in the engineering of digital audio interfaces. Low jitter clocks are an essential part of ADC/DACs and the jitter tolerances are MUCH smaller than the sampling intervals (good ones go down to the picosecond range).

    The perhaps more devastating result of this is the inevitable conclusion that, with a few exceptions, nearly all "music controllers" on the market today are outputting gesture data of exceedingly low quality.

  • http://avanturb.com Primus Luta

    I love everything about this except a new open protocol, especially after reading aws's reply. While its commendable that these guys put in the work to address an important issue for them, I really think it would have been great to have invested that time to deal with it in OSC. OSC and the principles behind it are confusing enough to the average consumer at this stage and introducing a new protocol I think will only further complicate things. Especially considering that the trajectory of the company was to make things open anyway.

    The shift toward open protocols for music IMHO is one of the most important we are witnessing today, but if we end up with five of those protocols I fear it will go the way of lossless audio – obviously a much needed improvment, but without the ability to standardize, impossible to arrive at 'complete' consumer adoption. Like the MP3 why bother when there's still MIDI.

    Okay enough of the negative stuff, this thing is going to be incredible regardless.

  • J. Phoenix

    Fascinating! I have to confess I'm not so much interested in having an Eigenharp for myself, but the fact that its an alternative controller, along with this new information gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

    I am very glad to hear about their commitment to Open Source, even if its set for the future. The one aspect that kept nagging me during the initial announcements was the question of whether or not I was looking at a proprietary instrument that uses a proprietary program.

    Too often I think that which is specialized ends up relegated to the world of novelty, rather than becoming a useful tool for expression in the long-term.

    The closer to near-infinite possibilities an instrument presents to any musician, the more likely it is to be picked up again and again by different musicians, and to be something unique in each of their hands.

    I am curious when I'll first encounter it in the wild. I have to confess I continue to imagine seeing it in a band that features The Chapman Stick, the Mandala electronic drum, and some Monomes playing a cover of the Cantina Band from Star Wars.

  • http://www.badmindtime.com SkyRon™

    I for one welcome our new space-bassoon overlords!

  • OSCsucks

    THERE IS NO OSC "SPEC" what a load of nonsense. All anyone can get are those sorry documents called 1.0 which are incomplete and otherwise incomprehensible, and a pdf from NIME which the website says gives a 1.1 spec and it absolutely does not. Looking forward to your coverage of OSC "protocol" to enlighten us.

  • Andrew Turley

    @OSCsucks, would you care to elaborate there? I've had a few problems with the OSC documentation, and I think that some parts (like wildcards) should be spelled out better. But there is a document on the site with information that a number of different parties have used to build software that seems to work reasonable well together.

  • Cliff Baldwin

    It certainly is a beautiful instrument. I'd love to blow through it, finger it or rub up against it one day. At $8K it won't be soon. Cordless would be a little more freeing, wouldn't it? WiFi anyone?

    The form is a little unnerving. Leave it to the Brits. I suppose it could look like a cello or perhaps an accordion or Theremin – oh well.

    I look forward to the Apple Tablet. That'll be a pretty open system as well I assume (without breath control).

  • http://www.myspace.com/namito namito

    in keeping with the cdm spirit, i for one am not interested until is available on the apple osx platform or edison endorses it personally.

    thank you for your attention.

  • ferri

    Holophonor ??

  • http://www.doctorobvious.com Mark

    Well, it looks like Jordan Rudess has got his hands on one…

  • http://www.haha-fresh.blogspot.com lazenbleep

    hey peter. i live in exeter, if you want me to head down on an official visit, i could give a lo-fi mans perspective

    :#

  • http://www.suecae.com Suecae

    I think this is fascinating. But I really hope they do go PC eventually.

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  • http://michaeldehaan.net/ Michael

    It is awesome this code is going to be OSS'd, but I'd encourage them to open source it now, warts and all, and clean it up in public. It should be noted that the best open source projects are open on day 1, and allow community involvement at all points, exposing folks to greater ideas, and make sure ideas can come in from all angles. Send a free Large Eigenharp my way and I'd be happy to give you some OSS community tips :) To me, the coolest thing about OSS is not shared code, but all the crazy ideas you get and where that takes you. That being said, provided they do development in the open after product release, I understand that — just make sure it's not a periodic code drop, but actual public repos and mailing lists and such.

    For the person who said this and a Voyager would be awesome, being the Voyager is Mono (and I do love the Voyager), I'm not sure. I think seeing a giant ribbon controller in similar stick format could rock for that though — not just so you could small vibrato things, but so you could do larger glides (actually how's that work on the Eigenharp?)? Hmm, five parallel ribbon controllers each driving different synths could be serious "whoa" factor.

    I'd also be interested in seeing how keyboard layout for this looks across different scales.

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