Music trade shows are typically full of sensible and useful instruments. They may not always represent something revolutionary, but people find homes for them in their musical lives. Of course, the world’s fair futurist in us may want something really different.

It was a real treat to get my hands on the AlphaSphere, a UK-engineered alternative instrument that maps pitch across touch-sensitive surfaces arrayed in a sphere. It’s what a lot of people were talking about at Messe when people asked “what’s cool?”, as friends rounded up friends to march them over to the booth. (It’s Hall 5.1, stand C27 if you happen to be there this weekend.) The rubbery round sensors are actually really fun to play. I’m not quite ready to sign up for all-spherical playing, but it was a crowd-pleaser, and it’s great to experience a different way of playing.

I hope to catch up with these lads from Bristol either in the UK or back in Berlin, but in the meantime, check out Keyboard Magazine’s video of the demo. It’s not as slick as the promo video, but you get a sense of the co-inventor’s real enthusiasm. (I shot the video as I’m contributing to Keyboard‘s Messe coverage.)

More:
http://www.alphasphere.com/

Previously (not spheres, but a similar idea – minus the continuous pressure):
Dodecahedronists, Unite: An Audiovisual Controller, Gestures and Polyhedra, Open Hardware

Official video (I like the white):

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.settle Mark Settle

    I saw this. Meant to stop and play. 

  • Deb

    I can see this going flying across the stage if I were to use it…I’m too clumsy!

  • KarlPopper

    So its like an MPC with less functionality and a less logical layout?  The spherical layout of pads makes it easier for multiple players to work around it, but other than that there doesn’t seem to be an advantage to the shape.  I can’t see why anyone would choose this over a more traditional 16-pads-in-a-grid alternative.  Am I missing something here, because this seems like pure gimmick to me?

  • Bob

    i can’t take this seriously…and why does every demo video have to show that you can make dubstep with it? I can understand that no matter how dumb the product, there is some merit to the progression of alternative instruments, but this one is pushing my limits of what i can take seriously… did u see the way they were fingering the pads?

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/H7QZDI7BLEJYJKR2US62IMAH3E xpez

      dual finger action

  • The Brain

    Let’s be clear:  that isn’t an instrument.  It’s a controller, and an awkward one at that.  Great little stage gimmick, but don’t mistake it for anything else.

    Taking a look at a relatively easy piece by Bach, just a minute worth of material, there are 832 notes to play in one minute.  How many actions per minute can you achieve on something like this?  How difficult is it going to be to play something as easy as a C major scale at anything other than a snail’s pace?  You really only have use of large muscle groups, taking away a great advantage of using fingers to increase the number of actions that can be taken.  And for those large muscle groups, the movements are awkward and slow; there’s a great amount of distance to be covered to get to the other side of the controller.

    This thing is as dumb as it comes.  Poorly designed by a bunch of people who have probably never played anything more complicated than “Mary has a little lamb” on a recorder.  Where are the real instrument designers?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I find comments like this shameful. You want to criticize the design, criticize the design. There’s no reason to direct that at people you don’t know, with a background you know nothing about, in regards to an instrument you’ve never seen in person. It’s embarrassing. 

      Calling designers “dumb” and hurling insults at them is childish. I don’t care what the reason for it is. 

    • The Brain

      First, I will agree, my comments about the designers were out of line and I apologize.  You are 100% right on that.

      That said, I meant everything I wrote about the product.  It is poorly designed from the perspective of it being a musical instrument (and no, I don’t need to see it in person–there’s not a whole lot about spheres I’m not already personally familiar with).  As a gimmick, it’s probably fine.

      And I’m also going to disagree with you about such comments invalidating a criticism.  From a logical perspective (mathematically logical, not turn-of-phrase logical), a true/good statement is a true/good statement regardless from where (or how) it was delivered.  Don’t like me or the way I (or anyone else) said it?  Doesn’t change the truth of the statement.  The best I can do is apologize for the manner of delivery.

      I’m sorry if you like the instrument, or are supportive of the designers because they are passionate about the idea.  But being passionate is not equivalent with having good ideas, or with executing those ideas well.  And this sphere, from the perspective of being a musical instrument, is not a good idea.  My previous criticisms don’t even take into account the software end of this instrument, of which I could say more in relation to this being an instrument.

      And ultimately, you didn’t delete my comment because it *is* good criticism.  Not because you wanted to make a “clear” point to a “stranger” about other “strangers” online.  I’ve been reading your blog for years now, I enjoy your content, and respect you and what you do; I honestly mean that.  But I’m not going to take a preachy and immaterial comment like that, just because my admittedly poor way of delivering my criticism made you pissy.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I was going to write a longer response, but I’m not asking for an apology, and I’m not questioning your criticism of the design. I *love* arguing about design. I love taking different angles for the purpose of playing devil’s advocate. I love changing my mind about designs. 

      I don’t disagree with anything else you’re saying here, with one exception:

      If I’m “preachy” and “immaterial,” it’s because the one thing I really *don’t love* is people being mean to other people in public, tearing down the individuals who are putting out a creative idea personally. And I’m happy to be called that or things much worse if that’s the cost of those kind of comments setting me off.

      I don’t mean to single you out, but sometimes being patient with this kind of tenor of comments, when it’s entirely unnecessary, wears me out.

    • Pixale

      Disregarding that last paragraph, who says this was meant to play Bach? Would you call a saxophone clumsy because you can’t play chords? Any new instrument takes some getting used to to be able to play it. A mandolin, for example, has an extremely small fretboard making it difficult, at first, to rearrange your fingers. After a while, you learn. Of course there’s always going to be a point where it just doesn’t make sense anymore, but ergonomics is something every designer takes into account. Every instrument has limitations, which makes them unique.

    • The Brain

      Don’t mistake the example for the underlying point.  I could have use any musical example to illustrate the exact same point; the fact I said “Bach” rather than “Charlie Parker” or “Jimi Hendrix” is irrelevant.

      Let’s actually think through what you wrote.  First, the instruments you mentioned.  The saxophone and mandolin are instruments whose sounds are generated by mechanical, physical means.  The mandolin requires a taut string and a wooden body.  The saxophone is a brass body with a reed mouthpiece.  The manner then, in which you play the instrument, is mandated by the physical makeup of the instrument–you basically don’t get to choose the way you physically interact with the instrument; ie, you aren’t going to get a saxophone to sound like a saxophone if you try to flick the mouthpiece with your finger rather than make it vibrate with your mouth.  Second, each of the instruments you mentioned reward several manners of physical motion and their refinement through practice; small muscle groups, large muscle groups, the mouth, etc.  Third, instruments don’t choose musical genre, people do.

      Now let’s look at the AlphaSphere.  It is an “instrument” whose sound generation has nothing to do with the physical characteristics of the “instrument”.  The sound generation occurs within a computer.  Ultimately, this means that unlike a physical instrument like a saxophone or mandolin, where the way of physically interacting with the instrument is not a choice, with an instrument that uses computer generated sound, as a designer, you can choose any type of physical movement a human is capable of to trigger the generation of a sound.  If you want to trigger a drum loop, you can click “start” with your mouse; or, you could require a program to use video capture which detects when people do backflips, where only a backflip will trigger the loop.  In any case, the method of triggering the sound is arbitrary, so it is up to the designer to choose a physical movement that they think is well-suited to the sound to be generated.

      In the case of the AlphaSphere, out of all the possibilities of human mechanical motion, the developers chose to use only the large muscle groups.  Not horrible, but it certainly doesn’t take advantage of the refined motions of smaller muscle groupings.  To briefly look at the advantages and disadvantages, large muscle groups give power, don’t tire easily, can withstand long use without much strain or fear of repeated stress injuries; but, they are also clumsy, relatively slow, and capable of few actions per minute, and lack the refinement of smaller muscle groups.  So, now we look at the AlphaSphere: it doesn’t reward the power of the large muscle groups; it doesn’t require the type of endurance and energy you would want to assign them; it negatively emphasizes the slow speed of the large groups due to its large spherical form and differently sized pads (which while triggered with fingers, are far apart and don’t take advantage of the nuances of the fingers), also negatively highlighting the clumsiness and lack of precision and refinement of the large groups.

      Now remember, a controller for a computer can have an arbitrary form of interaction with the computer for aforementioned reasons–why in the world would an instrument designer then choose to choose a single form of mechanical motion and then design an instrument that only negatively affects that physical motion?

      And a computer is capable of many different types of sounds: sounds of traditional instruments, gestural sounds, granular, etc.  The AlphaSphere doesn’t even attempt to address the unique qualities of computer generated audio.  It instead, because of the physical motion that the designers chose, is really only practical for the triggering of things like loops, things which can be controlled easier with existing controllers.  Because of that, and the slow movements of using it, this controller is really only useful for specific genres of loop-based music.  So not only did the designers work against the paradigm of motion they chose to use, they also chose the musical genre for you too (there will be people who use for other things, I know, despite that).

      All of this adds up to just a case of *horrible* instrument design.  The design seems poorly and lazily thought out.  Really, it seems to me that the only question that was asked by the designers was this:  ”How do I look cool on stage, in front of a hipster dance/loop-based music audience, with minimum effort?”  This question it answers relatively well, but it seems to me, only that.  

    • The Brain

      By the way, this is my last post in this article, I’m done discussing the AlphaSphere.

    • Pinky

      Norf. Did you notice this triggers notes on a synth and not loops? (You could of course also use loops). Did you hear the overused wup-wup-wup of the bassline? That was his finger pushing in and out on the pads, in turn that motion alters a parameter like cutoff on a filter or LFO rate. You could link this to anything in your software of choice. Not amazing but definately unique as an interface, and yes of couse you can do this with a keyboard and a mod/pitch wheel or slider etc. 
      Looks good, albiet weird and tacky in a way. I hope it is really responsive irl because that the key with me thinks.
      Norf!

  • http://dietervandoren.net/ dtr

    The one useful ‘unique selling point’ I could see to this is the large travel of the pressure surface (compared this to, for example, the very stiff pressure pads of an M-Audio Triggerfinger which can do continuous CC as well). This has expressive potential. The spherical positioning doesn’t spark my inspiration though. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt but I’ll need to see something else than these totally standard music demo’s to convince me…

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I’m not sure about the sphere arrangement, either. I wonder if the size of the thing is the question, though, rather than the shape. Think about the way a basketball or a baseball fits in your hand. It’s the things’s scale that matters as much as shape in terms of the ergonomics. Now, that’s something you throw through the air, rather than play. (Actually, the basketball you do handle in other ways.) Having something shaped like that can be useful if it’s matched to what can be held in your hand.

      Of course, this also means that there are plenty of ways to interpret spherical design (or other objects, like those strange dodecahedrons we saw earlier). I applaud any effort to think three-dimensionally, partly because it’s a really healthy challenge in design and engineering.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1043803948 Jonathan Graves

    the one advantage i could see with this is using it in teams, as a 2-player instrument. 

  • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

    So, it’s an experiment. 

    If you don’t get behind crazy ideas, you don’t get to find out what could happen with them. The history of instrument invention is people trying out crazy ideas, for aesthetic reasons, to experiment with a gimmick, because they’re curious what it might be like to play. It’s also the reason “play” is the word we use to describe music.

    I have no idea why some very short comments of mine inspired this kind of reaction. Trade shows are generally dull places bathed in fluorescent light. You find something cool and strange and that becomes a focus. I fail to see what’s wrong with that.

    • http://dietervandoren.net/ dtr

       Sure! That’s why I said I’d like to see more inspirational applications of it.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Absolutely. Well, I can say doing demos is tough – worse at a trade show. It can suck the musicality out of anyone. I was referring more to the tone of some comments below, which I found disappointing. (Don’t feed the trolls, I know, but here I run the bridge. I can kick them out if I need to. ;) )

    • The Brain

      Well, I didn’t see this comment before I responded to your comment to my post earlier.  Makes me half want to take a few things back.

      And as far as the controller goes, this doesn’t experiment, and it isn’t a crazy idea.  Take away the spherical form, and it’s like many other controllers of today; this is actually a very lazy idea.  If they want to make an actual crazy idea for people to get behind, they should think more about the manner in which humans physically react to their environment, what the pros and cons of different bodily movements are, and of a form factor less commonplace than a sphere to interact with.

  • con-troll-er

    Look, ya know cool it looks like it’s out of Star Wars or what have you, but if you want to make an experimental music controller, I agree with the previous speaker: it should show some actual experimentation. Compare this with Roger Linn’s Linstrument – that’s an actual attempt to do something with a user interface that gives a player access to playing parameters that a normal controller keyboard doesn’t. Or the touch sensitive keyboard posted earlier, again this is enabling a musician.
    You can cover any ungainly surface in touchpads and call it a controller, but you don’t have to think very hard about this one to realise that it sucks even before you see it. Ok, so call it hypothesis confirmed, a spherical surface is worse than a piano keyboard. Do you now have to build one shaped like a banana?

  • KarlPopper

    Musical instruments should be practical.  They should be powerful. They should let us either do new things or let us do old things in a better way.  There is a good reason knobs, slider, buttons, keys, pads and touchstrips have endured as the primary input devices for EM controllers.  What we need are devices that use these sundry components in new ADVANCED ways, not nifty or cool ways. Putting some components in an arbitrary shape has no value.  Looking cool onstage is more important to people bashing laptop artists than to actual musicians forking over cash for some gear. 

    I agree that innovation comes with dedicated experimentation with new concepts.  Unfortunately, 2 minutes with a basketball is all the experimentation you need to endure before it becomes clear that a sphere is not a great choice of form factor for this application, where the hands must make discrete jumps around the instrument.  A sphere covered in a touch sensitive material makes more sense assuming the user doesn’t need to make too many jumps from front to back.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.zilch Aaron Zilch

          “Looking cool onstage is more important to people bashing laptop artists than to actual musicians forking over cash for some gear.”

           Ummmm, I’d have to disagree there. The lack of a visual connection between the actions of a performer ( which is what you decide to become when you get on a stage, I refuse to take the “it’s supposed to be about the music” excuse for being boring and looking like you are checking email ) and the sound created has been a major obstacle for the acceptance of live laptop performance. If nothing else this product delivers a unique visual element that is fairly easy for even a “civilian” to follow and connect with. Those large muscle group movements it utilizes may not be the most efficient for playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” or a Jordan Rudess solo, but they translate well on a stage. Just ask Pete Townsend. 

          In further example ( since the MPC has been brought up in this thread ), I was watching some Araabmuzik battle footage the other day and picked up on something. His sense of rhythm and finger dexterity are obviously amazing, but it’s also clever programming that goes into making his routines so impressive. The placement of samples on pads are not necessarily done in the most elegant or efficient manner, but in a way that provides for a visually exciting performance and showcases the aforementioned dexterity and speed. 

          Having this controller could wow someone into booking me for more gigs. Thus leading to more chances to expose people to my music, more life experiences to inspire me, and more money to reinvest in (and provide the free time to focus on) more “serious” equipment. So that makes “looking cool onstage” (aka being entertaining) important to me, and by extension, this controller interesting and potentially useful. 

        

    • KarlPopper

       It sounds like you’re more interested in marketing music onstage than in actually crafting art.  Yes, it really is about the music, but not everyone agrees.  And for those there people there are plenty of spandex, skull-and-crossbone guitars, and unnecessarily wild strums.  Personally, I prefer to tune my guitar so that the intervals I need are ready at hand.  It might not look as cool as someone who intentionally freaks out their tuning so everyone can be impressed by their dextrous fingers.  Btw, i love Araabmuzik.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.zilch Aaron Zilch

      That’s cool that you love Araabmuzik and his work has in some way enriched your life. How did you discover his music in the first place though? ;o>

      We all tend to be interested in and value things we are good at, while devaluing and denigrating things that are not our strong suits or that we find threatening to our “territory”. Our personal philosophies, value judgements, and reality tunnels are far more tied into the ego than most of us would like to admit. 

      Of course you might truly not care if anyone ever listens to your music and enjoys or is inspired by it; or if it never takes you anywhere ( I’m talking life experiences/adventures more than fame/finances, though the latter allows better access to the former ). If that’s the case, more power to you. Perform behind a screen on a dark stage, post your music online anonymously for free, and refuse any sort of press exposure.

      Of course people might be intrigued by that. You could become popular. Then some hater on the internet will accuse you of doing it all as a gimmick…

    • Leakeg

      It’s NOT all about the music. Anyone who says that is lying to themselves. The visual element is a huge part of a live show, and people happen to enjoy seeing a physical movement for every sound that is played. Of course on CD it makes no difference, and it should be all about the music, but that is not what we’re talking about here – we’re talking about a  performance, and unless you’re blind, that always involves a visual aspect. If the visual aspect can be used to make the show more enjoyable, why not take advantage of that? It could even be claimed the visual aspect is the only reason we still have live shows! If we can record and playback music what advantage is there to having the original musicians there playing it note for note when you could just have a CD? Because people enjoying WATCHING the music being made.

  • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

    Just to be clear – if anyone had in any way come to the conclusion that I’m now advocating spherical-only controllers, I’m not, though that would be oddly hilarious.

    It’s spring, so — oh, actually, okay, yes, that does mean pollen, so I know allergy symptoms can make people unusually testy.

  • KarlPopper

     Now if the base of the sphere could rotate on a small ‘lazy-susan’ or spindle mounted parrallel or perpendicular to the surface of the table, then you could set up preset fingerings that are accessed through a short spin of the instrument.  There are some interesting possibilities to be realized with spherical control surfaces but they require the acceptance of some extra hardware to make it work.

  • Nodeoner

    Actually, there could be some potential for this. If you look at how a chekere from Cuba is played people can get millions of different sounds and rhythms out of a sphere with beads on it. If there was a accelerometer in this, and you could toss it around, spin it and smack the shit out of it you could probably get a lot of amazing music out of this thing. You could drum on the pads with your fingers while shaking it in a rhythmic fashion, etc. There is potential here and of course it needs some work. The demo video kind of didn’t do much for me. I wish they would make some cool music with this thing and show it being performed in the video. 

    • Adam Cahan

      I’m curious – do many people take the time to do the kind of sophisticated mappings for the kinds of things you’re talking about (which sounds cool, btw). I’d be curious to see a more standardized vocabulary of expression……the one thing that seemed pretty cool in the sphere vid (the promo) was that when the guy was ‘fingering’ (louche, but not sure what else to call it, now that the term’s out of the bag) one of the pads, he was able to control the ‘wobble’ for one of those dub-steppy sounds, kind of being his own LFO. 

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  • Urribarbar

    ебанько

  • http://www.facebook.com/gbevin Geert Bevin

    I had a go on the AlphaSphere too since I’m really interested in new musical instrument, given that I work on the Eigenharp. Here are my totally personal observations, probably heavily distorted given my own work.

    * the AlphaSphere holds potential imho, there’s a nice evolving control over the sound when your finger is sticking into the rubber pads
    * they thought about replacing the pads in case they break, it’s quite easy to do and possible even when at your gig
    * this is NOT like an MPC, as you’re supposed to dig in and express yourself in a continuous fashion
    * they’re making the same mistake as the Eigenharp did at first and only putting accents on the ‘trigger’, ‘looping’ and ‘you can map everything’ aspects, which paint it in a wrong light
    * the spherical layout works quite well and it’s intuitive to get started with, nothing illogical about it, just give it a little while to adapt to and it’s actually fun
    * the pads aren’t sensitive enough yet though, but they’re working on it, currently you have to give it at least a few millimeters of travel before it reacts, it would be much better if it would react to light taps as well
    * the data resolution is only 7 bit, they really need to fix that
    * the ball is way too light and made out of plastic, that sort of wrecks the experience, it moves around as you ‘dig in’ and you have to keep it in place from the other side. To be able to be really expressive with it, they should revise the material they build it out of and give it more weight with probably some surface resistance so that it doesn’t slide around easily
    * the lights are disappointing, I thought they would be cooler from the website, they should exploit that more as they have lots of empty space in the middle

  • http://www.facebook.com/gbevin Geert Bevin

    I had a go on the AlphaSphere too since I’m really interested in new musical instrument, given that I work on the Eigenharp. Here are my totally personal observations, probably heavily distorted given my own work.

    * the AlphaSphere holds potential imho, there’s a nice evolving control over the sound when your finger is sticking into the rubber pads
    * they thought about replacing the pads in case they break, it’s quite easy to do and possible even when at your gig
    * this is NOT like an MPC, as you’re supposed to dig in and express yourself in a continuous fashion
    * they’re making the same mistake as the Eigenharp did at first and only putting accents on the ‘trigger’, ‘looping’ and ‘you can map everything’ aspects, which paint it in a wrong light
    * the spherical layout works quite well and it’s intuitive to get started with, nothing illogical about it, just give it a little while to adapt to and it’s actually fun
    * the pads aren’t sensitive enough yet though, but they’re working on it, currently you have to give it at least a few millimeters of travel before it reacts, it would be much better if it would react to light taps as well
    * the data resolution is only 7 bit, they really need to fix that
    * the ball is way too light and made out of plastic, that sort of wrecks the experience, it moves around as you ‘dig in’ and you have to keep it in place from the other side. To be able to be really expressive with it, they should revise the material they build it out of and give it more weight with probably some surface resistance so that it doesn’t slide around easily
    * the lights are disappointing, I thought they would be cooler from the website, they should exploit that more as they have lots of empty space in the middle

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1285557006 Lee Chaos

    By day, I work with people with disabilities who can’t play regular instruments. By night, I perform live electronic music with audience participation elements. And for both of these reasons, I am *all over* this as an interface.

    Everyone’s coming at this argument from quite a mainstream approach. It’s not going to replace the MPC, but I like kit that encourages musical exploration through movements and gestures that don’t directly relate to existing musical kinetic skills. To be good on an MPC, you need rudimentary drum skills. To be good on the Alphasphere… who knows? You’d start from scratch and learn new playing techniques.

    The fact it’s spherical means it’ll be awesome for group work, installations and lots of other applications. What it *won’t* be good at is being a replacement for something you’ve already got some chops on. No-one’s replacing what you love with an Alphasphere so why hate on it? Love it or leave it.

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