Enough of cheesy MIDI keyboards faking instruments. Yes, it looks embarrassing. Here’s something entirely different.

On the subject of the Haken Continuum, a single, touch-sensitive, continuous-pitch instrumental controller, we can see in a video just how expressive it can be. The Continuum Fingerboard consists of a large, soft playing surface. Press in with your fingers, and three-dimensional sensing responds in pitch and timbre. The range is even greater than an 88-key keyboard in the full-sized model; an optional stand holds it steady (and would look at home on the deck of a Klingon warbird). The instrument, full of carefully-crafted custom engineering, is pricey, however: US$3390 gets you a half-sized model, or $5290 for the full model. But for that money, if you’ve got it, you get a digital instrument resembling something more like an acoustic instrument, and by that standard, it’s a bargain.

Because it’s intended as a controller, that expressive power means little until you pair it with a similarly-responsive sound. And for that, there’s a sophisticated, grain-based, fully-modular sound engine with vast sound capabilities all its own. In fact, the sound engine itself — dubbed Eagen Matrix, after its creator Ed Eagan — is perhaps the most underrated element of the Continuum system, even though the two are designed to work together.

In the video, Ed himself shows us around the patch and its capabilities. Roger Linn actually points us to this video, as he notes his admiration for the Continuum – and showed this off at Moogfest last week.

I play this video at all of my LinnStrument talks, including the Moogfest one. In my view, this is far and away not only the finest example of polyphonically expressive capabilities on an electronic instrument, but also the finest example of a polyphonically expressive traditional instrumental performance on an electronic instrument. When I played this video at Moogfest, it got a huge round of applause. It is worth noting that Continuum was first sold in 1999, which speaks very highly of Lippold Haken’s profound forward thinking and design creativity.

There's a modular digital synth to go with that Continuum - and it's capable of some incredible sounds.

There’s a modular digital synth to go with that Continuum – and it’s capable of some incredible sounds.

I think it’s even more encouraging to see the Continuum alongside the Linnstrument. If the Linnstrument gets closer to the US$1000-1500 range, it would be in reach of those who can’t afford a Continuum – and offers a portability solution and hybrid with square pad performance paradigms. But with more of these sorts of instruments (the Madrona Soundplane being another fine example), we begin to reach a critical mass of expressive instruments. Just as modular synthesizers have grown in success as they’ve multiplied, a greater range of expressive controllers could transform the category from outlying edge case into something with its own scene. And that seems long overdue.

And just as some people are immediately drawn to a violin, others to a double bass, I imagine these choices only provide more opportunities for would-be players.


The Continuum Gets Better

For its part, the Continuum hasn’t stood still. Recently, it has added the Continuum Voltage Converter (CVC), allowing interfacing with analog instruments. There’s also new hardware expanding polyphony:

Haken Audio’s Continuum EaganMatrix Expander (CEE) provides increased polyphony for EaganMatrix sounds. The EaganMatrix Expander triples the computation power of the Continuum Fingerboard, thereby tripling the polyphony of EaganMatrix sounds. This increased polyphony is most useful for EaganMatrix sounds that require polyphony greater than the number of fingers simultaneously touching the surface, such as percussive sounds with releases that continue to sound after the finger is lifted from the playing surface.

Combined with associated updates to firmware and software, the updated package was on view at the booth I shared with Haken at ALEX4 at Musikmesse in March.

CV, anyone?

CV, anyone?

Full description of the video:

This video is a demonstration of the VlnVlaCelBass sound on the Continuum Fingerboard, performed by Edmund Eagan. This EaganMatrix string sound has been programmed to take advantage of the Continuum’s fast and accurate pressure sensing. Playing this sound with low velocity finger movement will create a smooth gentle start to each note. After the note starts volume and timbre changes can be applied by changing the pressure on the surface.

When played with a harder finger velocity, the sound gets more aggressive in it’s attack. This is due to the inclusion of timbre data that represents a real string attack.

The name of the sound includes the four names of the orchestral string family, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, reflecting the combined pitch range of these instruments. The sound is equally convincing and expressive at all pitches, even at the extremes.
Pressing the first foot pedal activates a mono mode which makes it easier to play fast monophonic intervals, such as whole tone or minor third trills.

The overall tonal character of the instrument can be changed by moving the Size barrel. Lower values of Size will create a larger sounding instrument, higher values a smaller one.

The VlnVlaCelBass uses the GrainSilo in the EaganMatrix, with a timbre element called Vla Sustained. The original source for this timbre element came from the first 100 milliseconds of a single note preformed by Rudolf Haken on a Pellegrina 5 string viola. This 100 milliseconds contains essential attack and sustain spectra. Through the power of the EaganMatrix formula structures, control of the timbre elements reference point, fundamental, spectral rolloff, spectral shift, and amplitude is mapped to the playing surface. The three dimensional performance of each finger can translate into exquisite control of this finite piece of data.

For more:

  • Edmund Eagan

    Thanks for the kind article Peter!

    • gli


      what an enriching experience to watch this performance!

    • http://torley.com/ ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓

      Yes, isn’t it absurd how one must reach with another hand to get to the mod wheel/pitch bend on a traditional, piano-style keyboard? Why isn’t more nuance built into the keys/playing surface itself? (Aftertouch, you are woefully underused.)

      It vexed me as a child that after I played a note on the piano, all it could do is get softer — a lingering heat death artificially prolonged by the sustain pedal, perhaps, but no allowance to swoop in between the keys.

      These “3D controllers” are not the future — they are the present. Albeit, to paraphrase William Gibson, the present is “unevenly distributed”.

      It infuriates me that such amazing tools with an uncanny range of articulation aren’t widespread enough to have marketing muscle that sells them to a mass market, thus lowering cost and improving production scale. I hate, HATE seeing such a wonderful instrument be limited to the “boutique” category for “serious” musicians with $$$. For so many can benefit from awareness of this heighted tactility.

      When devices like the Continuum and Linnstrument cease to be rare curiosities and education makes children aware of the possibilities, then we’ll have transported onto a fresh, invigorating hyperlane that is as much a shift in the electronic music world as the iPhone/smartphone convergence was for telephony.

      Edmund, you have no idea how many times I’ve watched this video on loop… well, now at least you know I’m a YUGE (as Donald Trump would say) admirer. This one of the finest examples of a performance that could come from a parallel universe, and yet, here it is!

      (Peter, the “Klingon warbird” comment cracked me up — some time ago I remarked that the Continuum’s stand has curves like a Bat’leth. An instrument like this can also a lot more life into sci-fi scores depicting alien homeworlds.)

    • Edmund Eagan

      Hi Torley, thank you, and I agree 100% with your comments. Lippold and I have talked about price points with a “mass produced” Continuum. It’s even more doable these days as the Continuum is really a renaissance instrument, in the sense that the hardware design parameters have been refined over the last decade. We haven’t done any significant hardware changes recently. It’s a very stable musical platform in that respect. So the risk is relatively low in a mass production run, in the sense that the hardware is a proven concept. What we have been working on is constantly improving the software and the EaganMatrix, including some exciting new and unique physical modelling technologies that will be available in the next firmware release.

      BTW if you want to see more Continuum playing from me, I recently uploaded a video to Vimeo that I am very proud of. – https://vimeo.com/93464586

      All the best,

    • http://torley.com/ ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓

      Ed, what a joy to hear from you — it’s also good to know you’ve discussed this further with Lippold (who has been so very gracious in his correspondence with me as well). I understand practical market realities dictate growth in some ways, and I’m glad when a toolmaker is rewarded (and not just financially) for their innovation and contribution to creativity in a given field. It stimulates further contributions, despite risks.

      I have tremendous respect for the Continuum being a mature, long-term product. So many hardware/software synths nowadays feel like “genre of the month”-type things that aren’t designed to transcend shifts in musical taste, which is severely disappointing. I appreciate when the creators of a platform don’t know what exactly what will transpire with it, and are surprised by the ingenuity of the customers.

      I get inspired seeing the Continuum used in such versatile manners, whether it’s your playing style, or Jordan Rudess’ rippin’ leads, or Amon Tobin’s crunchy springs. Roger Linn has made astute observations about that sort of thing here: http://www.coolhunting.com/tech/interview-roger-linn.php

      Virtuosity of having mastered a musical instrument doesn’t go out of style, and that’s why whether it’s a Continuum or a wooden violin/fiddle, I love seeing and hearing an excellent performance.

      I recall first seeing Time Dilation a few years ago. Really beautiful. It’s another great one to feature on here, sort of like a Koyaanisqatsi of synthesis.

  • Chris

    This is exciting, witnessing a small leap in digital instrument evolution. I wonder what this performance would look like sequenced?