As electronic musical instruments have evolved, it’s been surprisingly easy to point to specific designs that lead others. Creators do often reach the same cluster of ideas at about the same time. But the specifics of how those ideas catch on have very often coalesced around one iconic instrument.

Bill Hemsath’s layout, with Bob Moog, for the Minimoog became the standard for monosynth keyboards with knobs. Roger Linn’s design for velocity-sensitive pads, and eventually the MPC 4×4 grid, became the standard for drum machines.

And Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain I think deserve credit for making the 8×8 grid the dominant interface for sampling and sequencing with computers, with the monome. This isn’t just aesthetic, but functional, too. The marching, light-up step sequencer, the use of grids to play different sample slices, the division of the grid into multi-functional triggers for different software features, all come from the monome or the monome community. And, accordingly, in both layout and software function, hardware from Novation, Akai, Ableton, and others all follow the monome template.

In the face of that competition, the monome design itself hasn’t changed much. It’s still monochromatic, still an unadorned array of triggers – no additional buttons or encoders on the side. There’s still no velocity sensitivity. What has changed is that the monome project has distilled a kind of manifesto about what they’re doing.

Much of this centers on a focus on “minimalistic” design:

we seek less complex, more versatile tools: accessible yet fundamentally adaptable. we believe these parameters are most directly achieved through minimalistic design, enabling users to more quickly discover new ways to work, play, and connect. we see flexibility not as a feature but as a foundation.

Minimalism for its own sake is fairly unconvincing. What the monome project and its community have managed to do, however, is make a compelling musical case for those decisions. It’s the musical output that remains monome’s best marketing. What seems to be just a set of buttons, what seems indeed very much unlike an instrument, is able to produce astonishing musical variety. The music can say less is more. A new compilation video shows these in brief:

pieces of monome from tehn on Vimeo.

But let’s take a look at each of these individually.

“meadowphysics” is perhaps the most interesting of these. Here, the human operator triggers a set of generative rules; the limited interface (the buttons) can produce more musical results by way of algorithmic chains of events.

meadowphysics from tehn on Vimeo.

meadowphysics is a tangled cascade counter with rapid tactile rule changing.
each row counts down, triggering an event when it hits zero on the left. this can be a drum hit, a parameter change, a synth note, etc.
upon hitting zero each row can be instructed to tell other rows to count down by one. which rows are set by pushing the leftmost column. in this way each row can cross-influence one another in simple or complex ways.
only the top row is triggered internally, as a sort of master clock. in the simplest arrangement, the master clock can simply trigger every row, and you get a relatively normal cascading counter, or polyrhythm generator such a flin.
small grid attached to aleph soundcomputer running a drum synthesis module. large grid attached to computer running monome-sum synth via teletype.
performed live.

I think it’s worth, then, realizing that the monome is not only the product of years of grids in the Roger Linn / MPC vein, but also the work of people like Toshio Iwai. Iwai’s Tenori-On with Yamaha may not have caught on, but Iwai’s work on music as interactive compositional game dates even earlier, to work in the 90s, as part of a scene of this kind of music. The reason monome can appeal more than Tenori-On is perhaps the ease of changing the software on the computer – Tenori-On’s limited repertoire of musical games, in other words, didn’t ultimately stick with musicians.

Galagoose (Trent Gill) has been personally involved in that software evolution. Even as the hardware has remained the same, he has continuously iterated on software.

It’s also evident how the monome can be a performance instrument, in the hands of Trent or artists like early-adopter (first adopter, even) Daedelus. The relationship is transparent to the audience in the way most live sets still aren’t, not so much because of the presence or absence of a computer, but because the actual rhythms are directly connected to the gesture of the player. It’s I think the rhythmic disconnect that makes computer performances so opaque. (I’m a pro, and half the time I can’t tell what’s going on.) Here, it’s all about rhythm.

galapagoose (trent gill) performing “ssensse” using monome grids and the software mlrv and mesh.

ssensse from tehn on Vimeo.

sum is, appropriately, a combination of these two approaches. Here, you see the essence of rhythmic access, combined with the sense of the grid as a window into a collection of apps – ultra-simple, generative machines.

monome sum, in part from tehn on Vimeo.

a little musical demonstration using an application called monome sum, a collection of grid instruments including flin, step, gome, corners, mlr and beams. all sounds are generated with the use of the built in synth, effects, presets and included samples. you can download the open source program here:

In aleph breakfast, we see the monome grid at home next to aleph, the ultra-limited standalone DSP computer from the same makers, and modular instruments.

aleph breakfast from tehn on Vimeo.

no laptops involved.
aleph and grid. dual step sequencer running within bees, driving euro modular synth via cv, continuous and gates. audio from modular synth fed back into the aleph and processed by the lines delay module with filters and feedback.
the sequencer shows two timelines which can have their position and loop lengths cut dynamically, a sort of performance step sequencer. these are the top four rows, showing the playback position and loop length per timeline.
the bottom four rows are the data bits, or notes. some rows are mapped to triggers attached to the envelope generators via cv output.
aleph knobs are mapped to feedback, delay time, filter cutoff.
i see infinity in this tiny white box.

It’s an expensive combination, but the ultra-high-res encoders of arc really do extend monome nicely, by allowing you to reach beyond the limitations of the grid.

de route – søren andreasen from tehn on Vimeo.

improvisation by søren andreasen using monome arc four and one twenty eight using tailored software.

As design projects, I have to say, I admire the ingenuity of the software here.

Limitations – the absence of parameter control on the grid of on/off buttons with on/off lights – can be a platform for creativity. I had a composition teacher once talk about putting yourself in a cage, then rattling the bars of the cage. Others talked in slightly less violent terms, but it’s clear that restrictions and rules can be a way of focusing compositional ideas. And that’s the genius of monome: its minimalism makes it a compositional frame. The music that comes out can be more than that grid; what you do with the grid becomes even greater in importance.

Less, but more?

That said, maybe it’s time to start criticizing the monome itself. (I’ll say this: it’s worth criticizing. Not everything is. This is hardware with a point of view.)

It’s absolutely beautiful that the monome lacks labels and icons, extra buttons, displays. It remains distinct from other hardware like Ableton Push in that those devices have become increasingly tied to software. They become nonsensical without the computer applications. You could go as far as saying they’re extensions of software marketing, but I don’t think that’s fair. Rather, they’re physical manifestations of a set of computer software behaviors. The problem is, what makes them work so clearly with the software also makes them poorer at adapting to anything else. And unlike the hardware of the past, that functionality is always somewhere else.

The clever trick of monome, then, is the way it deals with the disconnect between software and hardware. It is as generic as possible, so that it can adapt to any software. And that aspect is wonderful.


I recall my first complaint about the monome, which was its lack of velocity sensitivity. For a time, watching the trajectory of the monome community and the music around it, I began to regret that comment. It was clear, at least, that it didn’t matter to everyone, and that in itself was (and is) interesting.

The problem is, it still matters to me, quite a lot. Listen to the examples above. The aesthetic of the music is essentially flat; you may find dynamic variations in the content of the samples, but because you can’t control any degree of expression in parameters directly, there’s a great deal of repetition of samples at the same volume level.

The musician is given the ability to control which button is triggered, and you can do a whole lot with expression simply using the aspect of time. But the problem is, you’re still playing an on/off instrument. Nothing about the physical gesture you make apart from time is reflected in the sound.

Amplitude is to me an essential element; it’s no accident that the Theremin, given only two parameters, chose the axes of pitch and amplitude. And consider the above examples. The monome took the 4×4 grid Roger Linn introduced on the MPC (or the 6×3 matrix of the Linn 9000) and expanded it as a matrix with independent light. But by removing velocity and pressure, monome’s pads represent a regression.

Oddly, building such a parameter into the sensor below the trigger itself ought to keep with monome’s minimalistic philosophy, because it adds expression to the same interface without requiring any additional controls. In fact, both the velocity of striking the trigger and ongoing pressure then become usable. (Tilt has been added experimentally to monomes, but that’s it.)

There is a certain cult of expression in digital interfaces, one that believes that they should behave more like conventional acoustic instruments. This phenomenon usually results in the idea that you need more data – audio streams to reproduce expression. To me, while it can be an admirable course, this doesn’t entirely reflect either the beauty of having an instrument with acoustic properties, or the inherent flexibility of a digital interface. Digital instruments are compositional as much as they are about physical performance; they embody structures, rules, and decisions, not only the connection of movement to sound. And so you can have a digital instrument like the monome that removes input and still produce something musical – just musical in a different way than, say, a violin.

monome is an elegant demonstration that you can take away input data and still create something expressive. In an age of high-resolution displays, it has pixel counts you can count on your fingers. And it shows that less can be more musically, too.

But all that might still not erase the desire to use the sensor to measure more than on/off.

While monome has produced physical variations and grids of different sizes, most of the recent developments on the hardware side have been side excursions. We’ve gotten the arc, a set of encoders. We’ve gotten aleph, a self-contained computer. What we haven’t seen is any significant revision to the monome itself.

I remain for that reason optimistic about Roger Linn’s own forthcoming addition to the field:
Roger Linn’s Linnstrument Could Finally Make Grids Expressive for Music [Hands On]

In the meantime, other options: you can certainly use a Maschine (in MIDI mode), a Push (always sends and receives via MIDI), something like the Livid Base (recently updated, in fact, as Base II), or – ideal as it supports MIDI and OSC and lots of expression – the Keith McMillen QuNeo.

“Keep it simple and it’ll last forever,” as Massimo Vignelli said. And the monome certainly appears to do that. But sometimes, great design deserves a sequel.

The design of monome remains so fresh, so inspiring, once paired with software, that to me it’s worth asking: what if a design could be just as minimal, but deeper? I hope someone takes on that challenge.

I think it’s worth challenging ourselves with these ideas, too – as builders, as patchers, as artists. We can always work harder to create Weniger, aber besser (less, but better).

  • Microwave Prince

    #beard #hipsters #toys #wannabeproducers #zerotalent . seriously, they are just masking their lack of talent with thoose overcomplicated setups.

    • Peter Kirn

      They designed the software and (in some cases) hardware they’re using. Seems a fair amount of talent required to do that. And Brian’s pretty good on the keys.

      You may be a talented speed reader, though, in that I think this had been published for a matter of seconds before you commented.

      Of course, that means you also skipped my own criticism of the lack of revisions of the monome hardware.

      I am personally also of the opinion that I don’t need something like the aleph or those modular rigs, which is good, as I simply don’t have the budget – whether they’re worth the budget or not, it isn’t an option. I know I’m not alone.

      Curious what you view as talented.

    • Microwave Prince

      I use grid controllers myself and yes, i know that they all come from monome, but whole monome scene nowadays is just a hipster thing with zero inovation.

    • Peter Kirn

      You realize calling something a “hipster thing” doesn’t actually make any actual argument, right?

      As for “innovation,” well… no, never worked out what that word means either.

    • foljs

      “””You realize calling something a “hipster thing” doesn’t actually make any actual argument, right?”””

      Doesn’t it? It’s a value judgement.

      The same kind of accusations always worked for Lester Bangs for example.

    • spoonfeeder

      defining a whole community by committing to not actually defining them.
      you are wonderfully absurd

    • foljs

      “””They designed the software and (in some cases) hardware they’re using. Seems a fair amount of talent required to do that. “””

      Not much. Thousands of people design their own hardware controllers. With the ready made components available and tools like Max/SMP it nowadays takes a below being an actual programmer level of skill.

    • Peter Kirn

      There are millions of people writing in C and millions of people using hardware CAD products. Actually, I should ask, what do you even mean by talent?

    • foljs

      Development wise?

      Well, Robert Henke for one. Or Magnus Lidström.

    • lokey

      folks who criticize others for lack of talent tend to do so to mask their own insecurities.

    • foljs

      Yeah, so if I say Justin Bieber has no talent, it’s because I have some insecurity.

      BS pop psychology aside,

      1) everyone has some insecurities, and
      2) you can critisize people for lack of talent without having anything to do with (1).

      Some people, you just legitimately think they suck.

      Matter of fact, you yourself makes a value judgement with regards to talent with every record you don’t buy or listen to and hate. It’s impossible to care about music and not make such judgements, except if you find everything equally good and everyone equally talented.

    • lokey

      theres a rather large gap between disliking someone, and criticizing them for lack of talent on an internet forum. nuff said.

      and for the record, its entirely possible to care about music without hate and judgement.

    • foljs

      “””and for the record, its entirely possible to care about music without hate and judgement.”””

      Yeah, but were is the passion then?

      Even though much younger than that, I grew up with Lester Bangs and the like.

  • Kim

    There’s something not quite right, something stifling in all this never-capitalize-any-word, always-place-your-instrument-on-really-woody-crafty-looking-wood, oh-it’s-so-real-and-plain-and-the-music-(which sounds so much the same so much of it)-is-generated-by-systems-almost-only-or-mostly, all those gentle hands skipping up from the little pads in such similar fashion. When the whole idea is a kind of freedom, why so homogenous? Where is the dirt? I realize this is a kind of unfair comment and that styles of music or ways of playing almost always comes with it’s own scene which comes with it’s own aesthetic, it’s just here with the implied idea of freedom from specific software (or even a typical computer) just mean another kind of specificity, similarity. The monome is like the MUJI of musical instruments (and I like MUJI sometimes, but if my whole life had to look like that, I’d kill myself.

    Thanks for making CDM by the way. You’re doing an amazing job. Really enjoy it.

    • Sequadion

      I agree that there seems to be a common theme in the design, the software, the branding and even the community, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At least they have a consistent message, and I appreciate that. However, it can get boring very quickly, especially if you’re not a diehard fan of that particular aesthetic.

    • bpt


    • Kim

      You’re right, it’s really not nescessarily a bad thing.

    • gli

      curious, do you consider the music boring from the perspective of a listener/viewer or user?
      its true that a varied setup can make your music unique, distinct, personal…but even if you just focus on using a grid controller nothing prevents you from sounding singular

    • Sequadion

      I’m sure it’s great fun to play around with these controllers and make a few videos, but as a listener I just don’t find the resulting music to be pleasing or even interesting. I feel the same way about modular synth noodling.
      These videos are clearly not meant as proper compositions or performances, only to demonstrate the capabilities of certain devices, and that’s OK. They just don’t get me all excited and intrigued, but that’s just me.

    • gli

      fair enough
      There is really nothing about the apps or the grids themselves which yield a specific style. You can make anything you want with them.

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, I prefer it to the quality of most marketing videos in the musical instruments business. I mean, what you’re seeing – that’s their actual house/property, their hands, their music. The videos here are all produced by Brian and Kelli, and most even involve them as the artists.

      It’s not even a *scene* – it’s two people who live together, shooting their own performances or the performances of friends. So if it seems really produced or like it’s a whole scene or aesthetic, then they’re perhaps victims of their own talent at producing these films.

      For more variety, try a search like this:

      Dig through to the variety of videos there, and you’ll find all kinds of players.

      But there should be room for other builders, too. I wrote about MFB last week; there’s sort of the opposite of the monome site and aesthetic. 😉

    • foljs

      “””It’s not even a *scene* – it’s two people who live together, shooting their own performances or the performances of friends. “””

      Well, *they* are not a scene. But there’s a huge scene of similar people, with similar music, outlook, look and sensibilities, and a lot of them even use their products too.

      I guess it’s kinda how hippie musicians all looked the same, and prog musicians all looked the same, and heavy metal musicians all looked and sounded the same, and punk musicians and so on.

      But I’d rather go for the offbeat ones — the Captain Beefheart instead of the 1000th blues-rock band a la Rolling Stones etc.

    • Peter Kirn

      Right, but … Daedelus’s music sounds nothing like Brian’s music. Hell, Alfred’s beard looks nothing like Brian’s current beard.

      And that’s just user #1. We’ve covered other monome players here, and they’re doing really different things. Of course, there are some common threads in that market, and the monome has a fairly small user base. But these films above were all produced by Brian and Kelli, and they have a consistent aesthetic, so of course they look the same. To say that the same is true of the rest of all monome users just doesn’t square with the facts.

      You couldn’t judge the Ableton user base by looking at the promo video for Push, either. So yes, I think it’s unfair.

    • freezedream

      My two cents: I think you’re right about the particular image that these boutique instruments portray and their aesthetic will definitely be attractive to people with a similar mentality towards design, style and aesthetics. They want electronic music to be portable and not overcomplcated. They want a basic yet sleek physical interface that will be usable in all kinds of enviroments. They are seeking simplicity and minimalism in their products and their website – which I think looks lovely, by the way. It’s not just about practicality or functionality but also about design – which is why you’ll pay more money for “less” if you buy a boutique product like the monome compared to a cheaply constructed, more mass-produced product from a large mainstream company. At the end of the day, you’re paying for the aesthetic when buying from a boutique company (Teenage Engineering is another good example).

    • gli

      I think you raise a valid point about the sound melting into sameness…the other stuff is of no concern to me.

      When I first heard a compilation of monome users i noticed a similar aesthetic thumbprint among *some* songs. But that has nothing to do with the hardware & software instruments themselves.

      I see where you’re coming from.

      All I really care about is the sounds I can make with their tools and I definitely dont feel limited or constrained by the grids and other monome products.

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, since I raised a similar issue, my concern was that the absence of velocity and pressure means that you’re restricted in how you play these patches. Now, load different sample content into them and you still can make them sound fairly different. You can also go and build your own patch.

    • foljs

      “””When the whole idea is a kind of freedom, why so homogenous? “””

      Kraut rock and such genres was about freedom. Post-punk. No-wave. Independent electronica. Etc.

      This is about hipsters tinkering with toys — and that the emphasis is on the toys, not the music is telling.

      The wood board, the minimal environment, the oh-so-perfectly messy wires and stomp boxes, that feature in most of those scenes are also cookie cutter.

      And it’s always those unshaven 20 year olds or/with the inevitable hippie chick (either a cliche or a sexist accessory) doing it, also.

      Even if it’s from Odessa, Oklahoma, Lowell or Salt Lake City, this scene is Portland at heart.

    • Peter Kirn

      Kraut rock and post-punk and no-wave and electronica all had parallel complaints dumped on them. Maybe they deserved it, but – well, certainly they had people lashing out at the people making the music on a superficial level.

      It’s not clear to me what your complaint about the music is, actually, because we never get to that.

      The “inevitable hippie chick” here is the other half of the monome project, Kelli, who has been closely involved with design and operating the business. So, as far as sexism, I think you might want to evaluate your own comments.

      And they’re in New York State, by way of Philadelphia. All due respect to Portland and its contributions to the world, but no, Portland can’t take credit for everything.

      As for the idea that they’re 20 years old, well, that’s also wrong, if substantially more flattering.

      So, you’ve distorted music history, you mis-identified the people in the pictures, and you have your geography wrong. What was the actual complaint again? I can’t remember.

    • foljs

      “””It’s not clear to me what your complaint about the music is, actually, because we never get to that.”””

      That it’s not actual music from a passionate artist, it’s merely derivative fashionable use of gadgets plus some mannerisms.

      It’s not something like “that D# in bar 4 was wrong” or “needs more bass”…

      As for the other things, you’d notice I didn’t comment particularly on this exact video, but on the whole scene (monome and similar gadgets, DIY or not).

      As for getting the “geography wrong”, I wrote: “Even if it’s from Odessa, Oklahoma, Lowell or Salt Lake City, this scene is Portland at heart.”

      Meaning the whole kind of hippie / hipster hybrid.

    • Robert Chambers

      You assumed one of the developers was there as an accessory because she’s a woman.

    • Kim

      Well, I’m as guilty as anyone of being a hipster tinkering with toys then. My initial comment was lighthearted at best, flippant at worst. Whatever genre of music you play (and whatever the quality of wood you do it on) as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, then I think more power to you. There is no way designing something like the Aleph doesn’t require ridiculous amounts of work and enthusiasm, which is great and which I didn’t mean to disrespect. My own first comment was just my gut reaction to what I perceive as a kind of ideology almost of a balmy no-label uncapitalized we-are-free whiteness, but which becomes just as fixed and narrow as whatever it’s attempting to be different from. In hindsight I think I was being a little disingenuous. Or I was the one taking it a little bit too seriously.

  • gli

    excellent excellent article mr.kirn
    i must be one of the few that prefer no velocity on my pads (i primarily use an sp 404 or greycale 64 when sampling)
    felt like a toddler when i recently used my friends MPK during a jam session…my brain has been conditioned to expect all types of touches to register an identical sonic output
    it was kind of funny

    • Peter Kirn

      Ha. Well, there are definitely advantages in certain cases to losing velocity.

      Though, in other news, we will shortly get to ponder why Roland decided to make the AIRA System-1 without velocity sensitivity.

    • stumm

      If you have velocity sensitivity you can chose to turn it off…specially if it were the case with the monome. System-1 is a bass synth right? Not many bass synths exist with vel. sens. I think I just puked in my mouth a little replying on Roland’s behalf..

  • Taylor

    Admittedly, I’ve never used a Monome (am I allowed to capitalize it?), but it seems the buttons are too small and tightly packed to play it as drum pads, making velocity sensitivity less useful. The velocity sensitive grid interfaces I can think of at this moment all have larger pads. Aftertouch, perhaps, would be more useful for the monome.

    I suppose I would try to do parameter locking with the Arc (ha! capitalized!) to vary velocity and other parameters, and use the Monome as a sequencer.

    • Peter Kirn

      Your Affection for Capitalization will make you deeply enjoy naming Nouns here in the Country of Germany. 😉

  • Bjørn Næsby

    As a pure design aesthetic, the monome has certainly something special going for it. One particular experience comes to mind: shortly after having gotten a monome 128, I got a visit from a friend of mine. She knew that I was producing music, and liked some of the things I was putting out – but was not otherwise really not interested in the hardware or software at all. Or so I thought – because, the moment she saw the monome sitting on my desk, she practically yelled out “what is THAT? I LOVE that thing!!”.

    Also, I believe the monome (and other of Brians creations) deserves credit for pushing the open sound protocol. It’s now pretty commonplace, at least in music software. Not sure it would have gone much beyond the relatively limited world of Max/MSP and PD otherwise.

    • Peter Kirn

      Yes, absolutely. monome popularized the idea that OSC could be important to hardware interaction, even before the iPad was on the scene. I think the contribution to the grid idea and the way the controller interacts with these software ‘apps’ was more far-reaching — and OSC has benefited a lot from what’s happened in the visual world and with iOS. But it’s a part of it.

  • Robin Parmar

    Apple are likely to blame for people confusing good design with the colour grey and rounded corners. Instead, good design is about fitness for task. An “interface” without any feedback is a terrible piece of kit. That’s not opinion, that’s design principles in action.

    For a generic controller to be any good, it needs two-way transfer of information. This would commonly mean an LCD screen or LEDs or something… anything to let you know what the controls are actually doing. Otherwise you need to memorise unnecessary stuff or keep looking at the laptop, both of which defeat the purpose.

    For the monome to grow up, it would have to acknowledge that minimal is NOT better when it means keeping the user/musician in the dark.

    • Peter Kirn

      Yes, but then there’s a one-to-one relationship of LED to button trigger on monome.

      Some of the patches for me get overly complex, with buttons triggering different modes and the like. I like the simpler ones. On the other hand, I can see that people can memorize these functions, and even get to the point of muscle memory – especially if they’ve made their own patch.

    • Robin Parmar

      Muscle memory should not be underestimated. Good point.

    • gli

      This probably means a flexible grid interface doesnt fit your workflow. Which is fine. I’d like to see some changes in the next gen monome designs but a decoupled LED interface is a core principle of their devices.

      No design is universally loved because we all have individual characteristics and preferences. We all think differently.

      That is what makes creating interfaces so challenging.

    • Robin Parmar

      Actually grids don’t suit my own music at all, but that was not what I was addressing. It is possible to study interface design apart from one’s personal needs. It’s called HCI. 😉

    • gli

      Which is why said it’s a challenge (certainly not impossible). Some of the same things that you consider poor interface design have attracted others to these blank grids.

      There is plenty of feedback coming from an LED array itself and the computer host. Is it the kind of feedback you are looking for? Apparently not.

    • spoonfeeder

      you do know there is more than one way to address the LED correct?
      it isn’t just on/off it has 16 levels of discreet brightness you can also blink the leds at different rates to signify different functions. Between those two functions a meaningful interface is as simple as coding it for yourself if you need more information

  • spoonfeeder

    arc for gesture

  • mercurial

    Ah, the monome – The awesomely pointless product of clueless, bloodless white people (and I’m white, btw). Here’s reality: Minimalism is, for any actual _musician_ working with electronics, simply the very last thing you want in a controller. Period. Why? Music has dynamics. It has variation (monome creators, you’re familiar with “music”, aren’t you? You know, that jangly, boomy stuff between the commercials?) and unless you’re in the world of chiptunes, it’s not created by simply switching sounds on and off. If you’re attempting to make anything resembling actual music, odds are that at some point along the line, you’ll want expressive capability. This means the ability to translate as much of the moment-to-moment, personal, human expression through the instrument at hand, via touch. Remove this, and you have bunch of on/off switches. Further, not labeling each button puts a huge burden of cognitive effort onto the musician, having to remember what they all do at any given moment. So what do you really have, ultimately, with a grid controller? A matrix of blank on/off switches whose functions you have to waste a lot of effort keeping track of. While this is apparently useful to a particular subset of people, an expressive musical controller it isn’t. And really, it’s even a giant fail as just a button matrix, because buttons, amazingly, tend to have labels. Nobody wants to have to guess or remember what a particular one does, especially while making music. The very idea of this nonsense “minimalist” controller design is so epically wrongheaded and misses the point of what a good expressive electronic instrument controller should be that it’s hard to fathom.

    Newsflash, monome people – You’re not saving the planet with your “minimalism”; You’re just making a stupid product. And as much as it might fill the purchaser with a South Park / Prius-owner-esque swell of smug pride as it emerges from its 168% “green” packaging (made entirely from recycled copies of Computer Music Journal!), the fact remains that truly good controllers need to provide the musician with a wealth of expressive possibilities and complete clarity as to what everything does at all times. This necessarily engenders significant cost, and trying to make an “econo” and “eco-friendly” version by removing the very attributes that would allow such a device to perform its intended task properly is another illustration of the above wrongheadedness. These blank grids will inevitably be relegated to the trashcan of history. Roger Linn has (again) got it right; xyz touch sensitivity is where it’s at if you’re trying to, well, express anything via an electronic instrument.

    • mercurial

      …and a slight grammatical correction to my above post: “This means the ability to translate as much of the moment-to-moment,
      personal, human expression _as possible_ through the instrument at hand, via touch.”

    • gli

      Mastering the nuances of any instrument requires “cognitive effort”.
      Plenty of monome users label their grids. Others don’t. Its not the end of the world.

    • emanuel davis

      I don’t think there are any rules to making music. How many people play MPC pads at ‘full levels’ (no velocity)? Many. A lot of people make tracks clicking into a DAW’s grid using a mouse without the sequence even playing. They they play it back, then change something, then play it back, etc. Monome is at least immediate. Volume is only one aspect of sound, one part of expression. There are other pad-based controllers that have more features: velocity/pressure sensitive pads, RGB lights, etc, but you rarely see the effort put into stretching boundaries like the Monome. Sure it’s just a bunch of lighted on/off switches, but that’s with makes it amazing. Think about how simple any input device is: your computer keyboard, mouse or a joystick. How has the world been changed and affected by those things?

    • Peter Kirn

      I don’t think “minimalist” meant specifically “let’s leave out velocity/pressure.”

      I thought I addressed some of this without the … uh … anger.

      So, I can translate what you’ve written above thusly:

      “I prefer a grid with pressure/velocity.”

      And you can buy one, actually, from a number of vendors. No hostility needed, really.

    • mercurial

      Nope, it goes _way_ deeper than that. You oversimplified my point, or at the very least, ignored half of it.

      Let me try it this way:

      If you’re a musician with any level of subtlety to your touch, the two key attributes that are going to enable your creativity when you’re in front of an electronic instrument are A) its ability to translate the above subtleties of touch into (hopefully high-resolution) control information, and B) transparency of controls. That is, being able to play in as much of a right-brained/purely creative state as you can muster, never having to think about the function of a particular physical control (for the purposes of this discussion, I’m operating under the outlandish assumption that the point of a controller is to make direct, creative, expressive input into an instrument easy and immediate.)

      The monome and all similar blank grid controllers make this completely impossible.

      This isn’t about my tastes or opinions – of course people work differently and have different priorities – It’s just a fact. Music involves dynamics and variation, and well-designed devices make things easy for people. A big field of identical, unlabeled, non-pressure/velocity-sensitive buttons makes nothing easy for people – As a true musical instrument interface, it’s just useless. It’s a bunch of blank on/off switches capable of translating 0% of a musician’s expression, and is no more a “musical controller” than the big, heavy 1890s-era copper blade-switch electrical panel that I’m in the process of Arduino-ing into a simple control device for use, somehow, in my studio, just for fun.

      Last time I looked, 0 was not a lot of percent, if you will allow me an obscure Simpsons reference.

      And as far as perceived “anger” goes, I’d say it’s more irritation at products that miss the point in such a profound way. Aside from the blank controls and lack of sensitivity, there’s also the fact that a grid is itself just a bad idea from a UI design point of view, as there is no way to properly organize/subdivide/label it in ways one might desire, and equidistant, blank switches are near-impossible to do anything useful with (unless you were perhaps using them as pixels to create very crude, basic overall shapes, somehow.)
      One immediately has a problem with such a design, as the eye can’t easily differentiate one identical button from the next, creating nothing but instant confusion.

      If you’re trying to make great hardware, it must also be said that the first consideration can’t be how “green” your product is, or how cheap – As far as the latter goes, there’s been quite enough of that. While these are both admirable and worthy objectives, they have nothing to do with the requirements of good design. The musical instrument world is overflowing with terrible, cheap, plastic $500 controllers that aim for the lowest common denominator at precisely the moment in time when we have more computational expressive potential at our disposal than ever before, but which is largely impossible to address with new, great hardware interfaces.

      Why? Because making good hardware costs a lot of money in terms of tooling, materials and development time, and few parties want to take the risk anymore.

      The fact that one can’t currently go out and buy – for any price – even a normal MIDI keyboard controller with poly aftertouch that’s as expressive and well-constructed as a Prophet T8 from 30 years ago is a perfect illustration of this. We’ve leapt forwards in software, and actually gone backwards in hardware.

      This alone is one of the key reasons that I still put up with the pain and absurdity of keeping a Synclavier running in this day and age; Because it allows me to polyphonically play samples with aftertouch controlling volume and other parameters, independently for each key, from a fantastically well-built keyboard (the same one used in the T8, as a matter of fact.)

      I realize that there’s at least one generation of electronic musicians out there who’ve never experienced the fun and inspiration of using this level of controller, and I urge anyone fitting this description to seek out a T8, Kurzweil MidiBoard or Synclavier and see for yourself what I’m talking about.
      This is hard to do nowadays, but is worth the effort, trust me.

      The electronic music world desperately needs controllers that are high-quality, thoughtfully-designed and populated with an embarrassment of riches in the control/expression department, so that a musician walking up to one will be instantly inspired and immediately want to start playing/bending/touching/pressing things. Creating, in fact.

      Isn’t that what musical instruments are supposed to do?

      What’s needed is in fact _the opposite_ of the insufferable monome,
      that pile of hipster dross that just shouldn’t exist.

      Peter, remember when you wrote about this:


      You nailed it with that post.

      I was initially very excited, as for a millisecond or so, I thought “Awesome! Someone got it right, fantastic! Add to cart!”

      That nonexistent product is actually a really good model for what I’m getting at. As it happens, the PadKontrol is a surprisingly well-designed and sensitive device, within its class and within the resolution of MIDI – If the materials existed to make video-capable, sensitive soft pads like those implied in this mockup, a really great, expressive and information-rich (e.g. friendly) controller would be possible. Perhaps they already do.

      Now that would be quite a thing, wouldn’t it?

    • zerotoonetwentyseven

      Yeah, cause nobody ever did anything good with a harpsichord, right?

      And how come they don’t write the note names on piano keys or guitar frets? How am I supposed to remember which one is which?

    • mercurial

      Needless to say, harpsichord keys strike actual strings, and thus are far more than mere on/off switches. Despite the instrument’s (relative) lack of keyboard-controllable dynamic range, every occurrence of a given note will always sound different – as with any acoustic instrument – due of course to the physics involved. But all that is obvious. Electrical on/off switches are capable of no such subtlety, which should also be equally obvious.

      The comparison to guitar frets/piano keys is a false analogy, because there are multiple visual cues at work that let you know where you are at a given time on both instruments; Black/white key layout on keyboards and neck position markers/relative fret distances/string widths on guitars. Neither instrument has identical rows of equidistant, identical actuators.

    • Peter Kirn

      In fairness, while a harpsichord doesn’t respond the way a piano does to dynamics, you do have a substantial impact on articulation. I think you can’t directly compare a mechanical/acoustic instrument with a digital controller.

    • Bob Rawkz

      Holy shit you fucking suck. If you have the musical performance gospel at hand, please re-read the part about humility and everyone doing things differently. I’m sure if the world wanted MIDI noodling and keytar solos, you’d be on top of the game. Things change asshole. Shut the fuck up you elitist, bitter blow-hard.

    • kconnor

      Hey Peter, why not delete the juvenile comment above? Mercurial is doing you all a favour by keeping it focused on reason. I strongly agree with his points, as would Hugh LeCaine and Bob Moog, off the top of my head. His argument isn’t about hipsters, it’s about affordances.

    • Bawb reckz

      Daaaaaadddd. The internet is being mean. But not me I’m proper and won’t say things that are inflamitory. Just calling assholes assholes. It’s all forgotten text in 2 days either way pussy.

    • Peter Kirn

      Yeah, agreed. I need to look at whether Disqus can give us a way to hide low-rated comments…

    • St

      I don’t appreciate the racist comments by Mercurial actually, not sure why that’s acceptable on CDM.

    • Ed

      I think your argument extends only as far as you consider a monome device to be an instrument in the same way that a piano or a Synclavier is. Clearly, a button grid doesn’t allow for the same level of expressive detail per touch in performance, but I’m not sure it was ever intended to be “played” in the way a keyboard is, and so to judge it by those standards seems unusual to me.

      I own a monome 64, and the best thing about it (for me, at least) has been the way it’s encouraged me to code my own patches, and build creative environments and approaches to composition which I wouldn’t have otherwise come across.

      So I tend to think of mine as much more of a tool than an instrument, if that makes sense: a means to build and shape my way of working, rather than a conduit for expressive performance itself. I personally think that coding and design is just as creative and expressive a field as virtuosity on an instrument.

      I guess I fall closer towards the composer / producer / programmer end of the electronic music spectrum though. I can see why someone approaching it as a musician in the traditional sense might find it lacking.

    • ?

      oh my god you bored cunt go make some music

    • spoonfeeder

      have you ever used a grid? just wondering because the complexity of what button does what was an issue for me before I tried too.

      I had a 256 and a 64 (which was running pages thus allowing multiple applications running concurrently)

      As someone who has owned both a madronalabs soundplane and the monome they fit very well together and getting sensitivity out of the monome is just as easy as getting creative with your max patching.

      what is your controller of choice ? While you mention roger linn(strument) I’d like to know if you have played with that instrument. If not how does one make an informed decision about which choice is better before having spent any serious time with either?

      Your words are not new and people have been saying them since monome was a thing. it is ok just try not to get too upset about people utilizing a tool for fun/work as it will eventually give you less time for fun/work

    • Jj

      There is a hilarious and basically inaccurate statement about the electronic music production world. Perhaps you are trolling?

      Remember this is the world where analogue sequencers, step sequencers, midi sequences, conceptual midi editing, drum patterns, quantisation blabla have ruled for decades! This is the music industry that attracts people who don’t have to employ expressive capability to make music if they don’t want to – they can write it or encode into the music production tools, or get a machine to do it (lfo’s, envelopes, sequencers, modulation!)


  • emanuel davis

    I was just thinking the other day that with all the more feature laden, pad-based options available these days perhaps the Monome had become a forgotten product. I guess simplicity, flexibility, and community makes a big difference in a product’s life-cycle.

    I have a couple of MPCs, Maschine, 2 launchpads (an original and a mini), the lemur app, and touchOSC on both iOS and android tablets…yet nearly every time I see one of those Monome videos I think, “Damn, I need to get one of those.” The aesthetics scream “instrument to learn, experiment, and perform with” vs “tool to get the job done quickly”. Most times I’m after just getting the job done, but spending a day full of zen-state, child-like, abstract, noodling seems magical.

  • leolodreamland

    i emulate a monome in an emulation of the push on an emulation of a lemur on an ipad. and it’s freaking great. stick that in your pipe. and smoke it.

  • zerotoonetwentyseven

    It seems like a number of people consider monome users to be talentless hacks, but at the same time don’t think users should have to learn/memorize anything (with regards to the no-labels monome). Maybe it’s just me, but these two ideas seem (at least slightly) opposed to one another.

  • wigwatermagic

    I’d like to see their prices get lowered.

  • Ben Carey

    There is a lot of angst in this comment thread, some very divisive comments that mostly come from not having appreciated or indeed read the post itself. For my 2 cents I’d just like to congratulate Peter on a thoughtful critique of the singularity that is the monome. I can’t see what I would do with one myself, but I’m always impressed with the approaches I’ve seen to the instrument by the vast monome community. Impressive analysis of a clearly unique and inspiring design for many artists… I also think the fact it’s so popular AND so despised means it must be doing something right…

  • Tate Carson

    I wanted to speak to the velocity sensitivity issue. Most of the programs available have no velocity sensitivity, that’s true. But, i’ve been using a newer one recently called the party van, which is a live sampling max patch. So while the buttons still aren’t velocity sensitive the output you hear isn’t flat like you mentioned from watching the other videos because it’s almost entirely based on microphone input. This is the only monome app i’ve felt ok with using live for the reason you mentioned, some of the other apps don’t feel spontaneous enough. I use the other apps more for composition. Adding in elements of improvisation to composition that the monome allows has added a new dimension to my music. It’s a lot of fun. Check out the party van here.

    Rodrigo has a bunch of other shit you guys should all check out, and though he has a beard i think he breaks the mold everyone was bitching about so much from the other videos. But really, don’t fear the beard or hipsters and don’t post about it on message board’s it just comes off as douchey.

  • stumm

    Monome are standing idly by while the market and evolution of tools passes them by. What was once fresh and new is now nearly inaccessible in comparison to similar products that have come out in the past few years. The other half the problem is that they have remained way too cruched upon the max/pd software world.

  • Bynar

    I have actually had two grid controllers. I had a monome 64 and a Livid Block. I got far more use from my monome then I ever did with the block. I feel like the true artistic satisfaction came from creating custom patches for the device. Monome helped me come into my own as a programmer. I worked not just with max but also SC and Chuck when I had my monome.

    However, in this day and age of touch applications (lemur and touchosc) I have moved on. Even so, I find myself missing the inspiration that used to come from thats box. Honestly I never really made great music with the device but it was so much fun to program patches for. I see monome as the testing/proving grounds of the numerous pad controllers that would follow.

    As far as music expressivity goes, I find no better instrument than my recently purchased DX7 Mk1. At 30+ years old this instrument was one of the first to incorporate midi and features all sorts of great ways to use velocity, aftertouch, modulation, and even breath control (I really need to find a breath controller). IMO patches on the DX7 start to breathe life once you leverage the ability to scale modulator outputs to velocities for instance. Maybe I’m weird but I actually have a fun time programming the thing!

  • Umut Isik

    Excellent article, thank you.

    The hardware is beautiful, it’s worth the price considering the size of their operation, sure. The idea of an unmarked grid, so obvious now, is radical, the limitations are sometimes irritating but also freeing, sure.

    But the main draw for me is the open source software for the monome. A new app comes out and it’s like you got a new toy that invariably takes you out of your routines. It makes you do things in music you would never do by yourself in your DAW; and they keep on coming. If there is a feature you want to add, after a little initial effort the first time, you can add it in a few hours. If you think of a totally new app, you can implement it quickly and share it as well.

    The only catch for me is that the software can feel little ad-hoc. Most of them tied to MAX-MSP, many of the old apps require modifications to work properly for me. I hope that with the ‘new and final’ re-design of the grid, the creators focus on the software aspect some more, creating a more standard way to make and use the monome apps. (the ‘pages’ app does this to a good level but it only runs Java apps internally). Anyway, this is what I wish would be the focus in the future.

  • josh

    Geez, this stirred up a swarm.

    Anyway, my actual response:

    When you look at the kinds of apps that the monome makers themselves are using their creations for, what would velocity sensitivity even add to the process? Most of what they feature (the apps featured above, the classic mlr, and others) don’t map a button-press to a short, single sample like the usual “play drums and loop” usage of an MPC. How would velocity sensitivity add anything to mlr, or to the more complex meadowphysics app shown above?

    (Not to say it wouldn’t be nice to have a minimal grid with velocity as well… just seems like probably they haven’t added it because it doesn’t fit their own workflow.)

  • Chad Clark

    The “lifestyle”-oriented comments on this piece are super-square and horrifying. It makes me embarrassed for the comment-writers and makes me wonder who the demographic for CDM is. Why are these people even on the site?

    The monome is a blank, open-ended device with buttons and lights that you can make do whatever you imagine a box of buttons and lights might do.

    It may appeal to you. It may not.

    It’s nothing to resent. And certainly does not warrant the kind of dumbass hateful comments here.

    • JJ

      Its fair enough for some of these comments. There is a certain vibe and style that has been portrayed in all of this, and there are certain scenes that are quite accurately depicted by some comments! :)

      But the truth is the aesthetics of the monome does attract people who are attracted to design and to things that are beautiful, simple, not loud, open ended, creative, explorative. Including myself.

      The monome is not just an open ended device with lights and buttons, it has good design – tasteful minimal aesthetics alongside its open source nature – people who like that kind of design will naturally be attracted to it. Some of those people may also have a certain vibe about them or be found in certain groups.

      What I do like about monome is that there is nothing on it telling you what to do. I do feel the same about the velocity issue though and how it impacts what people do with it. It would be a more open ended powerful device with velocity.

    • Derpatron9000

      “There is a certain vibe and style that has been portrayed in all of
      this, and there are certain scenes that are quite accurately depicted by
      some comments! :)”

      As discussed, you’re looking at videos of 3 or 4 people who designed, build these devices and the software on display. This is in no way an accurate sample of monome users. Peter covers this very well in one of his comments

  • axel

    This looks like a good direction to me for playing live electronic music. Though I don’t think the audience will relate that much to what’s happening. You made a good point about the necessity of rhythmic gestures, but here I still see a lot of programming done out of tempo. To be honest I really had to concentrate and guess a lot to maybe understand 30% of what was really happening by only looking at the video. But maybe with time even non-musicians will get to know how these things work as well and enjoy it more as an audience.

  • waveplant

    the monome is one of the closest things we have to a canonical instrument in electronic music. it has history, a community, creative conventions that are subject to the ebb and flow of changing aesthetics, and allows an incredible amount of freedom of expression. most importantly – it’s geared towards live music creation as opposed to live music reconstruction. to dismiss its output as monistic is like listening to acoustic-guitar- based singer/songwriters and not being able to imagine doing anything else with a guitar.

    • stumm

      you mean other than synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, dsp synths/fx,.. and so on? anyways, it’s a controller for instrumental software, not an instrument. hence, controllerism, not intrumentalism.

    • waveplant

      basically, yeah – in terms of something unique to the instruments you indicated. when performing a piece live that was originally driven by a sequencer in the studio, that usually means bringing some combination of those instruments onstage to do basically the same thing they did in the studio. but the monome (i should be saying grid) allows much more spontaneity and plasticity. all wrapped in simplicity. the instrumental software and its controller are different parts of the same instrument.

  • Kinetic Monkey

    I’m the guy that has his MPC set to FULL LEVEL all the time. So no, I don’t need velocity sensitivity on my monome, but thanks. If your art requires velocity sensitivity, then great! buy a PUSH.

  • Gleb Bondarenko

    Monome is Zen in electronic music.

  • analogue01

    It’s too bad something like the Snyderphonics Manta never caught on like the monome did. Seems like a great “expressive” controller with a similar ethos, but the software development and community engagement just aren’t at the same level as monome’s.

  • Scott

    Wow, some of the most horrible people in the world are commenting here. Have any of you awful, wannabe snarky, milquetoast, self-loathing, problematic, probably-short-and-balding, still-trying-to-lose-their-virginity, sandal-with-sock wearing jerks ever used a grid? I’m a multi-instrumentalist and I like this controller. Honestly, I find the velocity controls on most digital instruments to be very poor imitations of real instruments and don’t really care for them. I don’t really see how velocity is useful with something like mlr for instance.

    Beyond that though, I think you all are missing some very important points, points that make you seem like dj-press-play-on-the-midi-decks. You can make any controller do anything, whether or not it’s a grid or a keyboard, using JS, Max, PD, etc. There are only a handful of options on a controller. You have buttons (pads style or toggle style), rotary encoders, xy-touchscreen style controllers and faders. Each of these is outputting either an integer or a float value. You can represent any of these on a grid.

    One of the downsides to controllers that are velocity sensitive is that they don’t have nearly as many buttons. What I also don’t understand is, if you’re actually as great as you’re acting, why not make a grid that’s velocity sensitive? One of the best things about Monome being open-source is it’s really easy to hack. Oh, what’s that? You say you’re not capable of doing anything other than complaining about other people’s hard work? That must be why you’re here and not on or