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Turning Guitar Heroes Into Composers

A new generation of instruments includes the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, which has one playing surface.

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Published: July 10, 2008

FIRST came the theremin.

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Pluck Harmonic Resonator by Edmund EaganVideo

Pluck Harmonic Resonator by Edmund Eagan

SlipStick by Carla ScalettiVideo

SlipStick by Carla Scaletti

A demonstration of the Thummer, by Thumtronics.
Aaron Andrew Hunt's compostion on the Tonal Plexus.
 Mark Smart uses the Moog Modular and the Continuum for his rendition of the Miles Davis song, All Blues. (mp3)

The Terpstra Keyboard by Cortex Design has 280 keys.

The AXiS-64 from C-Thru Music, with 192 keys.

The theremin was introduced in 1919 and did not have to be touched to be played.

In 1919, Leon Theremin, an electronics wizard who had migrated from the Soviet Union, created one of the simplest musical instruments in existence, all of two metal rods protruding from a base. It did not have to be touched to elicit positively ethereal sounds — spaceship noises invented before anyone knew what a spaceship was.

Its sound — a cross between human voices and violins — is created by the musician’s hands’ disturbing electrical fields that surround the dual antennas — one for frequency, the other volume. Because it is played with precise hand movements through the air, the theremin is notoriously difficult to master.

Nearly a hundred years later, theremins are still on the scene, with updated models and kits manufactured by established synthesizer outlets like Moog and PAiA. They range from less than $100 to more than $1,000. And just as Theremin did in his studio, modern electronic whizzes continue to create clever electronic instruments for the musically inclined gadget freak to play at home — with considerably more ease than Theremin’s device.

The new breed ranges from the laser harp — arrayed beams of light that, when broken by a player’s hand, signal programmed MIDI processors — which was used in concert by the French instrumentalist Jean Michel Jarre, to the Beamz Music Performance System, more novelty than serious instrument, found in Skymall and Sharper Image catalogs for about $600.

These electronica are the modern manifestations of musical progress: Jetsons-like technology combined with utterly simplistic interfaces in which the work has been loaded, beats and samples arranged, ready for someone to wave his finger through a beam of light. (“The Beamz lets music lovers be musicians,” shouts the Sharper Image catalog.)

The popularity of Guitar Hero, the video game in which participants compete by playing a guitar-shaped controller along with the music on a screen, may also popularize new instruments to a wider audience. “Guitar Hero’s combination of an alternative controller, an alternative music notation and an interactive pedagogy has doubled the number of instrumental music makers in the U.S.A. in just two years,” said James Plamondon, chief executive of Thumtronics, maker of a keyboardlike device called the Thummer.

Take the Buchla Lightning II ($1,995), which relies on infrared light to read the spatial coordinates of a pair of wireless wands that can be waved by the user as if conducting a symphony. Triangulating and mapping as it computes velocity and acceleration, the Lightning registers the wands’ every position to generate arranged notes and samples. This is the road, it seems, to the melding of music and dance, something until now strictly the realm of tap shoes.

Modern musical development is not all about no-touch technology, however. The Haken Continuum Fingerboard ($3,390 to $5,290), the Doepfer R2M Midi Ribbon Controller ($299) and the Persephone from Monster Synths ($1,499 to $1,699) have pushed the one-touch idea, each featuring a long rectangular pad or ribbon that is manipulated by running a finger across its surface.

It is easy, of course, to turn the idea of simplistic modern instrumentation on its ear — after all, technology inherently lends itself to complexity, not simplicity. If the artistry of the laser harp lies more in its programming than its manipulation, Aaron Andrew Hunt set out to create the opposite effect — and ended up with the Tonal Plexus (

Mr. Hunt, a pipe organ technician-turned-instructor of music theory and composition at Eastern Illinois University, was frustrated by the mainstream musical mandate that 12 pitches in an octave — a standard piano keyboard — are all one needs to make music. His solution was add more pitches. A lot more.

His resulting keyboard is to standard 88-key pianos what Yankee Stadium is to a Little League park; they serve similar purposes, but on completely different scales. Mr. Hunt raised his pitch count to 211 from 12, each individually controlled, with a line of keyboards ranging in size from two octaves to eight. (That is a high end of 1,688 keys, for those scoring at home.)

The arrangement of the keys on the Tonal Plexus — buttons, really — looks like a series of Legos laid side by side in staggered columns to play sharps, double sharps, triple sharps and the corresponding flats, 17 in all (plus six enharmonic keys an octave).

But it turns out that mastering 1,688 keys is not 20 times more difficult than mastering the standard 88. Mr. Hunt created a layout in which the relationship between chords and scales is consistent, no matter which key one starts from; the fingering for a chord in C major, for example, can be transferred to any other major chord.

“It’s based on research over the past century in psychoacoustics, or human pitch perception,” Mr. Hunt said. “Our ability to perceive pitch is much finer than our sense of touch or sight. It’s the finest human sensory discrimination.”

The concept of the moving chord, however, is not unique to the Tonal Plexus. Other devices that use it include the Thummer (not yet in commercial production), which, approaching the concept on a much smaller scale, has 57 keys on each half of a split-plane model and can be hand-held.

Somewhat larger are C-Thru Music’s AXiS-64 and Opal, each of which has 192 keys. Cortex Design, at, has the Terpstra Keyboard, which is not commercially available, with 280 keys.

Bigger yet, the Chromatone CT-312 has 312 keys and resembles an unmarked typewriter. One of the truly jumbo devices in the category is the 810-key Wilson 990 Generalized Keyboard — like Mr. Hunt’s creation, it is microtonal — from Starr Labs in San Diego.

Starr Labs, at, is also noteworthy for another of its creations, the 288-key ZBoard ($3,000), with a 12-by-24 key arrangement that looks more than anything like an array of black and white dominoes. Like the other boards, it has chord and scale shapes that are transferable to any note in the spectrum; one of the program options creates the equivalent of a double guitar neck running across the 12-deep keys, with each key down the scale serving as the equivalent of a fret.

“It’s like playing a lap steel guitar,” said Harvey Starr, president of Starr Labs. “The main difference is that on a guitar, you can only play one note at a time per string. On this keyboard, you can depress as many buttons down the ‘string’ as you can reach.”

C-Thru produces versions of its boards for $1,700, available through its Web site, It calls the keyboard a “harmonic table,” and the honeycomb (or hexagonal lattice) pattern of keys allows for surprising simplicity.

Major chords are simply triangle patterns that point to the right (any two stacked keys plus the key to the right between them, which can be played with a single finger pressing down at their intersection), while minor chords are triangle patterns that point to the left. Each note has the same relationship to its keyboard neighbors as every other note.

“If you find music theory difficult to understand or you want to think of a different way to approach composition of music, it completely takes you away from how you’re used to playing and understanding,” said Jacqueline Kandalaft, C-Thru’s director. “It lays everything out in a very logical fashion.”

And when it comes to producing ethereal sounds, logic is sweet music.

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