Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Pico and Buyers Remorse

For years, yes, years now, I have been searching for a controller worthy of really being called an instrument. In many ways I am a guitar player at heart but I started using keyboards more because they were a way to play the sounds in all of my soft synths. Nothing as of yet seems to even come close to the expressiveness of a simple string.

However, a few controllers have peaked my interest lately, those are the Eigenharp and the Haken Continuum. Both where expensive to say the least and really put them outside of the range that even in my most insane days would even consider buying.

Then they both came out with cheaper versions. The Continuum with a half width version (still very very expensive but within reach) and the Eigenharp coming out with the Pico and now Tau version of very expensive alpha. Why the alpha does not have 6 rows of strings do duplicate the guitar fingering is a mystery to me.

Now the Continuum really caught my ear and first and in many ways still does. But I thought that for the low cost of the Pico, I would at least try it out. At worst, I have a quirky little controller that I can use on some tracks, at best, I have an introduction to a promising new type of controller that I can use perhaps on many tracks.

My first investigation was to look at videos. OK, I know this is not a perfect way to test drive anything but the Pico is a British instrument and there are no resellers nearby me. I could probably find a live demo somewhere but I thought that if I sampled videos that I would find good and bad but the best of them would give me an idea of what this thing could do.

Now realize that I try not to be overly critical on this blog and frankly, my music will probably never win any awards or sell a lot of tracks but I hope that in time I improve but let me just say that these videos are some of the worst I have ever seen and I have to wonder why anyone would want to put themselves out there putting this kind of pure unadulterated..., well, I will refrain from saying any more. Some of them are really really bad. Eigenharp needs to get a handle on this or the vids of the customers are going to reduce sales not increase them.

A few exceptions that are worth noting:

These guys really impress me. Clearly they are making the most out of their alphas. OK, not Picos but very impressive.

This one is also very good especially for bond fans:

So yes, bottom line there are so decent vids out there although nothing seems to come close the expressiveness of the Continuum seen here:

Although granted, its not apples to apples, the other vidoes are not using a Buchla 200e but I would love to see a serious classical work played on the Eigenharp.

I still have my serious doubts about how expressive it is because most of the videos, even the ones I posted, while they show that the Eigenharp can be used to play some good music I don't see anything all that expressive. If someone wants to refute that and send me a link I would be happy to listen to it and reverse my statement. And yet, I do want to see what I can do with it.

The lack of documentation surprises me and while someone claimed to me that if Eigenharp put a manual out there I would not really understand it because of the nature of the instrument and that I would just have to play one to understand. Well, I understood the manual to my Moog Voyager just fine before I bought one and in many ways, I saw more depth to the instrument by reading the manual so I have to believe that the manual would perhaps make me not want to buy one. I even had some feeback from the buy that wrote the manual on the Moog board. So I'm just saying, this explanation for why there is no manual does not work for me. I am open to hearing better ones.

I was also told that Eigenharp is working on a CV interface. Great to hear but I have heard these kinds of promises before and seen nothing. Remmber how expandable the V-Synth was going to be. Years latter and nothing. I know that the Continuum has a CV interface (a really sophisticated one) and there are some great examples out there on the Continuum website. I can use this inerface directly with my Voyager which I find very useful and frankly, its a big selling point of the Continuum for me and vaporware, be it eigenware or not, does not impress me. Show me the CVs and I will be more impressed.

I also want to comment on the whole issue of the built it scales and the sequencing. OK, "cool" as the young ones say but not that "cool" because frankly, software can do all these things and much better right? And what is being done is not rocket science. Some softsynths have the ability to have multiple scales. Absynth for one comes to my mind. For sequencing, numerology seems pretty powerful. Or am I just not "cool" and missing something?

So this stuff, while "cool" seems to be more window dressing to me. Then again, I did not vote for Obama (sorry, just had to get that one in).

So why did I buy an instrument that I am not that impressed with it. Well, the sensitivity of the controller has got me interested for real and I dont' think its window dressing. It works apparently in two directions and based on pressure all independent for each key although how this is translated into synth parameters is not clear to me or into MIDI for that matter. I have been told that the real power of this instrument is in the built in synths. OK, but a manual would at least show me that to some extent.

I would also like to know if the X and Y motions control separate parameters and if there is velocity and after touch (based on key pressure). It appears so but I am much more interested in how to translate these into parameters.

So I guess the bottom line is that I am intrigued enough to make a sizable investment in a Pico and we will see where things go from there but I will post my evaluation here. Apparently my Pico went out in the mail today (I presume from England and hopefully free of Volcanic interference) and we shall see what happens from there. I will keep you posted.


barnone said...

These are all valid concerns and actually it's interesting to hear your thought process. The two videos you were impressed with were done by the eigenlabs paid musicians. They've been playing the instruments longer than anyone else of course because they were beta testing it long before release. It's pretty mainstream stuff though. Over time I would expect musicians to adapt and bring out the best in any instrument and maybe even develop a style suited to it.

The continuum is way more mature for sure. It also has a few absolutely talented dare I say virtuoso players such as Richard Lainhart and Edmund Egan.

The dirty secret of both controllers is that they are not "guitar hero" make me an instant rockstar devices. They both need to be learned like a real instrument. Give someone a guitar that has never used one and a few months and see the quality of video they post. It's not the fault of the instrument, it's the process of becoming adept at it. The reason the Alpha does not have guitar fingering is that it is not a guitar. It is played differently. It has different characteristics. That is actually a plus in my book.

You were smart to get a pico though. Really it's a small investment and you'll get a feel for it. I do believe that this is a truly expressive instrument but it's still early and everyone is still an early adopter. Most super talented natural musicians are probably not early adopters. They are probably programmers like me.

gbevin said...

As barnone says you're comparing the continuum which has existed for more than 6 years with the Eigenharp that has not even been out 6 months! Even people that jumped on the Alpha from day one are still practicing to learn how to play something more advanced. That set aside, the Eigenharp is really still in its teething phase and there are still bugs, missing features, etc. Eigenlabs has a roadmap for the future and given their openness and honesty when communicating with them, I think don't think that any of it is vaporware. Have you tried reaching out to them?

I'm the one that told you the manual wouldn't make sense to you since you really can't imagine how to interact with it since *everything* is different. The playing keyboard is not something you can compare to a piano or a guitar, there aren't any dedicated clearly label buttons or knobs, the keys sensitivity can only be understood when touching them and this is the same for the interaction model with the instrument. That being said, Eigenlabs created a public wiki in the meantime that has an Alpha section with a downloadable manual and quick start guide:

The reason why the EigenD software isn't further documented is because they still consider this an early adopters period and are currently redesigning and reworking the software completely after having received feedback from real players during these initial months. They're going to document it in much more detail once this has settled, and while you might not take their word for it, I do :-)

I also like the fact that the Alpha has only 5 courses, you shouldn't compare it with a guitar neck and you shouldn't want to play it as you'd play on a guitar. They made the right decision in making sure the layout is different enough. They experimented with a different number of courses, including 6 as on the guitar, but 5 ended up feeling better.

About the built-in scales, the Eigenharp has support for microtonal scales and tunings, including on-the-fly switching during performance, that is what makes it so useful. Everything is also in place the allow Eigenharps to be networked and have one master player that is able to change the change the scale for everyone in the same performance. I wonder why you criticize the feature though, since it's also one of the features of the Continuum. For instruments that are for more precise than the resolution of MIDI, it makes a lot of sense to include scales and tuning support that is as precise as the internal resolution allows. It's up to you to decide whether you use it or something else.

gbevin said...

Sorry, forgot to mention something, if I would be you I would actually ask myself the question why you can't find more Continuum videos online? I know of only a handful of proficient Continuum players and they haven't posted much online in terms of videos. After 6 years of existence ... that should make you wonder, no?

Having bought a Continuum myself last month I can tell you that it's really hard to play on, certainly polyphonically. More so, anything that's fast requires even more dedication since it's extremely easy to play out of tune. The note separations aren't very ergonomic and the spacing is too cramped for my hands. I clearly feel that the precision of the Eigenharp keys is magnitudes better than the precision of the continuum playing surface.

That being said, I like the Continuum a lot also, but I think I will play it like Jordan Rudess, mainly for leads.

Mike Milton said...

Hi. I do not have much to add to the comments above and, perhaps, should have stopped there.

Let me step back and make a more general observation.

We are all on a musical trajectory. Some things support that direction, some things shift it, nothing is complete by itself.

I think the Eigenlabs folk have been very clear about their trajectory as performers and it is clear (to me at least) that their instruments really fill a gap in what was needed for them to get where they wanted to be with a stage instrument.

I really think that an audience, particularly a non-technical audience, will respond to performers of this instrument in a more direct, human, and emotional way. (particularly compared to geeks with wires and boxes and screens unless they happen to be other geeks with wires and boxes and screens - itself a perfectly valid and interesting genre; but one not really accessable by the general audience)

Consider the minimalism, accessibility and simplicity (on the surface) of this early attempt.

I also think that the eigenharps, particularly the Pico, will fit nicely in ensemble playing (the way wind controllers do now). There are some videos that show this direction made be braver souls than I out there early in their learning curve. There is much to be said for having musical fun with friends

Now this is not a trajectory for us all. I'm not a performer but rather biased towards sequencing. So far, my only performance vehicle has been a WX7 and now a WX5. I've been playing these since they came out (a long time). It pleases me to express myself more organically and meditatively and they opened that avenue to me. The Pico (I've had it for a few weeks) will become an addition to this. The Alpha (Mine should ship this week) may well supplant it for ongoing use.

I guess the point of this ramble is just to say that these things are what they are and that they are spectacularly good at it. It is just that this just does not matter if the 'it' that they are good at does not support your trajectory. Despite an initial reaction to the 'strangeness' of the device, it seems that the Eigenharps can fit well into quite a few general settings with broad appeal. I hope so. It would be great to see a vision, investment and a whole lot of work come to fruition not just for the inventors but for a whole lot of players

cheers, m

cheers, m

Lux_Seeker said...


Thanks for the two posts and your tweeps. Beleive me, I don't disagree with what you are saying. My point with the scales is that in some ways it seemed to me like adding some window dressing. I can see that it has its purpose and thats fine. I actually have a use for it myself I just was not sure what Eigenharp's logic was in including it but you make a good point.

As for my use. I am a big fan of Olivier Messiaen (who wrote compostions for the Ondes Martenot - sort of like an early version of the Continuum). There is a modular version out there now of it called the "French Connection". It's a beatiful instrument (The Ondes) and not bad for the 20s (almost 100 years ago)

Lainhart actually plays "Oraison", a Messiaen composition using the Continuum and the Buchla 200e.

Getting back to Messiaen, I am very intersted in the modes that he came up with and used in his music but to play them requires a lot of scale memorization and therefore time. If the Pico can be programmed then I can program it to play Messiaen's modes which would be very useful to me and save me memoring modes.

Your comments also are similar to that of Barnone's in that the Eigenharp is an instrument in its infancy. Point well taken.

Why are there not more demos of the Continuum out there? I guess for the same reason that most electronic artists don't even know who Karlheintz Stockhausen is. The Continuum seems more like a tool for classical electronic music if there is such a thing now. I don't think your going to see a lot of pop musicans using it save people like Rudess that use it for leads as you stated. Rudss does a fantastic job at it to. Id did catch his demo and his demo of the Pico (which was disappointing but perhaps he did not have a lot of time)

When electronic music was in its infancy it was not that accessible and I think the more classcically oriented applications today remain less accessible to the Yout Tube crowd (granted I like you tube but I always cross cultural streams)

Robert Moog made it more accessible for use in pop music.

My music is related to my philosophy of music. Music for me is experiment and exploration. I get ideas and I don't know where they will end up but I want to see how many ways that what we call music today can be expanded. For me, music has become to cliched. Even keyboards come with cliches sounds that fit neatly into a genre. Genres now are barely nothing more than collections of samples used again and again. I understand that someone on dance floor does not care, they just like the sound, and thats ok. Its just not where my music is going.

I love music a lot. But I also like my job a lot to and there not the same some music usually suffers but I hope to do more with the tools that I have (which are considerable) and be able to post some stuff soon with the Pico and my keybaords and Moogerfoogers (huge fan of Moog Music).

I am currenly rewriing a studio using a matrix router and an dedicated mixer/interace with another 8 channels of light pipe controlled by a Macbook pro. Needless to say the wiring is considerable. I have spent a lot on snake cables alone and have extensive wiring diagrams and two patch bays on top of the router (which is much more sophisticated than a patch bay)

My hope is to make the equipment as tranparent as possible to I can use the tools without worrying about how to hook them up but that a complicated story for another day.

Thanks again for posting. I get a lot by reading peoples comments. it makes me a better composer and musician.

Lux_Seeker said...


Well, I hope I am not one of the geeks with the boxes. I have frankly not moved into modular synthesizers because it's gets to technical for me. Not that I can't understand it but that it becomes more about the tech than the music.

Before I got into synthesis, I was a guitar player. I stil love the guitar, the way that it feels in my hands and the way I can control the sound depending on how I play it. To me its one of the most expressive instruments there is although if I hade more time I would probably learn to play electric violin which is probably even more expressive.

However, I am also a composer and that is why I use keyboards because I can program my boxes (or sometimes just use presets) to get the sounds I want to compose music like an artist uses a pallet. The boxes are my pallet not an end it themselves.

I also tend to favor hardware now because computers crash and make nasty digital grunts when there is to much being run through the CPU.

I own a Moog Voyager, a Korg M3 and several Moogerfoogers (and an MP3 pedal and expansion box). I also will own a Pico and a Theremin which I also ordered (which has CV and gate outs - I like CVs just not that into big modulars). As for the Continuum or a more extensive Eigenharp, that remains to be seem.

I love my boxes. I especially love Moog products. Analog sounds sweet, warm and beatiful to me but I also like the almost etherial pads and instrument sounds of the M3 (which is also a powerful controller in its own right and it has KARMA (thats a huge topic for another time).

So I guess when I compose music being a performer is just part of getting the compostiion I want. I think about it first getting some idea in my head and then try to find a way to create it usng the tools I have. I layer sounds on top of one another and they are always improvised but with a general idea and technique in mind when I play the notes.

So I hope I don't get lost in boxes and also remain a musician as well as composer. Perhaps the Pico can give me some new musical roads to travel on, I hope so.

What I almost forgot to say is explain my interest in musical gesture. To me, pitch is a very very powerful way to create movement in music. I once used a sample for a Middle Eastern Dudek but because of the way I bend the notes up from a microtone to the note being played I made it sound celtic. The sound was indentified by the pitch envelope not the instrument or even the scale used.

To make a long story short this is what I am interested getting the Pico to do for me. To let me as a musican find ways to bend notes in new ways.

Anyway, when I finally wire my studio together and if there is not a big mushroom cloud of smoke I can start making some new music and go down some new muscial roads soon with the Pico (and my marvelous boxes)

Mike Milton said...

Hmmm... no it hadn't crossed my mind that I might be seen as calling you one of the geeks with boxes although many of us might fit into that category. I was actually echoing a John Lambert comment about wanting something to 'drive' the electronics like one drives a guitar or saxophone and, to paraphrase further, get out on the stage and perform.

Another acquaintance of mine, Bruno DeGazzio, has exactly the same issues with relying on crashy software (He is actually the fellow who sold me my VL1... he had 4). He and I also have a background conversation on the Eigenharp and I suspect he'd echo most of what you've said (along with ...'it uses soundfonts?? huh')

cheers, m

barnone said...

Great conversation and response. Just a little more on the guitar layout. For one, you actually can layout each course (think string) to be offset by different amounts. So you can do a guitar tuning on 5 strings. It could be useful for finding your way around. Thing is, you can't play chords as you would on a guitar because lets say you need to hit open notes or lay a bar chord. There is no strumming, so hitting open notes would be very different fingering and not very efficient. Plus, notes sound by finger pressure, very different than guitar. On a guitar you finger notes with one hand (at least most people ;)). With the Eigenharp you use two. It's different and after you use it you'll understand pretty quickly. It is a unique instrument. Neither keyboard, nor guitar. Therefore I would rather start the learning curve correct rather than use my guitar skills as a crutch. The funny thing is, what is correct technique? It hasn't been created yet. It's fertile ground.

I listened to one of your ambient tracks on soundcloud, nice stuff. I agree that continuum is really good for that type of gradual movements. Richard Lainhart does a lot of that with his.

My basestation was stuck in UK having a modification made during this eruption thing. So haven't used the Alpha in awhile. It just arrived back today. All this talk makes me want to play it tonight. The Alpha is pretty stunning looking up close. I have the ebony keys. It does indeed evoke the kind of bonding experience a musician has with a fine instrument. I really missed that moving from guitar to electronic and now I have it back again.

Lux_Seeker said...


I have developed a studio management philosophy of distributing processing so that not to much CPU load is placed on any one keyboard, computer or other component. I plan on using my Macbook Pro to run many of my Native Instruments synths, Spectrasonics Omnisphere and some physical models that tend to spike CPUs as well as run a DAW as well as some impulse response reverbs.

If I use those sparingly and use the M3 for sampling and the Voyager for analog sounds as well as my foogers for effects it keeps CPU load at a minimum.

The M3 also had extensive effects.

But not, I am not trying to drive electronics. I use them to get the sounds I want. They are not in themselves instruments. My quest really has been to find controllers that can be played like instruments. The expression of a musician brings life to music. Music can't be totally divorced from the musician.

The trouble with keyboards is that they are stuck in the pitch bend and mod wheel paradigm. Eigenharp and the Continuum break away from this paradigm but in their own unique way.

Synths can also be instruments in themselves which is why the Moog Voyager has been successful even though the basis for this is very old technology (superchanged with some modern technology however). Moog talks about making a synthesizer an instrument. The Voyager is in many ways a rather simple subtractive synth but the placement of the knobs and how they work together makes it and instrument. Every knob is part of the instrument.

You don't program a Voyager really, you play it. Every program is easily accesssible by turning knobs (with some exceptions with because of the onboard computer such as pot mapping and MIDI control)

It also has an XYA pad. A is area on the pad. The pad can control other control voltage ready circuits like Moogerfoogers.

The problem with many synths is that they become marvels to the geeks who marvel at their design but they don't function as instruments. The wrong model is geek program and musican's plays (preset). The better model is the musican plays and programs as the same time while playing the music.

Music technology is slowly getting their.

The M3 tries to do this, and somewhat effectively, with programable sliders, pads and an XY pad. Patches become instruments and the programming does not have to be apparent to the musician.

I think the important thing is to emphasize music. Technology must serve music and not the other way around. There is a whole bunch of music out there based on making music from a fixed set of cliched sounds.

So yes, while I have some reservations about the Eigenharp I also think it has promise or I would not have bought one.

Lux_Seeker said...


Thanks for the response and the complement on my music. There are ways of programming controllers to interface better with a guitarist like Starr Labs ZTar which uses string triggers. ZTars are actually best played with two hands however much like you are talking about.

In many ways, using two hands is just and extension of hammner on/hammer off. I not only do this with a guitar but I also bend the note with my right hand amd the left at times in concert which sustains an appegio at substantial volume.

Much to my suprise I recently discovered that I could rapidly play appegios on a keyboard. At first I was shocked and did not realize why I could do this because I was using my muscle memory from guitar. I even used a lead voicing technique with the right hand as the top note.

Using two hands is just an extension of hammer ons and offs. The right hand can also be used to play a lead voicing or the chords much like comping.

In many ways, I think the ultimate controller would be something like the Eigenharp but perhaps with some type of trigger played with the right hand and a hex keyboard rather than a rectangular one to maximize scale relationships, intervals and chords.

As for technique, yes, you are right, it has yet to be developed but one thing is clear, that the old paradigms are changing and that is a very good thing.

gbevin said...

Great discussion here! Thanks!

Just wanted to chime in on what barnone said, I have the same physical response to the Eigenharp as what he describes. I feel emotional when touching its keys, just as how I used to feel when I was in love with my main acoustic guitar. You know, this passionate feeling where you just want to touch the instrument no matter what, even when it's not plugged in. I think this is quite an accomplishment for a digital music instrument.

gbevin said...

@lux_seeker I'm totally with you about music becoming too clich├ęd, I hate the whole sampled loops movement as it prohibits free exploration of style and intent.

However, with the Eigenharp I find that I'm getting more creative again and that is thanks to its built-in scales and the fact that I have no established technique, but that my guitar muscle strength still is beneficial. This feels similar to me as playing in open tunings on a guitar. You set the stage, you know you can wander around, but you're not bound by existing licks and patterns. I get this a lot on the Pico, and I'm loving that aspect of it.

BangStrokeBlow said...

This video is a good example of some of the expressive potential the Eigenharp has:

Lux_Seeker said...

IMHO, part of the magic of playing music is the sort of feedback loop that goes on between playing a note and hearing it. This is natural in just about every physical instrument.

When synthesizers first came out, it was not clear if they should even have a keyboard. Donald Buchla was more resistant to this idea and made many alternative types of controllers and even to this day, the Buchla 200e has one. Buchla has also come out with the "Lightening" rods although they have not seems to have had much sucess. Same with the Thunder which was dropped by is really now integrated into the 200e.

To me, the guitar string is in many ways unique because, in a sense, you touch the sound itself. Many playing techniques really involve changing the harmonic content of the string being played.

I have been disssapointed in the past by the pitch to MIDI convertors because they make convert the frequency to a MIDI message but they take away expression.

Keyboards have, for a very long time, been chained to the pitch bend and mod wheels. Moog and I suppose some others wanted to make the synthesizer more accessible to commerical bands to the keyboard became the defacto controller.

The Eigenharp is taking controllers in another direction. I think part of the problem now is that MIDI is a very poor standard to handles any continuous controller message. The industry also seems to have trouble embracing OSC.

On the analog side, especially with Moog, and then of course the explosion of modulars, CVs are becoming popular again.

To come up with the equivalent on the digital side would be a real breakthough. The Eigenharp is great as an instrument in itself but at the moment, without a CV interface, it lacks a means of being used to control other synths save MIDI CC messages which as I said are inadequate for the task.