Friday, March 6, 2009

less (control) more (expression)

Sometimes, at least for me, the less complex my synthesizer controller is, the more actual musical expression I wind up finding. I think this is just another way in which the minimalist maxim, "less is more," manifests in my own creativity.

That is where my little Korg nanokey comes in. I picked this up as soon as it came out in order to have a cheap, packable and easily portable MIDI controller.

Lots of folks are complaining about this little thing already, but that is because, in my humble guess, they have set up false expectations for themselves. They look at this tiny cheap little plastic thing and say "small keyboard controller," instead of, more accurately, saying "alternative controller." This thing only vaguely resembles a piano, organ or "synth" keyboard. And although it supports velocity sensitivity, it is more like the felt-like pad of the WASP than a keyboard of any caliber. When you set aside the notion that you are playing a keyboard and instead say, "this is a tiny, portable, velocity sensitive alternative controller," then you can let go and have a lot of fun with this little interface.

I love monome devices just exactly because they are not keyboards. They do not support velocity or aftertouch - and that is something good about them. The limit keeps their use sane. Instead, for example, the sixty four supports "tilt," and the 40h has its own kind of accelerometer. By sensing the relative position of the unit to the horizon, one can achieve interesting and even beautiful expression by "mapping" things like note duration, relative volume and tone to the position that one is holding the device. This allows a totally different kind of interface that nevertheless allows for expression. But for me, the kind of expression it allows "maps" better to the kind of instrument a synthesizer is - electronic.

What I mean is that a synthesizer is already an "alternative" instrument when compared to previous, traditional, non-electronic instruments. To expect an old traditional interface, like a piano or organ keyboard, to make sense in conjunction with an electronic instrument just doesn't always make sense. The first synthesizers were almost entirely triggered by analog sequencers: so nobody "played" them "live," or expected that kind of "expression." When Moog added a keyboard to it and marketed it, many "purists" complained. Now, most folks can't imagine a "synthesizer" as anything other than a "keyboard," and for those not interested in synthesis, the terms are often used (sadly) equivocally.

So folks have come up with some unbelievably cool ways to interface with a synth that allows far more expressive control. But one of the things I often like about the synthesizer is the way in which it often provides a far more limited dynamic horizon - like an organ where one must directly add more stops or just turn up the pump to get more volume and tone. You can't play an organ like a drum - or even like a piano. And that is okay. An organ is still quite expressive. When I play a synth, sometime I don't want velocity sensitivity - I find it distracting. I can't play it like a drum either - you can't hit an oscillator with a stick. I like my Prophet because the expression often comes in the way that I set up the envelope and trigger it with the keyboard, rather than through setting a velocity value to some parameter.

So when I first used the nanokey, I found myself not content to leave it on the table surface in front of me. I picked it up and rested it on my left forearm so that I could bring it to up to my right hand as I played the keys. Because it really feels nothing like a traditional keyboard, I find myself not falling into the typical (over-used and, to me, now disappointing) patterns in which my hands habitually fall on a regular keyboard. What can I say? It was fun. I was "jammin'."

This post is, in a small way, a response to a series of posts by Stretta - a professional musician - who has been commenting on the problems of getting synthesizers to be as expressive as traditional, non-electronic instruments. I love following his blog, and often find myself agreeing with his opinions on things.

Well, Stretta is absolutely right. Synthesizers are capable of real expression and musicality. For someone with truly developed musical talent and skills, more expressive control of synthesizers is imperative. But it set me off, comparing my own meager "skills" to that of a professional musician again, and I started to worry and fret and . . . you get the picture. So, upon further reflection, I realized that I actually like how relatively "unexpressive" a synth can be. The limit doesn't kill expression. It just provides boundaries within which, at least someone with my level of talent and skill, can find meaningful expression. The limitation frees me to be more expressive than when I feel lost in a sea of possibility.

I am not being Pollyanna here because, in my sane moments, free from regret that I majored in philosophy instead of music, I am happy that real, skilled, trained musicians can handle the kind of subtleties that "more expressive control" gives them. And I love listening to, enjoying, and being inspired by the results of such good musicians. I am also happy that there is a musical and aesthetic philosophy out there - minimalism - that lets me, on the other hand, express myself unapologetically: less control gives me, in this case, more expression.

Now, back to my sixty four and nano! Thanks for reading and thanks for the encouragement.


  1. I just thought it was cool that you could play music in your hotel room, thanks to the nanokey; instead of getting stuck in front of Law and Order for 2 hours. That's choosing the road less travelled. Kudos!

  2. I love the concept of alternative controllers. They force you to think differently and in so doing, you get results you wouldn't have had otherwise.

    An interesting exercise is to transform a conventional keyboard in an alternative controller by changing it's behavior. Like exchanging notes values with velocity.

    Sorry for the shamless self promotion here, but I think you'd enjoy my latest blog entry titled "5 reasons not to get a Monomachine or Machinedrum" at It goes in the same direction: make more with less, and approach controlers and instruments with an open mind. Like you did with the Nano Key.

  3. Exsurdo - thanks for the comment. Dig your blog. Peace

  4. Instruments' limitations talk makes me think of the harpsicord: has the keyboard and the player can control the tempo, but the dynamic is pretty much one setting. As far as I know, tilting a harpsicord one way or another doesn't have an effect on that, though I don't imagine that is as easily managed as with your monome.

    Still, even with its limitations, one can still make lovely music on the harpsicord... despite what the harpsi-haters say...

    Perhaps since piano and strings are my background instruments, not synthesizers, I, as a mere spectator (just watching the game), think it's kind of cool that there are a variety of synthesizer interfaces from which the practitioner may select as most suitable for himself... although tough luck, I guess, if what said pratitioner wants musically is not a capability of the gadget he thinks most suitable to himself execution wise (so go back to your bars, your temples, your massage parlors).

    Then there's the Theramin...


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