Contrary to what you may have heard, the 2013 NAMM show wasn’t entirely about the rise of beautifully dirtied analog in the form of the Moog Sub Phatty,Dave Smith’s marvelous Prophet 12 (which you should imagine as a hybrid cross of parts of the Tempest, the Poly Evolver, and the redesigned Prophet), the shrinking (in terms of size and price) of the Korg MS-20, or the return of the Buchla Music Easel (yes, really).
I’m a Max guy, so I prowled the trade floor looking for controllers I could repurpose and come to love. This year, it was sufficiently rewarding to actually lure me away from hardware synthesis fun, gawking at analog video modular systems and nifty modestly sized modeling amps. I have escaped from the Trade Show Floor to tell thee, if somewhat idiosyncratically.
In particular, the Controller Pilgrimage means that I did several things in no particular order: I nerded out about matters such as the ability to fluidly play two-finger trills and mordents on the Ableton Push grid pads - which feel really, really good. I enjoyed the near-perfect size and feel of the Livid Instruments Base. And I think that the QuNexus from Keith McMillen Instruments may offer the first good solution to something I’ve messed with for years in my Indonesian-influenced work – the ability to have a physical interface allow for different playing techniques related to metallophones (alternating striking and damping, grabbing the bottom of a saron key to “silence” it, etc.).
There was one “outside of the box” encounter I wanted to mention, since it might not get quite as much mention as the above – I guess that it really was an “outside of the box” encounter quite literally, since I ran across the object in the laser and LED-stuffed Arena area of the Convention center (Yes, I went to walk on the video floor, too). There, amid the fog and laser-drawn vector graphic squiggles, I met the Alphasphere. We all love it that the internets bring us images of things we might desire, but there’s no substitute for the real experience of the real thing. Okay, maybe there is a sort of substitute: here’s a great video our pals at Sound on Sound shot at the last Musik Messe that ought to give you a sense of it.
While a quick walk-by on the way to see the video floor struck my inattentive eye as something like a scaled-down ball sensor with hard transducer pads, the real item was far more compelling. The biggest surprise was the surface of the circles that cover the sphere – rather than being some kind of dark hard surface as I might have expected – was a lovely and soft stretched membrane that felt as much like a slightly loosened drumhead as anything else. The sense of feel and control when this surface was stroked or hit or pressed upon was a great experience.
In addition to layout of the circle/drumheads as series of 8 differently sized pads wrapped horizontally around the spherical surface (meditate on that as a topology rather than a grid for a few moments and see if you don't get some interesting ideas), I found myself using the feel of the “spaces” between the pads as a way to traverse the surface.
While the triggering demos they had in the booth to demonstrate the software that comes with the unit was a lot of fun, I was struck with the notion that the configuration of controllers on the unit – stripped of the intention of its creators and laid open as collections of MIDI-producing outputs – have some really compelling physical and tactile features that I’ve never encountered elsewhere (Oh yeah – the hardware design includes internal LEDS that you can control and turn on and off for visual feedback).
If you’re one of those people who worries that the dominance of the iPad in the control surface world de-emphasizes the aspect of real touch sensitivity as a part of instrument or controller design, I think you’ll be really intrigued.
P.S. You'll never guess what software was used during the prototyping phase of their design....