from $249 with one overlay to $469 for all eight of them with accessories
Morph with one overlay, from $249 Morph Music Maker's Bundles, $279 Morph with Buchla Thunder Overlay, $269 Creative Producer's Kit, $299 Complete Morph Bundle, from $469 individual overlays: Buchla Thunder, $59; Piano, $35; Music Production, $35; Drum Pad, $35; Innovator's, $35; Video Editing, $35; Tactile Keyboard (QWERTY, Dvorak, or AZERTY), $35; Gaming, $35 Travel Case, $25 Developer's Cable, $19
I'm always on the lookout for a different kind of controller for making electronic music. Some folks call them “alternate,” but I like “alternative” better. One that caught my eye just before the pandemic hit was the Sensel Morph, an ultra-flexible, portable, state-of-the-art interface that can enhance existing performance techniques and introduce new ones to your repertoire. It stretches real-time control possibilities, it's as portable as a controller can be, and the Morph and its accessories are available for sensible prices …
… well, at least the accessories are available. As of late July 2021 the Morph itself has disappeared from the market, unavailable from the likes of Amazon, Reverb, and eBay. The pandemic has negatively affected the production and supply of electronic components, so that may apply to the Morph as well. I'll bet there'll soon be lots more for sale.
For my own music making, I wanted new ways to play one of my favorite electronic musical instruments, the Haken Audio ContinuuMini. Here I'll focus on the Morph with two of its overlays, the Piano and Buchla Thunder, and how they work with the ContinuuMini as well as a few other synths.
Morpholology The Morph itself reminds me of an iPad, but it's different. Measuring 9.45” by 6.73” by 0.3”, it's almost the same size as a 5th generation iPad, but it doesn't have a hi-def graphic touchscreen. Instead, it's a platform on which you lay one of a variety of overlays Sensel has developed for different applications and control capabilities, plus there's a wealth of options if you want to roll your own controller.
Mostly silver in color and metal-encased, the Morph has embedded magnets that center the floppy silicone overlay that you set on top so it can sense which overlay is there and respond to touch as it's been programmed to do. Most of the Morph's thin body is recessed where the overlay goes, and placing an overlay in that space symmetrically completes the body. A horizontal strip of 24 white LEDs between the overlay and blank silver space across the top indicates your touch and other activities.
When you touch the mounted overlay, the Morph senses how hard you initially contacted it (velocity), how hard you're pressing at any given moment (aftertouch), and where in X and Y coordinates you're doing the touching - and it does this for every separate touch on the overlay. It'll see at least ten contacts at the same time. I didn't pull off my flip-flops to see if I could get more, but Sensel's documentation reveals the Morph has about 20,000 pressure sensors, each of which can detect around 30,000 different pressure levels. While that doesn't tell you the number of separate touches the Morph can simultaneously sense - Sensel says the number is 16 - it's very impressive … and how many voices of polyphony can your synth(s) play, anyway?
Sensel offers eight different overlays, including those intended for editing video, playing games, or typing (QWERTY, Dvorak, or AZERTY!), and one for you to customize and program the Morph to meet your own particular needs.
Swapping overlays is quick and easy; the Morph automatically senses the change and reassigns how it works, and each overlay stores its own settings. All of the Morph's LEDs flash together to let you know it's on the right page.
What if you pull off an overlay and touch Morph's blank face? It transmits the same note over and over - unless you program it to do something else.
Why not use an iPad instead? Price, for one thing. Less than $300 for a Morph and some overlays vs. an iPad from $329 and more. Choose the overlay(s) that are most applicable to your creative and work environments, and you have tools that go beyond pure virtual - i.e., overlay surfaces with a texture that feels different than glass, and you wouldn't want to strike an iPad with a drumstick. Sensel's Drums overlay absorbs stick hits and protects the Morph - just don't go crazy. Still, you can see how durable the Morph is in the Sensel Artist Profile about Nate Hendrix, who thwacks the Drums' yellow circles with drumsticks just as hard as he does his snare and cymbals. [https://sensel.com/pages/the-sensel-morph] Not that you need sticks, because the Morph responds faithfully to finger touches from the lightest and briefest to the hardest strike, held firm with continuously changing pressure.
Besides, the iPad doesn't sense touch as accurately as the Sensel Morph does - to the tune of 6,502 dpi - and the only iPad overlays I can think of are the clear plastic sheets to protect its screen. Besides, Sensel made the Morph and its overlays to enhance the work people do in new ways, and I appreciate its functionality, versatility, and operation.
After working with the Morph since December 2019, I've noticed how supportive Sensel is. Weekly emails share users' issues and usually cures for different symptoms, or at least exchanges between users and Morph experts. Reliable and knowledgeable customer service it is, and every little bit helps.
To Start With The Morph communicates wirelessly via Bluetooth and wired via USB, thanks to its Micro-USB B jack. Upon my initial Morph unpacking, Bluetooth wouldn't connect my ancient (2013) MacBook Pro to the Morph, so I grabbed my iPhone 8. Near-instant gratification came with GeoShred, which responds in marvelously MPE-ish ways with Morph's Piano, Buchla Thunder, and Music Production overlays.
Wait, MPE? That's the acronym for MIDI Polyphonic Expression. You hopefully remember that MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, it having been around since 1983. (There will be a quiz at the end of class.) What MPE does is allow you to independently control certain aspects - pitch, vibrato, volume, timbre, etc. - of individual notes sounded by an MPE-compatible synth. It's kinda like polyphonic aftertouch, only way better because of added capabilities that surpass what simple polyphonic aftertouch originally allowed. Being able to make individual notes in a chord get louder, brighter, go sharp and to the left, and get fuzzy when all the rest do their own thing is truly fun to explore and use in making music.
So my wireless Morph/iPhone adventure continued. Without changing any settings, I could play Moog Music's Minimoog Model D app with the Piano overlay. Since no Morph overlay has pitchbend and mod wheels, you bend pitch and add vibrato by moving and wiggling your finger on top of the surface. Instead of new notes getting triggered if my finger crossed to a different pad or key, the pitch slid around until I stopped touching the overlay or the amplitude envelope closed to silence.
The Morph's response time to pad activity is easily fast enough for me, but Bluetooth transmission and reception can be dodgy depending on too many variables to count on one hand. I wouldn't rely on wireless interaction when it's crucial, like onstage in performance.
Wired Don't freak out but, when it comes to making electronic music, I'd rather play hardware instruments instead of softsynths on a computer. The Mac is where I write what you're reading here, surf the Interwebs, and mix tracks I recorded with a Zoom H6 in Reason. Reason lets me slice and dice the audio, add synth lines, effects, and panning, normalize the volume, and lots more, but I'd rather make sound with hardware.
Connect the Morph to your online computer using the included USB-to-Micro-USB B cable and you can download and run the SenselApp editor. It works really well and effectively on my old MacBook Pro and newer Air laptops, and there's also a Windows version for non believers.
Other than a Quick Start PDF, the Morph documentation appears on Sensel's website, so you'll need to be online if you want to check something in the manual. It's updated all the time, so that's a benefit.
Upon booting, the SenselApp quickly sees a Morph connected via USB (not Bluetooth) and detects which overlay is in-place. Updating the firmware is a quick process; mine took less than a minute. In edit mode, you see the active overlay map on your computer screen, where labels identify the assignment of each pad, ribbon, button, or key in the overlay's landscape. Click on a pad and its parameters appear at the bottom of the screen, ready for alteration. Each pad can transmit any of a slew of data types. If it's a note, you choose which note it is, whether or not the pad transmits pitchbends on the X axis and the bend range on the Y axis, and whether pressure generates channel or poly aftertouch. Assign a pad to MPE XYZ and it will track your touch(es) and generate MPE control data. You also have the choice of having the X, Y, and pressure parameters return to absolute positions once you stop touching the pad.
What kind of data does the Morph generate? On my Mac, MIDI Monitor shows all of it, and MPE generates a lot. When you strike and immediately release a pad, Morph transmits a slew of data, including note-on, aftertouch, MIDI control-change and pitch-bend data determined by where and how hard you touched the pad, and finally note-off. SenselApp's editing facilities allow you to copy and paste individual and multiple parameter settings within a preset, as well as complete presets. Directions explain how to use a synth's auto-learn MIDI controller facilities to maximize responses to separate location and pressure mapping.
Activating the SenselApp Visualizer reveals a colorful depiction on the computer screen of where something is touching the overlay and how hard it's pushing. The more the pressure, the higher a colorful 3D peak shoots vertically out of a horizontal blue plane, glowing from violet to orange to bright yellow as the force increases from miniscule to maximum. Morph data doesn't get passed through in Visualizer mode, so unfortunately you can't hear what you're doing until you return to edit mode. Wouldn't a projection of the Visualizer as a visual component of a live performance be cool?
I'm happy to report that Morph plays extremely well with many of my noise toys, even though the Mac has to be included to control one of my favorites.
2-octave Piano overlay
Yamaha and Casio minikeys are wider than the Sensel Piano overlay.
Sensel's Piano overlay looks deceptively simple for a two-octave keyboard controller, but there are things you may not see.
At first glance you'll notice it's flat - sharps are the same height as naturals - and it only ranges from C3 to B4 (transposable with octave up and down buttons) and doesn't have a top C key - extremely rare for a keyboard controller! It actually does have the top C, but in a subtle and ingenious manner: There's a little square at the bottom end of the upper B, and it's for the C. If you play with your fingertips, there's still plenty of room to play the B and you can feel the little ledge that divides the B and C sections.
What's brilliant about this choice is, if you've got the funds, you could buy a second Morph and Piano overlay, or a third or fourth, lay them side by side to make a four-, six-, or eight-octave keyboard, and there'll only be a slight interruption of the spacing between the upper B and lower C of neighboring Morphs. It'd be a lot worse if there was a top C to get in the way.
Compared to the minikeys on portable Yamaha and Casio keyboards in my house, the Piano overlay's keys are even skinnier. However, they're about twice as deep as minikeys. Although it took practice to get used to the flat surface as opposed to a piano keyboard, I'm way more comfortable playing the Morph Piano than typical minikeys, and it may have something to do with the depth. Having velocity and pressure response also makes an enormous difference, and minikeys rarely respond to either.
If Sensel had squeezed in 25 keys to get a top C, the keys would have been even slimmer, so I agree with Sensel's decision to make the Piano overlay as it is. For the record, each key on the Piano overlay is about a third the width of a full-size piano key. There's also a line of function buttons above the keybed, for things like octave shift, program change, and start, stop, and record. What isn't indicated on the Piano overlay is sustain, which you get by touching anywhere across the overlay's bottom to hold notes.
What Morph is missing that you frequently find on other USB keyboard controllers are sequencing and arpeggiating facilities, and it also doesn't generate clocks. For those capabilities, you need to look elsewhere.
Heavy Thunder Sensel worked with Buchla U.S.A. to develop the Thunder remake, and it's strikingly beautiful - although not a direct copy in size or color. The original was bigger (17” x 13” x 3, 8.5 lbs.) and mostly light gray, with black shading and little turquoise arrows on certain pads. Sensel's Buchla Thunder overlay splashes the colorful turquoise across all of its pads, with white labeling and a black surround. I'm really excited to see the Buchla Thunder reborn and, to me, it's worth buying a Morph just to have!
To jog your memory, Thunder was a complex and powerful MIDI controller that synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla developed and released in 1990. Hopi Indian artwork inspired Don to arrange Thunder's pads to match the way your fingers are when you reach out with your palms facing down. You might imagine Thunder's pad arrangement as a chunky-pixeled eagle with a fat head, wings spread wide, and a hexagonal egg beneath each wing.
Sensel's version of Thunder offers numerous improvements over the original, including its handy size, it has nine internal preset memories instead of eight, all of its pads track location instead of only 15 of them, and it's easier to program on a computer than using a two-line by 40-character LCD and navigation buttons.
The Buchla Thunder overlay provides 25 variously shaped performance pads, labeled A to P and 1 to 9, and arranged as close as possible to how they are on a Buchla Thunder. On the original, the “eagle head” was a horizontal ribbon way wider and taller than the button on the Morph overlay, measuring about a foot across. Called the Thunderpot, it generated MIDI continuous controller data and also worked for data-entry in programming mode. The Thunder overlay's version is the “programmer” button, which lies at the center of buttons for functions like octave shift, patch change, start, record, and stop. Hold it and select a different preset using the 1-9 pads. LEDs indicate which preset is active when you hold the button.
Like its ancestor, the BT can sense pressure and location of your touches, and all of the pads respond to velocity, how hard you've struck them.
As you might expect from Don if you knew him, Thunder's pads don't send note scales in the same order they are on a piano. For example, with default factory preset #1, pads K-P on the right play a descending scale left to right, in counterpoint to pads C-I on the left, which play an ascending scale left to right. The right-hand notes are an octave higher, and the three middle pads - J, H, and 5 - play notes in a lower octave. Of course, as with any Morph overlay, you can program pads to send the notes of your choice, if you actually want them to generate notes.
Don Buchla died at the young age of 79 in 2016. Thankfully I got to spend quality time with him for a few years. I think Don would have been thrilled with the new Thunder.
Morph & Haken ContinuuMini I have a love affair with the Haken Audio ContinuuMini. It's surprizingly small and portable (okay, a bit long), its EaganMatrix synthesizer engine makes gloriously complex and strikingly beautiful and imposing sounds with eight notes of polyphony, and it provides you with unique and expressive control of those sounds using its ribbon controller. The ContinuuMini checks lots of boxes for me.
Its ribbon isn't perfect, though. It's spring-loaded and offers a nice, textured feel, and although it precisely tracks what your fingers do on it, it happens within a tight, recessed channel (15-1/8” x 7/8”) that's inaccessible to thumbs, and it can only track at most two fingers at a time. Lippold Haken, Edmund Eagan, and others responsible for making the ContinuuMini created an absolutely fabulous musical instrument, one that can be enhanced, and for me the Sensel Morph qualifies as an excellent enhancement to the ContinuuMini.
To get the ContinuuMini to work with the Morph, I connected them to a MacBook Air's two USB ports and ran the latest versions of the Haken Editor and SenselApp. Then the sonic bliss began.
What's great about combining a ContinuuMini with a Morph is that now you can play up to eight notes at once, plus the Morph's flat surface is more like a bigger Continuum's playing surface. You can play the remarkable EaganMatrix synth voice from both the ContinuuMini ribbon and the Morph at the same time, the Morph's overlay allows more traditional forms of performance than the ribbon does, and the MPE implementation in both means that you can bend and modulate individual notes independently from all the rest. It's really great and very expressive fun!
While the Morph can generate sustain data, the ContinuuMini ignores it. I'd hoped for continuous sustain control using the Y position on a Thunder pad, but it wasn't cooperating. The ContinuuMini also ignored sustain data from the Piano overlay.
For a much more generously sized, silky, taught surface from which to play more than two EaganMatrix notes at once, plus get amenities including multitimbral voicing, seriously expanded connectivity, and lots more, you could get a full-sized Continuum Fingerboard. Much as I'd like to, I can't afford one, but the ContinuuMini gets me close and the Morph and its Piano and Buchla Thunder overlays get me even closer. They're a natural match - provided you have a computer to keep everyone happy. Through my Mac running the Haken Editor and SenselApp, they converse very nicely.
I Like It Like This What kinds of musical things can you do playing the ContinuuMini from the Morph? Lightly touch a Thunder pad and the sound starts very quietly, its pitch fixed until you move your finger. Slide your fingertip left or right and the pitch follows. Wiggle your finger for very natural vibrato. Push harder and you control the sound's volume to an ear-shattering scream, and also massage other parameters in the preset that pressure controls.
As for Thunder's two hexagonal pads, they don't send notes; they generate CC data and add expression that you can't get with the ContinuuMini's ribbon, depending on how you map the CCs in the Haken Editor. For one preset, the Haken Editor indicated Pad B varied the Mix and RndRate parameters, opening up the reverb space and adding echoes the higher my finger went on the pad.
The magic of MPE turns up in many ContinuuMini presets, allowing you to touch multiple Morph pads at once and hear each voice respond independently of all the others. At the same time, you can play the ContinuuMini's ribbon to add a note or two. It's a blast, and I haven't even gotten to customizing a Thunder map!
While Piano is usually better for playing melodies, Thunder provides a wider note spread because those assigned to its pads span more than a two-octave range. Plus the A and B pads vary parameters the Piano overlay doesn't address because it doesn't have those pads.
I tried numerous ContinuuMini presets with both the Piano and Thunder overlays, and here's some of what I discovered. With the Looping preset Natural Law 1, brief touches on the Piano overlay generated staccato notes that were softly woodwindish and excellent for a cheerful melody - that is, when I played at the bottom of the keys. As I touched higher, the tone subtly transformed into a harmonica playing a major chord! Pressure controls the brightness and a delayed sawtooth wave modulates amplitude for a moderately fast beat in the tone. I didn't have as much fun using the Thunder overlay to play this preset.
With Thunder addressing the Looping preset NFS Traingoo.2, when I touched lightly, it unleashed a frantically paced and piercing, incessant assault of a repeated high note rhythmically interrupted by a note a minor third above. When I pressed harder, it was joined by a harsh and menacing counterpoint an octave below. The rhythm of the stabs varied from top of pad to bottom. Pad B's X axis did stereo panning and Y varied the wet/dry delay mix. Addressing these voices from the Morph via either the Thunder or Piano pads is an invigorating and inspiring experience.
Speaking of stereo, Edmund Eagan's EaganMatrix synth engine excels in stereo panning of voices and echoes and, in conjunction with the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, the ContinuuMini, the Expressive E Osmose, the Sensel Morph, Roger Linn's Linnstrument, the [MPE controller name of your choice here], and other MPE synths, it's a fantastic and extremely powerful voice and musical experience.
Pad B transmits CC#s 23, 24, and 25 and varies parameters depending on the current ContinuuMini preset. According to the Haken Editor, for the Silver Mirror preset, they affect two parameters: Recirc Mix and RndRate. Play notes and move your finger around on B, and modulated delay feedback and rate can induce pitch irregularities and offset components in the sound. Button C generates CC#s 20, 21, and 22, but not all of the ContinuuMini presets respond to them - until I do some programming.
After getting the Morph and ContinuuMini talking to each other through the Mac, I unplugged the Morph's USB cable, enabled Bluetooth on my iPhone, and was soon playing GeoShred with Thunder again. I stopped that play, reconnected Morph, and Thunder was immediately addressing the ContinuuMini again. It was for an important demonstration to a non-musician, and everything worked as I hoped it would.
Coda If there was one softsynth that would convince me to bring a MacBook onstage with the Morph, it would be Absynth. MPE control of that wondersynth is to die for!
Striving for DAWlessness As you can tell, I'm jazzed by the performance capabilities the Morph adds to the ContinuuMini. Although the combination is certainly not the same thing as having a full-sized Continuum Fingerboard, it's much more affordable and it's great to be able to play up to eight-note chords with independent control of each note, and flatten your hand to make gestures you can't duplicate with the ContinuuMini's ribbon.
That said, my goal is to get the Morph and ContinuuMini to work together without having a computer in the middle. For over a year I've been trying to get it done with a Retrokits RK-006 interface (https://www.retrokits.com/shop/rk006), which is quite tiny and yet very sophisticated, potent, and useful in certain USB/MIDI situations. With most instruments I own that have a USB connector, I can connect two or more to a powered USB hub attached to the RK-006, and the instruments interact perfectly well. For instance, with an IK Multimedia Uno synth, Teenage Engineering OP-1, and Roland SE-02 all connected to the same hub, I could arpeggiate and sequence any of the others from one device. Arpeggiating an arpeggiator led to some astoundingly complex results that maybe weren't as musical as I wanted, but it worked.
Life isn't so cheerful when the ContinuuMini joins the mix. Gerrit of Retrokits assisted me with the suggestion of filtering the ContinuuMini's controller data from the RK-006's throughput, but it only allows the Morph-RK-006-ContinuuMini combination to work to an extent. That is, when I can get them to work the same way they did with the Macintosh, the system functions great for an unpredictable period of time. If I stop touching the Morph for awhile, or if the ContinuuMini gets a stuck note, the system stops working. I can still play the ContinuuMini from its own ribbon, but it ignores the Morph until I unplug and reconnect the ContinuuMini, the RK-006, or sometimes both.
Stay tuned and I'll let you know when I get the RK-006 situation solved.
Pros: Elegantly portable with extensive control capabilities. Durably built. 3D multitouch response and programmability encourage new performance techniques and gestures. Faithful and improved reintroduction of the Buchla Thunder MIDI performance interface.
Cons : No clock, sequencer, or arpeggiator capabilities on its own. Piano overlay's uppermost C is a tiny square.