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Playability of Grid Controllers

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About ten days ago, this was posted over on KC. After no one replied over all that time, I hijacked the post and I'll be talking about it over here. :D


Hi Folks!


I'm interested in getting a grid controller (either a Push or Launchpad etc.)

I'm interested to know which of these is most "playable" as a keyboard...obviously not in the traditional sense but with a logical way to approach playing basic melodies and chords.)


The thing that most appeals to me is the compact size! That little controller could possibly be a nice portable rig for songwriting or basic sessions where I'm just playing simple melodies and embellishments.


Anyone care to shine some light on this?

Thanks in advance!!!


Hi Tom, let me see if I can shed a little light in your direction...


The first basic thing you need to know about a grid controller is that there are two general ways they can be set up: either chromatically or diatonically. The benefit of a chromatic layout is that all the notes are right there under your hands, so key changes and accidentals etc. are very natural to play. A diatonic layout lets you choose the key and mode/scale you want to play in, and eliminates all notes that are not in that scale, so you can't play a wrong note but you also can't change keys etc.


The second thing you need to know about a grid controller is how the rows of the grid overlap one another pitchwise. This degree of overlap is usually adjustable to suit the player's desires.


By far the most common overlap is in fourths. So, walking up a column of grid pads from row to row, this would be (for example) BEADGCF etc. This is similar to the string tunings on a guitar, except that the high two strings are a half step sharp so the pattern of fourths remains in place. It is also possible to set up the pads to overlap in any other interval: fifths, thirds, some people even use tritones (!), but the one you'll see most often is fourths.


The constant row overlap means that all fingerings for scales and chords will be isomorphic, meaning they don't change from key to key. There's no jumping back and forth between little black keys and big white ones in different patterns depending on the key; once you learn a major scale, it's the same in all keys. Ditto chord shapes. A major triad will have the same shape in every key.


In this respect, grid controllers are very easy to learn, especially for someone with a bass or guitar background, and they do in fact pack a lot of notes into a very small space!


Overlap is also relevant in diatonic modes. Again, the most common one is fourths; that way, you can rapidly play scales with three fingers. 1 2 3 [move up a row] 1 2 3 [move up] 1 2 3 etc. Some people like thirds because they can run up and down scales with only 2 fingers; others like octaves, so there's a diatonic scale from root to octave on every row and a full 8x8 grid gives you 8 octaves of notes (well, until you run out of MIDI Note numbers).


If every note looks the same, how do you tell where you are? Usually with the help of LED backlighting. The tradition is: root notes in one color, scale notes in another color (or white), accidentals off. Most machines will let you specify a diatonic scale even when you're in chromatic mode. The notes are all in the same places, but different ones light up to indicate your root and scale/chord fingerings. This is the best of both worlds: you can play any note you wish, but your primary scale is indicated so you can see where you are. It's very common for more accomplished grid players to simply set the scale/mode to C Major and leave it there, so they get used to where the notes are and play the grid as if it had "black" and "white" keys.


Some examples:


The Ableton Push does everything in fourths, whether chromatic or diatonic. It's a very popular device, so its choice of note overlap has become the de facto standard. Usually non-root notes are in white, and the root notes are colored according to whatever color has been assigned to the instrument you're playing.


The Novation Launchpads work exactly the same way, but if you activate Scale Mode (their term for a diatonic layout) you can select from various overlaps... it's common to see the completely separate octave per row on the Novation Circuit, so its 8 x 4 grid can give you four octaves of notes.


The Roger Linn Design LinnStrument is a 20 x 8 or 16 x 8 grid controller that can be set up in a variety of overlaps. However, it is chromatic at all times. Roger Linn feels that diatonic modes ruin the learnability of the grid, so he doesn't support them.


I can't speak to every single grid controller out there, but those are the basics. I have all of the above and use them for different things; depending on what software you want to use and how small you want to get, one or another will be a better choice.


I hope this helps. Hit me up with any questions you might have!



Dr. Mike Metlay (PhD in nuclear physics, golly gosh) :D

Musician, Author, Editor, Educator, Impresario, Online Radio Guy, Cut-Rate Polymath, and Kindly Pedant

Editor-in-Chief, Bjooks ~ Author of SYNTH GEMS 1


clicky!:  more about me ~ my radio station (and my fam) ~ my local tribe ~ my day job ~ my bookmy music

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