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Grid Controllers as Playable Keyboards


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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!!!

Tom

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!

 

mike

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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Hey DR Mike!

 

Thanks so much for reviving my thread and giving such an informative explanation of it!

Much appreciated...I will research the controllers and tuning systems you touched on.

 

This is a journey I've been wanting to take since I became intrigued with the isomorphic keyboard layouts of chromatic accordions. While I play the standard (Stradella bass) piano accordion, I've always wanted to own a chromatic button instrument. They are capable of a wider range of notes, with the transposition and fingering advantages of the isomorphic layout you referenced. I just never settled on an instrument because I couldn't decide between the "B" or "C" layout.

 

I'm wondering if the grid controllers could be programmed to be played like one of these?

 

Much to ponder...and THANKS SO MUCH for pointing me in the right direction with the grid controllers, and shedding a lot of light and sage advice on the whole matter.

 

Enjoy the day...

Tom

Tom

Nord Electro 5D, Modal Cobalt 8, Yamaha upright piano, numerous plug-ins...

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Hey DR Mike!

 

Thanks so much for reviving my thread and giving such an informative explanation of it!

Much appreciated...I will research the controllers and tuning systems you touched on.

 

This is a journey I've been wanting to take since I became intrigued with the isomorphic keyboard layouts of chromatic accordions. While I play the standard (Stradella bass) piano accordion, I've always wanted to own a chromatic button instrument. They are capable of a wider range of notes, with the transposition and fingering advantages of the isomorphic layout you referenced. I just never settled on an instrument because I couldn't decide between the "B" or "C" layout.

 

I'm wondering if the grid controllers could be programmed to be played like one of these?

 

Much to ponder...and THANKS SO MUCH for pointing me in the right direction with the grid controllers, and shedding a lot of light and sage advice on the whole matter.

 

Enjoy the day...

Tom

Hi Tom!

 

Glad to help. It's what I'm here for. :D

 

Here's the thing about making the jump from a chromatic accordion to a grid: while you could in fact program a grid in a variety of layouts (although in many cases it would involve a bit of low-level hacking to get past the preset offerings), there is a fundamental difference between a grid and a chromatic button array: the latter isn't a square arrangement, it's staggered like the cells in a honeycomb. This makes a huge difference in how it's played, as fingerings involve movements not only left to right but in two possible vertical directions.

 

If you specifically wanted to mimic this sort of behavior, you would want a chromatic hex keyboard. They are a lot more rare and a bit more spendy than grids, because they are far less well known. The other problem is, every designer thinks that his or her choice of note arrays makes more sense than anyone else's, and it's not always clear that these things can be changed within any particular keyboard!

 

A good survey of these sorts of things, including the layouts you mention above, can be found on this old tutorial page.

 

Here's a Wikipedia page on one suggestion: The Harmonic Table note layout. You'll notice this bears only a passing resemblance to what's on a Concertina; the one acoustic instrument that used it, the Hohner Harmonetta, never really took off and stuck. For a while, C-Thru Music was marketing the Axis keyboards based on this design, but I don't think they're selling any more despite the website remaining active. A more modern alternative would be the Opal Chameleon and Gecko.

 

Currently available hardware hex keyboards are rare, but the one that most appeals to accordion types is the Dualo. It had a very successful Kickstarter and they're selling a fair number of units.

 

Something a bit more portable for putting in a backpack would be the Manta, made by Snyderphonics. This has a non-moving pressure-sensitive keyboard and a variety of ways to set it up for use. You don't need to use it with a fancy external module; it can be connected to any computer via USB. It's a bit big but easily backpackable, and is thin and has no moving parts so it's quite sturdy, and the developer is a smart and friendly guy.

 

I am leaving the Lumatone off this list, because it's much too large for your intended application and fabulously expensive.

 

Alternatively, there is a very inexpensive way to try this stuff out: on an iPad. There are a surprisingly big variety of apps out there, all cheap and many free, that offer the ability to explore this sort of layout. If you're not an iPad user, this doesn't do you much good, but if you are, get on the App Store and look for apps like Navichord, Musix, or Hex OSC.

 

Have fun!

 

mike

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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Hey Doc!

Those are some excellent suggestions above. I will surely check them out.

I have a few of the iPad apps...it's just kinda awkward to hold the iPad basically backward and then try to guess where the notes are.

But definitely doable... Or I could just roll the dice and pick up a used chromatic accordion and give it a go...

Thanks so much for all of the amazing info! By the way, I totally stumbled upon your review of the Hydrasynth!

Being a synth-head, I've been considering one of those.. or an Argon 8...or a Deepmind 12...the list goes on and on...

So glad to have met you here and let's stay in touch!

Enjoy the day...

Tom

Tom

Nord Electro 5D, Modal Cobalt 8, Yamaha upright piano, numerous plug-ins...

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Dr. Mike have you had a chance to try a Dreadbox-Polyend Medusa? As a pure controller it has some weaknesses compared to Linnstrument like no support for sliding your finger across multiple pads, but as an integrated machine (controller, synth, sequencer) it offers a lot of value for the money. Some people are put off by the pads being on the left side, while people coming from a right-handed guitar playing background seem perfectly fine with it.

 

Some rare examples of Medusa's pads being played manually - most videos just show the sequencer playing while somebody is tweaking controls:

 

[video:youtube]

 

[video:youtube]

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Speaking of Launchpad, a set of Pure Data tools was released to allow owners of recent-model Launchpads to hack their own units:

 

https://cdm.link/2020/07/novation-launchpad-free-set-of-tools-in-pd-to-hack-your-own-controllers/?fbclid=IwAR2oDKVmj_KRhyUya2RgHd17yfy4rbnoLsTDK6aDvajnA4NkzEVqq7OcGv8

 

For standalone operation, it looks like you'd have to get a Raspberry Pi, install Pure Data on that, then install the tools.

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Hey Doc!

Those are some excellent suggestions above. I will surely check them out.

I have a few of the iPad apps...it's just kinda awkward to hold the iPad basically backward and then try to guess where the notes are.

But definitely doable... Or I could just roll the dice and pick up a used chromatic accordion and give it a go...

Thanks so much for all of the amazing info! By the way, I totally stumbled upon your review of the Hydrasynth!

Being a synth-head, I've been considering one of those.. or an Argon 8...or a Deepmind 12...the list goes on and on...

So glad to have met you here and let's stay in touch!

Enjoy the day...

Tom

My pleasure, sir! Come back often and feel free to start threads on stuff like this here; it will be years before we build up the kind of audience that KC enjoys, with the (hopefully temporary) salubrious effect that threads don't get buried quite as quickly. :)

 

I am actually looking at the Argon8 module myself, but right now I am spending most of my time with the Korg Wavestate (still owe you guys some videos over in Ye Olde GearLabbe!) with a quick excursion into the MODAL SKULPTsynth, which has gone from a $299 doorstop to an incredibly handy little synth with the addition of MPE.

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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Dr. Mike have you had a chance to try a Dreadbox-Polyend Medusa? As a pure controller it has some weaknesses compared to Linnstrument like no support for sliding your finger across multiple pads, but as an integrated machine (controller, synth, sequencer) it offers a lot of value for the money. Some people are put off by the pads being on the left side, while people coming from a right-handed guitar playing background seem perfectly fine with it.

Hey Gov! I have avoided the Medusa for the exact reason you have named. That's because I am a "wrong handed" player; if I had learned to play guitar left-handed, I might still be doing it, but one of my frustrations in learning to play ANYTHING is that my hand independence is very poor (bad training when young and no time to fix it) and all my fine motor control dominance is in my right hand.

 

Some people are organists, some are pianists; I am literally a lead synth player. The right hand does ALL of that and the left hand either turns knobs or rests on the wheels. It is what I am, it has worked well for me for decades, and I am too busy composing to try to go back and woodshed to become a "proper" keyboardist. :idk:

 

But for that reason, all my grid chops are in my right hand and the Medusa's reversed layout is screamingly frustrating for me. I can't even look at it without getting angry. Same issue with the Production Overlay on the Sensel Morph. Grrrr.

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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Speaking of Launchpad, a set of Pure Data tools was released to allow owners of recent-model Launchpads to hack their own units:

 

https://cdm.link/2020/07/novation-launchpad-free-set-of-tools-in-pd-to-hack-your-own-controllers/?fbclid=IwAR2oDKVmj_KRhyUya2RgHd17yfy4rbnoLsTDK6aDvajnA4NkzEVqq7OcGv8

 

For standalone operation, it looks like you'd have to get a Raspberry Pi, install Pure Data on that, then install the tools.

Hmmmmmmm. I just acquired a Critter & Guitari Organelle, which is essentially a portable music-oriented computer that runs Pd. I wonder if these hacks would work on it; my Launchpad X would make a dandy controller for it, assuming I wasn't using the LinnStrument or KeyStep already...

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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  • 3 years later...

I never enjoyed playing the Linnstrument. Part of it may be mental, so many restrictions when trying to find instruments that will respond to individual pitch bend. My Push 3 arrives tomorrow. I opted not to get the stand alone version. It will be nice to have more options for instruments that allow individual pitch bend, and I think I will enjoy the larger pads. But still, it is not a keyboard. Proper solos with runs and trills and turn arounds just don't come from a grid controller. And to be honest, when it comes to chords on a grid controller, I'd just as soon use a chord library for one note chords. Pad controllers are a nice option, but if I had only one it would be a keyboard.

This post edited for speling.

My Sweetwater Gear Exchange Page

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On 8/30/2023 at 8:41 PM, RABid said:

I never enjoyed playing the Linnstrument. Part of it may be mental, so many restrictions when trying to find instruments that will respond to individual pitch bend. My Push 3 arrives tomorrow. I opted not to get the stand alone version. It will be nice to have more options for instruments that allow individual pitch bend, and I think I will enjoy the larger pads. But still, it is not a keyboard. Proper solos with runs and trills and turn arounds just don't come from a grid controller. And to be honest, when it comes to chords on a grid controller, I'd just as soon use a chord library for one note chords. Pad controllers are a nice option, but if I had only one it would be a keyboard.

I hope you can share some of your creation/performance

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 8/30/2023 at 7:41 AM, RABid said:

I never enjoyed playing the Linnstrument. Part of it may be mental, so many restrictions when trying to find instruments that will respond to individual pitch bend.

 

Guitar synths have the same problem. The synth has to be set up for MIDI guitar compatibility, with mono mode, legato, one voice per channel (like the guitar's one note per string), correct pitch bending and response to hammer-ons and slides, etc. Decades ago, Yamaha's TX81Z and TX802 had a near-perfect implementation, because Yamaha thought their G10 guitar controller (aka the MIDI Dustbuster) was going to be a big deal. It wasn't, so I guess they lost interest. 

 

It takes me FOREVER to program a synth to take full advantage of the LinnStrument, assuming the synth can actually be programmed to do so. I find the LinnStrument best for slower, more expressive leads...I haven't developed the dexterity yet to play super-fast.  

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21 hours ago, Anderton said:

 

Guitar synths have the same problem. The synth has to be set up for MIDI guitar compatibility, with mono mode, legato, one voice per channel (like the guitar's one note per string), correct pitch bending and response to hammer-ons and slides, etc. Decades ago, Yamaha's TX81Z and TX802 had a near-perfect implementation, because Yamaha thought their G10 guitar controller (aka the MIDI Dustbuster) was going to be a big deal. It wasn't, so I guess they lost interest. 

 

It takes me FOREVER to program a synth to take full advantage of the LinnStrument, assuming the synth can actually be programmed to do so. I find the LinnStrument best for slower, more expressive leads...I haven't developed the dexterity yet to play super-fast.  

Great insight, digital music still has along way to go.

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  • 5 months later...
On 7/27/2020 at 1:57 PM, Dr Mike Metlay said:

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 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!

 

mike

Grid controllers feature a layout where the most common overlap is in fourths, akin to guitar string tunings but with slight differences. This uniform layout ensures that scales and chords remain consistent across all keys, making it easier for those with a bass or guitar background to learn and use grid controllers effectively.

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I have only gotten to demo a few MPE controllers, but the Sensel Morph felt like the right fit for both my hands and musical sensibilities. I was sorry to see the line come to a stop. Each of these things is esoteric by definition, so there's an added layer of effort required to elicit their best. That's part of why I "settled" on CME XKeys. They don't hit every mark, but they bat above their weight class. I'd still love to have a Morph for its less traditional gestural responses. Everything else seems to command high dollars and a very arduous path to more fluid playing. Not to diss an entire field at all! I simply get the feeling that with the Osmose and Keystage now available, the range of MPE-capable tools will naturally broaden.

 "You seem pretty calm about all that."
 "Well, inside, I'm screaming.
    ~ "The Lazarus Project"

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  • 1 month later...
On 3/14/2024 at 1:38 PM, David Emm said:

I have only gotten to demo a few MPE controllers, but the Sensel Morph felt like the right fit for both my hands and musical sensibilities. I was sorry to see the line come to a stop. Each of these things is esoteric by definition, so there's an added layer of effort required to elicit their best. That's part of why I "settled" on CME XKeys. They don't hit every mark, but they bat above their weight class. I'd still love to have a Morph for its less traditional gestural responses. Everything else seems to command high dollars and a very arduous path to more fluid playing. Not to diss an entire field at all! I simply get the feeling that with the Osmose and Keystage now available, the range of MPE-capable tools will naturally broaden.

Thank you for sharing.

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