MIDI instruments evolve to let you make music anywhere
For most of the past hundred years, the tools to learn, create, and even compose music on the go were limited. In the pre-digital era, there was your voice, the harmonica, maybe a ukulele. These days, all sorts of MIDI controllers paired with simple multitrack recording apps like GarageBand and BandLab make using these products more convenient anywhere.
Beyond that, improvements to MIDI over Bluetooth have spurred a new generation of digital instruments offering new versions of familiar instruments as well as new form factors; many have come to market through crowdfunding campaigns. These allow budding musicians to learn and more experienced songwriters and performers to create and perform anywhere.
In the 1980s, new synthesizers such as the Casio VL-Tone VL-1 provided a (chintzy) keyboard that you could carry in your backpack. Now these have given way to portable MIDI keyboard controllers such as the AKAI Professional LPK25 or the MIDIPLUS AKM320. More recently, the audio brand Roli, best known for its SeaBoard Rise Keyboardwhich features “foldable” slots, offered theIlluminated keysa wireless MIDI keyboard controller named after the LEDs that illuminate the keys in a rainbow of colors.
Roli used the feature in a companion keyboard learning app that lights up the keys you want to play. While it’s useful for teaching notes and melodies to beginners, it doesn’t go very far in two-handed playing, although multiple Lumi keys can be paired together to act as one larger keyboard. Xiaomi-backed PopuMusic recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to PopuPiano; While clearly inspired by the glowing rainbow effects of Lumi Keys, Popuiano also includes a companion glowing pad that can be used to trigger chords or drums.
But Joué Play represents the most versatile keyboard controller to come out of crowdfunding. Using technology similar to that of Sensel Morph, a mousepad-like device that accepts a series of overlays to make just about any pressure-based input and includes similar overlays such as a piano-style keyboard and drum pad as well as a surface similar to guitar strings. This allows you to easily switch between “instruments” with their own feel when composing or editing music. The Played Play connects to its own well-designed companion app via USB or Bluetooth. However, despite the product’s $300 asking price, you have to shell out an additional $50 to bring “pro” level compatibility with other digital audio editing products.
In 2014, Zivix launched an Indiegogo campaign for the jamstik, a guitar-like MIDI controller marketed as helping people learn guitar, in part because it allowed them to practice just about anywhere. Since then, we’ve seen other guitar-like digital instruments, including the versatile Artiphon Instrument 1. PopuMusic also released several versions of his populele and Popularwhich the latter offers you “to learn to play the guitar like a pro in 10 days” (that long, huh?).
The latest effort to combine guitar instruction, performance and a portable set is sensible guitar. The foldable device has an array of LEDs on its neck that can do anything from light up chord fingering to create a “party mode”. The device also has a host of pressure and gyroscopic sensors to produce changes in volume, vibrato, pitch-bending and other effects. The Sensy Guitar can connect to most modern devices via Bluetooth or USB-C; Following the examples of Jamstik, Lumi and PopuMusic products, the company will launch a tutorial app to teach guitar basics. Unlike some of these other products, however, the Sensy can be used independently of a MIDI host, tapping into its built-in synthesizer supporting 72 instrument sounds via Bluetooth or its audio output jack.
While the piano and guitar have served as the basis for many MIDI controllers, the instrument that most closely resembles Artiphon’s Orba is a tongue drum. Coloring aside, however, a grapefruit would be an even more accurate model. As a simple sequencer, the Orba lets you build songs by pressing its eight top-mounted buttons that control functions like recording. Orba comes with gyroscopic sensors, so you can also create effects by tilting or shaking it.
Artiphon recently released the Orb 2, the main improvement being the ability to sample any real-world sound to incorporate into compositions. Its learning curve is trivial compared to understanding the nuances of a keyboard or fretboard, and it can be a fun way to start compositions or create tracks that complement those created with MIDI-based inputs. more familiar designs.