Roger Linn's wildly successful LinnDrum drum machine was a big part of the computer-pop revolution that sucked the soul and humanity out of pop music in the 1980s. Now, he's part of a group of innovators desperately trying to get soul, expression and instrumental virtuosity back into pop music with a suite of next-generation instruments. The Linnstrument has been many years in the making, and it's now about to hit the market – a MIDI controller designed to give as much feel and expression as an acoustic instrument, but with the wild sonic possibilities available through today's synthesizers.
"Remember back in the early 1980s when pop music started using drum machines, and consequently lost all of its soul and human-ness? Well, that's my fault." - the words of electronic instrument designer Roger Linn as he accepted his Technical Grammy award in 2011.
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Linn's famous LinnDrum was the poster child for 80s drum machines. It was nothing less than revolutionary, helping usher in the computer pop era we're in today. Mind you, if you asked professional drummers about it at the time, they'd say the LinnDrum and its ilk completely undermined the complex, nuanced art of creating groove with a drum set. A great drummer can make every 16th note on his hi-hats mean something – the synth drums were quantized, inhuman and lacking expression.
But Linn sees another revolution around the corner. Ironically, this time he's working to re-humanize synthsized music, bring virtuosity back into the realm of popular music and re-introduce the organic expressiveness of musical performance, while taking advantage of the unbelievably rich sounds offered by today's synths.
Linn and a number of others have been working on a simple problem: What should the next human to synth interface look like? The simple MIDI keyboard is a relic of the acoustic instruments it's descended from. It's easy for piano players to get their heads around, but an entirely inappropriate device if you're trying to replicate the expressiveness of, say, a cello.
Linn's solution, soon to hit the market, is the Linnstrument – a multi-touch interface that gives the user 3 continuous degrees of control on each note.
Each of the Linnstrument's 200 touch cells can output continuous information about pressure, X and Y axis movement. You can configure what those actually mean, but in a standard implementation, pressure would control loudness (both on the initial touch and expressively afterwards), left-right axis movement controls pitch for a kind of manual vibrato, and forward/backward or up/down movement controls the instrument tone or timbre.
And while each cell has a slightly raised center, giving you a tactile sense to feel your way around its notes, you can slide smoothly between notes as if you're using a flat touch screen as well.
The Linnstrument board is laid out chromatically, each row having 25 semitones, equally spaced like the frets of a stringed instrument. Each row is a fourth higher in pitch than the one below it by default – of course, this is all configurable. But with even row spacing you're able to make a chord shape and move it all across the board without having to change your fingering.
The cells each have their own colored LEDs under the silicon surface. These serve both as control keys in configuration modes and as configurable fretboard markers when you're ready to play. You can color all the tonics of the key you're playing in one color, and the notes that fit the major scale another color, for example, or all sorts of other permutations.
At the moment, Linn is primarily testing the Linnstrument with Logic Pro X, which allows you to continuously control pitch, loudness and timbre of each note separately, even if you're playing multiple notes at a time. But the device will work with a variety of other Digital Audio Workstations, some with this ability disabled.
It's powered either through USB or through pretty much any AC or DC power supply. There's an input for a single or dual foot switch, which can be configured on board, and there's four guitar strap buttons that let you attach straps in different spots so you can play it standing like a guitar, or more vertically like the neck of a cello.
There are other similarly ultra-expressive synth inputs already on the market, notably the Continuum Fingerboard, the Soundplane and the stunning Eigenharp, complete with an extra breath control input. One of the things the Eigenharp really has going for it is that it looks deadly cool in a performance setting – something that may well hold the much more utilitarian-looking Linnstrument back.
Back to the drawing boardThe Linnstrument has been a long time coming. We last covered it back in 2010, when Roger was disappointed to learn that his supplier for one of its key touch-sensitive components had been bought out by Amazon and shut down.
In an excellent demonstration of just how the modern patent game is stifling important innovation, Linn says he dealt with several other potential suppliers, only to have them bought out and shut down by the likes of Apple, presumably simply for their IP. In the end, he rolled up his sleeves and designed his own system from the ground up.
"I've been trying to not have to get back into designing the hardware, but I did … I immersed myself back into the low level design stuff, and I came up with a design that I think works very well. Right now the sensor is on its fifth revision, and it feels great – but that's why it's taken so long. I didn't want to have to go back and reinvent a touch screen for a musical instrument, but then nobody made anything that worked. They were close, but they weren't good enough. It took a while, but it's almost here!"
The next sonic revolutionLinn is keenly aware of his place in musical history, and keen to help shape the next wave of electronic music.
"Synthesis started to overtake acoustic instruments sometime around the latter half of the 20th century. After a while, synthesis technology improved until you could get the same sounds from synthesis as you can from acoustic instruments.
"And right now, we're in this time of transition, where we've got this wonderful software, and wonderful synthesised instruments - and what are we using as the human interface? We're using data processing interface items. Knobs, sliders and switches.
"What is a MIDI keyboard? It's 61 on/off switches. My theory is it's responsible for the loss of the virtuosic instrumental voice in popular music. When I was a kid, there was always a guitar solo, or a sax solo, some sort of an instrumental solo where somebody with virtuosic skill did something so compelling that you wanted to include it in the song.
"That doesn't exist quite as much anymore in popular music. What we're all trying to do is create a vehicle where people are able to develop virtuosic skills on synthesised instruments and let people create another compelling instrumental voice in popular music.
"Maybe, just maybe, these new instruments will seduce some young musicians away from loops and beats, and back to notes and melodies. I'm kind of on a one-man campaign to save the note from extinction."
The Linnstrument is set to debut in a few months' time. Pricing will be somewhere between US$1000 and $2000, and Linn is hoping to be able to open source the software.