Every musical instrument has limitations, not only in terms of its range and timbre but in terms of the mechanical possibilities it provides. If you want to be able to play chords, a clarinet would be a poor choice — as would any wind instrument with the possible exception of the bagpipes or the harmonica. Conversely, if you want to hear tones that will sustain indefinitely, don’t write for piano.
If you want to be able to play more than 12 notes per octave, your options will be even more limited. A number of software-based synthesizers will make wonderful sounds while producing whatever tuning you can devise, but playing any of them from a MIDI keyboard will present some unusual challenges. Figuring out how to finger scales and chord voicings for a tuning with 31 notes per octave while playing a standard 12-note-per-octave black-and-white keyboard … well, it’s possible. I’ve done it a lot. But it’s a brain-twister.
Having done a bit of research over the years on alternative MIDI controllers, this fall I ordered a Z-Board from Starr Labs. I was aware that it wouldn’t have or be absolutely everything I could ever desire, but I was also pretty sure it was the best instrument I was going to find. It arrived yesterday.
The Z-Board has quite a lot of software smarts packed inside, but that’s not why I wanted it. The keyboard is a 12-by-24 array of velocity-sensitive buttons, and this array has the enormous advantage that it’s isomorphic. That is, a given chord or scale has exactly the same shape, no matter what key you start on. (The array of black and white key tops is arbitrary, and in fact the pattern shown in the photo is not the final arrangement that I settled on — it’s based on an earlier diagram I had sent them. Oops. We’ll get that sorted out in a couple of months. No hurry.)
Any key on the Z-Board can be programmed to send any MIDI note number you want. In fact, the features are more comprehensive than that: You can Read the rest of this entry »