Fun with Isomorphism

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 more

Keys Without Locks

Today’s software instruments can quite easily play notes in any arbitrary tuning system that you might devise. But those of us who go in for this sort of thing soon confront a serious problem: The standard pattern of white and black keys found on just about all commercially available MIDI master keyboards is utterly inadequate for playing most alternate tunings.

As long as you’re content to limit yourself to 12 notes per octave, you can get along nicely with a standard MIDI keyboard. The moment you stray beyond the boundaries of this rather narrow conception of a scale, you’re in trouble. Fingering becomes a nightmare.

One of the better resources I’ve found is Starr Labs. I’ve ordered their Z-Board keyboard, and it should arrive next week. I was tempted to buy their U-648, but it’s more expensive. The Z-Board seems an effective compromise.

Coincidentally, this morning I got an email from a fellow named Bogdan Constantinescu, who is trying to round up 20 buyers to underwrite the cost of producing 20 keyboards of a new model called the Terpstra 280. If you’re considering acquiring this type of gear, you may want to check it out. I don’t know Bogdan personally, and I can’t vouch for the stability of this business enterprise, but the design looks good.

Hexagonal key layouts are employed in the Terpstra, the U-648, and the C-Thru Axis. The Z-Board, in contrast, uses a checkerboard grid. The jury is still out on which layout is better for a universal keyboard. Hexagons may be better if you want to be able to slide a fingertip from one key to the next, as there are more directly adjacent keys. But my suspicion is that the human brain has an easier time grasping chord and scale shapes on a square grid.

The Terpstra’s keys are in elevated tiers, so you would only be able to slide a finger down, not up. Nonetheless, I feel elevated tiers are a very desirable feature, because they provide better hand positioning and tactile feedback. I’m a bit skeptical of interfaces like the Madrona Labs Soundplane, which I haven’t played, and the Haken Continuum, which I have, because they provide less tactile feedback. The nerves of the fingertips are exquisitely sensitive, and for me, tactile feedback is more important than the ability to slide freely.


I have to say, I’m impressed and heartened by the enthusiasm I’ve seen in the last few weeks from those who love Buchla 200e series instruments. I think it’s wonderful that people care passionately about their synthesizers. I hope you all will make wonderful music with your instruments, and I hope you’ll upload recordings so that others can hear and appreciate what you’re doing.

No irony — I’m entirely serious.


Barring a few isolated examples such as the lightning-flashes in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, instrumental music is entirely abstract. The sounds we hear evoke responses in us, yet those responses are private, and the methods by which the sounds evoke the responses is rather mysterious.

I play in community orchestras, so I spend a lot of time rehearsing and performing music written by dead Europeans. I also listen to experimental electronic music from time to time, by living composers who are in some sense my colleagues.

I think I may have figured out why I like the dead Europeans a lot more. It isn’t just a matter of familiarity, and it isn’t just because I’m an old fogey (though there’s considerable merit in that accusation). It’s because classical music is a coherent language — a language with a syntax that can be known and understood in considerable detail.

Consciously developing a new language is all but impossible. The dismal history of Esperanto, an invented spoken and written language, illustrates the difficulties all too well — and Esperanto has an explicit vocabulary and grammar, which you and your listeners can learn if you care to. Inventing your own musical language is Read more

Kind of Blue

A couple of months ago I got myself in some trouble — got some people mad at me. I had initially agreed to write the manual for a Buchla synthesizer (the “affordable” $15,000 Skylab system) in exchange for getting to keep the hardware. The job became less attractive to me when I realized I already had a far more capable modular synth on my hard drive, at a cost of $0.

Namely, Csound.

Not to rehash that series of events at this late date; the point is, I regret the way it went down not only because I hurt some people’s feelings (including, I’m sure, Don’s) but also because I kind of enjoy writing manuals. I had previously written a book on Csound (Csound Power, available on Amazon), which is not quite a manual — more an introduction to the software. Csound also has a swell online manual on the Floss site, plus a fat book edited by Richard Boulanger and the bundled HTML docs. There’s no shortage of information on how to use it.

This week I’m kicking around a few ideas about what I might want to do indoors during the winter months. As it turns out, Steven Yi is about to release a new version of blue, his amazing front end for Csound. blue is also a free download. Steven is updating the manual prior to the release — turning it into a Read more

Something Old, Something New

I’m not sure what crevice in my subconscious this idea popped out of. By the end of the last century I had long since stopped writing and recording songs with lyrics. My voice, never inspiring to begin with, had become hard to manage, and I had no illusions that I was destined to be any sort of pop star.

But somewhere around 1999, I wrote and recorded a song called “Have You Seen My Website?” It was inspired, at least in its approach to narrative, by Laurie Anderson. I liked the song, but I never cared for the recording. There was too much reverb on the vocal, and by the time I figured that out, the original files were long gone. All I had was the mp3 of the final mix.

I had it on my website for a while. The mp3 is still on the server, but I don’t think there’s a link to it on the current site. Strangely enough, though, somebody had a link to the old page that it was on. A few weeks ago I got an email from a musician in Germany asking if he could remix the tune. I said, “Sure, be my guest — but I don’t have the original tracks. Can you work with the mp3?”

Well, no, he couldn’t. That’s not how remixing works. A few months back, though, I had tried re-recording another piece (an instrumental) from scratch, and found it an amusing challenge. So just for fun, I sat down and re-recorded “Have You Seen My Website?” Made a few modest improvements, including a new verse. And thanks to modern computer-based recording, you can hardly tell how awful my singing is.

Here’s the new version, in all its alleged splendor:

If anybody else wants to remix it, just let me know. The a cappella is now available, as are MIDI files and assorted stems.

If you just want to listen, have fun trying to spot the obscure references in the lyrics. To get you started,there are three poets, three quotes from song lyrics, two movie stars (at the same time), a novel by Philip K. Dick, a couple of pop stars, and an episode of Red Dwarf.

Credit where due: The technology used (unless I’m forgetting something, which I probably am) started with Steinberg Cubase 6.5. The synth rack includes u-he Zebra 2, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, AAS Lounge Lizard 3, Rob Papen Predator, Native Instruments Battery 3 and B-IV, and Madrona Labs Aalto. The vocoder was supplied by Propellerhead Reason.

Want to compare it to the original version? Okay:

And by the way, it’s not true that my fans all carry switchblades. Rhyming a spondaic foot across three choruses (eyeshades, mermaids, switchblades) — well, try it sometime if you think it’s easy.