The physical characteristics of traditional instruments give instant feedback to the musician. If you are a violinist when you pick up a unknown violin it takes weeks before you get a “feeling” for it. This feeling is the timing and its precision is effected by the physics of the make and material. Because you are holding the instrument the feeling of this timing is hauptic.

The lack of natural hauptic feedback in electronic instruments makes timing the most critical subject of electronic music production. While this timing can still be found in tightly programmed devices this feeling is difficult to transfer to other devices. And today, with electronic music, you are a producer, not just one instrument or device. Everything has to play at the same time, with the same feeling. For an electronic muscician I think understanding that timing is “programmed” is essential.

I recently picked up a Monome 128 and have only begun the process of programming it. This is an electronic controller handmade with a lot of love from Brian and Kelli in Philadelphia. A close friend of mine has the Tenori-on, which is similar. They are both LED push button matrix pads which can be used as instruments. However, the Tenori-ON has an on-board synthesizer so all of the timing is tight. It has a feeling to it out of the box. The Monome is a controller connected to your computer which acts as the synth and handles timing. The Monome has to be programmed and in a sense you have to create the feeling for the instrument as though you were a violin maker except that you are dealing with timing in code instead of wood and sound physics.

On the one hand sitting down with a Tenori-ON or TR-808 or other synth you can very quickly (days) get the feeling for it and start making music. Yet, being forced to first build the timing and instrument set for the Monome has a different and perhaps more intimate feeling. They are similar but for someone wanting to dig into detail the Monome and its open community of developers is a big advantage.

The applications/features I prefer at the moment:

  • MLR (video, documentation). Stand alone Max/MSP runtime. Slices samples, can take live samples, and records sequencing patterns for slices. Its kinda the place to start with the Monome and its what I relate to the most, coming from a childhood making precisely timed samples for looping, god knows what reason.
  • Polygome (video, documentation). Stand alone Max/MSP runtime. You map a midi instrument onto the pad and then you create pattern that you can walk across the pad.
  • 7up (video, documentation). Sends midi to Ableton Live. Combines the sample slicing and pattern sequencing as found in MLR but includes a bunch of other possibilities. Based on Java it comes with sources.
  • Molar (video skip 5 min, documentation). VST plugin. Has some MLR slicing and other controls.

Concerning timing, with MLR or Molar you can plug into Ableton to manage and sync all timing. But this is not very fun so currently im working on other timing synchronization methods to avoid Ableton, or at least better understand it.