The electronic music interwebs are starting to rev their engines for Roger Linn’s new Linnstrument. And as much as I love the sound of a LinnDrum snare (and believe me, I love the sound of a LinnDrum snare), I just can’t get myself excited about this particular instrument. With its overlays and one-size-fits-all approach, Roger’s new instrument tries to be a grid, a piano, a drum pad, a guitar, and hexagonal controller all in one. And because of that, it fails on all counts. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say I don’t think anyone has yet invented a truly playable and expressive controller instrument (though the Haken Continuum comes close). I think I’ve figured out why, and it has nothing to do with the limitations of synthesizers or computers: Physical specialization. Or, more specifically, the total lack thereof.
Picture the angled keys on a saxophone; or the precise curve of a violin fingerboard; or watch a drummer set up his kit, placing his drums and cymbals with maniacal precision. What is the reason for these things? I can give you two: The fact that our bodies are not straight and flat, and hundreds of years of instrumental evolution. Holding a nicely shaped electric guitar neck feels awesome. Balancing a grid controller on your lap does not. Granted, pretty much every acoustic instrument on earth has quirks and compromises that make them sometimes difficult to play—not to mention give you injuries—but at least they fit in our hands.
Next, we should stop limiting ourselves in regards to mechanical manipulation and feedback. Flat and smooth (or slightly fretted) surfaces are not tactile or inspiring. Drawing a bow, strumming with a pick, smacking with a mallet? Now those are fun physical activities for humans (my three year old twins wholeheartedly agree). Gingerly tapping and wiggling your finger on a table? Or interrupting an invisible beam of light with your hand? Not so much.
Lastly, even though computers are capable of making an almost limitless number of sounds, that doesn’t mean the controllers that control them have to be uninspiring blank slates. Our brains program the computers, but our bodies play the instruments. Physical specialization is a good thing. A cello, for example, can really only do one thing—after all, it’s just a bow and a string and a box—but resonant body aside, its physical shape and mechanics inspire players to coax a huge variety of unearthly, uniquely cello-y sounds from it. When it’s played with skill, it sings.
As a proud and loving owner of one of the first monome sixty fours ever made, I pose a challenge to the instrument makers and groundbreakers out there: Let’s dare to break from the barrage of Swiss Army Knives and start prototyping some truly physical and emotive digital controllers.