Grid Sequencers

The first time I ever saw a Tenori-On was at the Hollywood House Of Blues in the hands of Jonathan Coulton. He used it to play My Monkey.

I knew what the crazy Lite-Brite sequencer thing was, because it was designed by Toshio Iwai, the man behind the Nintendo DS “game” Electroplankton.

Back in 2008, there were so few Tenori-Ons that musicians had to submit proposals to Yamaha to get the chance to purchase one. They’re a little more common now, but the price is steep enough that they’re out of reach of tinkering hobby musicians like myself.

Yamaha has since announced an orange “home” version of the Tenori-On, but the price will probably still be $700 or more – not a huge cost savings. Not enough for me to buy it any time soon.

As far as I know, the Tenori-On was the first hardware music controller make the standard software grid MIDI controller playable in a live setting. The idea has caught on in a big way, and there are two varieties of Tenori-On competitors.

The first is direct knock-offs. Someone created a flash app called Tone Matrix, which has been very popular and itself inspired a ton of knock-offs including at least six iPhone apps.

But a software version is somewhat beside the point – software sequencers have used the grid idea for years. The cool thing about the Tenori-On is the hand-held real-time nature of it.

The guys a Think Geek recently released a $50 grid synth/sequencer called the Bliptronic 5000 LED Synthesizer. It’s a ton of fun and has some great features – you can connect them together to make extended sequences. The only thing about the Bliptronic 5000 is that it’s only an 8×8 matrix, whereas the Tenori-On is 16×16. (This is a big deal to me – read on.)

The other variety is a controler-only device which doesn’t in itself make any noise. This then has to be connected to a computer running some sort of MIDI sequencer software to actually do anything. Novation and Akai have devices along these lines, intended to work with Abelton.

Then there is the Monome. Open source “minimalistic” controller that interfaces with a library of computer applications developed for it. Most of these are music-oriented, but there are other applications (mostly geared towards art installations, it seems).

Monomoes are produced in small quantities and are more expensive than Tenori-Ons. There are sometimes kits available for smaller devices, but they also are in small editions and also not cheap.

Since Monome makes their design information available (for non-commercial purposes – an interesting detail for a musical instrument), and it is driven primarily by a microcontroller, there is an Arduino project called Arduinome which allows people to build their own devices and use the Monome software.

Sparkfun is an online electronics retailer that sells the same sort of silicon rubber LED buttons like are used on the Monome, but only in a 4×4 grid size. Put together 4 (for 8×8 grid) or 16 (for 16×16 grid) and it starts to run up the costs.


So, recently, a very smart someone (Wil Lindsay), broke open their Bliptronic 5000 and figured out how to control the buttons and LEDs. You can’t put together a 8×8 grid controller for $50 and yet Think Geek did. So why not use it?

It will soon be available as a kit for about $70. The kit does not include the Bliptronic 5000, so that’ll run you another $50 (unless you don’t mind losing your current one, but they’re too much fun for that), so total cost is about $120 and a few hours of assembly time.

This is still a computer-tethered solution, not as slick as the Tenori-On, but it’s a stepping stone.

Then there is the whole 8×8 vs 16×16 grid size issue.

All of these grid controllers are used around a major scale. Like Electroplankton, if you stick with C Major, you can combine any notes and it will sound musical. The 16×16 controllers are really just two octaves high with twice as many steps.

Most physical music controllers are built with this twelve-tone limit in mind. But what if you want to experiment with other scales? Say, a 16-tone (hexadecimal) scale, like I have used for the last two RPM Challenge entires? You just can’t play a hexadecimal scale on a piano keyboard.

One of the reasons I have been lusting after the Tenori-On is it’s 16×16 grid. One could load a the sounds of a hexadecimal scale in to it and have a non-standard controller. I’m not actually that interested in the real-time music playback capabilities of the Tenori-On – having a computer-tethered interface would probably work fine, as long as I could make it trigger sounds I had created.

Having a 16×16 controller would make the process of figuring out the music theory of hexadecimal music a bit easier than having to piece together chords by hand. It’s a time-consuming trial-and-error process.

I’ve been learning the Arudino by making noise-making circuits that emulate the Loud Objects Noise Toy. I figure it’s a simple starting point. Then I would move on to more sophisticated musical-instruments, including a 16×16 grid controller. But the learning curve is steep and looming near.

The Bliptonome seems an interesting first step. And it might be useful in different ways.

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