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Linnstrument

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Would we be interested in a Linnstrument?"  Asked Geert Bevin at the end of 2016.  "The instrument still works, but adjustments to the internal hardware in the latest models mean that we can no longer sell this model."  This is how the Linnstrument, a kind of giant musical iPad, came into our collection (inv. 2016.0131) and can now be admired in the exhibition hall on the fourth floor.

The Linnstrument is an invention of the American designer Roger Linn, a legendary figure in the history of rhythm boxes, particularly with regard to the Linn LM-1 (1979), a pioneer of the genre.  Geert Bevin, an engineer at Moog, developed the computer software for the Linnstrument himself.  The MIM example was made in October 2014 and bears the serial number 49.  Although this may seem very recent, in the world of software this is already an eternity ...

Just like Roli's Seabord (CF. instrument of the month March 2016), the Linnstrument is a MIDI controller with expressivity according to the touch, pressure and movement of the finger on a "key" pad or screen.  But unlike the Seabord, there is no comparison with a piano keyboard.  The instrument is laid out in 8 rows of 25 keys. On each row the keys are separated from one another by a half-tone; just as in between the distance of the frets on a guitar.  A quick reckoning tells us that a row is therefore equivalent to two octaves.  In the factory default setting, the rows are tuned in fourths, like on a bass guitar.  The whole tones (c, d, e, f, g, a, b) are illuminated in green, while middle C is coloured blue.  When a note is played, all the notes of the same pitch light up in red. This makes it easier to find the same tone on another row.  All of these parameters can, naturally, be personalised via the function buttons along the black edges of the instrument.

In developing the Linnstrument Roger Linn sought to get away from the traditional piano keyboard because of the many problems of this interface.  This was not a new idea.  There were experiments with models of more "practical" keyboards even during the 19th century.  The most famous no doubt remains the Jankó keyboard developed by Paul von Jankó (1856-1919) in 1882.  Jankó overcame the problems of unnatural and often difficult fingering on the classical piano by reorganising the keys and placing them closer together.  Another great improvement was that the finger-shape in a chord remained the same when the musician modulated to a different key, just as on the guitar.

Many musicians considered the Jankó keyboard a huge improvement and predicted a great future for it.  Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was convinced that this keyboard would have replaced all others within fifty years.  But this never happened.  The piano keyboard remained, during the 20th century, the most significant interface between the musician and the mechanics of the instrument.  A tradition of more than 500 years is not, it seems, so easily swept away.  Robert Moog (1934-2005) used a traditional piano keyboard during the 1960s when he devised and commercialised his first synthesizers, even though this limited their possibilities.  It still seemed the best interface to create contact with the sound switches under the keys, and the familiarity with the piano keyboard allowed the synthesizer to be more easily introduced into the musical world, particularly for pop and rock music.

But for Roger Linn, the piano keyboard is not only an imperfect interface, it is also completely non-adapted as an expressive controller.  The black and white keys are not laid out in a single row, which makes it impossible to play pitch slides  and bends.  The vibrato is also problematic: on the same row of the piano keyboard the C is situated in between B and D, a half-tone lower and a full tone higher respectively. This gives an asymmetry to the playing of vibrato.  These imperfections are eliminated in the Linnstrument.  Roger Linn sees further advantages in his instrument.  The organisation of the rows and the keys allows the hands to remain close together and to avoid complicated fingerings. On the Linnstrument it is also possible to play the same note with different fingers.  As in the Jankó keyboard, the finger shape of a chord remains the same in all keys.  And even though you need an external audio module or computer to generate sound, the Linnstrument remains an easy to handle instrument.

The question remains: will the ingenious keyboards of the Linnstrument and its peers manage to dethrone the keyboard of the traditional piano?  One is inclined to say "yes" when it is a question of MIDI controllers.  However, the piano keyboard remains the main reference and for many musicians learning a new interface is the same as learning a new instrument, which may discourage many.  Fortunately, with some effort, the results appear astonishing:

What a wonderful instrument, it takes no time to learn, it's so intuitive, with such a light touch synthesis is controlled how it should be. It's irresistible! With just a gentle push or rocking of the fingertips, envelopes unfold and meaningful expression fills my ears.. - David Holdstock.

As I get older and my hands become less flexible and more prone to injury, the LinnStrument is a good instrument to continue making music with.  I can lay it on my lap and use whatever fingering is comfortable.  Since it only takes a very light touch to play a note, there is no strain on the hands as there would be with any other instrument such as piano or guitar. - Tony Beltran

Wim Verhulst

Translation: Fiona Shotter

 

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Linnstrument Roger Linn Berkeley, united States, 2014
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