The Ultimate Guide To The Eigenharp Alpha

EigenZone’s Geert Bevin has published what has to be the ultimate guide to the Eigenharp Alpha, his review of the Alpha after using it for three months:

Even with all the warts of the current EigenD software that drives the Eigenharp Alpha, the instrument speaks to me. I’ve never enjoyed playing the piano as much and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The position of your hands, the relationship with the keys and the combination of the playing and percussion keys, it all just keeps pulling me in. I know when I start playing, but before I know it, many hours of great fun have gone by. In contrast to the Pico where I quickly mastered and used all the features, it seems that I tend to focus first on perfecting my playing technique on the Alpha. I’ve rarely used the scheduler and have never done anything with the arranger yet. You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time searching and fine-tuning sounds, only the ones that ship with the instrument are readily playable and almost any other software instrument will require you to adapt it to how you use the Alpha. You also have to be comfortable to spend a lot of time in self-study as there are no training materials nor teachers. The great community of first adopters combined with the stellar and passionate customer service from Eigenlabs makes exploring all the possibilities very enjoyable though, you’re not on your own.

It really is a physical and sensual instrument that gives you intimate control over your own digital world.

Bevin’s guide takes a look at the Eigenharp Alpha hardware, Eigenharp accessories, Eigenharp software, performance basics and more.

See Bevin’s full guide to the Eigenharp Alpha at Eigenzone.

23 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide To The Eigenharp Alpha

  1. I tried, really tried to get the instrument, but without any success. When I was in London, there was nobody available to show it to me, for one whole week, just no one. I spotted an Alpha in a shop, but they didn't know how to connect it and they didn't actually sell it. The shipping date of the Tau gets pushed back and I won't buy a really expensive instrument, like the Alpha in the blind.
    Now I tried to order the Pico, just to test it at least. But they don't ship to Switzerland. So no Eigenharp for me. I tried everything in the last 3 months, flying to London, emails, telephone, I think this thing is a unicorn, something looking very nice, but not actually real.

  2. I assure you it's real 🙂

    They're only just getting the distribution to the stores figured out right now and as for shops not knowing how to connect it … that's sadly the case with many music shops here in Belgium even for much more mainstream stuff. Guess time will tell.

    They're pretty swamped with getting the Eigenharp released over the world and giving demos, there are indeed times where the London office is short staffed with actual musicians. I'm sure though that if you had called beforehand and tried to arrange a date, they could have figured something out. They have done that for several people I know and for me included. When you give them a phonecall, they're very helpful.

  3. Dear gluggergames

    Please accept my apologies if you've had a bad experience – we work as hard as we can to avoid things like this happening but have obviously failed here.

    We do have Eigenharps available from quite a number of stores in the UK already (all of the large PMT chain for example) but not not currently have much presence in London – the instrument you saw was on a temporary loan only and that store are not a dealer (it is no longer there now). We are normally able to demonstrate Alpha's at our London offices but the whole sales and demonstrator team have been on the road for the last two weeks in the US and will be in Paris (at the French Woodbrass Eigenharp launch tomorrow) and Tokyo (at the Japanese launch next week) so I'm afraid that opportunities for demonstrations there have been limited and will continue to be so for a couple of weeks.

    We started shipping Tau's this week. Demand has been rather strong so we are currently on a lead time of around six weeks, but they are in manufacture and shipping to customers. Quite a few retailers have them on order from us so there will be an opportunity to try one and buy it there and then in the next few weeks. Please write to us if you want us to arrange to try one at a dealership.

    I'm sorry we can't ship you a Pico in Switzerland – its a legal issue connected with compliance (we just haven't worked our way through the mountain of paperwork we need to do) – we can ship to any EU territory though, along with the US, Australia and Japan, so if you can buy it through a friend in France or Germany we can send you one. Or you can buy mail order from PMT here in the UK, or JRR Shop in the US who seem to be selling a lot of Picos for us and may ship to you, although you should be aware that it may not be a legal import for you right not even if it is fully CE compliant.

    If there is anything that we can do to assist you please contact us and I'll make sure we do the best we can to get you in front of an instrument to try..

    John Lambert
    Chairman – Eigenlabs

  4. This seems like a fundamental problem – almost a chicken or the egg thing.

    I'm fascinated by the Eigenharps, but they are relatively expensive devices that most people are going to have no first-hand experience with.

    Based on the photos I've seen, it looks like the cost is justified, in general terms. The craftsmanship of the instruments looks amazing.

    But is the cost justified for me as an individual? It's a big purchase and you'd want to have some experience with it before you jump in. A violinist knows the value of a good violin, because they've got experience with cheap violins. With the Eigenharp, you don't have that.

    How can you close that gap for people?

  5. I personally think they close the gap with the three different versions. I started with the Pico, learned how to use EigenD, how to play with the keys and the other controllers … realized it was right for me and moved on to the Alpha. The Pico costs less than a cheap violin, but has as much expression as the Alpha so it's by no means 'cheap', just small. This makes it actually great for travel. I played the Pico in airplanes, in trains, …

  6. So all is well that ends well ships to Switzerland, I got my Pico in around 4 working days. They are in Paris, France, but they have a German and an English web page (there are some other languages too) and some German or English speaking staff (French is not my forte, by the way I am just a regular customer nothing else). No problems with customs and since there is no plug (except for the USB) no problem there.
    I hope Eigenlabs tells this to the next customer phoning from Switzerland in search of an instrument. Next step plug it in and try out …

  7. I tried really hard…..I really wanted to buy one of these….I went down to the only store in NYC that's selling them and spent two hours there but could barely get it to work. Unfortunately, the only person who apparently understands the instrument is away for a month and although the other people were VERY accommodating (to the point where I'd go back there), it was quite a failure.

    Now….after getting back home, I spent quite a bit of time reading some of the articles….I now understand completely that this is a work in progress and a lot of stuff is being rewritten to make it more accessible. However, my feeling is that this company has made the same mistake that I made in my first startup…..they threw everything including the kitchen sink into the code but didn't make it actually usable.

    My favorite analogy (which I use often) is Apple's omission of copy/paste when the iPhone first came out. Techies bitched about it and years later laughed at Apple for "finally" making copy/paste available. But consider, how many people who planned to buy an iPhone didn't buy it because of the lack of copy/paste? (Hint, the answer is approximately zero!) It didn't matter, they made a product that almost everyone could use with no effort and then they started adding more features later.

    So, back with the Eigenharp….I understand there's a (probably fascinating) programming language underneath and that one can probably do all sorts of amazing things with it once one spends the time to learn it. But when I'm in music mode, I turn off my software dev background and I just want it to work. So why don't you get someone to throw in a "quick start demo mode" dialog to the software so that a new user can
    A) Choose a sound from a list
    B) Choose a scale from a list
    C) Look at a picture of how the notes of the scale are mapped on the instrument
    D) PLAY

    Don't make someone have to learn a whole bunch of bizarre key sequences just to get off the ground….and don't make the first sound be a piano….I have a perfectly good Steinway for that.

    Make it TRIVIAL to bring up those physical models (cello, clarinet, …), give me bagpipes, uillean pipes, and other instruments that are non-trivial to play well from a traditional keyboard, and draw me in quickly.

    As it is, not only am I reconsidering the whole idea (it's not just the initial $7k, it's the subsequent time investment) but then I start wondering whether, by the time I learn it, will there just be a new model out with the keys laid out differently (the pico, tau and alpha all have different layouts for example) making my time investment almost worthless, and also turning by $7k into $500 in a couple of years)

    I WANT to love this instrument….but……..

  8. Hi David,

    This sounds the same old story of music stores that have no clue what they’re selling. When you start with the Pico for the first time, you just have to plug in the USB cable, start EigenD … and play. For the next steps, there are a bunch of videos on the Eigenlabs website that show you how to use the basics.

    I agree however, that the UI is not there yet and that EigenD needs work, as I said in my article. It could all be a lot more user-friendly and that’s what they’re working on.

    About you saying that the first sound should not be a piano, that’s extremely personal. I think they should use a sound and instrument that most people like and that’s not too difficult to play. The piano just requires you to press they keys and use the breath pipe on the Pico (pedal on Alpha) to control sustain, no other controllers are used, you’re not confronted with accidentally triggering pitch bends either. Most other interesting instruments seem like they would either be too difficult for a first play or risk to only appeal to a certain number of people sound-wise.

    One thing that I find a shame is the current trent of people expecting effortlessness for anything. You can’t compare a musical instrument to a phone. One of the most important parts of playing an instrument freely with expression is not looking at it, but using it with fully integrated reflexes. Just as any other instrument, the Eigenharp requires you to take a while to study or learn about its basics. The tutorial videos help a lot with the though. Time will tell if this approach works or not, but I don’t think that hand-holding people every step of the way from the get go is a good idea. I think that in time either Eigenlabs or a 3rd party will release training material that will improve the current situation, but requiring people to be aware of the basic principles on selecting sounds with the Eigenharp itself it a very good approach to me.

    Take care,


  9. Hi David

    It's quite possible that you visited a store in NY before they'd had any training. We've only just started opening US stores and our training is currently lagging behind demand. Having said that, John Newman and Dave Kemp have literally just got back from NYC where they've been doing in-store training so your experience could be quite different now. Could I ask which store you visited? If you get in touch we'll arrange for you to get a better demonstration…

    On a related note, Factory Setup 1 on the Eigenharp Alpha is very simple, pretty much what you describe – it has one big keyboard layout and a selection of around 15 sounds that you can flick between very quickly. The Piano is just one of them and there are some very expressive noises in there. I'm sorry if you didn't get that experience when you first tried an Alpha, most people don't find the base setup hard to get their head around at all, if its shown to them in the right way, which obviously hasn't happened here.

    You're right about the current GUI we ship, it doesn't actually do anything useful apart from helping you manage setups. It wasn't intended to, we architected the software to be 100% controlled from the instrument as I am personally even more allergic to being technical when I play than you – I really hate to interact with computer screens at all when I'm being musical. For me computers are useful in composition and rehearsal, not in front of an audience and one of the core principles we stuck to when writing our operating software was that one should never ever have to touch the computer in performance. Having said that we did rapidly realise that we probably took this principle rather too far – it does steepen the initial leaning curve significantly and we now have a number of new software developments nearing completion that add significant graphical control component s to the Eigenharps, both for configuration in rehearsal and control in live performance. Like every graphical application ever written, they've taken longer than we hoped, but I think you'll see initial releases in testing versions in the next couple of months and I do believe that you will find that they will address your concerns very well.


  10. Geert,
    I’m not sure what I said in my comments that caused you to comment on the expectation that learning [anything] should be effortless. While I agree with you completely on that matter, and indeed am very concerned about applications like Guitar Hero for that very reason, nowhere do I suggest that I expect it to be effortless to learn the Eigenharp. Indeed my goal in visiting the store was to determine whether the Eigenharp is worth the YEARS of effort it will take to become even reasonably competent.

    It takes many years to learn to play any instrument. It’s also quite true that it’s very difficult to get sounds out of some well known instruments the first time you try (trumpet, flute) and even though you can make noise on a drumset, no beginner is going to be able to get a rhythm going. But all those instruments have many years of history around them. People know what CAN be accomplished and so it’s much easier to make the investment (both money and time).

    Obviously the Eigenharp doesn’t have this history behind it. But I bet that most people considering the Eigenharp are (A) already musicians and (B) pretty familiar with electronic music, synthesis methods, drum machines, sequencers, and so forth. Further, that electronic music world is littered with failed attempts to create alternative controllers, making it even harder to convince one of the viability of the “next” one.

    I have tried a number of alternate controllers in the past, looking for ways to be expressive in a manner not possible with a traditional keyboard. (An honorable mention goes to the Yamaha CS80 for the way it supported an extra dimension of polyphonic control by vibrating keys sideways). But just as I would not use a keyboard to emulate guitar technique (nor a guitar controller to play the drums, or a drum controller to make saxaphone sounds), I have no interest in using an Eigenharp to sound like a piano.

    I’m also not interested in its looping/sequencing abilities….if one wants that kind of thing, then there are lots of controllers out there that interact with apps like Ableton Live to do that kind of thing. While the James Bond video is cute (and certainly looks cool to anyone who has never seen this kind of thing before), I couldn’t see anything going on that couldn’t be accomplished by a couple of keyboard players triggering loops in Ableton, for example.

    My expectation was (and still is, although it’s going to take much more convincing at this point) that the sensitivity of those keys, along with 3 dimensions of control coupled with higher resolution can lead to a very satisfying expressive performance experience

    However, without any history, it has to be much easier to evaluate that potential, otherwise it’s only going to be of short term interest to performers doing very avant-garde material and possibly to a few pop stars looking for the next way to “look” different on “Top Of The Pops” if that TV show is still around in the UK.

    I think that if it was viable to “dual-use” the keys to both play the instrument and control it in any non-trivial way, keyboard players would have been doing it for years. Even the old Hammond scheme of a few keys on the left end to change the preset hasn’t really survived.

    Apart from the arbitrary (i.e. non-intuitive) nature of such a scheme, I don’t believe it scales well. I recall that three of the keys were being used to turn on or off the three Audio Units but what happens when you have fifty Audio Units?

    I don’t mind a steep (and even long) learning curve (golf, anyone?) but you have to be able to JUSTIFY that investment.

    I don’t want to mention the store publicly as I don’t think that’s fair given the circumstances. Unlike many mass market places, the people in the store were doing their best given that their only expert wasn’t there and they shouldn’t be dinged for that.

    If you want to contact me privately I can let you know.

  11. @David, I don't know what kind of answer you expect, the Eigenharp is new, there is indeed no history, so you'll not be able to see anyone that demos its full potential. That's just the way it is. Either you take the plunge and try to be that someone, either you wait some more years and check back then. The way I justified the investment of an Alpha was by getting a Pico first and then trying out an Alpha before buying.

  12. Actually, the problem was that while I could easily imagine the potential (which was why I was interested in the first place), I was not able to do anything useful to validate it.

    I went to the store intending to buy one and left not wanting it. I don't think any company selling a product wants such a reaction from a customer ready to plunk down the money for an Alpha. I thought that feedback might be useful.

    I understand that there is updated software on the way that might address some of these concerns….I'll probably check it out again when that arrives.

  13. @David, I can totally see your desire to want to try the Alpha out in a store, sadly though I've had what you describe happen for a lot gear that I looked at in music retail stores. Even though the staff was helpful, they're more often than not totally clueless about what they're selling. It's gotten at a point for me that I personally don't ever trust anything the personnel tells me in a music store unless I've known them for a long time and have seen them actually be truly helpful to customers.

    I usually educate myself in detail about whatever I'm interested in beforehand, download the manual, get familiar with it, watch online videos, … and by the time I get at the store I know exactly what I want to look at and test, I never rely on the personnel anymore. It's a demoralizing state of things, but I suppose that internet sales are killing them and they need to cut corners somehow 🙁

  14. Of course. I remember buying an old Minimoog for $100 from a store in Florida because they thought it was broken. In fact it wasn't "working" because the filter cutoff frequency was all the way down (grin).

    In the case of the Eigenharp, I've certainly tried to educate myself (I read your entire article, for example, quite a while ago and it only after reading that that I decided to check into it myself). The problem is, there isn't really a lot of useful information available. In fact, my biggest gripe was that when I was in the store trying to get info, the eigenlab support site wouldn't let me in unless I went through a registration process first …. very bad idea. So I couldn't get at the manuals at the time when I needed them.

    Then you run into online videos such as this one ( which left me speechless!

    The James Bond video (which is what initially got me interested) has a huge flaw — there's nothing in it to explain exactly what is going on and so apart from the initial "cool" factor, I can't see what's happening that I couldn't (probably far more easily) reproduce on my keyboard rig.

    I'd love to see a non-trivial performance that includes an explanation for what exactly is being done, how it was setup, and so forth.

    I haven't totally given up but it definitely went from being a high priority "must-have" to "I'll get to it some day".

    Take care,

  15. All good points David. There was a time where Eigenlabs’ website was closed, this hasn’t been the case for quite a while now and you can access anything besides software downloads and a guest now. They have also posted a whole set of additional video tutorials for the Alpha this week, they might be of some help for you:

    About the non trivial performances, I really can’t talk much about that since what I’m still playing on the Alpha is mostly piano! I rarely feel like spending time on tweaking sounds since I just love to physically play on the Alpha too much. That physicality is IMHO what sets it apart. There will always be remarks that try to bring the point across that you’re essentially playing the same software synths as on a regular keyboard. What you will never be able to see or to have demonstrated on YouTube is the feedback loop you have as a musician between the sensitivity of the Alpha’s keys and virtual instrument you’re playing. It suddenly all becomes very tangible and sensual.

    Because honestly, the looping, sequencing, etc … can all be done with any collection of cheap controllers. I’m not even using that anymore when I went from the Pico to the Alpha, I just focus on playing single instruments expressively and that’s where the Alpha shines IMHO.

  16. Yes, it is the physicality (in particular the 3D keys + breath and ribbon controllers) is precisely what got me interested.

    I'd love if they would add a physcial model of Uileann pipes, for example.

    Thanks for the feedback, I look forward to exploring the deeper aspects of the instrument.

  17. I am looking for a new instrument to play. I can play my electronic piano, harmonica, bongos, zylophone , drums, but far from expert on them. I play by ear and can pick up the main tune pretty good. I am not sure if the Eigenharp is for me for a beginner and play by ear. I want to learn to play a wind instrument which I never tried playing before and playing the piano and seeing the Eigenharp and using the keys to play different instruments, I thought maybe the Enigenharp would be easier for me to play. I also thought about the EWI-iUSB or the yamaha WX5 but after looking at the manual I am not sure I could figure out the keys and and pitches and how to play them. Is the Eigenharp easy to play and playing the other instuments it has?

  18. Hey Geert and David. I was curious about something. You both mention “feedback” and “physical modeling.” I’m writing my graduate thesis, and the eigenharp is part of it. I was wondering what exactly you meant by your terms. to me, it speaks of one of the two following:
    1. “Feedback” to the user, in that the keys are “physically modeled” to be harder to press if the instrument it is emulating has harder to press keys.


    2. The instrument is “physically modeled” to sound more genuine (more like the instrument it is emulating) and does not affect the physical feel of the keys.)


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