TouchKeys Bring New Expression To Traditional Keyboards

Developer Andrew McPherson has announced that TouchKeys – a musical instrument mod that transforms piano-style keyboards into an expressive multi-touch control surface – are now available to order, via a new site.

TouchKeys, originally introduced via a Kickstarter project, are touch sensors that can be added to the surface of any standard keyboard. They measure the location of your fingers, while retaining the familiar keyboard action. TouchKeys let you add vibrato, pitch bends, timbre changes and other expressive effects to your playing, by moving the position of your fingers on the key surfaces.

“There’s been a lot of really interesting work in polyphonic expressive controllers over the past few years,” McPherson told us. “One of the distinctive features of TouchKeys is that it gives the player note-by-note multidimensional control while retaining the familiar action and feel of the keyboard.”

Features: 

  • High Resolution – The sensors measure over 1500 points of resolution on the long axis of each key and 256 points on the narrow axis. That’s sub-millimetre accuracy!
  • Low Latency – The sensors are measured every 5 milliseconds for a natural, low-latency interaction.
  • Intuitive Mappings – Mappings between touch and sound are designed to be there when you need them and stay out of your way when you don’t. Mappings are fully customisable.
  • Standard Keyboard – The sensors fit any keyboard with full-sized keys, from a 2-octave portable keyboard to a 97-key Boesendorfer Imperial Grand piano. Choose from Classic or Inverted colouring.
  • XY Position – Every key, white or black, senses the horizontal and vertical position of the finger. (The narrow part of the white keys senses on the long axis only.).
  • Multi-Touch – Each key measures up to 3 touches, enabling new multi-finger techniques on the keyboard.
  • Contact Area – Contact area measurement distinguishes between the tip and the pad of the finger, which can be used as an additional control dimension.
  • Connected and Compatible- TouchKeys works with any MIDI synth or instrument, software or hardware. Connect TouchKeys to your computer (Mac, Windows, Linux) or choose the optional standalone hardware kit. TouchKeys connects to your computer by USB. The included software transforms the data from the touch sensors and your keyboard into control messages for any synth. The mappings are fully customisable, and can be different for different parts of the keyboard.

Here are some of the things you can do with TouchKeys:

  • Vibrato – Rock the finger back and forth on the key to add a vibrato. The speed and width of the vibrato follows the motion of your finger, just like it would on a violin. But unlike a violin, the pitch always stays centred around the note you’re playing, so it never goes out of tune. You can adjust the sensitivity of the mapping, to make it engage on the slightest motion or to require a bigger movement before the vibrato begins.
  • Pitch Bends – Slide the finger up and down a key to bend the pitch. The amount of pitch bend is adjustable, and no matter where you strike the key, the note begins at its normal pitch, so it’s there when you want it and stays out of the way the rest of the time. With a compatible synth setup, every note can have its own pitch bend, letting you retune melody and harmonies on the fly.
  • Filter / Timbre Effects – In addition to pitch bend, sliding the finger up and down the key can control any MIDI parameter on your synth. For example, it could be used to control a filter cutoff, where sliding the finger upwards makes the note get brighter. The mappings are completely flexible: use horizontal or vertical position, absolute location or relative motion, or finger-key contact area, all with adjustable ranges.
  • Rapid Retriggering – Add or remove a second finger from a single key to retrigger the note. Normally on the keyboard, striking the same key repeatedly is hard to do quickly, but this way you can rapidly retrigger notes. You can use it for tremolo effects like on a violin, or you can also use it to trigger custom key switches for your synth.
  • Special Instrumental Effects – Many software instruments have key switches that create special effects. For example, on a software emulation of a brass instrument, you might add falls or buzzes to the end of a note. With TouchKeys, you can intuitively trigger these effects by pulling the finger along the key just as you release the note.
  • Microtonal Playing – Divide the key into 2 or 3 sections with a different tuning on each section. By pressing the key in different places, it is like having 24 or 36 keys in every octave! The tunings are adjustable, and you can combine it with vibrato and pitch bend mappings to further adjust the pitch after the note begins.

Here are additional performance demos of TouchKeys:

This video shows the TouchKeys controlling the Embertone Friedlander Violin in classical and folk styles.

Polyphonic aftertouch is a rare feature on modern keyboards, but the TouchKeys can map any sensor dimension (X or Y position, contact area) to polyphonic aftertouch. This makes the TouchKeys great for controlling classic synth sounds like the CS-80 (emulated the above example by Arturia). But the possibilities also go beyond the capabilities of the original CS-80 to include full polyphonic control of the pitch and timbre of each note.

Pricing and Availability

There are currently a limited number of kits available to ship in December, with more kits and prebuilt instruments expected to be available in January. Pricing for kits starts at £190.00, and for ready-to-use controllers at £599.00.

22 thoughts on “TouchKeys Bring New Expression To Traditional Keyboards

    1. not likely the 49 key impulse with this prefitted is only 50 less than the 49 key rise and roughly the same price as a full size linnstrument

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  1. very interested , just wish it was cheaper as I couldnt afford this currently . hoping a big company can make them rich & mass produce for 1/10 of price …
    then we’re all winners and the unicorns can play at the end of the rainbow again .

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    1. Cheaper still?
      Obviously you don’t know what you are talking about. Getting so many individual quality high resolution sensor for that price is amazing. Sure, it will always be possible to produce at awesome lower prices, but then you’ll get unusable crap.

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  2. It’s a great concept– especially given that it can be retrofitted to an existing controller. I’m a big fan of polyphonic controls and think there needs to be more of this type of innovation for keyboards.

    A little over 3 years ago, I was very excited about a prototype keyboard called “Note” by NDVR. The indiegogo failed miserably and it never saw the light of day. That keyboard used the position of the key throw as a control source. I think Touchkeys first appeared around that time.

    Infinite Response’s soon to be released VAXMIDI has high-res velocity, and poly AT. Users end up doing the assembly themselves, so integrating this with that keyboard would be pretty logical– especially given the open-source nature of their hardware and software.

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  3. Looks like a great product, but not yet for me …
    A glance over the site reveals what the videos and this article don’t mention, and what I was afread of: You’ll need a computer to which the sensors in some way are connected via usb. The software on the computer then combines everything into a midi (also over usb in most cases) that can be sent to your sound module (or instrument using local off). This architecture is unacceptable for me.
    There appears to be a hardware kit that can ommit the use of a computer, but I have not been able to find any details on that yet.
    Also I have some questions on how it will be have over longer periods of time, possibly sweaty hands and other live performing environmental conditions.
    But, in my opinion, a great and promising step towards the future. Great work Mr. McPherson, thank you!

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  4. Could this be used to turn an acoustic piano into a MIDI controller? Do that and enable it to send USB MIDI to an iPad, or even BT MIDI, and you’ll sell a million of ’em. And I will take 2.

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    1. No, it won’t make your piano a MIDI controller in the traditional sense. I suppose it might be able to be used with an acoustic piano, however, I don’t think it will generate the note on & velocity info which is handled by the controller that this is added to.

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    2. There seems to be a standalone mode, not sure whether it is velocity-sensitive, but still you can use it with an acoustic piano, maybe attach transducers to the soundboard so that the sound comes right out of it like on a Yamaha Transacoustic:

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  5. Oh man, I have an Alternatemode MalletKat midi controller that I’d kill to have these kinds of features on. 🙂

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  6. I have a Seaboard Rise 49, but I will deffo have one of these as well. At last some stuff I can use to make my Ondes Martenot controller dream come true. A good Fatar keybed, Touch keys, a pot for the ring, some Doepfer MIDI-stuff and voila…

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  7. Too bad midi only supports 0 – 127 values. The resolution of velocity on this thing seems well above that.

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    1. A 14 bit velocity hack was approved for addition to the MIDI standard a while back.

      You can see the description at dev.midi.org/techspecs/ca31.pdf

      Basically you send CC 58 with the low 7 bits of velocity resolution in advance of each note on. A few plugins such as Pianoteq support it, and a small number of controllers send it.

      I don’t endorse it as it’s clunky and increases latency by 1ms, but it’s better than nothing if you need more velocity resolution.

      As far as MIDI control messages go, RPN and NRPN are both 14 bit. Some synths support NRPN controllers. I find it extremely useful for playing filter frequency in particular when driving from a 14 bit supporting controller.

      Also, even the basic CC structure in MIDI supports 14 bits. There’s 32 basic controls that are by default defined as 14 bit controls (CC0-31). For example CC 1 is the 7 most significant bits of modulation values, and CC 32 is the 7 least significant bits of modulation. Not a lot of instruments properly support it, but 14 bit controllers have been part of the standard since the beginning.

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  8. Sorry if the answer to this is obvious, but do those keys apply to the new MPE standard? Can I control, say, Moog Model 15 with it? I am contemplating atm over backing the KMI K-Board Pro Kickstarter Campaign because it seems to be the cheapest MPE solution so far. Those TouchKeys could change my mind.

    EDIT: just went over to the site and checked pricing. The 190GBP version is only 13 keys. 49 keys would put you back by 599GBP. So I understand that price is not the USP here, but the ability to retrofit your favourite keyboard. In that case I’d prefer a new controller. That would be looking different though if those Touchkeys could be used on my favourite synth without a computer!

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