The Emphase Synthesizer (Sneak Preview) Looks Beyond MIDI


The Emphase Synthesizer is a new synth, currently in development at Non-Linear Labs, a startup founded by Stephan Schmitt (Native Instruments, Reaktor).

The Emphase is a digital synthesizer design, consisting of a high-resolution controller keyboard driving an advanced digital audio engine. The audio engine is based on Native Instruments Reaktor.


The Emphase Synthesizer is designed as two independent units: the performance cabinet and the creation cabinet:

  • The performance cabinet, above, is very compact, but it contains all of the instrument’s processor and audio components; it can be used separately from the creation cabinet in “play only” situations.
  • The creation cabinet, below, is a detachable extension of the user interface for sonic exploration and sound design and can also be useful for controlling a complex performance. It requires a connection to the performance cabinet for operation.


The Emphase Synthesizer is designed with these concepts in mind:

Control. Typically, most synthesizers combine the actual audio engine with a (sometimes large) number of modulation sources which are programmed in advance. Although some knob-twisting is possible, the modulation sources, amounts and routings are usually set up before performance and saved as part of a preset.
This often reduces the performing musician to a ‘triggering unit’ who just pushes a key to trigger a series of pre-determined events, shifting the weight of musical responsibility to the sound programmer.

Nonlinear Labs uses a different approach. All control aspects are literally in the musician’s hands (and feet!) with extremely sensitive – and expressive – keyboard controller units that drive the synthesis engine in real time.

Expression. The key to a highly musical real-time control of sound is our new TCD protocol. TCD replaces the dated MIDI protocol with a high-resolution and multi-parameter system of messages consisting of a continuous stream of parameter changes.

Actually, this concept answers an age-old need; composers over the centuries have often said that music really happens ‘between the notes’. Protocols like MIDI cannot capture all the necessary musical information for expressive between-the-note performance. With TCD, musicians are given real-time control over the widest range of sound expression.

Hardware and Software. No external computer is required. The TCD messages sent by the keyboard controller system are generated by an advanced ARM microcontroller architecture. An embedded computer handles the digital sound synthesis.

Every parameter can be directly selected with hardware controls. In other words, our instruments are software-defined but have a dedicated haptic interface. If an optional touch screen is desired, a wide range of (Wi-Fi connectable) devices will provide a graphical user interface.

The Emphase Synthesizer is in development. Pricing and release date are to be announced. You can follow development of the new synthesizer at the Non-Linear blog.

via matrixsynth, Non-Linear

27 thoughts on “The Emphase Synthesizer (Sneak Preview) Looks Beyond MIDI

  1. TCD seems an interesting way of “paramaterising” sound control, but OSC is only really starting to get any penetration.. why have a new standard???

    1. I don’t no so I might say useless crap but there you go:
      osc seems to be just a overall protocol for stream of info over UDP. All for having maximum flexibiity over resolution, addressing streams, etc…
      It seems to live open to the developper how to organise the way the info is represented inside, which I guess it’s cool for manythings but probably not for hardware designers and intercompatibility.
      Maybe it’s overkill for to many things.

      This TCD seems to be just to represent control data in curves with amazing resolution and not for sending images, controls, audio streams over every kind of network you can think of.

      Again I’m just making it up so…I don’t really know, but I’m curious to get the point of view of people knowing much more than me.

  2. Whilst I am intrigued by their approach and “open source” architecture, as stated on their site, I am disappointed by the user interface. Hopefully these concepts will evolve beyond what I am seeing at the moment.

  3. Sounds VERY intriguing! Reaktor is STUNNINGLY versatile. Putting that all that power into a forward-thinking keyboard is worthy of some serious pre-release buzz.

    A brief glance at the Non-Linear blog reveals a company that is making some thoughtful choices; e.g. efforts to build long-lasting hardware, bring as much of the production to a local level as possible and their goal to reduce their carbon footprint. Nice!

    I wonder if their next generation keyboard will employ Poly AT. Or if they might consider buying NDVR’s NOTE technology for this keyboard. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

    This could bring new synthesis and performance capabilities, and new workstation features all together in a new way. Yummy concept!

  4. looks nice, but I am sure it is going to be the price of a decent used car…. Hope not, but tip my hat to mr. schmitt for his contributions to music technology….

    1. When you complain about a keyboard’s price, before they even announce how much it will cost, all I can think is that you’ve got no interest in playing a fine instrument. So why bother commenting about it?

  5. I just don’t understand why the put such an effort developing great control protocols better than midi, great control over modulation and all the real time they are promising with a great sound engine and still we are going to be constrain to an old fashion piano keyboard which dates way back and is not the most expressive control surface for synths, they should learn from the continuum fingerboard at least or isomorphic layouts

    dam there is so much interesting stuff going on in that regard that to see and old piano keyboard makes it un appealing at least to me , i know there are plenty of keyboard players that are happy with what they get but if we are truly speaking about innovation this is not what i would expect , but I know they will sell a lot more by just giving people old and conventional technology, and at the end of the day native has become all about sales,¨ making products for every one¨ , if we think about it, how deep is the impact of products like traktor, now any school yard can be a dj just by pushing few buttons(f… sync) thats not innovation thats not an improvement for the dance floor , thanks to that, clubs are full of posers and pseudo djs , the art of djing has become the same thing as playing guitar hero on an xbox you push few nice and pretty light color buttons and then you are dj so If i play guitar hero am i consider a guitar player? is the same shit, but yeah i forgot is not about art is about sales right?

    and I love reaktor i use ti every day but i just hate this make thing easier and easier for everyone so tomorrow you will just need few native libraries and push an auto techno button and then you are a techno producer right away, such bullshit .

    1. I understand your point about the keyboard, but I think it would be somewhat risky and perhaps foolish for them to use a non-standard keyboard with a product like this. In addition to raising the cost, they would lose a huge hunk of their market– which would make it cost even more.

      At some point, an alternate controller will evolve to a degree that it gains more wide popularity. Until then, we are seeing clever approaches — but seeing very few examples of players attaining a high degree of expressiveness on them. Until then, the traditional keyboard is a safe bet, and has room for improvement- various methods of poly AT, for example.

      NI caters to a pretty wide range of artists. Their software while not without its flaws is quite powerful and is available in ridiculously powerful bundles. Their hardware caters to DJs, and has its influence on the industry, in part, by simplifying things (as you say, to sell more). But that’s all over the industry. Most manufacturers are dumbing down their interfaces and diluting the power of their products into these very-mainstream functions.

      Reaktor is the exception in that it combines skull-cracking complexity with brain-liquifying versatility. It’s the opposite of dumbed down. Unless they dumb down Reaktor for this keyboard, this won’t be that kind of rig. Hopefully, they will preserve Reaktor’s “layered” complexity approach (i.e., you can hide the gnarliest aspects of the interface) And, perhaps this keyboard won’t be as conventional as you suspect.

      I guess we’ll see.

    2. Electronic musicians have not taken up any of these modern controllers (Continuum, Eigenharp, Harmonic Keyboard, etc) in any large numbers.

      So these developers know that they have to go with a mainstream keyboard design, if they want to have any hope of selling this.

  6. It could have a Cray at its heart and that wouldn’t make it any more approachable. Really good pressure-sensing is rare because people are often stymied by it. I’ve played a couple of synths where initial velocity, RELEASE velocity and pressure were well tuned to one another. Its a real sci-fi experience. The “problem” lies in the fact that you either use that to render some really gorgeous fake orchestra and choirs or its controlling a behavior the listening crowd will never grasp because they’re not synth players. Its only my opinion, but I think more e-music users are into things outside traditional woodshedding than not. All of that fancy modulation still has to be in a musical context or fewer people will GET it. That’s why workstations usually start out with Piano 1. Its not “old-fashioned;” its a known starting point, well-polished over time. Not the same thing at all! 😀 Consider *where* you’d apply that capability, because its more of an acoustic instrument behavior than a synthesizer one.

    OTOH, I applaud the goal. I hope it flies because I’m the type who really wants a solid, sensitive controller like the Korg M3 offered. I once played a lowly Kawai K4 keyboard, which offered release velocity. It was an Ooo-Aah moment of revelation. There’s something massive in being able to control reverb release time with that behavior and that’s just one very basic use. Just food for thought, because I’ve tried out the good and the not-so-good.

  7. Just looking at it, I cannot see how this instrument is very expressive. Actually playing is limited to the keyboard and couple of ribbon controllers.

        1. …unless they add some retro-fit. But yea, not looking too promising.

          It’s a bit weird because there’s a bunch of geek-speek about this new high-resolution control, but not much about what the source of the control is. If it is the ribbons, pedals, and mono-AT, I guess that is something. But it’s hard to say how that would feel any different than just having a clever mod source function generator.

  8. So this thing has over a hundred buttons, and A SINGLE ROTARY ENCODER. I’m sorry but that is a pretty lame “design decision” in my book.

  9. If you go to the website and read the spec on the Phase 22 project, then compare it with the photo of the control section of the keyboard, you will have a better idea of what this does. It sounds pretty flexible and I think it would yield some interesting results in the right hands. Not necessarily mine.

    I think we should give them him marks for trying something different. I do hope that they avoid that multi-colored control panel layout and stick with something basic. Like black. Rather than wood I would prefer sheet metal, preferably with a grey hammerite finish.

    I would also hope that they find a way to have user samples to be loaded in and used as oscillators. That would put this way up on my list. I was just saying last week that MOTU should make a standalone keyboard that runs Mach 5…
    But that’s just me.

    1. “I was just saying last week that MOTU should make a standalone keyboard that runs Mach 5… But that’s just me. ”

      OH HELL YEA! A keyboard version of Mach 5 would rule.

      I completely agree about the samples. Even if there was a computer-based setup to create sample maps (mapped to key & velocity ranges)- then pull that up as an oscillator.

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