Roger Linn & LinnStrument In Wired

roger-linn-linnstrumentInstrument designer Roger Linn and his latest creation, the LinnStrument, are featured in a great article over at Wired.

It’s rare to see an article in a mainstream publication that accurately covers the more technical side of electronic music technology. In this case, author Rene Chun not only offers a good summary of the state of alternative MIDI controllers, but also includes some great perspective from Linn and Keith McMillen. 

Moving Beyond ‘Horseless Carriage Thinking’

Linn argues that most of today’s MIDI controllers are a type of ‘horseless carriage’ thinking – being so tied to the technology of the past that it’s hard to imagine the natural forms for new technologies:

“Fifty years from now, the 1970s to 2015 will be regarded as a strange period in history when people played musical sounds with secretarial input devices: on-off buttons, switches, sliders, and knobs.

Controlling numbers by pressing keys. That’s a horrible interface. A violin, sax, cello or clarinet has more range than a MIDI keyboard. Because it relies on basic switch technology, it lacks a compelling instrumental voice. PMCs (polyphonic multi-dimensional controllers) are the future.”

Here’s a video demo of the LinnStrument’s 3D expressive capabilities:

He also argues that today’s controllers are shaping the way current music is conceived and performed:

“Is there any famous virtuoso player of electronic instruments you can name? The closest thing we have are EDM DJs, who don’t actually play any notes.

The concept of an instrumental solo has virtually disappeared from today’s electronically generated pop music. I’d argue this is due to the lack of any compelling instrumental performances.”

Is this type of coverage a sign that alternative MIDI controllers are reaching a tipping point? Check out the full article at Wired and let us know what you think!

28 thoughts on “Roger Linn & LinnStrument In Wired

    1. Unfortunately, there are very few theremin players that can play the instrument in tune, let alone with anything like the virtuosity of a decent violinist. Very cool concept, but damn hard instrument to play well.

        1. Not sure what point you’re trying to make – that there are a few good theremin players?

          Of course, there are some good thereminists, but anyone familiar with the instrument knows that it has huge limitations, compared to something like the violin. Try playing staccato notes accurately. And anyone that can hear pitches knows that it’s a constant struggle for most thereminists to play in tune.

          The repertoire that works best on the theremin tends to be slow, legato pieces that allow for the thereminist to slide gracefully between notes, instead of trying to leap to notes.

          1. Most theremin players are rather conservative, traditional and rather legato themselves – they prefer the Rockmore style. Those are the good thereminsts, but there is too much competition and who really wants to play the swan or over the rainbow to a backing track?

            You can play staccato and you can play intervals and you don’t have to sound like a mid century opera singer either. You can play from the highest notes on the piano to about 2 cycles per second and play melodically within that range. It’s easy..

            Easy as picking something up with your hands.

            now I hadn’t played the theremin in just over a year., so this weekend I did these, no practice, no rehearsal and just so you know where I am coning from, as a teenager I loved Ligeti, Nono, Stockhausen, Foss, Berio, and the rest of those avant-garde composers you never hear on the radio anymore.

            Each track is done in one take. You may wish to put in some ear plugs:


            imagine doing that on a synth?

  1. In the 70’s it was easy to hear which player was ‘soloing’ each had a unique voice that they had ‘programmed’ and the synths had no memories! There was a skill level needed both in execution and programming that memories and midi made academic for mosr sadly, painting by numbers.
    Now with the modular scene, throw away the rulebook execution and programming are one again. Maybe some new sounds now we hope!

  2. He’s right that solos have disappeared from popular music, but modern radio formats are probably to blame for this as much as controllers.

    Still – he’s dead on that the most common controllers today are pretty terrible for trying to be expressive on. LaunchPads are probably the most popular controller out there, and they’re just now getting velocity sensitivity. Trying to find a synth with polyphonic aftertouch is just about impossible.

      1. The up coming Launchpad will work as a stand alone controller as well as thru a host computer, and will supposedly be ‘open’ so you could load different ‘patches’; it could potentially elevate the grid controller game beyond the Monome’s current high water mark (in terms of flexibility and creativity of the output).

  3. Hey! They gave me the final word!!!! 🙂

    I’m actually interested in using this with a gadget like the Roland Integra…anyone ever used it?

  4. I have to disagree that today’s synths have really poor controllers. The humblest Casios have had velocity sensitive keys and a pitch wheel for about 15 years. My CS6x, (from way back) has a velocity sensitive keyboard with aftertouch, pitch and mod wheels, a ribbon controller, a breath controller input and several pedal inputs, plus all kinds of knobs. A talented player with enough practice can achieve VERY expressive performances from such an instrument. Don’t get me wrong: I welcome all the exciting developments in new controllers. However, this should not be an excuse for not learning and using what is already available on the instruments we own!

    1. Pitch and mod wheels are NOTHING compared to a CS-80.

      Sometimes we are so wowed by cool sounds that we forget that we need great instruments to make those sounds convey emotion.

    1. He is proficient, yet far from academically being brilliant at something – it is a million miles away from a virtuoso performance. I have never watched a Dataline performance and thought it to be overly complicated, I don’t see it as something that couldn’t be easily replicated with only a few hours practice, rather than years of diligence. Or does virtuoso in a electronic world mean something else, that one has practiced something for a wee while?

      1. Well, I have yet to see anyone else play their Elektron boxes live with the level of skill that Dataline has. Something that certainly took him years to practice. If you’d be willing to share examples of your sarcastic comment, I would certainly enjoy seeing them. Otherwise I’ll just consider you to be trolling.

        1. I also haven’t seen anyone else perform an Elektron machine better than Dataline, and I find that telling. Yet I feel that may be a stain on the Elektron machine UI rather than the talents of the players. I don’t see a lack of skill in Dataline, and others, work on the Elektron machines as live performance tools – but I do see how those machines are limited to respond to any real-time expression, which is the point Linn is making here – you can’t, and we don’t , expect a virtuoso performance from an instrument that has no level of real-time expression of emotion. Linn states above – “Is there any famous virtuoso player of electronic instruments you can name? The closest thing we have are EDM DJs, who don’t actually play any notes.” We can easily see here what Linn means by virtuoso, he is talking about a deep level of emotional expression within a real-time performance of playing a tuned instrument. We can have a set BPM, push buttons and turn knobs to tweak a sequence/loop – with practice the results will be stunning and bewilder some. Talent and skill on show, but it is limited isn’t it? To be realistic, it isn’t actually playing an instrument but the modification of patterns – the same thing any DJ does, or a live music producer in a modern sense – like a Calvin Harris, Deadmau5 or Skrillex. And these people will be the first to admit that what they do in a live setting is the easy part, just hitting buttons and turning knobs – all the music is pitched and synced, all getting filtered, tweaked and glitched without any real risk of not being pitched and synced, unlike when you actually play an instrument. Which is the point being made here regarding the Linnstrument, or any instrument, it is about real-time physical response – your finger is on a note and it creates a sound, changing small degrees of pressure alters the sound, sliding and bending of the note will also change the sound. Full expressive control of playing musical parts in real-time is going to be conducive to a virtuoso performance. I don’t exclude the fact that someone could do a virtuoso performance on an Elektron, but I haven’t seen it – and would take more than setting up a sequence and tweaking those knobs. I know a few highly talented instrumentalists and I have never listened to one of them playing and thought that I could do that with a bit of practice. I don’t get the same feeling watching Elektron users, or the majority of people doing electronic and digital live performances – I recall being blown away by one or two finger drummers, who were actually drummers and instrumentalists taking a hand to finger-drumming.

  5. “The CS-80 was one of the last keyboards where a note’s volume could be tweaked by varying the finger pressure on a key. “ ..huh???? – NOT! While poly pressure is rare, many have aftertouch & several others with poly were made after the CS80, in fact a new CMX keyboard claims poly pressure for $99.
    The author then goes on to say: “Unlike Vangelis’ beloved CS-80, which could sense movement in one dimension, (NOT- it’s actually two – it had velocity AND Pressure, but I nit-pick) these sophisticated MIDI machines can sense finger movement in three dimensions simultaneously”. OK, that’s a reasonably accurate statement, but then at the end of the article : “For proof of the MIDI’s woeful sonic performance, look no further than the demise of the musical solo.” !?!?! _MIDI_ is NOT responsible for “woeful sonic performance!!!!, in fact Roger’s instrument can do what it does BECAUSE of MIDI!!!!

    While it’s nice to see MIDI discussed in a mainstream magazine (thankfully we have Synthtopia!), this is absolute proof that the author did NOT really understand.

    1. I think on the first point, it is talking about being a rare polyphonic aftertouch synth – not regarding polyphonic midi keyboards on offer. And in context to the CS-80 having one dimension of expression, the CS-80 has both aftertouch and velocity, yet those two expression controllers are on the same dimension, the Z axis or depth. A 3D controller would also have aftertouch and velocity (or other controls) on the Z axis but also have modulation/pitch on the X and Y axis of movement – and give that response on a per-note level.

      1. I stand corrected regarding the Z axis info . I stand firm, however, on my concern that the author is equating MIDI with “bad sound”

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