Using MPE With The Sensel Morph & Buchla Thunder Overlay

At the 2019 Brooklyn Synth Expo, Sensel’s David Abravanel presented an overview and demo of using the Sensel Morph controller with the Buchla Thunder Overlay as an MPE controller.

This demo comes from a joint presentation by ROLI and Sensel at the Brooklyn Synth Expo, held last weekend in Brooklyn, NY. In the first part, ROLI product expert Ruben Dax gave a presentation on MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) – a new standard for expressive musical performance.

MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) is a recently adopted standard that’s designed to allow more expressive musical performance over MIDI. Traditionally, MIDI controllers and synths have applied most expressive controls, like the pitch bend and the mod wheel, to all notes being played. MPE lets you control the expressive modulation of each note you play individually.

The Thunder Overlay is a joint project of Sensel & Buchla USA, and is inspired by Don Buchla’s classic Thunder controller.

For more info, see the Sensel site and the MPE spec.

9 thoughts on “Using MPE With The Sensel Morph & Buchla Thunder Overlay

  1. Good demo, this is looking more and more interesting the more I see of it.

    I’d be interested in what early owners think of it.

  2. Those two presentations are really complementary. Nice that they would come from two separate companies in the MPE space.
    A cool part about this Sensel presentation is that it points out the pianocentrism in a lot of electronic music, including Moog-style “East Coast synthesis” and, of course, MIDI 1.0 itself.

    People like to pit Buchla and Moog against one another but it’s really about differences in approaches to music. As the book Analog Days described, part of Moog’s success has been in listening to musicians’ then-current needs. A keyboard interface was quite appropriate at the time because musicians in North America and Europe had often been trained through the piano. All nice and well for that period. Nowadays, though, there’s a lot of room to expand out of the “piano paradigm”. Which is where the Thunder could play an interesting role. Sure, it may sound like it’s too idiosyncratic for “most people’s needs”. But it’s a way to break free of some interface conventions which have dominated electronic music since the Minimoog Model D.

    As Ruben pointed out, ROLI’s Seaboard is based on the keyboard interface but it goes beyond it. As he also pointed out, the Lightpad breaks the familiarity with the piano-style keyboard. It affords several different playing modes, including the 5×5 and 4×4 grids that Ruben demoed as well as sliders and Kaosspad-like XYZ control. An interesting thing about the 5×5 grid is that its cells are arranged in pretty much the same way as the Linnstrument, what Roger Linn has called the “Fourths Strings Layout” (also on the Ableton Push and in the GeoShred app for iOS and iPadOS, not to mention a few other apps).
    It’s too early to tell if this layout in fourths will “stick”, but it has clear advantages over the keyboard layout, including the fact that intervals and chords transpose readily as shapes.

    The key thing here is that we’re no longer constrained by the keyboard. We can shift from the “piano paradigm” to a new paradigm.

    This week, ROLI teased that it’ll be coming out with a new keyboard. Given the pace at which that company releases new products, especially in hardware, those of us who perceive ROLI’s role in overcoming “pianocentrism” might be disappointed.

    1. Picking up on your point about ‘pianocentrism’:

      Roger Linn’s on the right track for musical performance without relying on the old piano keyboard layout. His Linnstrument & the use of 4ths is the same as the E-A-D-G strings on a guitar or bass guitar (the highest strings, B-E, on a guitar break the pattern). Take a look at the neck of a bass guitar- it’s a grid, similar to the Linnstrument, Push, Luanchpad etc. Biggest difference is the grid size of 4×24 (bass) vs 8×16 (Linn) vs 8×8 (Push, Launchpad).

      As a reformed bass player I really want the 4ths grid alignment to become the standard for electronic instruments. The Polyend Medusa is a step in the right direction.

      The advantage of grid based note arrangements is that you can use the same finger shape for a chord regardless of the scale & where the root is, so you don’t need to learn how to play a D#m triad and an Fm triad. Just learn the minor triad & you’re set. To be fair a triad can have multiple hand positions on a grid, but that won’t stop you from successfully transposing a triad 9 times out of 10.

      Another advantage of some grid instruments like the Launchpad is that you can re-program them to use different note alignments, so rather than 4ths you can have 5ths or even whole octaves (for instance the left column is ‘C’ in octaves).

      Better still for intuitive and expressive playing are isomorphic (hexagonal) arrangements. The C-Thru Axis 49 should’ve been a game changer, but they dropped the ball & went bust. This Sound on Sound review’s quite fair:

      Don Buchla’s Thunder design is a very limited alternative to the piano keyboard because it doesn’t allow access to a wide range of notes or easy transposition of the available notes. If you want to make fancy, hippy-ish noise it’s great. From a conventional audience’s perspective, there’s no musicianship or relatable expression in demos like the video above. Don’t disregard the idea of ‘convention’, if the audience can’t relate what they see to what they hear in a performance, the Thunder will struggle to go beyond a niche audience. Relatability’s one major reason why so many people continue to play the guitar and piano.

      1. Well, going from pianocentric to guitaristic doesn’t seem like a paradigm shift. Commercially though, it may be wise.

        1. There’s a reason things like the Axis 49 remain curiosities though.

          Roger Linn’s design builds on string performance tradition, so it will make sense to tons of people. The Continuum builds on a blend of string and keyboard performance.

          So you hear lots of extremely expressive and interesting performances on these instruments.

          The Axix-49 built on keyboard designs that were failures hundreds of years ago, revisiting the designs with modern tech. One of the challenges of this is that, no matter how capable the controller, if there’s nobody that can play it well, it never is going to sound that good.

          That’s the challenge that the Axis 49 had, There were lots of demos that showed how the design was logical for learning scales and transposing chords, but not great expressive performance demos.

  3. $269 doesn’t seem too pricey to me. I really like the Roland HandSonic drum line and this can emulate that experience to some extent, plus a lot more. It adds to my range and fun to do some things totally by hand. The Thunder GUI is brilliantly musical. Too much temptation.

    1. “Too much temptation”

      Isn’t that a nice problem to have? I’m amazed that we live in a time when this stuff is getting mass-produced! 20 years ago, hardly anybody was doing modular and alternative controllers were a tiny niche in a tiny niche.

      I’d be surprised if more than 50-100 of the original Thunders were ever made. They’re going to sell thousands of these.

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