Wednesday, March 6, 2013

48 ribbon controllers under your fingers

I'm always on the lookout for unconventional keyboards and alternate controllers.  Today, I came across the Evo keyboard from Endeavour of Germany.  This is basically a keyboard with a mini ribbon controller built into each key -- the main body of the key, with the exception of the very end closest to the player, contains a short length of position-sensitive capacitive material which can generate a digital control signal based on where it is touched.  Here's a photo, appropriated from Endeavour's Web site:
It may not be obvious from the photo, but the keys are longer and a bit wider than normal, in order to have sufficient room for the sensors.  Each sensor is 4 cm, or a bit more than 1.5" long, and is set back from the near end of the key by 1 cm.  Note the absence of conventional pitch or mod wheels.  The software that comes with the Evo allows you to map the sensor on each key to a different controller; for example, the low C key could be pitch bend, the D key modulation, the E key master volume, and so on.  The key doesn't actually have to be pressed in order to activate the sensor, which raises some interesting possibilities.  One mentioned Endeavour's Web site would be using the keyboard as a control surface for a mixer, by mapping a group of key sensors to faders.

The Evo keyboard itself does not generate MIDI data directly; it uses a protocol that is proprietary to Endeavour.  It must be connected to a computer in order to function.  The interconnect is not USB, as one might expect; it is -- surprise -- 10baseT Ethernet.  This is actually a very cool idea, and I've been wondering if/when the day would come when a lot of electronic instruments and controllers would use Ethernet for interconnect.  Ethernet hardware is pretty cheap these days, and it doesn't have a lot of the limitations that USB has, e.g., 100m length limit for Ethernet vs. 10 feet for USB.  And Ethernet has far more than enough bandwidth for the application.

What if you want to control a MIDI synth with it?  There is a software package that you can download from Endeavour that maps control messages from the Evo to MIDI messages.  An interesting feature of this software is that you can play a chord, of up to 16 notes, and it will transmit each note on a separate MIDI channel -- the so-called "Mode 3" or "guitar mode" method of sending MIDI information.  The nice thing about this is that it allows control information to be note-specific if desired; for instance, if the sensors are mapped to pitch bend, then sliding one finger will send MIDI pitch wheel messages only over the one channel assigned to that note, and only that note will bend.  Of course, to make this work, you have to be controlling a synth which is 16-part multitimbral.

There's also a virtual analog synth plug-in available, and a driver that allows the Evo to interface to Max/MSP.  The VA synth is pretty conventional, other than having specific controls for the Evo sensors.  The software is available for OSX and Windows; not sure which versions.

The question that has to be asked at this point is: how is this an improvement over polyphonic aftertouch?  That's particularly relevant since CME just introduced a controller with poly aftertouch that lists for $99 USD.  Yes, it has mini keys with limited travel, and they probably feel like cheap plastic.  But at that price, you can afford to buy one and only use it for parts where you need poly aftertouch.  And some good MIDI remapping software will let you do a lot of the tricks that the EVO MIDI interface software does (although probably not the mode 3 trick).  And many modern synths, both hardware and software, will accept and process poly aftertouch messages even if they can't generate them.  So what does the Evo offer over that?  Well, for one thing, many players who have worked with poly aftertouch have found it difficult to actually control in the heat of the moment.  The extension of fingers over the Evo sensors should be easier (thumbs, not so much, but...).  Second, the Evo sensors can be, as noted, used without actually playing the key in question, which provides a lot of additional flexibility.  And third, the Evo allows the sensors to be used in the "first touch" mode a la the ribbon controller on the CS80, where the place where the finger originally touches the sensor sets the zero point for subsequent movement.  Can't do that with poly aftertouch.

Endeavour sells two versions of the Evo, a two-octave (24 keys, C to B) and a four-octave, 48-key version.  The lack of a high C is probably because a conventional high C requires a unique key shape, which would be a significant additional cost on this keyboard.  There are a few questions not answered on the Web site, such as how the unit is powered: it doesn't say if it comes with its own power supply, or if it expects power over Ethernet.  It does say that the Ethernet should be self-configuring.  I think that it relies on the unit being plugged in to a network with a router or something else that will act as a DHCP server, so that the Evo can obtain an IP address automatically.  (There is a way to set it manually if needed.)  The only manual I could find was in German, which didn't help me much; the Web site states that the manuals are being translated, but the availability date it gives was last November.  It doesn't do wireless (which would have been an interesting addition, especially for live performance), so you will need an Ethernet router or hub with an available RJ45 jack. 

So this is a new take on per-note parameter control, and a pretty interesting one.  There is a video demo on Evolution's Web site, but in my opinion it doesn't do a very good job of showing the Evo's unique capabilities.  The Evo isn't cheap but the cost is actually not bad compared to a lot of other alternative controllers that I've come across.  Is it worth the price?  You decide.  The two-octave version of the Evo markets for E499 and the four-octave version for E999; that's about $650 and $1300 USD, respectively. 

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