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  • Roger Linn Design LinnStrument 128

    By Anderton |

    Roger Linn Design LinnStrument 128

    This just may be the droid you’re looking for…


    by Craig Anderton





    The LinnStrument MIDI controller crosses over the line into a new musical instrument, because it proposes a new playing technique as well as the technology that makes this technique possible. The goal is to liberate electronic music instruments (hardware and software) from the conventional “on-off switch” limitations of conventional keyboards. To be fair, these switches have been augmented with velocity, aftertouch, and in some cases, polyphonic aftertouch and the extremely rare release velocity—as well as modulation and pitch bend wheels. However, these seldom translate the immediacy of acoustic or electric instruments, where (for example) how you hold a guitar pick influences the sound of an electric guitar.


    The LinnStrument really needs multiple reviews: The note layout, the technology it uses, the instruments with which it’s compatible, and the musical impact. But is it compelling enough to take the time to learn a new instrument? Let’s find out.




    For those not familiar with Roger Linn, he’s contributed to our world of musical electronics as much as other pioneers like Bob Moog and Dave Smith. However he’s too modest to tell you that, which leaves it up to people like me to let you know that when Roger Linn invents something, it’s worth paying attention. It just might be the next sampled drum machine (his Linndrum powered the synth-pop genre), MPC-style beat machines that have become universal fixtures in dance, rap, and hip-hop, or tempo-synched guitar effects like the AdrenaLinn.


    The main interface is an 8 x 16 matrix of 128 pads; each pad represents a musical note (the LinnStrument 128 is a smaller version of the LinnStrument, which has 200 pads, covers five octaves, and costs 50% more). The pads respond to velocity, pressure, side-to-side motion, front-to-back motion, release velocity, and sliding (e.g., like sliding up and down a guitar string—try that with a conventional keyboard). They’re laid out sort of like the notes on a guitar neck, except the default interval between rows is fourths; the default row offset can be (in semitones) 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 12. However, you can enter any interval from -Guitar (backwards guitar tuning), then -16 (high pitches in front) through zero to +16. I stuck with the default, although it’s good to know options are available.




    The layout is significant. Back in the 80s, I wrote up a project called “the matrix keyboard,” which used an identical keyboard layout based on Chomerics membrane switches. It was indeed just on-off switches, but with my first instrument being guitar, it made sense because I could think in shapes, and those shapes were the same in any key. I found I could play wicked fast solos spanning note ranges that would be impossible to play with a conventional keyboard, and the LinnStrument layout has the same attributes. It will remind many people of a Chapman Stick.


    Although you can play the LinnStrument standing up like a guitar (there are included guitar strap pins), I found treating it as a tabletop device and laying it on a surface more friendly. Then again I never really got along with playing strap-on keyboards, so I guess that’s not too surprising. Playing with one hand works for solos, but two-handed technique is definitely a better way to exploit what the LinnStrument can do.


    Make no mistake: this requires new muscle memory. Although laid out like a guitar, guitar technique won’t do you much good unless you’re into tapping; keyboardists need to think in terms of shapes and intervals, like a guitarist. Physically, the LinnStrument is easy to play. Mentally, it’s a new instrument and it takes time to develop the kind of unique physical dexterity needed by any musical instrument. I don’t want to make it sound tougher than it is, but I don’t want to make it sound easier, either.




    The user interface itself works by holding down control keys (momentary if pressed for > 0.5 sec, toggle if pressed for < 0.5 sec.), then tapping pads to make your selection. Most of this involves set-and-forget functions (velocity curve, setups for splits, pressure sensitivity, row offset, footswitch assignment for the dual footswitch jack, and the like). This is fortunate because the labels aren’t exactly readable under stage lights, however the most important functions are laid out in a vertical strip of eight switches along the left side. You’ll be able to make adjustments on the fly after a period of familiarization.




    Note that all of the user-editable functions are available from the front panel—you don’t need a computer editor to alter parameters, although that could be a welcome addition. (Side note: Not needing a computer editor also means you won’t end up in the same kind of situation as M-Audio Venom owners, who are reliant on computer-based editing software that may or may not ever be updated to deal with newer operating systems. What’s more, the LinnStrument software is open source. If someone wants to write an editor, they can.)



    There are two 5-pin DIN MIDI jacks, a USB port, and a footswitch jack that can accommodate single or dual footswitches


    In addition to controlling expected functions like sustain and tap tempo, the footswitch(es) can also control the arpeggiator, jump octaves, send control change messages, and the like.




    Let’s skip ahead to the bottom line. The LinnStrument is one of a handful of electronic controllers, like the ROLI Seaboard and Haken Continuum, whose expressiveness goes way beyond a standard keyboard. Sure, I can make very expressive synth sounds—if I add controller data manually, after playing the notes, using a process that Quincy Jones likened to “painting a 747 with a Q-Tip.” The LinnStrument places that kind of control under your fingers, in real time. This allows for a far more spontaneous musical experience because to alter a phrase from the Department of Homeland Security, “If you feel something, play something.”


    At some point, you’ll be familiar enough with the LinnStrument—and the synthesizer it controls—to make the kind of sounds you want to make. Interestingly, I didn’t sense a conventional learning curve; it’s more like everything (except the muscle memory) falls into place over a short period of time…although it did take some floundering around to get to the point where I could make that transition.


    The LinnStrument web site is loaded with helpful information, so if you’re going to learn the LinnStrument—bookmark it. ’Nuff said.




    The biggest hurdle with the LinnStrument isn’t the controller itself, but the instrument it drives. The LinnStrument speaks MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) and there aren’t very many instruments that respond well to polyphonic aftertouch, let alone allow each individual note to receive its own data—the main goal of MPE. It’s kind of like having a Testarossa, but only a couple highways where you can really open it up.


    However, it’s a misconception that you need an MPE synth, because of how the LinnStrument implements one-channel MIDI—you can do polyphonic pressure, 3D-Expressive solos, and performed chord vibrato all on one channel. The main perceived limitation is that polyphonic pitch slides will be automatically quantized; unless you need polyphonic pitch slides, MPE’s benefits aren’t all that noticeable. The web site explains the one-channel MIDI implementation, which is quite clever. The LinnStrument adds expressiveness to any synth that can respond to controllers.


    There’s a set of instruments available for Logic Pro (and Mainstage), so I took a leave of absence from my Windows workhorse and booted up my MacBook Pro to check them out. They give a good taste of what you can do with the LinnStrument, and before too long I was sliding around the upright bass, playing intervals more associated with bass than keyboards, and adding hand-controlled—not LFO-controlled—vibrato. But while sampled acoustic instruments make a fine match for the LinnStrument, it’s the synths where you get the most visceral experience. I normally don’t associate touchy-feely control with synth sounds, yet that’s precisely what the LinnStrument delivers.


    You also need a DAW that’s up to the task, although those requirements aren’t that difficult; for MPE, you just need to be able to record multiple different channels in the same MIDI track. I tested the LinnStrument with Cakewalk SONAR, which worked fine. Handling MPE splits was more of a challenge—SONAR can record all MIDI channels into a track, or one MIDI channel. Ideally, you’d want something that can restrict a track to, for example, channels 1-8 with another track handling channels 9-16. To deal this with this, I just put two pairs of eight tracks, each responding to a single channel, in two track folders.


    That said, while few instruments can make full use of what the LinnStrument can do, the expressiveness you can add to any instrument is noteworthy. For example, I have a lovely feedback guitar patch where pressing on a LinnStrument pad brought in the feedback, while side-to-side motion created vibrato. I should add that the pressure response is not the “afterswitch” you find on many keyboard controllers. Compare the screen shots below with the controller data many keyboard controllers generate; it’s extremely consistent. If you think you’re pressing down a key by a certain amount, if you apply what you think is the same amount of pressure to another key, you’ll get the same results.



    Here's what aftertouch looks like, with me trying to apply as even pressure as possible.



    The backward/forward motion produces CC#74. Again, note the consistency.



    The pitch bend is smoother than some synths with hardware wheels.



    Something that really appeals to me is how you can do pitch bend wiggles, like on guitar...



    ...and here's what happened when I tried to strike a pad with ever-increasing force until I hit maximum velocity.


    I particularly like how the feel from no pressure to full pressure is linear and consistent. This is one area where if the LinnStrument had gotten it wrong, that would have been a deal-breaker. Fortunately, that’s not the case. You feel like you’re interacting directly with the instrument parameters, not changing something that changes something else on the way to changing the parameter.


    The bottom line is that while I hope new virtual instruments will take full advantage of the LinnStrument—and some already do—it’s nonetheless an excellent controller for whatever synthesizers or samplers you already use. If you take the time to “LinnStrumentify” your patches to take advantage of the added expressiveness, you won’t regret it.


    SO WHAT?


    Roger Linn has often said that electronic instruments have more or less eliminated the concept of the instrumental solo in electronically-generated tracks. While you can debate that, there really hasn’t all been much progress since Jan Hammer got guitar envy with his Minimoog. When synths have been used for solos, they tend to be more along the lines of single-note instruments like sax, because for any kind of expressiveness, you needed to dedicate a hand to the wheels or levers, while the other hand played the notes; now both hands can play and add expressiveness.


    In fact, it took me awhile to get used to using both hands, rather than using my right hand to play notes, and the left hand to work mod wheel and pitch bend. I didn’t have to move the pitch wheel back, hit a note, and then rotate the pitch wheel forward; I just hit a pad a couple semitones below the target note, and slid to the right along the row of pads—assuming, of course, that I’d set the pitch bend range to +/- an octave.




    After all, this is an electronic controller...so there’s no need to limit it just to playing notes. There’s an arpeggiator where you can influence the arpeggiator expressively, which (in conjunction with swing) makes for a more organic and playable experience. There’s also a step sequencer that’s unlike anything you’ve ever played, because you can make each step expressive—as just one example, imagine step sequencing where you can alter the velocity and pitch bend on each step.


    There’s also an ergonomic nod to those of you (you know who you are) who dedicate a keyboard’s top or bottom octave to MIDI control. The lowest row of pads can be assigned to multiple functions—for example a modulation-like ribbon controller, sustain pedal, and more.


    One really wild feature that pushes the MPE envelope is being able to split the pads into groups. This not only allows playing two different sounds—not that novel a concept—but you can finger notes on one split, then “strum” them on the other split. A split can also provide a “control surface” for real-time parameter control of sounds being made on the other split.




    This is not a toy, or a “let’s push the buttons and make sounds!” kind of controller. It’s a real instrument, with real capabilities. As such, it’s quite easy to find your way around initially and the barrier to entry is low (e.g., you don’t have to build up callouses like a guitar). And the $999 price is certainly reasonable, given the LinnStrument’s custom and precise nature. However like any instrument, becoming a true virtuoso takes effort.


    If you play virtual instruments, then those efforts will be rewarded if the synths themselves are up to the task. For example, some synths that respond to “polyphonic aftertouch” do indeed respond to it, but convert it into something more like channel aftertouch. Very few instruments have release velocity, which the LinnStrument can generate predictably. That said, even today’s “standard” instruments can benefit from the five modes of expression, although you may need to dig into how to assign parameters to controllers.


    After playing with the LinnStrument for an extended period, I have no doubt that I could become very good over time at playing it, and I also have no doubt that my music would benefit. Yes, I can “overdub” expressiveness, but is that really expressiveness compared to real-time playing that reacts to the music? And even if it is—which I doubt—with the LinnStrument, that expressiveness is spontaneous. I suspect that as useful as the LinnStrument is in the studio, it has a bright future ahead in live performance.


    So the bottom line is that Roger Linn has done it again: come up with something musically relevant and novel that opens up new musical paths. Will the LinnStrument power the same kind of electronic music revolution that his sampled drum machine did in the 1980s? Time will tell...but I hope it does, because it allows inserting an element of emotion so often lacking with today’s synthesis.





     Craig Anderton is a contributing Senior Editor at Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.


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