TENORI-ON & monome: side-by-side

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We asked one of the few lucky musician using both these devices, Ashley Brown from England, to review them in a side-by-side comparison. Ashley also talks about his setup and shares some of his “secrets”…

Hi, first I’d like you to introduce yourself to our readers, tell us something about your background, your music, etc…
Hi I’m Ashley Brown, aged 29 from Coventry UK.
My background is simple. I always loved all kinds of music but as a teenager at the right time, 1990, I got into rave and electronic music. A little older I got into Drum and Bass and was a dj for 8 years whilst learning to produce and still listening to a wide variety of experimental music. I spent the last 2 years producing and setting up my record label for like minded experimental music producers not afraid to jump outside the norm. I have had BBC Radio 1 airplay with my first ever release and independent acclaim for my follow up ep. My debut album is due next year and I am due to tour Japan to promote it.

You’re one of the ‘lucky’ few owners of the two most talked about musical devices of 2007: TENORI-ON and monome.
They are very different, one is a complete musical instrument while the other is a controller. So why do you think they are so often put in comparison? And what made you buy both?

I think the main reason they are compared is because they have buttons which light up and they are both fantastic futuristic musical interfaces.
I watched monome for nearly a year, keeping it in my favourites on firefox and always checking back weekly to see updates. I think for me as a laptop artist – performing live can be a tricky thing to balance sonically and visually. I saw the monome as a great way for me to perform in a fun, more intuitive way than manically clicking about with my mouse.
The TENORI-ON instantly appealed as a live performance tool as I knew that it would be something that would impress the crowds visually. I also completely loved the idea behind the concept of the machine and also the fact that I could sit anywhere with this machine and compose music; just insert batteries and headphones.
I bought them both as I figured that my new way of thinking towards live performance would benefit from these machines. Also, to be honest – I don’t know of anyone else that owns them both! So I am definitely going to stand out when I perform.

Now that you have spent some time with them, could you give us a short list of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’?
monome Pros: Easy to use, fun, limited only by the software apps written for it, solid build, great open forum and ‘customer service’
monome Cons: Setup and getting apps to work the way you want – however as highlighted in the pros, superb ‘customer service’ and users who help in any way they can giving a real open source culture and community where the inventor is happy to help you out.
TENORI-ON Pros: One of kind, fun, easy to use, visually stunning to watch, interesting modes of composition that you wouldn’t get from conventional instruments
TENORI-ON Cons: Limited sounds and sampling, data that it can send – connections, no user forum, overpriced, it’s not an editable synth at all.

The monome is a very simple device, where the real power lies in its “open source” approach and in the growing number of applications developed by its community of users. I know you’ve tried many of those apps, would you tell us your impressions?
Yes, as I said before I was looking at apps like mlr for live use and this was the first app I tried. It was so easy to use, and so intuitive that I must have spent at least 30 minutes playing with 7 drumloop samples it was so much fun.
Several apps have been written by Brian who made the machine, but the user forum has a lot of contributions and I’ve tried many of them and can honestly say they really do make using the monome fun. Lots of the patches have the ability to send midi out; either via a hardware cable to another machine or by using MidiYoke as an internal software router. I’ve had a patch controlling a MachineDrum, and a patch running an experimental synth in Reaktor 5 so it really is immense fun. One of the most enjoyable is an app called Life which is taken from the Conway’s Game of Life theory. I ran a midi output from that into a synth in reaktor with some effects running and it was sonic glitch heaven. Thanks to the user forum for sorting me with the midi version!
The beauty is, you can rewire max inside a host too. So if you got a pc/mac powerful enough you can run the max/msp and monome inside/alongside your existing setup which in my case is lots of instances of Reaktor 5. Plus you can then add lots of vst effects into the output mixer, especially ones which require a clock to work like Glitch. That’s my secret setup.

When I had a chance to try the TENORI-ON I had some doubts about its tactile feedback/solidity, the keys’ rattling noise scared me a bit thinking of using it on the road, dunno, I felt it was not built to last. What’s your real life experience until now?
Yeah, when you run your fingers over it, it kind of makes a funny noise like all the buttons are rattling and going to fall out. In actual truth playing with the machine its a very solid build. And it feels like you are holding something very cool. In a similar way to the monome, each instrument is also a work of art and although more so with the monome, both machines are hand built/assembled so you feel that you have something personal.

Let’s go to the crucial point: how these devices are influencing your approach to music making?
Music making has only changed with the fact that I can run a semi generative patch on the monome as an input and tweak the vst to make even more interesting sounds when I’m designing soundscapes. The TENORI-ON has influenced me to think about adding more emotive and perhaps ‘normal’ sounds into my cyber glitched out beats n blips. I’ve also used it as a sonic sketchpad from time to time, then taking what I’ve built into the studio and progressing from there.
Performance wise – this has been where these machines have worked for me. They have made my live shows much more interesting and to be honest much more enjoyable for me as well. I’ve got the TENORI-ON with its stunning visual display and I’m using the monome to trigger and slice up beats. Sometimes I’ve done a whole set using only a TENORI-ON. Sometimes its been part pre-programmed, and other times I’ve stepped up with a blank canvas. I did this great gig where I sat on a sofa surrounded by the audience as I jammed with the TENORI-ON. The feedback and buzz was amazing.

One of the most criticized aspects of the TENORI-ON is the fact it’s immediately recognizable (“everyone will end up sounding the same”, etc.). Does the sampling features help about this or it’s anyway a non-issue, in your opinion?
Well it is true that it could sound very samey, even with the onboard effects it would be easy to tell music from TENORI-ON users. It is because it’s a yamaha motif soundbank and its very basic sounding to me; it does have some nice sounds – however personally I’d rather drop half of them in favour of more user sample space. That way the machine would work as I would like, a very unique controller for your own sounds. I have 2 videos up on youtube which show me using user sounds with the unique random mode feature layer of the TENORI-ON and it gives very interesting sonic results. Ill be perfectly honest and say that a couple of my demo videos of the TENORI-ON, don’t sound like they were made on a TENORI-ON at all. However that’s because I only used my own samples. I’ve then got some other videos using onboard sounds and the internet community criticise me for sounding all 80s samey plinky plonk fm belltones (or whatever they are saying) so I would say it’s down to the user. Isn’t that the case with any musical instrument? It’s all how you play it.

Could you tell something more about the integration of these devices with a DAW, to control software instruments? Any tip to share with our readers?
As mentioned earlier i set the monome to control other vsts and also it’s easy with the monome to set it as just a midi controller. It makes it fun for playing synths. I’m currently working on some custom Reaktor patches, and modifying existing ones such as Vectory and Krypt for live beat mashing via the monome. It’s so easy to use as it is anyway because of the osc and midi protocols that it uses.
As for the TENORI-ON, it has limitations for me because of the type of data it sends and receives. It can be set as slave and then synced with a DAW; I got it going great with Cubase so that it plays at the same tempo as whatever you are working in (it receives the midi clock from Cubase), however sending midi to it just uses it as tone module, none of the lights etc light up. This was something I hoped would be possible – unless I really can’t figure it out – as the only way to generate the visuals is by actually pressing the TENORI-ON. I need to spend more time working with the TENORI-ON and getting around any limitations as id love to have it as a controller; however it works better as an instrument for me. It sends midi and is great fun for triggering soft synths or hardware though.
Put the two together and it becomes interesting. What I had working was using Bounce mode on the TENORI-ON slowed right down, and I synced it up with Cubase running Reaktor 5 with Krypt inside playing some beats, and then the Krypt output through Glitch.
I’ve seen and heard via the web that people have been using it in Ableton Live to trigger clips etc, but I don’t use Live so I can’t comment.

Let’s finish with a classic: which of them would you take to a desert island (ok, let’s say you can also bring a laptop for the monome) ?
Hmm. Tricky one. Right now id take the monome, however if the TENORI-ON continues to improve upon its limitations in time for version 2 then you may have to come rescue me and do a swap.

Ashley on the web:
On Vimeo
On YouTube
On Myspace

Interesting news here on AudioNewsroom about the TENORI-ON

A more recent article on CDM

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