Kraftwerk, Jim O’Rourke, Battles or Atom Heart all proudly have one to play with – the Tenori-on – an uber fancy musical gadget that visualises its sounds via a marvellous LED display. This sampler and MIDI controller is the brain child of a colabo between media artists Toshio Iwai and developer Yu Nishibori of Yamaha. For its worldwide launch (it’s been out already in the UK since last autumn,) Yu talked with PingMag a bit. While visiting him in the Yamaha office, right behind the Laforet fashion temple in Harajuku, we couldn’t stop gazing (and eventually touching!) this amazing tool. And a smiling Yu was more than happy to show us the ultra refined usage of its light and sound combining interface in detail. (Also, see the concert info below.)
Written by Verena and Vicente Gutierrez
We all are dying to know, first, where did the idea for the Tenori-on come from?
In 2001, I met Toshio because I wanted to have some of his advice on a musical networking project I was working on for Yamaha. Toshio commented and, during this discussion, he showed me some things he was working on like his “Resonance of 4″ installation which is kind of a Tenori-on. So, during this discussion, this idea came up since Toshio had already created a software called Tenori-on, but it was just a step sequencer. So, I had the day job at Yamaha, but after 6 p.m., Toshio and I were developing it. Eventually, I decided to do it full-time.
How did you work together? Who did what?
Toshio did more of the scientific things like programming, as well as the design. Yamaha’s role was that of developing and production. So, at first, I developed the software with Toshio. For example, changing the root points was my idea and also the random loop. I’m more of a maniac and need more depth with the Tenorio-on! After that, I was in charge of the project and had to oversee the hardware, electronics, software, contents, the sound itself, calculating the cost, promotion, marketing – everything! I even have to look after it all over the world.
That’s quite a task! Altogether it took six years to be released. Why so long?
It took three years to develop it and three years to persuade Yamaha to make it into a real product. At first, they were somewhat hesitant, it seemed too ‘brand new.’ Yamaha has always been more of a traditional and conservative company with an emphasis on classical instruments.
Now, please explain, how does the Tenorio-on actually work?
It is mainly a sampler, but it has a preset of its own generated sounds and can be used as a MIDI controller. So when you push a button, you can generate a sound. When you push longer, it enters a meter of rhythm and you can also set that tempo. You can adjust the pitch and frequency on a kind of time line. The bottom line would be the low sounds, the higher lines are the higher frequencies. [More specs over here.]
Is there any guidance for notes, like if you want to a play a C, for example?
Yes, but you can change the scale, it’s not fixed. This, for example, is “Score mode” [clicks LEDs to light magically] – you push a button and the algorithm generates the light as the note gets looped. So, each time it sounds, the light goes off.
And when you play, how do you get the composition out there afterwards?
Well, you can use an SD memory card to load your own sampled sounds and record your music as well as to transfer your music to another Tenori-on or even synch multiple Tenori-on(s); that’s what Kraftwerk have been doing. So when you record your music to the SD card, you just take it to the PC [and publish it to WAV or another form.] You can connect it via MIDI [using Apple’s Logic software and the bundled Tenori-on application.]
How easy! Please, let’s get physical! In terms of visualising sounds, how did you arrive at this stunning 16×16 size and the LED button matrix on both sides (!) – rather than LCD or touch sensors like of a Kaoss Pad?
A touch panel would be like an iPhone, a PSP or that kind of thing. We wanted something different and LCD are just backlights behind paper. However, with LED, each element generates light by itself. And with the Tenori-on, it generates its own light and sound, simultaneously, when pressed.
In terms of the size, we considered this size and shape important for a few reasons. It fits the average adults hands. So, when you hold it, it’s wide enough for your fingers to grasp and your thumbs meet at the centre.
And it seems to be so intuitive to play with! How did you develop an interface that would be instantly understandable? Usually, techy gadget aren’t quite easy…
To be honest, Toshio and I didn’t intend to make something that would make it easier to compose music. It was coincidental. When developing the Tenori-on, I was listening to a lot of polyrhythms, broken beats that weren’t so rigid or rhythmic. And I imagined how this music would be performed live, in real time, since most of it is edited on the computer. In my brain, I found the image of a figure: a small triangle, a big triangle and a square. But that could be very complicated.
Besides that, Toshio and I are neither musicians nor performers. That’s one reason why it ended up being easy to play! If you see the videos of Jim O’Rourke or Atom Heart, they are professional musicians, but they picked it up quite easily after a short explanation. The more you play it, the more depth you get…
And you had them in mind when you developed it?
Yes, mainly professional musicians with a lot of audio visual aspects in their work; artists who are working with electronic or in areas of free jazz. We’ve also targeted music lovers who love composing music. I mean, I’m not a producer, I’m a computer programmer…
Jim O’Rourke deeply concentrated over his new toy! © Yamaha
I’m more of a hardcore listener… (Laughs). Actually, that was from back in university where I studied computer science with music. You had to write a program to make a musical application to then compose with the software. My student life continued into my work at Yamaha.
Ahhh, now we get it! Regarding the Tenori-on’s range – when you see the artists on the Yamaha site performing, they are more into electronic, or rock. Has anybody tried to compose classical music or jazz with it?
Classical… Robert Lippok of To Rococo Rot from Berlin is working with Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi. So, Einaudi has a orchestra with violins and everything. Robert is there and plays with the Tenori-on. Regarding Jazz, Kieran Hebden is doing a Free Jazz project with drummer Steve Reid and Kieran is always using the Tenori-on for that.
What feedback did they give you so far?
Jan Werner of Mouse on Mars told me that he really wants it to have a microphone to record sounds because he’d like to use it as sampler during his live performances. That would be the next step! I also got lots of great ideas from Atom Heart. He wanted some kind of attachment to know which button was playing what sound. Hmm, what else… everyone said they wanted a swing sequence in there, too.
We’re excited! How, do you think, will the next generation of kids compose music?
I hope they get into it. If you have a good ear and some skills, then you can easily make music with the Tenori-on. I hope it opens up the kids for more imaginative music. It is not really a performance tool like a guitar; it has lots of sequences. The point of the Tenori-on performance is that you have to listen very carefully and decide what button to push. You have to learn and decide the relationship of the notes and buttons you select.
Something else, why was the Tenori-on already launched last September in the UK – but only there?
Three years ago, we made a market research in New York City, London, Tokyo and Hamburg (though I would have preferred Berlin.) We did Tenori-on performances at Sonar, at Ars Electronica or at Manchester’s Futuresonic festival. The feedback from the British was really good, so we decided to start England as a test market to better respond in other regions. Since it was so brand new, Yamaha wanted to get some ideas from there first.
We see. Will Yamaha now venture more into the field of electronic gadgets?
We already started! But the new project is totally different. We just started developing the prototype and now we’re struggling to find out about its interesting points. It would be more of a controller, but could also be a synthesiser… It has a name, but I surely can’t disclose that…
Ah! We want to know that!! Thank you, Yu Nishibori! We are very much looking forward to see the Tenori-on in action at the launch concerts in Tokyo next week, on April 25th, and apart from that on April 24th and 27th!
We couldn’t resist showing you this sweet mini bike parked in the Yamaha office that must belong to one of the workers. So cute!
Preview and After Parties:
Thu, April, 24th:
To Rococo Rot / Mapstation / Robert Lippok. From 7 p.m.
Sun, April, 27th:
Atom Heart / Paul de Jong / Ryoichi Kurokawa / De De Mouse. From 6 p.m.
Venue: Eats and Meets Cay, Spiral B1, 5-6-23 Minami-Aoyama.