Do a Google search for “multitouch interface” and you can slip into a rabbit hole of technology, white papers, colorful QuickTime videos and a lot of think tanks conjuring deep visions of the future in human-computer interaction. It's a strange world with a lot of speculation but not a lot of actual stuff to play with. Multitouch interface design essentially refers to interactive systems that respond to more than one point of contact. The bad news is that these systems are fiendishly difficult to design. The good news is that multitouch has come to the music world in the form of the very attractive and very cool Lemur. Created by JazzMutant and distributed by Cycling '74, the Lemur has generated a lot of speculative buzz since its design was unveiled more than a year ago. Now the monkey is finally out of its cage.
In simplest terms, the Lemur is a control surface. Saying that, however, is like comparing a Blackberry to your father's old leather-bound daily planner — it doesn't really capture what the device is all about. While the Lemur is a device meant to control your music software, it's such a radical restructuring of the concept of external software control that such characterizations seem archaic. For starters, Lemur has no physical faders or knobs. Instead, you're given a completely blank slate to design according to individual need, be it live/studio mixing, synthesis design, device control, multiple-joystick panning or whatever else. While it supports MIDI messages, JazzMutant is not shy about wanting to move us beyond the '80s with the new Open Sound Control (OSC) protocol. The system is not fixed but user-determined and user-designed (for the most part). You cobble together a series of Objects into an interface called a Project, and multiple Projects are stored into the Lemur for accessing different software parameters. The visually striking, futuristic graphical look of the Objects resembles the type of graphical user interfaces (GUIs) you'd find in a sci-fi first-person shooter game like Halo. Objects can be resized and moved around the screen, and their interactive parameters (known as Behaviors) can be customized at various levels, from simple to deep.
ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
There are three main components to the Lemur method: the hardware for Lemur itself, its included JazzEditor software and a supported audio-production software application of your choice. The Lemur hardware de-vice is the essence of Zen. It's a simple flat, grey screen with four tiny navigational switches in the upper-right corner and a connection each for power and Ethernet. That's it. The Ethernet out goes directly from the Lemur to your computer or on a local area network via a wireless hub, for example. This is welcome news for those who use a network for other operations such as moving files or staying connected to the Internet. This also means that you can connect several Lemurs to one computer. Network setup is easy and flawless. I plugged the Lemur into an Ethernet hub, checked IP settings and linked it up via the JazzEditor application. Once the JazzEditor software is installed, the hardware and software communicate via IP addresses.
JazzEditor is the software application used to program the Lemur unit. I downloaded the version 1.3 update, which is the latest version as of this writing. JazzEditor is not only your interface design software; it also acts as the intermediary between Lemur and your computer by saving and storing Projects as XML files. You can load multiple projects into Lemur and cycle through them using Lemur's navigational switches. To load a Project, turn on the Lemur, launch the JazzEditor interface, click on Open and find your saved XML file. A troublesome aspect to wrap one's head around is the communication between the Lemur, the JazzEditor application and the Project files stored on your computer. While you load and save Project files using software, you're really loading it into and saving to and from the hardware. That means that if you quit the JazzEditor, you won't be prompted to save, because the Lemur is what stores the Project file. That can be a bit confusing because if you quit JazzEditor without saving, you may not have correctly updated your Project. If you then turn off the Lemur, your updates are lost. It would be nice if it prompted a save upon quitting. It would also be nice if JazzEditor had a more intuitive method for reconciling differences between Lemur and the software. Adding to the quirkiness, JazzEditor seemed to have problems with wandering Objects. On several occasions, I'd switch back to the software and find that an Object had snuck off to hide up in a corner where I did not intend it to be. Cycling '74 claims that the v. 1.3.2 software fixes this.
Aside from those matters, JazzEditor is a fairly simple program. There are no top-level pull-down menus; everything happens in the interface, which is split into four areas: a basic Toolbar, a Project Browser (where you set parameters at the Project level), a Properties Browser (where you determine Object data such as size, color and Behavior options) and the Editing Area (where you arrange your interface). The Editing Area mirrors your Lemur touch screen, and it is here that you structure and lay out Objects graphically (its snapping mode is eerily intuitive). You then fine-tune Object parameters in the Properties Browser. Aside from JazzEditor, the software CD also comes with thorough PDF documentation, some tutorials and extras. The electronic manual is well-structured, beginning with basic walk-throughs in a logical progression and slowly progressing toward more advanced uses. There's also a Precaution file with some stern warnings: Keep away from magnetic fields, radios, TVs, cell phones, dust and humidity. It also notes that positioning the Lemur near power amplifiers may result in electrical hum. All of that was somewhat disconcerting given the nature of most home studios, but in truth I never experienced any related problems.
LEARNING TO SPEAK
If connection between Lemur and its editor software is fairly straightforward, communication with third-party software is a bit more involved. The Lemur's MIDI implementation means that it supports the plethora of sequencers out there. But the real news here is JazzMutant's OSC implementation, which allows the transfer of programmable messages between Lemur and the individual controls on your audio software application. On a conceptual level, OSC is somewhat like MIDI in the sense that you set up each system to communicate with one another in specific ways. OSC is not hugely supported in the marketplace at the moment, but a few commercial and freeware applications support it, including Cycling '74's own Max/MSP and Native Instruments' Reaktor. Not surprisingly, those are modular, programming-based sound platforms designed to take advantage of OSC's more user-definable approach to message transmission. The actual pipeline between the two is your IP address. The JazzMutant Website has step-by-step tutorials on getting your network settings to jive with Max and Reaktor, so even if you're not intimately familiar with OSC, you can get rolling fairly quickly. Still, it helps to have at least a cursory understanding of IP addresses and ports to know what to do when devices aren't listening to one another. I know enough to get by, and after a couple of self-induced “duh” moments, I had everyone on speaking terms.
This was my first opportunity to test OSC, and I used Reaktor as the basis for this review. Objects created in the Lemur reflect user-assignable knobs, faders, etc. in your music-production software. One of the nice surprises with Reaktor is that you can use OSC to set up simple commands at the Ensemble level, or you can dig into the Structure level to set highly detailed commands. Because OSC is simply a message send/retrieval system, you can essentially set up any Reaktor event to any Lemur Object. At that level, you'll need fairly intimate knowledge of Reaktor Structures. But even if you don't have that knowledge, the Reaktor community is coming to the rescue, creating Lemurized Ensembles for download on the Native Instruments Website. The options are sure to grow as more and more Lemur owners build Reaktor Ensembles.
Of course, the first step is getting Lemur and Reaktor in touch with each other. Using Reaktor's Properties window, you can set up one-way communication between it and the Lemur or do bidirectional communication. To have a Reaktor instrument read your Lemur commands, click on a graphical parameter (a fader, for instance) in software, and select the name of your corresponding fader in the OSC Source pull-down menu. To reverse the communication (so the Lemur reflects any software-based operations), choose the same device in the OSC Target pull-down menu. With that basic understanding, you can let your imagination take over and program Object behaviors that leverage the unique capabilities of the Lemur. Each Object has its own particular set of adjustable parameters for changing the way your fingers interact with Objects, such as “attraction,” “interpolation,” “capture” and “mass spring.” Those options determine how Lemur responds when you interact with it. Most of the Behavior settings have to do with speed, friction, release times and other movement-based actions.
On the subject of responsiveness, there seemed to be no discernible latency whatsoever between the Lemur and Reaktor, which is impressive. In that regard alone, I'm sold on OSC. It's worth noting, however, that Lemur occasionally incurs its own latency between your fingers and its response. Some Objects showed slight delay in some situations. Switches were instantaneous, but Objects with deeper Behavior setting options such as RingAreas and Multiballs seemed slower to react. But whatever latency there was, it was always slight and didn't affect performance in most situations. I had mixed results with faders. Long faders revealed some slight delay when tapped or slid, but shorter faders, such as an x-y crossfader that I configured, were instantaneous when tapped, even though the Behavior settings were the same. Incidentally, once I became comfortable tapping the polar ends of the crossfader with my first two fingers, I got a really nice action out of it. Of course, that goes against the normal DJ style, but with the Lemur, you have to accept some different modes of thinking.
ABOVE THE SURFACE
Without question, the most exciting aspect of the Lemur is its multitouch function, which makes it perfectly suited to real-time sound manipulation and creative interaction. The most interactive of the Lemur Objects are the sliders, faders or balls of some kind; you move those either by tapping the desired location for them to jump to or by grabbing their current points and sliding them in a new direction. I had no problems with the Lemur responding to even the most sensitive of touches; a light, quick tap on an Object's empty space, and it leapt into action. If you touch a point outside an object and then move into an object, it will not trigger a response. That is good design; it means you won't accidentally trigger something else if you unintentionally move into an Object's boundary. Incidentally, if you interact within an Object and then move outside its borders without lifting your finger, you're still controlling that parameter no matter where you are on the screen. I liked that as well because you can work with small faders and, again, you're not stalled if you go outside the lines.
I invited a couple of engineer friends over to have a go at the Lemur, one of whom has a master's degree in human-computer interaction from Stanford. Both were knocked out by the multitouch function. At one point, all three of us had our hands on the surface, with many points of contact, and the Lemur responded perfectly to every command. It's very intelligent in the way it reacts to various methods of interacting with objects. For example, placing three fingers inside a RingArea or Multiball will center the ball in the middle and then move as you lift your fingers. The point here is that multitouch not only refers to multiple Object interaction, but multiple points of interaction within Objects as well. Lemur is a true multitouch interface in that there are no constraints to the points of contact. It's worth repeating that the Behaviors area can determine many of the various actions that you want these devices to take.
WIZARD OF AWE
The Lemur is far too cool to hide in a studio or in a composer's bedroom. It begs to be unleashed in a live setting where improvisation thrives and where it can be appreciated by an audience. In particular, Lemur would be an inspiring centerpiece for laptop-based performers, DJs and experimental-sound art installations. It's colorful and eye-catching, but there are real brains within this beauty. Like the Max/MSP and Reaktor systems it supports, there is a whole universe into which you can delve. There are so many possibilities within those programs that can be represented in the Lemur via OSC that you can find your own unique take on how to use it. There's also a utilitarian aspect to it, with an approach to user control that no other system can offer. For example, if you require multiple surround panners to control the placement of multiple elements within a sound field simultaneously and in real time, the Lemur may be the only system out there that can accomplish that task. And because the Objects are simply the result of defined messages, there are undoubtedly a host of other niche problems that the Lemur may be able to solve.
Without question, the Lemur is a major breakthrough in technology for bringing musicians closer to their art in a profound new way. While it's amazing for what it can do now, the future potential is perhaps its most intriguing aspect. In that sense, the system is very much like its namesake: The lemur is a progenitor of the more intelligent monkeys and apes that eventually followed. It's exciting to consider what kind of animal this system will become with a few more evolutionary steps. Most notably, the multitouch aspect offers the ability not only to play around with multiple objects, but also to replace standard computing tasks. For example, it would be great to have the ability to navigate to a Project that has a virtual QWERTY keyboard and mouse area. While folks have been hyping the end of the keyboard and mouse-based music mixing for years now, the Lemur is the first interface that could actually make it happen. That would require integration with a computer's operating system or a keyboard-style interface worked into a supported music-software application, but wider adoption of OSC would at least make it possible.
At $2,495, the Lemur is not cheap. But this type of technology doesn't come along often, so it's worth it for those who want to get closer to their music.
JAZZMUTANT (DIST. BY CYCLING '74)
LEMUR > $2,495
Pros: Excellent multitouch screen. Wonderfully expansive and inventive GUI. New Open Sound Control (OSC) protocol opens new doors for control. MIDI compatible.
Cons: Some occasional slight latency between touching and the Lemur's response. Not a great deal of support yet for the OSC in the market.
Mac: OS X; Ethernet port
PC: Windows XP; Ethernet port