NEARFIELD MULTIMEDIA MARIMBA LUMINA

Looking for a textbook example of a truly slanderous statement? Try this: Don Buchla makes instruments just like anybody else's. Say that in earnest,
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Looking for a textbook example of a truly slanderous statement? Try this: Don Buchla makes instruments just like anybody else's. Say that in earnest, and no court in the land would refuse Buchla should he decide to bring suit against you. Since the mid-1960s, Buchla has manufactured electronic instruments that are unique in the truest sense of the word. From his modular analog synths, complete with capacitive keyboard, to his first digital synthesizer (the Touche in 1978), to his more recent controller innovations such as Thunder and Lightning, Buchla has long presented the intrepid synthesist with an unsurpassed sonic palette and level of control.

Absorbing and assimilating the depth and character of Buchla's instruments requires substantial study, and a musician must develop new and different techniques to play them. Consequently, large-scale commercial success and the widespread recognition that he richly deserves have eluded Buchla over the years, even as he has grown to legendary stature within the community of the adventurous.

This brings me to the Marimba Lumina, a MIDI mallet controller designed by Don Buchla and Associates and manufactured and marketed by Nearfield Multimedia, whose business until now has been aerospace technology.

The Marimba Lumina's 5-foot length makes it a bit cumbersome (though no worse than, say, the classic Musser Pro 55 vibraphone), but its 18.5-inch width and 2-inch depth are much more manageable. For all its bulk, the Marimba Lumina weighs a scant 21 pounds. There is no provision for stand mounting, so you'll probably want an X-style keyboard stand.

The face of the instrument contains 311/42 octaves of "bars," which are actually 5.63-by-1.75-inch pads silk-screened onto the Marimba Lumina's surface. (All the bars are the same size, as opposed to the bars on acoustic mallet instruments, which decrease in width and length with increasing pitch.) The bars have a basic range from C3 (MIDI note 48) to F6 (MIDI note 89), which can be modified with the transposition functions. The instrument's surface also sports two ribbonlike strips, ten numbered pads, Program and Edit pads, and a 2-line, 80-character LCD. The "black keys" in the top octave are marked with essential control functions (Mute, Solo, Escape, Enter, and Reset) that you use during editing.

The power button and all of the connections are on the right side panel (see Fig. 1). Audio outs are on unbalanced TRS jacks. A jack's tip and sleeve carry the output; the ring and sleeve accept signals from an external source connected with an insert cable. This design allows you to sum the output with, for example, another synthesizer, albeit with no independent level controls for the two sound sources. Other connections include MIDI In, Out, and Aux (which currently functions only as Thru); inputs for two switches, an expression pedal, and a trigger; a memory-card slot; and a power supply connector. The power supply employs a "lump in the line" design. Using an insert cable instead of a regular 11/44-inch TS plug in the switch or trigger jacks doubles the number of inputs, giving the Marimba Lumina a total capacity of four switches and two triggers.

The Marimba Lumina uses radio frequency technology to detect the player's actions. The bars emit a weak RF field, and each mallet contains a different value inductor that resonates at its own frequency when brought in proximity to the field. The Marimba Lumina detects this frequency and makes other, more complex analyses to determine not only which bar is struck and how hard, but also which mallet is used and where along the length of the bar it strikes. As a result, the instrument can respond in an entirely different way to each mallet (so that, for instance, each one can send on a different MIDI channel).

INTENTIONS OF MALLETSYou can use only the included custom mallets with the Marimba Lumina. They are color-coded red, yellow, green, and blue. Above the strip on the upper left of the instrument are four LEDs, colored to match the mallets. An LED goes dark when its corresponding mallet strikes a bar, pad, or strip. The four matching lights on the front of the Marimba Lumina (the side that faces away from the player) glow and shine colors over the audience when their corresponding mallets are used. Finally, each bar has an LED that lights up when the bar is struck. Hence the instrument's name-Lumina, meaning light.

The mallets themselves resemble Nerf lollipops, being 2-inch foam balls on 15.5-inch plastic handles. They don't have the heft of standard vibe or marimba mallets, but they're not so light as to be unplayable, especially given that you'll never need to strike the Marimba Lumina hard.

For the player of individuated mallets, the repercussions (I won't even apologize for that one) are enormous. Each mallet can play an entirely different sound-or perhaps not a sound at all but a control function. You play the Marimba Lumina as you would an organ or a keyboard synthesizer: to sustain notes, you hold down the mallets on the bars and change volume or tone by sliding them along the bars. The mallets' functions are very broad, giving the Marimba Lumina its remarkable richness.

The unit's audio outputs are for the onboard Yamaha DB51 XG synthesizer, which provides a creditable if unspectacular set of onboard sounds and makes the Marimba Lumina entirely self-contained for many applications. (However, the instrument doesn't have a volume knob, so volume control must be programmed.)

Primarily, though, the Marimba Lumina is a controller, and you can do much more with it by connecting the unit to external devices. It has 50 ROM Programs (which hold Marimba Lumina configurations, not synthesizer sounds) and 50 user memory slots; a memory card can hold 50 additional Programs.

GETTING IN DEEPDon't be surprised if you feel a little overwhelmed as I explain the Marimba Lumina's software structure. As I said before, Buchla's instruments are unusual and very deep. Because the functions can be so complex, Buchla tends to name and describe them with very academic-sounding terms that, while precise, are not always easy to grasp. Unfortunately, he often uses this type of terminology even when a function is straightforward or the same as one that is commonly found on other MIDI instruments. I suppose that's just another part of the unique conception that makes Buchla's instruments so interesting, but I think the Marimba Lumina would be easier to relate to if common terms were used for common features.

The Marimba Lumina is always in either Edit or Play mode. To call up a Program, you enter Play mode and strike the Prog pad with any mallet except the red one (it has special edit functions). Then you enter the Program number, either directly using the numbered pads or with the strip just below the display. You strike the strip's right side to increase the number or strike the left side to decrease it, and you hold the mallet down on the strip to scroll through the Programs. The closer you hold the mallet to either end of the strip, the faster the Programs scroll. (Many parameters are edited in a similar manner-sometimes with this strip, sometimes with the "white keys" in the top octave.) Strike Prog again to call up the Program. You can't hear a Program until you exit this selection process, so it's impossible to audition Programs quickly as you step through them. I most often selected Programs with the strip, because that method shows each Program name as it comes up, whereas using the numbered pads does not.

Striking the Edit pad puts you in Edit mode. Here you make menu selections by striking the white keys of the top octave, which correspond to the menu choices in the display. Values are edited by striking or holding a mallet on the appropriate bar or strip; a single level of Undo is available during editing. Striking the Edit pad again stores the changes and returns you to Play mode. I was disturbed when I received no confirmation message before the Marimba Lumina stored the edited Program: once you hit the Edit pad that second time, your old Program is overwritten, so be careful.

EXPRESSIVE GESTURESA Program consists of up to 50 Patches, each of which defines a response to a specific action (or gesture) performed by the player. A gesture is made up of a zone and a stimulus-or, put more colloquially, the "where" and "what" of the player's action. The response is defined as an object type and its associated parameters. In short, the response is generated when a player does a "what" on a "where."

A zone can be a single bar, strip, or pad; a cell, which is a group of those items; or several cells in combination. The Marimba Lumina's surface has eight cells of bars-four black-key cells and four white-key cells-with each cell set to the default size of an octave (the split points are user-configurable). Other cells include the numbered pads and the strips. The display uses either text (for individual notes or pads) or blocks (each of which represents a cell consisting of a group of bars) to show the currently selected zone.

A stimulus is an action performed with a mallet, most commonly a strike. Mallet strikes and releases can be separate stimuli, and a stimulus can be defined as coming from any mallet, from a specific mallet, or from any combination of multiple mallets. Similarly, actuation and release of a footswitch can be separate stimuli, as can signals at the trigger input.

Another stimulus (and a good example of the depth of Buchla's instruments) is a melody strike, a strike that occurs alone within a defined time window. Obviously, you use this stimulus to differentiate melody notes from chords, but you could also bend it to more twisted applications.

The most common object types are a MIDI note and a continuous controller. In the basic case, the MIDI note number corresponds to the bar that was struck; however, this correspondence can get much more complex with transposition, keymaps, and tuning tables, which I'll get to shortly.

The Marimba Lumina features a wide variety of Velocity maps, for processing the Velocity values, as well as many ways to determine note duration. The latter include fixed; proportional (or inversely proportional) to Velocity; proportional (or inversely proportional) to position on the bar; pitch dependent (the higher the note number, the shorter the duration); terminated by release (the note ends when you lift the mallet from the bar); damped (the note ends when a second strike at very low Velocity occurs); and terminated by a second strike of any Velocity. You get the idea.

The transposition options are many and versatile. It's easy to assign transposition to numbered pads and switches, thereby expanding the Marimba Lumina's available range.

You can modulate continuous controller values by sliding a mallet up and down on a bar, effectively making each bar a ribbon controller. The values can be sent on two channels-one receiving the original data and one receiving inverted data. (This lets you crossfade two sounds as you slide a mallet along a bar, for example.) Two other interesting options are MIDI controller "LFOs" and, perhaps the coolest of all, the ability to send a controller value proportional to the temporal density (for instance, the faster you play, the higher the controller value that's put out).

Other examples of object types are MIDI messages-Program Change, sequencer Start and Stop, All Notes Off, and so on-and System messages, including operation of the real-time tuning tables. You can send all of this data, which can be defined by a single Patch, on either one or two MIDI channels. I don't have enough space here to go into detail about all of the object types, but suffice it to say that many, many options are available in every case.

You aren't required to use all of these fancy features-the Marimba Lumina can certainly do its job in a very simple and straightforward fashion. In fact, the musical use of some of the objects is not always immediately clear. Again, the richness of Buchla's instruments is apparent in the Marimba Lumina: it gives you two equally useful ways to approach its features. One is to determine the type of control or musical effect that you wish to achieve, and then figure out how to make the unit do it. The other is to ruminate on a feature and devise a musical use for it. It's easy to see how entire pieces can be composed around the Marimba Lumina's capabilities.

IN KEY AND IN TUNETwo performance features worth singling out are keymaps and tuning tables. Keymaps are among the Marimba Lumina's more straightforward functions: they simply determine the MIDI note that is generated when you strike a bar on the instrument. Keymap 0 isn't editable; it's the default one-to-one mapping (that is, striking pad C5 generates pitch C5, and so on). Keymaps 1 through 3 are user definable.

The tuning tables are more exotic. Each of the ten tables, six of which are stored with each Program, is a sequence of up to 24 notes. Ten presets of common ascending-pitch sequences (chromatic, diatonic, whole tone, pentatonic, and so forth) are available. You can also define a custom sequence of notes in any order. Four real-time tuning tables can be generated by playing the Marimba Lumina and from incoming MIDI messages.

You can play tuning tables by sliding a mallet along a bar or strip, substituting note messages for what would more commonly be controller messages. Or you can have each strike play a note in the sequence. Real-time transposition can also be applied, so you can modify a scale according to the changing chords of a tune.

You can't play the Marimba Lumina in Edit mode, but its Solo and Audition features allow you to hear what you're programming. With Solo you can play a single MIDI channel; Audition lets you play all active channels, so you can listen to the Patch in context. Just playing while you edit would be simpler, but this is an acceptable compromise.

Buchla collaborator and percussionist Joel Davel has constructed an excellent collection of presets. Some provide useful bread-and-butter applications; for example, with one preset the numbered pads call up different sounds or combinations of sounds. Other presets are more unusual. One, for example, allows you to open and close a filter by sliding a mallet along a bar.

GETTING TO KNOW YOUI spent a fair amount of time with the Marimba Lumina at Toys in the Attic, my personal studio, and I took it to several rehearsals of Action Palace, my current band. The experience was truly fascinating and enlightening.

My first impression was that I needed to adjust my technique and way of thinking for the Marimba Lumina. When keyboard synthesizers first came out, pianists making the transition to synths found that although the basics of their technique transferred to this new instrument, they still had to deal with significant differences, the most notable being the need for very precise articulation. Guitarists and wind players learning the controller counterparts of their instruments face the same challenge, and so do players of the Marimba Lumina.

For a start, up and down strokes must be cleanly defined. If the sensitivity setting is high enough, the Marimba Lumina will trigger a note when the mallet is very close to the instrument's surface, even if you don't actually strike it. Consequently, when you're playing with four mallets (as I do) you must hold any mallets not currently in use well above the instrument to avoid false triggers. And because each mallet can be programmed with its own functions, you must hold them in the proper order every time you use them.

Because notes are sustained as long as the mallets remain on the bars, setting the mallets on the Marimba Lumina at power-up or when you're not playing will cause it to play and hold notes. But you can safely set the mallets down on the upper left corner of the instrument.

The Marimba Lumina's sensitivity to a mallet's position on a bar during controller-value generation is another reason that you need deliberate, precise execution. For example, if you hit the instrument too forcefully, you lose the fine mallet control necessary to really tap the Marimba Lumina's capacity for nuance.

You also need at least one set of spare mallets, especially if you regularly perform live. A full set of four mallets is available from Nearfield Multimedia for $200.

Unlike a standard marimba, the Marimba Lumina doesn't have raised bars. Adjusting my technique to accommodate this difference was one of the more difficult challenges I faced. It's a feel thing.

The Marimba Lumina can be intimidating at first, but if you make it your ax you'll adjust to all of its differences. You can definitely start using it right out of the box, but expect to spend some time before you feel in command of the instrument and can program it to suit your needs. For me, some programming tasks took a little time to absorb at first but soon became second nature. Learning others, on the other hand, was much harder going.

GIVE ME SOME LIGHTWith a small display (in comparison with a computer monitor), a manufacturer must choose between showing less information with more clarity or showing more information accompanied by cryptic legends. Buchla has opted for the latter-but again, once you are accustomed to them, the menu navigation and odd abbreviations become understandable.

During my review, the Marimba Lumina was a moving target. The manual was going through a major revision at the time I was testing the instrument and is nearing the end of an even bigger overhaul as I write this. The software is being revised as well. As a result, some rudimentary functions were incomprehensible to me. For instance, I was never able to get the review unit's expression pedal to control the internal synthesizer's volume. You shouldn't run into that problem, though; the Marimba Lumina that you buy will have a very simple parameter for enabling and disabling pedal control of volume. But you may find other simple tasks that are difficult to figure out. (Buchla expects to have finalized the software and manual by the time you read this.)

The manual attempts to be friendly in its approach, but it takes shortcuts, sometimes giving several examples instead of comprehensively listing options. In a number of instances, my efforts to decipher features were hampered by unclear documentation. Overall, the manual adequately conveys the Marimba Lumina's concepts and features, but it's not as successful at describing the details.

STRIKINGLY UNIQUEThe Marimba Lumina is an instrument just like anybody else's-if anybody else is like Don Buchla. It is extremely powerful and capable of levels of expression unmatched by anything that Buchla didn't build. It also is quirky, takes substantial effort to understand and master, and requires you to adjust your mallet technique. The internal synthesizer is quite serviceable though not outstanding; I suspect that a player can do much more using an outboard source such as a sampler or a versatile sound module.

The unit's LEDs provide a rad little light show. They combine with the Marimba Lumina's appearance and the Nerf-like mallets to create a very theatrical look.

Don't consider the Marimba Lumina if you want an instrument like everybody else's. This is a new instrument that holds incredible possibilities for mallet players, as well as for those who don't know a marimba from a glockenspiel. Is it cheap? No. Is it easy? No. Is it worth it? Hell, yes!

Larry the O plays MIDI mallets with Action Palace and provides a variety of music- and audio-related services through his San Francisco-based company, Toys in the Attic.