Review: Roger Linn Design LinnStrument

An unusual MIDI controller that makes playing synthesizers more expressive
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Roger Linn has been busy for the past few years designing the LinnStrument, an instrument controller that could outlive all of his other inventions. The LinnStrument is one of a group of devices called PMCs, short for polyphonic multidimensional controllers, an exclusive club whose membership includes the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, Roli Seaboard, Madrona Soundplane, and Eigenlabs Eigenharp.

The idea behind the LinnStrument and other PMCs is to give synthesists the same level of expressivity enjoyed by acoustic instrumentalists. A typical synthesizer keyboard is essentially a series of momentary switches that respond to how fast (velocity) and how hard (aftertouch) you press them. The LinnStrument responds to much more subtle finger movements by sensing three dimensions—left-to-right (x-axis), forward-and-back (y-axis), and downward pressure (z-axis)— independently for each finger. Like a keyboard, it also responds to velocity.

Because it is strictly a MIDI controller, the LinnStrument makes no sound on its own. It connects to MIDI hardware or a software instrument running on your computer. That said, it is class-compliant, meaning that you won’t need to install a driver on your computer to use it. Once I replaced a driver that conflicted with it, my Mac’s Audio MIDI Setup recognized the LinnStrument immediately and I could use it to play any instrument in Logic Pro and other hosts.

PICK ME UP AND PLAY ME

Slightly less than two feet long and about an inch thick, the LinnStrument is a sturdy but lightweight metal box with two rounded cherry wood sides and a silicone rubber touch surface (see Figure 1). The translucent touch surface is an 8x25 grid of slightly raised 0.75" squares, each triggering a single note. Connections for USB, MIDI In and Out, a dual footswitch, and an optional power supply (it is usually USB powered) are located at one end. It comes with four strap pins you can screw into both ends to add a guitar strap, and I enjoyed playing it like a guitar. Eight backlit buttons on the left side access functions such as recalling presets, shifting octaves, and editing parameters.

Each trigger pad is backlit by an LED that lets you choose from six colors for all the notes in a selected key, with “accent” notes and every note you play illuminated in two other colors. The accent note is normally the root in a major scale (C major is the default), but you can change it for playing in natural modes. Instead of an LCD display, the LinnStrument displays alphanumeric data in the arrangement of backlit pads. For example, pressing the Preset button arranges the LEDs in the shape of the preset number.

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Adjacent pads in a row are tuned chromatically, like keys on a keyboard. Pads in a column are tuned in fourths by default, so that the pad above another plays a fourth higher, like on a bass guitar. As you’re learning to play, in fact, it helps to think of each row as a string, which gives guitarists a leg up. If you’re a violin or ukulele player, though, you can change the default to a fifth or whatever interval you’d prefer.

It’s also helpful to think of fingering patterns as shapes. On the LinnStrument, you normally play chords with your fingers spread diagonally or in a triangle. You can play one-octave scales without reaching more than four pads in any direction. All chords, scales, and melodies are the same shape in every key and every octave, so that once you’ve mastered one position, you’ve mastered the entire touch pad.

Control vibrato naturally, as you would on acoustic instruments, by wiggling your finger from left to right on the x-axis. Playing a note and then sliding your finger left or right across other trigger pads applies pitch bend. By default, moving your fingertip forward and back on the y-axis sends MIDI CC 74, but you can change it to whatever message you choose. Unlike with the x-axis, however, sliding to the pad above or below triggers an altogether different note, limiting your range of y-axis expressivity to about two-thirds of an inch.

You can split the LinnStrument so that the touch surface’s two halves have independent parameter values (including colors) and MIDI channels, allowing you to play two instruments simultaneously. With splits enabled, you can enter Strum mode, hold a chord on the left side, and strum the pads on the right side to play that chord as you would on a guitar.

The onboard arpeggiator is pretty standard, but the Replay All option repeats any chord you hold and varies its velocity depending on the pressure you apply—very cool. Speaking of pressure, the LinnStrument supports polyphonic aftertouch as well as standard channel aftertouch.

The LinnStrument has three MIDI modes: One Channel, Channel Per Note, and Channel Per Row. If Channel Per Row is enabled, you can bend pitch polyphonically, even sliding in opposite directions. If you’ve ever played a MIDI guitar with a different channel assigned to each string, that’s what Channel Per Row is like.

Fig. 2. In this rendering, the note layout is shown (in this case, the rows are tuned in 4ths). To edit LinnStrument parameters, hold down a button on the left and press the pad that corresponds to the function printed above or below each column. To change MIDI modes, for example, hold the Per-Split Setting button (on the top left) and press one of the top three pads in the first column. Edit all functions using a combination of buttons and pads. Just press a button and then press the pad that corresponds with the function listed above and below the first 16 columns (see Figure 2). That’s how you specify accent notes, transpose pitch, change MIDI channels and modes, and perform dozens of other functions. With so many options, I found this process cumbersome, though, and I’d prefer using an editor on my computer. I also wish a manual were available as at least a PDF rather than a website without a search function.

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COMPARED TO WHAT?

Because I’ve been learning to play the Haken Continuum, I was especially curious about how the LinnStrument differs. The Continuum is a self-contained digital instrument, but it also works well as a MIDI controller. It’s laid out in a linear fashion, like a keyboard or ribbon controller, with a neoprene touch surface that also responds in three dimensions. The Continuum allows a much wider range of expression than the LinnStrument on all three axes, but it’s harder to play accurately because it has a flat surface with no physical pitch reference.

The best metaphor I can think of is that the LinnStrument is like an 8-string fretted guitar and the Continuum like a single-string fretless guitar, though the Continuum’s rounding feature improves its pitch accuracy. I get the feeling that the LinnStrument would be much easier to master, but with enough practice, the Continuum is capable of greater nuance. Another consideration: the LinnStrument costs less than half as much as the least expensive Continuum.

On the LinnStrument, pressing or rocking your fingertip on a pad moves it an almost imperceptible amount. It’s a huge improvement over playing a synth on your smartphone’s glassy display, but less sensuously satisfying than playing most physical instruments. Nonetheless, if you have a newer iPad or iPhone and a Lightning-to-USB interface, it’s the ideal strap-on controller for iOS instruments, because your iOS device supplies enough juice to power the LinnStrument in low-power mode.

Mac users can download a Logic Pro template with pre-assigned software instruments, which is great for getting started. I also enjoyed using the LinnStrument with Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 (playing multitimbrally) on a Mac Pro, a Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2 connected via the MIDI jacks, and KV331 Audio SynthMaster Player running on my 4th-generation iPad. (Because iPads with 25-pin connectors don’t supply enough power, I used an iConnectMIDI4+ to connect them.)

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YOU’RE IN CONTROL

If you’re tempted to enter the world of polyphonic multidimensional controllers, the LinnStrument could be just the gateway you’re looking for. It’s extremely well thought out and offers much deeper features than I have room to explain. Because of its unusual layout, I found myself playing parts I never would have thought of on keys or guitar. A LinnStrument performance is visually stunning, too, because the LED colors respond to your playing and could enhance your stage presence. And the ability to change the defaults, as well as dig deeper with its open source software, lets you customize it to your heart’s content.

Best of all, it’s relatively easy to learn to play, especially if you know your way around fretted instruments. It costs less than other PMCs, its capabilities are deep, and it delivers everything it promises. If you’ve ever felt stifled by the expressive limitations of MIDI keyboards, get your hands on a LinnStrument.

STRENGTHS
Easy to learn. Lightweight, durable, and well designed. Opensource software. Customizable. Can be powered by newer iPads or iPhones. Allows multitimbral playing.

LIMITATIONS
Shallow y-axis control. Web-based user’s manual. Computer software could make editing easier.

$1,499 street
rogerlinndesign.com

About the Inventor

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You may already know that Roger Linn is an innovative instrument designer whose groundbreaking Linn LM-1 Drum Computer and subsequent LinnDrum had an undeniable impact on the music we all heard in the ’80s. The LM-1 is widely acknowledged as the first drum machine to play back digital samples recorded from acoustic drums, and both instruments are prized collectors’ items today. Linn’s later inventions include three generations of the AdrenaLinn effects processor, and he co-designed Dave Smith Instruments’ Tempest and Akai’s MPC60 and MPC3000. But did you know he also co-wrote Eric Clapton’s “Promises” and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Quittin’ Time” and toured as Leon Russell’s guitarist in the 1970s?

Freelance writer, synthesist, and former Electronic Musician senior editor Geary Yelton just returned from a five-week tour of U.S. national parks.