Review: Yamaha Tenori-on

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO MOBILE MUSIC PRODUCTIONBONUS MATERIALWhich Side Are You On?
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Although it looks rather like a futuristic Etch A Sketch, the Tenori-on is a bleeding-edge musical performance instrument that combines sample-playback synthesis with real-time step sequencing. With a grid of flashing white buttons for entering notes, this one-of-a-kind device makes it easy for almost anyone to create music, especially if you understand harmony and song structure. The compact Tenori-on is powered by an included AC adapter or six AA batteries, making it completely portable.

The Tenori-on was designed by Toshio Iwai, a Japanese media artist, musician, and inventor who collaborated with Yamaha's Yu Nishibori in its development. Perhaps best known for originating the video game Electroplankton for the Nintendo DS, Iwai has produced interactive art installations and served as artist in residence for institutions throughout Japan, Europe, and the United States.

After a period of test-marketing in the U.K., Yamaha will begin selling the Tenori-on in the United States. (That should happen by the time you read this.) The company will make it available in very limited numbers only at tenori-on-tour.com. I consider myself lucky to have acquired one for review before its U.S. debut, and it's been my nearly constant companion for ten days.

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FIG. 1: The Tenori-on looks and functions like no other MIDI instrument. Each of the 256 LED buttons on its surface doubles as a note-entry point and an element in a dynamic light show.

YOUR OWN PERSONAL LIGHT SHOW

The Tenori-on's 8-inch-square magnesium frame surrounds a 16 × 16 grid of 256 LED buttons (see Fig. 1). The entire matrix is simultaneously a multitrack MIDI controller and an eye-catching display. Each button is a data-entry point for determining pitch, changing programs (which Yamaha calls Voices), and altering other parameters, as well as a sort of virtual pixel that can dynamically glow three levels of white. All 256 LED buttons are replicated on the opposite side; the grid is identical on the front and rear, but they function only as lights on the rear. Five buttons on each side of the frame, held while pressing the LED buttons, let you select timbres and parts, adjust levels, change loop length and tempo, transpose octaves, and control other performance functions.

Whenever a note plays, its corresponding LED button lights up for its duration. Playing a sequence, then, results in cascades of flashing lights, which add a lot to the instrument's visual appeal (see Web Clip 1). During use, you can set the Tenori-on on a table or other flat surface, hold it in your lap (my preference), or grasp it in both hands so that your audience sees the same light show that you do. When you hold it in your hands, the five buttons on each side — labeled L1 through L5 and R1 through R5 — are comfortably positioned under your thumbs.

The frame's lower segment contains a data jog wheel, a perpetually backlit LCD, and two buttons labeled OK and Cancel (see Fig. 2). The jog wheel affects whatever appears in the LCD and turns easily with your left thumb. On the frame's top segment are two small speakers and the Clear button, which deletes anything you've entered into the currently displayed grid. The power switch is on the bottom segment's opposite side, and three jacks for audio, power, and MIDI are on the bottom edge. To keep the jacks small, a mini DIN jack connects to a 23-inch breakout cable with MIDI In and Out ports on the opposite end.

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FIG. 2: You control transport functions and access menus in the Tenori-on''s LCD using just two buttons and a jog wheel.

TENORI-ON, TUNE IN, DROP OUT

Understanding Layers, Blocks, and Modes is essential to using the Tenori-on. Layers are parts in a performance; most sequencers call them tracks. You can change each Layer's Voice and other parameters such as volume, panning, and length. A Block is a sequence containing up to 16 steps and 16 Layers. The Tenori-on's memory can hold 16 Blocks at a time. To switch Layers, hold the R1 button and press an LED button in the row corresponding to the Layer you want. Likewise, to switch Blocks, hold R5 and press an LED button in a column corresponding to the Block you want.

Modes are techniques for programming sequences; six Modes are available. The Tenori-on devotes 7 of its 16 Layers to Score Mode, 4 to Random Mode, 2 to Draw Mode, 1 to Bounce Mode, 1 to Push Mode, and 1 to Solo Mode. You can't change a Layer's Mode; if you'd rather program entirely in Score Mode, you're limited to seven Layers.

The Tenori-on starts up in Score Mode. The flashing grid scrolls from left to right and then loops at the default tempo (75 bpm). Pressing the OK button stops and starts playback. Horizontally, buttons represent individual steps in a 16-step sequence, and vertically, they represent 16 pitches. By default, they play a major scale (from C3 to D5), but you can globally change their transposition and octave and select from eight diatonic modes, a chromatic scale, or a pentatonic Okinawan scale (C-E-F-G-B-C). You can also shorten the sequence length to as few steps as one.

Score Mode should be familiar to anyone who's ever programmed a drum machine. Each row is a pitch, and each column is a step. Pressing an LED button plays its note, and holding it assigns that note to your sequence. Holding it again deactivates it. When a note plays, the surrounding buttons flash along with it. You can enter as many notes as you'd like into each column to create chords. All notes are of equal duration — a serious limitation, because you can't enter patterns in which some steps are 16th notes, for example, and others are quarter notes.

In Random Mode, holding an LED button causes a note to repeat every time a step plays until you press a second button. Then you'll see all the buttons between them light up until they reach the second button, which plays a note and then bounces back to the first (see Web Clip 2). Pressing more buttons adds new notes, which play back in the order you enter them.

In Draw Mode, you can press LED buttons or use your fingertip to draw lines and curves that become repeating note patterns. Patterns play in the same rhythm you enter them, without regard to step duration, except that no note is longer than one step. Continuing to draw adds to the pattern, but you can't erase additional parts in the same Layer; pressing Clear makes the entire pattern disappear.

In Bounce, Push, and Solo Modes, pitch is arranged in columns, ascending from left to right. When you press an LED button in Bounce Mode, a note drops from that button and bounces back repeatedly when it reaches the bottom row. The distance from the button to the bottom determines the note's rate of repetition. Pressing the bottom LED cancels that note.

When you press and hold an LED button in Push Mode, it plays a note whose sound changes continuously, and the LEDs surrounding it flash in a repeating pattern. Push Mode works best with sustaining sounds.

Solo Mode lets you change a note's duration in response to how long you hold its LED button. It resembles Bounce Mode in that the row determines its rate of repetition. If you don't want notes to repeat, play only the lowest row.

When you leave the Tenori-on idle, its Interior Mode begins playing its onboard demo or a song you've stored in memory, or its grid begins flashing the time (in 24-hour format), or both. It can chime on the hour and even function as an alarm clock if you'd like. Such tricks quickly become tiresome, though, and a Power Save function turns off the LED buttons after whatever period of inactivity you specify.

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FIG. 3: A simple computer application lets you organize WAV and AIFF files into multisamples you can export to the Tenori-on.

UTILITY CLOSET

The Tenori-on's operating system is not especially complex and should become second nature as you gain experience. However, with only two buttons to access its menu structure, performing utility functions can be tedious and unintuitive. Pressing the Cancel button enters the main menu, and pressing the OK button selects menu items and drills deeper into the menu hierarchy.

I had to sift through the manual to find out how to perform basic operations such as saving my work to a Secure Digital (SD) card (which is not included). Even then, it took a while to grasp exactly what I needed to save and which menu to use. In the File menu, you can choose to save All Blocks, the Current Block, the Current Layer, or All Settings. Saving All Settings, oddly enough, doesn't save note data — only Voice assignments, tempo, and other parameter values.

To actually save your sequences, you need to choose Save All Blocks. Unfortunately (and surprisingly), you can't simply save to the same file; instead, you have to laboriously enter the entire file name and confirm that you want to replace the previous file bearing the same name each time you save. To make matters worse, entering text is like something from the early '80s — without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that my Timex watch has more-sophisticated text entry. I hope Yamaha soon offers a firmware update that simplifies this unnecessarily complex procedure.

TIMBRAL PALETTE

Taken as a whole, the Tenori-on's collection of factory Voices has a gentle, pastel quality. In addition to purely electronic timbres, the focus is on organs, pianos, tuned and untuned percussion, harp, bells, staccato and pizzicato strings, and staccato woodwinds. Although you could rock out with some of the drum sounds, I wouldn't describe any of the timbres as harsh, aggressive, or funky. Consequently, the instrument is probably more appropriate for ambient, down-tempo, or experimental music than for rock, funk, jazz, or dance music, unless you want to add pastel elements to those genres. Most lacking are aggressive basses, and there's a complete absence of sound effects, guitars, vocals, and world instruments. Then again, the Tenori-on's limited palette is part of what gives it such a recognizable character.

Keep in mind, too, that the Tenori-on works just fine as a unique MIDI controller. You can easily expand the range of sounds at your disposal by connecting it to another hardware synth or using it to control software instruments.

Most of the onboard samples are short, and by default, that's how they play. You can increase note length to nearly 10 seconds, but the length applies to every note in that Layer unless its Voice has been programmed with a short decay. The Tenori-on doesn't offer access to individual Voice parameters such as envelope generators.

Voices appear to be organized in a haphazard fashion. With a 16 × 16 grid available, it should have been easy for Yamaha to organize Voices by type, which would certainly speed things up when you're searching for just the right sound. Luckily, you'll find a Voice List near the back of the 123-page PDF manual.

The Tenori-on works only in MIDI Mode 3 (Omni Off, Poly), making it easy to use with a computer-based sequencer and an external MIDI controller. A quick glance at the manual's MIDI Implementation chart confirms that the Tenori-on responds to Velocity but not Aftertouch. It transmits and receives Program Change, Bank Select, Volume, SysEx, Clock, and a few other MIDI messages, but it doesn't respond to Pitch Bend, Modulation Wheel, or most other Control Change messages. It sends a fixed Velocity value of 100.

Bundled with the Tenori-on is a bare-bones application called Tenori-on User Voice Manager (Mac/Win), which allows you to import three multisamples of your own (see Fig. 3). You can load as many as 16 individual WAV or AIFF files at a time, each with a maximum length of just under 1 second. After you drag-and-drop your samples into the window, clicking on the Make User Voice button converts them to the Tenori-on's native TNW format, but you need an SD card reader for your computer to transfer samples to the Tenori-on. It would be more convenient if you could transfer user Voices via MIDI, as you could with many samplers 20 years ago.

STUDIO TOOL OR POSH TOY?

You could easily argue that the Tenori-on is not suitable for professional music production. It has no filters, LFOs, envelope generators, nor any of the user-programmable parameters you'd expect in a real synthesizer. It has only one oscillator per voice, and it provides no access to its sound engine other than the ability to import user samples. In some ways, its sequencing capabilities are rudimentary; in most Modes, you can't even vary individual note length or Velocity. On the other hand, the Tenori-on offers sequencing techniques you won't find anywhere else.

Would I consider buying a Tenori-on? Despite its limitations and some aggravating quirks, the answer is absolutely yes. It's a great catalyst for creativity that forces me to work outside of my usual compositional framework. It has a very strong personality that suggests musical directions I would never explore on my own. And its portable nature makes it a pleasant traveling companion: I'd be grateful to have one while killing time in an airport, relaxing on a beach, or even waiting out a rainstorm in my tent.

I have no doubt that soon you'll be hearing the Tenori-on in television commercials, movie soundtracks, and the music of a wide range of artists — not to mention in parks, schools, and other public places. It simplifies and democratizes composition in new and exciting ways, and most of the time, it sounds quite good. It also points the way toward future, more-sophisticated instruments based on its design, which I hope Yamaha continues to develop with pro musicians in mind. In the meantime, if the company can bring down the cost of the Tenori-on and its future offspring, it may have produced its biggest hit since the DX7.

EM senior editor Geary Yelton has been using synths and sequencers for about as long as Yamaha has been making them.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

sample player/sequencer$1,199

PROS: Creatively stimulating. Very portable. Unique note-entry methods. High fun factor. Imports user samples. Sounds pretty.

CONS: Limited timbral palette. Minimal synthesis parameters. Doesn't respond to Pitch Bend or Modulation Wheel. Can't mix different step durations. Some tedious utility functions.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Yamaha
tenori-on-tour.com

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