30th Anniversary Special: Roger Linn on MIDI Instrument Design

Examining the Cultural Impact of Controller Innovation
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This article is part of Electronic Musician's special 30th Anniversary issue. To read more commemorative content, visit www.emusician.com/30thAnniversary.

During our chat about Polyphonic Multidimensional Controllers for our special anniversary-issue roundtable feature on Expressive MIDI, Roger Linn gave me his take on the larger cultural issues surrounding electronic instrument interfaces and how they’ve shaped modern music. It’s no surprise that Linn has very solid opinions on the subject, considering he invented two of the most influential interfaces in popular music: the modern sample-based drum machine and the MPC-style pad interface.

Are musicians more likely to accept nontraditional and alternative controllers at this point because so many people have grown up using button-and-pad controllers rather than standard keyboards?

I think so. The trend has been away from playing individual notes and moving up toward a higher level of abstraction. I call this object-oriented composition, or OOC. Instead of playing all the notes yourself, you just take a loop from here, a sequence from here, a drum beat from there, and you combine them together. The same thing happens in visual arts with found objects, montage, and collage, where people take things and put them together, focusing more on concept than craft, with the creativity being in the arrangement of the existing objects.

One thing I hear a lot from these object-oriented musicians is that they become frustrated with the limited level of malleability of the objects. For example, if you grab a loop from an old recording that has a two-bar phrase of electric piano in a minor key, you can’t change it into a major key or a different instrument sound, or certainly into different notes. You just have to take the things that are available, and that’s your only choice. And though there are lots of loops available from a century of recordings, it doesn’t mean you will find the loop that you want for the music you are trying to create.

So I think that many controllerists would like to develop more skills in playing notes, chords, and melodies, but have been turned off by the complexities of learning acoustic instruments or the lack of expression in the on/off switches of MIDI keyboards. The human-optimized interfaces and greater expressiveness of the new electronic music controllers like the Continuum, Seaboard, LinnStrument and others provide a very compelling alternative.

How has this object oriented composition affected popular music overall?

There’s an interesting phenomenon in electronically generated pop music today: In large part, there are no instrumental solos. Years ago, every pop record had an instrumental solo—if it was a rock record, there was a guitar solo; country records had a violin or pedal-steel solo; and jazz records often a sax solo.

I think this lack of instrumental solos is in part because there are no electronic instrumental soloists that are widely perceived as great artists by the culture. Can you name any? I’m not talking about DJs or controllerists who very cleverly arrange loops and sequences, but rather instrumental soloists who excel at compelling and expressive arrangements of notes, chords and melodies. I think this is in part because the primary human interface to electronically generated music is a MIDI keyboard, which is essentially an array of on/off switches, and it’s difficult to create a great solo performance with on/off switches.

The above said, there is evidence that people appreciate an expressive melody because recordings of very talented and expressive singers are still popular. This suggests that virtuosic instrumental solo performances would also be popular if performed on instruments that possessed the expressive qualities of the human voice instead of the on/off switches of MIDI keyboards.

What will change as a result of the increased availability and affordability of electronic controllers offering greater expressivity?

For the first time in history, instrument controllers have human interfaces that are optimized for the human hand. Now, you can optimize the sound generator for the sound you want, and optimize the interface for the player.

It’s difficult to explain in words, but once a MIDI keyboard player spends some time with a Seaboard or Continuum or LinnStrument or Eigenharp or SoundPlane and finally sees what he’s been missing for years, he simply can’t go back to playing on/off switches. He finally realizes how useless his old bend and mod wheels were compared to intuitively wiggling a note to vibrato it, or sliding his finger between notes to bend pitch. He realizes how monotonous an envelope generator is compared to performing each note’s envelope uniquely by varying finger pressure. Imagine telling a guitarist that he must play a guitar without any vibrato or string bends, or telling a sax player that he must hold the exact same wind pressure without change for the duration of each note?

So how will it change things? For most musicians, probably not at all because most people don’t see the future. But a handful of talented, forward-thinking musicians will see the great opportunity that these new instruments provide and develop virtuosic skills on one of them. And I think they will become the instrumental virtuosos of the new electronic music era.