The British company Roli won the London design museum’s “Designs of the Year” award for its Seaboard Grand keyboard already back in 2014. True to its mission to create “new music-making devices for the digital age,” Roli recently launched a new product, Blocks, with which “everyone can make music”. The central Lightpad Block is controlled by striking, pressing or sliding the pressure-responsive silicone surface covering its LED grid. Each of these finger actions has a different function in generating and modulating sounds. Blocks is powered by the iOS app Noise.fm, which is where the various sounds are stored and where loops and songs can be recorded. Anyone who prefers not to control these functions via the app can extend the Lightpad Block by a Loop and Live Block and so assemble their very own music studio wherever they happen to be. Thanks to the software Blocks Dashboard, Blocks can also be used as a MIDI controller with standard digital audio workstation software like Ableton Live or Garageband.
The Stockholm-based electronics company Teenage Engineering first launched its palm-sized, battery-driven Pocket Operator in 2015. The many models now available range from a drum machine and a deep bassline synthesizer to a lead synthesizer, all with sequencer. The only exception to the reductive, component-style look of the Pocket Operators are the graphic elements. Actuating the keys and two potentiometers on the blank board has the effect of bringing to life the illustrations on the display (which also serves to conceal the processor, the digital-to-analogue converter, and the loudspeaker). The screen of the PO-32 Tonic, the latest addition to the Pocket Operator series, shows an old man at a bar, enjoying a little bottle of tonic that has the effect of transforming him into a drummer. The sixteen pre-stored sounds can be programmed into so-called patterns which in turn can be sequenced. One special feature of the PO-32 Tonic is the wireless data transfer option that allows sounds to be transferred via a microphone onto the Pocket Operator. The repertoire of pre-stored sounds can thus be enlarged with self-generated audio material.
Cell Music Gear
Unlike other devices that work with tactile surfaces, the MIDI controller Cell Music Gear (CMG) can actually be hacked by its users. What this means in practice is that the 3D touch sensors and LEDs under the surface can be programmed as desired. The CMG is more than just a universal instrument, therefore, since it also gives musicians complete freedom to control it as they wish. In addition to a serial communication interface for programming, it also has a MIDI interface to link it to digital audio workstation software installed on a computer. CMG was developed jointly by the instrument designer Yoshihito Nakanishi and the sensor manufacturer Touchence. It can be pressed or stroked by the fingers alone, but also responds to the touch of the whole hand. The five buttons provided allow the user to switch between modes or tracks.
Pavel Golovkin is active both as an industrial designer and as a musician. That he should want to develop his own pocket-sized synthesizer is therefore only natural. The result is the Zont, which together with its various sound cartridges should be on the shelves by 2018. We talked to Golovkin about what makes his synthesizer so special and about future developments in the music industry.
What makes your design different from all the others?
As a creator I understand how important it is to have an environment and instruments which inspire you and force you to be creative with a great design and great functionality. My approach to design is to avoid useless decoration and pay attention to the user’s sensations when interacting with the product. It’s crucial to find the right proportions and materials to make the object look friendly and attractive. Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators are adorable and they did a great job at creating a unique instrument; but they are still in the toy zone. My challenge is to develop a more advanced and professional instrument, but keeping the pocket-sized format.
How do you think Zont will change music-making?
The ultimate goal is to create a new niche on the synthesizer market and to give professional musicians a new instrument to make great music with modern functionality. I’m exploring new modes of interaction and connectivity. Everything is synchronised nowadays, so why don’t we add Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to our synthesizers? I’m planning to create more products under the Zont brand in the future, both software and hardware.
What do you think does the future of music look like?
We will definitely see more companies like Roli and Artiphon, which I think is fantastic, and music production will become a 100-per cent digital environment. But what is never going to happen is AI technologies in music-making.