lovehate: The Eigenharp - Tapping, Strumming, Blowing!

At a cost of 4000 pounds ($6400 US) the Eigenharp is a musical behemoth is appropriately synthesized and touch responsive. It's got pressure-sensitive keys all over the place and ribbon controllers along with drum pads and other assorted noise makers that can be controlled through tapping, strumming or blowing.

Let me preface my quick review, admittedly based on the thin sample of the video at the above link, with the fact that I've been a piano player since age five, a guitar player since age twelve, and a sax player since age thirteen. This thing looks like a giant clusterfrak of a musical instrument surgery gone wrong.

I played synthesizers for years and while I originally loved the concept of the emulation that a synth provided, especially in its samples of other instruments, I grew to despise synths for trying to simulate organic sounds. I don't mind synths pulling off a fat square wave or a edgy sine swoop, but I now bristle at the sounds of sax or guitar coming out.

I understand that, in some cases, cost may be prohibitive for a young musician trying to express creativity. This overblown Casio beatbox funmaker is certainly a musical instrument, certainly requires talent, certainly facilitates a specific type of expression. If I can afford this thing, I could also certainly afford a saxophone, a grand piano, a bassoon, a guitar or a drum kit.

It's said that one of the reasons the creators conceived of such an instrument was to cut down on the massive amounts of gear they'd have to bring out to each show in order to play... here's an idea - buy a guitar and a pick and hit the local coffeeshop! I'd much rather hear a lone sax player who knows how to play sax, than a lone eigenharp player who knows how to play a sax sound on his eigenharp.

I'm sure there will be some people who love this and claim I'm some sort of musical Luddite for chastising what some news outlets will report as the future of musical instruments. Another thought from the linked article is that it looks like something from the Star Wars cantina scene. I suppose I would've happier if this was left a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Kudos to the creators for living their dream in executing the creation of this mutation. Their determination must have been dogged to complete the project. For 6000 bucks, however, I'd rather buy a new piano that sounds like [GASP] a piano.

lovehate: Auto-accompaniment and the Failures of Simulation

I've been playing piano since I was five and, while there have been short periods when performing music has fallen out of my interests, I have almost always had an appreciation for a completely live performance. Such a performance can include anything from a single instrument and voice all they way up to a full orchestra.

I remember playing as a teenager in the 80s-drenched synth-oriented dance pop that pervaded the charts. I remember even buying into the concept of a synthesizer or two but hated the concept of the dreaded sequencers and samplers that would allow even the most inept players to spout forth with "cool" sounding patterns and loops. I could tolerate the idea of a synthesizer making sounds that were unique to the instrument itself and not trying to generate something else. With the persistent adoption of drum machines and string patches and horn sections and poorly-modelled electric pianos, I retreated further into a state that I considered a bit of musical elitism: a piano sound should come from a piano, a drum sound should come from a drum, and a bass guitar sound should come from a bass guitar.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the attraction of simulation. I have recorded songs where I've used a keyboard to create multiple music tracks, but always, in my head at least, the exercise was just that - an exercise. Call me old-fashioned when it comes to music, but I believe there should be something organic to musical sound. And this from a guy who grew up idolizing Keith Emerson and his endlessly-tweakable envelope filters.

As I grew older, I developed a certain tolerance for auto-accompaniment, but always with a sense of kitsch. The idea of the cheesy home organ with beat generator and portamento was to being smiled at and laughed with instead of laughed at. I am willing to listen to someone satrize a traditionally serious song by giving it the Wurlitzer treatment.

And it was with all this derision that I shook my head in disbelief when I learned of Microsoft's Songsmith software during CES last month. While this product's limitations have been shown to glorious and humorous effect by copying the vocal lines of past hits into its engine and watching the generic "reggae" or "soft rock" accompaniment get triggered, could anyone have really expected anything different... you know what? I was exepecting better.

While I believe the concept abhorrent and completely against all of my sensibilities about music, I fully expect that the technology is not out of reach to mesh anyone's random vocalizing with a very solid sounding accompaniment. I anticipate that no matter how bad someone sings, the software's engine should, on the fly, fix any out of tune notes and quantize the rhythmless until they sound inoffensive. I expect that music AI has advanced far enough that realistic-sounding instruments can be modelled in real time to sound at least as good as many of the mediocre ballads that are in the top ten of most pop music charts.

I expect we're on that threshold and, while it should scare the hell out of me, I've discovered I really don't care because if some out-of-tune arhythmic cellar dweller can one day sell a million copies of a song they produced in their basement, and maybe flip the RIAA and the Big Four the finger while doing so, I'll buy a cake and with wry, smiling dismay blow out the last candle on musical integrity.