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Several Weeks with the LinnStrument: a Report



Roger Linn’s latest instrument is a very expressive MPE controller guaranteed make your synths sing

The LinnStrument is a sure cure for the static synth part. It’s named after its designer, Roger Linn of LinnDrum fame. This instrument is in its own category, a very expressive “alternative” MIDI controller, actually a MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) controller.

That means each note you play sends control messages independently, because each one is on a separate MIDI channel. You can program what messages get sent, and the LinnStrument senses attack and release velocity, pressure, left/right and forward/back movement.

It’s a very clever and expressive controller, and this story is about my impressions after living with it for a few weeks.

LinnStrument overview. The LinnStrument’s playing surface consists of horizontal rows of notes arranged in half steps on a rubber grid of 3/4″ raised squares (or the lines between them are indented, take your pick). The model we tried out has an 8×16 pad grid (128 pads), and there’s also a larger version with 200.

You’ll see the word “default” a lot here, which says that the instrument can be customized in all kinds of ways.

Case in point: the instrument defaults to each row being tuned a 4th higher than the one below it, like the bottom four strings of a guitar or bass. You can also set a split point to divide the playing surface into two, which among other possibilities means you can play two of the same note on different MIDI channels. (Or not – it defaults to sending everything on MIDI Channel 1.)

But it doesn’t have to be in Split mode to play multiples of the same note. That’s innate to MPE, and also to any stringed instrument – the same pitches can be in more than one position, and you can play them both on this instrument. As Roger points out, piano keyboards only have one of each note.

To find your way around, the pads light up in different colors. By default – that D-word again – all the Cs light up blue, and the “white notes” are green. Also, there are little raised bumps under every C for orientation. 

Left/right movement sends pitchbend, and normally forward/back movement changes the timbre and pressure varies the volume (and possibly expression as well). Velocity and release velocity do what you’d expect – affect the attack level and release envelope.

To adjust settings, you push buttons on the left and the playing surface turns into a matrix with parameters screened on the surface. This is totally intuitive, and in general the software is very well thought through. While it might be hard to see the small printed writing to make adjustments in a dark club, “emergency” functions like Panic – all notes off – are in obvious places (the bottom button and bottom right pad in this case).

The LinnStrument gets power and sends MIDI from its USB port, but it has regular 5-pin DIN MIDI as well. There are quite a few other features built into the LinnStrument, including pedal inputs, internal step sequencers, a strum mode, and a tap tempo function. It also has screw holes for a shoulder strap.

Just for runaway professionalism, the lights can form written messages, of course upside down so you can tilt the instrument to entertain your audience.

With over 4200 LinnStruments in the wild (as per the LinnStrument site), this is an established instrument. And if you check out THIS VIDEO (and others here), you’ll see that there are a lot of very skilled musicians who play the holy heck out of it.

Layout. The familiar piano keyboard layout was designed for the harpsichords and other instruments around in the Middle Ages, when all the notes had to be in a single line in front of the strings. Roger decided there’s no reason to be constrained that way on a redesigned controller.

Beside the small physical size, the first advantage to this symmetrical layout is just that: it’s symmetrical, so the same “shapes” apply to every key and transposing is a non-issue. It’s also easier to glide from one note to the other than on a regular keyboard. And you can play multiples of the same note.

Ableton Push, Roli LightPad Block, and various iPad apps are examples the LinnStrument site lists of other instruments that use this key layout.

Now, the flip side is that many of us musicians learned to see a piano keyboard in our mind’s eye when we think about music. An analogy: the QWERTY keyboard layout is weird, in fact it was reportedly designed to slow down typesetters so they didn’t make mistakes. And yet lots of people (me included) have learned to type very fast on it by touch, so switching to the more sensible Dvorak layout wouldn’t hold any advantage.

But all analogies break down. The LinnStrument layout is likely to be intuitive for string instrument players, and a lot of keyboardists play it. Furthermore, the video linked above proves that lots of musicians play it at a virtuoso level, and it certainly does make a lot of sense. 

My experience. I used the LinnStrument mainly with the free SurgeXT softsynth.

It has a bank of LinnStrument MPE patches ready to go, and it’s well worth downloading to play with other controllers too.

My favorite SurgeXT LinnStrument patches are in the Winds category, mainly because they use the controller’s expressive capabilities so well. You really can make the instruments sing very easily using pressure, and it’s extremely satisfying having so much control.

The Linnstrument made me realize how crude the aftertouch on my keyboard controller is by comparison. It’s one of those things you didn’t know you missed.

The same applies to using finger wiggles for vibrato and pitchbend. Would everyone find it as intuitive as I did? I don’t see why not, and not just those amongst us accustomed to using a ribbon controller (or string players).

So right off the bat I was able to get the instrument/synth/patch combination to phrase the way I wanted it to. And with my keyboard quasi-player skills, I was able to play fast passages right away – as long as I didn’t have to reposition my hands very much. Being able to hold some notes and modulate others is also very satisfying.

According to Roger, a lot of LinnStrument players are keyboardists who put it above their keyboards to use for expressive soloing. And once again, you’d expect it to be a natural for guitarists, because they know where all the notes are without thinking.

(This video shows virtuoso keyboardist Jordan Rudess’ first look at the LinnStrument. He also plays guitar, and you’ve probably seen many of his extraordinary music tech product demos.)

For me personally, it’s knowing where all the notes are that would take some practice before becoming second nature. To be sure there are some patterns that are obvious from the beginning. That would include, say, pentatonic scales, or really any series of notes you place under your fingers in advance – especially your thumb and first three fingers.

Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of thinking to play patterns you’ve figured out. For example, once you see that a diminished chord (i.e. a series of minor thirds) just moves up the playing surface like a knight moves on a chessboard, it’s embedded in your brain. And of course there’s something to be said for anything that makes your fingers find new things they wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.

But I, and I’m guessing most people with some traditional keyboard skills, have developed no-brainer muscle memory for where notes are. Playing, say, an Eb triad in any inversion is automatic.

That didn’t translate immediately to the LinnStrument. And I have to say that while the notes are sized to fit nicely under the fingers, every musician in the performance video is looking at the playing surface while he or she plays.

So to summarize: the LinnStrument is an amazingly capable controller that’s very satisfying to play. For me it’s a combination of instant gratification and, well, not quite that. But you have to suspect that that’s highly individual, and any time you spend becoming good at the LinnStrument is bound to pay off many times more than you put into it.

Finally, respect. You have to admire the spirit of innovation, the design, the quality, and how much thought went into the LinnStrument. There’s nothing wrong with loops and preset patterns, but how can one not root for an instrument that inspires musicians to play musically.

Click here for the LinnStrument Page

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