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ContinuuCon 2024: A View From the Inside



Do you get in the mood for MIDI Polyphonic Expression?

ContinuuCon began in 2016 as a conference for Haken Continuum Fingerboard players and programmers. Since then, the event has grown into a gathering for users of any musical instrument based on the EaganMatrix, a digital modular synthesis engine with an Analog Devices SHARC processor at its core.

In addition to the Continuum , these instruments include Haken Audio’s ContinuuMini and EaganMatrix Module for Eurorack, as well as the Osmose keyboard synthesizer from Expressive E.

The conference is usually held every spring, alternating locations between the United States and Europe.

I describe the Continuum as a “fretless keyboard” with a flat, supple, neoprene playing surface instead of keys, resembling a big, squishy ribbon controller. Like a steel guitar or trombone, it’s a continuous-pitch instrument that allows the player to glide easily between notes, and it’s sensitive to the slightest touch. It generates high-resolution musical data in response to where your fingers make contact from left to right (the x-axis), from front to back (the y-axis), and how hard or fast you press the surface (the z-axis).

Because the Continuum responds to each finger separately, you can control vibrato, loudness, and other parameters to shape each note independently and in real time. Many players say it feels like playing an acoustic instrument and, like any serious instrument, requires dedicated practice to master.

Every year, EaganMatrix enthusiasts from all over the world attend ContinuuCon. This year’s event was at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library near Pittsburgh.

In development since 1983, the Continuum was the first commercial multidimensional polyphonic controller, one that eventually gave rise to other MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) controllers such as the Linnstrument and Roli Seaboard. Although the four current EaganMatrix instruments adhere to the MPE specification, they exceed it in numerous ways.

In the beginning

In 2015, three of the four members of my Asheville-based electronic music ensemble Waveformation each owned and played a Continuum Fingerboard. Someone suggested that we organize a music festival focusing on the instrument. We contacted its inventor, Professor Lippold Haken of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and he suggested we call it a conference rather than a festival because it would be taken more seriously by academia.

The four of us, along with Lippold and EaganMatrix developer Edmund Eagan, began planning an event in Asheville that came together in June 2016. It was an instant success, drawing Continuum players from Europe and India as well as from all over the U.S.

We organized subsequent conferences at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, at IRCAM in Paris, and in the ancient Portuguese city of Palmela.

From Portugal to Pittsburgh

Because last year’s conference was in Portugal (where our surprise attendee was Indian pop star and film composer A.R. Rahman), 2024 was a year to find a stateside location. Continuum player Russ Hoffmann, who operates Eurorack manufacturer Evaton Technologies, volunteered his hometown of Pittsburgh and took responsibility for making local arrangements. The venue he chose was the Studio Room of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in the Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie.

Russ is known in the greater Pittsburgh area for organizing underground electronic music events. On the night before ContinuuCon began, he scheduled a show dubbed the Continuum Invasion in the Carnegie Library. The public turned out to see numerous regional musicians perform alongside ContinuuCon performers.

ContinuuCon officially began on Friday evening with a four-hour reception in the same location. About two dozen Continuum enthusiasts attended—a smaller group than in previous years, but no less enthusiastic.

As always, ContinuuCon afforded an opportunity for past participants to catch up with friends and make new ones. After refreshments and socializing, Lippold made opening remarks and welcomed everyone to the sixth international Continuum conference in nine years. (The pandemic prevented us from gathering in 2020 through 2022.) He spoke about the current state of the EaganMatrix and what new features users can expect in the near future, including new effects, formulas, macros, and customized user interfaces called Specialty Synths, which have since been renamed EaganMatrix Overlays. (See sidebar at end.)

Ed followed Lippold’s presentation with a discussion of how he originally conceived of the EaganMatrix and demonstrations of EaganMatrix Overlays, focusing on an FM synthesizer called the Ratio Synth. His talk was peppered with tips on programming the EaganMatrix and lots of questions from the audience.

Saturday presentations

Saturday, the first full day of presentations, began with two consecutive talks by film and television composer Josh Madoff. His detailed and informative opening talk, “Counterpoint and Polyphonic Playing on the Continuum,” focused mostly on playing technique. He discussed which keyboard skills are most useful to incorporate into Continuum performance, as well as techniques specific to the Continuum. If you play any MPE instrument, you’re bound to learn something from the video of Josh’s presentation.

Josh also gave the second presentation of the day, a deep dive into the Osmose. He began by pointing out features that make the Osmose unique. As with the Continuum, he dove into performance technique, exploring MPE arpeggiation, glide effects, wavefolding distortion, sensitivity settings, effective vibrato, multiple sustenutos, advanced MIDI control, and similar topics. Any Osmose player would be smart to watch the video of Josh’s demonstration. 

After lunch, the fun continued with Christoph Duquesne’s update on using the EaganMatrix engine for resynthesizing acoustic sounds using spectral analysis and additive synthesis. He demonstrated software he’s developing that analyzes a sound’s spectral content and then defines the individual envelopes of 64 partials to reproduce the sound.

David Gerard Matthews’ performance on his Ondes Martenot (invented in 1928) captivated everyone as he discussed the French electronic instrument’s history. It’s not often you get to experience someone playing an Ondes Martenot in real life, and it was a treat.

David Gerard Matthews demonstrated his late-model Ondes Martenot.

Rob Schwimmer and Ed Eagan did a joint presentation on the Ondioline, an expressive electronic instrument related to the Ondes Martenot that inventor George Jenny began designing in 1939. Rob played his Ondioline while Ed played his Osmose, comparing the sounds of the antique instrument to an EaganMatrix Overlay that Christophe and Ed developed to emulate the Ondioline.

Rob Schwimmer played a restored electronic instrument called the Ondioline.

Sunday presentations

The next morning, I moderated a conversation with Ed and Christophe, in which we discussed their work with Hans Zimmer on the score to the recent film Dune, Part 2. It was a fascinating talk about the artistic and technical aspects of creating the sounds of a futuristic alien civilization and about their working relationship with Hans and the other musicians he’d brought together. Christophe punctuated the conversation with impressive audio examples of their contributions to the soundtrack.

Next up was Tony KT Leung. He showed us a gestural controller he’d invented that allows violinists, cellists, and other string players to play EaganMatrix-based instruments. In combination with an Expressive E Touché device, he performed on his invention using techniques that anyone who plays a bowed instrument employs.

Haken Audio associate and early adopter Mark Smart told us about his contributions to the Continuum’s development and his recent work using the Continuum as a MIDI controller for applications outside of music. After passing around 3-D glasses for everyone, he demonstrated the Continuum’s ability to control a three-dimensional laser show in real time.

For the conference’s final scheduled talk, Paul Dempsey presented a plug-in he was developing for the popular computer-based virtual modular synth VCV Rack. Called HC One, it makes it possible to simultaneously control various synth parameters by sending streams of control data from the Continuum. An open discussion and question-and-answer free-for-all brought the weekend’s proceedings to a close.

ContinuuCon always offers an occasion for attendees to increase their technical and musical knowledge of the Continuum and its offshoots. Perhaps best of all, though, it gives Continuum and Osmose enthusiasts an annual chance to enjoy the camaraderie of other players and programmers while maintaining a sense of community.

Next year’s conference will return to Europe. The organizers are currently negotiating with IRCAM for our return to Paris in 2025, though as of this writing, nothing is official yet.

A sidebar: EaganMatrix Overlays

The most often-heard gripe about using the Continuum or Osmose is that their programming interface is much more daunting than programming a traditional synthesizer. Although the Osmose’s built-in display makes it possible to make rudimentary edits on the fly, the Continuum has no programming interface at all. For all EaganMatrix instruments, any serious programming requires using computer-based editing software and familiarity with somewhat esoteric concepts. You can’t just twist a few knobs and come up with a satisfactory sound. Planning and completing a preset takes time and the ability to think like an engineer.

To minimize such challenges, EaganMatrix Overlays are more specialized, simplified GUIs for creating and editing EaganMatrix presets. They provide access to a smaller range of related parameters presented as macros within modules. They afford quick access to parameters that most apply to the sound at hand without overwhelming users with the immense possibilities inherent in EaganMatrix.

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