Pixel Perfect

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A chirping, blinking, portable device would make the ideal pet, if only it were alive—and affordable.

YAMAHA TENORI-ON Designed by Toshio Iwai $1,200 www.global.yamaha.com/tenori-on

With its rounded, brushed-metal frame and grid of LED-powered buttons, Yamaha’s Tenori-On looks more like a futuristic Lite-Brite than the sophisticated electronic musical sequencer and synthesizer it actually is. Its designer, veteran Japanese multimedia artist Toshio Iwai, has said that he longs for “the feeling of childhood in the digital world”; over the past few years, his creations have satisfied that longing with delightful originality. In 2005, Iwai’s acclaimed game for the Nintendo DS, Electroplankton, had players generating atmospheric music by manipulating sea creatures in Day-Glo aquatic environments. The Tenori-On (“sound in your palm”), which debuted last year exclusively in the U.K. and arrived stateside this spring, invites us into similarly fantastic territory, this time for kids who are all grown up.

At its simplest, the Tenori-On functions as a classic step sequencer that triggers synthesized sounds. For those unfamiliar with the term, step sequencing is the old-fashioned (i.e., ’80s-style) method for making drum-machine beats, triggering samples, and programming electronic bass lines. The Tenori-On’s interface sports 256 buttons—each assigned to a different sound—that light up when pressed. In its “score” mode, an illuminated vertical line crosses the visual field from left to right. When the line reaches a glowing button, its assigned sound is set off, along with a decorative burst of light.

Most of the Tenori-On’s built-in tones are tailored to work well with quick, sequenced patterns:primarily short plinks, beeps, and thuds, ingredients in the kind of minimalist ambient soundtrack one might imagine piped in on a space vessel captained by Steve Reich. If you want to add your own more earthly timbres, extremely short samples (less than a second) can be loaded from your computer onto an SD card and then popped into the Tenori-On. Function keys and a roller wheel on its frame allow you to change instruments, note lengths, volume, and time signatures on the fly. You can listen to it all through a pair of built-in 1-watt speakers. But if you’re a fan of bass—or if the person sitting next to you is put off by repetitive electronic composition—I’d suggest using the headphone jack.

The Tenori-On’s most interesting functions go well beyond the step sequencing of its “score” mode. In “random,” the buttons you press suddenly become a series of points on a new shape. Circle the shape with your finger and it rotates on its axis, triggering completely new sounds as it spins. “Bounce” mode transforms each tap into a ball of light that clonks repeatedly to the bottom of the screen. In “draw” mode, the swipe of a finger creates cascading harp-like twinkles along with a trail of sparkling light. Hold down a note in “push,” and it will build in intensity as radiant ripples glow and pulse around it.

After a few minutes of free-spirited poking, your Tenori-On will have come ablaze with wild patterns of light set to an ethereal, looping soundtrack. Not to speak for any Tenori-On virtuosos out there, but I can’t imagine translating specific ideas straight from my brain to this machine, as one might be able to do with conventionally laid-out instruments like keyboards or guitars.

It was almost impossible to predict exactly what was going to happen when I pressed any particular button. But it’s the Tenori-On’s nonlinear, alien nature and unconventional layout that make it so interesting.

If you enjoy the sequences you’ve created, you can save them on the Tenori-On’s SD card or record straight into a computer through the minijack output. Feeling isolated? Attach your Tenori-On to a friend’s with a MIDI cable and jam out in sync. And have I mentioned that the machine’s screen is double-sided? That means if you happen to have an audience, they’ll see all the light-pattern fireworks at the same time you do.

If Iwai’s instrument were less expensive, I could imagine Tenori-On mania sweeping the nation. It’s fun and easy to use, even for non-musicians. Plus it’s portable (you can run it on three AA batteries) and just plain looks cool. But at 1,200 bucks a pop, I suspect the Tenori-On will dwell almost exclusively in the realm of well-established, professional electronic musicians. Even I—a fresh convert—would find it hard to justify bringing one home. Like a diamond-studded Tamagotchi, it’s just not practical enough to justify the expense.

Still, if you’re looking for a wholly unique form of musical self-expression, there’s really nothing quite like the Tenori-On on the market today. A company called Monome creates MIDI controllers with a practically identical layout, but they’re even more expensive and—because they don’t generate sound on their own—can’t be used unless attached to a computer or compatible synth. Korg’s latest Kaoss Pad, with its colorful LED interface, comes somewhat close to the Tenori-On visually. But the Kaoss Pad is more of a DJ tool for sampling long instrumental phrases and mangling them with effects—think break beats with swooshing filters and digital distortion.

Do you really need a Tenori-On? Probably not. Do you want one? I know I do. But how to justify the purchase? Hmm. Well, I did forget to mention one feature. The Tenori-On’s LED display also functions as an alarm clock. No joke. Might that qualify as practical? Hold on while I check my bank account….

Daron Murphy, a Brooklyn-based writer and musician, reviewed the Rock Band video game for I.D.’s March/April 2008 issue.