App: TonePad- Tenori-On for the rest of us

Allow me to share with you one of my favorite apps in all of Apple’s App Store: TonePad. You see, I’ve been intrigued by the elusive (and expensive) “visual music composition device” known as Tenori-on since I first heard about it a couple years ago. And since I don’t have the time to make the most of a thousand dollar diversionary investment like the Tenori-on, only an intrigue it has remained.

Which is why I took notice when I first read about TonePad, an app for iPhone/iPod Touch that replicates a part of the Tenori-on concept. And since downloading it, I can’t stop making minimalistic, dreamy tunes with it.

Usage is straightforward and simple. On launching the app, the user is presented with a 16 x 16 grid of dots, where the rows represent the beats and the columns represent 16 tones, with higher pitches at the top of the grid. Press a dot to activate that particular note and each time the measure loops to that beat, a tone is played. For visual feedback, each dot pulses as it is played. Combine dots into chords and melodies, and voila, you’re making music.

The tones themselves are pleasant, with a small reverb applied, making it hard to create a “bad” song. Sure, swiping a finger across the interface may not make for the most compelling of compositions, but it certainly doesn’t create the mess that mashing a keyboard or piano does.

As fun as TonePad is though, it does suffer from some limitations. For one, the composition options are fixed. The tempo, time signature and tone are set to a default, and on a default they must stay. You can’t make the loop any faster or slower, or change the number of beats in the measure or change the basic sound of the tone (or make it another sound entirely). Also, you’re limited to working within just the one loop. It would be pretty nice to be able to set up a loop and have it continue to play as you put together another loop to layer on top (and it would be especially nice to do it with different base tones). Finally, and this one can’t really be helped, but the dots are small enough that they can be troublesome to accurately press. There have been a number of times when I wanted to turn one off and ended up turning the neighbors on.

But hey, I’m not really complaining. TonePad is both fun and free and a worthy app to carry in one’s pocket.

Enjoy some TonePad improvisation from yours truly:

On the Web:

TENORI-ON, the Visual Music Composition Instrument

So……….. anyone got ~$1200 to send my way? Why, you ask?

This thing:

Tenori-On photo from Yamaha

TENORI-ON, the new seemingly brilliant and addictively fun musical composition device from Yamaha. TENORI-ON means “sound on your palm” in Japanese. That’s a pretty fitting description of how it works.

While pressing LED buttons on the 16 x 16 grid as the loop indicator scrolls, players can create tones and rhythms, with each layer of music having its own tempo. There are a total of sixteen layers of music and they can be thought of as traditional recording tracks. Any of TENORI-ON’s six modes can be assigned to a layer and all layers can operate concurrently. Those layers are grouped into blocks (which I think is one loop across the device’s face), and blocks can be copied, sequenced and edited for variations on a theme and extended pieces. Combining all those functions, one can create some really complex music.

TENORI-ON can read samples and manipulate outside sounds via SD card, giving it nearly limitless compositional capabilities. It is also MIDI-capable, for interfacing with a second TENORI-ON or outside machine, such as a computer.

The instrument has six modes:

  • Score Mode
    Press a button to play a sound once. Press-and-hold to play that sound on every loop.
  • Random Performance Mode
    Turns the instrument into Pong. Press buttons to have a ball ping between those buttons.
  • Draw Mode
    Make music by drawing lines and curves. Reminds me of playing a harp.
  • Bounce Mode
    Press a button and a ball bounces up from the bottom to the button that was pressed. Lower buttons have more rapid beats. Higher buttons are slower in tempo. I sense some seriously interesting polyrhythmic possibilities here.
  • Push Mode
    For sustained notes.
  • Solo Mode
    Also creates sustained notes, but only when you’re actively pressing the buttons.

Clearly a fascinating device. But really, all the words in the world won’t do it justice, so watch this demonstration video featuring Yu Nishibori, a producer/developer from Yamaha:As part of the device’s launch, Yamaha commissioned three noted electronic musicians to create songs using only on the TENORI-ON–Jim O’Rourke, Atom Heart and Robert Lippock of To Rococo Rot–and is giving them away as downloadable MP3s. O’Rourke turns in an ambient soundscape while Atom Heart seems to noodle with a malfunctioning sonar on a piece that would be a home on the Forbidden Planet soundtrack. Lippock, true to form, crafts a pretty nice piece of IDM. You can listen for yourself at Yamaha’s TENORI-ON site.

Here’s Jim O’Rourke learning how to use the instrument (he’s evidently fluent in Japanese; who knew?), followed by some O’Rourke-ian improvisation:

Jim learns the TENORI-ON
Jim O’rourke Plays the TENORI-ON

Needless to say, I want one. Unfortunately, TENORI-ON is currently only being sold in the UK as a test market–at £599–and apparently, the entire nation is out of stock at the moment. But hey, if you just have to have one now, I spotted a couple on eBay. Otherwise, there’s always the hope that more become available in time for the holiday shopping season.