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Alternative Musical Keyboards (altkeyboards.com)
85 points by jacquesm on Apr 15, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 36 comments

This doesn't appear to have been updated since 2014, but I'd also add the now much more mainstream Seaboard to the list. It's somewhat more conventional, as it maintains the general shape of a keyboard, but that is an advantage in my opinion, as it makes it more intuitive to pick up and play while still offering a much higher degree of freedom over a traditional keyboard.

As someone with a linnstrument, I have to say that I absolutely adore it. It's among my best purchases I've ever made and is completely intuitive to me (who has much more time on stringed instruments than keyboards). I don't hate keyboards, but I like them less after using the linnstrument. The isomorphic layout means that more time can be spent memorizing a diversity of chords and scales by function as opposed to memorizing the same function in different keys. It's a blast to play and the expressive bends and whatnot are incredible.

I have the opposite opinion (I also own a linnstrument).

I come from a piano background, and as someone that kind of struggles to improvise in keys with more accidentals I was attracted to the idea of an isomorphic layout.

After playing a lot with the isomorphic layout I've come to a conclusion that it comes at a cost (it has its advantages and disadvantages compared to the traditional piano layout)

To be isomorphic the layout has to have multiple representations of a single note, with this comes the fact that you don't really have to learn one shape for every chord, you have to learn multiple ones if you play complex polyphonic music and want comfortable fingerings (the linnstrument also has this problem that you can't play 4 notes in a square which comes at the most unexpected times specially between the two hands).

So the comparison would be to learn every key thoroughly vs learning every (useful) alternative for every chord.

In my opinion there's nothing intuitive about the y axis having a greater intervalic distance than the x axis, specifically I would have this problem when going down in a melody to the previous "string" the distance to that note is way different than it would be on the same string.

To be fair I think the only intuitive layout is a linear one (like a single string, or the haken continuum)

If anything, having played with an isomorphic instrument has encouraged me to learn the piano layout more deeply.

Having said that, the linnstrument itself is a decent product all and all (although I have some beefs with it but I don't want to turn this comment into a review) and it makes sense that you like the layout having more experience with stringed instrumments, but I would say that's familiarity not intuitiveness.

Maybe try a linear isomorphic layout, Janko style (see my top level comment; I'm coming from piano).

Edit: Is that any four note square? Just squares, or rectangles too?

Rectangles too, any four corners played at once. It's because the sensors are horizontal and vertical stripes of velostat, so every individual stripe can only sense pressure, the location is gather by combining the information of the overlapping stripes.

from their webpage [1]:

> If 3 note pads are pressed that are 3 corners of a rectangle, presses to a note pad that is the 4th corner of that rectangle will be ignored.

[1] http://www.rogerlinndesign.com/ls-specs.html

Fellow Linnstrument owner here. Agree completely on your point about the diversity of chords. It's really really hard to imagine going back to a piano layout and attempting to get back to the high water mark of where I'm at with a Linnstrument today. If something could be described as a gateway drug to harmony and music theory in general, this would be it.

For people who haven't used one of these, a 2D isomorphic layout (as seen in the Linnstrument and others) enables you to see chords, scales and progressions initially as 2D glyphs, and later as a lattice structure as your eyes/hands become more accustomed to the layout. Learn the pattern for a given scale or chord once and you can relocate it anywhere with almost no mental cost, so transposition is effortless compared to a piano.

I agree with the other poster in this thread on the "four corner" problem, which comes up surprisingly often. I think Roger Linn has spent a lot of time making a big deal about the Linnstrument's sliding and MPE capabilities, but the isomorphic layout is really the workhorse.

If any iPad owners are looking to try out an isomorphic layout and don't want to shell out for a Linnstrument, check out Musix Pro.

> If any iPad owners are looking to try out an isomorphic layout and don't want to shell out for a Linnstrument, check out Musix Pro.

Thanks for the recommendation. You saved me from yet another developing GAS :D

Very interesting, I didn't know there would be that many experiments around the ergonomics of musical keyboards! My own personal experiment: an hand-held keyboard-like device[0].

I am fascinated by the Harmonic table note layout. It really makes you wonder about the mathematical basis of what we find aurally pleasing.


Very cool project and nice documentation. I have to assume you'd already be aware of this, but if not (or for others who come across this), it reminds me of Martin Molin's "MODULIN":


It's more like a violin in ways, but can also be played sort of like a keyboard.


Very interesting instrument, I love the expressiveness of the ribbon pitch controller! I was thinking about adding an inertial unit to create a pitch "vibrato" effect, which can really liven up a digital instrument.

very nice, added to my projects list

There are so many great "alternative" instruments out there, and some quite affordable. Most of these are really easy to pick up and play after only a few minutes to a few hours of practice. Some of my favourites: The Korg Kaossilator series [I own about 4 of these now]. Korg Monotron Delay. Yamaha Tenori-on. Omnichord. Deerhorn organ [I don't own this but have seen a few videos of it]. Werkbench [iPad app].

My favourite thing is to sit on long train/plane journeys with headphones just "noodling around" on a Kaossilator. It's a shame it's a battery eater though...

I have a Kaossilator myself, and while it's definitely fun (especially when you first get it), its sound can be improved tremendously with some effects pedals.

One of the things I have is the Kaoss Pad 2 Mini which is essentially an effects pedal for the KO2S.

I have an Axis 49 (Harmonic Table layout - and years out of production) but in recent years I've taken to using a computer keyboard with Wicki-Hayden bindings. It lacks a bit in range and consistency but it's very easy to access. However I will also use traditional keys and practice my scales on them.

Each of these options develops different muscle memory and creative tendencies, but it is easier to work out modulation possibilities on the isomorphic layouts. Getting the Axis49 was like an instant "level up" to my theory skills because it made so many things come together visually.

A recent piece of hardware that lets you try the isomorphic layout cheaply is the Hyve touch synth: https://www.hyvesynth.com

I did the same, using vkeyboard on Linux, which simulates a MIDI device.

Another benefit of the Axis49 is the pressure sensitivity, of course. My infant daughter loves it, too :-)

For live performances, there are also keyboards with custom layouts (although 1-dimensional) by http://www.verticalkeyboards.com

How do you use a computer keyboard? Is it via VMPK? Could you please share your keymaps?

Missing from this site is the Janko-layout keyboard I got a few months ago, the Chromatone: https://chromatone.jp/online-shop/en.html

It looks like it has an enormous number of keys, but they are linked together, with each horizontal position being a note, and 3-4 "buttons" on the same physical lever for each note. This makes fingerings very flexible. The closer spacing of the key layout means you can reach bigger chords more easily - I can comfortably play a 10th, for example. The layout is isomorphic, so transposing is as simple as shifting your hands along.

I have played (standard) piano for over 30 years, and this was immediately intuitive for anything melodic. I am far from an expert yet, but the biggest difficulty has been the lack of colours on the keys, which makes it hard to jump big intervals, or play the same note in different octaves in both hands. The lack of colours is because keys don't play a fixed note; the whole keyboard can be transposed by pressing a couple of buttons. Also, because the layout is isomorphic and they were trying to get away from the traditional note system. I am planning to try different colourings with masking tape or post-its, but I wish it had an RGB led for each key (not sure I can justify the effort of rigging that up).

The layout itself is great, and is the reason to buy this. Everything else is less great, and really shows its age (I have the newer model, the CT-312, which dates from something like 2007). The biggest hardware deficiency is the lack of a sustain pedal input, but I expect I can find a way around that with MIDI out or by rigging something up with the (toggle!) sustain button on the control panel. The sound synthesis is also pretty poor, but again, MIDI out.

The best thing about the Chromatone in comparison to all these other alternative keyboards, is that it's (1) Available, and (2) Free! They're clearing out old stock or something, so all I paid was shipping from Japan.

I'm happy to answer questions about it, though I haven't had the keyboard long and I'll be going to work soon.

My observation from having tested the three most common isomorphic systems with PC keybindings is that the Janko-style mapping(which I believe is the default mapping of Chromatone) is the most familiar to piano players, and the least disruptive in terms of playstyle. Harmonic Table is at the other extreme - it minimizes note distances to the point where ergonomics for traditional playing are hampered - chromatics are downright uncomfortable, but you can easily reel off huge jumps around the scale that would otherwise require virtuosic technique. Wicki-Hayden sits somewhere in between those two.

Damn it, you're going to make me spend 240€ on this :D Is it velocity sensitive? How is the feel of the keys?

Yes, it's velocity sensitive. The keys are quite sensitive, more like a keyboard than an electric piano (coming from an electric piano as I am, it's easy to play a note unexpectedly loud, but I think that's not hard to get used to). The different keycaps for each note feel a bit different from each other as the leverage angle is slightly different.

I should note that I have yet to try the MIDI capabilities. I didn't have a MIDI-capable computer in my lounge until I recently acquired a USB adaptor, and I haven't dug out my MIDI cables yet.

If you want isomorphic with RGB, check out synthstrom deluge. It isn't velocity sensitive though.

Synthstrom Deluge should be on the list. While it is sequencer, sampler, synth combination, it has a isomorphic player mode that lights up the key and mode you are in. Amazing unit.


For those interested in isomorphic hexagonal (or rectangular) layouts (like the now dead Axis 64) check out the iPad / iPhone application we make, Musix Pro.


As well, there is an awesome hardware project trying to get of the ground at http://terpstrakeyboard.com (more communication on their facebook as well)

The Ableton Push deserves a mention. It has a straightforward (but highly configurable) 8*8 rectilinear grid configuration, but the real magic comes from the deep integration with Ableton Live. It really does turn the DAW into a playable instrument.


The Akai Force is clearly substantially inspired by the Ableton Push, but is entirely stand-alone.


Jordan Rudess (keyboard player for Dream Theater) has been doing some pretty interesting work building alternative keyboard layouts on the iPad. His app GeoShred, in particular, shows some of the possibilities when you break away from the standard "ebony and ivory" keyboard paradigm.


I like doing music production on the computer - and always had a midi keyboard on hand... but I rarely used it, as I can't play piano: I can tinker, and I get the basics of music theory and can play basic chords... but I always found it better to just program things I wanted directly. Then a friend game me a "you rock midi guitar": https://www.musiciansfriend.com/guitars/you-rock-guitar-2nd-... - it's basically a toy, but because I'm better and tinkering with a guitar than a piano, I use it so much more and the stuff I make is now much more "full" than I could do before.

I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier - sometimes just changing the form-factor helps a lot!

I know absolutely nothing about music, but I find this to be really interesting! It makes we wonder what whackier ways exist yet.

I've always wondered if its possible to use a standard computer keyboard for this sort of thing. What are the main reasons that this wouldn't be possible or likely?

It's possible but it kind of sucks. On most computer keyboards there are limitations as to which keys can be held down simultaneously (and how many), and the keys are on/off - there's no pressure detection. Also, computer keyboards are pretty small - you can't fit many notes on at all - and the keys are not arranged regularly.

It is possible with VMPK, and some people have shown they can play great music on it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhfSF_RpxjI) but I don't know how hard it is to get to a stage where we can be productive. It would be helpful if you have an NKRO keyboard.

One I've found fascinating was the Eigenharp - mostly because of the technology around its keys (registering analog movement in the up/down axis, and in rocking both vertically and horizontally).

Eigenharp is fascinating but very expensive. Artiphon is also very interesting.

I wanna throw in the soundplane by madrona labs: https://madronalabs.com/soundplane


Pythagorean Lambdoma Harmonic Keyboard created by Barbara Hero

I was recently listening to the podcast Now&Xen[0] about microtonal music and it had me thinking about the possible designs for and ergonomics of microtonal keyboards. Very interesting to see some of these potentially more flexible designs.

[0] http://nowandxen.libsyn.com/

dead link with 4 points and no comments, dang

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