Thursday, January 7, 2010

First Impressions of the Eigenharp Alpha

I was lucky enough to recently acquire an Eigenharp Alpha. I'm definitely one of the first which shows also that I had absolutely no self-control when this beasty was announced and was one of their very first orders right after the announcement. Well it has arrived and I've spent just a few days with it and here are the first impressions.

The Instrument

The instrument itself is stunning. The wood, the finish, the metal. Everything is indeed very high-end quality wise. I was actually concerned that the instrument would be almost too light weight when I read the specs but in fact it feels just right and well balanced.

The case is excellent and custom form fitted to the instrument. You could pack it on a plane no problem. The case is very long and so is the harp.

There is a leather strap that is quite unique with a rotating center metal bezel that clips into the harp so it can rotate at your waist if you want to stand while playing. Personally, so far I prefer using the floor spike and sitting or standing with it that way. I understand now why there is a floor spike. This is not a guitar, you don't just user your left hand on the frets and your right for strumming. In fact you use both hands for playing the buttons. This ergonomic fact makes it very comfortable to play with the floor spike and it feels very natural after awhile. If you've ever wanted to play a standing bass, this is right up your alley although it's not like playing a bass either.

The Buttons

Ok, this is the magic, the secret sauce, the real stuff. The buttons are magic. No really they are. They are so sensitive, it really needs touching to believe it. It takes a very light press to trigger and normal playing is a very light touch, especially after the first attack. Players who are new, death grip the buttons and that's where you hear pitch changes, since the x,y,z control kicks in at that point. For midi playing, I really want to just turn off the pitch wheel since it's too crude in midi anyway whereas with the native instruments and sound fonts, you can do wonderful things like vibrato/tremelo, if you've got the chops. You can also use these for other sound aspects like filter control, effect control, whatever.

Back to the buttons. They are so sensitive that it takes effort to hit them without triggering a note at a very soft velocity, yet they do not false trigger which is amazing, since I would think even shaking the instrument might trigger a button. Compare this with the force needed to hit a piano or synth key and you will understand that playing this will not only be different, but will have totally new capabilities for the player regarding speed and range of notes played. Since I can choose to use a chromatic mode or any of 80 scales, you can really cover a lot of notes easily and quickly, with a lot of control. I can do the scale thing on the monome, but I can't do it with the expressiveness that this instrument provides.

Bowing the cello is one of my favorites so far. Basically this can done two ways. You can use the large strip controller on one side of the Alpha for long strokes on the bow, OR move your finger slightly and quickly for tremelo of the bow. You can also hammer on/off the strip for tremelo which is probably easier and just as convincing. The second way is to use one of the percussion buttons on the bottom. This highlights how damn sensitve these buttons are. By gliding a finger from one side of the button to the other, you have the same control as the strip controller, but on a small button. You can use a very light touch.

I love how if the cello mode is on especially and I pick up the eigenharp it mutters and squeaks a bit just as an electric guitar does when picked up on stage. That is the sound of an instrument that wants to be played with expression and can be played with skill. Of course there is a dedicated button at the bottom that turns off input when you don't want accidental presses to make a sound.

You can select to play multiple instruments at one time. These could, be the native modelled instruments, sound fonts, Audio Unit plugins or midi and you can layer all of them. For example, layer a grand piano, cello and a synth pad. Because the cello needs to be bowed to play, you can bring it into the mix in a subtle way. Really incredible range of playing just by using different techniques.

The Hardware

The base station is good quality and burly. The instrument cord is high quality and plugs into the bottom of the Alpha. Nice thing, is there is just one cord. So you can walk around same as with an electric guitar. This really makes it a stage instrument. The protocol and technology that delivers so much data over this single mini XLR type connection is amazing.

The Software

OK, this is where it gets muddy. EigenD runs as a menu bar icon in OS X. It has very little UI per say and can run headless (no UI). The important part is really the core software engine and what little UI is in eigenD is a bolt on. It's definitely not going to work like you are used to working in a DAW or other music software. There is a browser window. But this is where the paradigm get weird. The browser is more informational than meant to be a UI that you would operate with a mouse. I would almost prefer that they pick one paradigm and stick with it, rather than part mouse control and part instrument control of what the UI is displaying, because this is confusing for sure. The software is designed to be controlled from the instrument itself. It's clear that was the original design and the UI seems hastily thrown on. I get the on instrument control part though and it is very powerful. Basically I compare this to monome software. You have a range of buttons and you interact with the software by using buttons to change modes etc. You need to bite the bullet and spend a day with this and get familiar with it because this is the way you interact with the software, the Browser UI is really a crutch. On instrument is excellent because you can get away from the computer entirely and play it as the instrument it is meant to be. There are holes however, mixer controls are avaliable on the instrument for example, and when you are changing values, there is no on instrument feedback at the moment, so you really need to look at the computer screen to see the value. Also, when you use Audio Units, you can't just do everything in the EigenD UI, you actually need to use the on instrument control on the Alpha to make the proper Audio Unit UI pop up on the computer. This is what I mean by mixed controls, interacting with a computer UI from the instrument itself. I do think that they will sort this out and it's partially because the UI part of the software is coming late and it feels very beta still, but progress is happening fast and they are obviously committed to making it better and better. Yes, if you buy one, you are an early adopter. This is high tech stuff and kudos for eigenlabs to have the balls to ever attempt what they are doing.

So back to the software. There are a few classes of instruments. Native modelled instruments like the cello, clarinet and piano. SoundFonts where eigenD can play sampled instruments. Then AudioUnits which are hosted in EigenD. You also can use AudioUnit effects. You have two effect slots avail that can be placed in front of any instrument and mixer controls for all these pieces. You also have midi instruments where eigenD simply sends midi, usually this would go to you DAW or an external midi instrument. In the case of the can't host Volta in eigenD because it requires a multitrack setup that uses side chain audio and there is no support for this in eigenD, so I pipe midi from eigenD to Ableton Live. This actually works OK, I have velocity and aftertouch velocity easily to use for controlling different aspects on the modular. A native CV controller however would be the bomb and I really hope they get around to releasing one. It would be amazing to have that kind of resolution with the modular.


I'm very happy so far. The playability is amazing. There are different levels of control. You have most control over the modelled instruments, next the soundfonts, then the AUs, the the midi. Even though we get reduced to midi at the bottom level, it is still extremely viable and just the velocity control and touch of the keys alone is enough to make the playability something extremely special.

The software still needs refinement. The was a product locked in secrecy for years. Now they need to expose it to the whims of the public. This is an important phase to listen to users but still stay true to the design and adapt to how the instrument wants to really be used by players.

The underlying software engine seems solid which is the core and heart of the system. The on instrument control is really what this is about. EigenD uses a special scripting language to create configurations called belecanto. Right now the configurations are presets but in the future, you can deeply customize your setups using it. The presets on the alpha will keep you busy for a long time though, so it's not really an issue.

The other aspect is playing the instrument itself. This is an instrument that on one hand you can do some amazing stuff out of the box, way more than say you had never touched a keyboard before and you are trying one for the first time. I mean that is really a good comparison. I know that over time I will be able to play this much more proficiently than I will ever play the keyboard. Guitar players rejoice...this is for you. But it is not guitar exactly either. So it is an instrument that you will need to learn to play. Some people don't want this. DJ's you might want to take a pass.

More Info

The Sound On Sound article from Nov 09 I felt had the most information and was also the most fair and truthful in it's assessment. Read it if you want to know more.

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