Its makers describe the Eigenharp as "the most revolutionary new musical instrument in 60 years”. Could this bold claim be justified?
The Eigenharp Alpha has apparently been in development for 10 years, and was originally born out of the desire for a truly expressive electronic instrument. It's the brainchild of John Lambert, a former studio owner, web and software industry guru, musician, and now chairman of Eigenlabs Ltd.
So what is the Eigenharp? Well, what it isn't is just another type of MIDI controller (though it can fulfil this role easily enough). Instead, it's perhaps better described as a self‑contained performance system, with three main components. The first is a highly configurable instrument — the Eigenharp itself — with many real‑time control facilities. This plugs into a hardware unit known as the base station, which powers the Eigenharp and also provides a range of connections to the outside world. Finally there's a software system, currently running on Mac OS X but with Linux and Windows versions in the pipeline, which offers a complete environment for synthesis, sampling, instrument hosting, sequencing and other tasks. It's a simple enough concept, but we need to dive into the detail to see just what's on offer.
The instrument part of the Eigenharp setup is an impressive bit of kit. About 124cm long, 8cm wide and 4cm deep, it sports two groups of keys, 120 at the top, and 12 (plus another one) at the bottom, each key having an associated LED. The whole shebang weighs about 2.8kg. A cut‑away section at the top has a socket for a gooseneck‑style breath-controller pipe, and a four‑pin mini‑XLR microphone input. On the back, about a third of the way up, is a recessed 3.5mm headphone output socket and another cut‑away section for attaching a connector used when the Alpha is mounted on its shoulder strap. On the bottom there's an adjustable spike, like you'd find on a 'cello, and a multi‑pin connector for attaching the base-station lead. The review model had ebony panels and rhodium key surrounds and edging, with leather side-panels covering hidden pressure-sensitive strips running the full length of the upper keyboard. The build quality exudes class — it has the feel of a good luthier's work, but is supposedly very robust too, with the key action sealed to prevent moisture getting into the internal gubbins. Production models will apparently have a series of dimples set into the back of the 'neck', to help with locating hands and navigating the upper keyboard. As a fairly high‑cost instrument, the Alpha is available in a range of woods and finishes, with plastic or wooden keys, and rhodium or gold‑coloured key surrounds and edging. Eigenlabs can also accommodate more inventive and outlandish customisations — at extra cost, of course.
A 6m star quad cable connects the Alpha to the base station, which measures about 34 x 17 x 5cm. On the front is just a single LED that indicates that the unit's powered up, but on the back are sockets for an IEC mains lead, the instrument input, one switch and two continuous‑type pedals, MIDI In and Out, and the USB connection to the computer. Construction is metal and no‑nonsense.
The Eigenharp software, called EigenD, is provided on a USB key, along with a range of bundled content: 1500 loops from Zero‑G and Loopmasters, plus The Black Grand, Tubed Rhodes and Tubed Wurli soundfonts from Sampletekk. Some Audio Unit plug‑ins are also due to be bundled, but weren't confirmed at the time of the review. EigenD is one of the more unexpected parts of the Eigenharp experience, so I'll go into much more depth about it in a moment.
Just to tie this section up, Alpha buyers also get a top-quality flightcase and branded laptop bag, an excellent purpose‑built shoulder strap, two mouthpieces for the breath pipe, and USB and power leads.
Starting to use the Eigenharp is an interesting experience. It takes time to figure out a secure way of holding the Alpha, but after a few moments of Borat‑style ham-fistedness, the thumbs naturally make their way to the rear edges of the instrument, allowing the hands and fingers to move easily. Actually seeing the keys is a must in the early stages — maybe even for experienced players too — but this normally poses no problems, with the Alpha swivelling on its spike or shoulder strap linkage. The breath pipe also rotates to accommodate a range of angles, but has no up/down adjustment.
The demo setup I was supplied with had a number of different modes, accessed by simultaneously pressing the key at the bottom left of the key grid with others at the top right. Many mode and selection procedures work like this, allowing swift access to a wide range of the Eigenharp's musical features. Often the main keyboard presents a range of pitches in vertically‑running 'courses', as on a stringed instrument, and it can be divided into a number of keygroups that occupy their own part of the keyboard, or overlap with each other.
Playing a synth sound generated from the Eigenharp software quickly reveals the flexible nature of the key action. Keys are velocity sensitive, but also have beautifully graded aftertouch too, implemented in only 1 or 2mm of travel. Rocking a key backwards and forwards results in (for most sounds) the most fantastically responsive pitch‑bend and vibrato. By rocking a key left or right (a movement referred to as 'yaw') you can produce another stream of control data, often usefully mapped to filter cutoff. This is all apparently achieved using an optical sensing system that has a resolution down to one micron, and it allows you to achieve remarkably flexible and expressive musical results. An impressive feature, too, is that the control data streams are truly independent from key to key. It means that the Eigenharp offers the holy grail that is polyphonic aftertouch (given an appropriately configured sound source) and equally lets you bend one note up in pitch as another is being bent down. Given that the key action alone can generate four streams of control data, you start to sense how expressive the Alpha might be when the breath controller, pedals and pressure strips are also configured to do interesting things.
The lower, so‑called 'percussion' keyboard has a wider key design, but with exactly the same control capabilities. My demo setup had these keys mapped to drum samples, and they certainly do feel good to hit. There are other possibilities, though, such as guitar‑like strumming or 'picking' of pitches played on the upper keyboard. Eigenlabs supposedly also have a software 'cello instrument on the way, which simulates bowing as you stroke and push these lower keys left or right. Alternatively they could be used as mode and settings keys, or for any other job, if they were configured to do so.
One thing's for sure: neither keyboard is restricted to conventional pitched note playing. Keygroups in some setups allow for triggering playback of audio loops, with single keys becoming play/stop toggles, their LED indicators showing green or red to confirm the state. An arranger mode flashes a neck‑wide bar of LEDs that loop repeatedly down the keyboard, allowing drum machine‑style programming of percussion sounds, bass lines and the like, and even control values. If there's one key that's ideally suited to one role, it's the very bottom one, which sits alone. In most setups it's a 'disabler' allowing the Alpha to be moved or handled without triggering other keys.
The side pressure strips are interesting, and designed so that a glancing touch doesn't set them off. They can generate absolute control values, measuring where you touched them in relation to their length, or relative values, taking the place where you first touched to represent a zero value, and putting out negative or positive values as you slide up or down from there. The breath pipe on the review model had a whistle‑like mouthpiece that had an adjustable, sax‑like impedance, and was fairly noisy in use. However, production Alphas should have an improved, quieter version.
I didn't test either the mic input or headphone output, as neither was enabled in any of the software setups I had available. The idea is, though, that the phantom‑powered mic input can feed audio into the EigenD software, allowing for voice recording, looping or other processing, or passing on to a PA system via your audio hardware. The supposedly very powerful headphone output has the potential to be used for sound previewing in a live situation, or providing click tracks and other cue signals.
While the Alpha has impressive control credentials, the hardware is only half the story. It's completely reliant on the EigenD software running on a suitable host computer for, well, any functionality. EigenD does a variety of things, including:
- Routing all the control and audio streams going to and from the Eigenharp and the base station.
- Hosting sound sources, including Audio Units (in the Mac version, at least), Eigen Labs' own instrument types (Soundfont‑compatible samplers, virtual analogue synths, physical models and Apple Loops players), and providing a virtual mix environment featuring mixers, buses, sends and processors.
- Providing recorders and sequencers for control and audio signals.
- Allowing entire Eigenharp configurations (called setups) to be modified or programmed from scratch.
Eigenharp setups vary in complexity from a single instrument to something that could last you an entire performance, with dozens of pre‑loaded sounds, loops, sequences and recorded patterns. Plenty of wide‑ranging setups are due to be supplied with the shipping version of EigenD, and you can, of course, save any that you modify or create.
So how do you come up with or modify a setup? Now we start to sail into what, for many, me included, are far less familiar waters. Although EigenD is often found fulfilling quite conventional roles — instrument hosting, recording and so on — it could hardly be more different to a conventional DAW, or even a performance host like MainStage or Rax. Notably, there's no graphical user interface — or at least, not in the slick, photorealistic, mouse‑driven vein that has so much become the norm. Second, very little is pre‑configured; yes, you can host an Audio Unit instrument, but you won't find a 'slot' for it prompted by a graphical feature or a 'Create...' menu item. So how the hell does it work?
Here's the deal. EigenD is a completely modular environment, consisting of dozens of functional elements called 'agents' that you effectively wire up into useful structures. Think Reaktor or Max/MSP and you're in the right ball‑park. Huge synths, with analogue, modelled and sampled oscillators, filter arrays and effects are very possible, and they can co‑exist with other synths and samplers, sequencers and real‑time effect processors, all addressable simultaneously or separately from the Eigenharp. But now for the twist! The way you work with this environment is not by doing anything with your mouse or trackpad, but using a language that Eigenlabs devised, called Belcanto. Commands are represented by short number sequences, and you literally play them in from the Eigenharp keyboard using special language keygroups available in many setups. There's no getting away from it: Belcanto is a programming language, and for most musicians used to graphically‑driven systems, that's a scary concept. Belcanto's saving grace, though, is that number sequences actually feel like, and can be memorised as, little musical phrases. Also, the syntax of the language is really straightforward — you address (using a friendly, descriptive name) what part of the setup architecture you want to change, then say how you want it to change.
You're not actually bound to learn or use Belcanto, though. Loading a setup is something that can be done with the mouse, and then you're free to play the Eigenharp within the limitations of that setup. What's more, many setups have strings of Belcanto commands pre‑assigned to individual keys, or to a particular movement of a key — in Eigenlabs parlance these are 'Talkers'. They certainly save you from using Belcanto for frequently required tasks, like browsing loops, or changing tempo. It also means that new Eigenharp players can get a good way into the Eigenharp experience without even necessarily being aware of this next, much deeper level of complexity.
Interestingly, too, after feedback from musicians it seems that EigenD will take on more graphical components, such as a bank of level faders for the audio mixer component. This strikes me as a very smart move — a versed Belcanto speaker can ignore it, while beginners get some reassuring familiarity.
So far I've mostly described the Eigenharp, rather than actually taking a critical standpoint. But in fact a 'review' of the Eigenharp is a very tricky thing to pull off. For one thing, it's an instrument that clearly rewards practice, for the physical act of playing as well as learning the associated software system, and in my time with it I was aware that I was only scratching the surface of both. What's more, with EigenD being such an open‑ended system, and still the subject of vigorous development, it'd be misleading to criticise behaviour of setups which could be so easily modified using existing or in‑the‑pipeline software features.
However, I was able to attain a good overview of the Eigenharp's current capabilities and potential, not only by getting to grips with it myself but also meeting and talking to Eigenlabs staff responsible for various parts of the product's development.
What's unquestionable is that the Eigenharp has enormous musical potential. While there are similarities to aspects of keyboard, guitar and wind‑based controllers, it goes well beyond what most can offer individually. It's just as good used as a solo or harmony instrument, or as a controller for triggering loops and sequences. But it can do all these things at once too, and it's not an overstatement to say that you could run an entire set from a single Eigenharp, in many musical genres. It doesn't do any harm, either, that it'd look great on stage, and it seems to have the build quality and resilience to cope with a life on the road. Next up, the keyboard layout is very flexible, with the EigenD software allowing dozens of musical scale types, even Eastern or microtonal systems, to be mapped on to the five courses and based around any key centre. This is fabulous from a creative point of view, making it really easy to jam and compose in harmonic areas that would be tough on another instrument. Also, I can't think of anything else with more potential for expressive control. The keyboard alone offers so much in this respect, but once you add in breath control, pedals and the rest, the possibilities are astonishing.
There's a snag, of course. While you can get plenty of fun, interesting results out of an Eigenharp in the early stages, the learning curve leading to mastery of it looks to be quite long and, at times, pretty steep. Aside from establishing a basic technique, it's a challenge to learn even pre‑configured setups — the key LEDs are the only visual feedback from the system, complex multi‑mode, multi‑keygroup configurations can be initially bewildering, and you do get lost. A lot has to be committed to memory, or you end up scribbling things down on bits of paper, which doesn't seem very rock & roll. Possibly the frustrating moment is when you want to change something trivial, but you don't know the Belcanto commands for what you had in mind, and there are no pre‑configured Talkers in place to help you. There's no reaching for the mouse, and you end up stuck.
I sense that the clinching factors in Eigenharp take‑up will be how inspiring and rewarding Eigenlabs can make the playing experience from day one, and the skill with which they can lead users into the system, whether that's via printed documentation, video tutorials or personal training. Learning curves are no trouble so long as you always feel good about where you are on them, even if it's not the top.
I'd have to say that if the Eigenharp were the esoteric offspring of some garden-shed outfit I'd confidently predict commercial failure. It's not, though — Eigenlabs are an exceptionally dynamic and well‑funded company. They also have industry‑savvy management with links to high‑profile musicians who could well champion the Eigenharp and help get it into the public eye. Undeniably, their products are beautifully made, and arouse huge interest and curiosity from musicians and non‑musicians alike. Does that mean every eight year‑old in the country will be learning Eigenharp in 10 years time? It seems too hard to imagine, but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if it does manage to establish itself as a credible instrument. I enjoyed my time with the Eigenharp immensely, and was sorry to see it go. I really hope it's a success.
As far as I'm aware there's nothing else on the market that closely compares to the Eigenharp — certainly not to the innovative instrument design, or the integrated nature of its hardware and software. A big controller keyboard along with a DAW or a dedicated software instrument host might be able to pull off a full‑sounding arrangement live, but would lack all the real‑time control aspects as well and might struggle to match the live recorder and arranger features. You could probably create a complex patch in Cycling 74's Max/MSP to get something resembling an Eigenharp setup, but you're still left without a dedicated controller for it. I think, for the moment, the Eigenharp's feature set is unique.
If the £3950 Eigenharp Alpha seems a touch extravagant, why not consider the £349 Pico instead? This immensely cute aluminium unit offers 18 rocker‑style keys, along with four simpler buttons, a front‑mounted strip controller, rear‑mounted thumb hooks, and a breath controller. It attaches to the host computer using a USB lead, so there's no need for the base-station hardware. But while the control options are clearly cut down, the Pico uses exactly the same system software as the Alpha, and you still can do a lot with this little thing. I got to play a prototype supplied with a setup that had a range of instruments and drum loops, and Talkers to select a range of scales and call up the graphic interfaces of the hosted Audio Units. The build quality is exceptional, it's brilliant fun, and it deserves to sell a lot.
Could the Eigenharp work as a controller for your DAW? Technically the answer is yes, of course, but that isn't really how the instrument was conceived. On the Mac, OS X doesn't see the Eigenharp as a normal controller, and it doesn't show up in Audio MIDI Setup. The MIDI Out would have to be enabled in a suitable EigenD setup, and OS X's Inter-application MIDI feature used to get the data stream across to the DAW. However, EigenD can enable audio and MIDI links to the outside world, and there's even talk of a CV/Gate interface being available for the system in the future.
- An inspired and inspiring performance instrument.
- Musically self‑sufficient, with loop playback, recorders and sequencers.
- Flexible software with some great bundled sounds and synths, and phenomenal potential for customisation.
- Promising after‑sales and technical support.
- Be prepared to work as hard learning this as you would guitar, piano or any other conventional instrument.
- The software will prove conceptually extremely challenging for many users.
- The Alpha is very expensive by most people's standards.
Getting to grips with the Eigenharp challenged many of my preconceptions about musical hardware and software, but I came out smiling. It might not be the easiest new instrument to learn, but there's an elegance and magnetism, and fantastic potential.
- EigenD versions 32.48 and 32.49.
- Macbook Pro 3.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 8GB RAM, Mac OS 10.5.6.