The follow-up to the revolutionary Eigenharp Alpha is designed to make the essence of the Eigenharp experience more accessible and affordable. How well does it succeed?
The Eigenharp was launched at the end of 2009 by a UK‑based company, Eigenlabs, in its 'Alpha' model version. I reviewed that in the November 2009 issue of SOS, and while it proved to be a fascinating thing, its price tag makes it practically unattainable for all but the most well‑heeled experimental musician.
Since the Alpha review, Eigenlabs have also released another model, the Tau, which costs £1899 and attempts to fill the gap between the top and bottom of the range, but on test this time is the baby of the Eigenharp family, the Pico. Physically much smaller, at around 34cm long, and connecting directly to a computer via a USB lead, it nonetheless retains much of the essence of its big-money siblings. It has the same sort of keys, which are velocity and pressure sensitive, and which also rock up, down, left and right to generate various control streams — but only 18 of them, in comparison to the Alpha's 120. It also sports a similar breath controller, and a front‑mounted strip controller used primarily as a pitch-bender. And while a computer is required to run the software element of the Eigenharp system, the Pico is fundamentally an instrument for live performance, designed to be played without peering at a monitor, at least for most of the time.
So first things first: what exactly do you get when you splash out for a Pico? There's the Pico itself, of course, which comes in black or silver, and whose cool, exceptionally well‑finished aluminium construction looks destined to last a lifetime. An aluminium and plastic breath-pipe fits into a cut‑away section at the top of the main body, and two mouthpieces are supplied. An adjustable neck-strap attaches to a loop on the back of the Pico and assists a pair of adjustable thumb-rests in supporting the instrument during playing. A good-quality, three-metre USB cable then fits into a recess at the bottom, and is secured with a robust cable clamp. You also get an 8GB Eigenlabs‑branded memory stick, which takes the place of the DVD you might otherwise have expected for installing the system software and associated sample library. A pair of small 'Quick Start' and 'Quick Reference' guides are all that's provided in the way of manuals, and a product activation card carries a personalised code for accessing support and downloads from www.eigenlabs.com. All this lot comes in a sturdy cardboard box with a carrying handle. Taken as a whole, the package has an air of confident quality reminiscent of Steve Jobs‑era Apple products.
The Pico also comes with a generous complement of Apple Loops and Soundfonts, which cover a broad range of contemporary musical styles. A few bonus downloads are available from the Eigenlabs web site, and it's easy to add your own loops and Soundfonts into the user library. You also get a special edition of Camel Audio's excellent Alchemy synth.
So what are the basic concepts of the Pico? As you'd expect, the physical instrument acts as a controller — so it has no sounds or processing ability of its own. Everything else happens on the computer, in an application called EigenD. This handles the controller input, and hosts a range of Soundfont‑compatible sample players, Apple Loop players, AU (Mac) and VST (PC) instruments and effects, physical models of a cello and clarinet, and various loop‑based sequencers. But in a brave departure from what seems to be the norm these days, EigenD has almost no graphical interface — just a browser window that's only involved in a few operations, and even then doesn't rely on the use of mouse, trackpad or computer keyboard. Instead, you interact with the system using mostly the Eigenharp itself, via key‑press combinations that include the top-left round button, the Main Mode Key.
To put that in some sort of practical context, I'll describe some typical first steps with the Pico. After setting up and launching EigenD for the first time, the one and only factory setup (a sort of global snapshot of settings) is loaded, and the Pico defaults to playing a piano sound. The keyboard initially maps notes chromatically from 'C' to 'G' for the left hand, arranged in two vertical columns. The eight keys for the right hand below cover the G# to Eb going on up the pitch range. The bottom round keys act as octave shifts, while the top-right key (as you're holding it) is a global start/stop control that, at least for now, launches a drum loop. So far so good — you can get something out of the Pico the moment you start using it.
But what if you want a different sound? Holding down the Main Mode key, and pressing one of the seven playing keys directly below it switches to some other pre‑configured sounds, including bass guitar, a synth pad, and the clarinet and cello physical models that make interesting use of the breath-pipe input. And how about selecting a different drum loop to play along with? Holding down the Mode key again, but this time pressing the first playing key in the right-hand column below switches to a 'Drummer Control' mode, in which six pre‑loaded loops and a metronome click can be launched, stopped and combined by tapping keys in the left-hand key column. Adjacent keys in the right-hand key column bring up a browser window on your computer monitor and now, by rocking up and down one of the bottom‑most playing keys on the Pico, you can scroll through a list of bundled loops. When you've found one you like, a tap of the scroll key loads it into your drummer 'slot', and then you can switch back to an instrument and continue playing. If this sounds a bit labour‑intensive it's not supposed to — it's much easier to actually do than describe.
Using a series of additional configuration modes, extensive changes can be made to a Pico setup, loading different sounds, changing tempo, switching keyboard scale layouts and transpositions, adding effects, recording loops ready for later triggering, and balancing the relative levels of the different sound‑generating components. It takes a little while to get into the swing of it, and in the early stages constant reference to the Quick Reference Guide is essential, as there are absolutely no other visual cues or prompts, but after a few sessions it starts to stick, and quite radical setup changes can be made surprisingly quickly.
When I reviewed the Eigenharp Alpha last year, I found making critical judgements of it strangely difficult. It screamed potential, but at that stage required that players learn a programming system called Belcanto to accomplish even fairly simple operations like browsing sounds and loops. Without committing a large amount of time and effort to mastering this and other aspects of the system, you weren't going to get much out of it, and yet you could sense that it was capable of so much.
With the Pico, the situation is quite different. It trades the scary open‑endedness of those pre‑release Alpha configurations for a single setup that you can master in a few days. Straightforward features like browsing for samples, loops and scales have been incorporated as simple keystrokes within a handful of configuration modes, making the whole thing feel much more immediate and hugely less intimidating. First steps with the Pico can lead you into thinking it's quite limited, but, as I've already mentioned, familiarity and experimentation allow a great deal of customisation to be achieved very easily. But while simplicity is a strength, it can also be a limitation. Depending on your approach, it might not take too long before you wish you could make some deeper configuration changes. Say, for example, you wanted the seven sound slots to all be Audio Unit hosts, and do away with the samplers and physical models. EigenD can easily run a setup like that, but you've no means of creating it. Your only hope, as an intrepid Pico owner, is that Eigenlabs could provide a setup that would allow you to enter Belcanto commands directly, to directly re-program the sound-selection system. I dare say they'd do this, and the forums at Eigenlabs are busy with people discussing the possibilities and potential of really getting under the skin of the system in this way. But then would come an entirely new and much tougher learning experience, getting to grips with a programming language and the architecture of EigenD. It's a curious situation, though a million miles, I must stress, from being any sort of deal breaker — the Pico works well just the way Eigenlabs made it.
I'm at risk of finishing another Eigenharp review having done more describing than reviewing, so here goes. As a physical product, the Pico is top class, with construction quality, key action and strip controller response all excellent. My review unit only worked properly when its USB connection was plugged directly into a USB port on the Mac, though apparently the use of a different USB chip in future Picos may allow their use with USB 2 hubs. The breath pipe works well, and is mapped to control various parameters with different sounds, but I wished there could have been a faster response to harder, quicker tonguing — it's hard to know whether it's the breath pipe itself or the physical models that are at fault here. Also, many sustaining sounds don't respond to the excellent key aftertouch unless they've been triggered with a fairly strong initial key velocity. This is more the fault of the individual voice architectures than a lack of ability on the part of the Pico, but it's disappointing nonetheless, especially for pad-style sounds.
The instructional videos that are such an important part of getting going with the Pico are well paced, and the documentation is clear. Having said that, I often wished the key positions and descriptions were shown from a player's perspective rather than head‑on, a position from which you never view the Pico as a player.
In use, running EigenD, I experienced no problems whatsoever. The samplers loaded every Soundfont I tried, and there were no Audio Unit compatibility problems either. It's a shame that browsing Audio Unit presets has to be done with the mouse or trackpad, and can't be achieved directly from the Pico, but with so many different systems in use by developers, it's hard to see how Eigenlabs could have found a unified solution to this. In any case, once you've got the sounds you need loaded, they can be saved and recalled from a user setup easily enough. Of the 'house' instruments, the physically modelled cello trounces the clarinet in realism terms, especially when you 'bow' it by stroking the strip controller. Apple Loop playback is good across a wide range of tempos, but the absence of a 'quantise during recording' option when using the loop sequencer makes achieving good results hard for some styles.
Looked at as a complete package, the Pico is a great little thing. Eigenlabs have done well to allow so much flexibility within the one straightforward setup, and it might be all that many players ever need for live soloing, some more complex multi‑layered performances, and many happy hours of noodling and experimenting at home. For open‑minded writers and artists, it could prove to be an inspiring musical tool, with a magnetic on‑stage presence.
The only real alternative to the Pico would be another instrument in the Eigenharp range, but at £1899 for the Tau, and £3995 for the Alpha, any sort of direct comparison is more or less impossible.
As I write this review, the Eigenharp software is still Mac‑only, and you'll need an Intel Mac with a 2GHz processor or better, and 2GB RAM. Windows support is 'expected' by April 2010, so should hopefully be available by the time you read this.
The visual Quick Start Guide gives some basic info about setting up the Pico, and then directs the new owner to watch a series of tutorial videos, three of which were supplied on the bundled USB stick I received, with another accessible at the Eigenlabs web site. Unless you'd had prior first-hand experience of an Eigenharp, these are, I'd say, compulsory viewing, because they get you up and running with some basic concepts quite quickly.