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Joué Board & Modules

MIDI Controller
By Nick Rothwell

Joué

The Joué offers a highly configurable modular MIDI control system.

Pressure-sensitive, MPE-capable, configurable multi-touch MIDI controllers seem to be like buses: you wait ages then two come along (almost) at once. I reviewed the Sensel Morph back in October, but mentioned the Joué in that article since I first came across the latter some months before that. Finally, I have a Joué in front of me.

We've had boutique controllers since at least the first Monome (Sound On Sound September 2008), and the Joué is in similar tradition, coming from a small French company led by the creator of the original Lemur controller. The Joué is a slim block measuring some 36cm wide and 14cm deep, and appears to be milled out of a solid block of wood, though in fact a cursory glance at the underside reveals that it's constructed from panels glued together with almost hermetic precision. The top of the device sports a metal plate with a recessed area which takes a selection of brightly-coloured flexible silicone 'modules'. You can consider the Joué itself to be something of a blank slate which is configured by the choice of modules installed on it. On the right-hand end of the device is a USB-C socket and a power LED.

Like the Sensel Morph, the Joué itself is a generic multi‑touch sensor — the modules are essentially passive (though they are configurable, as described below). Unlike the Sensel, the Joué doesn't feature Bluetooth for wireless operation, and its interfacing is purely MIDI.

Getting Started

Plug the Joué in, and it appears as a class-compliant MIDI controller. It actually has two virtual MIDI ports: one labelled 'Play' for general use, and one labelled 'Edit' for configuration using the dedicated editor, which you can download from the Joué website. (The manual sensibly warns against attempting to use this second port for anything other than the editor.)

My unit arrived with a full complement of modules, which we'll look at below. Notionally the Joué has space for three modules at once, if they are a standard square shape (9cm on a side), but some modules are double- or triple-width. They are held in place magnetically, though you'll need to have the Joué fully populated or they'll have a tendency to shift around under your fingers.

The Joué editor does the duty of configuring the modules. It's relatively easy to use, although slightly lacking in polish. In particular, it would be useful to have some in-built help or mouse-over hints to explain exactly what's going on; it's not always clear how the editor settings relate to the module on the device, there are some menus containing only one selection item (such as, for some reason, colour), and some parameter settings are rather obscure, such as the fretboard's 'Vibrato' and 'Bending', which run from 0 to 8096 without further explanation. (In fact, the higher value is close to the numerical limit of 14-bit MIDI pitch-bend messages, and Joué tell me they'll support the true upper limit in a software update.)

The Joué editor. A Fretboard preset is open for editing, although the device itself is running the chromatic Scaler module.The Joué editor. A Fretboard preset is open for editing, although the device itself is running the chromatic Scaler module.

The editor manages presets (left-hand panel), and allows MIDI configuration on a preset-by-preset basis (right-hand panel). At the top of the window, an image of the Joué itself is a drag-and-drop location for loading presets and edits. Curiously, any changes made in the editor have to be dropped on to this image to take effect — there's no incremental editing process. It's also possible to click a module on the Joué icon to retrieve it from the device, but it's not possible to edit this preset until it's subsequently dragged into the preset panel to save it.

Conveniently, a set of buttons beside the Joué image allow generated control messages to be filtered by X, Y and Z dimensions individually, making it much easier to use 'MIDI learn' to bind controllers to parameters in instruments and DAWs.

Whenever a module is edited, or a new preset is called up, and the result dragged to the Joué, the module state is apparently loaded into the module itself (there's a small RFID chip in each one), rather than into the Joué. If you only have one Joué and one module of each type, this technical detail is unlikely to affect your workflow much, but you'll only be able to load a preset into a module if that module is physically sitting in the Joué to start with.

Modules

The selection of different modules (nine in total at the time of writing) covers a range of MIDI control duties, from keyboards and fretboard to knobs and faders. Where appropriate (keyboards and fretboard) the modules are MPE-capable, and in non-MPE mode they support polyphonic aftertouch, although there's precious little software or hardware out there these days that can make use of it. The factory settings of the modules put them on distinct MIDI channels, while the MIDI controller numbers generally go from 1 upwards, but these settings are all editable.

The Joué's initial selection of modules (minus the Grand Clavier).The Joué's initial selection of modules (minus the Grand Clavier).We'll look at the modules in turn, starting with the smallest and simplest. For testing I used ROLI Equator and FXpansion Cypher2 (which are MPE-capable), both stand-alone and in Bitwig Studio, and I also fired up Cycling '74 Max to inspect MIDI controller messages more closely.

Area: A simple two-dimensional touch pad with a third 'dimension' of monophonic pressure. The X and Y outputs can be configured to output in high-resolution (14-bit) mode, though in practice the resolution available seemed to be around 9 or 10 bits. There's no obvious physical orientation to the pad, but it can be placed any way round on the Joué and still work.

Bubbles: A module with four buttons along the top (which can send notes, control changes, programme changes or pitch bend), below which are four hemispherical 'bubbles' which effectively operate as joysticks with a downward pressure component. When the pressure (Z) is released, the X and Y outputs snap back to 64, or any other start values you wish. There is no 14-bit output option. The bubbles are laid out so that you can operate all four bubbles at once with one hand (for 12 simultaneous controller streams) if you feel sufficently dexterous. You can't rotate the module (to get the buttons at the bottom, for instance): the Joué expects all the controls to be in a specific orientation.

Pads: A four-by-four grid of note pads, intended for percussion playing. The entire grid can be programmed as a unit, where the pitch values are established chromatically from a specified starting pitch, or the pads can be programmed individually. Velocity is supported, as is aftertouch, either monophonic (channel) or polyphonic. Channel aftertouch is generated in isolation from each pad, so if you press multiple pads at once, the value transmitted will jump around inconsistently. (Joué have confirmed that this is a bug which will be addressed, so that channel aftertouch will be output smoothly regardless of the number of pads being pressed.)

There's an additional 'vibrato' parameter which translates left-right (X) movement into pitch bend, where the overall range can be set in the editor. As currently with channel aftertouch, this doesn't make sense when playing polyphonically, and it also doesn't kick in immediately when playing, though I suspect this is deliberate, to prevent accidental pitch drift.

Turn on MPE mode, and pressure and pitch bend ('glide' in MPE parlance) become properly polyphonic. The glide range on the pads seems rather arbitrary (you can set it numerically in the editor), and you certainly won't be able to glide from one pad to the next as you might do on a ROLI Seaboard. For that, you'll need to use one of the keyboard modules.

Rounds: A set of four rotary knobs or encoders, operated by fingertip just within the circular ridge of each control (or, perhaps as intended, along the ridge itself). The ridges have slight bumps at what would be minimum, maximum and centre locations for conventional potentiometers — useful for operation without looking at your hands, and hitting the centre location (MIDI value 64) was surprisingly easy. There's no auto-reset value as with the bubble controls. I found the infinite encoder emulation more useful, and that comes with a speed multiplier setting depending on the accuracy you desire. Again, 14-bit resolution is (theoretically) available. There's no Z/aftertouch support in this module.

Synth: A double-width module implementing an octave and a half of keyboard, with a selection of buttons in a row at the top. Vibrato and aftertouch (channel or poly) are supported, as is Y ('slide'). Again, at present these control streams are not useful polyphonically except with MPE enabled.

MPE polyphonic glide works fine: A glissando option switches between the playing of glissandos (with all intermediate notes triggering) versus being able to glide a single note across multiple keys. This does need a bit of setting up: after some experimentation I discovered that setting a glissando value of 48 semitones in the Joué editor resulted in the correct pitch generation while gliding between keys — at least, that certainly seemed to be the case with Equator and Cypher2. Joué tell me that some instruments don't necessarily adhere to the same pitch range, hence the ability to change it.

The first two buttons on the module are dedicated to octave transpose and can't be programmed. (There's no visual indication of the transposition that's currently in effect.) The others can be assigned a variety of MIDI messages, or act as toggles for other modes like sustain and vibrato. (Again there's no indication of which modes are active, so it might have made more sense to have a way to group the buttons into on/off pairs instead.)

Scaler: A full-width 17-key chromatic keyboard layout oriented towards instruments like harp or vibraphone. A preset scale can be selected (there are 23 to choose from), and vibrato (left-right glide), Y position (slide) and aftertouch are all supported. I was pleasantly surprised to note that MPE glide between keys arrived at the correct pitch regardless of the selected scale. There's also a single bubble, two configurable buttons and a ribbon control.

Strips: A block of four virtual faders, any of which can be configured in 7-bit or 14-bit mode. Each fader has a small detent at each end, acting as a convenient 'dead zone' at each extreme of travel, and there's also a very slight centre ridge. The fader module can be oriented either vertically or horizontally (and presumably you could run multiple strip pads in different orientations). However the orientation has to be set in the editor, and then loaded into the module: the Joué isn't capable of determining that by itself. Faders can also individually be set into 'relative' mode, where a touch-and-slide gesture moves the value up or down from its current setting, with a user-specified scaling factor. Even in relative mode, a tap in a fader's endpoint area transmits a controller value of 0 or 127, as a convenient reset.

Fretboard: A guitar-style fretboard with nine 'frets' and six 'strings' emulating the standard EADGBE tuning. (There's an option to tune the individual strings to other notes.) It's possible to pitch bend along a string (a gesture referred to as vibrato), but the most extreme pitch bending (which is upwards only) comes from the 'bending' gesture, pushing strings upwards or downwards. Aftertouch (pressure) is also supported. There are two configurable buttons, which I found most useful when programmed as toggles for the vibrato and bending functions. I found the fretboard's pitch modulation harder to control than on the keyboards; there's no MPE glide facility, and you have to tweak the vibrato and bending controls by ear.

Grand Clavier: A full-width 'grand piano' module offering two octaves of piano keys (each somewhat wider than the keys on the synth module), again with optional vibrato, Y sensing and aftertouch. And again, glissando is an option. Like the scaler, there's a bubble control, two configurable buttons and a ribbon.

The Grand Clavier keyboard module, in situ.The Grand Clavier keyboard module, in situ.

Demo Projects

Joué provide two template DAW projects, one for Ableton Live and one for Bitwig Studio. These both feature a handful of instrument tracks fed into a rich chain of effects. Both projects assume default MIDI channel settings for the Joué modules, so that the keyboard-like modules play the instruments while the control modules modulate the effects. The buttons on the keyboard modules are assumed to be mapped to MIDI channel select, so that you can flip instantly between two instruments. In both projects, each instrument track is set up to host multiple instruments allowing selection by MIDI controller (using Chain Select in Live, or the X/Y instrument mixing container in Bitwig): you could create a controller mapping for this selection according to taste. Since the projects are routing MIDI by channel, they don't attempt to make use of MPE (which is only a loss for Bitwig, since Live doesn't support MPE anyway), so if you want to adapt these projects as a starting point you'll need to turn off MPE for any modules you want to use.

The Grand Clavier module comes with a free custom-made soundpack for the free UVI Workstation plug-in. The soundpack contains 10 presets, ranging from guitar-with-effects patches to traditional instruments (Cymbalum, Koto), and Workstation allows effects processing to be tweaked according to taste. The presets are MPE-compatible, nicely responsive, and will work with other MPE sources.

In Use

The Joué is compelling to play. The silicone modules afford some 'give' when pressed, making the surface a bit more haptic than the Sensel Morph, but with a lot less movement than a ROLI Seaboard. Vibrato response seemed a little temperamental, needing a bit of left-right movement before kicking in, but glissando and glide worked well enough when configured properly. I found the fretboard a little frustrating, but some time spent fine-tuning parameters in the editor, and actually practicing, would probably help. The controller modules worked well, especially the bubbles, but without visual indication of state, the various octave and mode buttons felt less useful.

Conclusion

The Joué looks good, and the multicoloured silicone modules are immediately appealing. The device is versatile, allowing numerous configurations combining keyboard and MIDI controllers, and it is eminently playable as well, although the vibrato response can be a little difficult to master. The device is only let down somewhat by the editor, which is a little awkward and opaque; a bit more design effort here might pay off in terms of the Joué's overall appeal.

Pros

  • High‑quality, visually appealing design.
  • Multi‑touch, MPE-capable.
  • Versatile, sensitive and highly configurable.

Cons

  • Vibrato response is a little difficult to control.
  • No visual feedback of control states.
  • The editor is a bit opaque and awkward to use.

Summary

The Joué is a modular touch-sensitive, MPE-capable controller with silicone 'modules' allowing easy configuration into different setups combining keyboard and MIDI controls. The bundled editor allows programming and fine-tuning of its 
MIDI output.

information

Joué Board €399, modules from 
€19 to €39. Prices include VAT.

www.play-joue.com

Joué Board €399, 
modules from €19 to €39.

www.play-joue.com

Published May 2019