Hands On Yamaha's Tenori-On Synthesizer: We Love It

Tenori-On, the crazy light-up handheld synthesizer from Yamaha we've been geeked about for months, officially launched in the US tonight. It won't be on sale until May 1, but we got our hands on one and simply put, we were amazed. Resident Giz musician Jonny Lam (Brian's little brother) hit the event with us, and was playing music in minutes. What's interesting is how you can play this thing according to sound, but also, visual cues:

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The Tenori-On is a synthesizer on a 16x16 grid that caters to the novice as easily as the expert. Every button on the grid represents a note. Chords are created by hitting multiple notes in one line, and full pieces are made by placing notes on several lines, which play left to right in sequential order. In addition, each button represents a different sound or instrument, for a total of 256 different built-in noises. Furthermore, samples can be loaded on the unit to make unique creations, and there are several other customization options. The Tenori-On records up to 16 tracks, and files are saved in a format which can be loaded on other Tenori-Ons or edited with MIDI software.

Artists at the event told us that the visual aspects of the device are just important as the musical aspects. Some said they attempt to make songs in a traditional sense, but others were more content to base their sounds on designs and shapes. The Tenori-On can work as a completely visual instrument.

It will retail for $1200 when it goes on sale May 1. Good luck getting your hands on one, because production is extremely limited; Yamaha is testing the US market and only plans on a 1000 piece run for the entire year, available only through the Tenori-On website. We'll have a review unit in soon and tell you about our extended experience with the instrument then. [Tenori-On]

DISCUSSION

@frigg:

I'll quote and reply:

*Does it stand the test of time, or do you find that as you get used to it, it becomes gimmicky and you leave it lying around in the corner?

It hasn't become gimmicky at all. It definitely stands the test of time, but I DO leave it laying around (I have a nice little home studio). I generally take it with me almost everyehwere and use it to get the songs or beats out of my head when needed. This is, by no means, its only purpose, but it definitely serves as the ULTIMATE SCRATCH PAD, as it were, for me. I can see how someone who purchases this with the idea that it will take over as a major part of their setup might feel miffed after a couple months.

*Also, do you find that there's any kind of learning curve, or has it been plug and play for you and friends that might pick it up and just start using it?

It all depends on how deep you want to get into it. A complete idiot with 0 musical perception can pick this up and within no time come up with something quite impressive. Alternatively, someone with a bit of knowledge and passion can come up with an incredible bit of tune, as the Tenori has a pretty wide bevy of different modes, layers, pages, and tweaks that can be applied to it.

*Do you like the relationship between the lights and the sound, or again, do you find that after awhile it seems gimmicky?

No way is it gimmicky. At first you may be like "damn that's cute", but later on you realize that some of the modes actually depend on it. You dont need a readout of any kind due to the way they have magnificiently gone about using the lights. Everything is apparent to you by looking at what is going on. They aren't just there for a light show.

I want to throw in here that it isn't just a "hit a dot to make a beep when the play head comes around". There are a bunch of other modes that are quite unique only to something as visual as the Tenori.

*Does the restriction of notes to predetermined modes frustrate you after awhile and make you feel like no matter what you do, the harmonic choices box you in? Or is this not an issue as there are enough other parameters that you are able to manipulate so that you feel that you are leading it rather than it is leading you?

Liek I said before, at first it's very easy to get a bit 'boxed in' if all you do is use the general interface, but once you dig a bit deeper, there are many many things to keep you occupied. There are 256 preset banks of sounds. Some banks actually have 16 different voices within each one (such as a full drum kit). You can hook it up to the computer and add your own samples to use as well. There are some basic effects and all the general assets to apply (tempo, individual volume, individual loop points (!!!), etc etc).

Another gripe, you can't change time signatures. This may be big for some people, but so far, hasn't been to big of a deal for what I use it for.

*Finally, as I understand it, you said you were frustrated by its inability to create multiple sections and put them together in a larger song.

This is true. Please understand that you can create a whole song, measure by measure, on different 'pages' and flip between them. You can even have seperate pages for each layer! But the ability to sequence the pages is just not there. Seems like a no brainer for them to have added. There is a mode that records what you are doing into an mp3 though. If I'm not mistaken, you can also have this slaved up and control it via some other software (I know you can use it as master in the midi chain as well, which has been fun to hook it up to my tb-30 devilfish). I have to admit that I have not attempted to take said pages out of it and into another software based program. I work with comptuers all day and when I play music, I tend to shy away from the mouse+keyboard realm and stick with knobs and buttons (mpc, 909, 808, 303, virus, etc etc).

As a side note, it has some cool other features that are completely gimmicky. Like you can turn it into clock mode, where it shows what time it is with a little dot going around the outside. You can then set an alarm and ahve it play a song you have made at a given time. Little idiotic things like this are the green gel-icing 'happy bday' writing on the cake.

Have any of you every used PSPKick by chance? (insert big grin here)