The LinnStrument is the anti-keyboard that might finally win over keyboard players

June 5, 2015

PROS

Chord, scale, and melody shapes are the same in all keys. Has polyphonic as well as channel aftertouch. Clever and straighforward user interface for settings. Capable of splits. Incredibly expressive when paired with the right soft synth.

CONS

Up and down pitch-bend ranges are not separately adjustable. On a desktop, cable I/O placement on the right side might get in the way of your mouse pad.


Bottom Line

From a keyboard player’s perspective, this is the hippest, most approachable, most fun-to-play “anti-keyboard” yet.

$1,799 list | $1,499 street | rogerlinndesign.com



I’ve never fully warmed up to alternatives to the black-and-white keyboard, and I suspect this is true of many people who originally learned music on piano or organ. This is partially because there’s a heck of a lot the conventional keyboard layout got right the first time. That’s what I told Roger Linn (father of the MPC drum machine and Technical Grammy winner) when he asked if I would personally review his new LinnStrument, and he replied, “I know. That’s why I want you to do it.” After spending three weeks with one, I found that it’s not only an extremely flexible, powerful, and programmable MIDI controller, but also quite easy to learn and play. It’s also fun and addictive. Even though its notes are not laid out like a piano, it’s the most keyboardist-friendly non-keyboard I’ve yet played.


Overview

The LinnStrument is a controller without internal sounds. Its grid has 200 trigger pads arranged in eight rows by 25 columns. Beginning with F#0 at bottom left, notes in each row ascend chromatically. If you look at columns, notes ascend in fourths by default, Roger Linn’s intent being that each row is a “string” in a guitar-like layout. An advantage here is that unlike on a piano, chords and scales have the same physical shape in all keys in terms of where you put your fingers (see diagram below, click to enlarge). LEDs under the pads denote C in blue and the rest of the C major scale in green. Touch a pad and it turns red, along with every other pad that plays that same pitch—a nice visual aid that gets you oriented.

 

I asked Roger Linn whether you could set the pads up to play specific scales and modes such that it’s impossible to hit a wrong note, as you can on grid controllers such as Ableton Push. Short answer: no. In the global settings, however, you can change what notes are backlit as well as pick the colors (red, yellow, green, blue, light blue, or purple) for the scale notes, “accent” (root) notes, and played notes. This means you can illuminate any scale for visual reference, and even set the accent color to a non-root note for modal playing. But as on a regular keyboard, you’re still traversing a chromatic landscape and should expect to put some effort into getting comfortable with where the notes are.

Each note cell senses velocity, channel or polyphonic aftertouch, and the Y-axis position of your finger. This gives rise to the LinnStrument’s killer app. With a software or hardware sound source capable of interpreting all this, you can send separate messages—per touch, per note—for each of those, as well as polyphonic pitch-bend (more on this in a minute). This gives rise to a degree of musical expression that’s all but impossible to achieve on traditional keyboards, and is particularly inspiring on solo sounds such as trumpet, woodwinds, acoustic or electric guitar, and analog synth leads. The MIDI CCs the LinnStrument can transmit reflect the intended usage: X-axis for pitch-bend, Y-axis for filter cutoff/brightness (CC 74) or modulation (CC 1), and Z-axis (pressure) for expression (CC 11) or whatever other parameter you set to receive poly or channel aftertouch in your connected sound source. If you want different destinations for these gestures, you can set this up in quasi-hidden settings, or remap them in your software (e.g., Logic’s Environment window).

How does pitch-bend work? By sliding your finger horizontally across multiple pads. (Y-axis modulation, by contrast, has to be within the confines of a pad; slide vertically onto adjacent pads and and you’ll trigger other notes.) To be clear, left or right sliding is applying a pitch-bend message to the note you originally struck, not applying portamento between that note and the note the pad you landed on would play if you hit it staccato. However, if the bend range is set wide (your options are two or three half-steps, then one or two octaves), this gets mapped evenly across whatever “row real estate” is adjacent to your initial note, letting you perform more precise bends. Pitch quantization, if turned on, snaps any sloppy initial strikes to the correct note, and a useful “quantize hold” lets you add post-bend modulation gestures without deviating from the destination pitch. You can also execute vibrato via a rocking motion, though generally you’ll need to cover more horizontal ground in the process than on a controller like the Continuum or Seaboard. My only complaint here is that you can’t set asymmetrical up and down ranges, as for some soloing techniques I could see wanting only a whole-step bend up but a Van Halen dive-bomb an octave or two down.

Rounding out the LinnStrument’s functionality are two assignable Switch buttons, two-way split capability, an assignable dual footswitch input, a vintage synth-style arpeggiator, strum and restrike (think MPC-style drum repeat) modes, and up to 128 preset locations which can send program changes—independently for either side of a split if desired. Also available when the Preset button is lit are four “all settings” memories. As the name implies, these save the entire state and setup of the LinnStrument, and are indispensable for jockeying between different musical applications and/or connected instruments you’re controlling.


Programming

When you enter one of the edit modes (via dedicated buttons along the left edge), the pads stop sending notes and instead become a control panel. Parameters are printed on the body in little vertical lists of up to four items—per-split (that is, per side of a split) settings above the top row of pads and global settings below the bottom—and these are aligned with columns of pads. You tap the corresponding pad in that column to adjust something. So, for the top global parameter in a stack of four, you’d count four pads up in that column. Dealing with per-split settings up top? Flip your perspective and count downwards. In some cases, multiple pads select different values for the same parameter; in others, you step through options by repeatedly tapping a pad. For preset (program change) selection, you drag left or right as the pads display preset numbers in “dot matrix printer” fashion. Frankly, written words make this interface sound much more complicated than it is. When you’re hands-on, you quickly grasp the visual correspondence between what’s silkscreened on the metal and what the pads do in the various edit modes, and it’s like, duh. Maybe I’m carrying on about this too much, but if the point of this review is whether a non-keyboard controller can appeal to a keyboard player, the LinnStrument interface writes a bold checkmark in the “yes” column. The task of editing parameters is usually something we just tolerate in order to get an end result, but on the LinnStrument, it’s actually fun.

Tapping the Split button adds a right-hand part and makes your (formerly) main setting the left-hand part. A double tap gives the entire playing surface to the right-hand part. To adjust the split point, hold the Split button and drag left or right along the pads. Root and scale note colors for either side of the split are customizable.

What can be adjusted? Too many things to list. At the per-split level, highlights include the MIDI transmit mode: single-channel (the simplest, for getting up and running with your soft synths right away), channel-per-note (to take full advantage of per-note bend and modulation), and channel-per-row. This last setting could let you control a different soft synth from each row.

Bend range, pitch quantization, and what messages the Y-axis and aftertouch send reside at the per-split level as well. You can also make the bottom row of pads do performance and modulation tasks instead of playing notes. These include triggering the strum, restrike, and arpeggiator modes, acting as a ribbon controller or expression pedal, and acting as a “touchpad” where X, Y, and pressure send CCs 16, 17, and 18, respectively.

The global settings include arpeggiator behavior and control assignments for the switch buttons and pedal input, as well as utilities to calibrate the playing surface and update the unit’s OS.


Playing Impressions

I’ve gotten more technical than I expected to, mainly because the LinnStrument is far deeper as a MIDI controller than I anticipated. But how does it feel and play?

Playing a scale is an effortless matter of your fingers dancing up three rows. As on a guitar, you could play that series of notes in other ways, but ascending three rows means that horizontally, your fingers are never more than five pads apart on any row. Also, hitting wide intervals that would be difficult or impossible on a piano keyboard is quite easy here. We keyboardists tend to get proud about the calisthenics we can perform to execute difficult note combinations, but there’s a lot to be said in favor of the “reach economy” the LinnStrument makes possible.

The global settings include three degrees of pressure sensitivity, and I found myself opting for the hardest to get the best relation between how forcefully my fingers were pressing and how linearly the aftertouch curve progressed—your mileage may vary. At that setting I achieved very fine control, negotiating the pressure axis as subtly as a horn player might vary embouchure. But there’s barely any physical travel; both the Haken Continuum and Roli Seabaord have a more satisfying TempurPedic-like “squish” to sink your fingers into. Nonetheless, the LinnStrument doesn’t slouch on precision when it comes to translating pressure into CC values—there just isn’t a lot of feel.

The LinnStrument comes with guitar strap pins that can be screwed into any of its four corners, and Roger recommends holding the unit like a Chapman Stick, i.e., on a diagonal with your left hand wrapped around the top left quadrant and your right hand around the bottom right. I tried this, but my left hand strained to reach the bass notes in the bottom left area. It would help if you could flip the note layout of the left-hand split part so that the lowest notes started with the top left pad, but I could see that steepening the learning curve as you’d need to think about two mirror-imaged note layouts at once. I reverted to placing it flat on a desktop with my hands in “keyboard player” position.


Conclusions

As a keyboard snob who usually crinkles my nose at alternative controllers, I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself hooked on the LinnStrument. Playing it gives me ideas that I don’t get on a keyboard. To maximize its ability to turn gestures and pressure into musical expression, you’ll need to pair it with a soft synth smart enough to fully exploit its MIDI-channel-per note mode. Roger Linn maintains an ongoing list of these, as well as a downloadable project file of optimized Logic instruments, in the support section of his website. By one argument the LinnStrument is on the expensive side, but it’s considerably less so than other exotica—Continuum, Seaboard, Eigenharp—that have all aimed to “change the way we make music.” The LinnStrument is so fun, friendly, and flexible that it just might actually do so.

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