Haken Continuum

The Continuum can be set up to play microtonal scales, but that’s not its mission in life.

The Continuum can be set up to play microtonal scales, but that’s not its mission in life. Essentially, it’s a giant ribbon controller with simultaneous X, Y, and Z (i.e., pressure) sensing of as many as 16 fingers at once—32 with the internal sounds. The playing surface is flat, and the familiar pattern of two-then-three black “keys” is silkscreened onto it. The “white keys” in this arrangement are red, and the black and red stripes are the same width—a little more than 13mm, which is narrower than my fingertips and somewhat narrower than the white keys on a piano, which are about 23mm wide. The overall octave width, however, is the same as on a piano.

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The fingerboard feels textured, not slick, and when you press downward it has a pressure dip of about 8mm. It feels spongy, but in a good way. It’s available in half-length and full-length models; the fulllength model has 93 “keys.”

Surprisingly for such an expensive instrument, the Continuum has no LCD. It can be programmed by putting the fingerboard in data-entry mode; a single LED at the left end of the unit then changes color to give you some basic visual feedback on what you’re doing. You’re much better off , though, using the freely downloadable Continuum Editor soft ware.

The Continuum Editor is how you configure things like sensor behavior and control assignments. It also gives you control over the Continuum's internal synth engine.

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The Continuum can play its internal sounds, or external hardware or soft ware instruments that can operate in multitimbral mode and with 14-bit pitch-bend response. Each of your fi ngers will transmit on a separate MIDI channel. By default, finger pressure transmits CC11 and finger Y-axis position transmits CC74, but you can reassign these. The fingerboard can translate the initial pressure of a finger-stroke into MIDI velocity, but you may find that it makes more sense to send a uniform velocity and control the notes’ loudness entirely from pressure, rather than using a volume envelope.

I asked the manufacturer what instruments he recommends for use with the Continuum. He mentioned Native Instruments Kontakt, a multitimbral sampler, and Symbolic Sound Kyma, a DSP-based hardware synth that sound designers love. If you want to play the Continuum polyphonically on a soft synth that isn’t multitimbral, you’ll most likely need a host program (such as a DAW) that can route each MIDI channel to the input of a separate instrument track and then insert multiple instances of the same synth, all of them set to the same sound preset. This is easy to set up in Ableton Live, but not in some other DAWs, so check your owner’s manual. The internal sounds let you use the Continuum standalone, and you can tweak them in the Continuum Editor soft ware, but in my opinion, though, they’re not as rich in expressive possibilities as my favorite soft synths.

Playing the Continuum is liberating but quite demanding in terms of performance technique. You can play a chord, for instance, and then pitch-bend each note of the chord individually or add vibrato and volume swells to some notes and not others. You can set the instrument so that wherever you strike, your initial touch will be in tune with a normal scale, which is a handy feature. Even so, learning to play chords and fast runs on the Continuum is likely to require a great deal of practice. As a cellist, I’ve learned to space my fingers to play in tune without the aid of frets, so I know it can be done, but I’d still be reluctant to take a Continuum onstage without months of daily practice beforehand.

Dexterity Rules

Any alternative keyboard design will require practice if you want to play something more complex than “Chopsticks.” And it’s an open question whether it would be a smart move to devote intensive practice time to building your chops on an instrument that’s being built by only a single small manufacturer.

There’s surely room in the world for a more modern keyboard design—one that senses gestures other than key velocity and has a uniform layout for fingering in different keys and with different scales. But what’s needed for several large manufacturers to embrace the same design, so that people feel safe learning to play music on the new keyboard. That’s a lot more likely to happen, now that MIDI and OSC (Open Sound Control) can deliver a complex keyboard performance to a tone generator. It remains to be seen whether such a keyboard will ever be a large-scale success, so for now, don’t stop practicing your Hanon.

More from this Roundup:

Starr Labs Microzone U-648
C-Thru Music Axis-49