Ditch The Keys (If You Want To)

After the human voice, the piano keyboard is our primary interface for musical expression. It’s been around for centuries so it’s no surprise that it was carried as the de facto method of expression with the invention of the synthesizer and, later, the MIDI controller. Over 75% of Novation products have a keyboard; we’re a keyboard company, we love keyboards, and so do most of you.

But despite its simplicity and universality, that strip of black and white keys is not always the best fit for modern music making. For example, playing drums on a keyboard — though totally possible — doesn’t really make sense; pads are way more suitable. And if you want to control parameters in your software, piano keys definitely aren’t ideal, especially not for variable controls like faders and knobs.

Of course, humans are masters at adapting, so some of us have developed skills to be able to do practically anything on the piano. Check out the inimitable Thiago Pinheiro, below, taking on a multitude of instruments with an Novation 61 SL MKII keyboard controller. 

Thiago Pinheiro is a true keyboard master, in every sense.

But virtuosity of this level requires many years of learning. What we need is a different paradigm, something more suitable to modern music making, which allows us to express ourselves musically in the easiest way possible. I’m definitely not suggesting that we make the keyboard redundant (I already told you, we love keyboards), and we should steer clear of designing things that make the music for you (that’s cheating). But to offer a different and more suitable option for today’s musicians, producers and beat makers would be kinda neat, right?

Designing new musical interfaces is not a totally new idea, and there have been many attempts, such as the Axis controllers by C-Thru Music, which used hexagonal keys. But we’re at the point now where hardware and software technology have got into step with each other and it’s completely possible to ditch the keys, scale down your studio and embrace a new music-making workflow.

The Novation Launchpad, along with several other Ableton-centric products on the market, lets you take your focus off the keyboard paradigm completely. The granular idiosyncrasies of Ableton’s session mode — based on its grid of audio and MIDI clips — are flawlessly incarnated on Launchpad Pro’s main 8x8 button matrix, and a wealth of different modes let you control other areas of the Ableton interface. Importantly, for those looking to move away from a keyboard-based platform, there’s Note mode, which lets you play software or hardware synths using the velocity-and pressure-sensitive pads. Note mode uses what’s called a ‘chromatic fourths’ arrangement for the 64 pads in the 8x8 grid, where all the notes of the equal-temperament keyboard are arranged in two four-note-wide ascending columns.

"I didn’t want to be behind a keyboard with the audience not being able to see what was going on."
Jack St. James, Avec Sans

London-based duo Avec Sans use an Impulse 49 keyboard controller alongside a trio of Launchpads on stage. Jack St. James from the band explains how this gear combination enabled him to perform expressively. “Before Avec Sans, I was playing guitar in punk bands, so performing electronic music was completely new to me. This meant I was open to anything. I knew that I didn’t want to be behind a keyboard with the audience not being able to see what was going on, and I knew I wanted it to feel like a really energetic performance. So I came across Launchpad. You can use it as a controller for Ableton, use it to launch samples, use it like a keyboard, for a light show… all at the same time with relative ease.”

Alice and Jack of British band Avec Sans. Photo: Avec Sans.

For Jack, Launchpad’s benefits are more than just functional. “It’s much more expressive to have buttons to hit percussively than to be pressing keyboard keys. The pad layout also leads to some interesting mistakes. But removing yourself from the comfort of a keyboard forces you to explore notes and progressions in a new way which can lead to some awesome results.” We admit that, while playable, this isn’t the most logical layout. But with Scale functionality — a new feature added to Launchpad Pro in mid-2016 — the root note and mode of a musical scale can be set, giving you what music nerds call an isomorphic keyboard layout. (Read our Isomorphism primer by Mike Metlay in the section below.) With Scale mode, you can switch between a major scale, for example, and Iwato, the scale used for the Japanese koto (or any one of the 30 other scale templates) in seconds. This transforms Launchpad Pro into an expressive note grid where all accessible notes are in-key; wrong notes are a thing of the past, and you can get inspiration from scales that don’t come naturally when you’re poking around on a piano keyboard. Take your mind off precise fingering and chord patterns, and focus on dynamic expression. It’s liberating.

Harry Coade shows Launchpad Pro’s Scale mode.

Of course, we know that music making requires talent, and there will never be a substitute for rocking a piano like Herbie, Stevie or Duke. But why should we make piano virtuosity a requirement for music making? We don’t think we should, basically; as a hardware company, we have made it our mission to make music easy to make. It takes some out-of-box thinking, but there are plenty of ways to make music and, as Harry Coade demonstrates in this video, a pad controller can be a really versatile centerpiece to your studio.

This video was filmed before Scale mode was released, so the ‘isomorphic chromatic fourths’ layout is visible in note mode.

It’s not just in the relative calm of the studio where Launchpad Pro can be used to great effect. Recording Magazine’s Mike Metlay is a proud Launchpad Pro user whose keyboard-less live setup has been improved dramatically by Scale mode. “Since Scale mode was introduced, the Launchpad Pro has become, for me, a practically essential playing interface. I frequently choose to play it instead of a standard keyboard: it’s compact, light, expressive, easy to use, and tons of fun.” Of course, there’s still progress to be made; ditching the keys is possible, but there’s still no good replacement for the pitch and mod wheels that reside to the left of the keybed and provide standardised expression control. “The only reason why Launchpad Pro hasn’t become my go-to keyboard for everything,” says Mike, “is its lack of expression controls. Yes, you can have pressure sensitivity on each key, but many synthesizer players miss having control of pitch bend and vibrato (at a minimum) with the left hand.” Who knows, maybe this functionality will emerge somehow. As with all technological developments, one step at a time…
Isomorphism: a primer by Mike Metlay (Recording Magazine).

Since the very early years of my work in electronic music, I’ve been fascinated with isomorphism in keyboard design. Isomorphism — the idea of a keyboard that maintains the same chord and scale fingerings regardless of key — is, on face value, a brilliant idea. Learn one scale pattern and it works for all keys. Cuts your learning time by a factor of twelve, right? Well, yes and no. Pioneering electronic instrument designer Don Buchla pointed out in an interview some years ago that the human brain is wired to handle groups of items up to a certain size, roughly four to five items. Beyond that, it gets confused. The reason we can handle the traditional piano keyboard is because it’s grouped into small numbers of keys: two black keys and the white keys around them, three black keys and the white keys around them, a couple of white keys with no black keys nearby. The brain naturally sorts these groups and actually makes it easier to learn fingerings. Where an isomorphic keyboard comes into its own is when it combines its easy-to-learn fingerings with solid visual cues that keep the user oriented. Standard Note mode in the Launchpad Pro is one example of this; you learn fingerings and orient yourself from the lit keys and root note to know where you are. But there are no easy mnemonic hand shapes to guide you from one key to the next; you have to use your eyes. You can find yourself hung up in an awkward limbo between traditional and fully isomorphic play. Scale mode pushes the user all the way to the isomorphic side of the Force [that’s a Star Wars reference in case you missed it. Is it a surprise that Mike’s a sci-fi fan?! — Ed]. Suddenly you can choose your key and scale, and change them on the fly in a matter of seconds, once you learn your way around the Scale mode setup page. Once you’ve done that, you’re presented with a vastly simplified keyboard structure: easy fingerings, no wrong notes… it’s a dream come true for the producer or musician with no formalised keyboard training.