Yamaha Tenori-on: everything you wanted to know (with video)

From the mind that brought you ElectroPlankton comes the Tenori-on (finally!): an 8 x 8-inch magnesium square brimming with 256 tiny, pressable, blinking LEDs and even gestural controls that make it easy to sequence electronic music on the fly. It's a spectacular tool for creating loops and making those sitting next to you on the train jealous. But will it keep serious musicians busy long enough to make it worth the $1200 Yamaha wants for it? Read on for a full report of our week-long visit with the little alien box.


One of creator Toshio Iwai's primary objectives in creating the Tenori-on was to bring electronic music composition to the masses, and turning the unit on makes the process almost immediately recognizable: a vertical bar of LEDs loops from left to right across the 16 x 16 grid. Pressing any of the buttons on the 16 x 16 grid makes a sound when pressed momentarily. Press the button for a little while longer, and the light will stay lit up, sounding each time the bar passes over it.

This type of functionality will be familiar to anyone who's used a hardware or software sequencer, but the sheer number of buttons gives the Tenori-on another compositional dimension: low notes are on the bottom and high notes are on the top, giving the user an instant picture-score of what's going on at any time. Score one for those of us who never cared much for sheet music.

One problem with this scoring method is that 16 notes is not sufficient to capture a really broad pitch range, and it's probably for that reason that some notes (sharps and flats) have been omitted from the vertical scale -- tough if you're trying to make an exact replica of your favorite Model 500 song. The interface is much easier seen and heard than described, so check the video.

All of the navigation and programming is done via five shift-like keys on either side of the unit, which are easy to press with your thumbs while you're holding the satisfyingly thick frame (1.5-inch), and a jog wheel at the bottom. A recessed, 4-line backlit 2 x 0.5-inch LCD gives you all non-blinking information you need.

There are 256 voice sets to choose from, ranging from "Harp" to "SonarPad" to "Children," all of them delightfully playful but lacking in real diversity and depth -- it's almost too easy to make the same-sounding song over and over again as a result, but changing octaves and note lengths can add depth to songs.

Inevitable comparisons have rightfully been made to the similarly buttoned and blinking Monome project, but it's a bit moot. Monome is strictly a data control surface, while the Tenori-on is an all-in-one solution with its own onboard sound system. Many of the sound sets are taken from Yamaha's extensive collection of synthesizer brains, and other sounds were specially curated by Toshio Iwai -- those familiar with ElectroPlankton may recognize some sort of signature sound set forming.

If you get sick of the internal sounds, you can create your own user voice banks using the included software (PC and Mac). "Samplings" [sic] can be WAVs or AIFFs up to 0.97 seconds long -- this is a great way to get the sound you're after, moving away from individual notes and including actual (short) drum breaks and effects to produce a fuller track. The only drawback here is that you can't play user voices with variable pitch -- you can only use them as fixed sample triggers. The MIDI implementation is pretty straightforward: plug in a MIDI breakout cable that will send and receive note and system data. If you can find a second Tenori-on, you can also use MIDI to sync two or more devices.

The all-in-one nature of Tenori-on means people will find themselves using it in a lot of different places. It can run on six AA batteries, and lasts quite a long time; during the week we've had it, using it for a couple of hours a day with a more or less equal mix of the onboard speakers and headphones, the batteries have only run out once. But the excellent battery life does lead to some laptop-like flaws when it comes to portability. While the machine is great to use in a quiet, shaded room, you can forget about using it outdoors -- the white LEDs aren't strong enough to see outdoors. And the on-board speakers, while gorgeously integrated on both the front and the back of the frame, are achingly quiet. Even with the volume turned all the way up, it's difficult to hear the sound if there's any kind of noise in the background. Worse yet, the headphone amp is also very quiet -- on a subway train, even with over-the-ear sound-isolating headphones, most of the lows and highs get completely drowned out.

The Tenori-on also has a strange existence strictly as a design object. There's a whole "interior" mode" (as in interior decorating) that allows the unit to serve as a clock; it can also wake you up with your own song (but you have to keep the unit on and plugged in all night long if you want that to happen -- strange, considering there's no off mode, only standby). And the LED configuration is actually mirrored on the back of the unit, so that people can see what's going on who are standing on the other side of the "performer" (they're just lights, not functional buttons). There are also speakers on the back of the unit, which means people can hear it from if they're standing close enough.

There are visual aspects of the scoring process that can change the way the lights behave when they're triggered - they can explode or implode in a variety of shapes and sizes, and since all of the layers are displayed at once, you can set different sounds to react in different ways. A pop sound might actually pop apart, whereas a shimmery sound might make more of a star shape. The "random," "push," and "bounce" modes are usually more fun to look at than hear. In "random" you can draw any shape on the board and set it spinning with a twirl of a finger along the board. A traveling light will hit each moving light at random, which looks great but sounds kind of, um, random. "Push" mode creates a pulsating star around a light that makes the sound kind of fizzle into existence, while "bounce" jumps up and down on the board at varying rates, triggering sounds when it hits the bottom row of lights. All of the composition modes can be quantized so that notes only sound on the beat. It's nearly impossible to make the machine malfunction, but in certain extreme cases, you can actually cause a bit of slowdown. We had all the layers going full-steam, and pressed all the solo buttons at once and experienced a little bit of jumpiness in the playback (but that probably wouldn't be replicated in normal use).

The different composition and sound-sculpting modes and user voices, combined with ability to stack variants on top of each other, make the Tenori-on very versatile. Once we spent some time with it and pushed the limits of what it could do, it became clear that there are sonic possibilities here that aren't possible or practical with other interfaces. The portability and ease of use factors also mean that composers can be more spontaneous with their thoughts. At promotional concerts held in Brooklyn and San Francisco last month, Yamaha hired top-notch electronic composers to integrate the unit into live performances, and while it clearly fit better into some sets than others, there was wide breadth of styles and sounds shown off. Musicians can certainly get a lot out of the unit if they spend some time with it.

Robert Lippok of To Rococo Rot playing Tenori-on live

Aside from a few irritating flaws, there's not much bad stuff to say about the Tenori-on. Technically, it's a nearly perfect machine -- easy to learn, difficult to master, able to interface with the outside world for expansion and sharing. At the end of the day, Toshio's objective of bringing electronic music composition to the masses does kind of fail: $1200 is simply too much money to pay for an instrument that, aside from its crucial tactility, could be easily emulated on a $300 PC.

But the price might be only a temporary problem, as Yamaha is only making 100 of these little guys available every month for the entire United States for the time being, implying that if the small run goes well, production might ramp up and the price might drop significantly. We think there should also be an "LE" model available -- perhaps an 8x8 grid, with a plastic (instead of buffed magnesium) frame, no MIDI or SD card slot, and a sub-$100 price tag. Or even a 4x4 keychain version -- a partnership with TigerToys, maybe? Here's hoping -- this is too good of an idea for it to stay only in the hands of the privileged few.