This gadget rocks! The world's newest musical instrument

Peter Gabriel has one in his studio. Bjork takes hers on tour. But what exactly is it? Tim Walker gets to grips with the radical new instrument that's part digital sampler, part light-show – and part toy

Blip. Blip. Blip. Blip-donk-blip. Blip. Blip. Blip-donk-blip-tshk-blip. Blip. Wraaa- AAAOOoow. Blip. This is the noise of a novice trying to make something resembling music from the world's newest musical instrument, the Tenori-On. And, by the way, it sounds a whole lot better than it reads. Designed by Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai and built by Yamaha, the Tenori-On is a remarkable piece of kit that has already made its way into the excited, sweaty palms of musical pioneers such as Peter Gabriel and Bjork.

It was only launched in September, yet an LA-based audio-conceptualist, Norman Fairbanks, has already recorded an entire album using only a Tenori-On. In London, meanwhile, a pair of Japanese girls calling themselves the Tenorions perform using two of the instruments in sync – one has her's programmed to make drum noises and percussion, while the other covers guitars and bass. You can watch the Tenorions' live sessions on their YouTube channel.

"Tenori-On" translates as "sound on your palm", and that just about sums up the machine. A hand-held silver tablet framing a square grid of 16x16 flashing LED buttons, the Tenori-On is double-sided: both faces look identical, but one is played by the performer, while the other provides a miniature light show for the audience – providing a visual rendering of every sound that has to be seen to be truly appreciated.



Watch a demonstration of the Tenori-On


When you first switch it on, the Tenori-On appears rather like your average, common or garden sequencer. Lights flicker across the display in perfect four-four timing, and you can build up a looping sequence of up to 16 tracks, from plinky electric pianos to booming bass drums (although these sound better once it's plugged into a proper set of woofers – the one-watt built-in speakers aren't brilliant for bass). There are 256 sounds in the Tenori-On's arsenal, but you can load up your own samples using the memory card.

Then, as with any decent sequencing program, you can drop your dog barking, your guitar plucking, or some saucy French gobbledygook into the mix. A thumb-roller allows you to scroll between tracks, and each of the 256 little light-buttons produces a different note when pressed. You can change the time signature by reducing your 16-beat sequence to 15 or less, you can change the tempo with a quick push and roll, and you can change the volume on each track by turning the tablet sideways to transform it into an instant live mixing desk.

The Tenori-On has plenty more unexpected tricks up its sleeve, such as the bouncing ball function, which bounces up and down on your light display: you pick the height of your recurring bounce and the "ball" makes a noise every time it hits the "ground". Or you can sweep your hand over the lights to produce a warm wash of sound. Or you can pick a series of points on the tablet for a pinball to ricochet around, sounding every time it hits an obstacle. Each mode can be layered into a sequence in real time. And if you're particularly proud of your instant creation it can be saved to the memory card.

If this all sounds rather complex, it's not. Or, at least, it doesn't have to be. At the Tenorions' MySpace page, you can watch leftfield and experimental musicians – such as electro-folkie Four Tet, Manhattan math-rockers Battles and progressive Chicago guitarist Jim O'Rourke having a go at playing the instrument. Some pick it up more quickly than others, but the beauty of the thing is how instantly gratifying it can be to an absolute beginner. Its intuitive controls make it simple to pick up the basics, but its complexity means there's real skill involved in producing exactly the sounds you want.



Watch Keiran Hebden of Four Tet play the Tenori-On


"I can create sequences that I'd never be able to with software," says Peter Peck, Yamaha's Tenori-On spokesman, demo-ing the device at a London music technology expo. "I don't need to know anything about music, I'm just pressing lights and buttons. Anyone can walk up to it and make something happen, and be inspired. With a guitar you don't get that instant reward. But after that initial bit of inspiration, there's also a huge curve of musical development to learn on the Tenori-On if you really want to get the most out of it. It's a unique way of creating and performing music."

Under the name Four Tet, the 27-year-old British musician Kieran Hebden produces music contains elements of folk, electronica and dance. He has released a trio of albums with the avant-garde American jazz drummer Steve Reid. Hebden is an early adopter of the Tenori-On and played it at the London launch alongside its creator, Toshio Iwai. "I'm interested in anything that's about finding new ways to trigger and use samples and sounds," says Hebden, "and I also love using step sequencers, so this was just the sort of thing I'd be interested in. It's really good for live improvisation: I use it to play rhythmically along with drums and to make dense washes of sound. I can also run it through effects and get some crazy noises out of it. It just works really well at shows because it's so visual."



Listening to electronic music can be a thrilling experience. Seeing it performed is another matter: as artists can spend most of their time on stage huddled behind a laptop. The highlight of a show might be the musician thrusting one finger in the air while they slide up a fader knob with their other hand. Part of the Tenori-On's mission is to make the performance of electronic music more visually exhilarating; the moving lights on the tablet provide an exact visual accompaniment to the sounds it produces. Bjork has already been seen using one on her South American tour. But, like Norman Fairbanks, Hebden also sees recording potential in the Tenori-On: "I think I could make whole tracks on it if I tried, and it's so portable," he says. "I use it on train journeys and stuff just to mess around with ideas. And it's so quick to work on – you can get a lot of sound working together very quickly."

Peter Gabriel has supposedly added the Tenori-On to the array of instruments at his Real World Studios in Wiltshire. Fairbanks released his Tenori-On album, 7 Days Microsleep, as a free audio download, but also released some of the tracks as Tenori-On native data, which means that fellow Tenori-On players can deconstruct (and reconstruct) his tracks, becoming amateur remixers at the drop of a hat. Those who want to can happily store albums'-worth of material on the memory card.

Iwai, the Tenori-On's iconoclastic creator, is known in Japan as an interactive media and installation artist, but in the UK his best-known design is Electroplankton, an interactive music game for the Nintendo DS. The Tenori-On, despite its Japanese origins, is only available in this country. Yamaha chose the UK as a test-bed to find out who its market might be before allowing the rest of the world access to the object.

Getting your hands on one via the Yamaha website can be a slow process – but the slow trickle of instruments into the UK is just enough, says Peck, to satisfy the real enthusiasts. While the nuts and bolts are put together by robots, the magnesium finish is hand-polished, meaning that every instrument is, ostensibly, unique – an electronic Stradivarius. The price tag, thankfully, is not in the Stradivarian stratosphere: £599 isn't an immodest fee for a musical instrument.

The Tenori-On doesn't produce its own distinctive sounds, and in that respect is a combination of synthesiser and sequencer, the two inventions that are responsible for electronic music. It might just end up as a fun performance tool rather than a widely used recording device, but what fun it is. Incidentally, it has a rather fetching clock function. So it looks good even when it's resting on your coffee table.



To buy a Tenori-On, visit www.tenori-on.co.uk

Inventions that changed music

The Gibson Robot Guitar

Launched last December, the Gibson Robot Guitar is an electric guitar that can tune itself. The Les Paul design uses robotic technology not only to retain string tension for standard tuning, but also to store a number of other alternative tunings. If it weren't for the current £1,300 price tag, this would surely be a machine with some serious mainstream potential.

The Stylophone

The Stylophone was a 1960s novelty now confined mostly to car boot sales and gadget websites. It looks like a pocket radio, with a metal keyboard across which you move a stylus to generate notes. Three million Stylophones were sold on the back of a Rolf Harris advertising campaign, one of them to David Bowie, who used the device on the recording of "Space Oddity".

The Theremin

A curious-looking pair of antennae around which you wave your hands to vary pitch, producing the eerie whine best known as the sound of the Mysterons. Invented by Léon Theremin.

The Moog

On sale from 1971, Dr Robert Moog's Minimoog Model D was one of the first mass-produced electronic keyboard synthesisers. Portable and relatively cheap, it was a massive hit and retains a cult following today. Stevie Wonder popularised the sound of the Moog on Talking Book and Innervisions.

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sport LIVEFollow the latest news and scores from today's Premier League as Liverpool make a blistering start against Norwich
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
VIDEO
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLESir Cliff Richard has used a candid appearance on an Australian talk show to address long-running speculation about his sexuality

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Apprentice C# .NET Developer

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We provide business administration softw...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit