Eigenharp, crazy sci-fi instrument

The Eigenharp, a crazy, science fiction instrument from Eigenlabs, comes on two forms, the "Alpha" ("Our professional level instrument allows the musician to play and improvise using a limitless range of sounds with virtuoso skill. It has 120 playing keys, 12 percussion keys, two strip controllers and a breath pipe. Available in a variety of custom finishes.") and the "Pico" ("It's ideal as a solo instrument or for playing in a band. With 18 playing keys and 4 mode keys, a strip controller and breath pipe, the smaller Pico has the majority of the playing features of the Eigenharp Alpha. It plays an unlimited range of sounds and is available in two finishes."). Check out the stunning performance of the Bond theme.

Eigenlabs (Thanks, Alan!)


  1. Oh…oooooooh…..I’ve already known about this, and as a former sax and flute player that tried the bassoon, and sometime/recreational guitar player that has delusions of a home studio (I’m better at buying gear than I am at producing anything of real value), I have to look away. Even the pico is more than I should spend on gear until I can produce something legitimate, (and I say that having just spent $$ on a replacement mixer), and keep in mind — the Eigenharp Alpha is over $6K AND it requires a Mac to operate.

    Still, it’s a beautiful thing.

  2. Successor to the key-tar? Brings me make back to the 80’s when every synth came with a midi breath controller… which was one of the stupidest idea ever.

  3. Compared to most midi controllers which are largely still all cheap plastic that rarely holds up to the rigors of prolonged use in live performance settings, the Eigenharp is a work of art. The level of workmanship and design in these things is pretty phenomenal for an electronic instrument. It also marks one of the first significant advances in audio control since midi protocol was invented way back in 1982. Too bad it costs so much.

  4. It’s a real shame it’s ridiculously expensive.

    Okay, it’s not expensive for what you get, but it’s so expensive that very very few people are going to buy one. It’s not like buying any other $8k instrument, this is one that you don’t know how to play yet. And at this price it’s not like you’re going to be able to go down to the Guitar Center and play with one.

    But it’s pretty compelling technology. Each of the “keys” is a lot more than a key, not only are the pressure and velocity sensitive, they can also be bent in two axes. All of which are programmable on all 120 keys. Having that kind of control at each finger really moves the bar for MIDI instruments bringing the nuance and complexity of performance much closer to their analog cousins.

    I expect the closest I’ll get to one is at the next Bjork concert.

  5. Since it’s a “crazy sci-fi instrument” (Cory’s title) I assumed that the blinky lights on the thing served the same purpose as the blinky lights on the ship’s bridge in Star Trek TOS and other crazy sci-fi TV shows.

    But I actually followed up by looking around the Web, where these things are getting widely discussed. There’s a really good page of explanation/review at Engadget. Especially useful is the first video (length 11:30) with Eigenlabs founder John Lambert explaining the instrument’s features. The last video there is a performance of the Bourne Ultimatum theme.

    These things are cool but still require great musical proficiency. And, sadly, IANAM.

  6. The Pico is 349 pound, and is much more than a breath controller, for which I’ve been asked much more money.

  7. It’s a great all-in-one controller package for nuanced solo performance, or to augment a larger orchestration; but I’m with dwdyer: I’m not qualified to play it, and so the price for performance is disproportionate to the point of being ridiculous.

    …so I bought a cheap EWI controller from Akai instead, and have been quite happy.

  8. This is what happens when you breed a Keytar, a Chapman Stick, an Omni Chord with a wind controller, an incredibly unsexy musical instrument.

    1. You said it. I’m having a hard time believing anyone thinks there’s anything cool about this. I’m also having trouble finding the problem this is supposed to solve.


      1. Okay, so you can’t think of anything. Are we supposed to find that fact interesting? Surprising? A sufficiently large departure from the normal state of affairs to be worth mentioning…?

  9. I was just discussing this typeof thing with my wife the other day. With all the technology we have it was about time a new instrument was developed.

    Some group should get together to create a standard open-source digital instrument that any company can make. That would be a real development.

  10. This has the potential to be an incredibly expressive instrument, but price will kill it. The only way for a new instrument to become popular is to get it into enough hands that a genius will stumble on to it and make compelling music. Only then will people take it up in large enough numbers to sustain it.

    The Moog guitar is going nowhere, and so, I suspect, will this. And it’s a shame, because it’s potentially the most expressive synth controller.

    But consider the last serious attempt at this, the SynthAxe. They were just too pricey and the only people who could afford one were already successful musicians who had already invested their youth learning something else. Now, 20 years on, the only SynthAxe player of any consequence is Bela Fleck’s “Future Man”, and he uses it solely as a drum kit. And, of course, they are no longer made. I predict the same future for the Eigenharp

  11. I agree; if it doesn’t come down in price (and be made to work on PCs and Linux machines), then it’s going to go the way of the passenger pigeon. Looks and sounds nice, costs too effing much, and won’t work with my computer (and I’m not buying a Mac for one lousy application). If things change, I’ll look into it. Until then, it’s musical techno-pr0n.

  12. I confess that despite the features packed into these devices, they look to me like solutions in search of a problem. Aside from the fact that the price of the big one would buy a seriously first-class archtop acoustic guitar (my particular high-end wish-list item), I wonder about the, um, user interface. The rectangular grid of buttons doesn’t look like something to which any already-trained musicians will easily adapt–even the Chapman Stick builds on some pre-existing guitar techniques. Keyboards, fretboards, fingerboards, horn keys and valves, and even concertina buttons have a history with musicians and a certain degree of optimization within the physical constraints of their various instruments. This thing looks like an abstract switch matrix.

    It’s interesting that the website info is heavy on system and software specs, soundfonts, and triggering events, but with nothing that I could find about actually playing the thing. For some reason I kept thinking of Ross and his Casio keyboard, except that at least a real keyboard player could have taken that away from Ross and made actual music on it right away.

    But I’m a visitor from the mid-twentieth century, so what do I know.

    1. It will appeal to those already making electronic music. It is a midi controller set up. It matches the monome, launchpad, and jazz mutannt lemur layouts

  13. I can think of a problem this is supposed to solve. How can one make expressive music in less time than with what we’ve had up until now? Instruments like guitars and pianos illustrate the problem. You can play songs on them your first week, but they have a lifetime’s worth of depth to explore. Unlike, say, a violin or a saxophone, on which you spend your first six months learning to make them sound like violins and saxophones.

    But the price will kill it.

    1. Their only hope in keeping this from being the next SynthAxe or Moog guitar is to get them into the hands of a lot of musicians in the hope that one or more of them will make some compelling music with it. I didn’t hear any in any of the demo videos.

  14. I’m confused about this “problem-solving” requirement that’s popped up here. What problem did the electric guitar solve? What problem does the accordion solve? Why can’t it just be a cool, fun, sleek-looking musical instrument?

    If the two-handled guitar was satisfactory in the problem-solving department, wouldn’t the Eigenharp be at least as satisfactory? (And if it wasn’t satisfactory, why aren’t you folks whining about the stupidity of that?)

    1. The electric guitar was invented because banjos were giving way to guitars, and guitars didn’t have the volume necessary to play in jazz bands. Gibson tried archtop guitars. The Dopera brothers invented guitars with metal resonators. Neither of them quite made it, until the mid 30s when pickup and amp technology came up to the mark, and even then, it didn’t sound enough like a guitar to make a lot of guitarists happy. Count Basie’s Freddie Green never plugged in.

      Accordians began as portable organs. It was a bitch carrying a church around with you.

      What musicians did with each is what mattered. And for musicians to do anything with them, they need hands on.

  15. Little John @ 22: My observations were formuated from the player’s point of view–as useful or amusing as it might be to command a wide variety of sounds, as a practical matter I look at the, um, user interface, where the fingers meet the musical controls. This device introduces a set of controls that don’t grow out of those of any instrument with which I’m familiar–nor do those controls strike me as offering any particular advantages over, say, the conventional synthesizer keyboard, except for the multi-axis function the buttons are supposed to have. (Every time I fool around with a piano, I have the urge to bend notes–actuators that allowed that would be nifty, though it would play hob with players with actual training.)

    The primary problems addressed by instrument design are generally volume, responsiveness, and ease of playing, and a rectangular switch matrix doesn’t seem to address any of these. Despite the access to all kinds of synth sounds and loops and such on offer, most of the performing musicians I know would not look forward to learning a new control interface, let alone fiddling with the computer end of this system. Nothing against cool, fun, or sleek. Just thinking about whether the payoff would be worth the investment of effort.

    My only whine is about not having $30K for a Ken Parker archtop.

    1. When you say “rectangular switch matrix” I’m immediately reminded of full-fretboard scale diagrams. Looks like a rectangular matrix to me.

      Because every button is programmable in terms of pitch, you can map a guitar fretboard layout to it. You can also map multiple linear keyboard-style layouts to it. Or both.

      I play both, and I can see a lot of potential advantages here. For me what would really be important is the actual feel of the individual buttons. If I can work with that, I can assign the pitches and functions in any layout I choose.

      The reason that the interface doesn’t grow out of any instrument with which you’re familiar is because the interface is not constrained by the physics of having to produce the actual sound: no hammers strike strings, no string lengths need to be altered to produce fretted pitches. Without those physical limitations, why should it adopt a familiar interface? They’re not developing a new guitar or a new hammered instrument. It’s an analog interface for controlling digitally-stored sound.

      Having tortured my fingers on mandolins and 12-strings, I can say that the constraints of physics do not necessarily produce the best interface. Familiarity doesn’t actually equate to ease, it just means you’re used to the quirks of a particular interface.

  16. Unlike past instruments like the Digital Guitars of the 1980’s, the Synthaxe, and the ubiquitous Roland Strap-on Midi Controller (formerly Keytar), this thing has a really personal look to it, and the control seems really delicate and expressive. But what’s with the sounds it’s making? All the samples sound cheap and generic. I read the specs and it really is just a controller, AND says it ‘requires a Mac computer to run. I wish that as well as being a controller, it had a powerful synthesizer on board, instead of what seems to be a mediocre sampler. Or, at least, a powerful, deep sample-based synthesizer. The great thing about, say, a Chapman Stick, is, although it looks really silly and pretentious, it’s still a GUITAR and the sound you hear is from the strings you are playing.

    Crazy key configurations are nothing new, nor are delicate aftertouch sensors.

    Check out this kid playing a Chromatone controller..

    Check out Buchla synthesizers and controllers.. Now Those are expensive, but when it comes to design and expressive control, it’s pretty wonderful.

    Check out Vangelis playing a Yamaha CS80, no cheezy samples here, just pure beauty…

    This thing looks nice though.

  17. WANT.

    Even though I couldn’t play one to save my life.

    Damn. Why am I so godsdamned old? Maybe I should die now and reincarnate as a talented bassoon/guitar/keyboards player, so I’d be ready to play one of these beauties by the time I can afford one.

    1. No offense, but if you were ‘so godsdamned old’, the word “WANT” would not be a standalone sentence.

  18. Upon first seeing this I thought…WOW…COOL!! Then I started reading about it…so not only are you going to drop around 8k with tax, title, and license on the instrument, but you also need to drop another 5k or so on a mac (unless psystar is still in business which I don’t think they are).
    I can’t see the value in something you can’t either play out of the box or play in conjunction with either mac or pc. I think it excludes a lot of people who would otherwise be interested in the product. With some brief browsing on the site, I switched from “Wow…super cool…I want one” to, “YUCK! PASS!!”
    Shoddy marketing guys. Good luck selling that thing.

  19. No no gouldina, I was cool first! I sent the link seven weeks ago!

    Like Ratdog, I was thinking of the cantina scene. Really, when I try to imagine sitting in a jazz club 75 years from now and watching a performance, I can’t picture someone playing a real string piano. This is the first instrument I’ve seen that feels like it’s something they would be playing. Like vinyl records, a few stubborn purists will clutch the old, bulky, delicate, temperamental instruments of yesteryear, while the rest of the world marches on with time. And right now it does require a separate Mac to play, but it’s only a matter of time before that functionality shrinks and becomes embedded, just like everything else.

    For those that complain about price, do you know how much a Steinway costs? I’m not saying this piece of plastic and electronics is anywhere near the craftsmanship of a Steinway, but good instruments are expensive! Heck, that Eignharp Alpha wouldn’t buy 1/2 of a decent cello.

    And not to disparage Sxip’s comment, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, fortunately.

  20. I can’t see why there’s any motivation for this: Most people can’t even play the instruments we already have out there. It’s not that we need new instruments. The problem is that people don’t have the attention spans long enough to learn the instruments we have.

    While I am not against electronic music and electric/midi instruments, nothing comes close to hearing a human blow through a sax, or a make bunch of stretched out wires vibrate.

    Oh and mac-only instruments are about as useful as inflatable dartboards. Sure you could play with one, but why waste the money?

  21. Who knew Boing Boing was home to so many luddites?

    The cool musicians already have Macs anyway. Maybe now you PC dorks know how it feels when someone doesn’t make something for your platform.

  22. scissorfighter writes:

    “For those that complain about price, do you know how much a Steinway costs? I’m not saying this piece of plastic and electronics is anywhere near the craftsmanship of a Steinway, but good instruments are expensive! Heck, that Eignharp Alpha wouldn’t buy 1/2 of a decent cello.”

    Steinways are nice, but you don’t NEED one to learn to play piano. A $500 Casio, with 88 weighted keys will get you going. To learn to play an Eigenharp Alpha, you need an Eigenharp Alpha.

  23. Its funny seeing classicly trained musicians try to wrap thier head around this.

    The point of this thing, which they state in one of thier videos, but poorly communicate outside of that single vid. Is that this is suppose to replace the table top setup a lot of live productions require…..it’s suppose to replace things like the monome, jazzmutant lemur, akai 40 pro, etc, etc.

    The matrix at the top completely mimics and more a monome or launchpad, the bottom twelve buttons completely mimick the pads on a midi machine…..and the slides completely mimic needle drop functionality of the turn table and some cd players.

    1. Agreed. The “rectangular grid/matrix” makes perfect sense to anyone with experience with sequence programming in tracking/musical software and such. I was geeking out at the beginning (around 30s) when the guy on the left was live programming the bass notes.

  24. Instruments of this caliber and price should be timeless. Requiring an external computer puts it’s longevity in question.

    Eventually the Mac will die and the new generation Mac will not be compatible with the old generation instrument. It becomes a gamble that Eigenlabs will continue to support their legacy instruments, or that they will even still be in business 10 years down the road.

  25. NOBODY thought of Futurama’s holophonor when they saw this? Especially given the virtuosity required? For shame, Boingers, for shame.

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