Alternate Music Making Devices

Posted Friday, May 6, 2022 by Sri.Tagged MEMO

I have a strong interest in music synthesis and composition, but I don't play a musical instrument. I also love weird computer input/output devices that are optimized for specific tasks like joysticks, 3d controllers, etc. This page is a list of alternatives to standard piano-style keyboard layouts and music notation.


Most music software is built around music notation (e.g. Sybellius) or MIDI capture/block arrangement from a MIDI instrument (e.g. Reason) which also offer note-by-note editing on a keyboard piano roll. Music trackers by comparison use the approach where there is a fixed tempo and note data is streamed on a channel-by-channel format. This grew out of the 16-bit style of music making that has its roots in early 8-bit computer sound hardware like the Commodore VIC-20 and C64 computers. There's a great history of music trackers video that goes into it in great detail.

  • Renoise is a modern PC implementation of a music tracker, with many of the features that a traditional "digital audio workstation" (DAW) like Logic Pro, Reason, or ProTools.

  • Polyend Tracker is a hardware implementation of a tracker, which I haven't seen in person.

  • Dirtywave M8 Tracker is a hardware tracker packaged like a Gameboy! I want one! It has a synthesis engine built-in and can also emit MIDI data.


I wish that piano keyboard showed me music structure in a more visual way so I could see the chord patterns and grok them intuitively. Here's some alternatives I've found.

  • Live EDM built on software like Ableton Live use things like MIDI Beat Pads (e.g. Novation Launchpad) and Effects Controllers (e.g. Korg Kaoss Pad). A beat pad is a MIDI note trigger device, and an effects controller is more of a MIDI note modifier. You can use these as part of a live performance installation through Cycling 74 Max MSP as well to add note generation and video control. Software like Sonic Pi, a live music coding environment, fits with this category.

  • The LinnStrument is a 2D matrix MIDI keyboard that is designed to have consistent chord positioning so transposing chords always uses the same fingers. It looks like a really interesting expressive polyphonic instrument. Here's a video of Robert Linn demonstrating his invention.

  • This isn't a chordal or isomorphic keyboard, but the Characorder One is an interesting remapping of a traditional keyboard into a handheld ergonomic package. Intriguing!