For the past three months, Eigenlabs has loaned me an Eigenharp Alpha. I’ve been playing it every day, discovering the instrument and working on my technique. This has allowed me to write this review from the point of view of a musician that has already spent quite some effort on it. During this time I worked closely with Eigenlabs and related all my gripes and pain points so that they could be improved upon, and they have!
The instrument that I had at my disposal was the final prototype before the actual production models that are being sold now. Many things were different and now that I’ve actually bought my own personal Alpha and sent the review model back, I clearly see how much better the final version is, even though I already found the prototype amazing.
The Eigenharp as a whole
While Eigenlabs could have combined both inside one shell and embedded a chip, they purposely didn’t. The power of the software is closely tied to the power of the hardware that it runs on and computers evolve rapidly, doubling their performance every couple of years. Since the Eigenharp is an instrument that is very deep and versatile, you can easily be playing it for the rest of your life, like a guitar or a piano. Being limited by the power of an embedded sound module during all this time would obviously be a shame.
That being said, Eigenlabs recognized the limitations of existing protocols like MIDI and developed the standalone EigenD software to exchange data in very high resolution with the Eigenharp itself. EigenD is required to use the Eigenharp and has to be seen as an inherent part of the instrument that happens to be virtual and outside its physical body. Inside EigenD, everything benefits from the full expressiveness of the Eigenharp in all its detail, with some caveats as I’ll explain later. EigenD also configures the Eigenharp’s keys and controllers by sending a model of their behavior and interactions to the instrument itself. Just turning the Eigenharp on without running EigenD results in a lifeless instrument that simply does nothing.
Who am I?
Before digging into the rest of the review, let me take a brief moment to talk you about my experience as a musician so that you have some idea where I’m coming from. I’ve taken formal music training during most of my childhood: music theory, dictation, arrangement, harmony, ensemble, classical guitar and a bit of piano. In my adolescence I moved on to teaching myself steel string guitar and had vocal training. I dabbed around with the synths of the eighties and started using computers for sequencing and sound design. I found this too restrictive back then and moved on to singer songwriting on my acoustic guitar, experimenting with open tunings, finger picking and guitar effects. I started gigging regularly, did a lot of busking, went to a full-timing jazz academy for two years, and recorded my first solo CD in auto-production. For a few years after that, I concentrated more on my career as a software engineer and founded my family. Two years ago, I picked music back up again and started the band Flytecase with my girlfriend. I bought an electric Godin guitar with MIDI support, began using it with software synths and created my guitar sounds using virtual amplification software and effects. I learned a lot about digital sound theory and engineering with the Metric Halo audio interfaces that I’m now using for almost everything.
It became clear to me that digital sound processing has become powerful enough to create very expressive live sounds that can rival with most acoustic and analog instruments. This is where I stumbled onto the Eigenharp and bought a Pico. I played that for several months and wrote a few songs on it. I realized that the Eigenharp was a perfect fit for me and I moved on to the Alpha.
The Eigenharp Alpha instrument
It’s obvious that most of the effort has gone into the creation of the Alpha. This makes total sense as it’s possible to continuously improve EigenD, while the physical instrument is anchored in the real world and much more difficult to modify.
The Alpha is special, you immediately see this when you lay your eyes on it and you feel it when you take it in your hands. It oozes craftsmanship that can be found on expensive hand-made classical instruments, while the combination of the controllers and the multicolor lit keys, teleport it into a science-fiction future.
This duality nicely summarizes what the Eigenharp is about: a physical and sensual instrument that gives intimate control over the digital world.
What’s in the box?
Being a professional instrument, the Eigenharp Alpha ships with a great collection of accessories. This is what you receive with your purchase:
- the Alpha itself
- an instrument case made by Hiscox with locks and keys
- a sturdy leather shoulder harness
- a detachable breath pipe
- a spare mouth piece and some replacement o-rings for the breath pipe
- the Eigenharp base station pro with its power cable and a 3m USB cable
- a 6m cable to connect the Alpha to the base station
- a laptop/base station bag that can be carried on your back or on your shoulder
- an 8GB USB stick with the software, factory instrument sounds, a collection of drum loops and a simplified version of the Alchemy synth from Camel Audio.
- tutorial materials and an activation card
I’ve recorded an unboxing video that shows you everything that’s included:
While the standard package is very complete, there are some accessories that should be considered to get the full experience out of the Alpha.
- Eigenlabs sells a foldable instrument stand, which is actually a bassoon stand made by K&M. This has thus already stood the test of time and has been holding bassoons for years. It happens to be a perfect stand for the Alpha also, you can even leave the cable connected and retract the Alpha’s spike without putting strain on anything while it rests on the stand. If you plan on playing your Alpha regularly, you’ll want to have it resting on a stand for easy access and if you plan on playing live on stage, this stand is certainly indispensable.
- Longer instrument cables are available with a 12m version shipping now and a 24m version coming in the near future. These cables are unique for the Alpha and probably can’t be found anywhere else. I suggest you order a spare one or a longer one with your initial order.
- The base station supports up to two foot pedals. To get the most out of your Alpha you will at least need a sustain pedal and I got the Yamaha FC3 that is recommended by Eigenlabs. Ideally you’d also get a volume pedal as your second pedal, I’m using my Boss FV500 guitar pedal for this. It’s got the nice property to be able to be hooked up to two different devices at once, so I keep it connected to both my guitar foot controller and the Eigenharp Alpha base station.
- The Alpha has a microphone input that works with a selection of unidirectional compact or lavalier microphones. You’ll need to order this microphone through Eigenlabs since it needs custom wiring to work with the 4-pin LEMO locking connector on the instrument. You can then either clip the microphone on your shirt or on the breath pipe. This allows you to easily walk around with your Alpha on stage and be able to sing without having to worry about microphone positioning. The prototype Alpha I had on loan wasn’t able to work with a microphone yet, so I only just ordered one now. I found out that I would actually be the first person using this. I’ll give you my impressions after I’ve spent some time with this setup, at the moment I’m still waiting for this microphone to be delivered. Note that these miniature microphones tend to be very expensive, the cheapest one being around €200 and the most expensive one being €1500, I chose the cheapest one.
Holding the Alpha
The first challenge you’ll be facing when playing the Alpha is finding a position you feel comfortable with. There are no rules and as with most aspects of the Eigenharp (‘eigen’ referring to making the instrument your own), there are a lot of choices and possibilities. You’ll have to spend time experimenting to find the position that suits you best. There can even be several positions that you like, depending on the controllers that you’re using, the virtual instruments that you’re playing, your body size, …
Note that it’s an imposing instrument, measuring 123 cm in length. I love its size since I’m quite tall with large shoulders and a fairly good body condition from doing sports. I do anticipate the Alpha being too big for smaller people. You might want to take a look at the Tau instead if you fall in that category, it’s about the size of an electric guitar. You’ll be glad to know though that the Alpha is actually quite light (2,6kgs) and that it’s perfectly balanced around its center. The center area of the Alpha has no keys and allows you to hold it in your hand without triggering anything, this is how I pick it up with one hand. It’s similar to how I pick up my electric guitar by holding it by its neck, close to the body.
There’s a mute key at the bottom of the Alpha. It stands by itself, making it easy to find without looking. When activated, it doesn’t just mute sound, it prevents any of the other keys to have an effect. I find this quite handy when I’m manipulating the instrument as it prevents any accidental key presses to trigger unwanted sounds or to leave it in a state that you didn’t anticipate.
Here are four main playing positions that you can experiment with:
Sitting down while resting the Alpha on its spike
This is the most intuitive position when you first start playing the instrument, it’s easy to set up as you just have to adjust the length of the retractible spike and it allows you to quickly reach for the Alpha when it’s resting on its stand. If you’re playing the Alpha with only one hand, this position is easy to get right as your second hand will be able to keep it in balance. If, like me, you play with both hands, you’ll have to find ways to keep it in balance while you’re playing. This depends on various factors, the most important one being the floor that the spike is resting on. I’ve got ceramic tiles on my living room floor and the rubber tip of the spike doesn’t have enough grip on these to prevent the Alpha from sliding away, I have to use my right foot to keep the spike in place. This problem goes away when you play on carpet for instance, so I’m now considering using a piece of carpet to prevent the tip from sliding on stage, just as drummers do for the kick drum.
Another factor that’s important while playing in this position is which controllers you’re planning to use. If you’re for instance using two foot pedals, you’ll not be able to use your your right foot to prevent the spike from sliding away. If you’re using the breath pipe, you can’t rest the Alpha against your shoulder as there will not be enough distance between your mouth and the mouthpiece. If you’re bowing the virtual cello with the second strip controller, you’ll probably want to use your right knee to push the Alpha against your left thigh, otherwise you’ll have trouble keeping your notes steady while pressing and sliding on the strip controller.
Standing up while resting the Alpha on its spike
I’ve seen several musicians at Eigenlabs play like this while doing demos and how well it works probably depends on how tall you are as the spike can only slide out for 30 cms. This means that for me being 1,84m tall, the Alpha is about 10 cms too low to be comfortable to play on. I did experiment with resting the spike on an elevated surface to get a feel of how this position might work. I personally don’t like it since you constantly have to keep the Alpha in balance with your left hand. This severely restricts the possibilities while playing. Of course, if you’re just playing with your right hand and not using the breath pipe or don’t measure more than 1,74m, this position could be perfect for you.
Standing up while wearing the Alpha with the shoulder harness
This is my favorite position to play the Alpha in. The shoulder harness keeps the Alpha in balance around your own gravitational centre and it feels to me that I’ll be very comfortable on stage with it. Initially I expected that the shoulder harness would keep the Alpha perfectly steady, like a guitar when it hangs off of both extremities of its body. However, since the shoulder harness holds the Alpha around one central point, it’s always pivoting a bit around its axis. This did take me some time to get used to, but as soon as you learn to keep your thumbs on the edges of the Alpha, your playing fingers will naturally fall where you want them to and you’ll get used to a more dynamic position. In the end, the slight movement of the Alpha when using the harness is something I’ve grown to appreciate since it gives you a sense of freedom.
I did find that to be able to comfortably touch all the keys with your right hand (more specifically the ones close to your body), you have to tilt the Alpha away from you so that you can only see the first two courses of playing keys. This sort of forces you to learn how to play without looking at the keys, since you can only see some of them. I’m personally not bothered by this since I intend to be able to play the Alpha while singing and looking at the audience, but I can see this being frustrating for some people. Note that you’re by no means playing blind since you can still use the visible courses as guides and there are small ridges on the edges of the Alpha’s keyboard that provide you with a finger positioning aid and a tactile reference.
Finally, it’s probably also worth noting that you should retract the Alpha’s spike while using the shoulder strap, otherwise it won’t be balanced correctly. If you’re frequently switching between different playing positions, this could become frustrating in the long run.
Sitting down while wearing the Alpha with the shoulder harness
I only quite recently discovered this position and I think it might only work if you’re rather tall. You wear the Alpha with its shoulder strap, just as when you’re standing up. Instead though, you’re sitting down with your legs apart, back straight and your knees in a 90° angle. This allows you to let the bottom of the Alpha go underneath your right thigh, offering a great working position. You can easily reach for the keyboard and mouse to configure virtual instruments and you’re sitting down, which is beneficial for longer sessions. It’s a bit less comfortable to reach out for foot pedals though.
These are just some of the things to keep in mind. You can see that it’s not an easy aspect to master and that you’ll be spending quite some time finding the positions that work well for you.
Note that what’s comfortable while practicing and setting up might not be the position you want to use for a performance. Don’t forget to put yourself in the right context and try it out before you step on stage, it’s not very compelling for people to watch someone that’s bent over his instrument for the whole show without ever looking up at the audience. The Alpha can be very visually engaging and entertaining, make use of it!
The playing keys
Apart from all the features that are explained in this review, the playing keys are what makes the Eigenharp a success. They are incredibly sensitive and detect movement of your fingers to within a micron. Every nuance is picked up and this in three axes for every single key: pressure (down), roll (up/down) and yaw (left/right). Pressure is by default mapped to velocity, roll to pitch-bend and yaw is unassigned. The slightest touch plays a note, but the surface of the keys is curved in such a way that the tips of your fingers grab a hold and allow you to control the movement with incredible precision. To me this feel similar to pressing down on a guitar string and being able to continuously pull and push with exactly the expression that I’m searching for. It really allows you to ‘dig in’ and feel the notes. However, instead of relying on strength, the Eigenharp’s keys require you to rely on finesse and restraint. It does take quite some time to get used to and for the first few weeks you’ll be constantly pressing down too hard or out of axis, accidentally triggering pitch bends. After a while though it becomes natural and I felt myself as when I was initially feeling comfortable to play the guitar. Even when not playing, I kept thinking about the grip on those keys and when feeling emotional, I yearned to lay my fingers on them. An instrument that can evoke such reactions has clearly achieved its goal, as emotions are what music is all about.
The upper half of the Alpha arranges 120 playing keys in 5 courses of 24. The last two keys in every course are always dedicated to controlling and configuring the Eigenharp without having to touch the computer. In the primary mode, the other 110 keys are available for playing music. You typically put the thumbs of your hands on each side of the Alpha and play keys in groups of four. To play a scale, you run your fingers upwards through the courses while keeping your thumb in place. This gives you a very stable reference position. Small ridges on the sides of the Alpha allow you to identify where you are on the fingerboard, without having to look. Similarly to a guitar, but in contrast to a piano, the Eigenharp is set up with repeating notes: the fifth key on the first course is the same as the first key on the second course, the sixth key on the first course is the same as the second key on the second course, … and so on. This has the nice side effect of having fifth intervals within the same row across courses. It also allows you to play a chords with the four fingers of one hand. This might sound trivial, but in contrast to a guitar, you have to actually touch each note that you want to play (there are no open strings) and perhaps more importantly, every key that you touch is played. The latter means that you can’t play the typical barré chords where fingers further down the neck override the notes that would be played by your index finger that lays down the barré.
Note that the behavior, function and layout of the keys are actually totally configurable, but this is a very advanced topic that currently requires using a computer language. This will become easier in the future as a graphical Workbench application is under development to make these customizations more intuitive. There’s nothing that prevents those guitar barré chords to be possible in a future version of EigenD.
Eigenlabs provides different materials for the keys as a customization option. My Pico and the prototype Alpha I had on loan both had plastic keys, while my new Alpha has ebony wooden keys. I liked the plastic keys so much that I was reluctant to order them in a different material. I didn’t know what to expect and was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy them as much. I’m very glad I did though, since this brings the tactile experience on Alpha to another level still. Apart from having a better grip when you’re sweating, there’s something mesmerizing about the keys being made from wood. Now, all the materials that you touch are natural and not synthetic: wood for the keys, leather for strip controllers, metal for the edges and wood for the back and the rest of the finish. There’s nothing anymore that hints at a digital instrument, however all the sound that you’re making is generated by a computer. This has made me grin with satisfaction many times already.
The percussion keys
The bottom half of the Alpha contains one course of 12 percussion keys with plenty of space around them. These are twice as large as the playing keys and instead of having a curved surface to provide grip to your fingertips, they are slightly rounded to make them comfortable to hit with the first phalange of your fingers. The keys are just as sensitive as the playing keys, but their size and disposition make them a joy to play percussion or drums on.
There are two main techniques to play with the percussion keys. The first one uses the Alpha on its spike with the instrument resting against your left thigh and shoulder, you then bend over the instrument and play percussion with both your hands. This transforms the Alpha in a percussion-centric instrument and allows you to build up very expressive and complex grooves.
The second technique is by using the shoulder harness and playing the percussion keys with your right hand while using the playing keys with your left hand. You can optionally rest the bottom of the Alpha against your right thigh to provide support while playing and be able to mash those percussion keys even harder!
I really like this second technique as it’s invigorating to get lost in a groove and play both the rhythm and chords, bass-lines or leads at the same time. You’re totally rocking out while playing like this, it’s very physical!
Since the percussion keys are as sensitive as the playing keys, they offer a lot of other possibilities. Eigenlabs has mentioned various ideas for the future, like being able to use them to strum a 6-string or 12-string guitar by merely stroking up and down across the course of percussion keys. Currently, it’s already possible to use the first percussion key and rock it left and right as an alternative means to control the bowing of modeled virtual cello.
The breath pipe
I have to admit that since I’m playing the Alpha, I’m using the breath pipe a lot less than on the Pico. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s because I never played a wind instrument before, or maybe it’s because it was so natural with the Pico, or maybe it’s because there’s now an actual piano sustain pedal, or maybe it’s because there’s so much to master on the Alpha that I’m currently focused on the keys. I haven’t had as much experience with the Alpha’s breath pipe as I’d like.
That being said, playing the Alpha’s breath pipe is weird at first since it’s not designed to take into the front of your mouth. You typically take the mouthpiece in between your lips at the left side of your mouth, which kind of reminds me of people that I see smoking a pipe. With the mouthpiece there, you can look straight ahead or diagonally downwards toward the Alpha and since the breath pipe pivots, you can comfortably change your focus of attention without having to reposition it in your mouth.
The breath pipe is extremely precise. You can blow and suck and it will detect the different airflow directions, you can also use tonguing techniques to articulate whatever you’re controlling through the breath pipe. The effort required is very minimal and it’s often sufficient to merely slightly change the air pressure inside your mouth to achieve what you want. You don’t have to developing a strong breathing technique to be able to use the breath pipe with expression.
The air that is blown goes all the way through the Alpha, but this is only to allow it to go somewhere. The measurements are done all the way at the top where two tiny holes in the mouthpiece create two independent streams of air whose pressure are measured where the breath pipe connects to the Alpha, that’s why so little effort is required. This design makes a lot of sense as the prototype let the air go out of the mouthpiece instead. This created quite a lot of noise near your ears and sometimes caused saliva to drip out of the mouthpiece onto the Alpha or onto your clothes. All this is now neatly channeled out of the bottom of the instrument.
While I haven’t used the breath pipe nearly as much as on the Pico, I haven’t yet had to clean out excessive saliva. On the Pico I had to do this very frequently, so I suspect that the curves of the Alpha’s breath pipe help to alleviate this problem.
The strip controllers
The strip controllers on the Alpha are what disappoint me the most. I loved playing the modeled cello on the Pico and this was quite natural since the pressure on the keys and the strip controller were balanced out by the strength of your thumbs on the back of the Pico. On the Alpha, the strip controllers are at both sides of the top half of the instrument. This means that you need to come up with something to counter the pressure that you put on one of the strip controllers. When using the shoulder harness, you have little choice but to use your other hand for this since the Alpha pivots around its centre. It’s virtually impossible to play the cello with a strip controller while using the shoulder harness, reducing the strip controllers to manipulate loops or effects in that position. Note that you can use other controllers for bowing in this situation, but I don’t find those nearly as much fun.
However, when you play the Alpha on its spike while sitting down, you can push your right knee to the left to keep the instrument steady against your left thigh. If the ground you’re playing on doesn’t let the spike slide away too easily, this does provide a steady position for playing the cello. At hindsight this probably makes a lot of sense since your body position is very similar to someone that’s playing a real cello. You play the keys with your left hand, while you right arm curves over the Alpha to bow with the strip controller on the other side of the instrument. You have to play with your whole arm, using your wrist, elbow and shoulder in conjunction to create fluid movements. While I’ve never held a real bow in my hands, this does seem like a very similar physical approach.
You can however notice that the strip controller technology was licensed from another company and that is wasn’t designed by Eigenlabs as its precision and expressiveness seem to be less than the Alpha’s keys and breath pipe. There are dead areas at the top and bottom and it’s easy to slide too far, interrupting the expression that you were planning to convey. You also have to use more pressure than you use on the keys and the contact area that’s required feels a bit too large for my taste. It’s also a shame that the strip controllers aren’t pressure sensitive as that seems like a very intuitive additional controller axis.
The basestation serves two main purposes:
- provide power to the instrument
- communicate between the instrument and the computer over cable lengths of up to 24m
I’ve already heard people criticize the lack of wireless communication between the Alpha and the computer over for instance WIFI. I’ve brought this up with Eigenlabs and they mentioned they did prototype this as a possibility. It turned out to not be reliable enough for on-stage usage due to all the possible interference that can happen with the massive amount of data that is sent to and from the Alpha. They’ve thus opted for a high-speed wired connection with error-correction and locking connectors to prevent accidental on-stage disconnection.
Note that the Alpha is currently shipping with the pro model of its basestation, but this will probably change in the future and the standard model that’s shipping with the Tau will become the default for the Alpha. According to Eigenlabs this is mainly due to the pro version having a built-in power supply as opposed to the wall-wart that is used by the standard basestation. Getting electrical safety approval for the built-in power supply is expensive, time consuming and difficult and currently means that they can’t for instance ship it to Australia. Wall-warts are already approved and make this process much easier. They’re looking at building another basestation with similar features as the pro version, but with an external power supply.
That being said, let’s take a look at the basestation pro, which I have. It provides the following ports:
- locking instrument connection port
- two input jacks for standard latching or momentary foot switches
- two input and two output jacks for standard continuous control pedals (volume or sustain)
- MIDI input and output
- standard USB cable connector
- locking instrument cable extension port
- I2C serial connection port for future extension with additional accessories
- power switch, fuse and mains cable connector
On the front of the basestation there’s a colored light that indicates whether the communication between the computer and your instrument is happening correctly. This allows you to check with a quick glance for a green light and if it’s orange instead, you know something isn’t properly connected.
It’s supposed to be possible to rack-mount the basestation, but no rack ears are provided so you’re basically on your own for this. You’ll probably want to mount it with the back towards the front to be able to access all the connectors and the power switch, you do lose the front indicator light then though. Also, the rubber feet under the basestation are glued on by default, so you’ll have to pry them off and figure out a way of reattaching them if you decide to use it outside your rack later on. Other devices that are shipped with rack ears usually leave it up to you to glue such rubber feet on.
The MIDI connectors, the extension cable and the I2C connector are all not active at the moment, but a future firmware upgrade is supposed to enable them.
The MIDI connectivity seems like it will be geared more towards connecting additional controllers and foot pedals than towards high-speed jitter-free music playing. I don’t think you can expect to replace your dedicated MIDI interface with this any time soon.
The extension cable port will allow you to use a standard basestation at the back of the stage to power your basestation pro and have your foot pedals near you on stage with the computer much further away. Without this extension capability you’re limited to be within five meters of your computer with the basestation pro, as that’s the maximum length of USB cables.
One nice feature of the basestation is that there’s no set order for connecting any of the cables. You can start up the EigenD software at any time and connect any of the cables whenever you want. It’s also supports cable disconnects while EigenD is running and as soon as the connection is reestablished, everything starts working again. This is very nice for setting up on stage or when you accidentally pull out a cable while playing.
The pedal connections are standard and very easy to set up. You basically plug in the appropriate jack cables, calibrate the pedals on the Alpha, and off you go.
The Hiscox pro case
This hard-shell instrument case has been specifically designed for the Eigenharp Alpha, has a very distinct form and sports a pretty Eigenlabs logo. It’s made by Hiscox which has over 25 years of experience in this area. The case is both light and very tough, and offers excellent thermal insulation. I’ve personally had two steel-string Hiscox guitar cases for over 15 years and I’m extremely satisfied with them. The Alpha case seems to be even a notch above those in terms of finish and build quality.
The internal organization is perfect as there’s a dedicated slot for the Alpha, the breath pipe, the shoulder strap and the accessories. The Alpha fits tightly and doesn’t move. The accessories slot has a lid to prevent small items from traveling around the case and accidentally scratch the instrument.
The case is closed by six metal latches and comes with keys to lock one of those. There’s a central handle to carry the case, but I also noticed metal rings on the extremities that seem to be intended to attach a strap so that you can carry the case on your shoulder. I haven’t tried this out though.
Since the Alpha is quite long, the case is also. Compared to acoustic guitar cases, it’s however a lot narrower and not as high. I couldn’t fit the Alpha case in the trunk of my car (Renault Scenic), but it was a perfect fit on the floor in front of the passenger seats.
The EigenD software
EigenD is currently the weak point of the Eigenharp, but luckily it’s also the easiest one to improve. Eigenlabs has been frantically working on it and it has come a long way since its initial release six months ago. The latest beta version is 1.1.7-testing for MacOSX and it is mostly bug free, give or take a few crashes once in a while. I personally stopped using the official stable 1.0.14 release, since it lacks quite some new features from the beta versions that I’ve grown fond of. Most Eigenharp players are however still using the official release since it’s quite stable. Obviously, I don’t trust the beta version of EigenD to play the Eigenharp Alpha on stage, which is normal since it’s not an official release. This should be solved in the coming weeks though as Eigenlabs has told me they’re putting all their efforts into getting a stable release out as soon as possible. Since I don’t intend to play any gigs with the Alpha before that, I chose to set up everything with the capabilities of what is going to become the next official release. Many kudos to Eigenlabs for allowing their users to try out the upcoming features through freely available beta downloads, even though there can still be problems with those versions since they’re in the midst of their development phase.
I’m not going to detail how EigenD actually operates since most of its user interface is going to change in the near future. The current versions have been mostly driven by technical requirements and user requests, while the next version will benefit from a total graphical overhaul in collaboration with a professional design company. My focus is mainly going to be on the EigenD concepts and the features that turn your Eigenharp into a musical instrument. These are solid, very well thought out and will remain the same for a long time even when the EigenD software itself changes and improves.
Belcanto models the soul of your Eigenharp
Eigenlabs has a grand vision for EigenD in that they don’t want to limit how you can use your Eigenharp. John Lambert, the creator, explained this to me: “When Les Paul invented the electric guitar, it was intended for playing jazz, he never could have imagined the techniques that people are using nowadays and how they’re transforming the sound. We want to make any crazy creative idea possible with the Eigenharp, and we can’t possibly anticipate how people will be using it 50 years from now.”
You have to see the Alpha as a blank canvas that can send an amazing amount of detail through all its controllers when you physically interact with it. Inside EigenD, a programming language called Belcanto makes it possible to describe what actually happens when you use your instrument. Belcanto consist of hundreds of building blocks that model sound, pitch, scales, instruments, interaction, tempo, … in a fine-grained manner, similar to how segments in DNA define who you are and what you’re capable of, making life so interesting in many predictable and unpredictable ways.
Belcanto allows for the creation of ‘setups’ that model in detail what goes on when you use your Eigenharp. At the moment, EigenD ships with three factory setups for the Alpha. They are essentially the same, except that higher numbered setups provide increasingly more keyboard splits, take a while longer to load, use more memory and can be more confusing for beginners.
The factory setups can be modified by using the configuration functionalities that Belcanto has enabled on your Eigenharp. You can change tempo, select sounds, change scales, … (more detail on this later). When you modified a setup, you can save it again as a user setup and load it a next time you use the Eigenharp. This gives you a high-level and intuitive way to customize many aspects of your instrument.
A more low-level approach can by used by working with Belcanto directly. The details about this are gradually being posted on Eigenlabs’ wiki. You can type Belcanto into a text window, you can run scripts from text files and you can ‘play’ the Belcanto words on the Alpha as small musical phrases. This makes it theoretically possible to fine-tune or reprogram your Alpha without ever touching the computer, or better even, while playing live on stage. In practice though, these approaches take a lot of effort to learn and most musicians will never have the time nor the motivation to understand or master this.
Eigenlabs understands that raw Belcanto is too low-level and is therefore now working on a Workbench application that will allow you to visually rewire the internals of your Eigenharp setups. This should make a lot of wild experiments possible without having to become a computer programmer.
The factory setups
The quick reference guide for the Alpha factory setups is downloadable from the Eigenlabs website and takes up 25 pages, I’m not going to repeat all the information that’s present in there. Instead, I’ll focus on illustrating the most important aspects of these setups so that you can get an idea of what the capabilities are.
When you start a factory setup, the active instrument is sampler one with a wonderful grand piano and the entire keyboard is set up in the scale of C major. The lights of four keys on the before-last bottom row are lit orange, indicating that you can access additional functionalities through them. The first two keys allow you to arm the loop recorder or to cancel an active recording and the next two allow you to lower or to raise the pitch of the keys by an octave. These functionalities operate on the group of keys above, called a keygroup, which in this case is almost the entire keyboard.
Main mode key
The bottom row of keys gives you access to instrument-wide features. The first key on this row is called the ‘main mode key’, it allows you to totally reconfigure what the keyboard of the Alpha does with a single key press. When you hold the main mode key, the lights of several keys near it will illuminate, providing instant access to up to five different keyboard splits and two different step sequencers (arrangers) in factory setup 3. When you select another keyboard split, you’ll see several rows with those four orange lit keys appear, they clearly separate the sections of the keyboard. The keyboard splits divide the surface of your Alpha into up to four different keygroups that are independent from each-other. Also, anything you set up for keygroups in a particular split is isolated from the keygroups in another split. The main mode key makes it possible to very quickly switch amongst elaborate keygroup configurations that you can set up beforehand or modify while playing live. It’s important to realize that splits are actually different layers that are always active, the main mode key merely brings the one to the surface that you want to interact with, all the others still continue to be running in the background and are just not visible.
Later, I’ll talk more about the other keys on the bottom row.
Keygroup mode key
In the course above the main mode key, the first key of each keygroup separator row is unlit and gives you access to the ‘keygroup mode key’. Instead of reconfiguring your entire keyboard, this allows you to change what the keys in the keygroup above do.
A preliminary warning is needed before reading the rest of this section. The concepts are quite difficult to describe and even more difficult to understand and visualize. Don’t feel bad if you have to read through this section several times to be able to make a mental picture for yourself, this is something you actually struggle with initially when learning to use the Alpha’s setups. Luckily though, the visual indicator lights and their distinct patterns, give you visual clues that make this a lot easier to remember. Everything is also extremely logically laid out and once you grasp it, you can usually deduct what each key is doing by simply reasoning about it for a second. Later on, most of this becomes natural and within a couple of days you’ll be using the majority of the controls without hesitation. I actually wrote the initial draft of this section without looking at the Alpha nor the reference guide, just from memory.
So, let’s get on with it and don’t say you weren’t warned!
When you press the keygroup mode key, other keys will light up across all the courses of the Alpha, spanning four rows of keys next to the keygroup separator row. This is well thought out since you can press the keygroup mode key with the pinky of your right hand and press any of those other keys with another finger of the same hand. This makes it possible to continue playing with your left hand while quickly making a selection in another keygroup with your right hand.
The last four courses give you access to the selection of the active instrument, you can choose between four samplers, four audio units, the three natively modeled instruments (cello, clarinet, synth) and two external MIDI ports. Note that this selection is not mutually exclusive, you can select multiple active instruments by pressing the relevant keys simultaneously. This opens up interesting possibilities like using an external MIDI port to send notes to real-time video manipulation software and have visual elements change alongside with the music that you’re playing. Of course this also allows you to create interesting soundscapes by combining sounds from different software instruments.
The keys in the first course change the behavior of the keys in the keygroup and allow you to use them for something else than playing notes.
The bottom key in that course reconfigures the keygroup to allow the selection of different scales and tonics. The first three courses (of four keys) allow you to change between all the possible tonics: from C to B, with all semi-tones in between. The last two courses give you access to other scales. These are entirely configurable, but the factory setup has the following scales set up by default: major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, chromatic, blues, pentatonic, diminished and whole tone. Also, when scale and tonic controls are active for a keygroup, a dedicated scale mode key next to the keygroup mode key allows you to select which keygroup you’re actually changing the scale and tonic of. You can target any of the eleven possible keygroups in factory setup 3, or target all the keygroups globally. I initially missed this feature but I now use it quite a lot. It allows you to for instance dedicate the bottom keygroup to scale and tonic selection while having a single large keygroup on the rest of the keyboard for playing. This one is then targeted by the bottom keygroup. You’ve now effectively turned the bottom keygroup into an instantaneous controller for the upper keygroup, allowing you to change scales and tonics by the press of a single key. It’s precise and quick enough to execute this switch in the middle of playing and it’s how I play chords in the middle of a song that are part of another scale, without having to turn my keyboard into a chromatic setup.
The other keys in the first course give you similar control to selecting which drums loops are active when the metronome is started, which recordings should be played at the next loop cycle and how many bars you want to record for. As with the scale and tonic controls, you can either use these for temporary changes and switch back to playing an instrument on the keygroup afterward, or leave them in control mode and have instant access to the features without having to press the keygroup mode key first.
The keygroup mode key of the first keygroup on the Alpha (which is also the only one in factory setup 1) gives you access to even more configuration options. When you press that keygroup mode key, the top end of the keyboard displays a similar four by five pattern of lit keys as the bottom ones that I already explained before. These make it possible to delve into the advanced configuration of the same features that are present at the bottom. By using the same pattern, it’s very easy to remember which key to use for advanced configuration as they’re all in the same relative position.
The last four courses allow you to reconfigure the instruments in the same order as before: first the samplers, then the audio units, then the natively modeled instruments and finally the external MIDI ones. I’m not going to detail this key by key, but you can change which soundfont or audio unit is used by the instrument, which inline audio unit effect plugin is used, change the volume and the pan, set the level for two effect sends, and one delay send. You can also change instrument-specific settings like turning audio unit GUIs on and off, turn monophonic mode on and off, select MIDI channels (including a multi-timbral polyphonic mode), indicate which impulse response to use for the cello, …
The first course gives you access to advanced configuration for the drummer loops and the scales. You can select the tempo by tapping, nudging or pressing on predefined common BPMs. You can fine-tune the volume of the drummer loops, select which loops to use so that they can be turned on and off in the standard controls and also treat the entire drummer as an instrument by changing its global volume, pan, inline effect, effect sends, delay send, … The advanced scales configuration simply allows you to select which scales are used by the eight scale selection keys in the standard configuration mode.
The mode key of keygroup 1 gives you access to three final advanced sections that are located in the middle of the keyboard: a section to calibrate your foot pedals, a global instrument mixer where you can easily fine-tune the volume, pan, effect sends and delay sends of all the instruments without having to go through each one individually, and a section where you can modify what you hear through the Alpha’s headphone output and where you can configure the type and gain of the microphone when it’s connected. You can also select which audio and midi interfaces are used by EigenD.
Phew, that was a mouthful, when you’re actually using the Alpha all this is a lot more intuitive than it might seem from reading this section.
Metronome, browser keys, and percussion mode key
On the bottom row, next to the main mode key, there are four keys with additional features.
The last key is lit red by default and allows you to turn the metronome on or off. When the metronome is running, the light turns green. This key is placed in the bottom right corner, which is a very strategic location. You can slide from the middle area of the Alpha where there are no keys and turn the metronome on or off without having to look at the keyboard. This is very handy when playing live.
The metronome is tied into the drummer, the recorder and the scheduler. It basically allows you to control the tempo from a central location and to start or stop all looping elements in a coordinated fashion. When you change the tempo of the metronome while it’s running, it will change the tempo of the drum loops and scheduled recordings also, this allows you to for instance build up tension by gradually speeding up and everything that’s playing through EigenD will seamlessly follow and time-stretch when needed. A little known, but very nice feature is that the metronome also sends out MIDI clock information over the external MIDI instruments. This makes it possible to sync other software with the tempo that’s used by EigenD.
Next to the metronome key, you can find two browser keys. These are used to interact with the GUI of EigenD and by rocking them up, down or sideways, you can scroll through lists on your screen similarly as when using the scroll wheel on a mouse. When you’ve highlighted an item that interests you, simply tapping the browser key performs the selection. This enables you to for instance select which instrument to use for the built-in sampler without having to touch your computer at all.
The key on the bottom row next to the main mode key is the percussion mode key. It allows you to select which instrument to use when playing the percussion keys and it also lets you put them into cello mode so that you can use the first percussion key to bow the modeled cello instrument.
The recorder and the scheduler
Each instrument can be recorded in real time and looped afterwards without having to touch or look at your computer. You do this by selecting the number of bars in the recorder config, arm the instruments you want to record and start the metronome. The recording of an instrument will begin when you play the first note and continues for the duration you’ve selected, after that it automatically starts looping. You can thus arm several instruments at once and start playing them at different times, they will remember their relative positions in the loop and repeat independently.
EigenD will record the actual events that happened and not the audio that was created by the software instruments. This is a very powerful concept since it allows you to still interact with the software instruments after you’ve recorded the loops. You can for instance speed up the tempo of the metronome or use the breath pipe to change filters or effects. The downside to this is that while looping, you continue to use the same amount of resources on your computer as when you were playing live. When you start using several loops like this, it really taxes your computer and you need a very powerful system. Eigenlabs has acknowledged this and is planning to offer audio recording of instruments as an alternative for when you don’t want to interact with your loops afterwards. This should allow people with limited computer configurations to still create many simultaneous loops.
The parts you recorded are available through the scheduler keygroup configuration section. For each recorded part, a key will be added with a light that indicates whether it’s active or not. When you turn a recorded part on or off, this will happen on the next loop cycle point. Sadly though, the current setups only allow you to record one part for each instrument. At the moment, when you arm an instrument for recording, you erase the previous part you recorded with it. Eigenlabs has planned to remove this limitation in the future, but in the meantime this limits the usefulness of the recorder when you have different recurrent sections of the same instrument in a song.
You have access to up to two individual arrangers in factory setup 3. These basically turn the entire keyboard of the Alpha into a step sequencer for either the audio unit 4 or the sampler 4 instruments.
I’m not a step sequencer kind of guy, so I actually never really did anything with them yet but the concept is simple. Based on the tempo of the metronome, each key on the Alpha is a step and the playhead advances down the neck. You can see this visually with the lights being illuminated and you can turn steps on and off in real time. Using dedicated keys, you’re able to pan around left/right and up/down to see other steps in the sequencer.
I haven’t much more to say about this except that it looks cool to use on stage, but is surprisingly devoid of expression. Each step plays with a fixed velocity and there’s no way to adjust their length nor to humanize them. I’ve seen Eigenlabs mention on the forums that they will totally redesign the arranger in the future to benefit from the expression that can be created with the Eigenharp keys. There’s no release date for this though.
Making sound with EigenD
All this hardware and software goodness doesn’t mean much if you can’t tie it into virtual instruments that are driven by EigenD. You have a lot of choices here, but at the same time also not enough. Allow me to explain.
Natively modeled instruments
The Eigenharp detects the values of its keys in all their axis with a 10 bit resolution (1024 different values). This is continuously measured 2000 times per second. That’s a lot more detailed that what the MIDI standard provides. MIDI also only allows you to send velocity for individual notes and sometimes after-touch, but there’s no way to for instance send per-note pitch-bend or modulation data.
To get the most out of the Eigenharp, Eigenlabs developed their own protocol to describe music. They modeled three virtual instruments that natively understand this protocol: a cello, a clarinet and a basic synth. The expression you get out of these is amazing as they react perfectly to every nuance. Other modeled instruments are planned for the future and EigenD is going to be open-sourced so that third-party developers can also create instruments like these.
To allow users to easily extend the sound capabilities of their instrument, EigenD contains a sampler engine that is aware of the same nuances as the modeled instruments. The sampled instruments you get with the Eigenharp are wonderful (grand piano, rhodes, whurlitzer, electric bass) and they will keep you busy for a while. It’s when you start looking for other sampled instruments that you hit a wall.
The only format that is supported by the integrated sampler are soundfonts. While this is an open standard, it’s also very old and not really in use anymore. It’s extremely difficult to find high-quality soundfonts and the utilities that are supposed to be able to convert other formats into soundfonts are either buggy, ancient, unsupported, or a combination of those. I couldn’t find a single one that was usable. This leaves you with soundfonts that were created six years ago, with the technology and memory constraints of those times. As you can imagine this is a pale comparison with the Kontakt-based instruments that are being created nowadays.
So on one hand you have amazing expressive control over the sampled instruments, but on the other hand the large majority is simply not detailed enough to be convincing.
It’s important to mention though that the Alpha is capable of so much expressiveness that you can get an acceptable performance out of very rudimentary samples. Many of the samples from Garageband can be converted without much trouble using CDXtract, and this combined with in-lined Audio Unit effects can get you very far with sounds that most of you already have on your computer.
Moving on to AudioUnits
You’ll quickly find yourself moving on to Audio Unit virtual instruments. Obviously there are too many too enumerate, my favorites at the moment are Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Trillian, Camel Audio Alchemy, Native Instruments Kontakt and Reaktor, and the Arturia analog classic synth collection. Sadly though, as soon as you use these, you’re again faced with the coarse-grained resolution of MIDI. The instruments themselves are magnificent and the sounds you’re able to create are beyond your wildest imagination. However, not having full control over them with your Eigenharp, leaves you wanting for more.
Don’t get me wrong though, the Alpha is wonderful for playing even these instruments since all the niceties of the hardware that I described in the beginning of this review still hold true of course.
Eigenlabs is very actively collaborating with companies like Symbolic Sound, Camel Audio, Native Instruments, Steinberg and Ableton, and they will probably converge into using OSC as the new standard for controlling virtual software instruments. As you can imagine, this is going to take a while and I only expect this to fully come to a realization in a couple of years time.
In the meantime though, there are some ways around the limitations of MIDI that are currently already available through EigenD.
The first approach is to rely on the fact that each MIDI port can send up to 16 different MIDI channels. So, instead of seeing each channel as a different instrument, you can use the entire port as a single instrument and have access to 16 independent streams of data for pitch-bend, modulation, MIDI CC, … This is often referred to as multitimbral mode and not all software instruments support it, you have to check. To get this to work, the Eigenharp has to be set up to use polyphonic mode for an Audio Unit instead of using a single channel. This mode uses a new channel when you play a new note and reuses previous channels as they free up. This effectively gives you a maximum polyphony of 16 notes with individual controls for each one of them. At the moment though, this is only supported by EigenD for velocity and pitch bend. They could theoretically allow you to generate any MIDI CC information based on the yaw, roll and pressure data for each key, but nothing in EigenD allows you to do that yet. I’m hoping that this will be added in the future.
The second approach is to tie the Eigenharp’s controllers into the parameters that are usually used for the automation of Audio Units with your DAW. These offer a much higher resolution than MIDI but are geared at controlling the software instrument as a whole. It’s useful though to control things like effect parameters, filters, volume, synthesis, envelopes, … EigenD provides you with a matrix interface that has all the Audio Unit parameters on a vertical axis and all the Eigenharp controls on the horizontal axis. You simply connect these together by clicking on the approach axis intersections.
Combined, these two approaches do give you a lot of expressiveness but it takes quite some effort to set up and fine tune. Once software instruments get better support for alternative next-generation instruments like the Eigenharp, all this will become a lot easier.
End-user documentation needs work
Since EigenD has been a moving target, Eigenlabs has essentially stopped producing tutorial videos or writing user-oriented documentation. There’s a lot of functionality going on under the covers that isn’t immediately apparent and if nobody tells you about it, you might never realize how it works. For instance, the timbre of the modeled cello is controlled by the pressure on the notes, not by the bowing on the strip controller. Here’s another one, MIDI pitch-bend is sent out based on the most recent note you played, while the Audio Unit parameter values are sent based on the oldest note you played. All this makes a lot of sense once you start taking the information into account when you’re playing, but due to the lack of documentation, a lot of people might never realize what is possible.
I’ve tried to solve this a bit in the meantime by creating tutorials and such that are published on http://www.eigenzone.org, but doing this in my spare time of course means that it’s slow going and that I will never be able to talk about everything.
Eigenlabs told me that they’ve been preparing a lot of new end-user tutorials that will go live soon. I suppose this will coincide with the next official EigenD release. In the meantime, a lot of low-level information about Belcanto has been posted on the wiki and power-users like myself benefit a lot from this. Not many companies provide so much detail about the inner workings of their software, so as a software developer I really appreciate the effort that has gone into the technical reference.
Taming the Eigenharp Alpha
Many people initially think of the Eigenharp Alpha as just another very powerful controller and nothing more. However, its detail, precision, expressiveness and physical interaction move it into the realm of a real instrument that you have to make your own.
Studying the instrument
You have to practice and work on your technique, you have to do dexterity exercises, you have to learn scales, chords and arpeggios … so that it becomes an extension of yourself and allows you to express the creativity that’s inside you without have to think about it. As with any instrument, this is a lot of hard work. Since the Eigenharp is so new, there are no teachers nor training methods, all the current players are still figuring out their own technique. This means that you’ll be mostly on your own and that you have to come up with what works for you. You have to invent your own exercises and adapt music theory to the possibilities of the Eigenharp, without mastering the instrument itself yet. All this takes a lot of patience and discipline, and requires you to be comfortable with learning things yourself with little help. I personally like this a lot and have learned most things in my life through self-study. However, if you need well structured training and a personal teacher, you should think twice before getting an Alpha at this time. In a couple of years, you’ll be most probably able to follow a course somewhere or at least buy a video tutorial, until then you’ll probably be more frustrated than anything else.
One of the most powerful concepts of the Eigenharp is that everything can be customized and changed on the fly, even in the midst of playing music. However, this flexibility also makes learning the Alpha a lot more challenging since there’s no stable reference point. A traditional piano keyboard has white and black keys that provide a clear structure, once you know which notes correspond to which keys, this never changes. On the Eigenharp, you don’t have this structure, your keyboard can be split any way imaginable, the order of the notes can be moved around, you can change scales (including microtonal non western scales) and tonics, you can transpose octaves, and so on. Any key can thus play any note, there’s no way to know which one by just looking at the instrument. You also don’t know what the relationships between the keys are, they could be semi-tones, they could be whatever follows next in the scale, they could even not play notes at all!
Luckily though, you can move slowly and start by playing in a major scale and play great music quite quickly since there’s no way to play out of tune notes. I found that this made me improvise a lot more easily since I didn’t have to worry about the scale itself anymore, I just had to trust my instinct and play in intervals. The first key is always the root, the fifth key a fifth interval, and so on. As long as you stick to the traditional western scales with eight notes, you can mostly reuse the same patterns over and over again and just switch between tonics and related scales (like minor, lydian, mixolydian, …). This does require knowledge of music theory and while you don’t have to learn the patterns of the scales, you do have to know when they’re used and how they’re related. You can of course put the Eigenharp in chromatic mode where all keys are a semi-tone apart, but due to the way keys repeat on the keyboard this limits your range to two octaves and a half. I’ve been working on creating a custom chromatic setup with minimal key repetition but still being logical in its layout. I got a good one working, but due to some limitations in Belcanto I’m stuck with fully implementing it by modifying a factory setup. I hope to be able to wrap this up soon though and start learning to play on a full eight octave chromatic keyboard.
EigenD requires a powerful computer system. This obviously depends on the sampler instruments and Audio Unit instruments you’re using, but be warned that if you’re serious about finding your perfect sounds, you’ll most probably have to get the most powerful Mac you can find. I’ve just upgraded the 4GB of RAM on my 3.06GHz SSD MacBook Pro to 8GB to be able to play the Kontakt instruments I’m interested in. If you use the scheduler and recorder with a lot of simultaneous loops, you’ll obviously put a lot more strain on your system also. Luckily though, you’re not required to use a laptop, the Apple Mac Mini is a very powerful alternative as EigenD is designed to run without a screen. This could be a good option for live performance certainly since Eigenlabs is developing an iPhone/iPod Touch application that will allow you to control EigenD remotely. The iPod Touch can then be attached to the back of the Alpha, giving you direct control over the software without ever having to step up to a keyboard or a mouse.
Besides a powerful computer, you’ll most probably have to invest into a large internal or external hard drive, either 7200 rpm or SSD. You will need this for the virtual instruments, most of them use up a lot of space and require very fast streaming from disk.
Also, since the Eigenharp doesn’t ship with speakers, you’ll have to amplify the sound somehow. You can either play with headphones through the built-in stereo mini jack on the Alpha, or amplify through external speakers. The latter will require you to invest in a decent external audio interface to convert the digital audio into an analog signal. You could use the sound card that is built into the Mac, and while its latency seems good, I found that the digital to analog conversion has a lot of artifacts that I can’t live with. Of course, if you’re serious about your amplified sound, you’ll also have to get a pair of good keyboard or front-of-house speakers. This is of course true for most other instruments.
Even with all the warts of the current EigenD software that drives the Eigenharp Alpha, the instrument speaks to me. I’ve never enjoyed playing the piano as much and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The position of your hands, the relationship with the keys and the combination of the playing and percussion keys, it all just keeps pulling me in. I know when I start playing, but before I know it, many hours of great fun have gone by. In contrast to the Pico where I quickly mastered and used all the features, it seems that I tend to focus first on perfecting my playing technique on the Alpha. I’ve rarely used the scheduler and have never done anything with the arranger yet. You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time searching and fine-tuning sounds, only the ones that ship with the instrument are readily playable and almost any other software instrument will require you to adapt it to how you use the Alpha. You also have to be comfortable to spend a lot of time in self-study as there are no training materials nor teachers. The great community of first adopters combined with the stellar and passionate customer service from Eigenlabs makes exploring all the possibilities very enjoyable though, you’re not on your own.
It really is a physical and sensual instrument that gives you intimate control over your own digital world.
Credits: This review was written by Geert Bevin. Most of the pictures were taken by Nathalie Mafessoni, except Geert playing the guitar by Carine Maton. Many thanks go to Mike Milton for his excellent suggestions and to the whole Eigenlabs team for being so cooperative.