…examining the Eigenharp

by Stephen Hobley on December 10, 2009

The Eigenharp is a MIDI controller + virtual modelling synth engine developed in the UK.

There’s a pretty good movie here that explains what it can do:

You might need to skip the first couple of minutes to get the “meat” of the video.

I posted a comment on the above clip that, in retrospect, came over as terribly smug. I really wasn’t trying to be smug, and I genuinely applaud Eigenlabs for developing a unique musical instrument with cutting edge technology.

I do have a few observations that may present problems when it comes to getting the device adopted by the musical community.

First off I am 100% the kind of musician and geek that would buy this thing – I *love* new tech like this. The only problem is I am also 100% the kind of musician and geek that would *build* this kind of thing – even more so when I checked out the price. At about 70% of the list price I could just about stretch to buying it, but at the current price tag I’m almost certainly going to try and build it. (Teach a man to fish etc…)

The next thing is more of a marketing issue than a technology one. This device looks like it’s trying to be everything to everyone. It’s a bassoon/saxophone/piano/drum/banjo/tenori-on/ and many more besides. I’m not really sure what defines the target market, or how that market is segmented.

Having been involved in a number of failed projects I know that this is crucial to getting your message across.

Instruments like the Haaken Continuum or the Chapman Stick look like they are going after a particular type of musician – it’s very clear what kind of an instrument they are, and who would play them.

I can’t really work out who the Eigenharp is for, and unless that’s made very clear, the message is going to become muddy.

Maybe a better idea would be to start with the basic Eigenharp, then offer options for wind, percussion, string and keyboard players. Then at least there would be an “Eigenharp for you” rather than one Eigenharp for everyone.

It’s also important not to just replicate the sound of existing instruments, but actually produce something new that has a unique sound all of it’s own. The Haaken Continuum achieves this very well.

Finally, the sound producing part of the Eigenharp is software. This means that you need to be tethered to a Mac to play it. I’ve worked with a bunch of elaborate MIDI setups over the years, and the last thing anyone wants is to rely on a computer when playing live. It should be possible to move the sound production mechanism into hardware – either as an external box, or better yet, inside the body of the instrument. There should be no multi-tasking OS, just a quick booting ROM image so you can go from case to performance in under 5 seconds.

There have been many unique MIDI controllers over the years, and a lot of them have fallen by the wayside – I think that the Eigenharp has potential, but needs some refinement in terms of musicality and marketing to make it a success.

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