I came across monome in April, while trolling the web for information on step sequencers. I found myself drawn to the Spartan aesthetic of monome.org and the minimalist principles expressed there. And then there was the 40h controller itself-a user-configurable 8x8 grid of 64 backlit buttons, available in a limited quantity of 400. Continued research led me to mesmerizing videos of the 40h in action-patterns of green lights dancing across the button pad to the beat of futuristic music. Then I learned there were less than 50 units left, and they were going fast; should I really drop $500 on a box of buttons?
Originally called simply "the box", the 40h (hexadecimal for 64) was conceived as a live performance tool. The controller is designed to be used with a computer, connected and powered by USB. There is no MIDI port, and it won't operate as a stand-alone device. Instead, a cross-platform software driver (Mac OS X, WinXP, Linux) translates a two-byte serial stream into MIDI or OSC, interfacing the controller to your choice of host music software (or hardware) via computer. It's not necessary to be a programmer to use and enjoy the 40h, as a wide variety of purpose-built music applications are available to download for free. In the simplest of these, you can map MIDI values to the buttons. More sophisticated applications provide a full-blown GUI with sequencer grids, sample management tools, mixer functions, live input channels, and effects. Other applications allow you to control commercial music (or video) software such as Ableton Live, Reaktor, Logic, VDMX... anything that speaks MIDI or OSC. The factors that finally sold me on the 40h are its total reconfigurability, the impressive set of open-source music applications, and the vibrant user community at monome.org.
I ordered my 40h, and a week later, it arrived packaged in plain recyclable materials. Intentionally minimal in concept and design, the 40h is a pleasure to hold and touch. Just under 7" on a side and a bit more than 1" thick, the case is a square slab of black silicone topped with a heavy brushed-aluminum faceplate. On top there is an 8x8 grid of resilient, translucent buttons. There are no other controls or indicators, no external markings or logos. A single recessed opening in the case accepts a standard USB cable. The buttons on the 40h are not pressure or velocity-sensitive; a gentle push depresses a button with a positive "snap", and when released it returns to its original position. The LEDs that back-light the buttons are decoupled from button-presses by design and are controlled by the host software. This means the LEDs act as more than mere status indicators, instead providing animated visual feedback as you play the device. Depending on the application, the lighted buttons might indicate trigger points, sequencer steps, channel states, or mixer levels. The button pad can even display chunky 1-bit video.
Detailed instructions on the website walked me through the installation, and I began to explore the applications. balron allows me to map the 8x8 grid to a huge assortment of tonal patterns. As I play the button pad, my patterns are repeated back to me both visually and audibly, delayed and transposed, leading to the sense that I'm jamming with another musician. flin is a set of eight vertical MIDI sequencers. In the first column, I set the duration of a note to six beats by pushing the sixth button down from the top. Now a lighted bar six buttons long continuously scrolls off the bottom and back onto the top of the column, re-triggering the note with each cycle. I create eight of these, of varying length and pitch, and produce the haunting effect of audible raindrops sliding down a window. mlr is a highly evolved sample-based tool geared to live performance. On-screen I drag and drop WAV samples of different lengths (some of them entire songs) onto a pad in the GUI, set their playback speed, and assign them to six sequencer channels. Each sample is automatically chopped into eight equal chunks, and corresponding lights march sequentially across the pad until interrupted and re-triggered by my button presses. A control area near the bottom of the grid allows me to swap samples, engage pattern recorders, mute and unmute channels, and add effects. My early results are layered cacophonies of quantized rhythms, but as I become more familiar with the tool, I find I can create introspective melodies and ambient soundscapes by loading less percussive samples. mlr recognizes multiple simultaneous button presses, and so a sample's length, direction, and speed can be tweaked on the fly with two-finger "span" gestures. As I play the 40h-whether chopping beats, triggering MIDI, or recording and re-triggering live samples-I feel like I'm playing a musical instrument. The blinking square in my hands inspires an exploratory, improvisational playing style. Freed from the baleful glow of the computer screen, I lose myself among 64 moving points of light and sound.
Most of these (open-source, hackable) applications are written in Max/MSP. (They run in the free Runtime version, so purchasing Max/MSP is not required unless you decide to modify the applications, or build your own.) Others are written in Chuck, Pure Data, Flash, and Java. Several Reaktor 5 ensembles written expressly for the 40h are my current favorites. New applications are continually uploaded to monome.org by musicians, artists, and programmers as they invent fresh ways to use the 40h. The website currently lists over 60 unique applications. Some users are building new music and video control software, or immersive art installations, while others are hacking the 40h firmware (written for the ATmega32 microcontroller) to add features. It's a profound example of the power of open source to encourage participation and innovation.
monome is a two-person collective in Philadelphia consisting of artists Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain. The website states, "we are minimalists" and as explanation, links to Wikipedia's definition of "monomial". monome makes a visible effort to maintain an ethical, and green, micro-business profile. monome eschews traditional marketing techniques; awareness of their products spreads virally via blogs, web videos, word of mouth, and live performances. The 40h hardware design, circuits, firmware, and application source code are made available on the site under a Creative Commons license. Hacking and DIY upgrades are encouraged, and the 40h logic board has additional inputs for four potentiometers or two continuous controllers. monome also offers the guts of the 40h as a DIY kit without a faceplate or case; builders are encouraged to design their own (as of this writing the kits are sold out, but according to the site, a second batch is in the works). Also check monome.org for details on their upcoming 16x16 and 8x16 devices.
Owning a 40h has inspired a level of musical creativity and experimentation I haven't experienced in years. monome's software toolset has also provided a perfect entry point to delve into programming Max/MSP and Reaktor, and I've even fired up the soldering iron to build my own device, based on the 40h's open hardware architecture. Even without this openness and reconfigurability, the 40h stands on its own as a unique and powerful new breed of music-making tool. Yamaha has just released a similar button-based device called the Tenori-On, and it will be interesting to see how the concept plays in the mainstream market. Hopefully this is just the beginning of an exciting new trend in music interface technology.
A friend recently said, "Dude, it's just a fucking box of buttons!" He's absolutely right, and for some reason I just donTMt care. ($500 direct; www.monome.org)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.