In the world of music-making, quirky new instruments tend to come and go. But one description-defying gadget from Yamaha, the Tenori-on, might prove to be more than a fad.
Will the Tenori-on go on and on, or is it just a fad?
First launched in the UK last autumn and this year in the States, the instrument quickly earned media accolades for being innovative both musically and technologically.
Prominent musicians like Bjork are using it for performances and recordings. One Japanese band, The Tenorians, named itself after the instrument and uses it to churn out hard-driving electronica.
But most of all, the Tenori-on has one big advantage that most quirky new instruments never get: backing. This device didn’t come from somebody’s garage. It came out of a large manufacturer capable of making lots more Tenori-on (and a variety of versions).
It’s an unlikely tale. Yamaha gave the device a chance commercially only after years of lobbying from a few of its designers.
Despite a high price ($1,200) and narrow distribution channels, the company quickly sold more than 3,000 units. That, apparently, was enough to persuade the company of its broader potential.
Yamaha is now working on at least one new version, but the details are being guarded with a secrecy worthy of Apple. But with a low enough price, the product could appeal to mainstream consumers.
Like the iPod or iPhone, the Tenori-on is all about design. Whereas the former exudes California cool, the latter feels quintessentially Japanese.
In some ways it resembles Go, a strategic board game that’s been popular in Japan and East Asia for centuries. The rules and appearance of Go appear simple, but scratch the surface just a bit and the depth of the game becomes clear.
Looking a bit like a high-tech Go board, the Tenori-on presents a Zen-like 16×16 grid of 256 identical LED buttons in a square-shaped magnesium frame that’s easily held in the hands. At its simplest, press a button to produce a sound through the built-in speakers.
But along the sides are function buttons letting users make changes to volume, octave, tempo, transposition, note lengths, and loop point and speed.
In minutes, musical novices can be creating surprisingly intricate soundscapes. Meanwhile the device displays arresting light patterns in response to the buttons pressed, making it work on stage just as easily as on the couch.
To many musicians and performers, the product is something like catnip. Those who can’t access it pine for it in online forums.
“Once you understand how it works, it’s one of the most self-explaining and intuitive instruments you can imagine,” says conceptual audio artist Norman Fairbanks, creator of the first album to be made entirely with a Tenori-on.
“It really changed my way to make music,” he said.
Fairbanks expects to still be using a Tenori-on in 10 years and likes being able to compose on it anywhere. (It has a jack for headphones, a memory card slot for saving compositions, and runs on AA batteries or an AC adapter.)