Just like junior prom, novel musical instruments can inspire both awe and awkwardness.
Exhibit A: the Eigenharp. Part keyboard sampler, part digital woodwind and drum machine, the veritable Franken-synth comes in three sizes: Alpha, Tau and Pico. The Pico is the smallest, cheapest (though still steep) and, in theory, most accessible of the trio. Not to say it’s a no-brainer.
The Pico hangs loose from a neck strap, like an after-hours tie, and has been likened to the Fanfar, the cylindrical thing tooted by a few dome headed-aliens in the Star Wars Cantina Band.
A plastic breath pipe with a reed curves from the top of the Pico. Two columns of nine keys each run parallel down its body, flanked by a touch-sensitive “ribbon” controller used primarily for pitch-bending and for bowing a software-modeled cello.
Each LED-decked, pressure-sensitive key of the Eigenharp is actually three keys in one: The concave center triggers a standard note, while the upper edge triggers a sharp and the lower edge a flat. Octaves can be raised or lowered by tapping on two smaller, circular buttons below the keyboard.
Two identical buttons above the keyboard serve different purposes. One turns the drum loop on and off, and the other — when held down — turns the keyboard into “main mode”: cycle through instruments, change scales, record and edit loops, add or subtract to the percussive beat, and manipulate a slew of other parameters.
Memorizing what triggers what in “main mode” mode takes a bit of fiddling. Luckily, several minimalist diagrams in a printed quick-reference guide — and a series of four video tutorials on a packaged thumb drive — flatten the learning curve a bit. The QuickTime tutorials are taught by optimistic-sounding Nick, “a musician and demonstrator at Eigenharp,” and they’re supplemented by an online support forum at eigenlabs/p>
Obviously you’re supposed to play the Eigenharp in front of your weirded-out friends, not a computer screen. Nonetheless, the firmware-free instrument has to be plugged into a computer by USB 2.0 to operate.
Therein lies a bummer. The scrollable EigenD browser, a software app that comes with the Eigenharp, helps visualize the Eigenharp’s internals. On it, you can change instruments, build different drum kits from a vast library of loops, add effects, etc.
(The company is also phasing in Belcanto, a “command and control language” in which “words are defined as short sequences of notes on the major scale” of the instrument. Not, probably, for novices).
The Browser is super simple to navigate, but the Eigenharp is a resource hog. It takes a buttload of RAM (2 gigabytes or more) to seamlessly jam. In our tests, the Pico’s lights often flickered on and off and just as often the instrument crashed, prompting much frustration and many MacBook Pro reboots.
The Pico comes preloaded with seven software-modeled default instruments: a Steinway grand piano, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, an easily manipulated Alchemy synth and — calling upon the breath pipe — a clarinet and a cello. All are stored as Soundfonts, an age-old audio format.
Users can add their own Soundfonts, but to convert existing sound samples you’ll have to purchase a third-party app such as CDXtract for $139. To our surprise, Eigenlabs doesn’t offer any recommendations for free, high-quality Soundfonts on the Web.
The Eigenharp has the power to both transfix and confound. When it’s not crashing, it’s like tickling Buddha: totally fun, even if it doesn’t make intuitive sense at first. Once the software bugs are worked out and the price slides down a bit, the Pico will live up to its promise.