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Keith McMillen Instruments Interview

We spoke to KMI to understand their perception of what MPE brings to the table, how it can be used to enhance Modal synths, and how MPE is re-shaping the future of music-making.

It’s one of the most revolutionary developments in MIDI since its inception. Following the ratification of the MPE format by The MIDI Association, the future seems bright for multidimensional control. One of the companies at the forefront of MPE innovation is Keith McMillen Instruments, whose K-Board Pro 4 is among the most versatile and ingenious controllers available today. We spoke to the company to understand their perception of what MPE brings to the table, how it can be used to enhance Modal synths, and how MPE is re-shaping the future of music-making.

Since its founding in 2005, Keith McMillen Instruments has been driven by a quest to design the most expressive MIDI controlling pads, instruments, interfaces, foot controllers and more. From the Bluetooth-enabled sensor bow of the K-Bow, the superb Mini MIDI controller, the QuNexus to the 3D multi-touch pad, the QuNeo.

A scant five years since its launch, the company’s inventive re-purposing of MIDI’s many unused channels into per note articulation parameters was a pivotal concept that drove the industry-wide development of MPE – MIDI Polyphonic Expression. Today, the K-Board Pro 4 sits near the pinnacle of inventive MPE-controller design, and is an able creative compliment to any of Modal’s MPE-ready synths. We spoke to Eric Bateman, the company’s CEO, as well as Product Specialist Tom Ferguson, to gain further insight into the company’s history, aims and the ongoing evolution of MPE.

MPE presents a huge array of new creative movement and manipulation for the music maker. To a layperson, or someone comfortable working with traditional keyboard synths, how would you explain the value of what MPE can bring to the table?

Eric Bateman: MPE has become a bit of a catch-all for making controllers more expressive. At KMI, we’re trying to make them behave more like real instruments. It’s not that a synthesiser keyboard isn’t a real instrument, it’s just that it’s very one-dimensional. You’ve got pitch, then sometimes you’ve got velocity. Anybody who’s played guitar, a violin or a wind instrument – or sang with their voice – knows that in the real world, music can be a lot more expressive, and that you can vary the pitch and vary the tone in so many tiny and intricate ways. Often players do that with their fingers. We are using MPE (which is technically a subset of the standard MIDI protocol) to organise the MIDI messages to be more descriptive about gestures.

Those gestures can be a side-by-side wiggle with your finger, they can be a slide up-and-down on the key, they can be pressure. Crucially, all of these gestures can be done per-note. Any one of your fingers can do it. On a traditional keyboard, to do these expressions you’d need to take your left hand and go adjust the mod wheel or pitch bend wheel, so you’re losing half your expressive capability because that hand is now dedicated to that one thing.

So, just having those expressive controls within the key, means that your finger can handle the pitch bend by sliding back and forth. What we find is that a lot of people who play piano and also play the guitar, kind of do these motions almost instinctively when they play a very expressive phrase. So it’s a natural development.

Keith McMillen Instruments has long been at the forefront of innovative new music technology, with products like the K-Bow and then the QuNexus and QuNeo pushing at the limits of MIDI control. Can you take us through the Keith McMillen Instruments history in relation to MPE?

Eric: MPE is still being developed. I was actually on a call earlier today with the MPE committee that’s working with the MIDI organisation. I’m just one member and we’re currently revising the specification to make it easier for developers. We’re also developing a profile that works with MIDI 2.0. People think MIDI 2.0 just increases the bit depth, but there’s a few other things that come with it.

What MIDI 2.0 is going to give us is automatic setup. Whereas the old days MIDI was a one-way communication mechanism – so your keyboard sends a note and your synth engine plays the note. We’re trying to make devices talk to each other in two directions. So, when you plug in your MPE device, it will tell whatever you’re plugged into (a Modal COBALT for example) ‘Hey, I’m an MPE instrument’ and your Modal COBALT will say ‘Hey, I’m a Modal COBALT, how many zones do you have?’ And the MPE controller will say ‘I have two’. They can then work out all those details straight away, so the user doesn’t have the laborious step of assigning parameters.

In terms of MPE’s history, if you think back to a big Yamaha workstation, you would usually have 16 instruments. You’d have piano on one, and bass on channel two. You could essentially have a whole symphony in your workstation, and that’s a multi-timbral synth. All of that MIDI is transmitted over channel one. Somebody thought, instead of defining all these different instruments, why not make one instrument but each of its channels are dedicated to a voice. That way you could allow for things like pitch-bending but with multiple notes.

The term MPE wasn’t around then, but people like Tom Oberheim developed more intelligent synthesisers, such as the Matrix series. With that, you could place it in a mode where each channel will be dedicated to a voice (note), and you’d be able to apply pitch bend and aftertouch independently to each note. To make use of this idea, more controllers needed to be developed. So, the idea grew legs. When we came up with the QuNexus there was a feature called channel rotation. Other people, like Roger Linn and Elektron, did similar things, and the idea of using these channels for per-note manipulation evolved. The MIDI organisation realised that this was growing in popularity as an idea, and so, eventually, we wrote the spec for it.

Polyphonic Pro

Let’s talk a little about the K-Board Pro 4, which has become one of the most acclaimed MPE instruments, being so portable and easy to comprehend. What advantages does the K-Board Pro 4 have over other MPE instruments currently out there?

Eric: K-Board Pro 4 is our flagship, but we do have other MPE controllers. We have the QuNexus, which natively supports MPE. Our BopPad is a drum pad that has four zones and will transmit those one separate channels in an MPE format. Recently, we released an MPE update for the QuNeo. That’s an Akai style 4×4 pad controller with sliders, but all the drum pads have X/Y/Z pressure that you can sense on all of them.

There’s specific Modal integration with the QuNeo – we’ve got software that’s still in beta, but it has presets for the SKULPTsynth, with the ARGON and the COBALT. We have Sysex integration so you can easily select synth presets on the QuNeo, and all of the synth parameters will stay in sync on the QuNeo. So, we’re really good friends and partners with Modal, and have a lot of MPE instruments that can interface well with their roster.

But, K-Board Pro 4 is hands-down the most usable keyboard MPE controller that has been invented to date. It has discreet keys, it has built-in sliders that determine how much pitch bend and how long it takes for pitch bend to return, it makes K-Board Pro 4 a very playable instrument.

I’m a drummer, and I play synthesisers – so in theory I should know what I’m doing on a keyboard, but in practice I don’t have fine-pitch control. For me the K-Board Pro 4 is perfect because slide-for-modulation is the first control I want to go for. If I’m playing a solo, then I might want to increase the amount of pitch bend that I get with my wiggle. I want to be able to control that in real-time, because I might not be able to hold a perfect major or minor triad in pitch while I bend it all the way. The K-Board has the flexibility for those who can do that, but you can really fine-tune it to your playing style.

We put all the options under the hood for the most part, but if you really want to customise that controller you have all the knobs and dials to do it.

Is it important that there be a continual dialogue between major synth manufacturers and yourselves about how best to incorporate MPE into new synths and software?

Eric: Like a lot of the music industry, a lot of what music instrument manufacturers do is based on hype. From the outside looking in, it might look like we’re huge but really we’re a tiny blip on the radar. It’s a very small industry. I’ve been in the music equipment industry my whole adult life so I run into people that I used to work with all the time. It’s hard to not stay in touch with such a tight-knit group of people.

We’ve had a close relationship with Modal for a while now. They really saw the value in MPE and released some fantastic synths. We’ve been able to collaborate easily, and figure out how things should work.

There’s companies out there that I won’t name, but if I’m trying out a product and find they’re not implementing MPE correctly, I’ll drop them an email (for the benefit of users) Sometimes they’ll say ‘thanks, we’ll look into it’ and other times they won’t even respond. So it’s always refreshing when you can maintain and develop an ongoing relationship, especially with a company like Modal that is really pushing the envelope.

Tom Ferguson: We really needed that MPE spec so we could communicate with synthesisers across the board. We make the best controllers and working with companies that make the best synthesisers makes that entire environment sustainable.

Growing that community is like planting a forest, each synth is like a tree. It’s just good for MPE which is still a fledgling fraction of modern music technology. The spec is what stitches it all together. It will eventually be pervasive. I think a big game changer is that more DAWs are supporting MPE, such as Ableton 11.

As we interact more with the digital world, we want to have the same resolution that we have with the real world. If you play drums and you hit a drum head at different places, or if you strum your guitar in the middle of the body – the player is organically harnessing timbral control. We don’t spend a lot of time in the real world abstractly *mapping* timbre control.

Planes Of Sound

So there’s a lot of different ways of working with MPE, aside from simply assigning the traditional CC values like pitch and vibrato to each note, what would you say are some more ‘out-there’ or more exciting ways of working with MPE, or ways it could develop?

Tom: I think having that timbral control while still having musical freedom is key. We know what a note is, and vibrato is great as an example because it’s all very obvious and we all have a sense of what that is. Timbral control is more interesting than pitch to me – the same note being able to be expressed with multiple different subtle timbral differences – the ear picks up on it. That’s why when you hear a drum machine and the snare sounds the same each time you hear it, it’s very noticeable. It lets you play around in that plane of what a sound is.

Before we had pitch, loudness and duration – that’s kind of traditional MIDI. Now with this other thing, depending on where you play on the key, or where you play on the pad, it could be hugely different. It matters. There’s an axis of expression there.

Eric: Once MPE gives you all these controls – there’s still this stitching together. One thing we haven’t done yet with Modal, but we have talked about it, is to design a synth that has an MPE keyboard BUILT-INTO it. With patches that are designed for a complete MPE experience.

Currently I’m not satisfied with how much work is left to the performer in the pre-mapping stage. My goal is to make an MPE instrument that has it all tied in. All the presets are out-of-the-box ready to go with that.

One thing I particularly like doing in MPE, is letting your hand become a volume envelope. Take the classic synth pad sound – where you play a chord and it slowly swells in. You put your fingers on the chord, based on what you set the attack to, that chord will swell in over a set period of time.

One thing you can do with MPE control is take that attack time and turn it all the way on so it’s really fast, it hits instantly. But then you can map volume to the MPE Y-Axis and invert it, and say that – up at the top of the key, the volume is all the way down whereas if you slide to the bottom of the key, the volume comes all the way up. Now I can create those swells and the timing is up to me, based on how I slide.

Can you tell us what Keith McMillen Instruments is currently focused on, and what kinds of technologies and ideas are driving the next generation of products?

Eric: We’ve spent a lot of the last two years re-tooling and updating a lot of things, bringing some older software back, dusting it off and making it newer. We’ve been working on rebuilding our relationships with our customers. We’re starting now to get into the phase of taking our great ideas, prototyping and putting them together. We really want to connect the controller experience with the instrument. That’s where we’re really focused.

A lot of our loyal customers and fans are people who like getting in deep and tweaking parameters. We’re still going to always have the knobs under the hood, but we do want our users to get closer to the sounds immediately. We want to create instruments that, out-of-the-box, you don’t need anybody to explain to you why MPE is cool. It should be obvious.