Oct 5, 2010 Interviews
The first thought that came to mind when I heard the end portion of the song “Rehna Tu” in the film Delhi-6 was – ‘which software sample has Rahman used?’ But soon the word spread that he has bought a new keyboard called “Continuum”. And finally, in the video of the much-publicized “Phir Mile Sur”, the common man saw him play it.
I interviewed Mr. Lippold Haken, the professor who built this new device – which is well, not a keyboard, but a new instrument. A musical background together with an engineering education allowed him to create the Continuum Fingerboard. (The name comes from continuous pitch, pressure, and front-back position tracking for each finger.)
(1) What is your background in music?
My mother thought learning to play an instrument was important, so she required me to practice viola for an hour each day as I was growing up. I did not appreciate it very much as a child and I never got to be a very good musician, but now I am thankful for the experience. I enjoy playing string quartets with my more talented siblings, and the musical background together with an engineering education allowed me to create the Continuum Fingerboard.
(2) How did you come across the idea of making the ‘Continuum’?
When I was in college in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was with a group of students designing and building music synthesizers for the PLATO computer system at the University of Illinois. It was before the days of MIDI and general-purpose keyboards, so we built music keyboards to go with our synthesizers. In addition, we built a Pitch Extractor, a device that would tell you the exact pitch of singing or playing into a microphone. We could do continuous-pitch input into PLATO and our synthesizers, but only had a discrete keyboard for playing music. Since I had violin and viola background, I thought it would be useful to have continuous-pitch control over the music, so the idea for the Continuum Fingerboard was born. I tried many different designs and many different finger detection technologies. It is challenging to polyphonically track the small finger movements involved in expressive playing, and at the same time have a good surface feel. In the late 90’s I had settled on a design that is similar to what I have now. Since then I have been making many small improvements; improvements that a beginner does not notice, but are important for an experienced player.
(3) Why the name ‘Continuum’?
The name comes from continuous pitch, pressure, and front-back position tracking for each finger.
(4) How and when did AR Rahman get in touch with you?
AR saw Edmund Eagan’s Pluck1 video http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/examples/ex214.html and that made him very interested in the Continuum and the Kyma system (which was used to synthesize the sound in that video). He contacted me in December of 2006; he used it on stage for the first time in suburban Chicago in June of 2007. In front of a sold-out Sears Centre crowd of 11,000 people, he and his MC said:
“Do you want to know something about me? Well, I started playing at a very early age. My father died, and he had some equipment, synthesizers, and stuff. I was very fascinated by them… I took part in music playing for music composers. And it has been a passion. I felt like a king when I was playing keyboards when I was young… but there was one thing… I was frustrated because I could not play Carnatic or Hindustani music on keyboards, because of the limitations of the keys which never let microintonation of notes … so recently I discovered something that was quite a revelation for me: the Continuum Fingerboard invented right here in Illinois! … by University of Illinois Professor, Mr. Lippold Haken … And he is here right now; it is an honor to have you here! …the Continuum plays the notes in-between the piano keys and that is amazing. The sound is generated by Kyma, which is also invented right here in Illinois! … Illinois, you have the magic! [AR plays a Carnatic improvisation] Let me play something you know! [AR plays a well-known piece of his] Stars sang that! I think that is a start and an introduction for kids who want to play [Indian] classical music and not just stick to keyboards alone. It looks like this! [He gestures towards the continuum.] Thank you, Lippold!”
(5) Any other famous composers using the product in Hollywood? If so, which songs feature your product?
There are quite a few Continuum Fingerboards in Hollywood. In Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, John Williams included a Continuum Fingerboard in his score, played by Randy Kerber. The Continuum blends well with the orchestra; you can hear it in several of the new melodies, often doubling other instruments: http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/examples/ex244.html
(6) You say that this is not just another MIDI keyboard, and one needs to learn the product like a new instrument totally. So how does a professional musician adapt himself to using the product?
There are two major challenges with the Continuum Fingerboard. The first is that while the internal sounds built in to the Continuum are beautiful, people need to realize that the performance examples provided by Edmund Eagan were played with a very skilled light touch.
For example, the new Timbre Player sounds http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/intsounds/isTimbre.html loaded in the continuum are really just raw material for your fingers — most of the life, the thing that really makes those sounds sing, comes from skilled finger technique…. So an odd thing happens: people download the new firmware and sounds, and think the sounds are broken. It is not like a MIDI keyboard where you can easily make a single note sound good by just hitting a key — here, on an internal sound like the Pluck Tine, if you just hit it, it makes an ugly squawk — it takes practiced finesse to make it sound Kalimba-like and really make it sing…
So for the professional musician, I suggest they develop their technique by imitating Edmund Eagan’s playing, even if it is not in their playing style. I suggest they start with the internal sounds that are easier to play, like Timbre Mute — I could do a reasonable imitation of Edmund Eagan’s playing of Timbre Mute after a week of practice. When I imitate the playing, I go for details of the vibrato and inflections; its pretty hard to try to do everything Ed does, but it is fun trying!
In addition to new playing technique, the Continuum Fingerboard has another major challenge. You can control almost any MIDI synthesizer with the Continuum, but for many decades synthesizers have been optimized for MIDI keyboards – and many patches that work great with keyboards are not so good with the Continuum. Making expressive synthesizer patches for the Continuum is a challenge. I tell professional musicians that they may want to invest the time and effort to learn Symbolic Sound Kyma, or use analog control-voltage synthesizers – because those systems (as well as Reaktor, Max, and some other systems) allow you to “get inside” the sound patches and make useful mappings from finger pressure and position to each individual synthesis parameter.
(7) For Indian music, especially Carnatic music, the Continuum seems perfect. Which other styles would you recommend it for?
I grew up playing violin and viola. In those instruments, fine control over vibrato is paramount to expressive playing. I think continuous pitch is not only an issue for tuning systems that do not correspond to equal temperament, but also a wide variety of expression. My hope is that Continuum players develop a refined light touch with the instrument. I think the Continuum has a place in a wide variety of music.
I am pleased the Continuum has been used in a variety of styles from classical to experimental (http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/examples/ex245.html) to metal (http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/examples/ex239.html); and it has been used to control all sorts of synthesis devices, including tesla coils (http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/examples/ex241.html).
The keyboard will always have an advantage over the Continuum: it is easier to play more notes more quickly on a keyboard; on the Continuum, it is challenging to place all your fingers correctly in-tune on the surface. But the Continuum has the advantage that you can shape the timbre and pitch evolution of each note in a way that is not possible on a keyboard. The Continuum does not replace keyboards, it complements them.
(8) Do you plan to incorporate Indian sounds / banks into the product? (we can help here)
We are continually developing new internal sounds for the Continuum Fingerboard. At AR’s request, we added the Wind sound as an internal sound this spring.
(9) Is the product price justified?
People are used to purchasing synthesizers and keyboards from large multi-national corporations. The Continuum is not like that; I build Continuum Fingerboards in my basement (with assembly help from my father-in-law). In a small business like this, quantities are small, and production costs are high. I don’t make a living by building Continuums; I teach at the University to pay the bills and support my wife and four kids. If you look at other boutique businesses building fine musical instruments, you will find similar prices.
The cost of building a Continuum comes from its construction. Continuums are electro-mechanical; underneath a layer of neoprene rubber they contain hundreds of precision-machined aluminum rods that are suspended by piano-wire springs. The rods have magnets mounted on both ends; corresponding magnetic sensors mounted underneath the mechanical assembly detect the distance to the end of each rod. The magnetic sensor values are processed by a DSP to detect fingers and track their position and pressure. The DSP then converts the tracked finger information to MIDI; the MIDI encoding is heavily optimized to work with the limited bandwidth of MIDI. The DSP also generates the internal sounds, through digital output and high-quality analog converters.
(10) What are your future plans to develop the product further?
Edmund Eagan and I are working on new internal sounds, further improvements to the Continuum Editor software, and minor improvements to the physical instrument itself. We have also been working on ancillary equipment; we have the beautiful Continuum Stand available now (http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/stand/CSdesign.html) which gives the Continuum a real stage presence, even as a solo instrument for a full symphony orchestra. (AR has the prototype of this stand in his LA studio.) We are also working on the Continuum Voltage Converter (CVC) for analog control-voltage synthesizers; you would be amazed at the beautiful sounds you can get from traditional analog designs (http://www.hakenaudio.com/Continuum/html/examples/ex236.html). (AR also has a CVC and a Voyager in his LA studio.)
(11) Any other information you’d like to share with the readers / musicians?
I build Continuum Fingerboards because I love it. In this fast-paced world, my colleagues are incredulous that I am still working on the Continuum Fingerboard, and that I have not moved on to other things. I am blessed that highly skilled people like AR Rahman and Edmund Eagan and many others understand the dream, and can make such beautiful music with it. Not being a performing musician myself, I totally rely on others to make my dreams come true.
Amen to that.