What Do You Think of Instrument 1?

Courtesy of Jordan Minor... 

At first glance, Instrument 1 looks like a controller for some off-brand Guitar Hero clone. But, when you hold it you don't get the impression of any particular instrument...

For their first product, the makers at music technology company Artiphon said they did look at those peripherals for inspiration. But this smart instrument, the “most funded musical gadget in Kickstarter history,” is actually about democratizing the joys of composing music, not just mechanically imitating it.

After spending some time jamming with Instrument 1 at art/tech incubator New Inc., all I can say is it makes me want to get back into music.

Instrument 1 is a MIDI controller, a tool for generating the standard digital music file. But whereas most MIDI controllers are keyboards hooked up to inscrutable boxes, Instrument 1 is shaped like a purposefully vague string instrument.

Typing notes into software can’t capture the totality of writing and performing music. The physical act of hitting a drum or plucking a string or moving yours hands up and down piano keys, on stage or in a tour bus, is crucial to the experience. Instrument 1 wants to replicate that. Pressure sensitive buttons let you strum, press frets, or even hold the device up on your shoulder like a violin. And if you lay it on a surface, the neck acts as a piano/drum kit.

Remember Wii Music? That game got a ton of flak after its infamous showing at Nintendo’s 2008 E3 Conference (Ravi Drums?) and the end product was pretty basic. But I also appreciated how the game approached music from a looser and more expressive angle, an opposite but equally valid philosophy compared to Guitar Hero’s strict focus on technical rhythmic precision.

Ultimately, both game’s methods were incomplete, because they were games. But improvising on Instrument 1 felt like joining those concepts and taking them to their logical conclusion as a full-fledged tangible creative music tool. It’s like air guitar but real. Forget recorders, let kids play this in schools.

Instrument 1 just feels so good to use. You’ll never forget you’re strumming buttons instead of real string, but the fact that you’re strumming, moving up octaves or using a capo, is still incredibly dope. And while the neck’s buttons aren’t laid out exactly like a piano, it surprised me how quickly my finger muscle memory returned and I was able to play a section of the theme from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Of course, I plugged in my headphones as I didn’t want co-creator Jacob Gordon to hear how rusty I was.

Interacting with a MIDI controller in this more realistic way is Instrument 1’s hook, so if you’re serious about using it to its full potential the next step is to connect it to a digital audio workstation like GarageBand on Mac or FL Studio on PC. For this demo, I used Artiphon’s own Instrument 1 iOS app on an iPad (the Android version isn’t ready). I could easily lay down tracks, customize the button layout, lock into a certain harmony, activate tools like the arpeggiator for easy loops, or switch to different instruments.

Any good MIDI controller lets composers play not just virtual pianos and guitars but virtual trumpets and xylophones and weird vaporwave synth sounds. But with Instrument 1 you can mix and match those sounds with the different ways you physically play the device. Want to play a violin that makes saxophone noises? You can. A button on the device lets you quickly swap between your favorite sound presets.

When I was younger I played the trumpet, and I got pretty good at it. Around middle school I decided I’d rather write music than perform it and got a MIDI keyboard and software. But eventually I realized that to really get serious about music I would have to commit to it as an artistic pursuit, and I didn’t because I was more invested in writing. People only have so much time. I think that was the right choice, but I still feel bad for abandoning that interest.

Artiphon is betting there are a lot of other folks who feel the same way, and the company wants Instrument 1 to be a bridge for casual folks to discover (or rediscover) the joys of making sweet music. Imagining how much I would have used this thing as a kid, or even now in the alternate universe where I am a music professional, I think they’re onto something. No wonder they’re showing it off at museums.

Instrument 1 is available now for $399. You can learn more on Artiphon’s site.



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