What do you get if you cross a Raspberry Pi; 57 geometrically tiled, thumb-sized joysticks; a spot of multiplexing; and some Bach?

A completely new musical instrument, that’s what.

David Sharples says:

We wanted to invent an entirely new electronic musical instrument, and there were two things we wanted to focus on in the design of the interface. The first is that we wanted to improve upon the physical design of musical instruments. Most acoustic instruments are designed around physical phenomena that make sound rather than convenience for the user (violins are smaller than cellos because shorter strings make higher notes). This instrument uses a hexagonally isomorphic layout, which means that the notes are distributed on a hexagonal grid, and they all have the same physical size and shape. They also have the same musical relationships to each other – if you move to the right by one thumbstick, that corresponds to going up a perfect fourth musically, and this is true no matter where you start on the grid. This means that musical structures like a major chord or a minor scale are always the same shape, no matter which note you start on, which is pretty rad. The second thing we wanted to focus on was making the instrument really expressive. Lots of synthesizers only measure how hard you strike the key and other timbre controls are available on knobs that you have to remove your hands from the keyboard to use. We’re using little thumbsticks, which give you two dimensions of analog control in a familiar physical interface.

The Joytone is David’s Senior Design project for his BSE degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majors in digital media design.

cutaway joytone sketch

David has documented the process from concept to build exhaustively on the project’s blog, where you’ll find everything you need from discussion about the ideal physical layouts of keyboards and thoughts on the way musicians express themselves with different controllers; to wiring diagrams, considerations about digital analogue conversion (DAC) for this sort of project and much more. I’ve a particular soft spot for music projects, and this is one of the most exciting I’ve come across so far: thank you David, and good luck in this last year of your degree course!


Alex Eames (RasPi.TV) avatar

That looks great. I wonder how hard it is to play?

Wonderful out of the box thinking there :)

Michael Horne avatar

That is just incredibly awesome – the build is a work of art in itself and the end result is astounding. Every orchestra should have one :-D

Ravenous avatar

Brilliant! I’ve been interested in isomorphic keyboards for a while. Finding keys which can be mounted in a hex pitch is the problem…

(This could be seen as in the market between the Rainboard and the Eigenharp, for those interested in electronica.)

Iraklis Papanikolaou avatar

Simply awesome! That’s creativity a a whole new level!

AndrewS avatar

It’d be amazing to see what Bill Bailey could do with that… :-D

Ken MacIver avatar

Awesome work guys
and for fans of stockhausen can you build one out of penrose tiling..

Dutch_Master avatar

Well done guys, I hope you get full marks in both classes :)

Regrettably the blog linked to refuses to show me any images (it’s a failure of the non-W3C compliant blog software) so I can’t see if it’s a suitable idea to copy (I have a fair number of thumbsticks but not enough, I’d have to order some more then ;) )

Anyway, my Dad is a musician, I wonder what he makes of it ;)

PS: I just can’t understand this continuing ‘blog’ craze/hype! What’s wrong with HTML?! :-\ (yes, I’ve written HTML, and CSS, and XML, by hand. Even tried a little HTML5, but as there’s no need for it anymore, I’d let it rest)

Andy avatar

Awesome – and irritating that the blog links don’t work for me.
Having failed to learn to play any of violin, piano, guitar, trumpet, and believing the fault cannot possibly lie with me, this looks as though it may be the answer to my prayers.

Ravenous avatar

It may well be. One attraction of isomorphic layouts is each chord or scale is one shape, then if you move it in any direction to a different button, you get the same scale in a different key (or the same chord for a different root note). No different fingerings to learn to work around the black and white keys on a piano, in other words.

I’m still to try one though, something like this is on my long list of things to try one day…

David Glanzman avatar

That’s me in the video! David (Sharples) and I had a fantastic time doing this project and it got us an honorable mention at the senior design poster contest.

@Alex: It’s very easy to play. I figured out the first bits of Bach’s little fugue (what I’m playing in the video) In about a minute after we got the joysticks mounted. A little knowledge of music theory goes a long way in translating from piano or wind instruments to isomorphic layouts.

Ravenous avatar

…and if someone asks for the piece in a different key, you just move the hands a bit to one side and play it again! (The board might be made wider to duplicate some notes, depending on the key needed.)

I just realised watching the video again, that the joysticks could be used to play “normal” notes most of the time with a bit of emphasis (detune, perhaps) applied just to the occasional suspended or 7th note and so on… that might be fun to play with, much more precise than just using some effect on the whole signal.

Mike Cook avatar

I did something similar several years ago:-

Without the joysticks but with RGB LEDs.

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