Alternate MIDI controllers that are reasonably priced…..

…are very difficult to find. The piano-keyboard paradigm has such a death grip on electronic synthesis, it’s embarrassing. This is electronics; the control system is arbitrary and can take any form. But you can’t buy “any form”.

I am always looking for an easier gadget to play riffs on. Having not been tortured with piano lessons in childhood, my preference is for something new. Sadly, a cursory examination tends to turn up very little…..that isn’t priced like a boutique product.

You’ve heard of the Haken Continuum. Interesting and clever, extremely well-built, Jordan Rudess has one and swears by it. Tempting to me; sadly, it starts at $3390…for the short version. Bills come first.

Haken Continuum fingerboard

The Jambass is still being made. Only $199, meant to stick to the back of a guitar or bass neck. It’s a membrane keyboard, so it gives weak tactile feedback and will probably wear out fairly quickly. Still, very very tempting. I wish the keys were closer together.

Jambass keyboard

If you’re not afraid of the 120-year-old Jankó “isomorphic” keyboard design, there are (quite) a few possibilities. Unfortunately they all seem to be costly, and not sold at retail dealers. (Yes, I know I could DIY one. When I have the time. Which is maybe never.)

(Please, no jokes about accordions. Why do accordionists have better ergonomic designs to use than synth players do? Sad.)

Article about Janko here.

Jankó keyboards are like the Dvorak typewriter keyboard layout. Superior, but ignored, because people are stupid and can’t be bothered to learn a new layout.

I’ve only seen two Jankó-like controllers on display at NAMM recently; the C-Thru, which I am reasonably sure is actually shipping–


…and the Thumtronics Thummer. Great compact design and intriguing to me, but as far as I can tell, it is not shipping. No idea if it ever came out or not.


Blogs were buzzing about the Japanese-made Chromatone a few years ago. Unfortunately I can’t find any evidence that it was actually shipped. Never offered in the US anyway.


There was the Terpstra. Also no idea if it was shipped.

Terpstra keyboard

And the extremely imposing Tonal Plexus. Perfect for microtonal scales. Also no idea if it was ever shipped to paying customers.

Tonal Plexus keyboard

Not Jankó-like, but seems to stay available, is Starr Labs’ Z-Board. Aimed mostly at guitarists. I have never, ever seen one in use by an actual musician. Only $2995. Starr used to make a Jankó controller called the Microzone, now called the “Wilson Microzone”–the small version is still listed on their site for $3825. The big version, with 810 keys, is $8800.

Starr Z-Board

I’ve read the Blüthner company will cheerfully build you a grand piano with a Jankó keyboard, for only 7000 euros….on top of the cost of the piano….

And the worst part of all this is: whenever a news site or blog runs a story about one of these alternative controllers, the naysayers crawl out of the slime and start whining “there’s no way I could ever learn to play that”, “it has too many buttons and it scares me”, “I invested in keyboard lessons and I’m not throwing away all that investment”, etc etc. The simple fact that the Jankó design was MEANT TO BE EASIER TO PLAY….they don’t care. Musicians are so conservative it’s disgusting.

I’ve got an M-Audio Trigger Finger. Programmable and well-built—If only the pads were smaller and easier to press, it would be great. Yamaha Tenori-On? Costly, and apparently not available yet. Monome? Needs a PC running MAX-MSP, USB interface only. I’d get a Serge TKB, except they are costly, have a long lead time, and don’t put out MIDI. Already have a Doepfer ribbon controller. Does Buchla still make the Thunder?

Suggestions are welcome.

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4 thoughts on “Alternate MIDI controllers that are reasonably priced…..”

  1. Though perhaps outside of the prefab categories above – Adafruit’s MidiSense boards offer a lot of interesting DIY options for cheap. No need for coding – they use GUI software that loads via MIDI Sysex (still waiting on an ADIO compatible OS X release tho)
    and of course there’s always Señor Arduino

  2. For percussion, the roland handsonic is great. Much better than the trigger finger. My favorite midi controller so far is the EWI 4000s wind controller. You don’t need to play the sax to play it. It’s more designed as just a midi controller, compared to the Yamaha ones that are designed to imitate a sax.

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