Instruments | Alternative Controllers | Electric & Electronic

There are many different instrumental interfaces through which it is possible to control synthesized or sampled sounds – the most common being the piano-style keyboard. The electronic musician is also able to access a wide range of sounds through electric guitar, string, percussion and wind instruments.

These devices are, to a large extent, quite recognizably conventional, and owe a great deal to the heritage of acoustic-instrument design. However, there is a group of performance controllers that break the mould: instruments that challenge the idea that electronic music needs to be wrapped up in the trappings of the traditional. These are the alternative controllers.

Laser Harp

The laser harp is an instrument made up of several beams of laser light, each representing a different note. When a beam is blocked (or ‘plucked’, to further the harp analogy) the interruption is detected by a light-sensitive cell, and a corresponding MIDI note is transmitted to a synthesizer or sampled sound source. The instrument comes in framed or non-framed varieties and is visually dramatic. The most famous exponent of the laser harp is the French musician Jean-Michel Jarre, whose spectacular live shows often feature the instrument.


Soundbeam was invented by composer Edward Williams ‘to give dancers a new relationship with music’. It is an invisible ultrasonic beam, scalable over distances of up to 6 m (20 ft), which senses movement and converts physical gestures into MIDI. It works on a principle similar to that of bats’ radar in that a transmitter/sensor emits a series of ultrasonic pulses. Any object moving within the path of the beam will cause these pulses to be reflected back to the sensor. Performing a quick calculation, the system is able to establish the distance of the object from the sensor and transmit the appropriate associated MIDI message.

Of course, MIDI is not limited to just the production of sounds and a suitably equipped system will enable the performer to also control lighting. Using such an instrument, the player becomes a dancer and the choreographer becomes a composer! In addition to its dance applications, the Soundbeam has proved particularly useful in enabling those with physical disabilities to take part in music-making.


Controllers that require no physical contact have made their way into mainstream instruments, notably in the form of Roland’s D-Beam system, which can be found augmenting the control panels of instruments such as the V-Synth.

Buchla Thunder

The Buchla Thunder, designed by Don Buchla, is an array of 36 touch-sensitive pads mounted within a robust playing surface. The instrument is played with both hands and is highly programmable.

Jazz Mutant Lemur

This relatively new control surface is a touch-sensitive screen upon which the user can programme a display of graphical shapes and objects. The Lemur can be interfaced with a computer to give the player real-time control over sophisticated synthesis and performance programs such as MAX/MSP.

Introduction | Electric & Electronic Instruments
Instruments | Recording Studio | Electric & Electronic

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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