By Robert Rich
[Electronic Musician, Aug 1990]
For the past 25 years, pioneer instrument designer Don Buchla has continually refined the possibilities of tactile controllers for electronic music. Reluctant to chain his versatile instruments to keyboards, with their inherent limitations and traditional associations, he has tried to outfit his synthesizers with controllers that he felt were more appropriate to electronic instruments. Each new Buchla creation has promised to revolutionize the human interface as well as the technology of noisemaking. Some of Buchla's early instruments introduced the use of membrane sensors and ribbon controllers for gestural manipulation of a sound. Now, with Thunder, Buchla has developed these ideas into one of the most unique and powerful MIDI controllers available.
Thunder looks at first like some sort of drum pad, with an attractive Thunderbird design on its playing surface. However, don't hit this thing with a stick. The flat membrane sensors are designed for a light touch, and their Thunderbird pattern beautifully complements the shape of the hand. Thirteen pads lie comfortably under the fingers, each of which responds to impact velocity, position, and pressure. The pads can be split into two zones, to effectively double the number of 'keys' on your 'keyboard.' Thunder's twelve other playing pads respond to velocity and pressure, but not position.
What Does It Do?
Thunder's pads can do a lot more than mimic a keyboard. They let you fingerpaint with sound. They can spew out a flurry of programmed or random melodies, start a sequencer, crossfade between timbres, or even modify the behavior of other pads. Thunder can assign your gestures to any of the 128 MIDI controllers, send patch changes, and even record and play back sysex data. Thunder can control instruments on all sixteen MIDI channels at once. The word to describe this instrument is depth: depth of performance features, depth of MIDI implementation, depth of possibilities, depth of vision.
Thunder invites the unconventional. Among experimental musicians, microtonalists will be attracted to its generalized approach to the keyboard. Its layout doesn't presuppose a 12-tone octave. Thunder also allows for much more precise pitch-bending techniques than standard keyboards. Composers of indeterminate music will appreciate Thunder's ability to generate constrained random values. In more commercial environs, television and film studios might use it to initiate and control sound effects, with gestures affecting timbre, reverb, and stereo panning. Anyone who misses the immediacy of knobs could use Thunder as a set of soft knobs to add life to their synth timbres, perhaps recording sixteen channels of expressive MIDI controller data to previously recorded sequencer tracks. Musicians with hand injuries or tendonitis might even find Thunder to be an ergonomic replacement for more traditional instruments. This little box is just begging for exploration.
Before you can do anything, however, you'll need a synth fast enough to deal with all the data. Said instrument will also require a rich MIDI implementation and excellent controller response, preferably with a polyphonic MIDI mode 4 and good voice-allocation; Thunder can generate lots of MIDI data.
Thunder's surface is organized into programming and playing regions. The programming area resides at the top, out of harm's way during a performance. Slanted upwards at Thunder's top edge, a generous 2 x 40 character, backlit LCD tells you what's going on. Eight hexagonal menu keys appear below the display. Pressing one of these selects a parameter for editing. An Enter and an Escape key let you record or abort your changes. A long, horizontal strip, called the "Thunderpot," extends below these keys. The Thunderpot acts as a data entry slider, but it can also act as the uppermost pad in Thunder's playing region, and you can assign it to any of MIDI's 128 controllers.
Several types of pads complete Thunder's playing surface. The top row under the Thunderpot contains nine pads with LEDs. These pads respond to velocity and pressure. You can program the LEDs to show the status of a key's activity, making these keys the best candidates for toggling effects that change the behavior of other keys. Below this top row of pads rest the primary playing pads, forming the feathers of the Thunderbird. Each of these thirteen pads responds to velocity, pressure, and position. You can split any of these pads in half, each half with its own set of parameters. Two other large, hexagonal pads rest under the palms of your hands, in the lower corners of the playing surface. These respond only to velocity and pressure, but they can be split three ways. Using the S-way split you can trick these pads into acting like dials, letting you wind up or down a string of notes by spinning your finger in circles on top of the pad.
Let's not forget the back panel, where you'll find a jack for the 9 VDC transformer, input jacks for a footswitch and footpedal, MIDI out, thru and in, and a slot for Thunder's custom RAM cartridge. Thunder's cartridges hold 16 KB of battery-backed RAM, able to store eight Thunder configurations or up to 16K of sysex from any MIDI source.
A curious label caught my attention next to the MIDI thru jack. It says 'WIMP OUT." Apparently, with some future software update, the thru jack will be switchable to a WIMP jack. What is WIMP? According to Don Buchla, WIMP (Wide-band interface for Musical Performance) is a high-speed, serial interface protocol of his own design that can be used in conjunction with MIDI to transmit dense controller information. The idea is tantalizing: 1 MHz baud rate (30 times the speed of MIDI), with a continuous stream of gestural information intended for DMA processing techniques, bypassing any processor logjams. So far, no hardware exists that can respond to WIMP, so don't hold your breath.
One last comment about Thunder's hardware: This thing feels bomb-proof. Thunder is housed in a very sturdy, cast aluminum chassis, not plastic. There are no moving parts. In every detail, Thunder feels well-suited to the stresses of performance.
The User Interface
Despite its immense range of possibilities, Thunder is a joy to program. It has one of the best user interfaces that I have ever seen. Some manufacturers assume that musicians will never want to explore beyond the obvious, so they make machines with catchy presets. But in a misguided effort to save time and money, they bury the power of their instruments under useless front panels, or they lobotomize the software to avoid complexity. Buchla assumes the opposite--that the user is creative and intelligent. Therefore, Thunder invites the user to explore the unknown by making it as easy as possible to do some very complex things.
What makes this user interface so good? Thunder lets you access a huge number of parameters while avoiding repetitious keystrokes and labyrinthine menus. The screen lets you select among eight choices at once, with a selection key for each choice. This wide menu structure keeps the editing paths short. You are rarely more than three button presses away from the main menu. Furthermore, the visual feedback is usually very clear. When you edit lists of items (like note filters or MIDI channels), you can see most of your entries at once.
Thunder's user interface also benefits from several small, thoughtful features. For example, when you define the behavior of a key from a key-edit submenu, you don't have to exit the submenu to start editing a different key. In other words, the menu tree does not always force you back to the roots when you really just want to hop to a different branch. Some other examples are the note filter page, with its little picture of a keyboard with dots under the playable notes, and the helpful display of rear panel connections, which appears when you hold the Enter button in the top menu. When you combine these little things, you end up with a very sophisticated, but surprisingly easy-to-use, instrument.
Despite these thoughtful features, I must confess that I occasionally got confused while learning Thunder. For example, there is the Key Copy function, which copies only the active data from one key onto another. This results in a sort of overlay, where some of the original data for the destination key may be left intact. This old garbage can really confuse things. I would love to see an additional copy function that would duplicate a key exactly. (According to the manufacturer, a new software version provides a second mode of editing that allows you to copy all the data from one key to another.--BO'D) Another source of confusion involved the location of the triple split points on the two round pads. The graphics give no indication of where these splits might be. It doesn't take too long to get the feel of it, though.
Thunder's programming environment is separated into several functional areas: keys, effects, riffs, program changes, note filter, MIDI assignments, and system parameters. All these parameters get saved as a configuration. You can save eight configurations to internal memory, and eight to a cartridge. You can also dump the cartridge or internal memory to a computer via MIDI for bulk storage.
When you edit one of the playing keys, you might start by defining the MIDI channels that it will affect. A key can send data to any or all MIDI channels. It can act like a normal key, starting a note when touched and stopping it when released, or it can toggle with each press, stay active indefinitely (you can end up with a mess of stuck notes if you're not careful),or send only a note-off. You can then assign a MIDI note number to this key and transpose that note by a choice of methods. For example, you can transpose the note randomly so it is different each time you play it. Or, you can make the note get successively lower each time you play that key. You can also assign one of three 'flags" to the transposition, so that the note value will change only when some other key has told it to change (this is the secret to making the circular pads act like wheels). For keys with LEDs, you can make the key turn on or off its own LED or any other. This comes in handy when you assign an effect to the key, showing you when the effect is active.
Programming a key also involves defining its velocity, pitch bend, and controller behavior. MIDI velocity defaults to pad impact, but it doesn't have to. You could determine MIDI velocity from the location of your finger if you want, or set it to any fixed value. MIDI pitch bend can be derived from impact, pressure, or several different interpretations of location. For example, simple Location will send a pitch bend value based upon where your finger touches the pad at any time. Location Delta will let you sweep up or down the pad several times, augmenting the pitch bend with every gesture. Location Up/Down will always start with the defined note value and let you bend up or down from there, regardless of where you first touch the pad. Finally, you can assign aftertouch and any other six controllers to the key, controlled once again by impact, pressure, or position.
If you want a key to modify the behavior of another key, use an effect. You can define up to eight effects per configuration. Effects consist of up to sixteen events, which include note transpositions, velocity fades, and time delays. Effects can be looped at any point, and can also jump around or stop on command. You can scale the time delays of an effect randomly, exponentially, or with velocity, pressure, position, footpedal, or the Thunderpot. An effect can also send MIDI Stop, Start and Continue commands as well as timing clocks to control external sequencers.
Here's an example of using an effect. Let's say you assign a key to MIDI channel 1 and also tell it to call effect 4. Effect 4 has been programmed to wait 0.3 seconds, then transpose a note up one semitone, fade the velocity down by five units, then loop to the start with an exponential decrease in time. In performance, you would toggle this effect on by pressing the appropriate key (lighting its LED to let you know it is active). Then hold down a key that plays a note on MIDI channel 1.As you hold that key down, you hear an ever-increasing upward cascade of notes that gets faster, higher in pitch, and quieter as you sustain. Lift up, and the cascade subsides.
Thunder's Riff function provides yet another way to create flurries of notes. A riff records a sequence of key presses, but not the continuous gestural information. Riffs can be transposed, faded, scaled, edited, and set to repeat for any number of times. Riffs are not really sequences; they aren't long enough. A total of eight possible riffs must share a mere 99 steps in memory. Riffs are useful only for short repeatable patterns. Before despairing of inadequate memory, remember that a key press can do a lot more than just send a note. A short riff can spew out an amazing amount of stuff when it triggers some effects along with standard playing keys.
With all this data pouring out, you may want to limit some of your notes to specific scales or modes. Thunder's note filter lets you do this. Each configuration can remember only one note filter, which you can apply to individual MIDI channels, effects, riffs, and keys. The Filter Programming page gives you several different preset modes as starting points, which you can then modify; or, if you choose, you can start from scratch. As I mentioned before, the note filter's programming interface is brilliant. I just wish there were more note filters available per configuration.
To help control your MIDI setup, each configuration provides eight program change maps. Each of these maps can send changes over all sixteen MIDI channels. You can define more MIDI assignments under the Settings menu. Possibilities include assigning the Thunderpot to any MIDI controller, choosing which six out of 128 controllers to use elsewhere in the configuration, inverting the response of any controller (to use for crossfades between timbres for example), assigning the footpedals, or limiting the note range to avoid the garbage that results from playing a synth out of range. Other items under the Settings menu include such things as master tuning or toggling active sensing on and off.
Overall, Thunder's MIDI performance goes miles beyond most other instruments. It implements some of the latest additions to the MIDI spec, including double-resolution fine tuning and the all-controllers-off message. Considering all the continuous controller data that Thunder can generate, it performs an impressive amount of housekeeping to avoid clogging the MIDI stream. Nevertheless, some synths will still choke on all this data. If such a glitch should occur, Thunder provides a System Reset button, which sends all-notes-off and the aforementioned all-controllers-off.
Thunder is a complete and unique MIDI controller. What more could an adventurous musician ask for! Well, here are a few things: more note filters available in a configuration, the ability to assign chunks of sysex code to buttons or sliders (for example, to switch microtuning tables while playing), more memory for riffs, and adding the ability to record gestures as well as key closures. Am I greedy! Sure I am.
Thunder assumes you're smart, so it doesn't prevent you from doing crazy things. I like that. With power comes risk, though. You can easily program Thunder to leave your synths full of sustaining notes, but at least it won't prevent you from leaving notes hanging if that's what you want (and there's always the Reset button in case you make a mess of things).
Unfortunately, money and power tend to coexist. Thunder isn't cheap. However, I know of nothing else like it. If you need what it can offer, its price may look very reasonable indeed. This is no fad gadget. Thunder feels like it was built to last.
Thunder is not only a revolutionary musical controller, it's also a joy to program and play. It invites new kinds of music, new ways of thinking. It calls for new techniques, which will take time to learn. It's deep enough to let you experiment and grow. I'm tired of hearing pundits complain about the stagnation of MIDI. Here's a visionary new instrument. Let's push MlDI to the limit!
Robert Rich composes electronic music. He likes strange noises, especially geological ones. His latest album, Strata, featuring Steve Roach, has just been released on Hearts of Space Records.