The latest new instrument to catch our eye is TouchKeys, currently going down a storm on Kickstarter. It turns a piano-style keyboard into an expressive multi-touch control surface, using sensors and software to give you power over pitch, volume and more on any individual key. It gives you a range of new sounds, and you can use it with synth emulations too. You can fit it on your own keyboard or buy one ready-made. We talked to creator Andrew McPherson.


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Andrew is an electronic engineer, composer and Lecturer [Assistant Professor] in Digital Media at Queen Mary University of London and builds new ‘augmented instruments’ which extend the expressive capabilities of familiar instruments. So what inspired him to make TouchKeys?

I’m a composer and a viola player as well as an electronic engineer. As a violist, I’m used to having a certain freedom with each note. Vibrato and expressive slides are standard parts of string technique. My idea with the TouchKeys was to bring these techniques to the keyboard, so you can control the pitch just by moving the fingers on the key surfaces.

On the other hand, playing the piano well is already a challenge, and it takes many years of practice to build up proficiency. So from the beginning, I’ve been aiming for an instrument that can be immediately familiar to someone who plays the piano, with a minimum amount of relearning. That’s how I ended up with the design of touch sensors that go onto an existing keyboard: the feel and action of the keyboard stays the same, but many new techniques become possible.

Andrew previously created the magnetic resonator piano, an electromagnetically-augmented acoustic grand piano used on the album ‘Field of Reeds’ by These New Puritans, and also by the London Chamber Orchestra. So who is TouchKeys aimed at?

The TouchKeys are aimed at keyboardists and composers. I’m not aiming at any one style or genre - I hope to see it used for lots of different kinds of music!

We asked him to explain exactly how it works.

The TouchKeys are thin capacitive sensors (similar to a smartphone screen) which install on top of the keys. The sensors measure the position of the fingers in two dimensions, as well as the contact area of the touch (fingertip vs. pad of finger) and even up to three fingers per key. The TouchKeys software combines this touch data with the key press information from the underlying MIDI keyboard, generating MIDI messages that can be used to control any synth. I use the word “synth” here in the broadest sense, including things like emulations of string and wind instruments.

The relationship between touch data and sound is extremely flexible: moving the fingers could control pitch (vibrato and bends), volume, timbre, or any other parameter of the instrument. There’s a lot of room for creative exploration there and I’m looking forward to seeing what different musicians do with it!

The sonic scope is huge. You can make new sounds, even microtonal music, and there are features that will please analogue synth lovers too.

There are many possibilities, ranging from emulating traditional instruments to completely new sounds. One example is controlling wind and brass sounds (e.g. the vibrato and expressive bends a jazz sax player might use). Another option is to generate polyphonic aftertouch by moving the fingers on the keys; this is a feature that was found in some early keyboards (including the classic Yamaha CS-80 from the 1970’s) but is hard to find on modern instruments. Basically, it lets the timbre of each note be changed independently of the others, and it’s quite easy to play on the TouchKeys. Or, the TouchKeys could be used with external hardware to control a real analog modular synth.

Another application I’m really interested to explore is microtonal music, where the octave is divided into more than 12 notes. Since the TouchKeys measure where you strike the key, it’s possible to create a scale of more than 12 pitches by dividing each key into regions. There are lots of possibilities, so most of all I’m looking forward to seeing what each performer comes up with.

This demo video uses Arturia’s CS-80V plug-in that emulates a Yamaha CS-80 and shows how you can get polyphonic aftertouch. The original CS-80 has been used by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Keith Emerson.

TouchKeys comes in sizes from 25 to 88 keys, pre-installed or you can add it to your own instrument.

The installation is pretty straightforward: each key has an industrial adhesive on the back that attaches it securely to the key surface. Installing it requires opening the keyboard, but otherwise is fairly simple: the sensors attach to each key, and each one plugs into a thin controller board that sits inside the instrument. The whole arrangement comes out of the keyboard by USB.

Keyboard legend Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater has plenty of good things to say about the prototype.

You can get a 1-octave “experimenter’s kit” for £195, with 25-key DIY kits starting at £360. There are also prebuilt instruments using new keyboards from Novation and Doepfer starting at £660.