DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA — If you’re looking for a killer MIDI controller that feels like not just one “real” instrument, but many of them, Artiphon could be your salvation. The Artiphon Instrument 1 ($399), on display here at Moogfest 2016, is now in “soft launch” mode, but that means much more than what it sounds like. After a successful $1.3 million Kickstarter launch and a redesign a couple of years ago, the company is now fulfilling its 3,300 pre-orders from backers and has begun accepting orders from the general public — at the time of this writing, with a roughly six-week time to ship. We spoke with Dr. Mike Butera, the founder of Artiphon, at Moogfest 2016 and got a chance to try our hands at the Artiphon (pronounced ART-eh-fahn).
The 23.5-inch-long Artiphon Instrument 1 looks like the lovechild of a Keytar and a guitar fretboard. It lets you strum a guitar, bow a violin, crunch out a drum beat, or even play piano parts. In other words, it lets you be the entire band, not just by switching sounds, but by playing each instrument the way it’s supposed to be played. It’s a pure MIDI controller; it has no sounds of its own, but it’s designed to work with dozens of iPhone and iPad apps like GarageBand in addition to the desktop GarageBand and Logic Pro X, among others.
The instrument includes 72 pressure-sensitive keys in six octaves. It contains an accelerometer; a built-in speaker that passes audio through from any USB-audio-compliant app; a rechargeable battery; a bridge for strumming, tapping, and picking; four presets; and four user presets. A knob lets you control volume and switch between presets, and there’s a headphone/mic jack and USB jack that also functions as a MIDI interface like most controllers today.
In practice, the Artiphon is a chameleon. Obviously, the Artiphon isn’t going to stand in for a traditional drum kit; its pads are responsive, and feel remarkably like those of a quality drum machine if you lie it flat on your lap or on a table; it divides the entire neck into giant pads on each position across all six “strings.”In guitar mode, you can strum or play lead, or even play it like a slide guitar, and it functions as a nice bass (though it feels kind of like a fretless, even if you’re triggering a regular fretted electric bass sample).
Put it in violin mode and hold it in the proper position on your shoulder, and you can manipulate the instrument as if you were using a real bow, including inducing vibrato with your fingers. Butera also demoed the Artiphon for us; he’s an actual violin player, and he played a convincing solo violin that sounded as if he had programmed in specific articulations for every note using a high-end violin sample library; it was that “real” sounding, even though he was just playing it live like he would a real violin, and the app itself was just GarageBand.
We think a controller like this is the polar opposite of something like the Ableton Push, which is set up in an Akai MPC-style grid to cue up beats and loops as well as individual instruments. Push is a phenomenal controller, but when I reviewed it, I couldn’t really see myself using one personally. I’ve composed and recorded music using traditional digital audio workstations (DAWs) for decades using synthesizer-style keyboard controllers. Something like the Artiphon to me feels more natural than the Push, and lends itself to playing sampled guitar and other stringed instrument parts with much more realism than you’d get from a standard 49-key MIDI controller as well.
Over the years, we’ve seen tons of electronic MIDI controllers that attempt to mimic the feel of the “real thing” as close as possible, be it Roland V-Drums, the Korg Kaoss Pad, the Yamaha WX5 wind controller, or scores of increasingly real digital pianos. The Artiphon isn’t for wind instrument players, but it does so much else; I could see myself losing evenings just noodling around with it as a guitar and bass. I’m seriously tempted to order one. Our house has electronic and acoustic instruments everywhere to begin with; we need another MIDI controller like we need a pet alligator. If you’re also tempted, pre-order yours from Artiphon’s site; you can get the Artiphon in black or white, while an extra $50 adds a soft gigging case and strap.
Now read: The future of sound and thought at Moogfest 2016