Before you raise your hand to point this out, yes, electronic pianos with innovative touch-related features have existed for decades. The first I played, a little late to the game — a friend’s Korg M1 with aftertouch back in the early 1990s — was a revelation at the time, letting you add strings or brass swells or actually bend the notes by pushing down after striking the key. With a bit of work and practice, you could craft plausible approximations of pitch-bending instruments, say a sax solo, without lifting your left hand off the keyboard to wiggle a kludgy control wheel.
Now imagine keyboard touch controls that worked more like what Apple‘s up to with its laptop trackpads, where you swipe your fingers in natural ways around a smooth glass surface to conjure corresponding behaviors, from scrolling in a browser to zooming on an image to sending windows splaying in all directions, like someone using their arms to sweep detritus off a real-world desktop. Imagine if you could do stuff like that playing a piano, producing different effects not just by pressing down after striking the key, but by the way you move your fingers over the keys or placing more than one finger on a single key at once.
Pianos, as a teacher once put it to me, are horrible instruments when it comes to pitch expression, shackled by the tyranny of precise frequencies (and locked in by an international committee back in 1939). If you want to get between the notes, well, however poetic it might have sounded when Chick Corea described that as part of the goal in a 1986 documentary on jazz piano legends, you really can’t — not without reaching into the piano and fooling around, anyway. I’d counter that this makes the piano an even more interesting instrument, but that’s a segue to musical philosophy, and I’d rather talk about U.K.-based innovator Andrew McPherson’s fascinating Kickstarter project, which launched at the end of July (it has roughly 26 days to go).
McPherson’s project is called TouchKeys, and it refers not to a new line of synths or digital pianos, but rather an overlay you can add to any musical keyboard — an overlay composed of multifarious sensor points that wind up dotting the white and black keys a bit like otherworldly braille patterns. Those sensors allow you to do all kinds of things on the keys with your fingers to get results using what McPherson calls continuous expressive control.
You attach the overlays to each key surface, pairing them with separate boards installed inside the keyboard to gather sensor data, then all of that’s paired with a computer program (Kontakt-compatible) for configuration and execution. From here, you can map variables like finger position and contact area to all kinds of effects, from vibrato (by waggling your finger left and right) to pitch bending (by sliding your finger up or down) to what McPherson calls “extended techniques,” say using two or more fingers to trigger a sound (the example given involves playing a bass line and using a second finger to produce a hammer-on effect).
TouchKeys looks essentially finished, but McPherson’s seeking funding (about $46,000) to wrap things up and bring it to the public in two configurations: a do-it-yourself kit where you install the sensors on your own keyboard, and “limited” preassembled versions where you’re buying a keyboard with everything ready to go out of the box.
Sidebar: Don’t get too ruffled about McPherson’s initial claim in the Kickstarter pitch video, where he says “Until now, on the piano, it’s never been possible to change how a note sounds after you play it.” Obviously it has been possible, but I get what he means: It’s never been possible like this.