The Eigenharp Tau

I’ve been fascinated by the Eigenharp since I first read about it in a SoundOnSound article 5-6 years ago. Recently I finally decided to order a Tau. I’ve had it for a month now, and have spent as much time with it as I can. These are my thoughts so far:

Wow! I didn’t think the Tau looked all that great in pictures, but in real life it looks nice. The weight, feel of the keys, etc. add to the feeling of holding a quality instrument. Playing it is a very pleasant, ergonomic experience, but it takes a while to get used to the sensitive keys.

The really important part, which is also the most difficult to describe in words, is how the direct connection between every slight movement of ones fingers and the resulting sound is very different from using traditional keys. Instead of pressing keys that in turn trigger sounds, one is shaping the sounds directly, and that feels great.

Eigenharp Tau
The keys are very sensitive in all three directions and light up when touched.

EigenD, the software part of the Eigenharp, was confusing at first. My first impression of it wasn’t all that great, but it has grown on me. One isn’t required to spend much time with it, as premade setups are provided. But being of a geeky disposition, I have spent a lot of time creating my own setup from scratch and learning the basics of “belcanto”, the underlying scripting language. It is a very clever piece of software, but unusual and rather complex.

The workbench editor in EigenD. Not necessary to learn, but well worth the effort.
The Workbench editor in EigenD. Learning it is not required, but well worth the effort.

If one is willing to put in the effort to learn EigenD properly it is a very powerful tool, not only for the Eigenharp, but for integrating other gear as well. But learning how to use it is hard work and probably not for everyone. EigenD is free, opensource, and does not require an Eigenharp.

In use
I’m surprised how much the way the instrument is set up affects my playing style. I do things very differently on the Tau from what I’d do using a midi keyboard. And how I decide to map the Tau to my gear again completely changes how I play. What this mean is that when I’m creating a new synth patch I’m suddenly starting to consider not only the sound, but how that sound should be played. With piano keys? With a bow? Perhaps like a wind instrument or a guitar? That decision in turn have a huge impact on the end result. For piano style sounds I still prefer a midi keyboard to the Eigenharp, but having a collection of different configurations for the Tau and then selecting one that suits what I’m aiming for is really nice.

My favourite Tau configuration so far is with a feature in EigenD called “Strummer”. It treats each of the four key rows as if they were the strings on a bass guitar. The strings are strummed with the percussion keys and one can even use common guitar playing techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs. This way of playing a synth quickly felt natural and the resulting riffs sound completely different from anything I’d think of playing on traditional keys.

Being able to play the Eigenharp well will take a lot of practice. I try to keep my playing simple for the time being. As a beginner I find slowly evolving pads and drones easy to do, but the moment I try something fancy like fast finger runs I accidentally hit adjacent keys and also unintentionally bend notes.

I don’t want a computer as part of my setup, so I installed EigenD on a Raspberry Pi 2 that autoboots into EigenD with a midi setup. That means the software runs on a tiny, noiseless box hidden away in a drawer. I have EigenD configured so that I can still change common settings, like switching octaves, scales, midi channels etc, directly from the Eigenharp. As a result I don’t miss having visual access to the software. But it also means I’m losing out on the software instruments in EigenD, as well as a lot of great VSTis that would have sounded amazing played from the Eigenharp. But for the time being I’m happy with midi and hardware gear only. Many seems to be running EigenD on a “headless” Mac mini stuck on top of the Eigenharp base station, so if the urge to run software instruments gets too strong, that might be an option worth considering.

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