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Review of the Tenori-ON

Take a chance, put some randomness back in your music.

Tnori-on at the lab

I don't get exited too often about a new synth these days.  I've got plenty to play with now.  Yet I keep looking for the next thing that is going to help me break, shatter, transmorgify the sound barriers.  I think I have some new plans, now with my new Tenori-ON, the Orange version.  I just went through the research process, so I know the questions you may have that you can't find answers to.  I'm going to tell you all the answers.

What it is

The Tenori-ON is in essence a MIDI sequencer with an onboard synth.  Each one of those 256 buttons on the surface represent a MIDI note when in Score mode, or an instrument when you press the sound selection button.  You get 16 sequencer blocks in which to record your patterns and each block has 16 channels or "layers".  Layers 1-7 are for "scoring", that is, you draw a pattern on the screen in with your finger and the pattern plays back.  Layers 8-11 are called "Random".  You draw the notes and the Tenori-ON will sequence them randomly.   Layers 12-13 are called "Draw".  Here you draw in real time and the Tenori records it, whether its a meticulous set of notes or a big swipe across the buttons.  You can make a new arpeggio, for example, by simply zigzagging your finger from left to right.  Layer 14 is called "Bounce", which is one of the coolest.  Imagine bouncing balls playing notes when they hit the top of their travel and when they bounce on the floor.  The balls can bounce very fast or slow or anywhere in between,  This gives a great sense of randomness.  Level 15 is called "Push".  Here you push down and hold a group of buttons yo create a monster synth pad.  The last layer is call "Solo" which is good for making solos over your composition.  It's hard to explain some of these in words, so here's the official video.



The Orange vs the White. 


I fretted forever over this because I am such a stickler for build quality.  I got the Orange, and it turns out the build quality is OK.  The TNR-W (white LEDS) has LEDs on both sides.  That is the lights on the backside fire just like those on the front, but only the front surface works as a controller.  The back is just to keep the audience entertained.  Hey it beats having them watch you stare into a laptop screen! 

 The TNR-O is the Orange version.  Same exact synth, same controller, just orange instead of while lights, a white plastic case instead of the magnesium casing of the TNR-W.  The TNR-W can use batteries as an option.  One less wire to trip on on stage.  The orange comes with a power adapter and cannot use batteries.  Both units come with a midi adapter, that plugs into a proprietary mini MIDI input/output jack.  You will still need two midi cables to connect to a standard midi ports on your audio interface or midi interface.  There is no USB MIDI here.  You can buy a standard midi to USB interface/cable and plug it into the supplied adapter. 

Which SD Card?  You need a SD Card to store your creations on the Tenori-On.  You also need it to do the firmware update. (More on this in a bit).  The Tenori is picky.  It appears to want an SD Card of 2 GB or less.  It does not seem to want the newer high capacity SDHC ram, though there are mixed opinions out in forum-land. The consensus is to avoid the ultra cheap SD cards.   I am using Kingston 2 GB model SD/2GBKR. Got it at Fry's electronics for $9.95.  Here is the one I got, but priced lower at Amazon. Kingston 2 GB SD Flash Memory Card SD/2GB.

I also bought the IOGear USB 2.0 Combo Hub and Card Reader with Mini-B Cable GUH286 (Black).  I paid a little more because it was USB 2.0 capable and had 5 USB ports on it with power. (I am always running out of USB ports).  The Card Reader worked flawlessly with the SD Card and the Tenori on Mac OS 10.6.2.  Drivers for various PCs were on CD Rom, but my Mac was plug n play.


Hosa Standard MIDI Cable (Black)

M-Audio MIDISport UNO 1x1 MIDI Interface with Cables and Connectors


Emu XMIDI 1x1 TAB USB MIDI Interface

Yamaha TNR-W Music Creation Device



Yamaha TNR-O Orange Music Creation Device

Tweak:  The "O" or  Orange is a desktop or studio unit.  It has no LEDS on the back, but all the circuitry and sound of the more expensive TNR-W.  The W is more for live performance art as it shows the moving LEDs on both sides (so the audience can see them) and can be run off batteries.  Both have the same sequencer,  32 voice AWM2 (i.e., sample playback) synth (239 presets +14 kits) and 3 voice sampler. keyfax sells a mic stand adapter so you can mount it.  Watch the YouTube

My Learning Curve and Firmware Update Experience

It was easy for me to learn the Tenori-On.  I was up and running in a few minutes.  On day 2 I had already learned to sync it up to logic and record tracks.  By day 3 I felt I had a solid grasp over it, so i went to the store to get the right SD card, a multi-card reader, then to the Tenori site and got the 2.00 firmware patch.  This was simple as could be once I had the right stuff. 

The updated firmware gives you a groove option, tighter sync with MIDI Sync with SPP (Song position pointer),  adds a user definable scale and a few minor things.  Definitely should be on your ToDo list if you own a unit.  The groove function lets you loosen up the music a bit. 



Using the Tenori-O as a Synth and a Controller

The Tenori Synth sounds OK.  Many have a futuristic, blippy quality, but before you get too excited realize this is plain old AWM2 sample playback synthesis using a set of samples that i can only describe as 'lo-fi/vintage".  Its almost sounds like FM synthesis at times, but I will bet its samples of FM.  The drum kits are filled with short drum samples, many sound like 8 bit, which is in style today for some electronica buffs.  Ok that was the good news. I was hoping for more analog and circuit bent sounds and a least a few resonant basses and noise bursts.  There were some but not enough. Yamaha put in strings, violins, organs even woodwinds.  Good gosh, what are they thinking?  Some sound cheesy to me, like 1993 General MIDI-land.

 The onboard speakers are small and carry little bass.  The audio output consists of one headphone jack, which you have to adapt (adapter not supplied) with a mini 1/8" TRS to dual 1/4" unbalanced phone jacks.  You can plug those into your audio interface, or mixer, or powered speakers. The output is not that hot, so went in to an instrument level preamp, where you can boost things a bit with the preamp trim.  Now the sound is better, but still far from great. 

In a way the audio issues do not matter because the greatest thing about the Tenori is that you can use it as a MIDI controller to trigger everything in your computer's sequencer.  I've run the Tenori through my hardware synths too.  The Motif is fabulous, played  by a Tenori, particularly because you can set up your 16 channels on the Motif and quickly.  Hearing the Tenori play Logic's synths was utterly phenomenal, especially the ES2 and Sculpture.  So was Omnisphere, Absynth, the FM8, BPM.  With the Tenori-On kicking these synths about the result is transcendent, transpersonal, tremendous.

Monster Cable Interlink 400MKII Stereo 1/8 Inch to 2x1/4 Inch Y Cable

This is the type of cable to get o adapt the headphone out to 2 1/4" phone plugs.


Fortunately, the clock settings work well.  I setup the Tenori to be a slave to logic and it started and stopped perfectly, no stuck notes.  Just click on the track you want to record onto, the Tenori will send out the notes and they are recorded in perfect sync.  Then move to a new track in Logic, go to a new block in the Tenori and experiment till you find something cool then record that.  Each block is like a scratchpad where you build the sequence, loop, arpeggio, and when ready you just record it.  Of course in a sequencer like Logic, Sonar or Cubase you will have many more compositional tools for building songs than the Tenori has.



Pros and Cons

The biggest plus about the Tenori is one that only you can answer:  What can it do for your music?  For me, I am confident it will help.  I have been using algorithmic composer software since the 80's and know how to get the most out of it.  (In 2 words--relentless experimentation!)  The second plus is that it is fun to play.  This is an instrument you can take out of the studio and just have fun with. Take it to bed with you and the significant better not do that!   Heh-he, imagine taking the white one (with batteries) on the subway in any major urban center.  I bet you'd attract a bit of attention.  What is also cool is that the piece is not so well known yet, so you can get noticed as a performing arts electronic musician simply by pressing a few random buttons. 

The cons:  There are no line outs, no balanced outs, no digital out, no USB MIDI.  I expected these to be included at this price.  A digital out would eliminate the potential for ground loop hum on a gig.  As it is you'll be going unbalanced analog most likely over the recommended 10-12 foot run.  While the supplied MIDI adaptor works, still many people these days don't have a midi interface.  USB could have also doubled as a sample transfer protocol. Finally, the Tenori has lots of cable dangling.  When outfitted with two MIDI cables and an audio adapter which leads to two more audio cables, its easy for them to get tangled, its easy to step on them and pull them right out of the jacks.  Live performers should consider a wireless option for audio and MIDI.  Check out the M-Audio MidAir Wireless USB MIDI Transmitter.  You'll look like a nerdy geek with all your belt paks, but it kinda goes with the Tenori-On image.  And nerds are back in style, lol.        

In the balance I take you back to question one.  What can it do for you?  I think the true value takes hold when you simply use it as a controller with your other synths.  If you are like me and are always tweaking up new audio concoctions, you'll be in a candy factory with the Tenori as your controller.  Definitely not for everyone.  But if you are a sound pioneer doing your own experimental music, I don't see how you can resist. 


Good Luck in your sound experiments!


Valentine's day 2010




Yamaha's Global Tenori-On site

Tenor Firmware Update

Talk Tenori on studio-central


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