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Modern Instruments for DJs and Producers

In the last five years, we’ve seen a number of individuals and small companies build digital instruments that allow for unique ways of playing music in the electronic age. Going beyond traditional controllers, these devices all have features tailored particularly for live performances that make them uniquely playable by musicians and DJs alike.



Type Of Instrument: Wireless Ableton Live Controller (MIDI) 
Built to order
 Starr Labs

Finally, Ableton Live users can look like rockstars! The Ztar Clippers are fingerboard controllers with a full fretboard’s worth of velocity-sensitive keys that have RGB LEDs underneath each one. The keys can be used for clip triggering, or instrument/drumpad performance, or a combination of both.  There’s additional expression pads, knobs, a slider and a joystick on the body for all kinds of control. The unit is wireless (range of up to 250 feet), and a built-in battery that powers the controller for up to 8 hours.  Watch it in action in this performance vid (starts at 1:07):



Type Of Instrument: Portable Controller / Synthesizer / Sequencer
€890 / ~ $1223
Preorders available, shipping April 2014

Dualo is designed to be an all-in-one device, with a unique 5 octave chromatic keyboard that rocks three color LEDs behind each of the 116 keys. The hardware also has three touch sliders and a gyroscope to detection motion of the unit. It can trigger its own internal synthesizer (112 instruments, 4 percussion kits, 8 effects, pitch, modulation, and an onboard sequencer) or act as a wired/wireless MIDI controller for computer software. The battery lasts for 8 hours, and it has a built in soundcard with stereo + headphone out. Watch it in action in this demo video:



Type Of Instrument: MIDI Controller
$699 (street price) / £768.90
Available now

You’ve likely seen the Alphasphere appear in coverage of music technology conventions over the last four years. Having been under development and released at a more expensive price, this year the team at Nu-Design released the Nexus model, which brought the price down significantly and allowed for international distribution. The orb-shaped controller has squishy pressure-sensitive pads that allow for polyphonic MIDI aftertouch. Watch it in this performance video from Koven:



Type Of Instrument: Laser-based MIDI Bow Controller
Still in development
 Dylan Menzies

The cleverly-named O-Bow was born out of frustration. Designer Dylan Menzies wanted to take up violin, but couldn’t quite get the hang of the fingering and vibrato side of playing instrument. Having more than a passing an interest in music technology, he built a better solution – a laser sensor bow MIDI controller. It’s still a prototype, but the O-Bow can track bowing speed and horizontal angle at high to create different sounds based on both parameters. It doesn’t require a real bow, either – just any object with a grained surface.



Type Of Instrument: iPhone MIDI controller
In beta testing – units available to reserve 
 Mike Butera

The Artiphon takes the idea of plugging a MIDI controller into a mobile device and inverts it – instead, an iPhone 5 is plugged into this MIDI controller. The beautiful hardwood Artiphone can be used with any MIDI accepting iOS application, and has a strumboard and fretboard on either side of the phone cradle. Change the instrument setting (violin, guitar, bass, banjo, and custom) on the device and the MIDI data changes to reflect.



Type Of Instrument: Pants-attached MIDI drumpads
Start at $99
Kickstarter underway
 Tyler Freeman

These Bluetooth-ready drum pads are designed to be worn – particularly under pants (not included). Designed in our own San Francisco, they’re currently seeking Kickstarter funding for these wearable velocity sensors. A typical kit includes four velcro-secured sensors to be worn on your legs and slapped with your hands, and two sensors to put in your shoes to act as foot pedals. We were skeptical at first, but drummers seem to really be enthused on the project – and since it sends MIDI, you can use it to control any sound you like. Pants not included:



Type Of Instrument: MIDI Controller with optical sensors
 €499 / ~ $686
Available now

Desgined in France, the Crystall Ball has five optical sensors that detect distances between 2 – 13 inches that allow for quick modulation – and since they’re laid out right next to each other, you can move your hand around the ball and manipulate different parameters rapidly. It also has a keypad underneath – making it look like a cross between a gaming controller and, well, a crystal ball.



Type Of Instrument: Mega MIDI controller with breathpipe  
 £459 / £1955 / £4950 (Pico / Tau / Alpha)
Available Now

The Eigenharps are MIDI instruments that focus around bringing breath control to the software world. All of the models have a breathpipe used for manipulating different elements of the playing sound. The high-end Alpha model sports 120 keys, a built-in sequencer/looper, and two touch strips on either edge of the unit, all coming out via USB to a computer. It’s a MIDI controller that looks like it’s straight out of the Mos Eisley cantina – see it in action in this cover of Moby’s “Extreme Ways”:



Type Of Instrument: 3D modular Eurorack control interface 
Kickstarter underway

The Hackme Vectr allows modular synth enthusiasts a chance to have real three dimensional control over their kit, with a sensor that detects your hands X, Y, and Z position overtop of it and outputs signals for each. The unit has red and blue LEDs that change intensity based the input it is receiving.

It also features some pretty awesome gesture control capabilities, including gesture looping similar what the Korg Kaoss Pads have – watch the Kickstarter demo video to get an idea of how it all works:


We wanted to add a few other instruments here at the end that also are unique approaches to instruments – know of any that deserve to be in our list? Leave us a comment below.

  • Choppertone – Midi Fighter-inspired mashup controller by a Nick Francis
  • Slapperoo – Electric percussion stick made for slapping
  • Pocket Piano MIDI – Fun, simple keyboard synths and MIDI controllers from Critter & Guitari
  • Wavedrum – Percussion synthesizer pad from Korg
  • Misa Digital Kitara – Button guitar with FX pad built in

Read More: The Latest Motion Control Technology for DJs

  • Has anyone seen this performance on the AlphaSphere?

  • Pingback: Modern Instruments for DJs and Producers | DJ Vibe()

  • bruno.dualo

    We just add a new cool video and we are very proud of it :

  • Bob Bobberton

    Well since you can’t get the Kitara anymore, the Misa Tri-Bass should be in its spot. It actually looks like a much more electronic music-focused controller than the Kitara to me.

  • xx

    Be real, the Drum pants guys got their idea from that “hamboning” episode of Regular Show, didn’t they?

  • Danalog.

    That was cool.
    I used to work @ Starr Labs as the talent behind the circuit boards and I can honestly say it was an absolute pleasure. Other devices seem to be pushing the musical boundary in completely creative ways as well. What a great time to be alive!

  • Frederik Tollund Juutilainen

    While these are technical and not musical demos, I think it’s interesting to see that most of these demos aren’t offering anything control- or musicwise that couldn’t be done with a decent midikeyboard and a dedicated ableton controller. And why wouldn’t you, when trying to promote these gadgets, just spend a little more time on the actual music? While I’m interested in new ways of interacting with music, I think most of these are nothing more than gadgets.

    • Kaitain1977

      I agree. If you compare a digital instrument to an actual instrument (like a guitar/violin/whatever), to compete with the analog instruments the digital ones need to have certain features that are often partially lacking from these examples:

      – you need to be able to use all 8 fingers (most achieve this) (and possibly even thumbs too)

      – ALL fingers need to be controlling an interface that has real subtleties and responds in different ways to different types of touch, whether it be velocity sensitivity, vibrato, tremolo, aftertouch, or some other type of control

      – ALL fingers need to have tactile feedback (you need to be touching something that responds to your touch… there’s a reason the Theremin remains a novelty)

      In regards to the demos themselves, yes they need to be impressive music to be convincing, which highlights something that is a bit of a hidden aspect to many instruments: you are probably going to need one HELL of a patch to make these things shine. Patches designed for keyboards are not going to be able to produce any more expression than you could with a keyboard, and so a big part of the point of the instrument is lost.

  • calgarc

    wow, such toys, very music! lol

  • Oddie O’Phyle

    just wondering if you knew about Reactable? ran across it a bunch of years ago and thought it was the coolest thing for live performance.

    • chris

      Basic of Sound 2.0
      >> Cymatics <<

    • Rhyot

      I’ve gotten to play around with one in the US =)

      Special thanks to Bastinado 😉

  • Alan Smithson

    You also missed Emulator ELITE

    • Gigantic

      Pimping your own products…desperation?

      • Alan Smithson

        Really? You think that a CEO that takes an active role in the promotion of his products is doing so out of desperation? What about the fact I just created the most incredible DJ gear ever made and perhaps I am very proud of what our team has accomplished. Gigantic, I understand Emulator ELITE is not for everyone, but for those lucky enough to get one, they will be the ones taking your gigs away from you.

  • gbevin

    You really missed Leap Motion and GECO:

  • Aken

    Very good post but HAHAHA I laughed so heavily with the first video xD Especially when the following texte appears “take your live performance to the NEXT LEVEL” haha and you see the guy watching his guitar like… hmmmm ok… yeah.. this is my guitar and I have absolutely nothing to do”

  • me

    >> Misa Digital Ktara <<