The Thummer

Video game controllers are compact and efficient little things (although I always find the button-heavy X-box ones a little confusing to use). They’re also the inspiration for a new hand-held musical instrument called The Thummer, invented by an ex-Microsoft guy named Jim Plamondon. It’s really a new kind of instrument interface – instead of keys like a piano, it has buttons (that look a little like the left hand side of an accordion) as well as thumb toggles and a motion detector:

What sets the Thummer apart from other musical inventions, says Mr. Plamondon, isn’t the way it sounds but the way it is played. It consists of two keyboards, each about the size of a paperback book. They can be played piano-style on a tabletop or sandwiched together and held aloft.

To play a three-note chord, for example, you press a cluster of three buttons. To play the next three-note chord, you keep your fingers in the same shape and move to a different group of buttons. Mr. Plamondon says this design makes the Thummer easier to learn than instruments like the piano, which require players to learn many more chord fingerings.

The Thummer doesn’t make any noise on its own. It must be plugged into a computer or synthesizer, which uses software to mimic other instruments. To adjust volume and pitch, players thumb a pair of joysticks mounted on the side — hence the instrument’s name. Like the Nintendo Wii controller, it has an internal motion sensor, so players can also adjust the sound by moving the instrument around as they play it.

Marc Rossi, a synthesizer specialist and professor of piano and jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, says the Thummer sounds like a good-quality synthesizer. He says the internal motion sensor is what’s truly innovative: “That could be a whole new world.”

I’d love to hear one of these things in action and see if it really is all that intuitive to play. The Wall Street Journal link up there also has video of a bunch of new instruments, including the Chapman stick (played by King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and others) and the ReacTable table played by Björk’s band.