Connected Nation - Pitch: TouchKeys - Andrew McPherson, Queen Mary University of London

Supplementary content information

How do you create a novel yet familiar musical instrument? TouchKeys transforms the piano-style keyboard into an expressive multi-touch control surface. Capacitive touch sensors on the surface of every key measure the position of each finger, allowing the player to intuitively add vibrato, pitch bends, timbre changes and other expressive effects just by moving the fingers on the key surfaces.

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Andrew McPherson, Queen Mary University of London

My name is Andrew McPherson. I am a senior lecturer in the Centre for Digital Music, that’s a research group within the Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London, and I will be exhibiting something called TouchKeys which is new musical instrument. Normally I’d show a quick video but you’ll be able to see it in a moment.

Basically, throughout human history people have been using technology to make music, and music has likewise been a powerful driver of new technology. A piece of technology that’s been around for hundreds of years now is, of course, the keyboard and it has to be doing something right because there are millions of people who have spent years of their life learning to play the piano, synthesiser and other keyboard instruments.

Now what you run into is that the keyboard has certain limitations, which is that once you play a note you don’t have a lot of convenient options for changing its sound before you release it, compared to say a violin where things like vibrato and pitch bends are very natural. So TouchKeys is a new sensor technology, it uses capacitive touch sensing, it goes on the surface of any keyboard and basically transforms it into an expressive, multi-touch control surface. So the idea is that it measures where the fingers are on the keys and that just by moving the fingers around you can change the pitch, the volume, the timbre of any of the notes.

Now I’ll let you try it for yourself after this but I developed this over several years at Queen Mary with support from EPSRC, AHRC and others, and in 2013 I ran a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign which exceeded its fundraising goal and got this out into the world, and into the hands of musicians; and more recently I’ve been spinning it out into an independent company, with a view towards hitting a larger segment of the keyboard market. I think I will stop there and I invite you to try it, outside there. Thank you.