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Designed as an easy-to-use and visually interesting solution to the struggles of composing and performing electronic music, the Yamaha Tenori-On music sequencer ($1,200) is a daring attempt to shake up the dull state of electronic music hardware.
The Tenori-On's deliberately lightweight and tactile design has the whimsical appeal of a toy--which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As an alternative to the complexities of programming a drum machine or modifying virtual instruments in ProTools, the playful quality of the Tenori-On is a large part of its appeal. After all, the Tenori-On's creator Toshio Iwai already has a reputation for disguising music-composing tools as games. If you have a problem dropping serious money on an instrument that treats songwriting like a game of Tetris, the Tenori-On is not for you.
Measuring 8 inches square and 1.25 inches deep, the Tenori-On's brushed-magnesium frame has the solid, graspable feel of a Formula One steering wheel. Fitting a 16x16 grid of 256 plastic buttons onto an 8-inch square seems a little cramped in theory, but in practice the Tenori-On's compact form allows your thumbs to manage the entire playing surface while holding the instrument with both hands.
If you have $1,200 burning a hole in your pocket, it wouldn't be hard to find a portable music sequencer with far more features than the Tenori-On (the Akai MPC1000 springs to mind). In fact, some omitted features (velocity control, swing timing, standard MIDI syncing) make the Tenori-On relatively crude by modern standards. In spite of its technical limitations, the Tenori-On's saving grace is its extraordinary capacity as a live performance tool for electronic musicians.