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Yamaha Tenori-On music sequencer review: Yamaha Tenori-On music sequencer

Yamaha Tenori-On music sequencer

Donald Bell Senior Editor / How To
Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.
Donald Bell
3 min read


Yamaha Tenori-On music sequencer

The Good

The Yamaha Tenori-On music sequencer turns the otherwise tedious process of programming and performing electronic music into a fun and visually dazzling experience.

The Bad

The Tenori-On is expensive, difficult to synchronize with other MIDI gear, and its built-in sounds wear thin after repeated listening.

The Bottom Line

While the Tenori-On's breathtaking design and ease-of-use is hard to resist, only performing electronic musicians will be able to justify its high price and tap into the device's more advanced applications.

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.

The front of the Tenori-On includes a grid of 256 illuminated buttons that are used to enter notes or switch between sequences and sounds. Additional buttons around the edge of the Tenori-On are used to adjust musical attributes such as tempo and pitch, or select advanced features on the instrument's small screen.

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.

It's no mistake that the back of the Tenori-On is nearly indistinguishable from its front. The ability for audiences to view the Tenori-On's blinking music sequences on the back of the instrument underscores the device's emphasis on live performance.

The Tenori-On's features can be broken down into two camps: sequencing and sounds. Out of the box, the Tenori-On includes 253 built-in sounds ranging from synthesizer blips to drum kits. Using an SD card and included Mac- and PC-compatible software, users can create three of their own sample-based instruments, which are saved onto the device. If you become tired of the Tenori-On's included sounds, you have the option of triggering sounds from external synthesizers and drum machines using the instrument's MIDI output connection.

The Tenori-On's most novel contribution to the world of electronic music composition is its various music sequencing modes. Each of the six different sequencing modes of the Tenori-On take advantage of playful, nontraditional techniques for composing music, including modes for bouncing, stuttering, drawing, and rotating notes around the grid. Sequences from various modes can be layered on top of one another to create complex and shifting compositions.

To create song structures, the Tenori-On allows sequences to be stored in "Blocks" that can be strung together and improvised upon. All sequences, Blocks, and songs can be saved to the device for later use.

To truly realize the Tenori-On's potential as a music performance and compositional tool, you'll want to exploit its MIDI output to trigger sounds beyond the stock tones included by Yamaha. Your computer is a ripe source of free software synthesizers and drum machines that can be controlled using the Tenori-On.

Anyone can pick up the Tenori-On and quickly create a melodic sequence of notes without a hint of instruction, but mastering all of the instrument's capabilities takes some practice and a few reads through the product manual. The Tenori-On's curse may be that few users will see past their first novelty experience with the instrument to realize its more sophisticated potential. Like Jimi Hendrix with a guitar, it takes a little creative vision to push the limits of the Tenori-On and find your own unique style. If you're not willing to invest the time to learn how to exploit all of the Tenori-On's features, your compositions will likely all sound like one long Toshio Iwai song.

The Tenori-On runs off an included DC power supply, or six AA batteries. Yamaha doesn't offer an official battery-life figure, but we were able to achieve between 3 and 4 hours of intermittent use.


Yamaha Tenori-On music sequencer

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 6Performance 7