The Tenori-on is a truly fascinating object. While it could easily double as a prop for the Starship Enterprise, its raison d’etre is simple: it’s a new musical instrument for the digital age. Considering crazy ideas like this rarely leave the concept stage, Yamaha deserves full marks for making it a reality.

But does the product itself deserve top honours? This is harder to answer. While the design isn’t completely unique – a controller called the Monome adopts a similar LED matrix – its otherworldly looks make it utterly irresistible to musical, gadget-loving fingers.    

Like the Korg Kaossilator, it immediately begs to eat up your time with ambient beats and weird noises. But there is a caveat: this sequencer-cum-keyboard is really only for Johnny Greenwood-esque fans of electronic experimentation. If you’ve only briefly tinkled the plastic ivories of your keyboard, it could well be an overwhelming experience.  

Musical layer cake

That said, the Tenori-on really is quite intuitive after some practice. Out of the box, it’s a 20cm square metal frame surrounding a 16x16 matrix of LED buttons. Each button has its own sound and lights up in various ways.

You can play the buttons like a keyboard in Solo mode, but put it in a variety of different modes and you can build up layers of music like a sixteen track recorder.

But how does this work? Each button along the horizontal axis represents an event in a sixteen-step loop, while on the vertical axis, each button is a note up the scale. Turn it around and a light show on the back will entertain onlookers.

You can programme in drum and synth patterns by holding buttons down in Score mode. The Tenori-on will loop your bidding infinitely while you make changes by toggling notes on and off.

Fancy adding another track on top? The Tenori-on has sixteen ‘layers’ – think of them as tracks – each with its own weird and wonderful way of programming in patterns.

Endless possibilities

That’s not the end of the options either – several modes let you manipulate your masterpieces further. ‘Random mode’ will move between two or more notes, plot on the matrix and then allow you to rotate the loop-shape you’ve plotted for an ever-changing merry-go-round of indiscriminate bleeping. ‘Push mode’, meanwhile, gives you your pad sounds, taking a note and gradually making it louder and bigger. Perfect for sci-fi moments of otherworldliness.  

In ‘Bounce mode’, press an LED button and the light will "drop" from that button, bounce back from the bottom of the matrix, and repeat. Finally, ‘Draw mode’ allows you to draw a ‘musical shape’, which will play every time the loop comes around.

It sounds complicated but it’s ultra-simple to learn and we were amazed how quickly we were building up techno loops that had us twitching around our desks. For all the stories about entire albums being written on the Tenori-on, it’s clearly an additional toy for an already tooled up musician, rather than a stand-alone music maker.

Criticisms? The price alone excludes it from being a coffee table toy, so it’s hard to see it becoming a mainstream device. It also doesn’t offer any synthesising options that allow you to modify the pre-loaded sounds. But if you are in an electronic band that likes to lurk behind laptops, we highly recommend the Tenori-on as a much better alternative to an 80s Keytar. And, as you can see from our video review, the Tenori-on is the future of busking.


Stuff says... 

Yamaha Tenori-on review

An innovative and different approach to electronic music making, but definitely a niche product