Music making magic with the MPE-capable MIDI controller Instrument 1

The Instrument 1 is a USB MIDI controller with some nifty tricks up its sleeve. It can be several different analogue instruments — guitar, violin, piano, saxophone… — opening up all kinds of creative horizons other MIDI controllers don’t give access to.

The Instrument 1 is a USB MIDI controller with some nifty tricks up its sleeve. It can be several different analogue instruments — guitar, violin, piano, saxophone… — opening up all kinds of creative horizons other MIDI controllers don’t give access to. I tested it with Logic Pro X and a number of synths, including Alchemy, EXS 24, Nektar’s Bolt and IK Multimedia’s SampleTank 4.

There are many firsts the Instrument 1 combines in its guitar-shaped form factor. It’s the first MIDI controller that lets you strum, bow, tap, slide and drum any sound on a single interface. It allows you to switch between four factory presets — Guitar, Violin, Piano and Drums — and four customisable presets that offer the ability to mix modes, methods, tunings and sounds. And it comes with a long-lasting (6 hours in my test!) battery and two speakers built-in for making audible music while connected to the app on a smartphone or tablet — or if you select the Instrument 1 as an audio interface (24bit/96kHz) in Logic Pro X.

The Instrument 1 lets you modulate effects with continuous aftertouch, offers MIDI MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) compatibility and has a built-in accelerometer so you can create effects by moving it from horizontal to vertical and back. Artiphone calls it the first fretted and fretless digital string instrument and most versatile MIDI controller ever. After playing around with it for a few weeks, I can only say it sure makes you want to experiment, explore and make music.

The Instrument 1 has been designed to be played in multiple positions. A guitarist might hold the instrument like a guitar, while a cellist might enjoy holding the instrument body upright. It can even be held like a violin. As I am not an instrumentalist, I did none of these things but placed it on my desk and ran through all of its capabilities as explained in the excellent user guide and by watching the intro videos.

Going through the intro videos is a good idea as the Instrument 1 offers the ability to tune each string individually. That’s done through a user-friendly control app for the Mac or iOS, but it remains a task many of us won’t do from the top of our head. On iOS, the Artiphon Instrument Editor app also comes with its own sound bank, so the device can playback through the built-in speakers as well.

The presets in the Editor app can be changed with instant feedback from the Instrument 1. That is not only useful for tuning the device exactly to your requirements, it also allows you to explore the many different ways it can be played even if you’re not an instrumentalist.

One preset that’s particularly interesting for beginners is Smart Strum which allows for one-finger chords. The built-in hardware arpeggiator can create an “auto-pick” effect, but I found that one to interfere with Alchemy’s own arpeggiated presets, so at least with synth presets that have their own, it’s a good idea not to use it.

The Instrument 1 works well with Logic Pro X, GarageBand and Reason. From what I’ve seen on Youtube, it also works with Ableton Live, and Pro Tools. Within those DAW environments, it works with VST plug-ins such as Kontakt, Dexed and IK Multimedia’s SampleTank 4.

Another really special feature is that the device — both the bridge and fingerboard — is pressure- and velocity-sensitive. Even string bending is possible by using inward pressure. When you tilt the Instrument 1, you’re actually using the equivalent of the Mod Wheel (CC#1) which is fine for guitarists but perhaps less intuitive for others. That’s why it’s brilliant that the latest firmware also allows you to set the rotary knob to any control that your DAW or plug-in allows for.

I tried it with one of Logic Pro X’s Smart Controls on the EXS 24 and it worked like a charm. I used Logic Pro X’s easy Learn feature and was able to turn the knob in an EXS 24 control in seconds.

The Instrument 1 has a built-in capo that allows you to easily transpose 12 half steps, but you can set the capo to transpose the instrument in full octaves by setting the option for that in the Instrument 1 Editor app. You can also set the fingerboard to behave as a fretted or fretless surface. The latter is supposed to make your sounds glide from one note to the next.

That works well with synths if the settings are suitable as I found out in Alchemy. Whereas you can successfully play the Instrument 1 in guitar mode with any synth setting, even those that are meant to be played with a keyboard, for example, fretless mode was not very pleasing to the ear if the setting isn’t set to glide notes at all. In those cases, fretless either doesn’t “catch on” or makes the notes change abruptly.

It’s just one of those things that you learn by trying out things with the Instrument 1. The 12 fret, full octave fingerboard does offer a total of 78 note locations and allows you to set them all up as individual notes — more or less like a piano board — or as a 12 note per octave keyboard. And all of that is done by simply selecting another fingerboard ‘button’ in the Editor app.

The Instrument 1 is a wonderful MIDI controller and allows talented musicians to become sound wizards due to the many ways it supports your playing. It costs €379 and is available from websites such as Gear4Music as well as directly from the Artiphon site.