Fingerboard catching on among musicians

Travis Austin

Travis Austin

By Madeline Keleher

The keyless, stringless musical instrument that University Engineering professor Lippold Haken has spent the last twenty years designing and perfecting is starting to make it big.

In the last six months, Haken has sold his Continuum Fingerboard to musicians such as John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Terry Lawless, a keyboardist who tours with U2.

Haken first wrote out the idea for a keyless keyboard in 1984.

“I come from a musical family, but I’m more interested in the engineering aspects of music,” Haken said. “When I was growing up, my mom made me play the violin for 15 years. I was never very good at it, but I got an appreciation for playing vibrato and crescendos.”

Haken engineered his fingerboard to accommodate vibratos, but he said the hardest part was detecting multiple fingers playing at once.

The fingerboard consists of 256 aluminum rods that lay on top of piano-wire springs. The end of each rod holds a magnet, which moves when a finger depresses the rod. The magnetic movement is detected by sensors, which relay the information to a powerful computer inside the fingerboard.

Movement can be detected in three directions: x (left-to-right finger movement), y (front-to-back movement) and z (up-and-down movement). The pitch of the note is changed by moving a finger left or right. Sliding the fingers front to back on the same note creates timber glides, mimicking the growl of a saxophone or the mellower sound of a violin caused by bowing further from the bridge. Changing the amount of finger pressure on a rod causes a vibrato.

The rods are covered with neoprene, the same material used in wetsuits, to create a continuous playing surface. The fingerboard can be hooked up to any synthesizer and sound like many instruments, including a piano, guitar, saxophone, and kalimba.

Mark Smart, an accomplished guitarist and saxophonist and an electronics technician in Engineering, has been playing the fingerboard for the last two years and has found many uses for it, some of them unexpected.

“I can use this instrument to communicate with my cat,” he said laughing, and slid his fingers across the fabric to create a sound similar to meowing. “I’m not sure what I’m saying to him when I do this, but he gets kind of upset and meows at me.”

Carla Scaletti, University alumna and president of Symbolic Sound Corporation in Champaign, said that the fingerboard appeals to sound designers and musicians who want to push their music to new areas.

“The fingerboard controls sound much less abstractly than a mouse,” Scaletti said. “With it, I feel like my hands are directly shaping the sound.”

The benefits of the fingerboard are not immediate, however.

“Most electronics are made to make your life easier,” Haken said. “This isn’t one of them. It takes a lot of work to get it to play.”

One musician who has devoted many hours to learning how to play the fingerboard is Jordan Rudess, keyboardist for the progressive metal band Dream Theater.

“I use it as a type of a wild rock ‘n’ roll instrument,” Rudess said. “At first it sounds like a guitar, but then you hear all the sliding and bending and all the sensitivity that the instrument has.”

Rudess said he had been dreaming about an instrument like a fretless keyboard when a friend called him about an article in Keyboard Magazine describing Haken’s continuum fingerboard. Rudess bought a fingerboard of his own after seeing the instrument in person, and worked with Haken to add features that would make the fingerboard more practical for a touring musician.

“I was on tour around the world using the fingerboard for 11 months and the most asked question was: ‘what the heck is that?’ It would just freak people out – it was otherworldly to them.”