A Survey on Grid Interfaces

Dear lines community,

my name is Beat Rossmy and I am a PhD student in the field of Human Computer Interaction. My research is about Tangible Interaction with a focus on interaction in the musical context. (e.g. https://vimeo.com/231299236 )

I am currently working on a paper about grid controllers/instruments/interfaces and therefore conducting an online survey about their usage, imitations and possible future developments. I would appreciate it if you would participate and share your point of view!

Since this forum has always been a huge source for inspiration, I would immensely appreciate your feedback and opinions. To provide room for further discussion, I would also love to use this thread to initiate a conversation about the following topics:

  • What would you consider the first musical grid interface?
  • How to define grid interfaces?
  • Generic vs. contextual interface? (Grid vs. Push)
  • Future developments and current limitations.

Thank you very much for your time and thoughts!

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While many sources consider the Tenori-On and the monome grid as the first musical grid interfaces. I found during my research that Roland used in 1998 a 4x4 illuminated button matrix in der sp808 workstation. Do you know any other examples of even earlier grid interfaces in musical equipment?

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The Akai MPC-60 predates the SP808 4x4 button matrix by at least a decade…

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this is true. but I think it depends on the definition of a grid, we want to use. if we follow with Brian’s definition “tactile and visual feedback. decoupled by design.”, the pads of the MPC miss the light feedback and thus are not the same as modern grid interfaces such as the Monome grid or the Ableton push.

But I agree that the MPC is definitely a successor to modern grid interfaces!

seems mildly odd to follow Brian’s definition if the monome grid is to be a later development in this story?

This is obviously true. But what I meant by that is that by the visual feedback the interface is transformed to something new. A button matrix was already used in phones or calculators before that. but the illumination adds new ways of interaction since a feedback channel is added to the interface.

Therefore I would argue (but this is open for discussion) to see the MPC as a successor and grids with illumination as a new type of interface derived from that.

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Sorry to be a proofreader, but I believe you mean “predecessor” rather than “successor.”

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perhaps i’m misunderstanding “decoupled”…while it’s cool to see a lit grid of buttons on an earlier instrument, sp-808 and in fact the whole sp series are not “grid interfaces” to me

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thanks for that. not a native speaker :grimacing:

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can you elaborate on this thought?

I felt the same way as you describe, but if you start to think of a generic definition. these meet the requirements (in my opinion).

the buttons are not illuminated based on their activation (decoupled), the LEDs indicate different states of the system by e.g. blinking and the same interface is used for different purposes.

I think the biggest difference is that a monome grid needs you to define its purpose by writing e.g. a max msp application. whereas the roland stuff use the same interface in a closed way, meaning that the application is defined by the manufacturer and not the user.

This is the same for the Elektron Digitakt. the 8x2 illuminated button matrix is used for different purposes, but its functionality is not defined by the user.

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ok actually that’s true

i may still have to think about this but by that definition you’re probably right, thanks for clarifying

I think a lot of this can depend on how you define ‘grid’ and ‘decoupled’, I would also consider the influence of the TR-808 sequencer on electronic music interfaces. When running a sequence, the LEDs on the 16 step buttons indicates the sequence position but not the state of the button per se.

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i thought exactly the same. the tr808 provides that decoupled interaction/feedback. now the question is what kind of matrix definition we want to use. in a mathematical meaning row and column vectors are considered matrices. but also a 1x1 matrix (single button) or even 0x0 matrix is in a mathematical sense a matrix.

do we consider a minimum size a property of a grid interface?

I mentally divide these kinds of grid interfaces into 3 different categories based on form factor and intended usage:

  1. step sequencers (808, elektron, etc)
  2. finger drum/trigger pads (mpc, sp series)
  3. generic controllers with varying degrees of flexibility (monome grid, launchpad, push)

Yes, they are all grids by a generic definition, but to me they don’t all fit into the same “category” of device.

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i feel the same way. all of these devices are quite different in purpose as well as in their design. somehow it comes down to a spectrum where on the one end we find generic devices/controllers such as the monome and on the other end we can find “instruments” such as the medusa made by dreadbox and polyend.

out of interest what category would you consider the zoia to be?

good question. I suppose zoia doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories. It is more of a hybrid device that I can’t easily compare to anything else. I think the zoia grid is more generic by design, since it can be scripted to serve different purposes, so in that sense maybe it is like a monome grid that has been embedded in a specific hardware platform?

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This is a fascinating topic and gets my mind going with a few thought experiments to tease out what could reasonably be considered a grid. So here is a test:

Would you consider a modular synthesizer to qualify as a grid interface?

A Monome Grid is a generic interface that takes a single primary user interface element and uses repetition to establish a grid/matrix. But I have seen some fascinating and beautifully creative extensions of all the ways that single interface element can be employed to serve very different functions. But a core aspect of the grid seems to be that the individual and repeatable elements work in concert with each other.

In a modular synthesizer, it seems you could make the case that there are similarly a few core elements that utilize repetition in a similar manner. At the macro level are modules themselves. At an intermediate level are maybe the CV jacks and the common controls. At a micro level is a linear or non-linear CV signal network. A modular obviously meets the tactile feedback criteria. The knob positions, displays, sliders, screens and LEDs would seem to meet the criteria for visual feedback. Not sure exactly what you mean by “decoupled” but the reconfigurable patch-ability might meet this criteria.

I think there is even a uniformity in the knob/jack layouts in some of the first mature modular systems (i.e., decades before the eurorack era) that really look like grid interfaces.

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I consider even a humble passive matrix mixer to be both grid based and an instrument and it can definitely do feedback… of a different nature.

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wow. i never thought about this level of generalization.

to answer your question about about the term “decoupled”. I first came across the term decoupled when I listened to an interview with brian crabtree (01:00). and - as far as I understand - the major concept is that your input (pressing a button) and the feedback (button light up) is not statically connected. so a closed switch does not cause the LED to shine. this means that this can be used to display information independently from the input. Thus a button can blink to indicate a state, can display step information, etc… in a sense a grid is a low resolution display with touch input.

on a meta level, you can probably consider a modular as a grid since - as you described - it is made of basic components that can be reconfigured to fulfill “any” purpose.

talking about “grid interfaces” i would consider a modular in general not to be a “grid interface”, but there are modules which make use of grid interfaces such as the new Make Noise Rene.

That is a super interesting video proof of concept.