18 November 2009

Eigenharp Pico first impressions

This, my friends, is the Eigenharp Pico, the first bundle of electronic joy from Eigenlabs, baby sibling to their much larger (and horrendously expensive) Eigenharp Alpha, due to be released in December and the future source of many a missed mortgage payment and repossessed house. The Pico is fun, quite complex, and unfortunately rather buggy.

With the Pico you can control a variety of loops, samples and instruments via 16 playable keys (multi-directional, and very pressure sensitive), a control strip (with a variety of functions from simple pitch bend to acting like a bow for the software-modeled cello), and a breath pipe (to use with the included Clarinet model). In addition to its own expandable sample library it will play any of your own Audio Unit Plugins, as well as any Midi instruments, and has an inbuilt looper that allows you to record and playback multiple instruments and samples. The overall build quality is good and the controllers feel highly responsive. While lacking the strings of the larger Alpha, there is more than enough to keep any level of musician occupied for quite some time, and I have to say I haven't enjoyed any piece of kit as much as this since the Tenori-On.

For the moment it is Mac-compatible only, with around 5Gb of software mainly comprised of the instruments, an impressive array of drum loops and the EigenD application and browser used to access the soundfiles either via the Eigenharp or directly on your computer. Unfortunately this is where things start to get a bit frustrating, as the software is just not ready for primetime. The Pico was due to ship last week but experienced some delays apparently due to higher than anticipated demand, however I wouldn't be too surprised if there was still some last minute work being done on the software side of things, as it just doesn't feel fully finished. Although it was built specifically for Mac it doesn't really operate like any standard piece of Mac software (Command-Q doesn't quit the program, for example), and the UI just isn't that great to use. The EigenD app isn't playing nice with my soundcard, even at low volume levels there can be a fair bit of distortion on bass sounds (specifically on the cello when played over any of the drum loops), but worst of all, it crashes.

A lot.

Basically the application will keep running but the Pico just freezes or goes dead and switches off, which is odd as there is no actual on/off function (once the Pico is connected via USB and the EigenD application is launched the Pico switches on; the only way to switch it off is to close the application or disconnect the USB). Initially this made me think that the USB connection was loose, but after the fourth or fifth time it definitely seems software related, like it gets too many signals at once and just gives up (I'm running it on a 3.06 Ghz Core 2 Duo iMac with 4Gb of 800Mhz of Ram, so I don't think its a problem with memory or processing power). All you can do then is quit out of the app and relaunch; it all makes me wonder if there are some OSX 10.6 compatibility issues.

The included documentation isn't that helpful either, consisting of a quick start guide and illustrated reference booklet that shows what all the buttons are, but not how to use them. Two enclosed video tutorials, and a third online, give an introduction to the most basic functions, but there are no real guidelines on how to use the more advanced features, or even how to get it to work with any other programs you have, like Abelton (thanks to a tip on the forum I'm using Cycling 74's Soundflower, but its not pretty). This is a very complex instrument, a nice big fat manual wouldn't have gone amiss.

A quick perusal of the forums shows that I'm not alone with these issues, and the software and UI really seem to be everyone's main bugbear at the moment, that it feels more like a beta than a full blown version. But here's the silver lining, Eigenlabs seem to have top notch customer service. For any problem that has been posted on the forum that they haven't been able to resolve online, they've actually phoned the customer directly to talk them through the issues. This has already led to the first update to the EigenD application, mainly to resolve issues with specific soundcards. Anyone who has had contact with the Eigenlabs team is enthusiastically singing their praises.

This is why I'm not too worried about the issues I'm having, as I'm confident they'll get sorted out. I just hope they get them sorted out before the release of the Alpha, which at £4K a pop would have its credibility destroyed by any software issues like this.

Bottom line, this has the potential to be something really amazing. Even with all the issues I've experienced, I love it, but at the moment it feels like I'm playing in the developer sandbox rather than with a full release. With that caveat in mind, if you feel like getting in on the ground floor of something quite special, give it a go.

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