Nov 2

The Yamaha Tenori-On Review

The Yamaha Tenori-On, it has a strange name and is something I wanted to find out about for a while now. When you are being sent a musical instrument which has 256 orange LED’s and is made by Yamaha, you know straight away that it is going to be something very special, unique and visually stunning. As I turned it on and started to play it, I realised that is exactly what it is. It certainly passed my user-friendly test because I was composing a very syncopated melody with dynamics and interest in seconds and it felt a bit like painting with sound. Yamaha are renowned for packing many features into their products, so I need to look a little into what they are. I suppose the quick start guide is a good place to start.

The concept of the Tenori-On came from Media artist Toshio Iwai. Yamaha have made this concept a reality and created a 16×16 matrix of LED switches so that absolutely anyone can play and create music easily on a beautifully visible interface. It has been described as “a MIDI controller, tone generator, sampler and stunning visual user interface and works by a simple press of any LED to trigger a note and the internal sequencer does the rest, playing single notes or chords as the step sequencer cycles round” As I read this the Sampler immediately grabbed my attention as did the MIDI connection.

There are two models of Tenori-On; the TNR-W (Tenori-On white released in 2005) and the later 2010 TNR-O (Tenori-On Orange). I have the Orange with its white frame to review here but I understand that they both share the same concept, musical power, internal operating system, modes and soundsets. The original and more expensive White model has a magnesium frame, 256 LED’s on the back as well as the front and can run on batteries. I would instantly say that for a Live performance, I would recommend the Original, because the LED’s on the back mirror what is being played on the front and the battery option lends itself to greater freedom on stage.

For a complete Musical Comedy experience, it is worth watching Bill Bailey live when he is using his Tenori-On. Whilst this is very funny, it highlights somethings I have already been thinking about. Firstly Bill has the Tenori-On mounted on a stand and this seems to be a good option for what he is doing. Secondly he is playing other synths live and demonstrates how much fuller the sound is with a deep Pad sound underneath it. Lastly he plays over a simple pattern that someone else creates there and then with no prior knowledge of this instrument, which confirms without question how user-friendly this product is.

Little Boots also demonstrates this unit  live on Jools Holland playing the Tenori-On,  a piano and Stylophone and singing her hit “Meddle”. She seems to combine drums and vocals on the Tenori-On at the start of this. The light-flashing vocoded rhythmic vocal sounds great.

The on-board sounds are an interesting collection. There are 253 tones in all which include 14 drum kits. My initial thoughts on the soundset were that they were “nice” sounds but intentionally it would seem that they were designed without guts and power but are of a more percussive melodic type. I will get to the sampling side of this unit but for now I was thinking  more along the lines that this would have been a better instrument by having a simple facility to use with a USB stick and load WAV files or MP3s of your own choice. I suppose the on-board sounds give the Tenori-On its own uniqueness but I am not sure if many people would use these in there live performance or in the Studio. It is good to have them from a teaching perspective though.

The Tenori-On is able to produce 32 notes of Polyphony. With the sound you have loaded you can then add Reverb and Chorus. Better still you have the option to add Reverb and Chorus to each of the 16 Multi-Layers in a sequence. There are 10 Reverb types and 5 Chorus types for you to select from

There are six types of Performance modes – Score, Random, Draw, Bounce, Push and Solo. Yamaha state that:-  “a thorough understanding of the modes will help you to create more interesting, unique performances”. I decided to therefore work my way through them but what I needed to remember here was that you could have up to16 layers. As you turn on the Tenori-On you will see in the LCD status display that Layer 1 is selected along with Score mode.

The Score Mode is assigned to layers 1 to 7and it functions like a musical “score” on which you can write the notes to be played in one musical measure via the matrix. What you have here is visual display of a loop which is shown by four lit LED buttons in a vertically moving column from left to right, and the notes that you play will sound when the loop indicator passes over them. I love the awesome light animation you get as you play each note. You can also temporarily pause the loop playback, change the loop start and end points, change the loop speed and change the light animation. The horizontal axis corresponds to time and the vertical axis corresponds to the pitch of the notes that you play. The factory default scale for the vertical axis is an Ionian scale which are really the white keys on a piano. Again you can change this scale as well as changing the octaves. I selected a drum voice and found that the vertical axis in this case corresponded to a different instrument in the drum kit rather than adjusted the pitch of a drum. Something that I discovered that you don’t really think about when you start using the Tenori is that if you quickly press an LED then that sound will play but if you hold the LED button a bit longer, then it will remain lit and becomes an active note. Apparently you can also then press and hold  that active note to deactivate it if you so wish.

The Random Mode is assigned to layers 8 to11. This mode will make unpredictable sequences in a “join the dots” fashion. The lights will go from note to note, in the order that you enter them and the active notes will sound when the traveling light passes over them producing a totally different type of loop from the Score Mode. For something both visually appealing and sounding, you can do a type of spin loop by holding the L4 button and running your finger around the matrix- great fun.

The Draw Mode is assigned to layers 12 and 13 and certainly brings out the artist in you. Here you can either press individual LED buttons or draw lines or curves on the matrix. You can keep adding to your song during playback to build up phatter sounds. As I put it in this mode, I found that I did not need to press and hold a button to enter a note. I suppose that  is logical else it would not be Draw mode.

The Bounce Mode is assigned to layer 14. This seems very strange but as you press an LED button, the light drops from that button and bounces back from the bottom of the matrix, and then repeats. The corresponding note sounds when the light bounces along the bottom row. Obviously the higher the starting point is on the matrix,  then the longer the interval is between the sound being made. Notes are deactivated by pressing the very bottom button on the corresponding vertical line.

The Push Mode is assigned to layer 15 and as you press and hold an LED button in this mode, the sound of the note will begin to change gradually. The way the note changes depends on the voice you have selected and will only work with sustained voices that have a time-based tonal change in the sustained portion of the voice’s envelope. Voices 15/01 to 15/16 have been specifically created for use in this mode.

The Solo Mode is assigned to layer 16 and I found this to have the best “hands-on” feel to it as it is so instant, allowing me to play either quantized or unquantized notes on the grid. I enjoyed making a drum pattern with this because I could apply different quantize values to different parts of a kit.

Lastly there is an Advanced Mode that the Tenori-On possess  which can be unlocked that allows you to customize the different modes of the Tenori-On. By holding the function keys L1 and L5 as you power-on the Advanced Mode is unlocked and new features within the Layer Menu are displayed. I also found a list of  features that are not documented by Yamaha. These are:- Main Prog Update: R1+CANCEL, TG Prog Update: R2+CANCEL, TG Wave Update: R3+CANCEL, Live Test Status Output: R5+CANCEL, ROM Update: OK+CANCEL, Test Mode: L1+CLEAR, Test Mode 2: L2+CLEAR, DAC Test: L3+CLEAR, Advanced Mode: L1+L5.

The 16 layers can be thought of as “performance parts” or “recording tracks.”   Separate notes and voices can be assigned to each layer, and all layers can be played together in synchronization. As I said above, each of these layers use a mode to enter data; 1 to 7 for Score, 8 to 11 for Random, 12 and 13 for Draw, 14 Bounce, 15 Draw and 16 Solo. This variety provides you with a fascinating way of producing complex rich sound and expression.

When you have created your 16 layers, this is known as a  “block” and the  Tenori-On can store up to 16 programmed blocks  in its memory, so that you can switch from block to block instantly during your performance making this ideal for total song creation. My thoughts here are that I would want to create my 16 layered block and then copy this to another block and edit it to create a variation of  my original composition. I was pleased to learn that this can be done.

On either side of the Matrix you will find a set of controls. On the left you have buttons L1 to L5 and on the right you have R1 to R5 – nothing complicated about that but what do they do?

L1 – Instrument – selects the voice for the current layer.
L2 – Sound Length – Sets the note length for all the active notes in the current layer.
L3 – Octave – Sets the octave (-5 to +5) for all active notes in the current layer.
L4 – Score Mode Loop Point – Sets the loop playback range for the current Score Mode layer.
L4 – Random Mode Rotation –  When a Random Mode layer is selected you can spin loop-shapes by holding the [L4] button and running a finger around the matrix in the direction and at the speed of the desired spin.
L5 – Loop Speed – Sets the loop playback speed (the duration of the beats).
R1 – Layer No – Switches to a different layer.
R2 – Master Tempo –  Sets the playback tempo from 40 to 240 bpm for all layers and all blocks.
R3 – Master Transpose –  Adjusts the playback pitch in semitone increments for all layers and all blocks from -7 to +8.
R4 – Volume –  For Layer Volume the volume of each layer can be adjusted to all blocks. For Master Volume you can also use the jog dial while holding the R4 button to set the master volume level for all layers. The master volume value appears on the LCD display only.
R5 – Block Number –  Switches to a different block. The R5 button is also used to copy layers.

In addition to using the function buttons above, parameters can be accessed by using the jog dial and the nine menus shown on the LCD display. These nine menus cover the following topics – Play, Layer, Edit, Preference, File, Effect, Interior, System and Recording.

The Size of the Tenori-On is 205 x 205 x 32 mm and Weight 700 grams. For connections you have a Line Out / Phones: Stereo mini phone jack, a MIDI IN for synchronized performance using two Tenori-on instruments and a  MIDI OUT for external device control. You also have a slot for a  SD Memory Card. The Tenori-On comes complete with a Mini DIN cable, a CD-ROM , an Yamaha AC Adaptor, a Quick Guide, and an Installation Guide. Also bundled is Tenori-on’s Voice Manager, which lets you configure sample content ready for transfer to an SD Card.

You can hear the sounds of the Tenori-On without connecting to any external amplification because there are stereo 1w speakers built-in.

All active notes and settings for all layers and blocks are unfortunately not retained in memory when the power is turned off, so if you want to keep what you have created you will need to use the Save All Blocks function to save it to an SD Memory Card.

The Tenori-On can play back user samples of up to 0.97 seconds in length saved to a SD card or can output its sequences via MIDI. There is a provision for three user voices: 01/16, 02/16 and 03/16. Audio samples can be loaded into the Tenori-On and played via these voices. Audio samples can be converted to the sample format .tnw file extension using the User Voice Manager software provided on the CD. The sample files must be in either WAV or AIFF format and be 22.05 kHz, 24 kHz, 44.1 kHz, or 48 kHz sampling rate and be either 8 or 16 bits, stereo or mono.

It is good to see that Yamaha have not just left it there with Tenori-On and have provided an update of improvements and additions so that the Tenori-On can evolve. Version 2 provides a ‘tighter’ feel that provides you with a more instantaneous performance. The MIDI improvements allow better integration with your DAW. There is a much needed Global Mute to stop all output on all tracks by using R4 and L1 buttons.

Changes to the Loop Timing facility allow you to  have different tracks running out of sync with each other for you to create a unique musical feel however, it is good to be able to reset with ease all the loop points without going through many menu pages. Version 2.0 makes this easy by allowing you to simply pressing L4 and R1 buttons and all tracks will reset to their original loop timing points.

It now also provides a Global User Scale which allows different notes from different octaves to be accessed and sequenced within one single layer. Lastly my favourite by far is – Swing. This new function gives some feel to this machine and has a -23/+23 swing parameter. You can also fine tune this ‘feel’ using the jog wheel in real-time but even more interesting is that when it is Slaved to an external DAW, it allows the Tenori-On to swing while the DAW remains rigid. Some definite rhythmic possibilities then to contemplate over. It makes me wonder where Yamaha will take this next.

The new Version 2.0 firmware is available for free download from

What an awesome piece of kit that I must say that I love and I certainly found the lights to have an “hypnotic” effect on me as I used it. It can do a lot more than most step-sequencers however, there are some considerations and issues. I think that despite the fact that this is without doubt a great invention, I feel the price is a bit high but you have to take into account its capabilities and the fact that with 256 lights it is visually stunning but that is where the expense is.

It really does need a USB facility as its MIDI break out connection does not make your life simple when it comes to connecting to your DAW or other MIDI hardware. Version 2 has made great improvements here but I don’t understand why Yamaha did not move to USB when the Tenori Orange was released. The decision on whether you purchase the Original or the Orange needs to take into consideration the cost element but also whether or not you would be using this live.

The sounds are not huge and I would rather there were not any on-board sound at all but instead a much bigger and better sampling facility for you to simply load the sounds you really love and be played by a such a fantastic arranger as this. The Rhythmic and melodic possibilities are endless and if I were Yamaha, I would be creating two new Tenoris – The Tenori Sampler and the Tenori Drum Machine. I know I would buy them.

You really need to try the Tenori-On yourself and I am sure you will fall for her charms. If you are not a musician, then you will be pleasantly surprised by what you can achieve instantly and then somewhat further by simply leaning the Tenori modes.

One Response

  1. Boom Box Steve Says:

    If you press L1 and L5 whilst turning it on as well; it sets it to “Advanced Mode”, which contains a ton of hidden features, such as letting you change what effect is assigned to what channel; so if you want 16 bounce channels, you can have 16 bounce channels.

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