The Monome, a minimalist tool and musical device, is simply a reconfigurable grid of backlit keypads. However, when paired with any number of computer applications, it can expand the limits of traditional music making.
Since the Monome was first introduced 10 years ago, a strong community has developed around it, amplifying the instrument’s capabilities through an active forum and open-source collaborations. Compelling to both the hobbyist and the expert, it has also been adopted by Grammy Award-winning artists including MGMT, Imogen Heap, and Nine Inch Nails. The Monome is a versatile piece of hardware, and is increasingly used in a wide variety of environments including video, lighting, and art installations, and even scientific research.
As a company, Monome’s mission is to create tools that help musicians expand beyond the boundaries of kit instruments. Based in upstate New York, the small-scale operation works with local suppliers and manufacturers with whom Monome has created long-term, trusting relationships. The embodiment of beautiful design and quality craftsmanship, all products are produced in short runs and according to demand.
Brian : Just prior to my teenage years, my slightly older uncle showed me a video of himself and friends taking turns trying to sever aluminum cans with a homemade ninja sword. In the background a boombox blasted Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. And suddenly I was initiated. I sought weird electronic sounds.
I grew up with musical instruments and computers. Synthesizers and drum machines were magical objects, yet I found myself repeatedly trying to do different things the instrument designer didn’t consider. Given my interest in an art form closely determined by its tools, I gradually became a toolmaker.
Computers are an ultimately flexible tool for digital music. They can change shape and function immediately. Yet programming computers isn’t always the most musical process, and the keyboard-mouse combination had proven an unmusical gesture. The solution was a disarmingly simple hardware interface: an open-ended, redefinable grid of backlit keypads.
Eventually I had something working, cobbled together with surplus electronics and sticks and hot glue. It immediately exploded my musical language– now I could prod some sound algorithm (the computer’s brain?) with all ten fingers and great speed. Improvisation became natural, the computer became a playable instrument. I played shows all over LA, internet video was starting to exist, a musician friend took the prototype on a world tour, and suddenly my inbox was full of requests from people wanting their own do-nothing-everything-box.
Kelli Cain and I had been making electromechanical art installations and were getting more proficient in the fabrication lab. We started researching manufacturability for the grid, deciding it should be open source and domestically produced. Within six months we were shipping the first Monome grids worldwide. That was nearly a decade ago.
We’ve refined the design slightly over the years, improving usability and optimizing our hand-building process. But the design has stayed true to the original goal– to empower the user to define their tools, performance, and instrument. We’ve fostered a strong global community where applications can be shared and modified, together exploring this peculiar object.
We work out of our converted barn workshop. Components that go into each come from various manufacturers in the northeast with whom we’ve established strong relationships: keypads and electronics from Pennsylvania, milled aluminum enclosures from Maryland. Staying small and working with local manufacturers allows us to develop and produce new designs incredibly quickly.
Given the fundamental flexibility and simplicity of the interface, the grid is an exceptional starting place for tool making. Perhaps you want to make a drum machine with a particular quirk. Or play chords according to some formula. We’ve created a series of programming tutorials in various languages to help people make that first step towards tool independence.
Despite being around for a decade, we’re continually surprised and impressed by the music created with these grids, and the new uses people imagine. It’s exactly what we hoped for– an object with the capacity to be reimagined perpetually.