How to practice your polyexpressive instrument

As the title says, I’d like to talk about general polyexpressive instrument practice in this thread.

There are obviously a lot of ways to learn popular instruments like the piano and the guitar and while many of our polyexpressive devices follow similar music theory concepts and are based on key or string-like layouts with semi-tone steps, they of course offer a new and almost boundless form of musical expression. This can be very daunting.

For a beginner with maybe just some basic theory knowledge and piano/guitar playing skills (like me), I see three parts in learning a polyexpressive instrument:

1: Music Theory
This is something one can easily start to learn, even when away from the instrument. Scales, Modes, Chords, Circle of Fifths, Harmony, etc. are all well described in plenty of online articles, videos and books. Although it is often a rather dry topic, I still find it essential not just for understanding important musical concepts, but also for getting a feeling for your instrument’s layout in a musical context.

2: Play Style
Polyexpressive instruments come in many shapes and sizes and can sometimes even be further configured by the user for different play styles. Even seemingly simple things, like changing your playing posture from sitting down in front of the instrument to standing up with it hanging around your neck, can dramatically change the way you interact with it. Adding a breath sensor, pedals and MIDI devices, or even altering the layout itself, makes things even more complex and possibly overwhelming for the beginner. As usual, it is suggested to start slow, either with a default configuration or one that feels good and stick to that, until a certain level of proficiency is reached and one may be able to better judge the implications of a configuration change.

3: Sound Design
Historically, as far as I understand, instruments were often designed to achieve a certain sound, with a human interface (keys, strings, etc.) built around that as good as it was possible. You physically could not play Contrabass sounds on a Violin or even crazier, on a Piccolo Flute. Those days are behind us and our polyexpressive instruments can play any kind of sound imaginable, with a great amount of human “feeling” or “expression”. This overkill of possibilities and the process of designing a sound for an interface (and not the other way around, as it was done historically), can be a huge challenge for the musician and I feel like it’s a reason why people with a background in computer sciences and modular synthesis are drawn to polyexpressive instruments. It’s certainly a nerdy topic and the instrument hardware is often used in combination with complex music software :nerd_face:

But how do we get better at all of this now?

I feel like the first important step, even before choosing an instrument, is to figure out what you want to do and play with it. If it’s just some experimental polyphonic pitch sliding in the background of a larger musical piece, this might be easier and cheaper to achieve, than playing a full solo performance on the instrument.

My personal goal is to learn how to play, and hopefully also improvise, music with my two hands again, after years of modular synth music without much of expressive, or even human, interfacing at all. I’ve had roughly four years of classical piano training as a small child, from which I only remember brief music theory. My physical skills, especially playing with two hands at the same time, are pretty much gone. After receiving the Linnstrument, I read a lot of music theory and practiced playing various scales and chord progressions with both hands, while also using a vast amount of iPad MPE instrument apps. It was frustrating … too unstructured and way too much what I wanted to learn all at once. I took a break after that and then sat down with just a simple sound source and only polyphonic pitch bend as an added expressive input (so no after touch and Y axis / timbre). I chose a scale/mode other than C Major/Ionian for melody play with the right hand and started building two-finger chords with the left, while listening to a click track or a simple beat. This feels a lot better, although also glacially slow, compared to my previous attempt. My problem is that I don’t see “the pattern” or scale on the instrument yet, if I’m not playing the white (lit) or black (unlit) keys only. I could of course just configure it to light up the notes of the scale I’m playing, but I feel that this is too easy and I wouldn’t learn anything. So, I will try to familiarize myself slowly with one scale/mode at a time, while trying to improvise melody and chords, which will hopefully get myself to where I want in time.

Regarding sound design, I decided to limit myself to the Audiothingies Micromonsta MPE synth for now, starting with very very simple patches, which lend themselves to polyphonic play and pitch bend. It reminds me a little of my time with the MicroKorg, which was my first hardware synth. Back then, I would play/record stuff with it for an afternoon and then another time just spend a few hours designing sounds without really playing much. This was fun and offered a bit of variety in my interaction with the device.

Alright, now how about you? What are your approaches when it comes to learning your polyexpressive instrument of choice, or advancing your skills as an already proficient player?


Think it helps to find a “signature sound” to practise with. The sound and it’s possibilities are an important part of the learning experience, even though some technique is common over sounds. I also feel that having to go for arbitrary external synths or even computers with gazillion of possibilities has the disadvantage of too many choices, as you wrote. As counterintuitive as it sounds - creativity can also be triggered by “exploring the possibilities of what is there”.
And a whole universe can be intimidating, with no place to start. Particularly because you are completely on your own whether the sound and technique make any sense at all… If you take a violin into your hands the first time pretty much nothing makes intuitively sense, but you have the confidence that it’s worthwhile by looking at others. If all these others wouldn’t exist most would probably just say “sounds ugly, cannot get a nice tone out of this - am I spending my time right with practicing this…thing?”

Hope at some point instrument developers recognize this and at least implement in-built “default” sounds - the less (and unique, expressive) the better. Then you can just pick it up and play. Other sound sources can still be an option, but for the initial learning experience it imho would help a lot to have something “defined”.

Perhaps this forum could help to collect some interesting starting points for different instruments? Like “take this, it’s worth practicing!”


Yeah, id love to hear more thoughts on this…

I already definitely agree on a few points above.

Play Style
It took me quite a while to get comfortable with the Eigenharp Alpha, I spent ages messing about getting it to ‘just the right position’… then there was the getting used to the sensitivity of the keys :slight_smile:

“Signature Sound”/Sound Design
Yeah, I love Aalto for this… Ive got a couple of sounds I (over) use, its partly its sound, partly simplicity and also the way it interacts with both the Eigenharps and Soundplane.
But what I love most , is when I pickup the Eigenharp or Soundplane, I just default to a couple of presets - and so start playing, like a piano/guitar, no thinking, just turn on and play - its vital for me to avoid, the indecision about what to play.

(the downside, is perhaps I rely on it too much, and should given other things a bit more time)

Music Theory - yeah, I need to learn/integrate this better … but isomorphic layouts help alot.

I decided to use the tritone tuning on my LinnStrument. As the octaves are exactly above each other its easier for me to „feel“ (and see) the harmonies… Disadvantage is that most learning resources are based on a fourth tuning, and myself coming from the violin (milleniums ago) with a fith tuning wouldn‘t help either.
But its a different instrument anyway. My plan is to slowly learn some common easy piano pieces also to learn a bit of side reading. Chords are exactly 12 times easier than with a standard keyboard already, same for scales…
I also tend to choose a specific sound I love to learn those basics. My goto learning sound is the Lithic Piano from NI MikroPrism. Its a free version of Prism, and I modified it to be MPE compatible. You‘ll find my version in the Reaktor user library…


I have a bit of understanding of harmony and music theory although I can’t read. I can play really simple with two hands, so I tend to play only with one.

Regarding improvisation, I’m happily watching this guy:

I also use iReal Pro on my Mac or build simple backing tracks using the Rozeta sequencers on iOS.

I like to change the layout of my Linnstrument. There are always new ways of building chords and phrases. One thing I was surprised with was, while testing the Dodeka system is that turning some lights off helps a lot in trying new keys and modes. Right now I’ve tuned it in major thirds and only C, E, G# are lit. Vertical lines. Structure.

This can of course also be done with any other tuning but I haven’t tried yet.

My challenges are that I haven’t yet found a “signature sound”. I waste a lot of time checking presets in every new MPE synth on iOS, tweaking a few parameters before another one catches my attention.

I’ve thought about the Micromonsta as a way to limit myself but honestly, I’m not ready to go hardware. I want to keep this simple and I’m afraid that, after the synth, speakers, amps, reverbs and what not will follow.

I could also go for the Aalto, that still plays well on my old Mac and that has been so good to me, opening my eyes to how a synth works but DAWs are just daunting.

1 Like

Thanks for the interesting link!

One thing that I use a lot sound wise lately is as simple as it gets: A saw oscillator (or two slightly detuned ones for some natural “breathing”), a (usually ladder) filter, a VCA and some reverb. Can be set up in almost any synth (and something almost any synth offers) - if no hardwired, keyboard-centric envelope spoils the fun. Pretty simple but imho works nice for polyexpressive instruments, keeping cutoff, volume and pitch in constant, controlled motion. From what I heard in some videos e.g. @thetechnobear and @gbevin have been using something similar as their goto stuff(?) long before me :slight_smile:

1 Like

Oh, yes. Oliver Prehn’s videos have shown a completely different approach to improvisation to the one I have been taught in the past.

Can you please explain this? My English is not what it used to be.

I’m leaning myself a bit more for sine waves. Triangle waves too, leaning to the soft side but I’ll definitely try your suggestion.

I think the problem lies more in how easy it is to get distracted with the lot of options on an iPad.

I think Nothan is talking about what I like to do. With the MiniMoog Model D soft synth, for example, I set attack and decay to 0, sustain to 10, and modulate amplitude with pressure. On the LinnStrument, I touch the notes of a chord gently enough that there’s no sound, then gradually increase pressure to swell up from zero. I’m creating the amplitude envelope with pressure.

Some soft synths won’t do that. They seem to have a hard-coded initial attack.


Yepp, that’s what I meant, the worst thing is if if the sustain level is hardcoded to velocity. Then your initial touch influences the volume of the entire note - if you start soft you can never get really loud and if you hit hard then it doesn’t get soft later. Not an issue if velocity is your only source for dynamics (like on keyboard), not so good for xyz-per finger expressions.

yeah, envelopes vary from synth to synth… quite a few assume the attack phase goes to full, then delay to sustain level - which causes a blip.

thats why I like the synths that have expressive controllers in mind when designed, as they usually allow you to avoid envelopes, and have direct access to the vca.
(modular, both virtual and physical are also great for this reason)

for practising/jamming/composing, i like a simple setup and simple sound, without wonder what preset to use.

Really I aiming for something similar to my keyboard, which I often just start with a piano/rhodes sound, or even just an initialised preset , and start playing, then I just tweak a bit as i go along… its really organic.

unfortunately, many of the MPE enabled synths, are a bit too complex to do this, and I find myself getting sidetracked by things (like the envelope hacks).
I think thats why I fallback to Aalto so much. i pretty much use it as complex oscillator -> LPG -> waveguide-> filter -> out , I generally don’t use any of the top half of the aalto rack :slight_smile:

@randy this might be an interesting aalto variant… one focused on expressive playing… you could remove ‘automated parts’ the env/sequencer, and add more panels that allow more subtle expressive influences e.g. things like mults, offsets.

All right. I see. I’ll try that although it goes in the field of “complicated “ in my world.

@thetechnobear I actually use the automated parts of Aalto as expressive. If there’s something lacking in Aalto is an iOS version :blush:

But even Aalto is too distracting for practicing. I usually end using Klevgrands Tines or NFM (love this FM synth) and set the Linnstrument to non MPE mode.

1 Like

I’ve been thinking about adding a mode for the envelopes that turns them into slew limiters with a scalar input instead of just a gate input. In fact I’m not sure this has to be a separate mode, if with the gate input you would get the same output you do now.

Mostly I improvise with the Soundplane but I have also been practicing by working on a few very simple classical pieces — Satie Gymnopedie, Bach prelude#1, etc. The tension of having to interpret a fixed score is an important part of refining the instrument I think.


yeah, that could work nicely…

yeah, definitely…

soundplane software and practicing…
it might be nice to have a VST host mode on the soundplane software (that remembers last settings)
that way you could just fire up the soundplane app and play… no need to start a DAW (etc) just to aalto.
(for more advance use , multiple plugins/fx etc you’d still team up with a daw or similar)

thats a nice aspect of EigenD for the Eigenharps, you just load it up one piece of software and its ready to play… admittedly, for more advance use, its pretty common to team it up with a DAW, mainly because its only uses a single thread for rendering audio - which is problematic for some heavy cpu plugins.

again, I think it comes back to the idea for practice, creating the as little resistance as possible, before you just lay hands on the instrument and play…

I do this too with my MicroMonsta … however sometimes I have trouble with the MIDI resolution and I can hear stepping when gently affecting filter or amp with aftertouch.

jeps. More homework. I’m downloading MainStage now, hosting Aalto.

1 Like

This is interesting and isn’t limited to just an MPE controller:

Now, thats an interesting subject! For me, being a total newbie at polyexpressive, electronic instruments, it’s been a challenge. Coming from bluesguitar playing style, but longing to play ambient, there are som distance to go.

At first I didn’t know what kind of instrument to buy. All I did know was that my then eleven year old son would be let alone, playing the piano keys.

I did some hours of research, trying to find an instrument to play. I discovered there was really amazing stuff out there I never even heard of. I was close to buy Roger Linn’s Linnstrument but then I spotted an ad down the page from Eigenlabs. That was it. Love at first sight :heart:.

It was an economic challenge to spend more than €10.000 on music equipment.

My learning started with all the technical stuff. Howto set it up and make it sound. I started with zero skills. I got really valuable help from @thetechnobear, @kai, @keymanpal and others.

When it comes to learning to play the Eigenharp Alpha, I decided to stick to a C cromatic scale. It was too messy to switch between different scales. I felt I needed to stick to some basic skills before expanding.

1: Music theory.

When it comes to writing new music, I mostly use my fender strat. It’s so easy since I’ve been playing it for fortyfive year or so. I do a lot of ”jazz chords” cause I like the complex sound from diminished, augmented or added tones to chords. When transposing them to the Alpha, I’ll use the EigenTab page a lot, and a couple of apps on my Iphone:

2: Play style

I play in standing position with the alpha on a bassoon stand. It’s not the best position, ergonomically, but it works well for both hands. I spend time to find the best way to grip chords and how to move over the keyboard. A disadvantage with this playing style, is that you have to turn your head a bit to see what you’re doing. This will cause stiffness and pain in your neck when playing for some hours.

3:Sound design.

My musical ideas often arises from an inspiring sound found in Alchemy or Aalto soundlibrarys. Just as often I get lost, producing nothing and just exploring new sounds. To me, all zillion possibilities often makes me loose track. It’s helpful if I already have a chord structure, made from guitar, to build from. From there I pick a sound that allows the chords to ring clearly. This way I usually end up with a traditional score of chords and melodies. To create ambient sounding scores I work from a different angle. I start with a complex sound from the soundscape library that could function as a base to build from. I’ve noticed this way is a more “visual “ process to me. It’s more like painting with sounds in layers. I think Brian Eno’s “Ambient IV. On Land” is a good example of visual music.

I’ve also found it impossible to write down musical ideas when it comes to this kind of “visual “ or soundscape tunes. It’s all moods and colors interacting in inexpressible ways. There’s no way I can make some kind of sketch to work from. I really feel like I’m a painter here, painting “a la prima”.