In the the early 1990's I became very interested in electronic music as distinct from music played on wooden instruments. In the early days of that interest, with the first version of
Shen, the music was a total pleasure to make. We were enveloped in electronic music's natural home, a state of the art recording studio,
Joe's Garage. No wires, everything connected up invisibly, we could start work in five minutes, and in thirty we would be well ahead in making a new piece.
After making our first record, 'The Spirit Of the Sea', we decided to branch out, introduce real instruments and go out and perform music
live. Our ambition was to be able to improvise and create new music live, combining skeletons of prearranged patterns of programmed percussion and harmony. During several months of rehearsals we slowly
understood how to do this. And it was hard. We were, as a group, very technical. I was a decent electronics engineer, Richard Ashrowan went on to be online director for several companies, Aaron Greenwood
was wedded to his Atari computer and Ian Ritchie had actually written a book on using the BBC mico for music. Even so, we found it to be a nightmare to set up.
And the setup wasn't even particularly sophisticated. We had an Atari 1040ST running C-Lab Notator
(C-Lab later became Emagic/Logic and were acquired by Apple), a couple of MIDI to CV boxes for controlling old analogue synths and a clock converter to produce Roland sync clock for their built in arpeggiators.
A mixing desk, some effects. A pair of samplers, Akai S3000's and a few modern MIDI sound modules from Roland and EMU. It all fit in the back of my old
Toyota pickup truck.
Arriving at a gig I would always have a sinking feeling in my gut. It wasn't stage fright, because as soon as we had soundchecked I felt fine. It was a whole new fear, setup fright. We carried two
Atari's in case one didn't work. This happened a lot, and once we only just got the second to boot (they booted off floppy disks, no hard drives then). It used to take us from one to two hours to be ready to
play. It was always fraught, and not because of people, because of the wires and the inherent fragility of a system in which if any one component didn't work it meant that we were in serious trouble.
In contrast, I could take my acoustic guitar down to the folk club and be ready in literally seconds. And I could go on the bus if I wanted, no pickup truck needed. Even if I got fancy and wanted
to play my electric guitar it only involved an extra minute to plug the amplifier in. And when I played, I looked interesting, not like a gnome hunched over my computer on stage.
The contrasts were so extreme they begged to be explored.
In 1993 Isabel (my wife) and I took a back seat in our recording studios, letting them on a longer term basis. We rented a little house in the country in north Essex with Jim Chapman, an old
friend from college. Isabel went to Cambridge University to study for a for PGCE in science education and I, well I just bummed about. I think that's the technical term I'm searching for. It didn't
take me long to get bored and start poking into all sorts of things and by Christmas of that year I'd come up with two ideas. One was the idea of a Web agency, to build websites for people and the
other was a way to turn the Shen experience into something closer to the acoustic guitar experience. Jim and I did a lot of thinking about this and eventually I wrote a proposal up and applied for
a SMART award from the DTI to have a go at building something. It was worth just over £100,000, and we made the shortlist but thankfully we didn't make it to the end. If we had, we would have
failed. It wasn't nearly enough money, and the technology of the time was still rather too slow to make possible what we needed to do. So I went off and started Hyperlink with Simon and Isabel and
Jim left for the US shortly after to get married. I now consider this to be one the better bits of luck in my life, and at the time it felt like a failure. Interesting lesson there.
Seven years later, with the sale of Hyperlink behind us and the availability of enough capital to make a proper attempt at the problem, Isabel, Simon and I founded Eigenlabs to
have a go. We persuaded Jim Chapman, now back from the US, to join us as Technical Director and Mark Rigamonti, a talented designer I'd known from when we built Joes's Studio 2 together, to oversee
the mechanical system R&D.
We had a lot of early failures, both in software and hardware. It wasn't really until the end of the third year of work that we could feel our way to the beginning of what is now the Eigenharp.
After eight years of R&D we began to make usable instruments, slowly moving from prototype to early low volume production and proper beta testing with a large cohort of musicians. The whole system was revolutionary,
both in terms of its user interface, setup time and versatility.
We created three versions of the instruments, the large flagship Alpha and smaller handheld Pico, both launched in 2009, and the intermediate Tau which became available in mid 2010. In 2012 we released the main operating software as open source under the Gnu Public License and it is now an open source community project, developed by players of the instrument.
We named the instrument the Eigenharp. The word 'Eigen' is German and implies 'peculiar to' or 'unique to', a reference to the utter flexibility of
the whole instrument and its ability to be customised to a remarkable degree by the musician, while in the heat of performance, to suit their own way of playing. It is also a term used in
Quantum Mechanics, and a little nod to the physicists and mathematicians involved in its creation.
You can find out more about the Eigenharps by visiting the Eigenlabs website.
John Lambert, May 2013