by Graig Markel
The Sensel Morph is a controller interface about the size of [and bearing a physical resemblance to] an iPad. It uses overlays that change the functionality of the controller in dramatic ways, and is connectable via USB or Bluetooth. It incorporates unmatched pressure sensitivity, including per-note pressure, pitch bend, and timbre functions. The Morph’s growing number of factory overlays include Piano, Music Production, Drum Pad, and now the Buchla Thunder. Sensel offers an open source API for the Morph, allowing users to create and 3D print their own custom overlays. In addition to working with the assignments in the SenselApp, defining commands are as easy as hitting the MIDI button and touching a destination on the overlay.
Each overlay is pre-configured with MIDI assignments, but can be customized in the SenselApp, allowing incredibly detailed yet easy to assign parameters such as after-pressure, threshold, and more. These are saved to the device, and apparently can be used with just about any software production system. As a Pro Tools and Ableton user, I tested in those. The Morph worked great as a remote transport system with Pro Tools; however, it really shines with Ableton Live. Custom scripts can be downloaded for free and used with Ableton 10.
How easy it is to use the Morph in Ableton Live? You just power it up and plop on the keyboard overlay. In USB or Bluetooth mode, Ableton remembered the unit from my initial set up, with no connection necessary. Placing a soft synth on a track and arming the MIDI input gives you instant access to a keyboard with Sensel’s “factory settings.” This includes basic mappings for each key with touch sensitivity, and vibrato for left and right movements. The buttons at the top include the option to remove the touch sensitivity, add harmonization, utilize transport, and more [though I did have to map the transport myself when using the factory settings]. Switching to the drum overlay, the Morph immediately knows what’s happened. Arm a new track, insert an Ableton kit, and the out-of-box settings are accurately mapped to the pads, including split-use functions such as open/closed hi-hat, snare/rimshot, and so on.
If you envisioned a surface that reacts like an iPad as I did, you’re wrong. All of the Morph overlays are amazingly smooth and responsive. In fact, the Morph is ahead of the pack in the controller world, incorporating multiple functions per pad. Moving your fingers up and down or sideways to control vibrato, glide, or filters are all part of the endless possibilities with the Morph. For best response and accuracy, USB connection is recommended; however, I really wanted to push the limits with a Bluetooth connection to see how it’d run. Tapping out simple melodies, beats, etc. worked just fine most of the time, and using it as a transport was no issue at all. In fact, the range in which it’s operable is impressive, making it easy to walk into the live room to track drums, etc., without loss of connection, which happens frequently with my iPad remote setup over WiFi. The battery life is strong, although there’s not a way to monitor outside of the single LED indicator.
Looking through the other overlays, I bet you’d never heard of the Buchla Thunder before Sensel released their custom version of it. Me either. It was created in 1989 and apparently only 100 were produced by Buchla. Don Buchla was always a few years ahead of the game, and the original Thunder used capacitive technology to control its graphics overlay, displaying an unconventional array of touch-sensitive keys, with the left and right sides working in conjunction with each other. It’s software, “STORM” had remarkable similarity to Ableton Live and enabled virtually any parameter of the instrument to be assigned and controlled via MIDI, in addition to triggering “Riffs” within the preset.
Fast forward to 2019, and the Morph’s Buchla Thunder recreation makes perfect sense for use with Ableton Live, the Buchla Easel, or anything else you’d like to get crazy controlling with it. Its unique musical interface helps the user to write and perform in new and creative ways, much like a brand new tuning you’ve discovered for guitar, or an effect pedal that’s unlocked a whole new layer of the imagination. The Thunder overlay features nine preset mappings that allow you to switch from instrument to mixer, or choose from a variety of scales, and more. The only bummer about plopping on the Thunder overlay is that you’ve lost access to the Ableton transport or other surface you’ve spent so much time customizing. In my limited time with the Morph, I already see a use for multiple Morph surfaces, and the price certainly isn’t much of an obstacle to make this happen.
Speaking of, cost [$249,including one free overlay] is one of the most compelling elements of this powerhouse instrument. Most of the overlays would be well worth the price as a standalone instrument if this was the only thing it did, but additional overlays can be purchased at $35 each, or at a discount if purchased as a bundle. More overlays are being introduced [three new ones were added while I tested and wrote about the Morph], and expanded use outside of music applications has already started with their video editing overlay. Sensel’s Morph is an impressive new instrument connecting hardware and software, launching an exciting future with open source possibilities and upcoming developments from the company itself.
Price: from $249