Perfecting new musical instrument an ongoing process for University of Illinois professor

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By Brad Petersen, ECE Illinois
April 24, 2006

  • Lippold Haken has designed the Continuum Fingerboard, a musical instrument with no keys, buttons or strings.
  • The Continuum used to play like a piano, but Haken recently added a feature for it to be played like a saxophone.
  • Haken has sold his Continuum to John Paul Jones, the bass guitarist and keyboardist of Led Zeppelin, and Terry Lawless, a keyboard specialist who has toured with U2, David Bowie, Cher and Bruce Springsteen.

Mark Smart plays the Continuum Fingerboard with students.
Mark Smart plays the Continuum Fingerboard with students.

URBANA, ILL— Lippold Haken, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent the last two decades designing, developing and experimenting with a musical instrument like no other — the Continuum Fingerboard. It has no keys, buttons or strings. The playing surface is simply a soft, red fabric that stretches the length of the instrument, but it offers a wide range of possibilities for musical expression.

Despite the fact he began selling the instrument in 2000, Haken has continued to work on expanding those possibilities even further. Until recently, the Continuum played much like a piano, in the sense that each finger pressed down played its own note. But Haken recently added a feature that allows the instrument to also be played like a saxophone, where multiple fingers can be pressed down altogether to play one pitch.

At first glance, it may appear to be an expensive keyboard, but the Continuum provides much more control over what note is played. Pressing down on the playing surface produces a note depending not only on where the fingers are but also on how hard the fingers are pressed down. The position of the fingers controls the timbre of the note while the pressure used provides dynamic control. Sliding the fingers gives glissando while rocking provides vibrato.

Underneath the red fabric are 256 rods mounted on piano-wire springs. The rods, with magnets on both ends, are placed between two rows of sensors that measure the positions of the magnets. When pressure is applied on the playing surface, the affected rods underneath move, and the magnets attached to the rods move closer to the sensors. Software in the internal computer detects this movement and plays the corresponding note.

As of late, Jordan Rudess, a Julliard-trained keyboardist, has been touring with a Continuum Fingerboard while playing with the progressive metal band Dream Theater. In the past six months, Haken has also sold Continuum Fingerboards to John Paul Jones, the bass guitarist and keyboardist of Led Zeppelin, and Terry Lawless, a keyboard specialist who has toured with U2, David Bowie, Cher and Bruce Springsteen. But still, Haken does not expect to hear them playing the Continuum Fingerboard anytime soon.

“All these people are extremely talented but extremely busy and perfectionists,” Haken said. “So you’re not going to see them until they get really good, and they’re going to practice for a long time just like any other instrument before they’re on stage with it.”

Though the Continuum may not make it on stage with Jones or Lawless right away, it has already made it to the big screen. In last summer’s thriller “War of the Worlds,” the sound of the invading aliens was made using the Continuum Fingerboard.

But ultimately, success is not Haken’s major concern. The Continuum is a product of his passion for music and engineering, not a desire to get rich.

“I have realistic expectations,” Haken said. “I do this because I enjoy it. One of the reasons why I’ve been so successful is because I don’t have immediate goals of making money and the pressure of making investors happy.”

For more information about the Continuum Fingerboard, visit http://www.hakenaudio.com.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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