Electronic Music Wiki

A Marimba Lumina 2.5, with a set of mallets. Photo courtesy of Chris Street.

An alternate MIDI controller patterned after a mallet-played tuned percussion instrument such as a marimba or vibraphone. Designed by Don Buchla in collaboration with percussionists Joel Davel (who also did most of the circuit board designs), and Mark Goldstein (who wrote the operating system software). It was first introduced by Buchla and Associates in 1999, at a time when Buchla was putting much of his effort into designing various types of controllers.

The Marimba Lumina is played by striking the "bars" (etched and silkscreened patterns on the playing surface) with mallets that are specific to the instrument. (It does not respond to conventional mallets, nor can it be played with the hands or fingers.) The device has 29, 41 or 54 bars depending on the model, and an array of secondary playing surfaces including some small pentagonal pads (which can be used as pushbuttons, or triggers for untuned percussion sounds), and strips which function like ribbon controllers. Each of the bars is sensitive to where on the bar it is struck, and this information can be mapped to MIDI continuous controllers or several other functions. Additionally, a mallet may be pushed or dragged up and down the length of a bar, and this is available as polyphonic aftertouch, controllers, or other purposes. The same is true of the ribbon strips. Each bar has an LED which lights to show when a note played on that bar is in the note on phase -- bars can be programmed to allow for a delay after striking before note off is sent, and a number of variables can be made to influence the delay time.

Further, an unusual and unique characteristic is that the controller can distinguish between the four mallets that are provided -- each surface, when touched or struck by a mallet, can tell which mallet it is. This works via a radio-frequency recognition mechanism. The bars emit a weak RF field. Each mallet contains a set of tuned passive coils, which resonate at a frequency assigned to the specific mallet. Receivers in the bars sense the resonance, and know which mallet it is by the resonating frequency.

All of this information is mapped into "programs", which tell the instrument which MIDI information to generate which specific actions are taken. A simple example is to map each mallet to a different MIDI channel, so that each mallet plays a different synth, or a different patch on a multitimbral synth. Programs can be far more sophisticated, and each bar can have its own set of actions, which might consist entirely of generating control information, or altering the behavior of other bars, rather than playing a note. The Marimba Lumina has a simple built-in sample playback synth (built by Yamaha), and a program can also be configured to control this, in any combination with the MIDI output. An edit mode allows the programming to be done using the mallets and playing surface, or the Marimba Lumina can be connected to an external computer and configured using a supplied patch editor.

Three versions of the Marimba Lumina have been produced. The original version, known as the "Gold" version, had an A-to-C span of slightly more than four octaves, and its bars and striking surfaces were covered with a gold-copper foil. Its most notable feature was its curved shape, which somewhat wrapped around the performer, describing an arc of about 30 degrees. It was visually striking, but it also made it impossible to fit in a case. As a more practical alternative, the model originally known as "Silver" and then later termed the "3.5" model emerged; this had a more conventional rectangular case and a 3-1/2 octave span, and it omitted the pricey gold foil. Later, in response to customer requests for a smaller and more portable model, the "2.5" model emerged. As might be surmised by the name, this had a 2-1/2 octave span, but was otherwise very similar to the 3.5 model.

Buchla and Associates only built a small number of Marimba Luminas itself; they licensed out the designs to a company named Nearfield Multimedia, which accounts for most of the units made. Number of units made is unclear due to Buchla's typical lack of record-keeping; some sources claim that only a handful of Gold units were built, while the others apparently number in the several hundreds. Both Nearfield and Buchla had ceased manufacture of all models by 2012. In order to service existing units and make parts available, Joel Davel launched his own company, Absolute Deviation, which has since undertaken manufacture of additional units, as well as upgrades to existing units. As of July 2018, Absolute Deviation was taking orders for 3.5 models, which it builds in batches once enough orders accumulate. The company prices the 3.5 at $4900 US, with a set of additional mallets at $350. Davel is a skilled performer with the Marimba Lumina, and he frequently stages demonstrations, as well as performing with the unit in various ensembles.

Absolute Deviation web site (formats poorly with Chrome; scroll down)