Thought I'd bump this creaky old thread with a little update.
Got my hands on a Tenori-On for an hour or so this afternoon after popping along to Bert Smorenburg's Yamaha demo at Sound Control. Well, there weren't many folk about, so I had a damn good run at it, and it took a while to explain but once I'd got my mits on the thing, it began to make a bit of sense.
Right. Basically, you can check the specs on the web, but in terms of functionality, it all works on pushing the ten buttons along the frame, followed by inelegantly mashing the illuminated matrix until something sound good. The screen is almost an added extra: it serves to remind the user what layer they're on, what patch you're using etc. But it's only basic, and quite squinty. There's not a standard MIDI socket, it's a mini-DIN with combined in & out on one plug. The unit is some magnesium alloy, so it's lightish (hardback book weight) and sturdy.
So. Anybody familiar with step-sequencing a la Roland TR-x0x or Cubase Drum Grids should get their heads around this pretty easily. The main matrix is 16x16. Push a button and it lights up. Push it again and it switches off. The action is firm, the switches are tactile and the only thing that bothered me about them was also a good thing: short pushes produce a sound without switching that position on, and a slightly longer push must be used to change the position's state. Useful, but I found myself trying to form a sequence too fast for the switches to keep track. Something to get used to.
Patterns are arranged as blocks of 16 notes, and can be copy-&-pasted. Pattern generation is done in layers. A layer corresponds to a MIDI channel and a 'track' of the sequencer. A sound is assinged to a layer. The sounds are selected via the matrix - 253 presets with no editing features, (AWM2 samples all) and 3 user patches. You can put in your own samples via the SD slot on top, but there are limits: maximum sample time is 1s, and you can have 16 samples per patch. What you can do very easily, therefore, is build percussion kits. Each hit would have its own sample, and these are then sequenced by using the matrix in the x0x-style pattern mode. Vertical position represents sample, horizontal represents timimg on the grid. Fair enough. What you can't do is pitch those samples: so if you want to sample (say) a bass, you must prepare 16 notes of that sound at different pitches, then allocate those samples to the 16 sample positions of that Tenori-On patch. Make sense? So you could have, for example, eight drum sounds and 8 notes of a scale in one user patch. The TO's presets are a mixture of pitched instruments and kits. if you use the presets, they can be pitch-shifted and octave-switched up and down, but kits and user patches cannot.
The main feature of the TO is its non-standard modes of pattern generation. These modes are tied to layers - so you get 7 standard layers (channels/tracks, whatever) that work as x0x grids, and beyond that are 5 non-standard modes.
Layers 8-11 are Random. You push a button (vertical position is pitch), and it repeats that note at 16ths. Pushing another button, the original note will sound, and the light will walk across screen until it reaches the new note, when that one will sound. Then, it walks back. As you add notes, the light walks across between them in the order you pushed them, at a fixed speed. So, time between notes is dependent on the distance between the button pushes. Pitch is purely vertically-determined.
Layers 12 & 14 are Draw mode. Waggle your finger over the buttons, and that's your pattern. Again, pitch is vertical.
Layer 14 is Bounce. The guy described it as like dropping balls down the screen, andd each ball is a note. Pitch is horizontal axis. Push a button, and watch the light drop down the screen - it hits the bottom, plays, and bounces back up again to where you pushed it. And falls. Etc. Have up to 16 notes bouncing up and down at their own rates. Kind of an overgrown arpeggiator.
Layer 15 is Push. This is a real-time performance mode, where you just push a button and it holds. A way to generate pads etc, as the notes in a standard layer sequence have a limited gate time of 10ms to 1s and no longer. But Push mode allows longer noted to be played. Pitch is horizontal.
Layer 16 is Solo mode. Like Push, but the note is repeated. The time between repeats is vertical axis (I think...)
All those layers/modes are simultaneously available in each 16-step pattern. The volume of each layer is set using the matrix (one button sets it up as a kind of mixer).
The jog wheel is used to alter settings too - rather than swipe your finger across a row to set a level, say, you can push a button and roll the wheel.
Overall, its a lot of fun, and I feel it's basically a souped-up step sequencer for noodling on. Getting a groove together was a piece of cake, and generating random, crazy sequences was easy too - but it took a lot more work to get anything melodic out of it. The limitations that struck me as serious were a) the limit on gate time (no sequenced evolving pads here, just short notes), b) the lack of ability to pitch user samples, c) the lack of editing on the presets (none! not a sausage, even filtering), and therefore presumably d) the lack of ability to sequence controller data, e) the lack of patterns available (16 IIRC), and f) you pretty much have to guess which patch you're selecting as there's no indication on the matrix what the sounds are - push it and see.
What else? Erm, well, I don't think you can replace the onboard sounds, there's only space for 3 user patches, and it's a half-arsed bonus you can use this thing to sequence external MIDI gear. But what this unit does excel at is real-time twiddling (prodding?) to generate patterns in innovative ways. The lack of a really useful display means you have to feel your way around it rather than just glance at the thing, though that's the kind of thing that becomes intuitive as you use it, no doubt - and there's a lot of potential for oddity when using the random layers, or the draw layer, or bounce. Push and Solo are less wonderful, as they just provide a way to play notes with extended gate times almost normally (though you are limited to the spread you can play at one time as it effectively becomes a 16-note keyboard).
Think of it as a posh arpeggiator with a beatbox attached, and I think you wouldn't be far wrong, and although it is not as toy-like as some have said, its price tag of £599 makes it rather steep for what it does. If they drop the price, lose the rear-panel lightshow, and find a material for the frame that is both strong, light and cheap, then I could see it selling for maybe £350. As it is, it's too near to an executive time-waster on the one hand, and a useful, interesting, quirky and fun way of approaching rhythmic pattern generation on the other. It's certainly hypnotic and intriguing, and makes you work in a different way to usual, but there are some marked feature-flaws that might put serious users off.
Anyway. Sorry for the long post. I just thought you might like to hear something about it.