It’s unconventional in bringing gaming architecture to music. So how much of an impact could Cmpsr potentially have?

When something as eye-catching as Cmpsr comes into the market, traditionalists generally won’t embrace it as an instrument. But with an award-winning, UK-made product, the truth is different. We spoke with the creators, Owain Wilson and Simon Tew to find out more about the joystick MIDI controller.

Attack: What was the inspiration for Cmpsr? Are there a lot of gamers at Digit Music?

Cmpsr: We both grew up in the 80’s and 90’s when gaming consoles really started to become commonplace in people’s homes. I still imagine where Boo my Mario Kart Ghost would be when I’m running late for something! Not so much time for gaming these days but we love an arcade classic when we get the chance. 

Was Cmpsr initially designed for people with accessibility barriers? Or was it something that became clearer during production?

The idea for Cmpsr came as a response to a real-world problem that we’d observed where people were struggling to engage with traditional instruments and MIDI controllers effectively, maybe because of body differences, complexity or lack of time.

Both of us have worked at the intersection of music and technology for 15+ years with our role often being to facilitate another’s creative expression. Whether a young disabled musician or an artist planning their set for an arena tour, we found the barriers to be pretty similar across the board.

Do you know approximately how many people, say in the UK, are producers with accessibility issues?

Great question, as this really drives at what is meant by accessibility. For us it is a multifaceted thing that we view as the ability to access this thing we call music. So suitable choice of instrument and instrument design, amount of time it can take to feel good in what you’re doing, ease of learning the thing that you want to do. 

If we look at it from a disability perspective the short answer is no, as this kind of data isn’t really captured to our knowledge but if you think around 20% of the UK population has a disability, approximately 14 million people, that could be a lot of producers!

Why a joystick? Was there anything unique to the ergonomics of a joystick that meant you pursued that design?

The design of a joystick-based instrument offers a tactile and expressive user-friendly interface that a much wider audience can play, with little or no barrier fast-tracking people’s creative potential and feel-good factor. If you put a joystick in front of almost anyone on the planet they will likely know what to do with it.

Plus, joysticks are bouncy and springy, they can really ignite your creative juices in the studio, so they’re a lot of fun… and they look cool on stage! We find we write differently when using Cmpsr and that is in large part down to the joystick interface and easy access to lush-sounding chords.

If you put a joystick in front of almost anyone on the planet they will likely know what to do with it.

Were there any big challenges getting the hardware to work in the way you wanted it to? 

The main challenge was ensuring that the user experience was good for beginners and pros alike.

Cmpsr had to have depth and a profile in the same way as any other instrument, so that pros can dig into it and get under the hood but also so that a complete novice with no musical experience could pick it up and play it straight away ensuring they had fun, felt rewarded and so wanted to make music again.

Cmpsr is the first MIDI controller to win a Tech4Good Accessibility Award. That’s quite an achievement. What are the criteria the awards are judged on? 

Yeah, so it’s an annual event that recognises organizations and individuals who use digital technology to improve the lives of others.

All of the big tech companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft etc are involved in sponsoring, judging, and contributing to the partner event, Techshare Pro. The Accessibility Award, that we won celebrates innovation and dedication in creating accessible technologies that help disabled people achieve their goals at work, at home, or in education

For the price point of £299, where do you see it competing in the current MIDI controller marketplace?

We believe we’ve opened up a new space in the MIDI controller market but clearly, we’re mainly competing against keyboards and pad controllers.

£299.00 gets you an all-in-one production package called the Beatmaker Suite which gets you making music out of the box whether it’s your first time playing or making music for a living. You get Cmpsr, Bitwig 8 Track (thanks Steve!), pro audio content and access to our online content portal full of tutorials, project templates, samples etc, which is being constantly added to.

The price puts us into the lower end of the premium category but (we feel!) offers excellent value for money when you consider the quality of the build, the expansive feature roadmap which we have programmed and ready to release over coming months – and the fact Cmpsr is handbuild in the UK eliminates huge amounts of carbon footprint from our supply chain.

I appreciate you might not be able to disclose, but what might be a feature/s you’ll look to add in future? 

We have loads of good stuff planned and opted to release with a focussed feature set to enable immediate success. We are probably only sharing 5% of what is ready to go but without giving too much away, here are a few things coming up…

Increased MIDI mapping options – the ‘lite mode’ we launched with features one page of pads. The ‘pro mode’ has multiple pages which can be scrolled through for a variety of MIDI mappable pads and notes. Perfect for live set preparation and deeper DAW control.

Speaking of deeper DAW control – we have mappings coming for a number of the most popular Digital Audio Workstations including of course Bitwig.

This one goes out to all the DJs! – We may have some interesting DJ-focused mappings coming too but can’t say much yet.

This is the tip of the iceberg, we have lots planned and are excited to start shipping updates soon. 

Can you elaborate on haptic feedback? Do you think it might become more commonplace?

Haptic feedback is a technology that uses controlled vibrations at set frequencies and intervals to provide a sensation representative of touch. So it allows us to communicate different feelings and sensations to the user through varying levels of rumbles.

We’re not the first to use it; most people will recognise it from their smartphone or traditional gaming controller, we’ve just re-purposed the technology to improve the user experience for visually impaired musicians and working musicians on stage who need more than LED Pads to give them the info they need.

Can you tell us a bit more about the tutorials and resources that come included with Cmpsr?

Sure. There are a few levels to the content that comes with Cmpsr.

It is a new instrument so people need education on how to play. Both beginners and professionals need to see how to get the next from the instrument so we have created extensive onboarding videos and supporting DAW sessions to get people sounding great quickly.

Once basic operation is perfected, something which takes very little time, you can quickly get into a creative expression so we have several collections of video, blog and audio content that show specific tricks and techniques where Cmpsr really excels – it could be creating complex arp lines by moving the joystick, or using the buttons to adapt the joystick’s MIDI output for playing drum fills for instance.

We also have a content portal which is launching soon where users will have access to premium audio content from our label – Digit Sounds – as well as the tutorial content we mentioned above. 

If any readers want to know something specific or have an idea for a skill they want to see with Cmpsr, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do.

It’s not often these days that things are manufactured in the UK? What was the reason behind that?

We have a long rich history of innovating in the music space here in the UK.

We’re based in Derby, in the East Midlands along with big manufacturers such as Rolls Royce and Bombardier, as well as being the home of everyone’s favourite Tomb Raider and part of the UK’s gaming Golden Triangle so we wanted to continue the manufacturing and technology legacy.

Not to mention the problems so many tech companies faced through the pandemic, being unable to get their stock into the country. It seemed a sensible choice to try and reduce this risk and have them built around the corner.

It’s really nice being able to walk down and grab units from the production line. We can even shake hands with the people who have put them together – big ups Lloyd! – which is a rarity in today’s faceless, fast consumer economy.

What is a common misconception about Cmpsr that people seem to ask? 

Perceptions come from our own bias and everyone’s is different, so we have seen many different takes on Cmpsr. This was always going to be the case when bringing a completely new type of instrument to market.

Traditional musicians can initially feel it is not a musical instrument when they first see it. This is almost always remedied once they have played Cmpsr and feel the creative expression. We have topflight jazz musicians on our board and they have been a great litmus test.

Technologists and electronic musicians have sometimes felt it looks like a toy and can’t really do as much as we claim. Again, this is remedied when they see the level of control and amount of mappable elements Cmpsr has. You can literally run a live performance from start to finish using just our instrument, should you wish.

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Author Eric Brünjes & Mac Severino
22nd May, 2023

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