Yamaha’s MX88 synth turns your iPhone into a real instrument

I hate, hate, hate computers and phones/tablets on stage. To me, a Macbook sitting next to a keyboardist or percussionist is just asking for trouble. Computers freeze, apps crash and sometimes you forget to turn off notifications and now everyone in the audience knows you got a new Facebook message. And frankly, they’re not very “rock ‘n’ roll.” So imagine my surprise when, while using the Yamaha MX88 keyboard, I found myself launching the FM Essential companion app — on my iPhone!

The $ 1,299 (You’ll really only pay $ 999) MX88 is the latest member of Yamaha’s entry-level MX lineup. But the keyboard’s sounds and weighted key action are that of far more expensive synthesizers. The instrument ships with over 1,000 voices (instrument sounds) from the company’s more expensive Motif series of keyboards. Quantity is great, but quality is far more important for a musician and the MX88 delivers with its piano and organ recreations.

It’s also nice that the polyphonic instrument can handle 128 simultaneous notes. It allows you can layer sound after sound to the keys and never worry about losing any of the notes.

But if you insist on playing the synth with your fingers, the weighted keys are a delight for an instrument in this price range. The action is quick and gives the player more control over the dynamics of a note when the key is hit.

The controls on the keyboard are straight forward with a small display for voices and more complex control over the synth. The more readily used features like voice manipulation, keyboard splitting, and top level sound menus are all available via a knob or button on the face of the MX88. But there’s also that app.

The FM Essentials companion mobile app, on its surface, is an adequate facsimile of a synth with a tiny keyboard and various voices. It ships with drum loops so your creations have a back beat. But it’s when you plug it into the MX88 that you see the real value. With it, you can control the voices on the keyboard and manipulate them with the on-screen oscilloscope (a visual reference of the waveform). That’s where the fun comes in.

I was able to take normal voices, flip on the arpeggio, adjust the options like cut off, resonance, modulation and make them my own right in the app and much quicker than I could on the keyboard. Plus, once I was done with that, I could play music from my iPhone directly though the keyboard via the same USB port. So I could accompany something I had recorded earlier, or play along to my favorite song.

The only drawback is that you have to buy Apple’s $ 30 Lightning to USB camera adapter cable to get it to work. You can’t just plug into the device USB slot (which seems like where you would plug in your phone). Instead you have to use the host USB slot.

Whether or not I would use this setup live is still debatable. iPhone apps crash just as often as computer applications. But, it has made me a believer than when done correctly, connecting your instrument to a computer isn’t that horrible and in the case of the MX88, actually enhances the experience of an already wonderful synthesizer.

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Anki’s tiny Cozmo robot is a Pixar character made real

Best known for its sleek and intelligent remote controlled cars, Anki is stepping into new territory with its latest product, a small robot toy named Cozmo. If you’ve seen Wall-E, you’ve already got a good sense of its personality. Thanks to a combination of artificial intelligence, robotic movement designed by former Pixar animators and computer vision technology, Cozmo is curious and incredibly expressive, with the ability to interact with the world around it. It’s smart enough to recognize your face and remember you over time, and it can explore its environment and play games with its very own toys. But it’s most interesting feature? It’s not a perfect robot, and that’s just how Anki wants it.

“Perfect is boring,” Anki CEO and co-founder Boris Sofman said in an interview. “With the [Anki Drive] cars, the first version was boring because it was too good. When he goes and fails to do something, that’s not a bad thing… As long as you can detect what happens, it’s a good opportunity to show off the emotions it generates.”

While we’ve seen plenty of toys claiming AI and robotic capabilities in the past, Cozmo feels unique. I’ll admit, I fell for it pretty quickly during a brief demo. As it was charging, it “slept” in a tiny dock, complete with a snoring sound effect and sleeping animation that can only be described as adorable. When it woke up, it looked around the table and came up right to the edge, quickly realizing it couldn’t go any further. Upon recognizing my face, it wandered up to me with a suspicious look. Like a child, it will recognize people it’s already met and be a bit more hesitant around strangers.

Cozmo also comes with a bunch of smart blocks, which basically serve as its very own toys. It stacks them when it’s bored — and trust me, Cozmo gets really annoyed if you mess up its work. We also used the blocks to play a competitive game, which involved tapping down on them when they displayed like colors. In the first few games I easily trounced Cozmo, much to his adorable dismay. Eventually, he learned to hit the blocks faster, and he had no problem letting me know it.

Sofman says the company was inspired by how toddler and pets interact with the world. They can’t speak, but they can clearly explore and interact with you. Like a child, Cozmo slowly learns to recognize people and explore its world, and over time it learns to play games. But also like a child, it gets frustrated when things don’t work out. Instead of being annoying, though, those little personality quirks — like gloating when it wins a game, and getting angry when you beat it — make it more endearing.

Cozmo is a tiny thing, which adds to its vulnerability. It’s light, has a small display up front for its eyes, a single articulating arm to pick up objects, and uses two tiny treads to get around. Eventually, you’ll be able to replace its arm mechanism with other types of appendages. Cozmo communicates through a combination of Star Wars-like bot noises (yes, in many ways this is the Droid you’ve been looking for), and expressive movements. It relies on an iPhone and Android app to have your phone do much of the processing, which also plays a soundtrack perfectly suited to Cozmo’s mood. Its battery lasts a short two hours, but it recharges in just 10 minutes.

Anki paid particular attention to Cozmo’s emotional smarts. It has an “emotion engine” that lets it respond to situations realistically, which should help you bond with it pretty quickly. (Again, it took me all of five seconds.) Its animation team is led by former Pixar animator Carlos Baena, so they know how to toy with your feelings with simple robotic movements and noises. Anki also developed a customized version of the Maya 3D software to have it directly command how Cozmo moves, allowing the animators to quickly get up and running.

Looking ahead, Anki plans to release an software development kid (SDK) for Cozmo, which will let anyone program it. It could also end up being used in STEM programs in schools; it wouldn’t be hard to convince kids to learn programming so they can control Cozmo. The company is also sending Cozmo units to Carnegie Mellon, where Anki’s founders got their start.

You can pre-order Cozmo today from Anki’s website for $ 180, and it’ll be widely available in October. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s only slightly pricier than Sphero’s $ 150 BB-8 toy, which every geek coveted last year (and wasn’t nearly as smart as Cozmo).

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