The ContinuuMini is a new portable synthesizer and smaller brother to one of the most unique instruments I’ve ever played – the Continuum, also from Haken Audio. There are two things that make the Continuums special – their extremely sensitive playing surface, and the advanced built-in synth engine, called the EaganMatrix with its custom built in presets – designed to work with, and make the most out of the playing surface.
I reviewed the bigger Continuum earlier this year – and I really liked it, but as I mentioned in that review – I wished it cost less and that it had more on-board controls – and the Mini is certainly a step in that direction.
ContinuuMini vs Regular Keyboards
The first question I think needs to be answered is – what’s the point of this type of instrument? Why does it exist and what’s special about it? It’s in a category called “expressive instruments”, but I don’t like that term because it’s not like you can’t get an expressive and moving performance out of a regular keyboard. So what are the differences?
Normal keyboard based controllers are designed primarily as on-off switches with initial velocity detection. Once a note is triggered, its pitch is set and it’s left to do its own thing depending on how it was pre-programmed, and you as a player are typically no longer a part of the sound. Modern controllers have aftertouch, pitch-bend and a mod wheel, but those are add-ons rather than an organic part of how you play a note, and typically ignored by preset makers.
In the ContinuuMini, velocity isn’t a one-time calculated thing, but rather an organic part of how you play over time. The synth envelopes aren’t pre-set attack-decay-sustain-and-release cycles, but rather it’s about how you move your finger in three dimensions over time.
Some keyboards have aftertouch expression, but the way most keyboards are designed, aftertouch has a narrow range of motion and is hard to control precisely. Most keyboards also have pitch bend and mod wheels or controllers, but the physical nature of pitch bend controllers doesn’t let you apply natural vibrato or target slides from and to particular notes, not to mention two notes at a time in different directions.
Finally, a mod wheel is a good way of changing the timbre of your sound but requires two hands, and perhaps because it’s off to the side, many synth presets just ignore it.
The ContinuuMini has a little “mod wheel” built into the playing surface itself, so rocking it back and forth can have the same effect as moving a mod wheel only on the Mini you’re doing it with one finger. That said, unlike the X axis, or pitch control motion, and the Z axis, or pressure motions, due to the narrow form factor of the Mini, the back and forth rocking motion is the hardest to control precisely. Expect to practice if you want to master it.
Tailored synth & presets
The dynamic expressive physical control surface and motion detection are only half of the ContinuuMini story. While you can use the ContinuuMini to control external hardware or software synths, what really makes it special in my opinion is the built in synth engine, with hundreds of presets tailored to make the most of what the controller has to offer. The programming of this engine and presets is top notch.
The Mini comes with hundreds of built in presets in 15 groups – 11 sound groups organized by category and four utility groups. The Mini doesn’t require a computer or iPad to work, but if you have one connected you can see the actual preset names on screen, rather than just numbers on the Mini, as well as access finer control of the different preset macros and parameters.
Each preset can have up to 4 custom parameters – macros or barrels as they are called on the EaganMatrix, that you can change to impact various aspects of the sound, as configured in the preset. Aside from the custom parameters there are a few other generic preset parameters you can configure on the Mini. One of the important ones is rounding. The ContinuuMini, as its name suggests, is a continuous surface. The 12 semitones we’re used to in an octave are just optional stops on a seamless linear surface. Since we’re not all violinists with perfect pitch, the Mini has controllable rounding options, both for the initial note and ongoing rounding. You don’t want to crank rounding up the maximum and lose all the pitch bend charm of this instrument, but as you start you’ll probably want more rounding rather than less.
The Mini also has a built in effects engine – the ReCirculator – which is the Mini’s built in reverb, delay and echo effects processor, and it too has a few parameters you can control.
Aside from either using a computer, iPad or MIDI controller of choice, you can also access some of the parameters using the on board menu. Parameters such as audio dim and gain, macro and rounding controls, pedal routing and output control and effect mix and timing are accessible with a little bit of menu diving. All in all, though you can control the macros and effect parameters using the built-in menu, ultimately from a performance perspective I do recommend pairing the Mini either with an iPad, computer or MIDI controller. If you’re just playing the off-the-shelf presets or your own presets though, you really don’t need anything else aside from the Mini.
Aside from tweaking preset parameters you can also program your own presets using the EaganMatrix – I already included an introductory tutorial to it in my review of the big Continuum – but in one sentence, the thing that differentiates it from regular synths is that, due to the way it’s built, it invites you to modulate any one of the many available synth engines and parameters as a function of the X, Y and Z motion sensors, which means the sounds you create end up being extremely dynamic and varied over time.
The synth engine is DSP based and has a massive number of synthesis engines including subtractive, fm, physical modeling and more. It’s an eight voice synth – though you can only input either one or two pitches at a time using the playing surface. You can feel the Mini additional notes using an external keyboard or sequencer.
The Mini is extremely light – it weighs about 350 grams or 13 ounces – for comparison, that’s like less than the weight of two average cell phones. I conducted an unintentional table-height-onto-hard-floor drop test during the course of this review and the Mini came out unscathed and fully functional.
There’s a little removable sticker on top with a basic description, and quite an extensive quick reference guide printed on the back.
Despite being light, physically the Mini is built like a tank – the entire enclosure is rather thick aluminum – you play on a continuous nylon covered aluminum plate that sits on two piano wire springs and responds to very light touch, yet doesn’t play when you rest your fingers on it and has a nice broad range of motion.
The Mini doesn’t have a battery compartment but can be powered with a USB power brick. It has a 4 digit screen with 4 control buttons and little LED indicators for things like octave shifting and rounding. The two buttons on the left side of the screen move up and down octaves, and the two on the right let you change presets.
If you hold both octave buttons you get access to a few more options and parameters discussed previously. On the left side of the the Mini are a Mini-USB jack for MIDI and power – and how great is it that they didn’t choose Micro USB as this feels much sturdier; an expression pedal input which can also be used as a digital connection to two control-voltage modules available separately, and potentially other things in the future; and a headphone output to send out audio.
ContinuuMini vs Continuum
So, up until now, everything is fantastic – the ContinuuMini has the same sound engine as the bigger Continuum, it costs less, can be powered by a power brick, and is more portable and has better on board controls than the bigger Continuum.
But, with that said, there are two big differences between the Mini and the bigger Continuums, other than 2 octaves instead of 4 or 8 on the bigger ones.
The first difference is that the Mini’s control surface only supports either single touch or limited duotactic action. What does that mean? While the sound engine is 8 voice polyphonic, the surface itself can only detect full 3D motion on one note at a time, or two notes at a time, as long as they share the same Y and Z axis expression, meaning that the amount of pressure and roll is shared between the two notes. This can be viewed either as a limitation or a cool playing tool depending on what you’re trying to achieve creatively, but ultimately it’s much less than the fully independent multiple touch point support on the bigger Continuums.
The second big difference is obviously the height or size of the Y axis area. You won’t be able to use your thumbs on this – though that’s not much of an issue since the surface really only detects one or two touch points, but more importantly due to the rocking motion of the Y axis, mastering it will take some practice.
The playing surface of the bigger Continuum is also quite different – it’s made of neoprene and is soft, whereas the Mini’s hard aluminum playing plate is covered with red nylon around a much thinner layer of neoprene, and feels stiffer. That said, this difference in materials and feel has much less impact on play-ability compared to the others mentioned previously.
As mentioned before, while the surface can only detect one or two touch points at a time, the internal synth engine has eight voice polyphony, which means you can layer additional notes either with an external keyboard or sequencer, or with the help of an external pedal with used for sustain or sustenuto.
The Mini also supports external keyboards with polyphonic aftertouch, as demonstrated in the companion video using the XKey.
Pairing with synths
The Mini sends MIDI out via its mini USB port, so you can use its surface to play external software and hardware synths. There are a few built-in MIDI presets for Kontakt, OmniSphere and Kyma, as well as hardware and software or hardware synths that support MPE.
You can also customize which MIDI CC’s are used for the Y and Z axis controls, and match the pitch bend to however your synth is configured – ideally you’d want this to be at 24 semitones so that you can slide across the entire two octave range of the Mini.
Pairing with Eurorack
If you want to pair the Mini up with a Eurorack system, there are two custom built MIDI to CV modules available for the Continuum – one by Haken Audio and another by Evaton Technologies. You can also get a subset of their functionality with regular MIDI to CV modules and map the appropriate CC parameters to the right CV jacks – but if you’re serious about hooking up the Mini to eurorack, go for one of the dedicated options.
Pros and Cons
On the “pros” side – the ContinuuMini has the same excellent synth engine and fantastic presets as on the bigger Continuum. The ContinuuMini is super light and doesn’t require anything else to work – there’s no need to pair it with an iPad, computer or MIDI controller to make music, but that said, you’ll definitely get more mileage out of it if you do.
The playability on the X and Z axis is excellent – the Mini succeeds at making you “feel at one” with the sounds you’re making, just as the bigger Continuum does. The EaganMatrix is both a “pro” and a “con”: it has the most comprehensive and powerful mod matrix I’ve ever seen, but as is usually the case with powerful synths, expect quite a learning curve if you want to make the most of it.
On the “cons” side are the limitations I mentioned earlier – control on the Y axis requires practice and isn’t as seamless and natural as the X and Z axis controls. Obviously, playing more than one or two notes at a time and having a broader range on the Y axis would have been preferred, but I guess at that point the Mini may well have been as bulky or as expensive as a Continuum.
As I mentioned earlier, the Continuum is one of my favorite instruments, and the ContinuuMini brings a lot of that magic into a smaller, more portable form factor, and is substantially less expensive. It’s a joy to use and the fact that it has a built-in synth engine means it can complement any setup in a hassle free way with both expression and unique sounds that are very different from what you can expect from a regular synth, whether analog or digital, because of the way you interact with them.