Hyve Touch Synth is very is very different from other synths – it’s polyphonic with 60 analog oscillators, but it doesn’t have any filters or VCA envelopes – rather – the way your fingers touch its surface determines which notes you hear and how they sound.
Hyve synth was initially built in workshops with its designer, Skot Wiedman, and later offered both as a DIY kit and as a finished product in a wooden enclosure and a carrying case – as part of a successful KickStarter campaign. It comes with a 9v battery case and can be powered by an external power supply as well.
Its internal design is super simple, but also extremely clever – it has 12 core analog oscillators, tuned by default to the chromatic scale – and you can calibrate each of them differently if you like, and then each of these oscillators generates four additional sub oscillators based on its core pitch, for a total of 5 octaves based on whatever the original oscillator is tuned to… so 5 times 12 is 60 oscillators – and you could play 60 notes at the same time if you wanted to (not that you should…), all in a very small portable package.
Hyve Synth’s entire top later is a network of capacitive touch sensors – Your fingers behave sort of like VCAs when touching it – for example, one side of you finger will conduct more than the other. If you put hand lotion on your fingers, or say… lick them… you’ll get much higher sound levels than with dry fingers. If you blow on the surface, the humidity in your breath will cause notes to stick and slowly die down as the humidity evaporates.
You can actually blow on the surface with a straw to hit more precise notes, and those notes will sustain for as long as the surface remains humid.
One thing I noticed is that if my fingers are extremely dry, and the sound level is very low, as you increase the overall gain of the signal, you’ll hear a faint background hum which sounds a little like all the notes playing together. You can look at this as gritty character, or just make sure your hands are humid enough to make the signal louder, either with hand lotion or the sweaty excitement of live performance…
Hyve Synths note layout is quite original. The bottom half is laid out like a traditional piano keyboard – but actually plays 5 octaves – there are 5 narrow strips starting from the top each playing a lower octave, and then the lower octave extends to the bottom.
The really nice thing about this arrangement is that it’s quite easy to play inversions and spread out chords you couldn’t dream of doing with one hand or even two on a traditional piano keyboard.
There’s also a row of pads on the very bottom which serve as pitch bends for the entire row of oscillators above them.
The hexagon bee hive pattern on the top half is where Hyve gets its name from. This layout repeats the notes on the bottom, and is connected to the same oscillators, but is obviously arranged very differently.
Here, going up hexagons travels a perfect fifth up, 7 semi tones, going up and to the right is a major third up – or 4 semitones, and going left and up is a minor third, or 3 semitones. Skipping hexagons left and right goes up and down semitones.
If you’re confused about which notes are which, Hyve comes with a helpful cardboard cheat sheet.
There are a few reasons why this layout is interesting. First, is that traveling in any of the 6 directions is more musical the just going up and down chromatic semitones on a regular keyboard.
The second reason this is cool is that you can create chords with one finger. For example, you get a major triad chord by placing a finger on the three hexagons at the top right “corner” of the root note of the chord. You get a minor chord by holding the top left corner.
You can extend these chords further by holding addition notes above the first three, to get 7th chords or 9th chords as well.
The third cool thing about Hyve’s hexagonal layout is that it’s isomorphic – which means that once you learn a chord shape, or melodic sequence, it applies to any note you pick as a starting point. For example, no matter where you are, or which note you pick, the three notes around the top right corner will play a major chord, the three notes around the top left will play a minor chord and so on. Same goes for scales or patterns – once you learn, say a pentatonic scale, it will play the same no matter where you start.
The last thing you should know about both the bottom and top touch sensors is that they have stereo touch, so as you wiggle your finger left and right, you’re moving in the stereo field. It’s hard to play just one side on anything but the very bottom, but wiggling your finger anywhere else still gives nice stereo dynamics or tremolo. Note that finger wiggling doesn’t create vibrato – the only way to bend pitch is using the bottom row of pads.
Hyve Synth sounds very organic – sort of like a cross between a synth, accordion and harmonica. There’s no way to change the way it sounds, but you can and should add effects chains to your heart’s content.
In the companion video I use modular effects but regular effects work too of course. For example, since playing polyphonically produces quite a few harmonics, a filter can dramatically impact the sound.
Like I said before, since Hyve is stereo, so you can use the left and right channels with different effects and control their levels, to a certain degree, quite expressively.
For example, in the companion video I pass the right channel through distortion, and you can obviously pass any side through any number of effects you want. This lets me control the character of the sound and apply distortion just by leaning my finger more to the right.
Reverb also adds a lot to Hyve, with the dry/wet mix acting as sort of like an attack decay envelope since Hyve’s direct amp envelope is quite punchy, especially if your hands are humid.
Pros and Cons
To summarize – on the pros side, Hyve Synth is a super portable, extremely unique, very musical polyphonic synth. I’m a big believer in unique note layouts as a gateway to musical experimentation, and the fact that you have 5 octaves immediately accessible both in a traditional piano-style layout and the isomorphic hexagonal one means you don’t have to choose.
On the cons side, if you’re expecting this to behave like a regular synth, where you hit a key and it always sounds the same, it won’t. The humidity in your fingers matters as does their placement and pressure. It also doesn’t have midi or cv in or out – you are quite literally an organic part of the circuit. External effects are extremely useful in in expanding this synth’s palette.