CutlerKeys Backstory Q&A

Q: So what’s the story? How did you come up with the Thumbdrop Keyboard?

A: Actually, I’ve been messing around with alternative keyboard design ever since I was a teenager. But the idea for the Thumbdrop came many, many years later. It was a sudden flash, your classic eureka moment. But it only came after all those years of exploration. Sometimes, that’s how it works.

Anyway, I was working on a bunch of other keyboard ideas at the time, one for multi-level keyboards and the other for a reduced-width keyboard and it was like two ideas got together in my subconscious and had a baby.

Q: Ideas getting frisky?

A:  Hey, it’s all about the hybrid, so many new ideas come as re-combinations of old ones. So the multi-level keyboard thing was like in a multi-decker organ manual but only closer and for piano. The other idea was dog-legged key shanks which you find with reduced-width piano keyboards. So one night I was laying out a set of plastic piano key tops on the edge of my work bench. There was nothing but open space in front of the keys and all of a sudden I saw it! I could dog-leg out from the front of a key to create the new keyboard level and bring impossible stretches within easy reach. I knew right away it could be something special. Within minutes I made my first prototype out of a popsicle stick and a piece of heavy duty carpet. And it worked. I played my first ever solid 11th and 12th that night. Last year, I even used my ‘popsicle stick proof of concept’ as I call it, to get into a local business incubator.

First prototype & popsicle-stick-proof-of-concept
Pleyel Double Manual Piano (Paris, Circa 1927. Inventor Emánuel Moór)
Q: Can you expand a little on the background ideas?

A: The multi-level keyboard idea is now what I now call a thumbdrop keyboard. Not only is it one of our trademarked brand names but I also think of it as a broad category descriptor for a class of musical keyboards. Sometimes organists on their multi-decker manuals will drop a thumb down to a lower manual while the fingers of the same hand remain on the higher level. But it’s awkward because the manuals aren’t usually that close together. The Pleyel Double-Manual Piano is another interesting case, an adventurous but isolated effort to set up a piano like a double-manual harpsichord. I was exploring ideas for piano in a similar vein only closer proximity so it’s easier for one hand to play on both levels at once.

The other idea, the dog-legged key shanks are related to reduced-width piano keyboard designs. With the reduced width thing you compress the overall width of the keyboard but you then wind up with highly offset key placements at the extreme bass and treble that you have to angle back into the main action parts of the piano with dog-legged key shanks. David Steinbuhler has done a lot of great work in that area following from the concept of Chris Donison.

After the popsicle stick there was still a lot of work to do on all the secondary design issues like counterbalancing and black key integration. At first, I was making hand-made prototypes but once I got into computer modeling and 3D printing the design process really took off.

David Steinbuhler with his DS Standard reduced-width piano action set.

Q: So what were you working on in those earlier days?

A: When I was still a teenager my first road band keyboard was a Fender Rhodes. This is way back in the time before synths and digital keyboards were widely available. Some of us go back that far. Anyway, the action on the Rhodes was pretty stiff and I didn’t like the feeling of my fingers getting jammed in between black keys. The traditional design for black keys gives them this slight pyramid shape where they widen out slightly towards the bottom. Unless you have skinny fingers it can be a problem because that shape actually squeezes the strikeable area in between the blacks by almost an 1/8 of an inch which is significant. The stiff Rhodes action really amplified the effect.

So I was young and questioning everything like why does the universe exist at all and why do I need to put up with these annoying black keys on my Rhodes just because I wasn’t born with spider fingers. One day I dismantled the Rhodes and took all the black keys to a local auto-body shop and asked for a go with the bench grinder. I was careful to leave the tops alone but I ground down all the sides of the keys until they slanted slightly in instead of out. I was typical stupid teenager, too. I never used a filter mask and when I was done grinding my whole face was covered in black dust. Luckily, I survived to tell the tale.

Q: So how did that modification work out?

A:  It was great, like a revelation. Suddenly I could drive a truck between the black keys. My fingers felt so free and liberated. I could strike the skinny white keys tails at just about any point without having to fight the finger friction against the sides of black keys. And that affects tone control in a big way. It means your white key touch is way more even and controlled.

Looking back, that whole experience really planted a seed. I realized I could make the conventional keyboard into something different, something better. Over the years I kept asking why musical keyboards are the way they are, how unfair they are to people with smaller hands or different sized fingers. The romanticization of the ideal long, slender piano fingers began to strike me as kind of chauvinistic. Also, the realization began to set in of just how conservative and tradition-bound the piano and keyboard manufacturers were, how they made things based solely on tradition, not necessarily logic or innovative design principals. There was a 300 year old blind spot for keyboard innovation – at least for the manual itself. There some innovative stuff happening lately with alternate synth keyboard designs but really not that much for the piano – not that’s very practical, at least.
Q: We assume that narrowed black keys are 1 of the 5 in the secretive Mark 5 keyboard.

A:  Right. The altered black keys were such a great experience it got me wondering what other ways I could improve the keyboard. Over the years I gathered up four more ergonomic ‘tweaks’. Each one is small on its own and accomplishes something different. But with 5 improvements the combined effect is powerful. The basic keyboard layout remains unchanged, from about 10 feet you wouldn’t know the difference. But once you put your hands on it there’s a feeling of greater freedom for the fingers, so much more room to move, wider margins of error, greater accuracy. It lets you play with greater abandon and tone control and practice with greater efficiency. It even has the de facto effect of making your fingers slightly longer. As far as a conventional piano keyboard design goes, I’m convinced the Mark 5 is the most forgiving and easy to play musical keyboard ever. Plus, the learning curve is close to zero.

Q: When do we get to see the Mark 5?

A: We need to gain some momentum first but we hope to introduce the Mark 5 as maybe a 3rd or 4th wave product. For now, we’ve making a kind of veiled intro in the form of an album of piano music offered as an entry level reward in the Thumbdrop keyboard crowdsourcing campaign. The album represents the first ever commercial piano recording using the Mark 5 keyboard but no one will actually get to see the keyboard until later. It’s a big tease, really.

Q: What’s the album called?

A:  Moonlight Through Branches. The music itself is pretty unambitious, really. The album is mostly just laid back solo piano, my own performance and compositions, mostly mood pieces and themes. No jazz. There’s a little light classical, some Celtic influences and some contemporary finger style folk guitar influences but nothing remotely groundbreaking.

Q: Going back to the Thumbdrop Keyboard, do you anticipate some resistance from traditional quarters in the piano world?

A:  Sure, no doubt there will be some who oppose changing anything about the conventional keyboard as a matter of principal. For early adopter market sectors we’re looking at the American roots styles, jazz, blues, gospel and all the derivative styles because there’s already an established use of solid 10ths especially with the likes of Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. But it’s interesting . . . just the other day I invited my old piano teacher from University to come over and look at the prototype. He has a really extensive knowledge of the classical repertoire and he came up with a nice list classical pieces that call for solid 10ths. So there may be a way to pitch this even to the conservative classical crowd after all. Anyway, shocking some of those people may actually be a one of the most fun parts of all this.

Q: So you’ve identified your early adopters?

A: Yeah, Yeah, like I say, the Thumbdrop Keyboard is much more copacetic with American roots styles. Those big reaches in the left hand work great for jazz, blues, gospel or anything related. Female jazz pianists, especially, will see a kind of liberation. For the first time they’ll be able to play those big Art Tatum chords if they want. And with the 10th Ave. Blues Expansion video we even have a left hand boogie pattern that uses 10ths, 11ths and 12ths. It’s like a brand new way to play rock ‘n roll and boogie piano. I hope that gets some attention. Classical piano is more dominated by the octave in the left hand. Still, we can identify solid 10ths in classical piano in works by Liszt and Rachmaninoff and others. It think it would be nice for classical players to have the choice. So I hope they take an interest, too.

Q: But there are some top classical players who also play a jazz.

A:  Not that many, really. What you do often get is a lot of respect for jazz from classical players because they understand what it takes. They know that even with years of classical training you can’t just pick up and play jazz at a high level.

Q: What about avant garde or contemporary composers?

A: I think we may have a chance for some traction there. Cutting-edge composers are all about the ‘new’. Originality, is their stock and trade. Now they can compose in a brand new space up to solid 12ths plus knowing anyone can perform their pieces. These are the types that might spearhead the installation of the Thumbdrop Keyboard onto institutional pianos.

Q: You see a role for the major music publishers in all this?

A:  We think there’s a pretty good argument for a natural win/win synergy with the music publishers. If CutlerKeys succeed, they get to repackage and resell huge chunks of their piano catalogue arranged for 10ths. Right now, stock arrangements default to the octave because that’s what everyone can reach. But if we succeed, solid 10ths become universal and all that changes. Think of all the piano styles that can be enhanced with solid 10ths, not just jazz and blues but gospel, soul, jazz rock, R&B, even some pop. It’s a huge swath. Hopefully, the publishers take an interest and help getting the word out because it could mean a big windfall for them if the Thumbdrop hits. It’s such a natural alliance I don’t think we even need a contract.

Q: What about the black keys? You’re leaving them out in the opening round.

A:  This was really the most difficult decision of our campaign. Obviously, it would be much better to lead off with the complete set of black and white keys. The main problem is you can’t hook up the black keys the same way as the whites; there’s no direct access from the front. We already have a solution but it’s a little more complicated. As a small start-up and we saw this chance to come out with an unprecedented keyboard innovation at a super affordable price that was not going to be to overwhelming to manufacture or use. There’s no electronics in the opening phase and that’s where a lot of crowdsourcing campaigns get bogged down, with their electronic supply chains.

The St. James Infirmary video proves we can make the black keys work. And the white key Thumbdrop Keyboard in the first round is already ‘black key ready’. So when the black keys do come out they’ll be designed as an easy upgrade. Still, it’s a bit of a gamble for us. We’re really hoping the piano community will support us through to a second launch of black keys. In the meantime, we’re still trying to show there’s a whole bunch you can do with just the white key Thumbdrop. We’re putting out a bunch of different performance videos featuring all different piano styles with just white keys, like stride, gospel, blues and even pop with the Blackbird video.

Button and piston style black key upgrade will be next.

Q: And what about digital?

A:  Versions for digital are already in the works. In terms of the way the Thumbdrop Keyboard installs and operates it’s so much easier to start with acoustic pianos. But we have a long range motto: Solid 10ths. Any hand size. Any piano. If the piano world gets behind us we think we can get there.


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