The AlphaSphere: Hong Kong invention to shake up digital music-making

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 January, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 January, 2015, 10:24am

Adam Place sits at an table at the Hong Kong Science Park in Tai Po, holding an object that looks like a soccer ball. But he's not playing games. Place is in the city to be closer to manufacturers in Shenzhen, and a potentially large market for the innovative musical device he invented - the AlphaSphere.

Place was studying music technology in Britain when he came up with the idea. The standard instrument used for producing electronic music was a MIDI keyboard, which every recording studio had. "But the keyboard didn't feel truly expressive. As a producer, you get caught up in the computer rather than playing an instrument," he says.

The AlphaSphere, on the other hand, is tactile and ergonomic with its 48 circular pads in easy reach of the fingers and thumbs. "It feels natural," Place says.

Each pad has 512 degrees of resolution - an improvement on the MIDI controller - that are set in a geometric notational arrangement, so different lines of scales or tuning systems can be mapped out around the orb logically.

"It's a different approach because you can put notes where you want, but it'll always make sense. You could set it up so that it's discordant," he says.

Place demonstrates by linking the sphere to software on his laptop and tapping out a bass line and drum beat. He adds melodic layers, including high-pitched bell-like dings, with an interwoven sitar sound. When he's finished, he has the makings of a complete techno tune.

Two AlphaSphere models are available, he explains: a "nexus", made especially for performance and popular with DJs; and an "elite", designed for studio use, with more connectivity and adaptability.

Five hundred of the instruments have been sold since he began shipping them in March 2013. British electronic punk band and festival favourites Enter Shikari have one, as does Mercury Award-winning English-Indian composer Talvin Singh.

Place's biggest market is Japan, and the AlphaSphere has been getting a lot of buzz in China, since a musician in Beijing uploaded a video of it on the internet that went viral.

Place first visited the region after his invention won a UK Trade & Investment contest. He had seen interest in Hong Kong and on the mainland, and sent out feelers through the trade body, which put him in touch with InvestHK.

He is now based at the Science Park under its Incu-Tech Programme, and working on an entry-level AlphaSphere for budding young techno musicians. While the nexus model costs about HK$7,980 and the elite version HK$14,000, the more basic one would be considerably cheaper at around HK$1,750.

"We want to speed up the whole process, and Hong Kong is very convenient being just an hour away from where all the action is on the factory floor," Place says.

"The entry level one is being designed between here and mainland China, and in quite close collaboration with the end manufacturers."

Pre-orders are already being taken on his website and Place sees a lot of creative potential in China, which he feels would be receptive to the new ideas he has bubbling up.

"I've met a guy who works with bands a lot, and we're looking to get an AlphaSphere band together to tour in China."

There is other scope for the sphere, too, Place says.

"When I first came to Hong Kong, I saw how everything [in the clubs] is lit up - LEDs under glass shelves of vodka bottles.

"One of our partners in Hong Kong distributes the back-end technology for stuff you see in nightclubs - lighting, products that connect to big LED screens, and so on.

"On the mainland, especially, you see creative things like LEDs coming out of the ceiling, smoke machines. You can connect the AlphaSphere to all that to control the lights and other visuals in the clubs. It's quite a good use for the device."