A Refined Palate Controller

David Wessel

adapted by Adrian Freed from Computer Music Journal, Vol. 15, No.4, Winter 1991

Alternatives to keyboard controllers like Buchla's Thunder and Mathew's Radio Baton are innovative, but they exist in very small numbers. The use of traditional instruments as controllers shows promise, but there are still problems with pitch extraction, the keyboard bias of the MIDI specification and its bottleneck data rate, and the fact that it is still very difficult to readily outfit a musician's preferred instrument, be it a Stradivarius or a Gibson guitar, with the acoustic and positional gesture sensors that are required to make it a refined controller.

In the hope of inspiring research and development I would like to briefly describe some new and exciting developments in sensor technologies that may be the basis for new generations of alternate controllers. These technologies may also help solve some of the problems of adapting traditional acoustic instruments to be effective controllers.

The micromechanics research group led by R.S. Muller and R. M. White at the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center have made some astonishing advances in the construction of mechanical structures using microfabrication techniques derived from integrated circuit processes (Muller et al. 1990). These microdynamic silicon structures with moving parts show promise for the design of high-performance sensors and can be combined with on-chip circuits for the processing of the sensor data. The Berkeley group is producing pressure sensors as well as accelerometers with this technology. These may be used in the construction of very small and unobtrusive musical instrument transducer systems.

With these tiny sensor technologies in mind, I would now like to make a proposal for a controller that would sense the position of the tongue. This may seem outrageous, but after all, the tongue can be manipulated in an extremely refined manner. It is perhaps the most precise voluntary motor control mechanism we have in our bodies.

I imagine that this tongue controller could be realized in the following way. The custom-fitted sensor system would use a non invasive dental retainer. Such retainers have been used for decades in orthodontics. On the surface of the dental retainer there would be placed an array of silicon-based pressure sensors that would sense the planar image of the tongue as it came into contact with the surface. Preprocessing of this tongue image could be carried out by the on-chip circuits in the sensors. Sensor data would be transmitted to the outside of the mouth in a wireless manner.

One of the advantages of this tongue controller is that it leaves our other very finely tuned manipulations, the hands, completely free, and, it is, without a doubt, a very personal controller.


Muller, R.S. et al. 1990 Microsensors. New York: IEEE Press.