Something very funny has happened in the world of music controllers. It started with the rising popularity of Ableton Live, along with the likes of Reaktor and Max/MSP, as musicians started creating more dynamic, rich live performances with computers. Supposedly, this shift should have created new controller designs. If Live was the killer app, where was the killer hardware?

Instead, what we’ve gotten is a sort of primordial soup of controller experimentation, with people hacking together circuits, appropriating Wii remotes, abusing and warping commercial controllers, and generally resisting any standardization. The results have been, in short, fabulously chaotic. And maybe that’s the point – just as, even with relatively standardized music tools, musical variety remains virtually infinite.

Of course, there’s one little problem: working from scratch might (ahem) not leave you any time to make the actual music. (Doh!) So, if there’s not a killer single piece of hardware, what might a platform for experimentation look like. MachineCollective responds to a pretty nice wish list:

  • Modular components you can mix and match at will
  • Agnostic components that might be picked up by people building instruments, synths, controllers, circuit-bent projects, visual apps, or even non-musical electronics projects
  • Easy combination with platforms like Arduino and Wiring and software like Processing, Max, vvvv, Flash, and other programming environments
  • Rapid prototyping and manufacturing
  • Get stuff shipped, or use your own local tools / local fab facility
  • Fully open source licensed (it’s actually not clear which license – the CC non-commercial license would presumably mean you couldn’t build one of these and sell it, which I think builders might want to do)

That sounds great. So what is it, actually? The “platform” for now is just the physical components: a top panel of acrylic, an aluminum base, and a bottom panel. You do get machined holes and connectors, though, which could help you radically speed through the stuff that’s hard to do on your own – that is, machine solid cases. And if this catches on, it’s not hard to imagine people swapping circuits and software patches and such that puts some life into that case.

Looks great on paper; we’ll have to see what the actual platform is like. But in the long run, could locally-manufactured, open platforms someday stand alongside the conventional musical hardware industry? I think it’s very possible.

Thanks to everyone who sent this my way!

  • poorsod

    FYI the website tells us it's the CC "by-nc-sa" license – which means full attribution to the makers, non-commercial use only, and any further work must be shared under an identical license.

  • Right, but I'm not sure what they'll do with the license for the hardware — whether also CC, or whether it'll, say, be possible to build custom hardware for people using this platform.

  • I'm pretty excited about this. I do enjoy my Remote 25 a good deal but it's very limiting for live performances.

    I can't wait to try some of this out when there's more information.

  • Nasir

    What does non-commercial use mean, anyway? Can you still do a live show with it and get paid? That's the case with educational versions of some DAWs you can only use them only for schoolwork, but you can't make money off of the work done with that license.

    And why go non-commercial with DIY hardware? Is it such a bad thing if someone decides to produce these en masse to make these things more available, and get paid doing it? Never understood that …

  • al

    awsome looking sheehat

    im in the experiment phase of building a controller simmilar to this idea

    although it wont look this good.

  • dead_red_eyes

    I really dig the mini Monome-ish box.

  • mr.grumps

    Great idea … looks like a bunch of fun with something useful sprinkled on top … yum!

  • What does non-commercial use mean, anyway? Can you still do a live show with it and get paid? That’s the case with educational versions of some DAWs you can only use them only for schoolwork, but you can’t make money off of the work done with that license.

    I would make an un-educated guess that they mean you can't make one and sell it as "Angstrocontroller â„¢" IE – not allowing a commercial resale of the device.

    I doubt they mean to be taking a cut of your door takings from a rainy monday night in Slough.

    I could be wrong of course

  • adam

    OMG this looks freakin amazing. I hope it pans out.

    I agree with Angstrom's interpretation of non-commercial. I'm sure they're just talking about the hardware itself, not what you do with it.

  • poopoo

    These look great.

    The key thing here is the design of bus they are using. It would be good to see some details on the design of that.

  • wetterberg

    Hi Peter et al,

    I'm sorry to sound all snooty here, but that link is like over a year old! And it's just a proof-of-concept, if even that – it's an arduino board laying on an open box, and then some mounted knobs. Where are the multiplexers? Where is the breakout from serial? And why isn't this run off i2c, which requires way fewer connections? The questions are many.

    Besides, I am not going to go nuts about modular controllers – remember Mawzer? Yes, exactly. You want modular? Get a bunch of Korg Nanos this fall 😉

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