So, your human drummer can’t bang out the elaborate breakcore beats you’ve composed, huh? Build your own robotic replacement, putting the magic of positronics into rhythm.

That’s what the folks of Texas Central Positronics and the David Crowder Band have done with Steve_3po, the robotic drummer. It brings new meaning to “drum machine,” blending acoustic sound with programmed rhythms.

The secret to controlling this machine with MIDI is none other than one of our favorite kits, Highly Liquid’s MIDI Decoder. For more on that side of things, see the recent story by Mike Una here on CDM:

DIY MIDI In, MIDI Out For Your Gear: New Kits from HighlyLiquid

The challenging part, of course, is building the robotics. The talented creators at Texas State Technical College, including mechanical engineers Josh Caldwell and Eli Hernandez, worked with “bwack” (the father and son Bwack team) to create Steve. You can read the complete story at Texas Central Positronics, in a post from October:

Introducing – Steve

“bwack” has done other terrific work in the past, including a 760-pound, large-format MPC that stands seven feet tall. And they say drum machines have no soul.

Thanks to Richard Devine for finding this, and Simon Stansfield for bringing it to our attention.

This instrument is not alone among robotic drummers, of course; here are a couple of other top picks:

Glastonbury Festival 2008 was host to this fantastic-looking robotic drummer with four arms and a combination of hydraulics and servos. Sadly, as often happens at these festivals, the credits for who created this lovely invention appear to be lost. Anyone out there know the origins of the work?

Another fine example of robotic drumming comes in the form of Haile, by Georgia Tech’s Gil Weinberg and Scott Driscoll. Haile not only plays the drums, but responds intelligently (via computer) to “heard” sounds and rhythmic patterns. A very early CDM story talked to the creators about how they pulled off the trick.

But wait — there’s more! There are robots responding to plants and playing bamboo and Chinese instruments, an all-robotic band, robotic Theremins, robotic knives, Taiko drummers, robots that play Guitar Hero for you, Game Boy-controller robotic drum machines, Roombas controlled by MIDI, robotic Ballet Mechanique instruments, and, for the holidays, Robotic sleigh ride-playing chimes.

For ensembles filled with unique and creative robotic-powered instruments, look no further than the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, which recently relocated from here in NYC to tech capital Pittsburgh. One of the most exquisite recent creations from a residency with this group is Zemi17’s wonderful Gamelatron, which, as the name implies, robotifies the Indonesian gamelan ensemble. That instrument visited Handmade Music; here it is at Galapagos in Brooklyn from earlier this year:

Also in the robotic gamelan category, here is Rui Penha’s own contribution (independent of the other project, believe it or not):

Robotic Gamelan from Rui Penha on Vimeo.

A network of several independent robots play some of the javanese gamelan instruments: 2 bonangs, 2 demungs, 3 kenongs, 1 saron, 2 peking and 1 slentem, some gongs and an additional slentem in the near future. This network is controlled by a computer sending serial information using Max/MSP.

In this specific case, all the robots are being played using custom controllers made out of an Ikea salad bowl, an Arduino and two ultrasonic distance sensors.

Best of all, here is Processing-based software for arranging sequences gamelan-style, which can be used to control this instrument (or others). It’s funny, as I had built a similar circular sequencer which I showed briefly in Dublin at the DEAF fest – so perhaps the age of circular, cyclical sequencers is here, to replace all these rectangular step sequencers we’ve had so long. (Similar notation is sometimes used in the analysis of gamelan cycles.)

GameLan from Rui Penha on Vimeo.

To me, most beautiful of all is a set of work called “Felix’s Machines”:

From the description — thanks to opuswerk in comments for reminding me of this:

The Artist, Felix Thorn created this monster which was filmed by Tom Swindell, Directed by Tom Mansfield and edited by Chris Barnet.

Extract from composition: ‘Glide’ recorded and filmed at Gasworks winter 2008.

Chris Barnet the editor channel is here

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Updated: Still more wonderful creations…

Byeong Sam Joen’s “Telematic” Drum Circle, far from the more automated selections here, imagines robotics as a way of encouraging interaction in a group.

Telematic Drum Circle (The 9th Session) @ Siggraph Asia 2008 in Singapore from Byeong Sam Jeon on Vimeo.

Telematic Drum Circle (The 9th Session) @ Siggraph Asia 2008 in Singapore


Artist: Byeong Sam Jeon (

Period: 12/11/2008-12/13/2008

Siggraph Asia 2008: Suntec International Convention Centre (Singapore)

Robotic Installation: Darren Communication Center @ Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY (USA)

It’s designed to be used interactively over the Web. Kyle McDonald has even hacked it for MIDI support:

Telematic Drum Circle (Hacked) from Kyle McDonald on Vimeo.

Thanks to our friend, the resourceful and talented Memo Akten, for bringing this to our attention.

  • seeing this post, you might be interested in felix's machines.
    He's done quite a great job at building a "real" drum machine and that make great music too.

  • @opuswerk: Thanks. What a beautiful piece that is. Added to the post.

  • Great post Peter. That robot drummer at Glastonbury 2008 was in Trash City, right opposite where I was stationed for my installation ( ) and was especially awesome when playing Black Sabbath's Ironman. I believe it was by the Mutoid Waste Company, who had loads of other crazy awesome stuff all over the place

  • Jed Jorgensen

    And of course, let us not forget the inimitable Captured! By Robots.

  • Yeaaaaaaah Arduino kind Cyborg Music is coming!

    Soon Max Rebo Orchestra!


  • I can't really say much about it yet, but the Pat Metheny Orchestrion is the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. Look for the album and tour, you won't be disappointed, even if you don't like Metheny music.

    – b

  • s ford

    Not much else to say other than wow!


  • I might take the opportunity to blow my own horn πŸ˜‰ :

  • oh and i forgot to mention, here is Byeong Sam Jeon's telematic drum circle

    You login via web, and control one of the instruments remotely creating a drum circle spanning continents.

    And Kyle McDonald's midi mod

  • Wow, thanks for these comments, guys. Added.

  • Robotic Drumming on a Roland SPD

    Well, he tries to be a robot at least.

  • The most ingenious creation of automatons I've ever seen comes from Maxime De La Rochefoucauld of Montreal. Here's a description of his automaton ensemble, named Systéme Ki, from his website:

    The automatons are activated by high and low inaudible frequecies. Those frequencies drive the membranes of little woofers* on which a structure made out of sticks and springs is attached. The structure hits acoustics instruments like drums, cymbals, strings, bells, cans, etc.

    All the automatons are controlled individually by a computer sending individuals low frequency tracks. It is the electrical power of the impulsion given to the automatons which itself generates an acoustic sound.

    The first cool thing about this technique is that there is absolutely no mechanical noise as the activators are the floating magnets of the woofers. Next is the fact that the automaton's are capable of creating incredibly precise and complicated rhythm patterns as they are controlled by the nuances of sound signals rather than basic on/off signals of solenoids, etc. Finally, the woofers still function as speakers! When I saw him perform at the 2006 SFEMF, he allowed the audience to come on stage after the performance and look at the devices. 5 minutes into the inspection time, audible audio signals started transmitting and bouncing around the 20+ automatons on stage creating quite an exquisite spatial sound display.


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  • Aaron

    Die Krupps in the mid 80s created a custom metal percussion instrument that utilized MIDI. You can hear it all over their record(s) before they turned metal, but i’ve never been able to find a decent vid of it. Prior to that they used a heavy manual recreation of a xylophone using an iron beam and heavy bars (think faust).

  • The Cody

    Breakcore?! I really need to build one of these drum-kit robots for my Death Metal band!

  • Cool topic.

    I saw a great performance of Oren Ambarchi & Robbie Avenaim at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam (Amsterdam Dance Event) last October.

    Robbie Avenaiem drummed in a really smooth loose jazzy way over the ambient/noise drones of Oren Ambarchi. He has some kind of computer program running to control 4 or 5 bassdrum knockers.

  • A

    Cody, +1

  • Sam_K

    I find it funny that in the recent Ableton Live Bugfix story (and just about anywhere that software instruments are discussed) there are people moaning about how unreliable software is a nightmare onstage, but hey, add a bunch of DIY animatronics to it that would make it orders of magnitude less reliable and it's cool! Right? πŸ˜›

  • You might also be interested in our victorian robotic wardrobe that plays music according to its mood, based on its own obsessive monitoring of its online publicity:

    Anyone who wants to meet Cybraphon in person will be able to see it at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art this coming Spring. In the meantime we have an album, videos, making of, and even a lecture (!) online.



  • I've just found this:

    with a markov chain-based improvisor and iPhone controller!

  • here is the metheny robot band i warned you about. there are some old friends and some new siblings.

  • Junkelsplitsy

    These drummers are all fine and good, but what of DRMBOT0110, of Captured! by Robots? This evil robot has been around for over a decade. Someone ought to recognize JBot as the pioneer of robot metal drumming, I never see him mentioned. Google Captured! by Robots, you’ll see.

  • Junkelsplitsy

    These drummers are all fine and good, but what of DRMBOT0110, of Captured! by Robots? This evil robot has been around for over a decade. Someone ought to recognize JBot as the pioneer of robot metal drumming, I never see him mentioned. Google Captured! by Robots, you’ll see.

  • Junkelsplitsy

    These drummers are all fine and good, but what of DRMBOT0110, of Captured! by Robots? This evil robot has been around for over a decade. Someone ought to recognize JBot as the pioneer of robot metal drumming, I never see him mentioned. Google Captured! by Robots, you’ll see.

  • robbie
  • robbie
  • robbie