No comment on this one just yet; I’ll have to pick my jaw up off the floor. Amidst a sea of new robotic percussion, this Wii-remote-controlled, Max/MSP-based mini-ensemble of wooden African percussion is musical, expressive, and downright stunning. I love the mechanical (literally and musically) grooves, and with a single human controlling it live, it’s true to the one-man-band history of these sorts of instruments. “One human, three machines, rhythm,” says the video description. I hope to do some research and share more soon, but I can’t resist sharing the results now.

Thanks to Patrick Flanagan for the tip on his work. Patrick predicts that “this is the beginning of steamfunk.”

Note: please see comments for more on what’s happening; Patrick is using robotics to effectively augment his own personal performance and improvisation, allowing him to play multiple instruments at once. He is actually playing in one of the available modes, however, and has some nice reflections on what he’s doing. I’ll follow up with more details – as I said, wanted to give you a peek at the video first. So, before you jump to conclusions, ask about what’s unclear or what you’d like to know. We’ve got the artist here to discuss.

  • Unfortunately as with all these steamfunk objects, they are great to look at, but at no point produce anything new to listen to.

  • lematt

    that's awesome

  • Korhan

    Give this system to a musician/composer and it will produce something new to listen to. I am sure the algorithms used to generate phrases can be manipulated to reflect other musical styles.

  • Mudo

    It's me or we are living the "Animatrix" beggining… far from afraid I hope we could grow with AI.

  • Geoff Smith

    Thats really special. Wow!

    I imagine it must be initially quite strange being in the room being played to.


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  • I'm just thrilled that it's not performing smooth jazz like a certain Metheny-powered roborchestra.

  • s

    That's harsh Document 02, when downtempo industrial is hardly "new"..

    I think it's great, but I'm not sure how the Wii remotes are controlling things… it looks like it might just be the buttons? In this setup, I wonder if the performer is the robot or the man? Or is the man the conductor/dancer?

  • Feral Hotdog

    Document 2, I'm with ya. No great music going on there.* BUT, as it goes with inventions, the really great stuff happens when the next generation does something unexpected with the technology, e.g. the roland drum machines of yore. They completely failed to emulate trap sets, but did something completely awesome in an unexpected way.

    This set up does nothing for me, in what I like about African drumming, but it could have some pretty amazing applications, once applied..

    The trap that many track-based musicians fall into, I think, is manipulating (wii style or whatever), two or three parameters like tempo and maybe some dynamic envelope tweaking, and wanting to pass that off as expression. When you twist a single knob or raise your arm as an expressive affect, it usually sounds like you've twisted a knob. And it's something much more than just changing the curve from linear to logarhythmic.

    *There's absolutely no nuance going on in the strikes. It sounds quantized in velocity, attack surfaces (skin, nails, palm, fingertips), and rhythm. This can be thrilling when a human can play with such consistent control, but quickly becomes tiresome, like over-compression, when it is the norm throughout a work.

  • I don't want to argue issues of taste with anyone, but I would like to clear up some misconceptions about the technical aspects of what I'm doing.

    There are two modes of performance with Jazari; I call them "performer" and "conductor." In conductor mode, I control high level parameters, such as loudness, phase-shifting, degree of syncopation, and M-Operation. (Doc 02, I'd say that live control over the latter parameters *is* new). In the video, I don't use this mode at all. I do trigger the loops in the cabasa, cowbell, and clave, but that is the only pre-sequenced material.

    The rest of the notes–99% of everything played by the Djembe and bongos–are produced in performer mode. In this mode, I control the choice of individual notes–just like a traditional musician. To Feral, I agree with you about the drawbacks of track-based musicians; that's why I improvised almost all of what you heard on a note-to-note basis (I also agree about temporal quantization; a model of expressive timing is on the to-do-list; velocity is already variable).

    I'm able to improvise these fast, complex passages because my software interprets holding down a button as a decision to repeat the previous note. That doesn't make playing these things easy exactly–they present their own challenges–but I was able to get to this level with no percussion training and six months of regular practice.

    In this project, I trade-off a degree of expressive subtlety for improvisational power (I'm playing two instruments at once throughout). Beyond juggling multiple instruments, the new kinds of idiomatic playing opened up by the controller interface and the possibilities of self-refracting man-machine interaction make the trade-off more than worthwhile.

  • well that was just brilliant.

  • takahisa

    +1 for innovation

    -10 for another white person taking an part of african culture and making it awkward and unnatural (see: vampire weekend)

  • No One special

    Thanks for chiming in Patrick. It looks and sounds amazing. Looking forward to a more in depth look at what you've created.

  • avocado kid

    watch the "how it works" video and you get a much better appreciation of what's going on. I don't know what's up with all the haters- I think this is pretty freakin' amazing!

  • Takahisa, if you want to get into that argument, then surely you must cringe every time someone plays non-Baroque music on one of Cristofori's pianofortes.

    An instrument is not the same as the culture that invented it. Playing a djembe does not automatically mean you are ripping off "African culture." (Or if you want to get specific, Mandinka culture.)

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  • gzap

    It may not be African, but its pretty cool.

    Amazing you can play so much live, Patrick, by yourself. Nice programming and prep and I quite appreciate that you took the time to learn how to play the drums like this. I know lots of musicians who try to do the one man band thing, and this is a pretty great take on it, nice work.

  • takahisa

    Foosnark, i do cringe πŸ™‚

    i never said ripping off… i said awkward and unnatural.

    tell me that you didn't do a little bit of a wtf when the video switched from close-ups of solenoids playing african rhythms to a medium shot of skinny white guy "dancing" with a pair of wiimotes.

    come on.

  • Jeffrey

    It's nice. But with machines, there's no room for improvisation, which is the root of most of the musics played with these types of drums. They also can't do one major thing that a real drummer can do… give FEEL to the drums.

  • what, no pat metheny & his orchestrion? what's wrong with you people ? :))

  • TroyP

    Way cool. Hey, it's new and it's digital music. Much less machine-sounding than I expected. Why do people think it has to be just like a human playing? If that was the case, this site would be called "Authentic Acoustic Instruments & Only Traditional Form With Infinite Human-Like Variations Allowed."

  • Machines

    So much cynicism in the comments section at CDM these days. Sad.

  • usedtobe

    tell me about it, machines. yall's projects must be really freakin rad if you're on here bashing jazari. please share πŸ˜‰

    patrick if you're ever interested in sharing your max work I'd really love to see what's going on here.

  • usedtobe

    wow just listened to the audio samples on patrick's site. "get to the chopper" is sooooo badass. lets see any one man do dat without robots


    inappropriate, it's 2010 dude

  • This is really cool and very interesting!

    I'm about to try and build a robotic instrument with the Arduino. So I'm wandering, what kind of solenoids are those? Looks expencive, but I'd be interested to know what's usable.


  • +1 for it being amazing.

    -1 to the haters.

  • neutral

    whatever one's perspective may be about robotic instruments, the feat of making a kit like this is incredible.

    at the same time, without needing to either diss or hype the genre, i'm helplessly asking the question to myself: "what is gained?"

    is it music? i'm not sure it is. i think it's more meta than that. i think what is gained is a concretized layer of abstraction. what that actually means is up to each of us.

    what it means to me is the achievement of a kind of abstracted identity. the concretized fantasy, if you will, of a robotic identity; or, more precisely, of being the maker of robots that play music.

    this is as serious as it is silly. who will ever be able to take robot-maker's seriously? especially music-making robot-maker's.

    what is serious about it all is how concretized the fantasy of abstraction is quickly becoming. watching this video, it's almost as if the human being is enacting a kind of ecstacy that is enacted in relation to…what?

    the soul of music?

    the imagined soul of his new machine?

    or the technical approximation of the absence of a musician?

    what sticks out the most for me in this performance is the emptiness of it all. the emptiness of the machines, and of the music they make.

    it is almost like a worship of emptiness that we are observing. the approximation of human absence…but not quite.

  • usedtobe

    interesting thoughts hombre. i disagree

    he's enacting the spirit of creation! he's dancing to the rhythm of science, turning numbers into organized compression of air, and what more is music than that.

    i don't understand what everyone is afraid of, solenoids will not replace us. and on a side note, emptiness warrants worship. the rest is equally as important as the note

  • Can you add a somewhere in the text? Thanks!

  • g

    crazy awesome. seen a lot of this lately and i don't know whether i should be more impressed that people shrug it off or that these instruments are for real. they help renew my faith in humanity and the spirit of working with machines in a more organic way.

  • impressive work, patrick!

    but, yes, please work on your "drifting" organic tempo algorithm. unvaryingly precise/regular rhythmic timing when utilizing acoustic instruments always clashes in my consciousness. (mmm, kinda like if you were riding a horse but it had four wheels instead of legs)

    any chance you'll team up with an instrument designer/maker??? (so our "robotic" ensembles aren't immediately compared to our acoustic predecessors?)

    the other thing that struck me was that the hand drums sound much more "artificially-played" than the cowbells. mostly i think because a cowbell is usually/often played with a stick.

    the variations in finger and hand motion/position/velocity that a percussionist naturally (inescapably?) produces while playing an acoustic instrument give the playing most of its life. i like the fact that you had 5 triggers striking the hand drum–definitely a step in the "right" direction (assuming your direction is emulating real human feel using robotic augmentation).

    fingers/hands strike a drum, they slide, they damp, they linger, they skitter and scratch, they apply subtle musical pressures constantly — it's a messy living business that i love.

    and subtle manipulation of tempo is as much an expressive gesture/sign as touch

    again: props to you on all the hard work

    question: when you say, the press of a button chooses the "note" – what are you referring to when you say "note"? (i assume you're referring to the particular strike position – ie, there's 5 strike positions on the hand drum)

    ps— is it "fair" of acoustic/traditional musicians/instrumentalists to even comment on robotic "musicianship"?? i'm biased as hell, i admit! i love (and make) acoustic and electronic music but appreciate them for their separate natures. does that make me old school? i mean, er, uh,, well…. uh,, i'm thinking: rather than pushing buttons on the wii to trigger drum hits, can't the hits be triggered at the "low point" of a wii controller swing??? ie — you'd play the actual rhythms free-hand but the buttons could be used to augment your controller playing with additional robotic permutations….. just a thought


  • Sweff

    Agreed g, I can't believe anyone would knock this, it's freaking epic!! This field of electronic music just has so much potential, for both performance and sonic exploration. Well done Patrick, I bet that uberinstrument is extremely satisfying to play.

  • i can understand the criticism but holy shit… i would give props to anyone that made something this amazing no matter what music comes out of it.

    i remember seeing Octant back in the 90s. they had a great ever-growing robotic drum set. a labor of love for sure.

  • strunkdts

    now if i was crying foul about a black guy playing metal i would be deemed a rascist! Give it a rest takahisa, u sound completely absurd.

  • J. Phoenix

    Absolutely fascinating to watch. The method of control is quirky, but only because seeing video game controllers used as a viable musical control is still newish to me. Its the application of them that interests me most.

    I am amazed at the depth and breadth of sound that was possible to get out of those servos and solenoids on different locations on the skins. That's quite something, given the complexity human hands give us.

    Something that caught me as interesting was that even though it is improvised and controlled, there were certain moments that reminded me of my own work with loops and samples in improvisation, and so I felt a momentary connection.

    Although I have to confess I have it easy by comparison. Watching that video also made me think about the amount of time that must have come before that 6:42 minutes of video could be uploaded. If it took 6 months, then it was worth every hour put into it for each minute for just the one video.

  • strunkdts…

    white people invented rock 'n roll?

    check again sir.

  • I've put up a response to some of the questions commentors raised on my blog at Below are some excerpts. Before you read further, however, I have a small request. If you find the video impressive but musically dull, please listen to the track Get To The Chopper! on youtube: It's three minutes, and it's a superior performance to what's in the video. If you think that's dull, we just like different flavors of ice cream.

    Yesterday a few people commented that my machines lose timbral subtlety compared to traditional performance; a human percussionist can get a much wider variety of sounds out of djembe than my machine can. But I gain a lot, too. I gain improvisatory power. The controller interface and the mechanics enable playing rhythms that would be impossible or difficult for a human. I can play a simple rhythmic pattern on the djembe, loop it, and add another pattern, loop it, and build up a dense, interweaving texture on a single drum. And then I can push a button and have the whole pattern play backwards. Humans can’t do that. The machines and the controller interface, even in the context of a single instrument, introduce a new and broad palette of improvisatory techniques.

    Control of and interaction with the whole band presents its own set of new improvisatory tools, but they exist on a more abstract level than what I sketched above regarding a single instrument. Performance with the whole group fractures and reflects the intentions of performer; I might improvise on two instruments simultaneously, doing a sort of call-and-response between the right and left sides of my brain, and then I could loop that interaction and improvise over it with a third instrument while the computer alters what I originally looped. There is a lot of potential here that I haven’t begun to explore (I’m still focused on improving my chops), but I think this is where much of the value of machine music lies. Human-machine interaction disrupts the one-to-one mapping between the sounding instrument and the musician’s intent. That mapping underlies how we process music as a communicate process; when the mapping is disrupted or altered, the listener has to rethink his or her whole framework for processing music as an emotional, communicate experience. There’s an essay to be written here about how this all relates to human identity in an age of digital social networking, but I’ll leave that piece of aesthetic wankery to some unlucky grad student.

    Some CDM commenters uncharitably noted issues of self-presentation, to which I’ll respond: Try improvising on two instruments at once while dancing. It’s hard! But the topic is a valid one. One of the reasons I spent many hours trying to make the instruments look beautiful is that I believe musical instruments ought to be beautiful. It’s not a trivial bonus but a vital part of an instrument’s identity. If the saxophone looked like a rubber hose, it would have a vastly different cultural meaning. Contemporary electronic gear is a huge disappointment in this regard. Beyond the instruments themselves, I am very interested in putting together a compelling theatrical experience. That project involves my own (or other musicians’) appearance, gestures, attitude, etc. The motionless, silent laptop artist is my negative model. Maybe I oversold trying to do the opposite in the video, but I think the intention is correct and just needs some polish.

    The problem of cultural associations is a massive one in a project like this. Say the word “robot” and you conjure images of either a dystopian future or kitsch. The T-1000 on the hand and Chucky Cheese on the other. I’ve tried to avoid both by rooting my project in the rich history of machine-made music; the band is named after Al-Jazari, who invented the world’s first robot band in the 13th century, and the machines themselves look like antiques from an alternate 19th century. This rootedness in the past also serves to present an image of technology that is more artesanal than industrial. I want the machines and the performers to have unique identities and not look like mass-produced tokens of an oppressive future where humans have been rendered superfluous. My attitude contrasts with that of a band like Kraftwerk, who fetishize dissolving the messiness of individual identity into a logic of conformity (they’re still great, of course). Having other people in the band will help realize my goal and steer the project away from the image of the megalomaniacal, mad-scientist that I think some may perceive. But there are some technical hurdles to overcome before I can do that. Thanks for listening and for your comments. It’s been a pleasure to read them and respond.

  • Feral Hotdog

    Ok dude – I was probably a bit harsh. Sorry for that.

    I think you've got a great dialog going on about this stuff, and you're spot on about the trade off between improvisation / expressive ability and the time (practice time). All are factors, and if someone is looking for expressive nuances in timing and timbre, they won't hear it as much in this music, and they will criticize it as such (like what I did).

    But if you're listening to the parameters which you ARE controlling, then that's where the music lies, and that's really only where it can be fairly judged.

    My criticisms (I'll stick to the premises, but apologize for the acidity) are basically a reflections of my own frustrations in the non-acoustic realm of music synthesis – the dis-integrated-ness of sonic parameters in the digital/electronic realm. That constant battle between the subversion and the complement of the *physical* birthright of sound.

  • Feral Hotdog

    And what I forgot to say, because the internet makes me into a dick, is that your machine looks totally awesome and, honestly, like a lot of fun to play…

  • Feral Hotdog

    alright last idea, then I'll shut up:

    Wabi Sabi

  • William

    Awesome! I really like your interface, rotating the Wimote to change the rate of the drums is pretty slick and something I might have to experiment with myself in the future!

  • golden master

    yeah amazing! don't listen to the haters. This shit is awesome.

  • Ani

    Make that a please….

  • Ani

    a <code></code> sorry boot that

  • bb

    I don't really understand all the "what is gained, how is this pushing music forward?" comments. Really? All of you are pushing music forward with your works? Pretty impressive.

    What is gained by building a model ship out of toothpicks? What is gained by taking a walk in the park? What the hell are we supposed to be gaining here? It's not something I would do, but I'm completely and thoroughly impressed, a little stunned even, and it seems like a much better way to spend your time than watching TV.

    Anyone here that thinks their creative works are making, or going to make, a big difference in the world is probably delusional.


  • strunkdts

    @ mapmap>>> White people invented METAL, who said anything about Rock n Roll? Read again, turd.

  • colbert

    dude looks….at best, bored…at worst, stoned…

  • djproben

    ….at best, bored…at worst, stoned…

    You've got best and worst mixed up

  • tufted

    The first thoughts that came to my mind were isolation and alienation… I dont know(for sure nobody knows) what will be the exact outcome of this experiment so it is useless to criticise it any way. Maybe it does the groundwork for a really cool live gig controller concept.

    It's very interesting to see the ongoing integration in every aspect of life nowadays. Maybe it is part of the evolution of our consciousness. It can be fun to play a whole ensemble, more fun to play it with moving your whole body not just pushing buttons. What a challenge to trying to model a real player!

    But, at the moment I'm commenting from the "but" party. The only thing makes me sad is to see machines to play these beautiful instruments. It can be good for experimenting, it can be a one-time show. My old fashioned opinion is that I rather wanna see real people playing real instrument.

    Anyway, I'm glad to see this. I've got many questions to answer for myself πŸ™‚

  • youngRoy

    very clever and very funny! its got a kind of warped reverse logic. Drums ARE much more tactile to play than wii remotes. The wiis just seem to get in the way of your performance, to be Frank it aint all that sexy.. And drumming has always been damn sexy. I appreciate what you have created, but if it is to be this way – removed from the physical, remove it completely. Give up the wii performance, do you really need them or could you just as easily be sat down operating from static buttons?

  • hey

    i actualy realy enjoyed the stuff – im curious to see the max patch if possible – keep a good work πŸ™‚

  • JavaJ

    I think this is awesome. Even beautiful- love the look for the gadgetry. I would say that if anything, the musician should have dressed up the part to really add a new dimension to the whole performance. I think the negative comments would be less if the instruments were more "found" than real. Take the devices and put them on different industrial or household items- I can see a very cool concert where you wire up these devices to AC/plubming/structures in a factory or something. Add some lighting to this and wow.

    I would also like to see it go further and not just strike/thump things- how about rubbing (so you can get different sounds out of the drums like you can on a conga for example). Are you able to use a striker to push down a skin to change pitch?

    Very very cool and congrats.

  • Such a tough crowd here at CDM. This is the best robotic setup I've ever seen. Well done!

  • Greg

    Nothing but good things to say here.


    I wonder how many people bitching about a guy who happens to be white finding a pretty freakin' amazing way to control 2 instruments at once in an artful way jacking African music take issue with the uptight Detroit Techno For Crackers (i.e. IDM) that was cool a few years ago.

  • This is awesome! The idea plus the technology is mind boggling of a classic "one man band!"

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  • Cort3x

    I thought the track produced in this video was AWESOME, and that it was interesting to look at.

    I would have loved to have seen it live, so I could wrap my mind around the controller scheme in real time, rather than reading about it.

  • David Prouty

    Create Digital Music wankery …. there just jealous. When a pianist hits a key there is mechanics between him and the strings. I think you and it sound great. Who cares if it doesn’t emulate a real human, I like the sound possibly better than a real percussionist and lets not forget there is an artist at the controls. There is as much improv as with an mpc or a piano so the haters should crawl under a rock.

    On another note how about a remix competition! I for one would like to work with your sound.

    Excellent work and cool look on the gadgets.

  • well

    I think the reason for the kneejerk hating and picking apart on items of taste is that, conceptually and technically, everything else is so dialed in. The setup is so well made, the craft of the instruments is so clearly a labor of love that there's nothing that can be said about it (except to ask what kind of servos you use and where did you get them) so people want to find something else to pick apart.

    Presentation, genre and personal taste are all subjective, but as far as CDM is concerned, its an awesome example of Creating Digital Music.

  • well

    Wow, the tail end of… really starts to get interesting where you give a taste of statistically modeling improvisation. You haters may not like his taste in music, but you've got to give props to the technical realm he's working in.

  • Happy Tosh !

    sometimes it's nice when the machines just perform by themselves too πŸ™‚