From comments (thanks, Charlie Cowper!), here’s a live performance by Japanese electronic artist Rei Harakami on nothing more than a 1990s-vintage multitrack digital workstation, Roland’s VS-880. (The VS-880 was introduced at NAMM in January 1996.) Harakami is a virtuoso on this machine, not simply playing back tracks but dancing through menus and settings and adding live mixing and effects. It’s a mix performance, yes – but it’s a seriously impressive one. And it shows how much this now-“vintage” machine can do, even with some simple parameters.

I’m almost afraid to mention the VS-880, lest we get an arbitrary direct translation of this device as a Roland iPad app. But perhaps the real point here is that choosing limitations, practicing with a tool over an extended period of time, and finding a working and performance method that matters to you is what really makes a difference. It’s not endless parades of iPad apps, not endless parades of VST plug-ins, not endless parades of hardware buys… the list goes on. (And to anyone who bugs you about whether you’ve seen the Gorillaz produce an album entirely with an iPad, I suggest you snarkily refer them back to the VS-880. Ironically, the VS faced the kinds of complaints about quality that mobile devices now face. Then, as now, one might refer instead to the quality of the musical input being recorded, not just the technical restrictions of the gear. Ahem.)

But I’m rambling. The video really says it all. And it’s a reminder that whatever you’re using, you’d better leave some time to practice. On that note…

(PS – how did we get on this topic in the first place? This workstation got our friend Ben Long started on a career path that would lead him to successful music and sound design work in gaming. There’s always a special place in your heart for that first real piece of gear…)

But wait, there’s more… Okay, I was asking for it, I suppose. We’ve already got a submission for an Akai MPC3000, as suggested by Hernan Gonzalez. Unlike most of the countless MPC jams you can find online, though, this one includes a projected screen. Bonus points to Atom Heart TM.

  • great post.  lots of applications to your thoughts for technology both within and outside of the digital music world.

  • Veridical Driver

    How did he get the video out from the MPC 3000?

  • formal

    There's a VGA expansion for the MPC3k

  • bar|none

    Awesome. The VS-880 was the first serious recording system I ever owned and still I am searching for that kind of focus and useability. Great machine for sure.

  • Andreas

    the vs mixing was superb. And while he did do a lot of diving into menus and such it was predominantly dub mixing he did, was it not? 

    I think dubbing things out is one of the techniques that might be easily lost on younger crowds who just program it out and launch a clip or whatever.

    Back to basics has its charms, for sure.

  • Love the video. Focusing on a smaller set of tools can be such a breath of fresh air… Reminds me of Squarepusher sequencing his best works (imho) on a DR-660.

  • The vs-880 was pretty lame in the 90's and still is.  Hopefully that video was made in 1997 and not recently.  I guess it's kinda cool he can do that with just that… actually, no, not really.  the music was pretty cheesy.

    I wonder how many people he is playing for… that would be cool if it was him and his vs-880 in front of 50,000 people.

    Now this other dude rocking the MPC3K… he seems to know a thing of two.  It's like Kraftwerk finally perfected the robot they have been working on.  Kept secretly for all these years, perfecting the art of navigating the menu of the mpc3000.  The dance mode algorithm was the hardest part but they nailed it on this prototype.  And check out that stand.  It matches his suit.

  • first video = Dub

    second video = there is something more interesting going on to on stage right that is far more interesting than the VGA output of the MPC3000. in addition, the MPC3000 has enough MIDI outs to power a slew of devices and i'm curious if that may be going on here.

    there are a lot of 80's and 90's korg, roland, yamaha devices that were created in which people never got past the presets. certainly the creators had more in mind with the machines. i'm not surprised 20 years later we are seeing different elements of multi function music machine.

  • i saw Atom TM play in Berlin alst year, and this 2008 performance looks simiarl.
    To the right he has amazing low bit graphics, that is probably what some of the midi is controling (i"m sure I remember him having a laptop too somewhere)
    ok, link to visuals here –

  • veck

    Nah, the performance is not really performative, he simply mixes some tracks, I prefer this kind of mixing performance :-))

  • Jno

    So is there a wave of retro digital products coming? Why not, analog certainly has had it's day. Then we can listen to crappy digital products like the VS-880 again and wonder what happened to dynamics and clarity. Look how the Fairlight CMI has come back.

  • OS

    I saw that same Atom Heart performance at Mutek in Montreal in 2009. The video out from his MPC was a nice touch and it was in keeping with the minimal, functional nature of much of the accompanying video for all the performances that night. Alva Noto, for instance, had a huge black and white projection of a numerical counter that clicked ahead one digit for every musical bar of the performance, usually exactly on the snare sound. The funniest part of Atom's stage show was when he would step back from the MPC into the shadows of the stage for a couple of tracks while another video screen displayed a video of him outdoors in a park somewhere lip syncing lines to whatever the song was. The consummate showman, he would stand motionless and expressionless at the back of the stage while his prerecorded image sang for the duration of the song. Showroom dummy, indeed.

  • Peter Kirn

    No, while I think we're drawing different conclusions, we're in agreement –
    Yes, it's a dub performance on the VS.
    Yes, the MPC is a more flexible instrument!

    That to me was the point, though; of course, you choose whatever tool makes sense to you and makes you happy. I will say, each of these represents to me someone pushing the capabilities of their device of choice.

  • Brian stevens

    I saw Atom in Italy and spoke to him after the show : he uses a Tenori on with his own samples and a live readout of his on screen parameters. Very simple.

  • Peter, I think that it's great that you posted this along with the message you are trying to get through with it.

    While it's fun to stay cutting edge, the fundamentals of what makes someone a great performer (or their music great for that matter) stay relatively unchanged.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • I'm currently trying to sell my laptop to buy some external gear, one of the things I was considering being an MC909. Watching these two videos has sorely tempted me! Amazing what these guys can do with such a limited hardware palette. Love it!

  • Kim

    I think that people dismiss the old as having no relevance far to often. Many old devices have small details about them that make them a killer cheap alternative. My studio has many craigslisted, flea marketed, and dumpster dived items in it. Somedays I use an Apc40 other days an old Amiga. Heres a roland tip for you all the old SP-808 D beam has a much longer reach than the new D beam's, cranked to its full length you can get about 4feet of control out of it. That's a whole lot of airspace for fx control. I link the D beam to Ableton lives delay plug-in and set the delay to hold when I cut the left side and sample on the right side. I use the 4feet of air for pitch it is like playing a theremin with dubstyle loops, or conducting an orchestra.

    These things are dirt cheap and never seem to break. Don't buy that new vst, do yourself a favor save an artifact and enjoy the reward. By the way Peter thanks for the article, this is the type of post I would love to see more of.
    Roland SP-808 / SP-808EX

  • Kim
  • Blargh

    The first track was not boring, but I wasn't blown away by the technical wizardry…

    The second MPC track was boring as fuck. Once I realised there was little to no progression I skipped from minute one to minute three to minute six to minute nine and they all sounded the exact same. And I like my epic techno tunes.

    I'd have gone to the bar after less than a minute, and perhaps I wouldn't have returned.

  • @veck

    awesome video!

  • One of the the best live performance i have ever seen is Jeff Mills playing his TR-909 at the middle of a DJ set :

    I watched this video so many times…

  • ks

    well, i see some guy, that plays records, this is not performance for me. for dj he is good, but this is not musician.

  • I sent Peter this video cos I also saw Atom live recently here in Montevideo. He uses as someone pointed, a Tenori On for some stuff. And a laptop receiving MIDI only for the other video that is projected on the left side. I can tell you, this man knows the MPC well from the inside out. He navigated quickly the menus and changed parameters at lightning speed with the only fader available on the MPC. I talked to him too afterwards and had a couple drinks, and he was very fond of having his whole live set on a floppy disc. What a character.

  • s ford

    I saw Radioactive Man play a few years back with a MPC3000 and a few Korg tabletop synths (EM1 and ER1?) and he totally destroyed it live!  

    Great article btw. 

  • @KS – if all you see is a DJ when you watch that Jeff Mills video, you're not paying attention. He's playing the TR-909, with a level of virtuosity that takes a lot of effort to get to. Using nothing but the instrument volume knobs to bring instruments in & out, create builds, and turn a pattern into a track. And when he does play records, the 909 is beatmatched to them – not an easy feat I assure you.

    I've gone back and forth personally over the years in my live performances. I was one of the first people to switch to a laptop in SF – using first Rebirth, then Reason, then a custom environment in Logic, then finally Ableton. I abandoned Ableton for live performances again in '06, and went back to all hardware. First with a Emu XL-7 & Micro modular, then 2x Korg ESX-1s and 2x KP3s. I'm currently working with an MPC1k, Blofeld, and Nord Micromodular.

    A great resource for learning more about playing with hardware from people who have a lot of experience is the site.

    Ultimately the music is what matters – but personally I know what is involved in creating using each type of workflow – and someone playing a show with a pile of hardware is going to impress me a lot more than another Ableton set. 🙂

  • Gustavo is right, and don't forget that it's not so easy to play with a 909 live, because you have to stop the sequencer to switch between edit and play mode ! And the pot are very small, you need to be very acurate to build something interesting, and Jeff Mills is a god at that.

  • Peter,
    Great post.  I coudn't agree more that it's really about finding a tool you like and learning it.

    I wonder how you feel about the idea fact that blogs like synthtopia, djtechtools, skratchworx, and yes, CDM promote gear lust more than they do practice and doing with what you have?

    I read all of the blogs listed above because of posts like this, but I'm becoming increasingly weary of the industry watching that goes on (see endless NAMM coverage from all of the above).

    Curious to hear you thoughts.


  • Peter Kirn

    Nope, it's a fair point. Of course, it'd help if the entire industry didn't introduce all its new gear on ONE DAY. 😉 Then we could space it out.

    I'm not going to stop covering new gear, lustfully or otherwise, because it's part of what we do. I can be more judicious, though – and more intentional about covering some of the other aspects. Call it a 2011 resolution.


  • Honestly, I think you do a great job bringing something additional to most of your gear posts, and I definitely appreciate the interviews and coverage of DIY and boutique stuff.  I understand that the gear coverage is an important part of producing regular content, staying connected with those making it, and giving your readers what they want.

    Gear is also foundational to electronic music.  As you point out in this post, what was criticized in the 90s for being low quality is shown to be a robust and flexible instrument.


  • Nick

    A little late to this thread, but re.Seamus' post above about getting an MC-909, to any future readers who might be considering it…

    The problem with the MC-909 is that changes to the TR-style patterns don't take effect until the next run-through. So if you're halfway through a pattern and decide you want to drop the final bass kick, or add a couple of claps at the end, you're out of luck – you need to have made the change while the previous bar was running. It's very frustrating if you want to be making spontaneous changes.

    An Electribe will do a much better job in this regard, though I've always found it annoying that you have to hold down an extra button to mute a pad when selecting it on Electribes.  If you're in a quiet section and you want to select the clap sample in preparation for some tweaking, you'd better remember that extra button.

  • Alan Lauer

    Unfortunately, the Rei Harakami video has been removed due to copyright violations, and I’m unable to find a mirror.

  • Alan Lauer

    Unfortunately, the Rei Harakami video has been removed due to copyright violations, and I’m unable to find a mirror.