Photo (CC-BY-SA) bdu.

Electronic music has always had a funny relationship with musicianship. It isn’t playing a traditional instrument; instead, it lies somewhere between instrumentalism and composition, between playing and conducting. Sometimes, that scale is tipped away from virtuosity of any kind.

But lately, I’ve had an increasing number of conversations with people who make the tools with which we make music about what this all means. I’ll be able to share one of those conversations in a bit, but I’m curious to hear what readers think.

Computers are fairly open-ended devices, so let’s take the familiar drum machine. What constitutes virtuosity? We’ve seen showy videos on YouTube – indeed, the presence of a community like YouTube is an invitation for challenge-style oneupmanship from drum machinists. But there are many forms of technical skill in live performance, some showier than others. At what point does a drum machine performance become musical performance? What elements, specifically, allow that to happen?

What examples have inspired you? (YouTube videos here.) How have you resolved these challenges in your own work? Or have you resolved it? I’ll leave that question with you over the weekend. Have a good one.

Next week I’ll have another take on this question, as well; stay tuned.

After seeing Dave Cross’ post on showmanship, I will editorialize just in regards to the question:

Musicianship has only recently become primarily concerned with whether people are watching. In fact, most musical traditions from Balinese wedding music to music for religious purposes to dance music (square dance? tango?) isn’t necessarily watched intently. I would also question just how entertaining it is to watch musicians even in the classical tradition. Expression it seems may be more complex than what you see, coming down to whether on an emotional, physical level there’s a connection between what you’re doing and what’s heard, whether anyone is watching or not. (And since virtuosity requires endless practice, by definition, a lot of it is something you do alone – so you’d better be comfortable without an audience at least some of the time.) I’m curious to see if others agree and if that tempers your answer.

  • As a non-drummer, I don't think I can adequately answer the question, but this blog post of mine may provide more ammo to think on:&nbsp ;

  • This seems like a general issue w/r/t electronic music in general. With a x0x-style sequencer, it's hard to argue for "virtuosity" in the traditional sense. There is not necessarily a "classic" or "right" way to program such a machine. Some like to flip between patterns on a Roland machine, while others like to mess with the sequencer in real time.

    With pad-style drum machines, it's more about timing and sample selection.

  • I kinda like the controllerism approach. Never actually modded my midi gear yet tho.

  • MPC-based points of reference (would be great if someone had the time to find youtube vids of these):

    1) Kanye's recent VMA performance. His MPC solo mid-song.
    2) DJ Shadow, or DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist. Both acts have done MPC performances during their more traditional DJ gigs. 

  • Anything being played live is usually concocted first and being merely played live by the performer in real time. The fact that a person is on a drum machine, say an MPC, and banging it out from what is technically a computer doesn't make them less of a musician. You're performing a musical piece, so its a music performance. I think it would be best to think about the way a DJ performs and combine that in a way a traditional musician performs — that's a Live-Machinist, and really that's just thinking about sample-based performance.

    Also, the beauty of drum machines and computers being used for live performance is the technical skill goes beyond the way you play. It's in your setup, how well you can switch between banks, the way everything blends together, and bunch of stuff. It's like a magician, you know there are some things that was setup prior, but it doesn't make the trick less amazing. In fact it makes it more amazing that you can't exactly figure it out.

  • Charlie Lesoine

    It's about using the gear to it's fullest emotional potential. Obviously that's as incredibly open ended as the range of musical styles. The same goes for any instrument drum machine or cello. Jimi Hendrix was a guitar virtuoso because he squeezed every ounce of feeling out of the wood and metal of his strat. Bob Dylan was not a guitar virtuoso, he was a story telling virtuoso.

  • Speaking of virtuosity; check out this virtuosic non-quantized double-handed monome/mpd jam by galapagoose.

  • Veridical Driver

    Well, in drum machines, there is the MPC school, where you bang your beat on the pads… and then the X0X school, where you do your beats using 16 buttons.

    It isn't difficult to see how virtuosity works in the MPC school… basically it is just a self-contained electronic drum set. With the X0X school, when I have seen virtuosity, it usually involved realtime manipulation of the timbre (i.e., realtime tweaking of the knobs on the TR-808). I don't just mean generic knob twiddling, sweeping back and forth to change the sound over time, but people who have used the knobs, coordinated with the beat, in order to actually create more complex and organic beats than would be possible with the standard X0X sequencer.

  • tad ghostal
  • worm

    I am completely inspired from watching/listening to Meat Beat Manifesto manipulate samples in real-time and manipulating what is seen as well.

  • Over the last two years or so, I've started closing my eyes at music performances.  Can't remember where I got the idea to do this.  I occasionally miss some kind of visual thing, but it feels to me like I'm concentrating more on the music when not looking.

    BTW, my wife still thinks I'm sleeping when I do this; can't convince her otherwise.  🙂

  • Jack

    Saw this fella Jel in Dublin. Utterly mesmerizing! He keeps this up for at least an hour, and it sounded fresh to the very end

  • I'm not really a drum machine expert. I only own one and have never used it live.
    I'm actually quite glad we got over the "synth-virtuoso" times. Funny how doing the same thing that sounds great great on a piano can sound so stupid on a synth. Guess virtuosity is something completely different on an electronic instrument.

    Actually I would like to add one point to the fact that the electronic music "lies somewhere between instrumentalism and composition". As someone who works with elelctronic instrument you also define the timbre, the internal structure of the instrument. You're actually an active part of the instrument construction process. Because a Synth is like an instrument that comes as a lego set with pieces that combined can create a vast array of different instruments. So one virtuosity could be the skill of creating, tweaking and re-shaping that instrument in realtime, while performing live. Something many people do with great skill. This could also apply to drum machines, though I admit that these tend to give you a bit less "re-shaping power". The other virtuosity probably lies in the skill of using the peculiar possibilities of an electronic device in a clever and musical way. Programming, improvising, recording, overdubbing and altering patterns and sequences in a performance. Something I have always admired a lot is people who use looping to create stunning one-man-band performances. Maybe this can also apply to drum machines.

  • hey, awesome thread peter. i'll throw out Jeff Mills, specifically his 'purpose maker mix' (which was my first listen to him, ever) as a virtuoso of a type. the video is esp. compelling because it is so minimally shot, and allows for the viewer to make a clear connection between 'performance' and its musical result.

    and then, the XOX style of drum machine performance/virtuosity (also Purpose Maker/Jeff Mills) – jump to 5:10:

    i think an essential component of virtuosity is musicality. there are definitely virtuosos whose technique is more interesting than their music (most DJ world champions), and that's OK. however i have a deeper appreciation and respect  for those who also contributed something musically – Bird, Diz, Hendrix, maybe Squarepusher? Victor Wooten would, for me, though i enjoy him, rank on a lower level. 

    i mean, technically speaking, most classical musicians in major orchestras today are probably virtuosos, but we are not so interested in them 😉

  • @Hanzo

    related to what you said, there was a great post on the thread which inspired this of a famous dub mixer (can't remember who) doing his thing. that seemed like a virtuoso performance. 

    also, i've read (from the sear sound website, i think), that way back when in the '50s when they had to mix a song, all the engineers/people on the project would gather behind the board and take a fader. then they would 'perform' the mix. sounds beautiful.

  • Ken Hughes

    Anyone seen Dave Kerzner of Sonic Reality play drums on the keyboard? Not exactly drum machine, but virtuosic nonetheless. For pure drum machine virtuosity, Jimmy Jam is/was impressive in his work with Janet Jackson in particular: he would stop the programmed beat, play a fill, and start the beat again in perfect time. He would add hits and flavor while the beat played in order to randomize it a bit and give a human feel to it. 

  • Brian

    If you take an MPC as a drum machine as well, virtuosity is the worst goal you can have. At least to me. Seeing these kids with tipped back caps hammering away just makes me think of how many girls they passed up to stay in their room and practice hitting buttons. Does this actually enhance the final product for the listener to enjoy. Will the listener (without any knowledge of you) enjoy this music better because you hammer out 16th note triplets on a whim? I personally would rather see the music advance.

    That being said. Traditional drum machine virtuosity I believe can be achieved in programing. But this does not come from how well you know whichever drum machine you choose it comes from knowing rhythms and a real understanding of musical composition. Anyone can do a simple house beat on any drum machine but will anyone know how to duplicate "Take Five" on an 808?

    So in my opinion I guess you can be greatly skilled at one thing (MPC triggering or whatever you want) or you can actually learn music and be greatly skilled at many if you so choose to use the technology available.

  • mark

    Another Jeff Mills post.  Its pretty amazing what he does with only a 909

  • genjutsushi

    This goes right to the heart of the limitations imposed by hardware that makes them musical instruments.
    I used to perform with a 6 piece post rock group. My rig was a Kaoss pad for sampling and scratching, a Korg electribe for sample triggering, and a broken Roland MC505 that had no memory. As a result i had to create from scratch, on the fly, any synth sounds i used. I got really really quick at doing it, to the point that its probably the only piece of electronics i can honestly say that i have ever played as a musical instrument.

    But then it died on stage after one performance and i binned it…. stupid unreliable piece of junk!

  • timh

    And then there are the durm machines that are made for performance – like the handsonic:

    Lerning to play these is like learning a "real" instrument.

  • dope article… personally i think that step sequencing, no matter how you slice it, is sequencing, therefore not totally a performance…
    a drum machine was made to set and forget…
    to cover the drummers job when there is none…
    fingers hayes is the only one i ever seen kill a drum machine.. but he did so by bypassing the sequencer… as for MPCs and the like.. they are samplers and only fully performed by also bypassing the sequencer…
    i dunno… yet another grey area in the ever evolving electronic/performance/musicianship matrix…
    im just stoked folks keep rocking…

  • I agree its down to limitations. Dedicated interface to the sound engine makes it more immediate and suitable for the performance. Also the fact that artist doesn't look at the laptop screen during the performance 'checking email' kind of thing, makes it a little bit more interesting. Myself I play Machinedrum and Monomachine, interface on these boxes is just amazing. It made me want to practice and treat them as instruments (which I find harder with the laptop). Some people like to change patterns on them and use lots, some prefere to play with channel mutes.

    Another thing is having dedicated instrument like that makes me focused on music 100%. With the laptop and controller there is a bit of time to be spend on making the set, programming if you were to use max/msp for example or even soldering. I'm not sure if music is better in that case, at least in my experience. I guess the hardest bit in that case is finishing building an instrument and starting using it instead.

    As for examples here is great one for live MD usage:

    As for MPC style beat making its worth to mention Hifana. I always find them fun to watch. Its not solo MPC tho.

    @ Dave Cross here is some Pushing buttons by Dj Shadow, Cut Chemist and Dj Numark

  • the moment you press play on that drummachine is the moment it becomes a musical performance. one can, ofcourse, discuss how interesting the performance is, though.

  • I have never thought that virtuosity was possible on a drum machine. How would you define this versus a traditional instrument?

    I look at the drum machine as a creative tool used in the composition of a piece of music or track. Sure over the years you get better at squeezing out new sounds but as for playing it like an instrument? I don't think a technique has been defined yet and perhaps never will.

  • Leslie

    Nihil novil, but Your article is verbatim…

  • @Leslie. Sounds a bit quasi when someone end his article with "I’m curious to see if others agree and if that tempers your answer."

    Using pop culture Latin to sound distinguished is a bit sad.

  • @edison, holotropik

    i think you raise a good point about hayes. the most powerful bit of mpcs and stuff is sequencing or looping – bypassing that entirely is, in a sense, not accepting the challenges of the device (which is what a virtuoso should do).

    i do though, think that 'performance' is a bit more distributed w/digital or technical tools. dub mixing seems like a performance. i think dj'ing is a performance, and the jeff mills stuff (obviously, since i posted it). i think a good metaphor to throw in is of being a conductor – is the conductor of an orchestra performing (idk, i'm sure someone has covered this)? it seems to me like the way to go is to take advantage of looping, sequencing, and pounding out beats live if you wish, but really dive into the enhanced ability to 'conduct' the performance of your machine(s).

    relatedly, is a dj a curator? can curation be as creative as the traditional model of artmaking?

  • meant to say: "performance is a bit more distributed with digital tools or other technology," something like that.

  • i think it depends on your background what you consider virtuoso or musicianship. that's why older people usually have a much harder time realizing the virtuosity in an electronic music performance.
    as a musician using a laptop and some controllers on stage i often thought about musicianship too.
    in a nutshell: a computer or a drum machine can be as much of an instrument as a violin, a cello or a piano. they require different skills to be handled, though. but they can all be handled virtuoso.

  • I think the essence of performance is emotional, or psychological. That is to say, is the performer able to translate their own thoughts and feelings into the medium (music in our case) for an audience to receive?

    I think of an instrument as a tool, usually honed over time, which is able to allow the instrumentalist intuitive musical expression, almost always with a direct translation of a human action (breath, movement etc) into sonic effect. Intimate control of an instrument is a must, and the instrument should have a meaningful range of expression (kazoos and whistles are instruments, I guess, but no one talks about them that way).

    A virtuoso is someone who performs extremely well and has attained an uncommon mastery over their instrument.

    I do buy the "studio-is-an-instrument" argument, and think it's a good point of departure for examining virtuosity in the machine realm. I think a drum machine, sequencer, or synth virtuoso should organize their performance in a way such that their tools allow for a maximum of human expressibility. 

    In the end I'd say that instruments are created by performers as the expressive possibilities of what we declare instruments are discovered or created by their virtuosos, as opposed to being 'specs' inherent to the device. 

    Whew! Thanks for listening y'all.

  • LU
  • Ok, also – all the Tim Exile stuff Peter has posted in the past exemplifies drum machine virtuosity to me. He's not pounding out beats, he's using the looping/sequencing stuff, and he's found a zillion innovative ways to be expressive, 'conduct' his music, and gain intimate control over his tools. His rig is an instrument.

  • bar|none


    Of course you are being too modest. You are the virtuoso on the drum machine.

  • @Peter: FYI, your link to Dave Cross’ post on showmanship is broken.

  • FreakWithoutACause

    Using a drum machine on stage to trigger its sequencing capabilities ONLY is the same as a playback. Nothing inherently wrong with that. Stockhausen's early electronic piece "Kontakt" is performed by a pianist & a percussionist playing along with the playback that the composer has created previously and alone. What's left to judge is the overall quality of the music and how well the live performers performed. Of course you shouldn't sequence everything, unless you're The Orb on Top Of The Pops;) I suspect the reason some think of drum machines has 'having no soul,' as the bumper sticker puts it, is because the humans doing the programming often leave some key parameters untouched that live drummers deal with often; tempo change and time signature change. I don't know how difficult it is to program those features but when people say the drums in an electronic song sounds machine, it's likely their reacting to those unchanging qualities.

    As for triggering drum samples live (whether through a MIDI keyboard or MPC or whatever) there's more chance to introduce variation, shuffle feel, and most importantly, make mistakes. I think audiences get drawn into a live musical performance when the drama of the possibility of a mistake or the pleasure of a spontaneous invention is present.

  • midihendrix


    Virtuosity is how rhythmically one can bob his/her head to the music.

    A true drum machinist can bob his head in time with such virtuosity that the audience sees this and knows – he's a great musician. Scientists have researched this phenomenon and even the most precise atom clocks known to man break down before the point of any discrepancy between the beat master's bobs and the beat itself.

    Some of the great drum machinists of our time have been known to elicit head bobs from dozens, if not hundreds of on lookers just with their head bobbing chops.

  • Peter Kirn

    @substrain: That's fixed now; try reloading / getting out of RSS, as it may be cached.

  • lu_ce71
  • The image to this story ( the 808) sort of hints at why it's not easy to claim virtuosity when playing a drum machine as an instrument. The 808 has a label "computer controlled" which says it all really.
    Obviously someone who can wield the 808 as an instrument and drive it to within an inch of it's life would disagree and those of us who are privy to such an act would also know the difference between a static pattern and one that is being played. Those that know are a minority and have trouble convincing the knockers

  • jonah

    (Sorta wrote a book. Not sure what happened, haha.)
    I firmly fall into the music is to be experienced not watched camp. There are some performances I enjoy, but the music comes first and that attitude certainly colors my opinions.
    I agree on the Jeff Mills 909 workouts! First person that came to mind on reading this post, in fact. Not the kind of music I listen to much, but what I enjoy about his performance is that it looks like he is inspired, in the moment and has outstanding improvisational skills. I put forward PAN SONIC as artists in a similar vein(don't know of any good videos of them). Holy F*ck too(not sure if curse words are okay)
    When I watch live MPC and pad performances often feel as if I am witnessing a virtuoso act of memorization, the Monome especially. The results can be musical, but the playing isn't. Not something I care to watch. I think compared to another event that requires a lot of memorization like say a piano recital the less expressive controls hurt it. 
    Performances with the APC40(say Baths) or a controllerist(say Tim Exile) often lack an element of danger to me. I feel much of the talent I'm witnessing is in designing a performance that can't fail. That is a serious skill, no disrespect. That is: I can appreciate these people as composers and planners. Also knowing how it's done to a degree(the software behind the curtain) makes it less magical to me. 
    I don't need to see each aspect of a performance mapped out out 1:1. It's old fashioned and I think it's a time sink many modern electronic musicians are falling into. Tim Exile and Baths are both great emotive performers. I wish each would spend more time singing 🙂  With Baths  especially I wonder if there is an element of insecurity. Thought experiment: imagine if Tim Exile memorized, automated and sang along with all the effects that would happen during a course of a song, maybe with a lone bcr2000 in front of him. How would you react to that? I personally imagine that to be an much more powerful experience. And to pick on Tim Exile more, the Beardyman team ups are much more interesting due to the interplay and chance elements that happen between two humans interacting. 
    Simple live looping gives me that "wow" factor more consistently than other electronic techniques. Julianna Barwick is awesome!
    I feel Fennesz's approach seems to be to have the main "movements" planned out and improvise the small stuff.  Autechre's method where a lot of what you are hearing is their studio process sans editing I really appreciate too.

  • jonah

    "The defining element of virtuosity is the performance ability of the musician in question, who is capable of displaying feats of skill well above the average performer" – Weiss, Piero; Taruskin, Richard via wikipedia
    The Wikipedia article has some good criticism of the virtuoso too. "The real dignity of the virtuoso rests solely on the dignity he is able to preserve for creative art; if he trifles and toys with this, he casts his honour away. He is the intermediary of the artistic idea" – Richard Wagner
    The terms "Virtuosenmachwerk" (piece of routine display) and "Pultvirtuoso" (orchestral player of virtuoso temperament) are terms that are new to me(and knowing wikipedia are entirely fictional), but succinctly sum up my feelings. I really don't enjoy virtuosity most of the time. Mr Malmsteen, I'm looking at you.
    I think what a lot of people look for in watching someone perform is seeing the artists emotional connection to the music. Psychologically this can make it much easier for us to become invested in the music and appreciate it more. When I see a physically difficult performance it's easier to realize how much an artist is emotionally invested in the music. In other words: I wanna see you sweat! Virtuosity is often a perversion of this and is used as a tool to elevate the performer and their ego above the art, this is usually what people disparage as wankery. On the other hand this mastery in service of the music can be similar to watching Carl Lewis sprinting or say Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics where a single persons achievements can make you marvel at all of human spirit and the potential each person has. There is extensive self knowledge and reflection required to know what's behind our own motivations. Humans being humans it'll be even harder for others to come to a consensus over what's wank and what isn't. 
    Actual drumming that appeals to me is in general minimal: Joy Division, Krautrock like Can, Neu! etc. I consider the players timing and repetition virtuosic and others agree. It doesn't fly with most folks to call drum machine patterns similarly virtuoso-like. What I mean by all this is that looking for virtuosity on a drum machine or anywhere may be counter productive.
    Lastly, I'll add that modern tools to create electronic music tend to lend themselves towards a maximalist style of music that sounds like what most would call virtuosity. Or in say the case of arpeggios make it dead easy.  It's only going to get worse/better. The definition of virtuoso while using electronic tools should reflect that. Displaying a great deal of restraint, self control and self editing are real displays of virtuosity in our times.

  • jonah

    Paragraph break disaster…ah well.

  • Peter,

    Many thanks for setting such discussion. It's interesting to see that not only Drum Machine performances, but also Electronic Music performance in general is a subject that concerns many musicians/DJs/controllerists/whatever.

    Virtuosity is obviously tied to live performance but there are also many other aspects that contribute to a questioning on how and why Electronic Musicians should "perform"…

    I'm looking forward to the next posts and questions.

  • spoweck
  • Blob

    "I think audiences get drawn into a live musical performance when the drama of the possibility of a mistake or the pleasure of a spontaneous invention is present."
    Bingo. The possibility of drama and mistake (and, may I add, the unfathomable human touch) may also lead to irreproducible moments of pure genius. With electronic devices, these moments of genius only happen if you combine samples and pre-sequenced bits of music with physical interfaces (keyboards, electronic percussion, some types of sensor devices) that allow for harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and dynamic expression on the fly. This provides true musical feedback to the audience that something special is happening. It provides essential visual feedback as well. And, most importantly it shapes the muic and prevents it from becoming repetitive and closed in on itself (which is the case with most electronic music). This is my definition of virtuosity and I admit it is a bit of a classical and unfashionable definition, but I'm sticking to it.
    This means that, as I see it live electronic music, as it stands, is at best 50% composing and sound design and 50% actual playing, with variations in between depending on the gear and use of non-computerized / non-automatized instruments.
    I'm risking being flamed but as an electronic musician myself who plays with a live band, it comes down to this – DJ's playing records (or sometimes just hitting a play button in a computer) or a guy sitting behind a laptop are rarely virtuosos and I don't consider them to be live musicians in any sense – they curate music presentations, they do not "play" concerts. I would most likely not pay to see myself sitting behind a laptop or a drum machine without any other means of musical expression – or without other musicians helping me go beyond the inherent limited live expression and musical limitations of electronic devices.

  • Blob

    "@edison, holotropik

    i think you raise a good point about hayes. the most powerful bit of mpcs and stuff is sequencing or looping – bypassing that entirely is, in a sense, not accepting the challenges of the device (which is what a virtuoso should do)."

    In any case, I'm not closed to this concept . I can see how hacking a looping machine to bypass its conventional functions and use it as a direct physical musical device can lead to virtuosity.

  • Blob

    a correction on my first post:
    "DJ’s playing records (or sometimes just hitting a play button in a computer) or a guy sitting behind a laptop are rarely virtuosos and I don’t consider them to be live musicians in any sense"

    I should have left that at "I don’t consider them to be live musicians *most of the time". Obviously on the fly manipulations of sonic parameters (i.e., scratching or manipulating filters) count as live events, but for me, an event that relies only on that is never 100% a concert.

  • Some great video links here. Here's one of my favorites. Not as dexterously virtuosic as some, but the music is compelling. Anchorsong – Set the Bears Free:

  • Great post.  In a way most Ableton DJ's are playing a drum machine live.  I think the more room for error the more "Genuine" the performance.  When doing a longer DJ set rather than "electronic music performance" you need more pre-sequencing etc.

  • 23fx

    this remind  me few south france raves 10-15 years ago, there were lots of 'Live Acts', 
    performers where straight in front of the sound system, in middle of people, not far on stage, so i could always stare just at 1m the whole bunch of machines and cables and the guys tweaking knobs on old  blue, red, black,green electribes and MPCs, i was fascinated. few of them (ie 69db,Ixi, crystal Distortion from Spiral tribe where doing such amazing thingz, so speed, like mute 3 or 4 sound, then slide their fingers on all the touches so i was 'inverting selection', or other strange things make u think they really pushed hard their machines, it was like something 'natura'l for them. now they are very disapointing but at this time that was awesome to watch.

  • @Blob
    I'm not sure how choosing not to use a drum machine's looping abilities qualifies as 'hacking.' Not opposed to artists like Hayes, but I am curious why that kind of stuff hasn't migrated into full-on synth drum kit territory. cost?

  • @Jonah
    "… I’ll add that modern tools to create electronic music tend to lend themselves towards a maximalist style of music that sounds like what most would call virtuosity. Or in say the case of arpeggios make it dead easy.  It’s only going to get worse/better. The definition of virtuoso while using electronic tools should reflect that. Displaying a great deal of restraint, self control and self editing are real displays of virtuosity in our times."

    I love this – virtuosity as an inner value to be cultivated!

  • tad ghostal

    @ Jonah – How does Tim Exile's interactive online jam rank for a 'dangerous' performance? In case anyone missed it, he was getting people to send sounds to his soundcloud account and sampling them live without auditioning them.

  • Nice idea, Peter, and a thought-provoking one. 
    I'd say that a new type of virtuoso has arrived: the cloned-self virtuoso. As musicians, we've all have the pleasure of real-time improvisation with other players and the unexpected pleasant surprises that can occur spontaneously from the mix of creative minds. But there are other times when we feel that our original vision for a composition was diluted by those other minds, and we wish we could jam with clones of ourself in order to better achieve that original vision. The process of overdubbing permitted us to jam with our clones (with previous parts we recorded), but it was a slow stop-and-go process and not very well-suited to live performance. 
    Enter the looping drum machine, followed by the looping midi sequencer and audio loopers. With their looped recording capabilities, the stop-and-go limitation was removed, giving a single musician the potential to create a compelling real-time performance consisting of his current part plus his previous parts created only moments ago. 
    Some of the most compelling performances I've seen are by current masters of this new medium, layering parts one at a time, removing one and adding another, manipulating, remixing, processing, changing one part into something seemingly nonsensical then bringing resolution by adding another that ties it all together. It's like the tension and release of watching a artist create a painting, initially confusing the viewer with seemingly chaotic brushstrokes, then granting resolution with additions that reveal the intended visual object. 
    In the world of beat-oriented music, the drum machine seems to have become an important new musical instrument for the self-cloned virtuoso. The only problem is that what's currently out there isn't quite the virtuosic instrument it needs to be. It needs to do more in real time, take better advantage of human gestures and have more capabilities for real-time performance nuance and subtlety. But I suspect that all that will come, and with a little luck perhaps even soon. 
    – Roger Linn

  • Electronic musical instruments are really different from most acoustic ones.  So is their performance. The interface and engine can be interchanged on electronic, whereas on a traditional instrument, the interface is the engine.

    The master performer of electronics can get the machine to do what he wants in ways that go beyond the instrument designers original intention.  It doesn't really matter whether it's in front of a crowd or not.   

  • @Roger: "The only problem is that what’s currently out there isn’t quite the virtuosic instrument it needs to be. It needs to do more in real time, take better advantage of human gestures and have more capabilities for real-time performance nuance and subtlety. But I suspect that all that will come, and with a little luck perhaps even soon. "

    Are you dropping a hint about LinnDrum II? Well, best of luck/break a leg!

  • DiVinci kills it definitely:

  • @roger linn…
    make me something to bang on and we'll figure this out!!!! 😉

    awesome discussion!
    being a "memorization" guy… i'd have to say that, when i perform.. it doesn't feel like memorization…. i have spent time setting up and developing a layout and system that works… while performing, the prime objective is creating a moving, flowing song with interesting turns starts and stops…. while creating these songs… the goal is to have something mechanical sound not… the one man band….
    after all is said.. i still think a sequence is something to be played to, not a performance… but i agree with the "conductor" comments in full, as well…
    what a clusterf*ck…… haha

    as for APC and MPD performances as of late… they are pretty disappointing to me… baths dropped an amazing record.. when i saw his show, meh..
    i feel like adding effects to a prerecorded track falls straight under the "sequence" side of things…

  • Gavin@FAW

    For memusic is a form of communication, a display of virtuoso skill should be just a side effect of that communication. 

  • rondema

    I agree with Gavin. To use his analogy, you may choose to judge a person on the finesse in their pronunciation or the breadth of their vocabulary, however, be it spoken or written (read improvised or sequenced) it's in the meaning of their words (and our personal interpretation) where the magic lies.
    So yes, furious finger flexing does indeed constitute virtuosity, but it certainly doesn't necessarily equate to meaningful or satisfying.
    I'll take Galapagoose's loose style over Edison's (nonetheless impressive) supertight on-the-grid virtuosity any day.

  • rondema

    Great discussion though.. It has had me thinking (and listening) all day. We are lucky to have all this technology at our disposal but should not get carried away and forget that it is essentially a means to an end, and the end is all that really matters.

  • @roger linn – well said!!!
    @rondema – your most recent post sums it all up.

    This is a fantastic thread…hopefully after decompressing from work and spending some quality time with Maschine I'll be able to contribute something more to this conversation other than some (well-deserved) pats on the back….cheers to all!!!

  • Addendum – count me as another person looking forward to the LInn/DSI collaboration in the "drum machine" realm…

  • Wow…finally a discussion that really goes in deep.  A lot of people are sharing their opinions here, that's fantastic.

    I think, as far as audiences go, they need to see a direct connection between a musicians real-time intention to affect sound through creation or modification.
    A ratio is set up.  How much change do they hear in the world of sound vs. how much intentional action do they see on behalf of the performer.  Traditional acoustic instruments like cello or trumpet are almost 1:1.  When you get into something like drumming on pads unaccompanied, you are still pretty darn close, but things start to tip the ration once you have samples that contain audible changes.  For example, lots of MPC tappers are hitting samples that are not just individual drum hits or chops of sound, but bits of rhythmic stuff like drum paradiddles and shuffles, even loops.  It takes extra coordination to hit pads with rhythmic snippets and keep time, so my hat goes off to these kind of performers.
    The more complicated the gear gets, the further you will stretch this ratio.  A TR-909 is great because the performer can tap out a pattern in real-time, then ,like a shaman, control a dancing crowd by altering crucial sound parameters, muting and revealing sounds, building and stripping layers of percussion, etc.  Can you tell I'm a huge Jeff Mills fan?  As far as truly famous Roland drum machine improvisors, I guess it comes down to him and Richie Hawtin, who will also do similar things on a TR-808.

    I'd say someone is a virtuoso when the entire range of performable functions of an instrument are within the users immediate command for the purpose of expression of at least one emotion on a scale of 0-99% intensity. 100% would involve destruction of the device, either unintentionally due to overplaying or intentionally due frustration with the device's limitations.  The act of becoming so emotional on stage that I would destroy a synthesizer or drum machine is something I'd like to experience in this life.

  • Kim

    Good job Peter, look at how many posts you got off this one.
    Like em or hate em .. deep down we all love drum machines.
    The soul is not in the machine it is translated through it and out the speakers. A drum machine as they are made today are no less an instrument than a piano or a guitar. The human voice is the ultimate musical instrument and as of yet cannot be matched by an electronic device.

    Just so all of you know virtuosity cannot be possible unless there is a possibility of mistakes, so we define it by what can go wrong. Some of the things that can go wrong are timing, pitch, and failure to engage your audience.

    Now I'm going to go give my Electribe some love.

  • I think the most important thing about drum machines is that they introduce us to meta-music in live performances, in which a movement made by the performer won't always have as a direct consequence in sound. Few people see simple queuing of sounds as an interesting performance, because you'll hardly keep focused on someone that could really be doing nothing at all. As a result, actions like bank changes, assigning controls, which are more part of the music production process, should be reduced to the minimum to allow greater communication between the audience and the performer. In electronic music, with such a detachment. It's all about having the people "believing" you're the one doing all that fuss. That is why you need to introduce seemingly "natural" sound triggering (tweaking a knob, hitting a drumpad) to make a live performance look like one. That's where to me resides the interest of the monome used with mlr. I think it has achieved a great compromise between strong construction potential with pattern recordings and loops queueing, minimal non-musical actions, and have at the same time true expressive possibilities through playback position change, with a strong "what you see is what you hear" correlation (lights indicating playback position are also buttons that you press to trigger the sound)
    This is what i've tried to achieve combining the monome with more classical fader, knobs and buttons control.

  • As for the virtuosity.. I think anyone seeing a virtuoso performing should be able to identify him as such, regardless of the instrument played. Virtuosity, to me, is about mastering an instrument, nothing more.

    Nice thread going on there, we could easily use a true CDM forum!

  • 23fx

    I wish lives were more performed
    in front of facade sound rather than on stage. first for performer it's much more enjoyable than rambling returns monitors with delayed infra bass of main system,  hearing the real sound, loud, same as  people hear, then people can enjoy and watch the performance from much closer,
    and it does add a lot to the magic feel of real communication between artist and audience, and potentially push up the artist
    for more 'virtuose' performmances rather than presequenced stuff. at least i did feel that a lot personally, once performing wirelessly  with a custom build controller made by wiimote and xbox pad in front of 10kw in middle of people, so much more enjoyable than trying to hear my stuff from behind the soundsystem with no clues if people enjoy or not.

  • @edison
    awesome perf, really impressive.

  • Blob

    Sorry, I used the word "hacking" in a very broad sense, i.e "breaking" the machine in unexpected ways – unconventional programming on the fly, "misuse" of parameters, connections and controllers, etc. Maybe actual hardware hacking could also be included? 😉

    I think electronic musicians, after all these decades, are still struggling o find their place as live performers and most are still not quite there yet – myself included, when I use my MIDI keyboard controller to play synths and samples it is a direct musical affair like it is for other musicians; but when I'm just manipulating loops it is very detached and limited. In any case, I think controller device technology is starting to catch up on these needs – and this will soon bring us to a situation where straightforward sequencing of loops and tracks will not be considered enough to qualify as a full live performance. It will carry live electronic music away from abstraction and probably force many electronic performers to be confronted with their musical limitations. Fine be me, that's what evolution is all about.

    Anyway, great thread. I'm looking forward to see more comments!

  • +1 Jeff Mills. His DJ and performance skills are stunning, a true artist.

  • ashjamben

    just my 2 cents on the discussion of MPC just being memorisation, can't remember who said it. surely it's exactly the same as a piano. if you play a key on a piano you hear a note. if you play the same key again on a piano you hear the same note. an MPC is exactly the same, you hit a pad you hear a sound. also, you hit a key on a piano harder or softer you can hear the difference, an MPC (with velocity sensitive pads of course) does exactly the same. all a piano player is doing when they play a piece memorising a piece of music, or playing from a musical score, both of which an MPC performer will or could do. in fact, how about we write a score for an MPC performer with full dynamics, articulation marks and ornaments?

  • Well, a virtuoso is someone who makes themselves into a tool to channel the most accurate possible representation of a composers creative expression. I'd say the drum machine itself is the virtuoso. 

  • Blob

    No quite, sorry but I have to disagree. If we rely on that definition, then you'll find you can only apply "virtuosity" to the composing process and not the "performance". A "virtuoso" (whether an electronic or "non-electronic" musician) should be able to do more than merely mechanically reproducing a composer's work – he/she should be able to lend it his/her personal touch and possibly take the musical piece beyond its original intentions, without betraying its spirit. It is impossible to reach this level of performative artistry do if one simply relies on pre-programmed sequences. A drum machine is just a contraption that electronically/mechanically reproduces sounds – nothing more, nothing less. Its up to an electronic musician / virtuoso to break that mold and raise the bar. If I write an electronic piece in a sequencer and you present it to an audience it merely by pressing the play button and checking volumes without affecting its structural, melodic, rhythmical and spectral contents, then you are not performing, or at least not 100%. It will sound accurate (i.e. an exact reproduction of the composition) but it will not be a performance, because it will lack expression, improvisation and emotional content that comes from direct musical manipulation that comes naturally for acoustic musicians but is more difficult with electronic media.

    All of this to say that a virtuoso is not just a tool, he/she is an integral part of live creativity. Funnily enough, this concept of thinking about musicians as "tools" and "vessels" for the composer's creativity might have partly been inherited by the western classical tradition (especially 18th-19th century) where the non-performing composer was absolute and performers were akin to factory workers… but even then there was room for dynamic and emotional expression to be attributed to notes on a musical sheet. Anyway, that would probably be a broader discussion about what music performance in general is all about…

  • Blob

    (lots of typos and grammar mistakes caused by quick typing, my apologies for that)

  • Not gonna lie, there is nothing more impressive than araabmuzik on the MPC. Dude can tap like none other.

  • Zoopy

    Can anyone provide a video link to someone who just triggers one hit samples, instead of loops? I'd like to see some MPC jamming like that… seems to me..Edison, Jel, Jeff Mills etc are all manipulating the way loops are launched…maybe not ALL the time, but are definitely relying on a machine to play out rhythms…where's the sample based live drummin? I want to see some live autechre beats played with fingers, or something. 

  • Zoopy

    Woops, I guess that edison vid is all one shots!

  • @blob  A drum machine, being a musical instrument is also an integral part of musical creativity, as any tool is. 

    Interestingly the one in the picture above is claiming to be a "composer".

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  • I think this is virtuosity on a drum machine. Have you seen this?

  • I'm late for this thread, but just wanted to say I'm an Electribe man, and when I play live I start with an empty pattern, and build up from there. Ephemeral music. I don't have a theoretical dogma over this, I just found that I have the most fun doing it this way. And it has the plus that you can adapt to the audience and venue, more dancey, more IDM, faster, slower, harder, softer. Improvising is what I really dig. ANd off course, you have to know your instrument really well. Anyone in the same line here?

  • I'm firmly in the "if you're playing live, you are performing" camp. There are aspects of your performance you must take account of when playing live and saying people must focus on the music, not the show is a cheap way out of not working to present a live show. If you are an acousmatic musician, and fervently against the live aesthetic, then why even bother to play live?

    We all know the audience-performer feedback is one of the greatest elements during a show and those who don't utilize it better have amazing music that speaks for itself … I'm not saying everyone has to do the rockstar thing, just be mindful that there is a lot of work and practice in a live presentation, for the sake of showgoers please please put some effort into it or don;t bother and put up your albums online. 

  • Gavin@FAW

    "must focus on the music, not the show is a cheap way out of not working to present a live show"

    Not so sure about this. I know alot of electronic musicians get frustrated when they see other electronic musicians change the way the music is created just to satisfy an audiences need for a traditional performance.

    Take Caribou for example, it does seem like that once he became famous and was encountering a more main stream audience that he switched from being a one man show to a full band. Was this to satisfiy preconceived ideas of what a performance should mean? Was this a good thing?

  • Blob

    I side with DanWilcox's camp on this one – and I believe people like Caribou change their live performance setup to improve the performance experience. Other examples I can think of include Ben Frost and Fennesz, who base a lot of their sound on electronic manipulations of guitar sounds. They're currently touring with 3 piece bands and combining live guitar with loops and electronic manipulations, adding more improvisation and unexpected variations on their music. I think that's awesome.

    "I know a lot of electronic musicians get frustrated when they see other electronic musicians change the way the music is created just to satisfy an audiences need for a traditional performance."
    One of the most disappointing evenings of my life happened 5 years ago when I went to see a Murcof "concert". I like his music, but was extremely annoyed, after paying my ticket, that his performance consisted on him standing in a darkened stage behind a single laptop. I could not tell the difference between the music coming out of the speakers at the venue and the music I had been listening on my own speakers at home. For all I know, he was playing pre-recorded tracks and checking their volumes.

    Audiences, even non-"traditional" ones, can get frustrated when faced with situations like this. When you get on a stage, your job is to satisfy your audience (and enjoy yourself, of course).

  • @Josh
    araabMUZIK is raw! I think I find him so exciting because there's a sympathy between his perfomance technique (banging out one shots) and the music itself – it sounds like machine music (don't hold me to what that is!), i.e. he's not trying to play drums on a MPC. I can't get that Edison vid to load on vimeo….

    What you're saying reminds of the idea (which I'm for) that instrument designers now are composers, or something like that.

    @Roger Linn
    Interesting! Playing with yourself always sounded less exciting to me than, well, playing with someone else, but now you're playing with clones! 🙂 Seriously, that is an insightful take on electronic performance. 

    Also, yeah, how about that drum machine :)?

    Peter, great thread! I think the level of interest is showing you that there's a hunger to talk more about the theoretical/human aspects of digital music, in addition to the technology. Whoever mentioned a forum had a good idea…what a knowledge base…though there's something 'performative' about comment threads – maybe a fancier indexing/thread search system so users could browse around old threads?

  • LeMel

    Reminds me of the somewhat contentious "take it to the stage" thread (in topic only – that one got kind of heated).

    A virtuosity can be developed around any objet with affordances, whether a hubcap or a sax. But first, some questions…

    If you listen to a recording of a virtuoso, are you experiencing a virtuoso performance? What if that recording were being played from a stage with an audience of hundreds of people seated listening? Does the presence of the audience negate the magic of the peperformance encoded in the recording without the performer's presence?

    Many electronic music devices only became instruments when people decided to start messing with them.

    Drum machines and sequencers in particular, weren't invented with performance affordancces in mind. Rather, in many cases, they were born to remove them, to be autonomous by very definition. Only later were their hubcap-like affordances exploited for tapping, strumming studdering trigger-phreaking. Even later, the machines actually included performance features: velocity pads, break buttons, part modes, beat latching, tempo tapping, etc.

    But when the audience starts from a place of skepticism regarding how much technology is responsible for what they are hearing, the electronic musician can find him/herself in the unfortunate position of having to win them back into positive territory, passing thru zero along the way. A player picking up a sax doesn't have that baggage to deal with. Thus the great hand-wringing over a the simple question of "how do I make sure the audience knows a performance is happening?" – a question that was once easily answered by simply walking on stage.

    Also, I really like that @jonah brought up singing. Playing and vocalizing at the same time immediately ups the ante in a performance (if you can make it work).

    As Brian Eno said, "art is a trigger for experience." If what you're doing works the audience will let you know.

  • i can't recall if i've mentioned this distinction on CDM before, but … i think that a lot of commentary above misses a distinction that we used to make very clearly: the orchestra and the conductor. when i watch the various videos posted here of guys running beatboxes, what i'm struck by mostly is how little work the human does compared to the machine. but that's nothing new: the conductor does very little compared to the musicians in an orchestra, certainly not during the actual performance. but the conductor does (to a limited extent) select the performers, defines the tonal qualities that are being strived for, controls timing and so on.

    the people are "good" at playing machines that can basically play themselves strike me as very much like a "virtuoso", but in the sense of a virtuoso conductor, not a virtuoso on a particular instrument.

    its an odd reframing, perhaps, but sometimes you need to imbue the machine with as much humanity as it has power and view it as something closer to an orchestra. the human is not the musician, the human is the conductor of all that noise-making potential, and directs it to his/her own ends.

  • KitCom

    sorry if anyone's pulled this out yet but justin aswell is a killa

  • another thing to consider is how many of these MPC/drum machine performers are skilled primarily in the sense of timing, rather than expression. they get mad beatz from their fingertips, but all they need to do for that to "work" is to be on time. how you hit a pressure-sensitive pad is not, as far as i can tell, playing much if any role in the sound production process i'm seeing.

  • KitCom

    @ Paul Davis
    i hadnt really thought about it that way but i'd have to agree with you. to add to that point the majority of mpc style drum machine performers dont use the Velocity sensitivity let alone the pressure sensitivity.

    but for anyone who wanted some more youwastemytimetube videos

    Dizz1 form Australia

    Exile and DJ Day

    Damu The Fudgemunk

    Equalibrium's live looping video

    Knock Squared

  • I've been an electronic musician for a while now, but recently joined Saint Louis Osuwa Taiko.  We consider the visual aspect of a performance to be *more* important than the sound.  Hitting notes in time with proper dynamics would be relatively easy, but we also have to look awesome and synchronized while doing it.  It's really kind of a dance that looks like martial arts and sounds like drumming.

    This is a huge contrast to tweaking in software and sampling acoustic bits, or even the casual hand percussion, wind and theremin stuff I take up occasionally.

    I don't really concern myself with virtuosity in electronic music (other than watching good thereminists; Pamelia Kurstin is a genius).  For the most part it strikes me the same way as a programmer who concerns themselves with their touch typing speed — kind of neat but irrelevant.  I guess if you can put on a better show, more power to you.  One way or another, it's results that matter.

    Kind of a side thing:  was Thelonious Monk, with all his weird uneven style (and apparently, inability to perform some of his own songs without recording multiple takes) a virtuoso?  Or does that status require technical precision?

  • "… how you hit a pressure-sensitive pad is not, as far as i can tell, playing much if any role in the sound production process i’m seeing."

    the sounds themselves need to be produced and composed… the button hitting is the culmination of the processes… whats the difference between a pad and a fretboard??

  • @edison: being a virtuoso performer is an entirely different thing from being a brilliant composer, even if some people are good at both.

    as for the pad/fretboard distinction: if you are using the pad so that pressure/velocity/edge detection alters the sound generated by the hit, then not much. but if you're not, then its all the difference in the world.

    to recite an eno quote that i use too much: "a good instrument has qualities that the body can learn, and the mind cannot". an array of pads sort of meets that goal, but as fully as i think eno was intended when he said that.

  • @crashproof: i don't think that being a virtuoso was ever necessary to be an astounding musician. jazz is ripe with both – people like art tatum who were virtuosos on the piano, and those like monk who just had some way to make music that nobody else could do. tatum's music sounded like his own but less so than monk who was just uttterly iconoclastic. wynton marsalis is one of the most virtuosic trumpet players ever, but i find his music boring compared to "lesser" horn players (e.g. mark isham, or even miles davis).

  • @paul
    just saying…
    if the pad is triggering something that was recorded and done well/shitty… how is it any different? shure… youre not playing that instrument at that time…. but you are using the recording of said performance…
    what if the performance FOR the recording was virtuosic AND the performance of the recorded material is virtuosic…???
    like yoyoma jumping onna MPC and killing shit…
    whew…. haha
    i think that the good thing about instruments of today, is they can blur this line between production/performance…
    they are still in infancy, but likely, performance and production in and of themselves will follow suit…

    i think this whole disscussion is awesome, because none of these lines have been defined yet…
    as for Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno… dude was an innovator, in the day he probably would have flipped shit onna grid controller… and made some epic snoozer atmospheres….
    i just mean… nothing has to be traditional to make noise, and sticking to traditions makes no new noise…

  • @edison: "sticking to traditions makes no new noise"

    I think ultimately "new sounds" or virtuosity matter less than the actual results. Unless you look at it like a sporting competition.

  • @substrain…
    i think you're clouding the point with musical taste… absolutely the "actual result" is most important… but, we're talking about "virtuosity"…
    besides, the "actual result" is a non discussion, as no one could ever agree what the "result" was…
    as for a sporting competition…

  • Kim

    Peter I would like to see more articles like this.

  • This thread have def got me thinking.
    I went away and really thought about what I was trying to achieve and think that I have it worked out.
    For example, I sit down on the ESX and pull together all my samples etc and rough out a sound set that can make up a track. Then using the ESX I create the track in song mode. During the course of this Song process I end up with heaps of patterns. Then I can save some of those patterns elsewhere on the ESX, erase the pattern data but keep the sounds. Then I can do an improvised Live jam using the sounds that made up some of the track written in song mode.
    This way I can play the ESX as an instrument in anyway I feel at the time.

    I have done this with one pattern set I have been working on and it is a great way to play with a track on a machine like the ESX.

    So thanks Peter for this thread. It came at the right time for me and helped trip me over a threshold standing in my way.

  • Lindsay

    "relatedly, is a dj a curator? can curation be as creative as the traditional model of artmaking?"

    It could be argued that curation is ALL that artmaking is today. Using this paradigm in relation to electronics and performance could be useful.

  • Blob

    "It could be argued that curation is ALL that artmaking is today."
    No it couldn't.
    Artmaking is creative process, conception, and/or performance.
    Curating is simply the act of presenting / displaying artworks to the public.
    i.e. an art gallery owner / curator is not a painter/sculptor/photograher/digital artist/etc,; a book editor selecting and publishing a collection of essays / literary works is not an author;
    a DJ playing vinyl records in a club is NOT a composer or performing musician.
    Equating "curating" with "art making" devalues art. Curation is not as creative as artmaking because it is merely a vehice for bringing art works to an audience. These days, it has become socially acceptable for some types of "curators" to call themselves artists, in order to blur the lines and boost their status, but saying "I am an artist" does not make you one – especially if you haven' created / performed anything yourself.

  • Lindsay


  • Blob

    OK, Duchamp. Very interesting guy, a few years ago I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of his paintings, installations and kinectic sculptures. I would certainly not think of him as a "curator" (correct me if I'm misinterpreting you, Lindsay), because his life's work is a combination of creative process and artistic authorship (installations, sculptures, early paintings) with his anti-establishment interventions and explorations of concepts – like his chance music conceptual experiments (i'm assuming you're referring to those); but these were not art and probably that wasn't even his intention – the chance music drafts were purely philosophical and conceptual works, possibly a direct result of his interest in physics and mathematics. Authorship/performance and the human element are diluted and nullified in randomized music produced by a mechanical device – the results can hardly be art and are surely not performance. I can take credit for an equation /algorithm that automatically produces random notes, but I can never honestly take credit for the music that is created by that device, since it exists without any further human intervention on my part.

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  • Marty

    A drummer cannot be a "Virtuoso" I know there's extreme drummers like Marco Minneman, but to be a Virtuoso you have to be the best concert performer and have extreme!!! technical ability such as ultra fast wide interval arpeggios, and flawless staccato and legato techniques. Can play Paganini, Jason Becker, Bach, Scriabin by ear precisely as it's heard. 

    That's why they are named Virtuoso's because There basically extinct! 

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  • Drummer

    Awesome drum machine, thanks!

  • Drummer

    Awesome drum machine, thanks!

  • Drummer

    Awesome drum machine, thanks!