There was a time when using controllers to play music was still novel. Building them was a technically complicated task, limited to a handful of individuals – most of whom had to keep solving the same basic problem of how to get started over and over again. Now, we know, that’s no longer the case. There are controllers everywhere. You can buy a finished one off the shelf. If you want to customize and modify that, it’s easier than ever before. If you want to make your own, that’s easier than before, too. And the result is that musicians separate themselves by making their music special – by practicing and creating something uniquely theirs.

Now, it seems that a friendly little niche of electronic music making is poised to open up for robotic instruments. (As my friend Donald Bell so nicely put it, quoted on the Kickstarter here, “tinkertechno.”)

I’ve been watching the evolution of Johannes Lohbihler’s dadamachines project as it’s evolved over a period of years. And yes, the first thing to know is — you can bang stuff with it!

Now, that might alone be enough – banging things is fun for just about all humans. But there’s more here than that. If you think of a hardware controller as a way of turning physical input into digital music, this really is a glimpse of what happens when you make digital music into physical output.

And the cleverest thing Johannes has done is to nicely productize the core of the system. The automat controller box, the brains of the operation, lets you quickly plug in anything 12 volt. That’s nice, in that there hasn’t been any plug-and-play solution for that. So whether it’s a solenoid (those things plunking stuff) or a motor or anything else that runs on 12 volt, connections are easy.

dada_preview-peter_002

There’s a USB connection for a computer/tablet, but you can also unplug the computer and just use MIDI in and out. And it comes in a nice case – which, sorry, actually makes a really big difference for real-world use!

The whole box reminds me of the first analog and MIDI connections for studio equipment. It has that same musician-friendly look – and feels like something that could really open up the way you work.

Now, from there, dadamachines bundle various larger kits of stuff. So if you aren’t quite ready to hack together your own solutions, you can start playing right away — just like buying a percussion instrument.

These are also really nicely thought out, adding power adapters, the robotic solenoids, and other percussive elements (as seen in the video). Don’t be put off by the pricing of the bigger kits – a basic “(M)”edium-sized kit runs €399. (and believe me, otherwise add up the amount you could spend on DIY mistakes…)

automat-toolkit-s

diagram

The different variations (explained on Kickstarter) allow you to do real-world percussion with objects of different sizes, shapes, and orientations. Some produce sound by bouncing materials off a speaker; some sit atop objects and hit them. One is a mallet; a LEGO adapter makes prototyping really easy.

I’m picking up an evaluation kit today, so stay tuned to CDM and we’ll try to do an interesting review for you.

Keep in mind that while that may seem to give away the novelty here, what you do with these instruments is up to you. You’ve now left the digital domain and are in the acoustic world — so the creativity really comes from what real-world materials you use and the musical patterns you devise. (Think of how much variety people have squeezed out of the TR-808 over the years – the limits here are much broader.)

But for people who do go deeper, this is open source hardware. Everything is Arduino-based and looks easy to hack. The GitHub site isn’t live until after the campaign (I’ll let you discuss the relative merits of whether or not projects like this should do this), but from what I’ve seen, this looks really promising. And it’s still a lot easier than trying to do this yourself with Arduino – even just solving the case is a big boon.

I imagine that could lead to other parallel projects. In fact, I think this whole area will do better if there are more things like this — looking to the models of controllers, MIDI, Eurorack, and even recent developments like Ableton Link as great examples.

I’ll be at the launch party tonight checking this out.

dada_preview-peter_001

Tech Specs

automat controller
Connectivity
– USB Midi
– DIN Midi-In & Thru (Out option)
– 12 DC Outputs (12-24V max. 1.3A)
– External power supply 12-24V
– Arduino shields & extension port

Software
– Simple learn mode >1 button click
– Advanced learn mode

Hardware
– Anodized aluminum panel
– Powder coated steel shell
– Dimensions – 110 x 110 x 26mm

Additionally, each toolkit comes with adapters & elements helping the users to get started easily.

More:

Kickstarter: http://bit.ly/dadakick
Web: http://dadamachines.com

  • Magnus Olofsson

    I’m going to use it to hit the pads on my drummachine for a more human feel….

  • papernoise

    It’s funny so many people are bitching about this. Is having a drum machine playing samples really so much more interesting than having a drum machine play a real drum? Sure you can play a drum with your hands, but then, you could do finger-drumming with samples… and still one often relies on a sequencer instead. Maybe we have to just admit that sequencing is cool, and that it can be even cooler if you can extend that concept to real-world objects (actual drums being the least interesting in this context).

    Anyway, I’m happy to see that there’s finally a well rounded and almost plug&play solution for this. Bastl already has some nice modules to deal with this, but for people who don’t want to rely on a modular, this is really great. Also connectivity is good here! You can do a lot with 12 outputs!

    I was initially put off by the price, but then… finding a good solenoid, that works, does not overheat and delivers the performance you want, can be tricky and the metal enclosure this comes in is totally worth it. Too many cool instruments come without a proper enclosure and look like you’ll bring them home in two pieces after the first live set. This definitely doesn’t look like that.

    • Yeah, I think they also miss the possibilities for interactive lighting and other motor outputs … so really what they’re looking at is one use case that’s ready out of the box. But you could change almost every variable here … and having that integrated hardware, while it’s expensive, makes prototyping faster.

  • Ess Ortijs

    Please mention Pierre Bastien!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KGhgXs8w6M

  • JonYo

    I like it. This might hit a sweet spot between being an open system for the DIY type to develop it into whatever comes to mind, and being enough of a pre-organized setup to remove some of the intimidation aspect of just going for it from scratch with an arduino and sourcing solenoids oneself, etc, for a newb HW hobbyist like me. My first thought, I have a hammer dulcimer stored somewhere, maybe I could make it whack that in a fun way…

  • Matt

    I can’t figure out if this has any velocity sensitivity or if it’s just on/off 12v output. Does anyone know?

  • Dan Shuta

    kickstarter campaign runner is not responding to questions i am asking them, not a great sign. i’ve asked them, for example, why there are 2 different power supplies depending on which kit you buy as a reward, i’m assuming the S kit’s power supply (and thus controller capability) is somehow hobbled compared to the 6A “upgraded” version. not a good sign that they are unresponsive to questions… maybe a little hubris sneaking in due to the success of the campaign?

    • Dan Shuta

      he responded. crisis averted!

  • peter