Something very funny has happened in the world of music controllers. It started with the rising popularity of Ableton Live, along with the likes of Reaktor and Max/MSP, as musicians started creating more dynamic, rich live performances with computers. Supposedly, this shift should have created new controller designs. If Live was the killer app, where was the killer hardware?

Instead, what we’ve gotten is a sort of primordial soup of controller experimentation, with people hacking together circuits, appropriating Wii remotes, abusing and warping commercial controllers, and generally resisting any standardization. The results have been, in short, fabulously chaotic. And maybe that’s the point – just as, even with relatively standardized music tools, musical variety remains virtually infinite.

Of course, there’s one little problem: working from scratch might (ahem) not leave you any time to make the actual music. (Doh!) So, if there’s not a killer single piece of hardware, what might a platform for experimentation look like. MachineCollective responds to a pretty nice wish list:

  • Modular components you can mix and match at will
  • Agnostic components that might be picked up by people building instruments, synths, controllers, circuit-bent projects, visual apps, or even non-musical electronics projects
  • Easy combination with platforms like Arduino and Wiring and software like Processing, Max, vvvv, Flash, and other programming environments
  • Rapid prototyping and manufacturing
  • Get stuff shipped, or use your own local tools / local fab facility
  • Fully open source licensed (it’s actually not clear which license – the CC non-commercial license would presumably mean you couldn’t build one of these and sell it, which I think builders might want to do)

That sounds great. So what is it, actually? The “platform” for now is just the physical components: a top panel of acrylic, an aluminum base, and a bottom panel. You do get machined holes and connectors, though, which could help you radically speed through the stuff that’s hard to do on your own – that is, machine solid cases. And if this catches on, it’s not hard to imagine people swapping circuits and software patches and such that puts some life into that case.

Looks great on paper; we’ll have to see what the actual platform is like. But in the long run, could locally-manufactured, open platforms someday stand alongside the conventional musical hardware industry? I think it’s very possible.

Thanks to everyone who sent this my way!