I have exactly zero interest in entertaining the tired hardware versus software argument that surfaced, inevitably, with the discussion of the upcoming Beat Thang drum machine. But behind that question is a very relevant question: why do people love drum machines? Why do they love particular hardware, like the MPC? What can you learn about digital performance and design from these devices and their master virtuosos?
Watching videos like this one, featuring araabMUZIK, gives me all the answers I need. This is one musician among others. I head to this one because it popped up this month on the wonderful Saturn Never Sleeps blog, written by Rucyl Mills, a site that has become a source of perpetual inspiration. Rucyl, I do take issue with the headline, “Some Hardware Can’t Be Replaced by Software.” That’s not to say there isn’t a usability gap between the MPC and a lot of software – there is. I just think this should be a challenge to anyone who designs software or controllers. Why shouldn’t you design a software-based drum machine you can switch on in a few seconds, or with computer screens in different form factors, or with displays that don’t require careful inspection? Why shouldn’t software — commercial or your own DIY creation — invite obsessive practice?
More to the point, though, I think this does reveal what a drum machine can be. To those of you who say it’s not a “real instrument,” you’re absolutely right. I couldn’t agree more. This isn’t a traditional instrument like a violin. It’s part of a direct lineage to the elaborate contraptions of the one-man band, the impossible sense that one person is controlling an entire ensemble. It’s a compositional machine that challenges push-button dexterity. It connects to the fast finger flashes of the arcade age and the intricate rhythmic reworkings of beat-juggling. (It’s no coincidence, then, that Donkey Kong and hip hop meet here in the sound and in the visuals: it’s no less “Music” with a capital M, but it is music created by the generation that grew up with the video game.)
Ironically, this is also what the monome helped resurrect: simple, single-function software, and grids that allow rhythmic control over music. That’s why I believe the monome proved itself as the “noughts'” (the last decade’s) MPC. But it can also serve as a reminder that many wonderful devices are yet to come, so long as you can be connected to the kind of passion here, whatever your own musical output may sound like or technological inclinations may be.
Just remember, the next time someone gets annoyed as you tap on a desk, or even if you need to take a break from your new album for an extended run of Xbox 360, just say what the drummers say: I’m practicing.