Love. Photo (CC-BY acidpix.

Love. Photo (CC-BY acidpix.

We’re not so much in the habit of posting jams on CDM, but this one is especially nice – even through the freak-out visuals. And it comes from friends – Nigel Mullaney, with recording and engineering by Ian Boddy.

Seen in the film:
Elektron Analog4 keys
Elektron Octatrak
Elektron Machinedrum
KORG volca series

Look closely through that shaky video, and you might get some clue as to why people love hardware. There’s plenty of reason not to go the hardware route: computers alone still offer more power, more flexibility, and more sound for your buck.

But have a look at this hardware, and ask yourself – how much software, even in combination with controllers, offers this kind of control? Ableton Push, Maschine, and the like are more exceptions than the rule. Go one step further, and the design of even software/hardware combinations remains fundamentally different than hardware. Hardware is all about constraints: even with more powerful DSP innards and the like, there are restrictions on design. There’s a limit to the number of physical controls you can fit (or afford to manufacture); physical controls themselves can’t have unlimited functions.

All of this results in something that, not only about being tangible, is about a different form of design. Hardware is a different medium, and produces different results. It just happens that those results are particularly well-suited to immediate jamming, where computers often fail.

But given that’s true, I can imagine software rigs that could begin to find some of the same appeal. Some intrepid DIYers, working with tools like Max for Live, have built very specific control/sound combinations for devices like the Novation Launchpad or APC. And even if hardware is a different sort of medium, it is possible at least to take the principles of one-to-one control and restrained choice and apply it to other media.

In short, those ideas would be:
1. One-to-one hands-on control.
2. Design that can incorporate performative gestures and muscle memory.
3. Limited choices in sonic potential that form a specific personality of the instrument.
4. The ability to work without looking at a computer screen.

Hardware can add some additional properties that software can’t:
1. Rigorous timing and low latency (at least, in principle).
2. Instant-on capability. (Getting better with computers, but still not quite the same). Certainly —
3. Immediate music making, without distractions. (Think of how long it takes to load a typical DAW.)
4. Plug-and-play connectivity.

And, just generally, I think a lot of people are eager to spend some time away from the computer and all its psychological associations. But even looking at the bottom four, it is possible to coax computer software into doing the same – and there’s plenty of potential for embedded systems. And the top four are interesting enough that, for some tasks – jamming certainly included – they could be worth exploiting.

(Thanks to Tim Exile, who inspired some of these thoughts. Curious what you think, too.)

Updated: A beautiful quote from our friend Marc Doty. If the above is more practical, this deals with the more poetic reasons hardware works (and is worth considering in any musical design):

Hardware is also attractive because we are the result of evolution, and are genetically accustomed to engaging in physical tasks, manipulating objects, and interacting with our environment for specific outcomes. Our creativity is largely connected to our bodies (on average), and creative tasks are often successful as a result of our unique physiology and psychology.
There is also the aesthetic experience of physical interaction with a creative device. How the device looks, feels, and responds to our interactions is (in the right circumstances) fuel for our creativity.
Lastly, our own physiological quirks and inclinations lend uniqueness to our output when we, as individuals, work with objects.

And lastly, via Twitter – a classic Brian Eno insight.

“muscles..represent several million years of accumulated finesse. …”

Of course, that means a consistently-mapped controller (from monome to Maschine) will also suffice.