I’m at Tekserve, in the audio department, and I spot a beauty: Native Instruments’ Maschine, a hardware-software rhythm machine. I move in for a closer inspection. Its top is made of metal and I run my fingers across the smooth, cool brushed surface. I pick up the musical object off the display table and assess its weight: a solid few pounds. I put it back down and continue exploring. Its dials are smooth and rotate infinitely, and I so I twist them around and around, imagining what parameters they might control. Its buttons produce subtle clicks–confident sounds that will surely respond to my touch and help me, one day, switch something on or off in an instant. And then there are those sixteen beautiful 1.5 inch square rubber pads. Soft like gummy bears, they’re mini drums that can absorb the impact of an incoming finger, and so I start drumming on them, my fingers playing silent patterns across the four by four grid. Feels nice. I pick up Maschine again, rotating it in my hands, and even consider smelling it–after all, I’m sizing up a potential musical mate. (This from someone who regularly smells his Kindle as if it were a paper book!) What, I’m wondering, might I do with this thing? Will this be, finally, the instrument that allows me to create fluidly, or will it lure me down a wormhole of complicated procedures that will blunt the creative process?
Maschine is a recent example of electronic music software assuming a physical presence in order to attract musicians. The thinking is that we like tangible things–vibrating strings, membranes, or even smooth moving knobs and smushy rubber pads–with which to interact and make music. But the fascinating paradox about the tools of electronic music is that as the palette of sound possibilities has increased exponentially with software innovations, the music making process has become increasingly less physical. There are two ways to think about this. On the one hand, the shift has encouraged many people without traditional music training to just go ahead and make music. On the other hand, those of us with training are always looking for a foothold, a link to the physical. So far, this foothold or link comes in the form of MIDI keyboards and other controllers such as the Akai APC series and the Korg Kaoss touch pads. Maschine harks back to hardware instruments from the late 1980s and early 1990s such as Akai’s MPC workstations, like the unit in the pic below:
These instruments are still popular with hip hop beat makers who program their patterns like a potter plays with and molds clay: the boxes allow them to feel like they’re getting their hands dirty. This is a good thing, because our hands often know as much or even more than our minds, and letting our hands play with instruments is a direct route to new ideas. Maschine is both an attractive piece of hardware and a powerful piece of software, hence its appeal for electronic musicians. Below is a Native Instruments promotional video for the instrument featuring Jeremy Ellis hammering away on those rubber pads: