Music has always been driven forward in part by the technology used to make it. The piano combined the best features of the harpsichord and clavichord to help concert musicians; the electric guitar made performing and recording different forms of blues, jazz, and rock music possible; and electronic drum machines both facilitated songwriting and spawned entire genres of music in themselves. The musical collective Sonic Robots were inspired by one of the most famous electronic instruments of all time, the Roland TR-808 drum machine, and created a live musical installation where physical instruments recreate the purely synthesized sounds of the legendary 808. We asked their founder some questions about the MR-808 interactive drum robot.
Q: What was the origin of the MR-808 project? When I first watched the video of it at the Krake Festival I couldn’t stop smiling; do you recall any particularly memorable reactions that people have had to it?
Moritz Simon Geist, founder of the Sonic Robots collective: I started out as a young hacker and tinkerer when I was 10, taking apart radios and electronic devices from my parents. I come from a music-centered family, having been taught piano, clarinet, bass, and guitar. At some point I combined these two things - music and hacking. In 2010 I thought I should sum up all the experiments of my last few years in one piece, and came up with the robotic 808. In classic fashion, I got the idea at night in the bar, over a beer. Once I got the idea it was such an obvious thing - to do electronic music with robots - that I feared that somebody else would do it before me during the two and a half years it took to build the MR-808. Of course, that never happened.
And the first question that people ask is: “Craaazy! How long did it take to build it?”
Q: The Roland TR-808 is famous for many reasons, but maybe its best known feature is its synthesized bass drum sound. How did you go about recreating this legendary sound, which has practically become the basis for some electronic music styles?
M: Yes, the 808 is famous for its bass drum, and the clap, maybe. In the beginning of the build, I did nearly a year of experiments; initially I wanted to take a “real” 18-inch bass drum from a drum set, but that doesn't sound at all like the 808's bass drum. The electronically-generated 808 bass drum is basically a sine wave with an attack and release curve. So I searched for sounds that come close to sine waves in real life, and ended up using a very short bass drum string. For my latest robots, I optimize that and use metallic tongs, similar to a kalimba. They sound surprisingly similar to a real 808 bass drum, really boomy.
Since I've been making robotic music as my living for nearly three years now, my workshop and storage have filled up with experiments, parts, and unfinished robotic instruments. I still have enough plans for crazy instruments in my drawer to build music robots for the next few decades.
Q: How does one program the MR-808? Have you integrated it into any live performances?
M: Actually, it was meant to be an instrument in the first place! I did a lot of performances in 2012 and 2013, alone and with Mouse on Mars. At some point I had so many problems with my back - the installation weighs 350 Kg - that I had to stop, and I started building lighter robots. The MR-808 is still on display as an interactive installation at festivals and galleries, but not for shows anymore.
The MR-808 can be played with MIDI, and so actually by everything that spits out MIDI. For the interactive version we built a collaborative sequencer that outputs MIDI signal. The sequencer is a Super Collider Patch running on the Raspberry Pi. There is also a small web server providing a simple website with a step sequencer. There are two Nexus 2 tablets as the interface, which connect to the Raspberry Pi via Wi-Fi. They display the sequencer which finally controls the robot. We also blogged about it here in detail, and it's freely available at github.
Q: Why did you choose the Raspberry Pi to be part of this project? What advantages does it offer?
M: As everyone knows, the Raspberry Pi is the platform when it comes to lightweight prototype installations. As I was looking to reduce the weight of the overall installation, I was also not so keen on taking a full-blown laptop with me. Additionally, the data processing - providing a simple web server and running a Super Collider patch - are perfect for the Raspberry Pi. We are currently using a Pi 3, with a small TFT and customized restart and power off buttons, connected to some IO pins. It's a workhorse.
Q: As you were putting together the MR-808, did you run into any notable technical problems, and how did you solve them?
M: So many, I couldn't name them all! One funny thing: when we were building the 16 big push buttons for the bottom of the installation, we had to find a 1:12 model of the original buttons, which of course doesn't exist.
The 3D printing which we use now didn’t exist back then, so we ended up replicating the buttons with a pizza oven, a vacuum cleaner, and a self-made mold. The process is called “thermoforming,” and we did it hacker-style with a zero budget.
IT-wise, one big issue was the synchronization of the web interface with the MIDI sequencer. On the sequencer where you can program the 808 there is a light which constantly cycles through the rhythm, indicating at which step you are. You want the feedback light of the sequencer to both be in time with the actual rhythm that is played, but you also don't want it to be interrupted. As everything is running on Wi-Fi and websockets, it was a little tricky to synchronize everything to run smoothly. My programmer Karsten did a lot of the work there.
Q: I make electronic music myself, and in that world we often talk about trying to introduce the human element into compositions that one could otherwise say are very machine-like. Beyond the fact that it exists in the physical world, in what other ways does the MR-808 feel like a living instrument to you, perhaps more so than an actual TR-808 unit?
M: The most obvious thing for self-built robots that resembles human-like behavior is their fragility; they break all the time! Industrial robots might be very powerful and rigid, but with a limited budget you always take the cheapest route and recycle a lot of parts. For the first shows of my Glitch Robots installation, I took a 3D printer on tour so I could re-print broken parts. Apart from being useful, it looked very cool to have one on stage!
When an artist leaves the pre-made route of presets and starts digging in the mud - be it with mechanics, circuit bending, self-made electronics, or field recording - one always brings error into the art. This is a good thing! It's like playing guitar and by chance hitting the wrong chord: it might sound unexpected, but somehow cool, and can start being the trademark part of the whole riff. When one experiments, a lot of these random moments appear. 90% of it might be useless, but there is the 10% which is helpful and you can’t come up with through planning. I like this introduced randomness of music robots a lot.
Q: Do you have any plans for future music tech projects? An update to the MR-808, perhaps, or another new device?
M: The 808 was cool at the time that I built it, and for me it just "had to be done." But at the same time, it refers back to an historical instrument, and is very much bound to this reference. My opinion is that art should also be futuristic, and should sometimes fail, but it should point to an unknown future. So I decided not to build the Robotic 909, for example (editor's note: the TR-909 was a subsequent drum machine from Roland, a famous instrument in its own right).
With my last instrument, “Tripods One,” I tried to think of an instrument which is futuristic and that also plays with a human-machine interaction. Also, I took a lot more design ideas into account. It consists of 5 pyramids which inhabit small mechanical robots (of course!). Sound-wise, I did not refer to the classic "bassdrum / snare / hihat" sounds; instead, I searched for sounds which I can use well in the context of electronic music. You can see that project here: