araabMUZIK Live MPC Set Part 1 from Death by Electric Shock on Vimeo.

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.

  • http://www.keatshandwriting.com Keats' Handwrit

    Well for starts I just want to start the arguments off by saying that software is *way* better than hardware. JK!!

    Thanks for sharing that video- those are some sweet, sweet fingers that guy has. I never really gave any thought to MPCs, having never used one and not really being into hip hop, before watching this video. The 'jamability' factor is huge on those things…

    Does anyone know what that sample used starting at 1:52 is from. (DJ Shadow uses it on Long Stem, I think.)

  • http://truechiptilldeath.com peter

    I dunno isnt the mpc os software? Software and hardware is the peanut butter and jelly of electronic music. Two great tastes that taste great together.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Heh, okay, maybe my point was *still* too subtle:

    The MPC is a computer running software.

    The appeal of the MPC (and other drum machines, and the monome with MLR, etc.) involves design aspects that transcend either hardware or software — they're something both could learn from.

    The user is a key variable.

    If there are gaps between the general purpose PC and an MPC, those are things we should start to consider. For instance, custom Linux boots can vastly cut startup time, just to take one problem. And there's no reason a computer can't have lower latency and higher timing accuracy than an MPC.

    But my point isn't to compare the two, it's to point out the delicious taste of the MPC in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.

  • Vehical Driver

    The reason people like the MPC, is because it is an INSTRUMENT! Like a guitar! Or a piano!

    Once you develop the skills to PLAY an MPC, you can use it very very well. Which is why people still covet the MPC60 from the 1980s, but people don't covet version 1.0 of Ableton live.

    Sure, software is more powerful than hardware nowadays… but software is so dynamic, with so many features, and so ever-changing, that only a small group of people develop an attachment.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Vehical Driver: Right, but that's what's interesting to me. People change MLR, the patch behind the monome, but they also practice MLR. People change their MPCs, with firmware upgrades – and the MPC is software in that way.

    Obviously, there are commercial concerns that impact the way software is developed and changed, but we can also look at software we ourselves are creating, which doesn't have to be that way.

  • eisnein

    not supposed to rat out producers samples BUT

    the Shadow sample is Jeremy Storch's "I feel a new Shadow"

  • helloitabot

    Akai doesnt even know what makes the MPC good. I bought an MPD24 because I wanted an MPC but couldnt afford one, thinking they'd include some software that would make the MPD act like an MPC when attached to my computer, but no. Can anyone suggest some software that will do this?

  • kj

    peter, i *really* like you and your blog but what is "tired" to me is that people still act like software can replace hardware or that is just as good, blah, blah blah. look, i have done blindfold tests with non-musicians in the whole "analog vs. digital" thing and analog won EVERY time. we can debate why til the cows come home. but people like it when they hear it. and people who go on about software being better or emulating analog just as well, are usually people who've never owned analog hardware…

    so for the hijack, but you started it! LOL!

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @kj: Analog what? Digital what? Blindfold comparisons of what?

    I've talked to top mastering engineers who have found higher-quality — not all, but some — digital plug-ins perfectly capable of replacing their analog counterparts.

    But that isn't even what this discussion is about. It's about design. And if you like the design of an object, an interface, a tool, you'll love making music with that design – period.

    That's true of both hardware and software. Good design, good tools for music are what's important. Comparing the two as blanket categories is kind of a waste of time. Obviously, we all know what the advantages of analog circuitry can be, and the (much broader) advantages of physical hardware control and embedded software over general purpose OSes. There's literally NOTHING left to talk about in this tired, exhausting conversation.

    But there's a hell of a lot left to talk about when it comes to design, and we should be able to look across all categories – acoustic instruments, vintage machines, software, even outside music.

  • eisnein

    that was @peter

    to continue the conversation now that i read the other comments-

    it gets a little blurry for me because MPC's run on a proprietary bootable OS and software and Monomes (Monomi? whats the plural?) require an external computer with software so in theory its all software. So would trigger fingers or the MPC usb MIDI pads or a Midifighter all be similar to the Monome in terms of being "an instrument"?

    people definitely use both the Monome and MPC's as instruments and they are being incorporated more and more into different styles of music and different venues.

    Considering how the growth and popularity of using these devices as instruments has grown so quickly- i find it really interesting how slowly they seem to find there way into other styles. In retrospect it seems the Electric guitar definitely popped up and was applied into folk, jazz, swing etc fairly quickly whereas these boxes are taking there time. Granted we have exceptions in the studio and performers like Imogen Heap and Bjork who are bringing it to the major network tv programs, they are already knocking down boundaries in most of what they do already. I know Lincoln Park and Limp Biskit had MpC's or turntables but I'm gonna ignore that part of history just for shits and giggles.

    Basically- when everything is moving so quickly and growing exponentially, why haven't we seen a MPC solo on SNL! ?

    cmon this guy? would rock it
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k694UjpMWLg

    then again i don't think Turntablism every really got to be very integrated and those guys have symphonies!

    the only think that i can think of is the replacement factor. These devices CAN do ANYTHING so we don't NEED anything else. (that's not to see we can't or don't). Most of the people who excel are creating badass things and that just happens to be the multi-tool they chose.

    and yeah.

  • http://loozabeats.net Looza

    Hmm, sorry to say this, but this seems more like a proof-of-concept to me that is not *really* enjoyable… :S

    Yeah, he can trigger 64th-hihat-notes with his fingers but… uhm… the music sucks.

    Or maybe I am too old.

  • isnie

    If you want to see two japanese guys with the same skills but doing way better music. check out Hifana. search it out on youtube it's great.

  • low resolution sunse

    I think there's still a great deal of life to be had in instruments (whether acoustic or electronic) that are well made and desirable.

    I think Peter's right though, that the constant bickering is pretty lame. We live in the golden age of music production, we should start acting like it.

  • http://google.com Hey_Wait_1m

    Ya, seems like people ran straight into (or continued?) a hardware V software debate…

    missing the fact that, as Looza pointed out, the music in the vid sucks. It's also edited really choppy. It's impossible to say he performed that piece in anything close to 1 sitting. All we catch are snippets of him playing a phrase here, a phrase there. The video is probably as edited together as the music (for want of a better word)

    all in all I give this post a well deserved: MEH.

    seems like you scrapped the bottom of the barrel for this one Peter…surely there's better MPC performances out there…

  • eisnein

    @isnie – hifana are freaking bananas. so the tail end of one of their shows at a party. so much energy and precision!

  • kj

    @peter,

    i'm sorry you feel that way. to be so closed mined about any subject(and when say there's "literally nothing left to talk about," you are clearly being close-minded) is never a good thing, IMHO. but it's your blog, so i will not mention it again…

    and sorry but we're talking about music, right? design will always be secondary to sound, yeah? or am i crazy?

  • http://www.myspace.com/keatshandwriting Keats' Handwrit

    Quality of Music

    That's two posts in a row with very vocal anti-hip hop comments– it seems like CDM readers don't care for hip-hop. I feel like you guys are being a bit too harsh–just b/c it's not your style, doesn't mean the music 'sucks.' The guy is clearly playin' his heart out with passion and skill–I respect any fellow musician who can do that.

    (OFF TOPIC ALERT)

    @eisnein, re: Samples, Artist's Rights

    I am generally a creative commons/copyleft type of guy, but I didn't know it was a breach of the Producer's Honor Code to even mention the original artist whose work was sampled. It's not liking you're ratting him out by filing a DMCA notice. For me, that turns artistic ethics on its head. If DJ Shadow/araabMuzik want to borrow Jeremy Torch's song to make a new work–that's one thing–but for it to be a faux pas to even mention the name of the original artist–that seems odd to me.

  • http://www.e-lectronica.com/luthierlab/ Mudo

    One day GM theodore share the Scratch technique with the world…

    some guys love it, some guys hate it.

    Nobody remember their names…

    CDM haiku.

    Enjoy Tooltablism era and discuss about intelligent arguments please.

  • http://ideletemyselfbitbyebit.blogspot.com/ ideletemyself

    that video was SERIOUSLY awesome! thx! :)

  • zero ref

    I dunno about the anti-hiphop stuff – i love hiphop but that doesn't make all hiphop music good, i think most of the videos here ranged – musically speaking – from ok (hifana was solid) to not so great. It's problematic, I mean I doubt DJ Premier bangs his stuff out live (though someone certainly could…). In some ways the more 'conductorly' approach i've seen some of the west coast people (flying lotus et al) take is more interesting. When there's some much possible live control, banging out the snare (all the time, out of necessity) doesn't make so much sense.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @kj: Sorry, let me clarify. I don't think there's anything left to say if we talk generically about *all* hardware versus *all* software.

    I'm still curious to know, though, which you mean — which hardware are you comparing to which software?

  • http://loozabeats.net Looza

    I am a HipHop-Lover aswell, I grew up with that music and just because most of todays hiphop (yeah, even the "independent"-stuff) bores me to death it will always have a special place in my heart. And I still love instrumental hiphop (or instrumentals as such), but the music in the video is simply not my cup of tea, I can't imagine listening to it in a club or anywhere else for that matter. Honestly, I feel he totally murders that Storch-Sample.

  • http://loozabeats.net Looza

    Just as addendum: Someone (premier?) once said that the key to a good instrumental is what you *don't* play. Ahem.

  • http://dailymixdown.com Mark

    Peter, I appreciate how you are not satisfied with software status quo. You understand better than anyone I know (with the exception of myself hee!) that there remains a huge gap between software and hardware and your posts that offer anecdotes and suggestions to bridge it are most appreciated. I think NI has the right idea with Maschine… well.. it's a start in the right direction. Thoughts?

  • http://dailymixdown.com Mark

    Looza, I am with you. Miles Davis would be too. He was a great fan of knowing when to "shut up"

    Have you ever seen Art Tatum play piano? Wow can he play like a virtuoso… but he's hardly the type you can listen to all day. I'll take Bill Evans. But that's just me.

    The artists I have most respect for are GENERALLY minimalists. Depeche Mode comes to mind. What incredibly head bobbing beautiful music they make with a a few sparse drum sounds, a few synths, a guitar and an elusive bass line. Every time I need to be coaxed out of buying a new piece of software or hardware I just put on some DM.. and get back to being a musician.

  • s ford

    i thought the music in the video wasn't that spectacular IMO.

    this is a great example of a guy playing on a mpc http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zk2KM22sbKA

  • http://www.highculturelowclass.com HCLC

    Jel is better on an MPC in terms of making it become an instrument. AraaaaaaaaabMUZIC is quick, and can flip catchy MPC-derivative songs, but he doesn't really compose. Jel forms full songs, with separate parts, breaks downs, intros, solos, drum fills / breaks, etc. I am sure there are more out there.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twHhcB4D-po

  • http://www.flickr.com/tathagataphotography Tathagaga

    @Hey_Wait_1m I'm pretty sure that although the video is edited into quick chops that AraaaaaaaaabMUZIC is doing it all in one go. Here's a video of someone who has practised the hell out of his MPC (check the worn-down pads), no fancy video edits, just so you can see what can be done…
    http://www.vimeo.com/1781310
    I think what Peter is getting at is how interesting it is that this device/instrument/design has captured people's imagination and inspired people to spend such a long time perfecting it's use to bring the sounds from their imagination into reality, while you don't really see people spending day upon day rocking out on NI's Massive for instance. In this respect design is a huge part of creating sound, because unless the design inspires and accomodates music-making then sounds will just remain in people's heads and never become music.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Yes, indeed, this video was just what was at the top of my inbox. I enjoyed it – there are many others, though, some certainly arguably better. But it seems you've gotten the point, and part of the reason I post whatever is at the top of my inbox is then I can compare notes.

    Side note: did I just manage to flame-bait on the MPC, hardware versus software, hip-hop, open source, Mac versus PC, open source versus proprietary, all in the space of 72 hours(?!)

    I'd say given that, we're doing pretty well with reasonable comments. ;)

  • http://loozabeats.net Looza

    But thats why we love this blog. :D Atleast I do.

    No honestly, the great thing about cdm is that it never felt like some random click-trap-blog just copying industry-news and press-releases, you (and your readers) always have strong opinions and while it may turn into flaming sometimes I really enjoy reading your posts and keeping track of the comments.

    So a huge chunk of kudos for all the work you put in here and for providing a space for some very lively discussions.

  • 4.33

    why did he have to speed it up? ffs, thats sooo lame

  • f.e

    @kj :

    1 -

    Music never has something to do with sound. What matters is how it is composed / structured, in case of "old fashion" music (the word is morronic, but it'll include all music till the middle of the last century, with pop, hip hop and such inside), or how it is shaped, in case of music where the sound object is what matters (Morton Feldman).

    In the first case, composers didn't even bother with the sounding result, it could have been played by a choir, a gamelan ensemble or a string quartet, the music will still be the same.

    In the last case, we still don't care about what you'll call quality. It will still be standing as a music proposition on a crappy guettoblaster or in 64kbps mp3.

    2 -

    SSL doesn't give you better sounding. What you need is a pair of good monitors and the craft to do what you hear inside your head. You still can do the best mixes ever on a ProTools.

    Analog vs digital is ridiculous in a time where the whole universe listen to music thru mp3s on shitty speakers, or in live venues where it is well known it is the last place for sound quality.

  • http://spsean.com hey_wait_1m

    @keats' scrawl

    I love boom-bap

    Your reports of my supposed 'anti-hophop' sentiments are greatly exaggerated. I don't even recall mentioning hip-hop or any of it's sub-genres. Looza didn't zone in on any supposed genres either. The music is just whack, plain and simple.

  • http://spsean.com hey_wait_1m

    the araaaaaaabmuzak in this posts video, I mean!

  • Floor

    He is MEGA talented.

    But when I close my eyes and listen to the actual music…. It sounds like gibberish to me.

  • http://www.magneticpitch.com john k

    ???? Floor

    he's MEGA talented at creating gibberish??? definitely not the kind of "talent" that i'm interested in – but he's having fun, so good for him

    but your comment does point out an important distinction between physical dexterity and musical ability, and these are very different abilities and its pretty damned rare to be gifted at both

    on a more practical note, am i wrong or is the particular MPC he's playing have no touch sensitivity (or it's turned off?)? to me, dynamics is an absolutely fundamental and integral part of music, so an instrument that doesn't allow you to play dynamically is fatally flawed from a "purely musical" perspective (that doesn't mean it can't be useful)

    to me: an interesting question is why is tapping 6 buttons (in this specific case) on an MPC is apparently a qualitatively different experience than playing 6 keys on a keyboard/sampler. i think the answer has an awful lot more to do with cultures and subcultures than it does with the inherent strengths/weaknesses of a particular instrument. although it also speaks directly to design, and fitness to purpose, etc. the simplicity of a small grid (that has no relation to pitch) is a very inviting, non-intimidating piece of kit.

    (ps– way back when, i was always shocked by the high price of MPCs as compared to other drum machines- obviously they've grown somewhat more functional and affordable over the years)

  • http://loozabeats.net Looza

    He has it switched off and at the speed he is playing you can't really expect him to actually have a feeling for velocity I guess.

  • http://saturnneversleeps.com Rucyl

    Loving this conversation! To clarify what I meant by titling the post “Some Hardware Can’t Be Replaced by Software” … I often tend to get caught up in the software while producing electronic music and I found this particular MPC user's enthusiasm to be infectious and it inspired me to start doodling around with my instruments again (physical instruments). I actually love my software, DAWS and homebrew apps, but I find it refreshing when I come across folks who have focused on a particular piece of hardware and learned it well.

  • SndHlr

    I like araabMUZIK's enthusiasm and dedication to using the MPC as an instrument… but you can tell that he doesn't have much knowledge of music composition, he seems to be focused on speed and showing off his skills. By the way I love hip hop but I love great composition more no mater what genre. I think guys like Jel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twHhcB4D-po and DJ Shiro http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhtOPqZjdJk are more focused on the musical composition aspect of this artform.

  • http://saturnneversleeps.com Rucyl

    Araab Muzic has a very distinctive urban east coast style and in his genre he is considered quite masterful. @SndHlr the artists you posted are also great! but in another forum people might not think so, hip hop by nature is all about bravado, my point being that musical taste is relative. I personally think the kid (Araab Muszik) is killin it, regardless of whether or not I'd buy his record

  • http://spsean.com hey_wait_1m

    ya I agree. he is killing the music. Quite successfully! and still no guarantee he's even doing it in one take ;) I didn't like button-mashers when I played video games, and I can safely say I'm not into button-mashers when it comes to bangin beats.

    Use your head, folks.

  • SndHlr

    @Rucyl True! Araab Muzic does have a distinctive urban east coast style. I grew up on east coast hip hop and still love it. His style reminds me of the DMC Dj battle days. I can imagine Araab killin' it in the beat battle scene no question! I just wonder if he could produce an album that would stand the test of time. I know hip hop is bound in bravado and battling but I also think that it should evolve and project different perspectives and still be accepted as a branch off the hip hop tree.

  • http://regend.com regend

    there's a deep history as to why Roger Linn created the MPC and how it became what it is today…it will continue to evolve. whether an all in one box is better than controller + laptop + audio break out box is better? that's all opinion…that's like saying it's better to write a song with an electric guitar vs. acoustic. just write good music.

  • http://bluegreengold.net bluegreengold

    Analog vs digital is ridiculous in a time where the whole universe listen to music thru mp3s on shitty speakers, or in live venues where it is well known it is the last place for sound quality.

    Just because many people listen to poorly encoded music on lousy speakers, doesn't mean musicians have to cater to it. Art and integrity go well together.

  • http://bluegreengold.net bluegreengold

    err… that first paragraph was a quote from F.E.

  • http://spsean.com hey_wait_1m

    not really ridiculous. quality is metered out. You might as well aim for high-standards, as everything else is derived and compressed from the root/master. You start with shit, and it's going to sound [italics]even worse[/italics] on the shitty speakers.

    keep reaching for the sky, homies! (and keep referencing shitty setups while you're at it)

  • s ford

    @SndHlr

    Cheers for the DJ Shiro link, sounded great but too brief. Had a look around and his stuff seems pretty difficult to get hold off, but is there anything of his in particular I should make an effort to track down.

    Never heard of him before, he sounds a bit like Andre Afram Asmar with the dub kind of thing…

  • Sundalo

    Hifana and this guy is ok but I think this guy is way better he uses a boss 303 and mpc his name is Jel or(anticon) can find him on youtube.

  • mister_nick

    Oh MPC, how I love thee. I'm with peter. I own a monome (well arduinome, but still) and I work with live and sonar and NI Komplete and a gazillion other things…

    but

    Whenever I sit down to start working on something fresh and new, nothing gets the juices flowing like my busted MPC. Sure it has 3 broken pads, and sure the screen is getting hard to read, but the tactile latency free feel is hard to replace.

    And i sure to love those MPC filters with the reso cranked to almost max.

  • Derek T

    I know i'm kinda late on this subject, but i think the problem with software is the computer operating systems themselves.

    people that engineer MPCs code the entire box to match the pads and buttons perfectly. Like a tailored suit.

    buying something like an mpd is kinda like buying a shirt from the store and hoping it fits your computer. and it gets the job done but it'll never be quite the same.

    Another problem with Windows/Linux/Mac is they were designed to do many things rather than just run music applications. If companies like akai made their own computer operating systems coded on like assembly language and you could boot them using your computer it would be fantastic. but that takes too much time and then limits the boundaries of your computers full potential.

    Bascially the point is Software based things will never quite be as fast until the computer chips get much faster or the software gets much lighter. It's really all in the coding.

  • SndHlr

    @s ford I have a few of DJ Shiro CD's that I purchased direct from him years ago one was called "Sound Sleep" and the other was "An Instrument of Ten Strings" you can find him on twitter @Shiro7

  • Kevin