You know those science fiction episodes where someone’s personality gets transferred to the computer? Imagine if an artist could do that with a drum machine, and you get the idea behind Dam-Drum.
Bleep Labs’ John-Mike Reed of Austin, Texas has a unique talent for engineering fun music electronics. His work is sonically adventurous – always with enough rough edges to keep things interesting – and simultaneously demonstrates an ability to compact designs to their most basic elements, while wrapping everything in a veneer of quirky personality. Yes, of course, his googly-eyed robots the Thingamagoops are immediately cute and anthropomorphic. But somehow his circuit boards are, too. They seem to be looking back at you.
Lately, Bleep Labs has turned to collaborative efforts – Freelance Whales, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and most famously Neon Indian all worked with Bleep to make noise gadgetry. The PAL198X for Neon Indian even made it on Jimmy Fallon’s show. At a time when people worry endlessly about the ephemeral quality of music in the digital age, this is one answer: go hardware. The “handcrafted” devices, assembled in Texas, became hotly-anticipated, soon-sold-out pack-ins with 12″ vinyl. It’s a bit like some sort of alternative future, in which giveaway electronics grew into entire instruments and CD and MP3 players never supplanted turntables.
Bleep had three devices over the summer. One of them, the Dam-Drum, is making a second appearance. Made in collaboration with LA artist Dam-Funk, it’s, well, adorable. There are just four sounds: three based on the Roland R70 and a pitchable bass tone modeled after a Juno 106. Update: sold out, but Bleep Labs’ own version is coming, too. Called The Bleep Drum, Dr. Bleep says in comments MIDI is slated for the machine, too. Do want. Of course, you with this version are lucky to have a rare item.
You can trigger the four drum sounds directly, but it’s the sequencer that makes this more than a toy. With Play and Record, you can fire off automatically-quantized grooves, and adjust them with Shift. There’s no external input, but there is a tap tempo.
If you missed it before, the revised version is a significant improvement. Its drum samples are still lo-fi, but improved enough to move into the “grungy useful” territory rather than just “grungy.” Record quantization is improved. And there’s a better battery holder and port for expansion.
(I’d love to see trigger input on this, even if it violates my minimalist praise above; it’d expand the usefulness and longevity of the device.) Correction: Creator John-Mike tells us that this does have “trigger I/O as well as triggers for each pad” – and MIDI add-on support is planned. Brilliant. Now I want it more.
Unfortunately, you will miss out on the great, colored buttons on the original.
The limited edition is US$99 plus (worldwide) shipping, available direct from Stones Throw. (Shipping weight is 2 lbs / .9 kg, I think because it appears to come in a fancy box.)
Dam-Funk is an appropriate pairing for idiosyncratic noise electronics. His boogie and funk ballads are modern but gritty, backed by wonderfully dirt-laden synths and drum machines. Think future funk, Craigslist-style – never too shiny.
A little birdie told me about some other artists going this direction. You’ll hear about it here.