The one sequencer that you can see in a computer museum. The original Triadex Muse. Photo (CC-BY) Michael Hicks.

The one sequencer that you can see in a computer museum. The original Triadex Muse. Photo (CC-BY) Michael Hicks.

The 70s were one heck of a groovy time. When they weren’t postulating theories about the very underlying essence of all physical reality being reduced to computational models, pioneering AI scientists were … creating weird music sequencers? Seriously?

The Singularity will be brought to you by Giorgio Moroder, perhaps?

Yes, as we saw earlier this week, AI legends Edward Fredkin and Marvin Minsky somehow managed to take their research in philosophy, digital physics, and cognitive science, and make a weird box that most definitely is capable of blinking lights and making sequences of bleeps.

The Triadex Muse really seems like something you’d find on the deck of the early Starship Enterprise. (Live set tonight in Panorama Bar, Nyota Uhura.) Representing the shift registers that store the sequences of notes, there are series of light-up LEDs along the side of the faders. As those lights chase one another, you can see the variations in melodic patterning that keep the Muse spitting out new tunes.

Sonically, the devices are primitive; basic circuitry produces the sound. But the algorithmic production of music is unique. This was no sci-fi prop: it was a working machine capable of improvising melodies in the days when computers were things in giant rooms, one of the first digital logic machines of its kind, and one of the first-ever digital sequencers. The interest in a hardware recreation from Future Retro we saw yesterday demonstrates that the basic idea can still dazzle music geeks.

And the hardware itself is gorgeous: a brushed-metal triangular prism, faced only by a series of tall faders and lights. Three hundred bucks in 1972 dollars means this would be about US$1700 today (and you’d pay about as much on eBay). But that’s a steal: a Minimoog from two years earlier cost about US$9000 in modern currency.

But it’s partly the fact that this came from Minsky and Fredkin that makes it so interesting. In nerdy fields like reversible computing and cellular automata (Fredkin), neural networks, head mounted displays, and even the LOGO Turtle (Minsky). They were big enough to make their way into pop culture. Minsky was an advisor on the movie 2001; Arthur C. Clarke in the book even fictionally credits Minsky and >I.J. Good with the self-replicating intelligence that created HAL. (If a computer ever does throw you out an airlock, you’ll know Clarke was right, and you can curse Minsky with your dying breath.) Fredkin gets his own fictional apocalypse: supposedly War Games‘ Professor Stephen Falken is supposedly modeled on him.

This should all come as a bit of a challenge, though. Electronic music’s role in early technology, from the dying song of HAL (Max Mathews) to futuristic models of AI here, means that the resurgent interest in vintage tech can give our futurism a better grounding in real history. It makes electronic music a fantastic teaching tool, and allows us to discover the artifacts of the past that can be futuristic now.

But I think computer music can do more to engage the latest bleeding edge in computer science, cognition, physics, and other fields (even science fiction). Much as I love the 70s, too, that means we can’t only recreate the past. I hope electronic music remains a field where the biggest innovators feel at home. Time for a new rave for the future.

And for inspiration, maybe our post-digital world might consider the radical thoughts of the digital philosophy movement, not only how much we love warm, fuzzy old analog gear.

Create Digital Reality – Create Digital Everything. Indeed. Someone was really staring at those cellular automata patterns for a while. Mind… blown.

Thanks to Kim Cascone for the video.

More images from Lindsey Mysse / @lindseymysse show just how clean the form factor of this was. And perhaps most unique of all, check the speaker screen. The notion was, you’d set the faders, put on the screen, and use this as your home stereo device. (Huh. Okay, that didn’t quite catch on.)

Marvin Minsky's MUSE Synthesizer

Marvin Minsky's MUSE Synthesizer

And here’s the fantastic light show add-on.

  • wms

    My pal procured one of these for the Science Museum in London. It’s still there I think. I can’t recall if we ever got the thing working, but the sliders were a little flimsy! Certainly looks better than it sounds.

    • Peter Kirn

      Would still be fun to have it working!

  • vroom lao phen

    Love the lights. Not even the extra unit, but just the tiny strip of Knight Rider lights on the sequencer. Talk about awesome design.

  • DPrty

    You can grab the Muse Simulator here The nice thing about this software is you can control external midi gear. Its old but works fine on Win 7 64.

    • DPrty

      One other thing … The Akai ME20A can be had for almost nothing on Ebay or Craigslist and while its not quite the same thing as the Triadex it will probably take you much further as the possibilities are only limited by what you feed it. I get tons of musically usable ideas from it every time I turn it on. Call it the poor mans Triadex.

    • nick

      As a former ME20A owner, it indeed can be found cheap but it has little to do with the Muse. Certainly no algorithmic or random pattern generation. It’s not what most users consider an arpeggiator and not a very flexible sequencer, being billed as an “arpeggiator” when it’s a basic digital MIDI step sequencer helps turn them over used as while it’s not useless it’s not very versatile. Now the Muse was very groundbreaking for implementing algorithmic pattern generation with a realtime user interface. IMHO, had it a better sound generator or a control voltage output it would been a good level more legendary. Wouldn’t call it a “digital sequencer” since while the user can adjust the algorithmic it’s not dealing with a series of user input values like say EMS’s 256 step sequencer (digital technology, 1971)

    • DPrty

      It has a lot to do with Muse however I do agree with you for the most part. The Muse is not random it is a deterministic event generator that means that it will play the same thing twice given enough time. No the the ME20A will not spit out days of music unless you put that much in by hand but it does much the same thing as the Muse. Its more like playing with the DNA of what the Muse is … or at a much smaller scale. The ME20A is also not limited to conditions that could cause no other event because it needs a human to input something. Off course if you really want the Poor Mans Muse this would be the ticket or go get the Muse emulator

  • mrbelm

    When I was an undergrad at MIT in the late ’70s, I frequently checked a Triadex out of the music library (they had a few) and noodled with it in my dorm room.