Instrumachines and the Evolution of Electronic Music Performance

This past summer, on the way to see headlining act Girl Talk, I accidentally stumbled upon the future of electronic music performance. It happened at the Treasure Island music festival, which takes place a stone’s throw away from my San Francisco. On this particular Saturday, I was most excited to see the aforementioned Girl Talk – a mashup DJ with a reputation for putting on a good party. But, along the way down the lineup, I ran into an opening set by Araabmuzik:

Ignore the music itself; Araabmuzik is not even a dubstep artist, he’s remixing a Skrillex record here. Instead, pay attention to the man’s hands. What Araabmuzik is doing here is introducing the concept of instrumental virtuosity… to a machine. If most EDM DJ’s can trace their lineage to traditional disco-era record spinners, then Araabmuzik can trace his lineage to Jimi Hendrix; that is, a man who can claim his instrument as an extension of his body. This is the evolution of computer music performance, one in which acrobatic and damn-near athletic abilities are on full display. This is the rise of Instrumachines.

This kind of in-your-face virtuosity illuminates the capabilities of production hardware. Hardware like Araab’s MPC drum machine was once but a humble piece of studio production gear. But the virtuosity it enables should expand the definition of “musical instrument” to include craftsmanship that could only be built by an electrical engineer.

While we’re getting familiar, perhaps I should define what I mean by “instrumachine”, seeing as I pretty much made up the word a few hours ago . An instrumachine is a piece of production gear or hardware that can hold it’s own as a live performance music instrument. The classic MPC sampler is a good example, but there’s a whole slew of pioneering drum machines, samplers and MIDI controllers that are really pushing the boundaries of instrumachines, like Native Instrument’s Maschine, Roland’s S and SP Series, DJ Tech Tool’s Midi Fighter, and a slew of other machines built by electrical engineers

If you agree with the assumption that electronic music is the future, then get familiar with the concept of instrumachines. It is what will push the genre past the limitations of button-pushing, while raising the bar on what we can expect from an electronic music performance.

But first, let’s talk about the evolution of electronic music’s stage presence.

Electronic Dance Music and the Rise of the DJ

Whatever your opinion on the music itself, it’s hard to argue that the core of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is anything but the future of popular music. One hardly needs to look past the capabilities of the hardware itself for proof. Whereas once the creation of music was tied to the mechanical physics of instruments themselves (i.e. vibration of a plucked string, thump of stick on drum pads, etc.), EDM represents a completely digital and meta methodology to manipulate sounds into an infinite spectrum of possibilities. We can now produce any sound in physical existence within a software program, totally divorced from the analog prompts of our fingers and bodies. This is just so way beyond the rudimentary sticks, stones and strings of musical creation past.

This method of meta music creation has already been the privilege of producers and audio engineers for several decades now. But the tools have grown exponentially faster and more powerful. Once upon a time, producers and engineers were only capable of smoothing out the rough edges of analog recordings. A few software updates later, producers became the musicians themselves. Producers can track sounds directly into software like Logic or Fruity Loops with the dash of a mouse, skipping the entire element of performance.

Inevitably, some of this “electronic music” became quite good, and people wanted to experience it at a show. However, when your musical “instrument” is software, live performance becomes a tricky proposition.

Cue the rise of the DJ. In many ways, EDM performance bastardizes the traditional functions of a record-spinning deejay (a.k.a. “DJ”). Appropriated as the closest metaphorical title, the title “DJ” fit to the specs of computer music performance. After all, when music creation skips the entire process of performance, oftentimes the only thing left for live performance is to queue up your own songs. Just like a traditional deejay, but for your own compositions. Of course, many of today’s EDM artists have reverse-engineered some of the more obvious gestures of performance into their own routine; for example, dramatically swinging the shoulders around the curve of a knob twist, or pairing a button-pushed drop with a violent neck whip. It’s a modus operandi of EDM performance that should have chiropractors drooling.

But, we don’t yet give EDM artists a title that implies performance. Perhaps tellingly so.

For the most part, EDM’s fanbase has more than turned a blind eye to any missing elements of performance. In fact, they’ve embraced it. Music performance originated at least 40,000 years ago, theoretically to serve the evolutionary function of glueing and defining the tribe in a participatory, communal ritual, synched in time and emotions. EDM returns to some of these evolutionary roots. As I wrote about in detail in my last post, a big EDM event is just as much about the scene, the dance, the community, the costumes, the lights, the venue, the sound system, the mysticism, the drugs… as much as it is about anything going on on stage. What EDM might lack in idol-worshipping stage performance, it makes up for in the hypnotic tribal activities on the floor. It’s a different kind of magic, and it should be judged and appreciated on it’s own legitimate merits.

However, as much as I theoretically understand the communal magic of EDM performance, I have to admit, button-pushing performances don’t move me the same way a good jam band would. Now, I love a good massive rave as much as the next neon-clad, 20-something pill-popper. So it’s not entirely due to my curmudgeon senility. But a part of me wants to see musicians really play the bodily fluids out of their music, right in front of my very eyes. This is an itch that I doubted electronic music could scratch.

That is, until that fateful afternoon at Treasure Island Music Festival.

Counter Considerations

At its simplest level, Araab’s methods are similar to the rest of EDM in that it ultimately drills down to pushing buttons on machines. But pushing a button 30 times in 30 minutes versus pushing it 30,000 times in 30 minutes, presents an order-of-magnitude difference that you can feel in your bones. It’s the difference between playing a piano, and playing a CD.

Sure, there are a handful of EDM DJs who are executing plenty of very technical maneuvers on stage, including live remixes and plenty of precise knob fiddling. Some of the more technical DJs could probably be compared to Hendrix, by measure of live performance skill. Some of these technical DJs are my personal friends, and it’s actually mind-boggling the things they’re doing on the stage, behind the screens and the decks. It’s just, the average fan wouldn’t be able to tell from the floor. When Araabmuzik goes at it, there’s an immediate visual confirmation.

In other words, Araabmuzik is bringing back the art of music performance to the EDM stage.

Best of all, insrumachines maintain electronic music’s many advantages. As briefly mentioned above, computer music puts a world of untapped sounds in play, in impossibly precise arrangements, malleable to the very physics of sounds itself. From simple stuff like pitch modulation, to more advanced techniques techniques like frequency filtering.

Moreover, Araab’s methods maintain EDM’s self-referential capacity to make all of recorded sound but the building blocks of a new, meta-genre. Like many a good electronic artist, he easily slips between genres and effortlessly fuzes them all up (especially hip-hop, dub step, trance, house, etc). Again, the video above might give you the impression that Araab is a dub step artist. He’s not. This is truly destiny manifest for post-modern music.

One could also argue that instruments like electric guitars, keyboards and electric drum sets are electronic machines. This is true, but it still largely mimics the instrumentation of their analog ancestors. Araabmuzik couldn’t rely on the Suzuki method (or any other training discipline) to learn the fundamentals of his MPC. An instrumachine represents a wholly new way of creating real-time sounds, and some skills just don’t translate. For example, the 4x4 pads on an MPC can be programmed into infinite sets of sounds, but that means nothing if you can’t memorize those customized palettes down to the nerves on your fingertips. The possibilities might be endless, but it requires a whole other layer of a skill set that would have been totally unimaginable for, say, a Jimmy Page or a Jascha Heifetz.

Now, I happen to be a hip hop head, and I know what all my fellow heads are thinking: hardware instrumentation is a reoccurring staple of hip hop. The very origins of hip hop can be traced back to the clever inventions of Bronx DJs, who found a way to extend the danceable breaks in their records by deftly shifting between two turntables. Furthermore, the rise of Q-bert, Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the Bay Area deejay battle scene coined the birth of turntabilsm, which was an absolute breakthrough for machinstrument virtuosity. DJ Shadow built a cult following (including yours truly) around brilliant sampling combined with competition-ready turntablist skills. Even today the fringes of hip hop community hosts beat battles, where beatmakers perform and compete in real time on MPCs. I just went to an Grouch & Eligh show last month, where Eligh busted out an MPC to the middle of the stage for some live, wild drumming, which was a particularly crowd-pleasing segment of the show. Even in the indie rock world, anyone who’s gone to an XX show knows that the trio mostly employs three instruments to great atmospheric effect: guitar, bass, and Jamie XX on the MPC.

Lastly, it’s true that music can be thoroughly enjoyed as a purely audio experience. Ultimately, a good music show is about making an immediate connection with and between your fans. Visual feedback is a big part of that. And truthfully, lights and pyrotechnics and stage antics can go quite far (especially when combined with ahem substances).

But sometimes, I just want the point to be music. Sometimes, I want to see the type of cause-and-effect that my monkey brain can understand; hit stuff = make noise. Sound is physical, and my monkey brain expects sound to be directly connected to the human body as such. When a fluttering improvised chord is accompanied by the synced visual of a brilliant guitarist just shredding the shavings off his strings, my monkey brain can’t help but to scream “Fuck Yeah!” If music is about a soul-to-soul connection, the mirroring part of the brain should probably be utilized. You don’t need a degree in musicology to appreciate the pure visual spectacle of blurring fingers and hands, unbelievably but precisely synced to the rapid-fire chord it conjures. It’s hard to catch the same feelings from an automatic playback.

The Next Instrumachine Hero

Araabmuzik is only arguably the current “MVP of the MPC” (as he likes to brand himself). While Araab’s blazing technical superiority is hard to deny, the niche world of MPC aficionados also champion the soulful musicality and quirkiness of Jeremy Ellis, or the effortless breakbeat funk of Party Supplies. Disciples of Moldover will tell you about their“controllerism” movement, and probably convert you too. Everyday, Youtube shines a spotlight on the hidden talents of anonymous bedroom producers; some of whom, like Madeon, are not so anonymous anymore, riding their initial instrumachine viral video to headlining fame. Then there the reputable producers who keep it in their bedroom, like Anticon founder Jel. And we can’t forget about pioneers, like DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Nu-Mark, who might have publicly invented the concept of an MPC band. And speaking of the west coast hip hop producers, I have to shout out Amp Live, who’s produced many of my favorite records, and happens to be a gear geek who makes and performs his own hardware instruments. And of course, if we’re including synths in this discussion, there’s a whole generation of trailblazers from the 70’s and 80’s, including Kraftwerk, Herbie Hancock, Prince, Depeche Mode, Dodos, Stevie Wonder, Flock of Seagulls… the list does on. I’m probably missing a ton of other instrumachine savants, so please do feel obliged to tweet me some youtube links.

So, Araabmuzik is certainly not the first hardware instrumentalist, and won’t be the last. In fact, the Youtubes is littered with dark horse candidates to take instrumachines to the stadiums. But as of this writing, Araabmuzik is instrumachine’s Johnny Appleseed, scoring mid-to-upper billing in the festival circuit, headlining shows, and leaving new found audiences in the wake of their own dropped jaws. He’s managed to personally redefine a new standard in MPC technical virtuosity at a time when “button-pushing” is becoming a controversial thorn in the side EDM’s push to mainstream… when, as Bassnectar so eloquently put it, “People crave authenticity, and in EDM today, they are beginning to demand it.” in EDM performance.

It almost doesn’t matter which individual blows it up, the main takeaway is this: if you could buy stock in EDM authenticity, snap it up now, because demand is going to go way up after more minds are exposed to Araabmuzik and the new school of machinestrumentalists.

I should know, it happened to me…

A few hours after that fateful Araabmuzik encounter at Treasure Island Music Festival, Girl Talk’s festival-closing set time was fast approaching. The timing couldn’t be more ideal, nestled as it was into a pillowy Indian summer night, the skyline of my beautiful San Francisco illuminating in the background. I braced myself for a magical moment.

Except that that moment never happened. Girl Talk pressed play. Then he danced. Then he brought hundreds of people on stage to dance with him. It seemed quite the spectacle. And I yawned.

Don’t get me wrong, Girl Talk was the consummate circus master, rippling the frenzied crowd with the flails of his dancing arms. But I had witnessed Araabmuzik just a few hours prior. My standards were raised. I could never unsee the possibilities of electronic performance. Girl Talk and his EDM ilk were now, in my mind, “producer slash cheerleader”, as opposed to “performing musician”.

Alas, its too late for me to train these old, hardened fingers. But if I stay true to stereotype and age into a good tiger dad, I bet I skip right past the dusty violins and pianos, and handcuff my kid to a shiny new drum machine.

Kid, it’s the future. You’ll thank me one day.

Send comments, feedback, instrumachine youtube links and most importantly, glorious praise, to my twitter, @freshbreakfast.

I’m up on facebook too.

Thanks to Scott S. for practically co-writing this, and Andrew J. Lee for copy-editing and sharing so many of the above youtube clips.


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