When new technology works its way into the arts at a consumer level, people tend to look at it one of two ways.
On one hand, each new innovation tends to get smaller, quicker, more efficient, and cheaper than its predecessors—but, if we look at the other side, the darker side, we see that those same advances quickly level the playing field, often marginalising the talents and life’s work of skilled artists.
With every new software update, it seems learning and playing actual instruments is becoming a thing of the past. Today, most creators spend the majority of their time in front of a computer, ultimately distancing themselves from that unique relationship and indescribable magic you can only get with a real instrument. Thanks to technology, just about anyone can cheat their way through the artistic process. But will they? With our collective ADD and ever-growing number of distractions, it’s hard to imagine anyone besides the especially diligent will find the time and concentration to create anything.
Strangely, as many music-making technologies take us away from the beauty of old time analog methods, there’s a remarkable and counterintuitive trend in music consumption taking place, and it’s one that may tame the temper of the increasingly displaced sentimentalist: technological upgrades to outdated devices.
Presenting Monster Children’s favourite Futuristic Devices of Audio Production and Consumption: Class of 2020. Marketed and priced for the masses, these items either present an opportunity for the curious to try their hand at translating the sounds in their head without fear of failure, or merely resurrect some of time’s most romantic technologies. Try them out while you can, because once the Orgasmatron from Woody Allen’s Sleeper is finalised, it will be a miracle if anyone finds the motivation to do anything.
Over in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Curious Sound Objects has developed a pocket-sized drum machine they call the ‘Bitty’. And while it dwarfs and simplifies its bulky, high-priced counterparts from yesteryear, it still employs actual buttons and knobs to perform its functions. It’s that ‘affordance,’ as founder Nickolas Peter Chelyapov puts it, which gives the Bitty that extra charm. It turns out, it’s still better to push a button and twist a knob than to click and drag their virtual equivalents. I did my research; it’s true.
With the Bitty, the need for a computer is minimal. Just load one of the sound banks provided (or your own) and you are instantly equipped with drums, melodies or atmospherics, all of which can then be manipulated with the turn of a knob. And with two Bittys side by side, you have all of the tools you need to make a whole song live and on the fly. The drum sounds ‘crunch’ and ‘punch’ like early MPC’s, and the synths shimmer. Equipped with a built-in car door speaker, the Bitty stands strong on its own, but plug it into a set of external speakers and it soars. ‘My one requirement was that it had to be loud enough to be annoying,’ said Chelyapov. A musician himself, he sees the pocket-sized gizmo as an opportunity to create and jam out with your friends, in a drum circle of sorts—or a drum machine circle… as it were. Finally, we have a gadget fit for the future with a vintage feel and a retro reverence, all brought to you with a price point that takes the fear of failure out of the equation.
Nashville has long been known to the world as ‘Music City,’ and with Artiphon’s contributions to the future of music creation, it should be able to keep that nickname well into the formidable future. Following the release of INSTRUMENT 1, a device that could switch between a guitar, violin, piano, and drums with the press of a single button, the forward-thinking, Tennessee-based company is nearly set to release the Orba on the world.
Another multi-tasker, the Orba is a synth, looper and MIDI control, all contained in a single circular device that fits in the palm of your hand. Pick from drum, bass, rhythm, and lead, and you can create, record and play along anywhere, anytime. With feather-like sensitivity, the device not only reacts to your touch, but the built-in accelerometer and gyroscope give it the ability to vary with your every movement. Shake it, strum it, do a little dance, you can utilise it all in the creation process. An internal speaker makes it portable, and its Bluetooth and USB connectivity make it convenient. Fresh off their successful Kickstarter campaign, the project drummed up 13,000 preorders (the most ever by a musical instrument in crowdfunding history) and has just received additional funding from Warner Music and Shure. See why Artiphon says the Orba can, ‘Make the beginner feel like a pro and make the pro feel like a beginner again.’
PHONOCUT Home Vinyl Recorder
People are still amazed at vinyl’s comeback. If you ask me, and probably millions of others, it never went away. I mean, I’ve seen The Big Chill soundtrack on vinyl at every Goodwill I’ve ever been to. More so, vinyl’s return is better defined as record companies finally deeming it less dangerous and unpredictable as a physical medium. Sure, it’s not the most cost-effective way to make music, but that slab of black is the sexiest, most romantic, best sounding (and largest) format we’ve ever had. Anyways, yeah, vinyl is back for the rest of the world, but while the avid appreciator may find themselves weary of technology (since they tried to destroy their medium of choice), they just may change their mind when they see this. Introducing the PHONOCUT, the world’s first consumer analog vinyl lathe.
Developed by Florian ‘Doc’ Kaps (also known for keeping Polaroid film alive as the founder of the Impossible Project), PHONOCUT’s eventual introduction to the market will mark the first time a home record-making device will be available to the public. With a list price around €1999, it may not be for everyone, but the option is there. The machine itself is roughly the size of a common turntable and no computer or additional program is required. Simply plug in a ⅛” jack from your audio source to the PHONOCUT and press play. The resulting 10-inch record can hold an estimated 15 minutes of sound on each side… and of course it doesn’t have to be music. If the analog romantic needs convincing—and there’s certainly a chance those stubborn Luddites might—consider the untapped, previously impossible idea of a vinyl ‘mixtape,’ or taking DIY to new extremes by releasing your own music on a record you cut yourself. It’s probably something they had in mind. After all, tucked away in their FAQ, it says they chose the 10-inch for its simplicity and because it was Shellac’s original format of choice.
Dubler Studio Kit
One of the most discouraging things about trying to create music is not being able to translate the sound in your mind into a workable recording. Thanks to Dubler, that disconnect is closer than ever to being solved. Created by Vochlea, the London-based company has developed a real-time, vocal recognition MIDI controller. Compatible with any DAW, you can now hum, sing, breathe, beatbox or use other non-lexical vocables (ahhs, la-las) to create melodies, patterns or manipulate effects on just about any instrument. You don’t even have to have a good voice. Clicks and taps will work too. Dubler comes with software and a mic. Prototypes have already been tested and endorsed by musicians in the field, the first run of crowdfunded devices have been shipped, and pre-orders are now being taken on their website.
IT’S OK Cassette Player
Live long enough and you’re bound to see some of the favourite technologies from your youth disappear from plain sight. Actually, the way things are going, you don’t even have to live that long to see it happen. For many of my generation, the tape player was a tough one to let go. Things like those mixtapes from your first girlfriend can’t easily be replaced. A mix CD couldn’t take its place… and don’t even try to send me your playlist. A mixtape required masterful sequencing and strategic planning. Because you couldn’t just easily skip over something, every track had to be one of merit. There was a certain analog beauty with the cassette player. Maybe it was that turning wheel’s hypnotic effect. Maybe it was because you could actually see the behind the scenes movement that made the machine work. Now, everything is just hidden behind metal and plastic. Luckily there are still some out there keeping the analog spirit of the cassette tape alive and well. Right now, there’s a good chance your favourite indie bands are selling cassette tapes at their merch table. Mine are. The great Burger Records label actually specialises in cassette formats. But now that your car with the tapedeck has died, where do we turn? Enter NINM labs of Hong Kong. With a poetic outlook and extreme appreciation for vintage gear, NINM are taking familiar, outdated analog devices and making them tech-ready for the modern age.
‘When we were young, we always listened to the radio with the old cassette player and waited for the DJ to play our favourite singer’s song, and recorded it with the cassette tape,’ says Sanami Kwok of NINM. ‘We got lots of DIY mixtapes in the past!’ As a result, the ‘It’s OK’ cassette player was born. Equipped to handle both wireless headphones and those requiring a jack, It’s OK not only handles the basic functions of a Walkman, but it also includes a recorder. ‘We learned slowly to anticipate as waiting is elegant, and hope is romantic. The cassette tape not only records music, but also the weight of time.’
While countless stories (and YouTube videos) have highlighted kids of today’s unfamiliarity with cassette players, you may think this concept is just for ageing sentimentalists, but Kwok thinks otherwise. ‘Thanks to Stranger Things, Guardians of the Galaxy, Billie Eilish, et cetera, cassette tapes are back. IT’S OK is entry-level media for them to get started with.’ It’s OK was made available to the public in December 2019.