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Buddha in the Machine

The duo FM3 packed nine ambient loops into a device the size of a cigarette pack; member Christiaan Virant discusses sound art in the age of mass production

By Marc Weidenbaum

While its name sounds like the premise for a Philip K. Dick novel, the Buddha Machine is not fictional, even if recent back orders, due to its popularity, might have suggested as much. A small, plastic, battery-operated device resembling a cheap AM radio, the Buddha Machine contains nine brief ambient snippets that loop endlessly. It is described by one of its creators as “essentially an ‘instant’ sound installation.”

Those are the words of Christiaan Virant, one half of the duo FM3 (along with Zhang Jian), whose little sound toy has gotten praise not only for its ingenuity and novelty, but also for its beauty. The plain little device has a speaker, a headphone jack, a switch to change tracks, an AC jack, and a volume knob that does double duty as an on/off switch. Encoded on its little internal chip are nine sound loops, some drone-like in nature, others involving small swells of notes, but all in essence ambient.

Virant, an American who resides in China, answered a series of questions about the machine via email. He first responded to some questions before I’d ever even held the machine in my hand. He confirmed that the nine sound files on the FM3 website, fm3.com.cn, are those encoded on the machine’s silicon chip. “Yes,” he said. “The nine loops on the website are the same as the loops in the box. These loops, each of which is named after a different Chinese instrument, are taken from earlier FM3 releases or live sets.” Still, the downloadable files don’t begin to suggest the device’s innate power, not just as an objet d’art fetish object, but as a simple, functional tool.

The Buddha Machine’s loops sound different under different circumstances, and its heft and utilitarian packaging are part of its pleasure. Toss it on a bed, and hear how the direction of the speaker, and whether or not it is muffled, alters the sound. Play two or more side by side, matching or mixing loops, and appreciate the interplay. Place units throughout an apartment and experience a sound experience somewhere between wallpaper and incense.

It is the sound-art world’s equivalent of an artists’ book. An artists’ book is an object unto itself, in which not just the printed words and images are of concern, but so too the very construction of the book. The Buddha Machine is a medium-specific release, much like a cassette tape that takes advantage of its extended playing time, or a vinyl LP consisting of locked grooves, or a CD or MiniDisc containing dozens of short musical segments intended to be listened to at random.

I was already aware of the delivery delay on Buddha Machines when I put in an order for one through Forced Exposure, the record distributor. After reading that the record store Aquarius, located in San Francisco, where I live, had received a large shipment, I phoned to reserve one. The shop was quiet that evening, and the clerk let me select a machine from a variety of colors they had on hand. I opted for blue, which seemed appropriately placid. I paid for the device, swapped out my headphones from my portable MP3 player, and wandered out into the Mission District with the third track, which sounds like some alien bowed instrument, resonating between my ears. Outside the shop, a young man asked if I could spare a cigarette. When I said I didn’t smoke, he glanced at the object in my hand and just glared at me. (A day or two later, the Forced Exposure order arrived: green.)

After I’d purchased two machines, Virant and I picked up the conversation. What appears below is a lightly edited transcript of the correspondence, in which Virant talks about the fine-tuning of the device that occurred mid-production, plans for a earthenware collectors edition, and an American’s perspective on living in China.

Marc Weidenbaum: Could you walk through a timeline for the ideas that generated the Buddha Machine? Did the item that resulted resemble your early plans? Assuming the project did change as you refined it, could you describe how the design changed over time?

Christiaan Virant: It’s a pretty long story that started more than 10 years ago, when I found a similar device in a temple in southwest China. The machine in the temple had a Buddhist chant on permanent loop, and at first I thought it was just a tape player with an endless tape loop inside. But it had a really distinct digital noise. So I asked someone and they said it was a “chanting machine.” I bought two from the temple gift shop — all temples in China have gift shops that sell various Buddhist accessories — sent one to my mother and kept one. Over the years, I thought that it would be pretty cool if I was able to put my own tunes into a similar box. So about two years ago, I got serious about the idea and Zhang Jian and I set about finding a factory to produce what eventually became the FM3 Buddha Machine.

The box that was released pretty much resembled our original hand-drawn design, which can be found on one of our FM3 T-shirts, but we went through a long cycle of getting the sound and quality just right. The biggest problem was making the circuitry of the boxes more stable so they wouldn’t change pitch at random intervals, and even now if you listen to 10 different boxes you will find they all have a slightly different “tuning” because the resistors are not at all standardized. We are currently into the fourth generation, and I’m quite happy with the gritty, lo-fi digital sound that comes out of the boxes on the market right now.

Weidenbaum: Did you have alternate designs in mind?

Virant: One of our very early prototypes was a square box with just a speaker on front and no band logo. But it looked too much like a travel alarm clock, so we went with the current “cigarette pack” look.

Weidenbaum: The sound of the Buddha Machine is different depending on whether you listen through the headphone jack or project the music through its internal speaker, which has a fair amount of distortion. To what extent did you tweak the design to achieve that lo-fi quality, and to what extent was that sound simply an end result of the practical manufacturing decisions you made.

Virant: We made a number of different prototypes before it went into production, and along the way we tweaked different aspects of the hardware, including testing different speakers and memory chips. But the most important changes were made by mucking about with the resistors. We found that different wiring patterns changed the quality and speed of the loops quite a bit, so through a process of elimination, we arrived at a circuit flow that we liked. With each production run we made small modifications to the resistors and the circuit board, and we are now happy with the music-to-noise ratio and the level of distortion. The machines on sale right now are considered the “fourth generation” and for the future we have no plans to make further hardware modifications. By the way, hardware hackers out there will find that they can change the sound and speed of the loops by swapping out or removing some of the resistors. I use one of these “bent” Buddhas when I play live.

Weidenbaum: Were you surprised that people have bought multiple Buddha Machines, or did you sort of have that in mind?

Virant: Very surprised. Our original “pressing” was 300 machines. And we though those would last us a year or more. But from the very beginning, people bought multiple copies. My very first customer was Brian Eno, who ordered six based on a prototype that I showed him at a dinner in Beijing. Then when I went to deliver the finished product, he actually took a few more than planned. Then my second customer was Thomas Fehlmann in Berlin, who bought nearly a dozen. From then on, people would buy them in sets of two, three or five. At Mutek we found that people would first buy one, then come back the next day for a few more. And of course, it is quite nice to have three or four around the house playing the same loop and just listening to how they interact with each other.

Weidenbaum: What was the division of labor between you and your FM3 partner, Zhang Jian?

Virant: Normally, because Zhang is very busy with other bands and his commercial production work, I do all of the FM3 music that you hear on our CD or vinyl releases and all the planning for our tours, etc. Zhang’s a real genius when it comes to live improv and performance, but the studio and grunt work was in my hands.

For the Buddha Machine, however, we both worked very closely together from the very beginning, because it was something we as musicians had never had to do before, and it was quite a laugh. We essentially had to pretend we were a small business, going around to different producers to discuss manufacturing, setting up logistics for shipping to different parts of the world, and Zhang even had to visit different plastics factories to get the special colors mixed for our current colored series, which, although they look like pretty bog-standard colors, had to be special ordered and then shipped from one factory to another. And of course, we don’t look, act or talk like normal business people. We didn’t even have business cards until just a few weeks ago. So most of these factories didn’t take us very seriously. But the entire process has been really quite interesting.

Weidenbaum: So many inexpensive plastic appliances we purchase in the West say “Made in China” or “Made in Hong Kong” on their packaging. There’s something enticing about the Buddha Machine, in that it wasn’t just made in China, but conceived and designed there as well — was this on your mind as you put the project together?

Virant: Not at all. One of the things about living in China is you are very distanced from the image of China that is common in the West. When you buy something in Beijing you don’t even pay attention to where it’s made. So we never really thought about how the box would be perceived in a market that is awash with Chinese-made consumer items.

Weidenbaum: The record industry is so focused on piracy, I imagine that somewhere there’s a record executive who wishes he, or she, could so closely tie music with a physical object, as you have. Do you think the Buddha Machine in some way comments on the current issues in music distribution?

Virant: Hmmm, again, living in Beijing, the focus of music dialogue is often different and this is something I’ve never really thought of before. Of course, there is an extreme piracy problem in China and many of my artist friends complain about not making money from their releases, even though they may sell tens of thousands. And even an FM3 release in 2004 was heavily pirated. But when we designed the Buddha Machine, we were mostly thinking of making our lives easier by having essentially an “instant” sound installation. Avoiding bootlegging never entered into the plan. And, actually, I must say, that FM3 downloads on Soulseek [the file sharing application] have directly led to more gigs for us and a wider global fan base.

Weidenbaum: The object has a surprising amount of heft. Is that due to the speaker?

Virant: Half the weight of the box is the batteries. The rest is the speaker. And, of course, that little buddha stuck inside there!

Weidenbaum: Relative to the utter simplicity of the device itself, the packaging is pretty ornate. Was this entirely by plan, or was the graphic design to some extent a standard format for the factory that produced the items.

Virant: Zhang and I are terrible when it comes to design issues. This is why for years we never made a website, band logo, T-shirts and all that other “packaging” that most bands develop in the first few years. Even with the design of the Buddha Machine itself, we waited until the very last day, hand-drew the logo, made a rough sketch of the design and faxed it off to the plant. On that same day, we just decided to use the existing packaging that the factory had, but paste a sticker of our track list on the box. It was one of those lazy decisions that ended up working quite well.

Weidenbaum: Could you talk a bit about how you shaped some of the samples to make them work as loops? The one with the piano-like sound, those pulses that suggest Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, fades in and out, to near silence, but many of the others sound almost continuous.

Virant: Most of the “songs” in the box were already composed as loops and used in our live performances over the past few years. People who saw us perform in Europe last year, or heard the Bip-Hop compilation that features two of our songs [Bip-Hop Generation : Vol. 7, 2004], will immediately recognize the second loop on the Buddha Machine. And for the entire year of 2004, we opened all of our shows with six or eight minutes of the first loop. The last loop was also one part of a song we used to close our shows around 2001 or so. Since the music already existed as short audio loops on my hard drive, we just gave the samples to the factory and they burned them into the memory wafers. Of course, we burned a few test chips to see how the music would sound once it was on eight-bit silicon and there was a bit of tweaking involved.

Weidenbaum: The website for the Swiss label Leerraum Records lists various proper FM3 albums, like Pinpan and your album recorded with Zimoun, Live 19.06.2004, as well as the Buddha Machine, but I generally see Staalplaat listed as the company that released Buddha. Could you explain?

Virant: Staalplaat released a limited-edition set of 300 all-black FM3 Buddha Machines. They are now completely sold out and will not be re-pressed. The only ones on the market right now are the new version in six different colors which we released ourselves. Zimoun at Leerraum is a friend of ours, and he liked the white Buddha Machine, so he purchased just 25 of them from us to offer his friends and artists on Leerraum. Those machines sold out in about a day, I’m told.

Weidenbaum: I have read that there will be more Buddha Machines, or machines along these lines, with different artists involved. Will you and Zhang Jian be overseeing this series? Can you say more about what’s coming up?

Virant: There are no plans to release other artists in the Buddha Machine format. This was an idea early on when we were talking with Staalplaat. But very quickly we realized that it’s such a difficult job just dealing with the production, logistics and distribution our own Buddha Machine, we decided we really didn’t have the ability to expand the concept to other artists.

Weidenbaum: Forgive my ignorance, but the dissected image of the Machine on your website is credited to Longmo, whose MP3 sample off Sanban, another Leerraum album, I really enjoyed. Could you explain how FM3 and Longmo are related?

Virant: Wow. The “exploded” Buddha machine on the website and on our T-shirts was created by a Swiss friend of ours. And actually, until you asked me this question, I didn’t know he made music! During the day he works as a technical illustrator, and so I threw a free machine his way and begged him to do the schematic.

Weidenbaum: Is there really a little Buddha inside the Machine, as the Longmo exploded view playfully suggests?

Virant: That would be seriously cool! But it’s a pretty tight fit in there with all that music. And of course, a Buddhist would probably argue that there is a little bit of Buddha inside everything!

Weidenbaum: Are you at all familiar with the “One Bit Music” device that Tristan Perich is releasing early next year, as described at onebitmusic.com? Are you aware of other “sound art” devices made for popular consumption?

Virant: A friend forwarded me a link to the site just last week. Brilliant machine. And I like how it is designed in a CD case, so it fits into existing distribution networks, if he ever decides to mass-produce. Actually, many of our art-world friends urged us to make the Buddha Machine very strictly limited-edition, and very, very expensive. But we still think of it more as our “release” for 2005 so we priced it about the same as a CD. But we are working on a special Chinese porcelain version of the Buddha Machine for release in 2006 which will target the hardcore collector. It will be hand-made using a combination of traditional and very high-tech ceramics techniques and look and sound just like the normal Buddha Machine. But it will be in bone-white China with traditional blue glaze.

Weidenbaum: Having produced such a physically specific release, in which the sound and the object are so closely related, will it feel odd to return — when working on a future release — to something, like a CD, where the medium is, relatively speaking, more neutral?

Virant: Very good question, and something I was just wondering about recently. When I was in Belgium earlier in November, I made a deal to do a full FM3 release on a vinyl 12-inch. And this is something I’m very excited about, because I’ve always believed that our music would sound quite nice on vinyl. We have a few loops on a Staalplaat locked-groove 12-inch and I love how those loops sound. So I’m looking forward to the vinyl release. We do have a live CD coming out on Staalplaat very soon, but that was recorded last year, well before the Buddha Machine was produced. As for future CD releases, I don’t really know. And I’m not really in a hurry, anyway. I still have to write new music for the vinyl LP, and for me the composition process is painfully slow, so don’t expect it anytime soon.

Weidenbaum: Where exactly in China do you live, and what are the city environs like. How would you compare it to where you’ve lived in the United States?

Virant: I live in Beijing, right inside the central business district. It’s a continuous construction project. Lots of dirt, big trucks and traffic. Bicycle paths and trees have made way for a huge, 70-meter-wide thoroughfare right outside my front door. But Beijing used to be very quiet and tranquil. Nevertheless, Beijing today is almost the polar opposite of the city I grew up in, a small rural community in the middle of Nebraska.

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