The Buddha Machine, true to its name, is a modest device. The battery-operated plastic box emits a series of nine lo-fi sound loops composed by the China-based electronic-music duo FM3. Despite — or perhaps due to — its small scale and limited functionality, as of July 2007 the little sound-art gadget had sold reportedly 50,000 units, and FM3 (aka Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian) were already suggesting a sequel was in the works.
Last week came the announcement: Buddha Machine 2.0 brings three new colors (burgundy, chocolate, grey), nine new loops, and best of all a pitch-control knob that gives the listener the ability to adjust the sound.
On the eve of its November 1, 2008, commercial release, Virant answered some questions about the revision. He talked about fine-tuning the new loops, making peace with the random inaccuracies of Chinese mass production, and being inspired by the legions of Buddha Machine remixers. (Also available on this site is an earlier interview, from December 2005, with Virant: “Buddha in the Machine.”)
Marc Weidenbaum: The two new loops you’ve posted thus far have sounds that bring to mind string instruments. Is there some theme shared by the new group of sounds?
Christiaan Virant: Since it took us three years to get 2.0 finished, we decided to make the music about one part “evolution” and one part “revolution.” We decided that we could not just use the same sound set we were using for 1.0, regardless of how well they worked in the box. As a result, many of the tracks on 2.0 are far removed from the drones of the original — the piano on the third track, for example. At the same time, we kept a few direct references to the original loops, because we liked how they worked when you play both 1.0 and 2.0 at the same time.
Weidenbaum: What did you learn from the first set of nine sounds that influenced the new set? Did the average length change? Did you under-emphasize high or low pitches?
Virant: While we were designing the 2.0, there was a lot of thought about which loops “worked” and which did not, and we had really wanted to go with some long, evolving tunes. But in the end, what you hear is actually most influenced by mundane technical reasons. When we made the loops longer and tested them on a higher-capacity chip, it sounded awful — something to do with the clock speed of the chip and how it interacted with the PC board. So we went back to the lower-capacity chip, which forced us to squeeze everything into 300 seconds of music. That kept the average length of the new music about the same as the original loops. And for 2.0 we really tried to improve the sound quality, so we didn’t change the EQ to make the loops “fit” in the box. This time around, we made the box “fit” the loops.
Weidenbaum: Pitch control appears to be the biggest change in the new device. It’s a cool addition, almost like you’d “circuit-bent” your own machine. What inspired you to make the Buddha Machine more “interactive,” to give the listener more control over the sound? [The image below, courtesy of FM3, shows combination of volume control (top) and pitch control (bottom), book-ending the headphone jack.]
Virant: It was really the fans that made us think about how to improve and upgrade the box. We always considered the Buddha Machine as our “album.” But many, many people out there were inspired to use it as an instrument. Over the past three years I’ve received at least 100 tracks either on CD, CDR, or MP3 that use the Buddha Machine loops. Most recently I got a nice track from a 12-year-old in Portland! Many electronic musicians found it to be a handy performance device and plugged one or two straight into a mixer. Others banged it through a rack of effects, and still others got inside and rewired the machine to create all sorts of weird noise! This evolution was really exciting to watch, so Zhang and I talked a lot about how to work “with” these Buddha fans, rather than just giving them another box of static samples. We don’t really have the knowledge to design a cool performance instrument, so we decided the simplest and likely most effective modification was a basic pitch control. You can pitch it to match the 1.0, your guitar, your voice … or you can “play” the box by changing the notes as they sound out.
Weidenbaum: Can you confirm that lowering the pitch will also extend the playing length of the loop?
Virant: In theory, it should play slower when pitched down, but to be honest I haven’t timed it! Its a simple voltage control. The wheel just controls the amount of power feeding the circuit, so with less power, it plays slower and deeper. Like when the batteries were running out on your Buddha Machine 1.0!
Weidenbaum: At some point in the production of the first Buddha Machine, a change was implemented in the physical switch that alternates between loops. It had been a back-and-forth switch, but it became an inset button. Why was that change made?
Virant: This wasn’t really a conscious change. The factory just gives us whatever they have in stock. Nowadays, when they run out of the push-button, they just put on a different switch and send it out. We often don’t even know until we are at a gig, open up a machine, and wow! There’s a different switch! Early on, they would sometimes use red ink instead of white for the printing. That’s just part of manufacturing in China — always a bit of randomness. But Zhang and I both prefer the toggle switch. It makes less noise during performance and is more accurate. We had wanted to use the toggle switch as standard for 2.0, but were forced to use the push-button because of the circuit board architecture. We are working on a new circuit board, so hopefully one day we can move back to the toggle.
Weidenbaum: That’s an interesting spin on John Cage’s idea about the role of “chance” in music. Usually by “chance,” Cage was speaking of compositional technique or performance practice. I don’t think he focused much on chance in the actual production of a musical instrument.
Virant: Originally the Buddha Machine was designed in one color only: black. When we made the initial order for 300, we told them we wanted 300 black units. So I go to pick them up in Hong Kong around March 2005, and I get about 180 black and the rest in red! We didn’t even know it was an option! Seems the factory ran out of black plastic, so they just grabbed some red stuff, melted it down, and made the machines. They were more concerned with meeting the quantity requirement than the color requirement. I didn’t really complain, but it was an early lesson in the complete randomness involved with our factory. Zhang minded even less, and the next time I saw him — at Mutek 2005 — he had a box filled with the machines in seven different colors! The initial “mistake” ended up leading us to make the machine in different colors and probably led to untold extra sales.
Related links: FM3's website at fm3buddhamachine.com. December 2005 interview at disquiet.com. Rob Walker's July 2007 New York Times story at nytimes.com.
Free Buddha music: Five of the nine new loops (disquiet.com). Screaming Buddha by Noisewerks (disquiet.com). Aymeric de Tapol & François Martig (disquiet.com). Mark Rushton's two field-recording Buddhas (disquiet.com, disquiet.com). Jupiter Watts psychedelic-rock (disquiet.com). Two Royal Trans albums (disquiet.com, disquiet.com). Dying Buddha Machine (disquiet.com). Monolake live (this file is no longer accessible, but the original writeup is at disquiet.com). First Disquiet.com post on Buddha Machine, November 2005, with links to the original tones (disquiet.com).
Retail remixes: Two albums have been released commercially of Buddha Machine sounds, a solo set by Robert Henke (aka Monolake) titled Layering Buddha and a various-artists collection called Jukebox Buddha with entries by Henke, Blixa Bargeld, Adrian Sherwood, Doug Wimbish, Jan Jelinek, and SunnO))), among others; both are covered in an entry in this "best of 2006" list: disquiet.com.