New Disquietude podcast episode: music by Lesley Flanigan, Dave Seidel, KMRU, Celia Hollander, and John Hooper; interview with Flanigan; commentary; short essay on reading waveforms. • Disquiet.com F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #field-recording, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Buddha Machine, Reloaded

FM3 member Christiaan Virant talks about controlling pitches and recording new loops for the second-generation (version "2.0") sound-art gadget

By Marc Weidenbaum

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.

Tags: , , , / Comments: 4 ]

4 Comments

  1. nikkos
    [ Posted March 26, 2009, at 7:49 am ]

    I’m mixing a project right now, in which I used two of the Buddha Machines…I would love to be able to e-mail the link to Christiaan and Zhang…how might I get in touch with them? Thanks!

  2. Marc Weidenbaum
    [ Posted March 26, 2009, at 10:28 pm ]

    Hi, Nikkos. I just sent you the contact info (via the FM3 website) to your email address. When you’re done with your mixes, if you publish ’em online, please let me know. Thanks.

  3. Vijay
    [ Posted April 13, 2009, at 9:35 pm ]

    Hi marc,

    I would love to get in touch with Mr. Virant or whoever is making the FM3, we would like to distribute it in Europe! do you have an email address?

    best wishes Vijay

  4. Marc Weidenbaum
    [ Posted April 14, 2009, at 6:51 am ]

    Hi, Vijay.

    FM3’s contact info is here:

    http://www.fm3buddhamachine.com/site/?page_id=37

    Best, Marc

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*

Subscribe without commenting

  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

  • Field Notes

    News, essays, surveillance

  • Interviews

    Conversations with musicians/artists/coders

  • Studio Journal

    Video, audio, patch notes

  • Projects

    Select collaborations and commissions

  • Subscribe



  • Current Activities

  • Upcoming
    December 13, 2021: This day marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
    December 28, 2021: This day marks the 10th anniversary of the Instagr/am/bient compilation.
    January 6, 2021: This day marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.

  • Recent
    July 28, 2021: This day marked the 500th consecutive weekly project in the Disquiet Junto music community.
    There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
    A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)

  • Ongoing
    The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.

  • My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, was published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury. It has been translated into Japanese (2019) and Spanish (2018).

  • disquiet junto

  • Background
    Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.

    Recent Projects

  • 0511 / Freeze Tag / The Assignment: Consider freezing (and thawing) as a metaphor for music production.
    0510 / Cold Turkey / The Assignment: Record one last track with a piece of music equipment before passing it on.
    0509 / The Long Detail / The Assignment: Create a piece of music with moments from a preexisting track.
    0508 / Germane Shepard / The Assignment: Use the Shepard tone to create a piece of music.
    0507 / In DD's Key of C / The Assignment: Make music with 10 acoustic instrument samples all in a shared key.

    Full Index
    And there is a complete list of past projects, 511 consecutive weeks to date.

  • Archives

    By month and by topic

  • [email protected]

    [email protected]

  • Downstream

    Recommended listening each weekday

  • Recent Posts