This story is over 5 years old.

Which Comes First in Contemporary Music Technology: the Musician or the Machine?

Shawn Rudiman, Gunnar Haslam, Erika, and more weigh in on the ever-evolving relationship between artists and their gear.
Photo via SynthMania.

Now that you're back from your super-nerd vacation at the NAMM 2016 show, you have come to the realization that it is 2016 and you're still living in your mom's basement, playing techno off a dilapidated laptop your ex-girlfriend gave you. That forward-thinking tech-house album you made in 2010 never really caught on like you thought it would, and you're feeling old, sexually frustrated, and out of the loop. With companies like Korg, Moog, and Roland coming out with new synths, drum machines, sequencers, and accessories every year, it can often time feel a little overwhelming to know which piece of gear will actually breathe new life into your rig.


Recently, Pittsburgh-based, synth-obsessed DJ and producer Shawn Rudiman posted some thought-provoking words on Facebook: "In the 70s and 80s music machine manufacturers made machines for musicians. Today, we make musicians for the machines." Shawn may have a point: the first commercial music machines, dating back to the late 1950s, were arguably far more musician-driven than some of the machines we see today, often tailored to the pre-existing needs of the artists who would use them.

One of the first-ever commercial drum machines to hit the market—the 1959 Wurlitzer SideMan—was designed specifically for live acts in need of a drummer but unable or unwilling to hire one. In the 60s, Don Buchla—the creator of the Buchla Music Easel—worked in close collaboration with composers Morton Subotnik and Ramon Sender of the San Francisco Tape Music Center to develop one of the first touch-sensitive synthesizer for live performance. In the 70s and 80s, Japanese companies like Roland and Korg began designing commercial synths with the musician in mind—honing in on layouts centered around the keyboard, and using western drum kit terminology for percussion effects.

Today, however, it can seem as though shiny new gadgets are appearing on the market faster than most artists—and their wallets—can keep up. For some, this means a host of new opportunities for self-expression; for others, it can create the sensation that technological innovation is dictating the ways in which we express ourselves—or worse yet, supplanting human self-expression completely.


So, what comes first in the world of music machine design and manufacturing today: the machine or the musician? Are musicians in fact evolving in response to technology, or is technology evolving in response to the musician? We asked Shawn Rudiman, Gunnar Haslam, Erika, and more to weigh in on the ever-evolving relationship between artists and their gear.

1. Shawn Rudiman

Photo via Shawn Rudiman's SoundCloud.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
In my opinion, the presence of the musician is highly lacking in today's dance music. I'm not really sure how [that happened], but honestly, I think machines are somehow looked upon to answer for talent and creativity, which is solely the domain of the musician. There seems to be a sophomoric idea that machines can somehow replace creativity, desire, drive, or talent.

Nothing is further from the truth. Machines are simply another instrument, with a more technical interface than say, a drum set or guitar. It's just like learning a small language in order to accomplish a musical idea. I'm not really sure where the misconception that machines can compensate for a lack of humanity came from, but for anyone who believes that, I wish them well. If anything, it's a meeting of the two, where the machine contributes just as much as the human.

From a manufacturer's viewpoint, I guess they are making machines that are capable of things that were unfathomable 20 years ago. But I think the technical reach of music manufacturers and what they can create has outrun where we are as musicians to create with them. There is so much new equipment out there—equipment that facilitates an incredible amount of performance and musicianship. I think all we can do at this point is own up and become better musicians. We need to be the virtuosos of the new instruments. We can't be human jukeboxes or breathing playback machines.


What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
Definitely the performance features for drum machines and sequencers. These allow for on-the-spot composition, and the manipulation of all musical parameters needed to make quality dance music with soul, groove, and funk. Today, if you can conceive of it, you can probably do it—right there, on stage, on the spot, in front of the crowd. You just have to have the balls to operate that way.

The Roland TR-8 is a simulated analog machine, and it's been re-designed for use almost strictly as a performance tool. They could have made tons of automation and training wheels for them, but they didn't; all that's missing is the drummer to make them sing. Several other companies have made machines that are similar in nature. These are the things I look for: a balance of features and simplicity. Trying to find technology and machines that flow without getting completely lost in menus, screens, or parameters. Lost time and energy on the dance floor is the enemy.

2. Erika

Photo via Interdimensional Transmissions website.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
Both—it's a loop. When a technology idea happens, someone goes off and implements that idea in a machine. Then a musician uses that machine, which influences how they sound and the music they make. Some musicians push the machines past their intended designs to sound truly unique, or have new ideas about making music that are sparked by those machines. Some of those innovations and ideas are then built back into the next wave of machines, which influence the way their users sound.


What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
In the past few years, I've been investing in my monitoring and signal path to ensure that as I record things they sound as good as possible. I've also been playing live a lot—both solo and as part of Ectomorph—and have been bringing the fluidity of live performance back into my studio. The tracks I'm working on right now reflect this kind of process.

3. Gunnar Haslam

Photo via Mutek.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
We all know how awful demo videos of new synthesizers and drum machines are, so clearly the person behind the machine making the decisions is more important than the machine itself. The demo program that came with the Roland R-8 sounds awful, and would certainly not have convinced many artists; and yet, Autechre used and abused the thing to make incredible music.

YouTube contains endless demonstrations of the latest and greatest synths, yet very rarely is the music any good. The musician makes something interesting out of what a machine offers, but it's a symbiotic relationship. Some of the decisions a musician makes are which instruments to use, and how they are combined, programmed, and sequenced; but each machine lends its own capabilities and peculiarities to the music.

What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
Eurorack is probably the most important trend of the past couple years. Yes, it's very hip now to have a mid-sized Eurorack rig, but it has allowed for the proliferation of small manufacturers who make bizarre, highly idiosyncratic tools that demand something from the producer. When I was younger, I would just mess around on cracked copies of Reason, so I would say my own relationship with technology has changed quite a bit.


I can only speak for myself, but any new synthesizers designed to be immediately understood leave me cold. I am always most excited by new circuits and interfaces designed by weirdos that take some time to understand. These are the machines that open up new possibilities, rather than marketing themselves to those looking to make the same sounds that have been made for the past 30 years.

Analog is great, and so is digital. Everyone I know uses a hybrid approach. I like writing Max patches to control analog synths via MIDI, and I like writing MSP patches to create my own reverbs and signal processors. I live in a small apartment, so I can't exactly solder together my own circuits, but I can easily write some Python scripts to do interesting things with sound. Bringing the two together is usually the most fun. Closing yourself off to anything usually makes for really boring music.

4. DJ Shiva

Photo via DJ Shiva's SoundCloud.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
I think the musician is always going to come first. Although machines are changing our approaches to music, it is our love for music and the creation of it that is really going to drive this process. Whereas before, you had to have some measure of music theory or instrumental training, now we have instruments that are completely detached from the classic keys, strings, or percussion dynamic. This development will change how those of us trained in more classical music approaches think about creation; it will also encourage more people who have no training to think that creating music is possible for them.


I think what has made musicians adapt to technology is the ability to make fully rounded songs out of just a computer and/or one or two pieces of gear. This has made it possible to "be your own band" in a way it just hasn't until very recently. Technology and its development throughout music machines has created an entirely different type of production mentality—a new physicality to "playing" music that isn't based in the centuries-old idea of a keyboard or traditional "musicianship."

What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
My favorite technology, without a doubt, is actually coming from the DJ side of things. Recent digital technologies—from Ableton, to Serato, to Traktor, to CDJs, and everything in between—have opened up new ideas about how DJing can work, and given us options we never had before. A lot of clubs aren't set up well for vinyl anymore, and regardless of what you think about that, it's the reality. The change has been widespread enough that I think a lot of people have adapted out of necessity and convenience. I think it's rad to only have to carry some jump drives and headphones, and I don't personally need to throw my back out with record crates to "prove" my bona fides to anybody.

For production: the smaller analog synths like the Arturia's MicroBrute, Novation Music's Bass Station II, and Korg's Volca series are all great, as well as tabletop synths like Waldorf's Rocket, Streichfett, Blofeld, and the Meeblip Anode. When it comes to affordable samplers, the Electribe series by Korg has made it easier for more people to try their hand at making electronic music.


Beyond this, I think the most interesting thing I have seen recently are developments in apps for the iPad. Sadly, I do not own an iPad yet, but I have been reading about some of these really fascinating musical interfaces that are less like instruments and more like conceptual noisemakers. Add that to apps like iMaschine, and you've got a lot of musical juice in a tiny handheld flatscreen. Star Trek techno time!

5. Lauren Flax

Photo via Lauren Flax's SoundCloud.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
In the past, things were being invented and musicians truly had to learn and adapt to a lot of new technology. The genres we hold dear to us today were being created by the musicians and producers that were taking on these new technologies. There were no guidelines, and what ended up being created was groundbreaking.

Nowadays we know what kind of music we like, therefore we know what gear we need. We have these guidelines laid out for us in a way. Therefore, the machines that are being made today almost make it easier for one to adapt.

What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
Accessibility is by far the best thing that technology has offered. As someone who didn't come from money, that kind of thing was priceless for me in my early years of learning how to produce. Accessibility to new technology is only getting better. Of course, it's great having analog gear, but that's not always possible in the beginning.


Maschine by Native Instruments is a machine that has already been around for about 6 or 7 years now, but I still can't live without mine. With Maschine, you have an unlimited amount of drum sounds that are easy to manipulate, and you can easily build a library within it. It's simple yet totally deep.

I also just got my hands on a piece of gear made by Roli called a Seaboard RISE. It's hard to even explain what it does, but there simply isn't anything like it. It has a hypersensitive touch to the rubber keys for programmable filters, pitch bends, etc., with insane modulation capabilities. It's a new kind of technology that I haven't used before—it's pretty rad. Also, all of these 303 acid emulators are pretty great; Mode Machine's XoXBoX, The Roland TB-3, and even D16's Phoscyon soft synth do the job well.

6. John Barera

Photo via John Barera's website.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
I think machines are evolving with respect to musicians, to meet the musicians' needs. I also think that there is a lot of room for misunderstanding the relationship between people and machines, especially when you are just starting out as a producer. I think there is a misconception that you need certain technology in order to make certain music; what you really need is musical ideas and skills, coupled with a motivation to get things done.

What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
The Moog Minitaur—it was recommended to me, and has ended up on most all of my tracks. Before I got it, I didn't have any synths that were made after the 90s. What you do with this Moog is make your own sounds without starting from a preset. You turn it on and adjust a few parameters and you have a perfect bass sound, and it can also sound nice for leads if used the right way. It's the only mono synth I have, and since I couldn't afford something quite like this before it was invented, the Minitaur changed the sound of my tracks for the better.


There have been a lot of new synths coming onto the market lately with an emphasis on portability and functionality for live sets, and studio work is an added bonus. Better analog synths are getting a little cheaper, and I think companies who make synths are doing a good job adapting to the times. Everyone wants to produce, and it's gonna cost a lot to fly your huge heavy synth around for live sets, so people need more compact low-cost stuff.

7. Antenes

Photo by Seze Devres.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
Both—I think it is a constant interaction. For me, it began with machines: while I played guitar and keyboard in bands in high school, I never caught the bug to produce my own music until encountering analog synths and sequencers, such as the Buchla 100, Minimoog, Arp 2600, and Doepfer Maq 16/3. Here was a medium conducive to shaping a sound's texture, creating nuanced rhythmic patterns, setting up systems, and playing with a signal path. These instruments made me feel more creative—and like I had more to say—than with other instruments.

Now, as an instrument builder, I am having this dialogue: the engineer/inventor is asking the musician, "What do you need now, what should we try?" Based on some experience playing shows, I'm building and adapting pieces specifically for live performance. It makes sense to create machines that will evolve in response to new ideas, or to what felt missing in previous set-ups. In the past, I found the process of painting to be very similar: one color or brushstroke informs the next.


What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
I'm grateful for the DIY synth schematics—parts and kits from sites such as Music From Outer Space and Elby Designs—in addition to the exchange of information found all over the internet. Generally, I am influenced by the modular nature of the electronic music studio, because it is inherently experiential and can drive an artist beyond their own imagination—the real world superimposed with or subsumed by the unexpected and surreal.

My first DIY project was two MFOS 10-step sequencers, to which I added some features that would cause them to interact with or fall apart from each other in various ways. Playing around with multiple controllers, a synth, or an effects unit can become a whole different beast depending on how you manipulate characteristics of the sounds themselves or the clock that triggers them. Building a simple joystick from a schematic creates a different gesture and outcome, for example, than using a mod wheel.

The availability of parts and plans in recent years allowed me to recreate some semblance of what inspired me in vintage synths. I've also followed the synth work of the inimitable Dewanatron cousins for some time, especially the Swarmatron and Hymnotron. Their machines sound great and are really well built, with large, solid controls, ribbon cables, telephone rotary dials, and nixie tubes.

8. Eris Drew

Photo via the artist.

Which comes first nowadays, the musician or the machine?
Certainly music technology is developed through marketing for musicians to create specific music suited to their personal tastes. Because their tastes are shaped by the commodification of an established electronic music scene, plenty of people will be automatons in front of those machines. But plenty of people will respond to the possibilities and limitations of a machine with their own innovations and a musically defiant spirit.

Musicians have traditionally evolved in response to music technology. By definition, that's what it is to make your music with an instrument. When that adaptation is unexpected, wonderful things can occur. For example, with acid house, you have an entire genre of music conceived on an instrument—the Roland TB-303—intended by its makers to be a cheap automated practice bass accompaniment for guitar players.

As another more personal example, on my Yamaha PortaSound, I use the digital frequency modulator—which was intended for sound programming—as a performance tool. It's not smooth like an analog filter, and instead "steps" in increments. The instrument was considered a toy for hobbyists. I "play" the "+" and "-" buttons to rhythmically change the harmonics in my synth parts during a performance. Yamaha clearly never intended that.

What technology within the past few years has most influenced the way that you produce?
The technology over the past few years that has influenced me the most includes both the sublime and the ordinary. As far as inspiration goes, my digitally controlled analog Moog Voyager, which I acquired in 2006, is so important to my music. It sounds rich and has basically the same large format panel as the 70s Minimoogs. It's with modern digitally controlled analog circuitry that grants me MIDI control, including preset changes during live shows. This technology isn't something Depeche Mode and other Moog bands had available to them in the early days of synth music.

In regards to what has influenced the way I produce, I write songs using "Voice Memos" on my iPhone. I capture ideas when I have them, record sounds around me, and record my practice sessions so I can later refine songs and hopefully make them better. Those processes were an expensive challenge on other portable digital recorders I have had, like my old Tascam DAT. The accessibility and affordability of memory has changed music so much over the last three decades that my phone can now suffice as an instrument, which is not only convenient but also extremely useful. This is good for me as inspiration often comes as I live—not necessarily at the time I set aside to create something.