This Giant Robotic 808 Drum Machine Is Blowing Our Minds

The music robot is incredible to watch, but even wilder to program.

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27 September 2016, 2:45pm

Images courtesy the artist

If there were one piece of gear absolutely vital to early electronic music and hip-hop, it would probably be Roland’s TR-808 drum machine, known for its distinctively deep kick drum and snappy handclap. A few years back, Moritz Simon Geist created an homage to the iconic 80s drum machine with the MR-808, a drum robot with various arms and percussive objects that replicates the 808’s sound via Ableton and Arduino. Visually, it even had the look of the 808, though Geist’s robotic reimagination was rather monolithic.

Since 2012, Geist has toured the MR-808, visiting galleries and exhibitions, and even used it in collaborations with other artists. But what he always really wanted to do is let the public control the MR-808, and contribute to the roving sound installation. And this is precisely what he and Sonic Robots, his Berlin/Dresden-based collective of artists and hackers, have done with a tweaked version of the machine now called MR-808 Interactive.

“A music robot is nice to watch, but it’s even better to play on your own,” Geist tells The Creators Project. “So we developed the Interactive Version, where a RaspiServer and tablets are used to form a step sequencer, with which the audience at an exhibition or in a museum can collaboratively (many people together, because many input tablets!) create a beat.”

Geist recently debuted the newly interactive MR-808 Interactive at Krake Festival in Berlin. Festivalgoers were given a Google Nexus 7 tablet that reproduced the installation’s appearance, with the 808’s distinctive step sequencer below the visual elements. The interaction is nicely designed visually, of course, but it’s equally impressive from a sound programming perspective.

The programmer behind MR-808 Interactive’s software, server, and sequencer, is Geist’s “beloved super-nerd,” Karsten. As Geist explains, the server provides an HTML layout running a small super collider sequencer, while the tablets render the website as an app that constantly communicates with the server. While MR-808 Interactive isn’t real-time programmable, it does allow even non-musically inclined visitors to program beats in a 16-step sequence.

What would be excellent is to see this applied to actual live concerts, with fans getting involved in some capacity. It could be a mess, but it could also be incredibly fascinating.

Click here to see more of Sonic Robots’ work.

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