Robot Music: Rise of the machines

Posted on July 23, 2014


The idea of automated music has been around since the nineteenth century but the scope and ambition of modern automation is incredible. These videos show what is possible when professional musicians build their own robots.

Automated music has been around since the era of steam powered fairground organs and the player piano. The original robots were powered by simple wind-up mechanisms or pneumatics and as you can see from the videos here, despite advances in technology, the principles remain the same.

These robot musicians are rhythmically and musically perfect. Their construction is complex and mechanically sophisticated, yet it is the emotion which comes across that is the real surprise.

Squarepusher and Z-Machines
First up is Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson), an internationally renowned electronic musician and bass player whose focus has switched recently from his ‘drill and bass’ jazz noodling early recordings to a more polished progressive arena sound. Here he teams up with Japanese robot builders Z-Machines to showcase a collaboration with a 78-fingered guitarist and a drummer with 22 arms. Okay, it’s missing some of the spontaneous bass mangling and occasional errors of his previous work, but as a musical experiment it has clarity and incredible attention to detail. It also looks like Skynet’s Terminator house band.


Robot drum and bass
This set up from the enigmatic KX features an absolutely filthy drum and bass composition. No humanoids here just an impressively sinister looking wall of synths cranking out sick bass.


Compressorhead’s Ace of Spades
Berlin’s Compressorhead is a robot heavy metal band. Here the members – Stickboy, Fingers and Bones – take on Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ with real feeling. The Compressorheads has its own Facebook page and Twitter feed if you like that sort of thing.


Z-Machines versus Compressorhead
Battle jam! It was bound to happen. Here the two robot supergroups cross axes in a battle for robotic music supremacy on the Cyborg News Channel. It shows a re-run of Compressorhead’s Ace of Spades but it also contains some extra performance and information, plus if you check out the CNC’s Youtube page you get a lot of neat videos on advances in robotic technology.


Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion
Last up is jazz virtuoso guitarist Pat Metheny’s ‘Orchestrion’ project. Pat references a player piano in his grandfather’s basement as an influence, talking about his early fascination with self-playing instruments. He talks about the emergence of the Orchestrion from the player piano, a more complex instrument incorporating drums and other percussion. But his Orchestrion is powered by guitar improvisations and a complex interplay of electronic connections that allows Metheny to build his own sound universe. Watch this video – it is magical.