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March 17, 2014

Last year we reported on Compressorhead, the six-ton robot heavy metal band from Australia (though mostly built in Germany).  Now Compressorhead has some competition, in the form of a new robotic band named Z-MACHINES.

Sponsored by Zima, which is still a popular drink in Japan, the three-member band received a cool reaction to its initial performances, with some viewers comparing the experience to the animatronic performers at Chuck-E-Cheese.  So what’s new?  Z-Machines is now playing original music, composed by British musician Squarepusher, and next month they’re releasing their first album, entitled “Music for Robots.”

In the new video below, you can see Z-Machines performing the most ambitious track, “Sad Robot Goes Funny,” which the composer describes as “an attempt to break new ground for emotional machine music.”

Squarepusher tried to make the best use of the performer’s unique abilities.  Mach, the lead guitarist, sports 78 “fingers” and can shred at over 1000 beats per minute.  The drummer, Ashura, has 22 arms and lays down complex beats on a 22-piece kit.  Finally, there’s Cosmo, who doesn’t seem to actually play anything, but shoots lasers at a keyboard while making, erm, keyboard sounds.  (But to be fair, keyboards are nothing but input devices for synthesized music anyway — so it could be argued that for a computer to control a robot to press keys on a keyboard is just introducing an unnecessary middleman.)

More thoughts from the composer:

In the same way that you do when you write music for a human performer, these attributes have to be borne in mind – and a particular range of musical possibilities corresponds to those attributes. Consequently, in this project familiar instruments are used in ways which till now have been impossible.

As with Compressorhead, I absolutely love the idea of robot musicians, though whether I believe it’s real art depends seems to vary with the mood.  There’s certainly more “art,” in the classic sense of creating beauty within constraints, when standard instruments are used.  Then of course there are some instruments, such as the harp, whose sounds are notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to synthesize realistically.  For cases like those, robot performers are the only way to free composers from the limitations of human ability.  On the other hand, giving a robot 22 arms or 78 fingers feels like cheating — I’d love to see what a robot can do with only the same set of limbs and digits nature gave us.

In the end, all that matters is that people enjoy it, and if some of those people are inspired to go into science or technology, so much the better.  As the University of Tokyo engineers who created Z-Machines say, “We just bought a power board which has a switch — many people can try to make this kind of robot in their house now.”

Why not?  I urge all hobbyists out there to go make some sort of music robot, even if it’s just an adorable little drummer bot like this.  And remember to share your thoughts about the whole robot-music phenomenon in the comments below!

[Via CNN and Warp]


From → Culture, News, Opinion, Videos

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