Beyond Manufacturing: Robot Musicians

Robot bands are beginning to multiply with the help of global technology collaborations. The latest development on this front is the composition of some serious original music for these automated musicians.

Z-Machines in concert. Source:
Z-Machines in concert. Source:

Designing a robot to play a musical instrument isn't particularly new. Examples have been on display at various technology-focused shows for years now. But now that the concept of an automated musician is moving beyond the initial wow-factor of seeing a robot play an instrument, musicians and technology designers are working together on serious attempts to create real music for robots.

The most recent example of this involves the robot band known as Z-Machines, which was created at Tokyo University by Yoichiro Kawaguchi, an IT professor at the university, and mechanical designer Naofumi Yonetsuka. The members of this three-piece robot band are: Mach, the guitarist with 78 fingers and 12 picks; Ashura, the drummer with 6 arms and 21 sticks; and Cosmo, the keyboardist. The robots play their instruments either through programming instructions or via human direction through MIDI connections.

Z-Machines can also react to the crowd. For example, if the crowd raises its hands in the air, the band will play harder and louder.

To take Z-Machines to the next level, its designers are now working with recording artists Tom Jenkinson, also known as Squarepusher. According to a blog posted on Motherboard, Kenjiro Matsuo, Z-Machines' musical producer, invited Jenkinson to create music specifically for the Z-Machines project. The result of Sqaurepusher’s collaboration with Z-Machines, “Sad Robots Go Funny”, can be seen in the video below.

As noted above, Z-Machines is the only most recent example of robots making headlines in music. Other examples include Karmetik’s MahaDeviBot, a robotic percussionist, and GlockenBot, an actuated metallophone with 13 chromatically tuned aluminum bars that is similar to a glockenspiel. And don't forget Compressorhead, the Australian robot band featuring guitarist “Fingers”, built by Kernschrott Robots and drummer “Stickboy” built by RoboCross. In the video below, Compressorhead is featured playing Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”. Seems like a fitting song choice to me.

Watching the rapid development of these robot music groups makes one wonder what the inventors of the player piano (and there were many, apparently, as discovered through a simple web search) would think of how far their idea has come.

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