Given that PopMatters has already covered different incarnations of the Buddha Machine a number of times already, it seems somewhat pointless to sit here and tell you about the box again. The novelty of the presentation is gone, and the likely audience for it is now familiar with the delivery of the media. For the uninitiated: It is a small plastic box that takes two AA batteries. There are two dials: one power/volume dial and one pitch modulation dial. There is a button on the side that serves as a “next track” button. When you turn it on, a short snippet of music loops endlessly, changing only as the listener chooses to change the track, pitch, or volume. There’s also a little red LED on the side that tells you whether it’s on or not.
And that’s it. The minimalism of the presentation is, of course, analogous to the minimalism of the music.
In the latest edition of the Buddha Machine, which FM3 calls Chan Fang (translated as “Zen Room”), the cracks in the formula are starting to show. The concept has been so successful in reaching beyond the typical audience for electronic music that it’s understandable that FM3 would want to continue making them. Still, it’s difficult to justify the purchase of multiple boxes when the price is something around $20 for another device that contains less unique music than a single typical track from the artists involved. This is especially true when the funcitionality of the Buddha Machines has been duplicated time and again by Flash and iPhone apps for much less money. The challenge here is to make it seem as though both the new music and the artifact that houses that music are not only essential but nigh-inseparable.
As such, the look of the machine has changed a bit. The familiar plastic still comes in a number of different colors, but is now partially transparent. Perhaps this is to allow for a more ready look at the insides, given that FM3 encourages experimentation and modification of the innards of the machine to allow for a more unique experience. Rather than a cardboard box, Chan Fang is housed in a simple, clear plastic case adorned with a barely visible but intricate design. The design has changed, then, but it feels like a lateral step — while the machine feels and looks sleeker and more professionally produced, the almost cheesy quality of the cardboard box and the “cheap” look of the device itself was always part of its charm.
The music is where the true change has occurred, however, as it is all performed on a single instrument: the Qin, a seven-string zither. The sounds aren’t really drones anymore as much as they are plucked notes, constructing longer loops, phrasing melodies and chords in perpetuity. The sound of the Qin is lovely, something like an acoustic guitar with a slightly thinner sound, making for a pleasing background listening experience no matter which of the four available loops are playing.
On one hand, this works to the machine’s advantage. There are no ugly sounds here, like the chaotic two-second final drone on the original Buddha Machine. You have an immediate idea of what you are going to hear when you turn it on even before you turn the dial. On the other hand, one of the appealing things about previous Buddha Machine releases was the variety of sounds they contained. Even in such a limited quantity of music, there were a number of different moods and sounds to choose from, depending on the whims of the listener. The four loops here are so similar to each other — one might offer the plucking of single notes one at a time, another might largely contain two-note “chords”, another might have arpeggiations of three and four-note chords, but all feature gently-plucked strings — that there is not even the illusion of variety. Even as the loops are far longer than we are used to from the machine, the device feels more limited than it ever has before.
And I do wish that the headphone jack was even remotely usable. I don’t know whether this is a common problem, but using the headphones forced me to listen to constant high-frequency interference alongside the Qin. This will ruin your zen.
The real problem here isn’t the change in presentation or content. The problem truly is that the novelty of the item is gone. It no longer feels as though there might be a little bit of magic in that little box. It has crossed over into the realm of product, of music produced at least as much for the sake of shifting units as for offering a little bit of peace. In and of itself, it is a perfectly competent little music machine, if unfortunately limited in scope. In the greater context, it is but a third sequel that could never hope to live up to the magic of the original.