Reinventing the Music Box (Again)

FM3 updated its minimalist masterpiece to include new loops and a fun new pitch controller. But where does this progression stop, and what does it mean to the Buddha Machine's reputation as an instrument of simplicity?


Buddha Machine II

Contributors: Christiaan Virant, Zhang Jian
Label: FM3
US Release Date: 2008-12-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

I can’t do Twitter. I’ve been invited to try it out numerous times, but my reaction every time I look at a friend’s page is, “maybe you ought to keep it to yourself?” Livecasting every waking moment is an intimidating advance in technology, made only more stressful by the knowledge that the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) tools for documenting and sharing one’s life are yet to come. The promise of the information age was supposed to give us videophones, but we never bargained on being inundated by the slog of crappy memes on YouTube. Without descending into Luddite rhetoric, I’ll say this: If you feel overwhelmed by the idea that following trends on the Internet is now a full-time position, you aren’t alone.

FM3 feels the pain of the modern technology-addict, and its Buddha Machine is one of the better remedies for information fatigue. When it originally appeared in 2006, the Buddha Machine was received both as a new kind of instrument and as an anti-iPod. Minimally designed, the monochrome boxes allowed the listener to cycle through a series of nine instrumental loops, all under a minute in length. Loops could be played through a 1/8” jack, or through a tiny, lo-fi speaker build in to the box. The only controls provided were a volume wheel and a clicker for skipping through the loops. In an age when a device roughly the same size can contain hours of music, not to mention scores of photos, videos and games, the prospect of having the choices made for you was pretty Zen. That Brian Eno purchased over 20 of them only added their credibility.

The Buddha Machine, like the million-dollar pixel site, is one of those deceptively simple ideas that every media-savvy person wishes s/he could have come up with. Inspired by portable boxes available in their native China that featured recordings of Buddhist monks chanting, FM3’s Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian put themselves on the map and sold a surprising tens of thousands of the novel machines. Further establishing the pure intent of their work, all nine loops were made available for free download in high-quality format from FM3’s website. Purchasing the box, however, gave the listener the full experience in the form of the sleek physical object with the crappy speaker and hidden circuitry. FM3 managed to subvert the flashy gadget by crafting a paragon of simplicity to market to frustrated Blackberry users.

The original Buddha Machine

Touring in support of the original Buddha Machine, FM3 performed live circuit bending of the boxes, precipitating the Buddha Machine II. As could be expected, there are nine new loops and three new colors. The Pandora’s (Buddha) Box is opened, however, with the inclusion of a new pitch controller. Billed as a “whammy bar” for the Buddha Machine, it allows the listener (or is it the user now?) to bend the pitch of any loop in real-time, by moving a wheel. On the one hand, it’s a brilliant move, and opens up new possibilities for elaborate harmonization between multiple boxes. The new loops are more instrumentally layered, making the pitch wheel a tool for discovery -- it’s fascinating to hear tinny percussion and gentle whistles tighten and loosen on a loop like “Dui”. See the video at the bottom of this article for my short demonstration of the joys of this new pitch wheel, particularly when another Machine is involved.

But the addition of the pitch bend feature forces us to ask: where does it end? There are a plethora of little changes to be made to future Buddha Machine models: effects, play-order randomizers, a mini sequencer to scramble the material in a loop, etc. Frankly, why not bestow future Buddha Machines with the ability to play user-loaded content? As big a seller as its been, it only makes sense for FM3 to keep adding on little control presents for each new generation.

The bigger question, then, is when does a Buddha Machine stop being a Buddha Machine? The original model was a work of philosophically stimulating and minimalist art, prone to make users think about their lives while enjoying the sweet, untampered-with sounds of FM3’s loops. Sure, the tiny speaker would sometimes distort while playing a loop at a louder volume, but this was a phenomenon outside of the user’s control. Even as simple an addition as a pitch wheel opens up complicating questions for this model. Is there a “correct” pitch at which the loops were composed, and thus at which to play them? When I play the loops at a lower pitch to relax, is this how the music was intended, or am I listening to FM3 chopped n’ screwed?

Once again, I’m starting to sound like a Luddite, so to clarify, I’m one of those who spends a shameful portion of his life online. As such, I took great comfort in the original Buddha Machine as an exercise in what I couldn’t do. For similar reasons, I still enjoy putting on the radio, instead of mining through my 100+ gigabytes of music to find nothing of interest. The availability of so much information in private settings has discouraged collaborative appreciation of art. How many people check the hottest blogs for truly new music, rather than the same hype they could get from an unlimited number of other sources?

The Buddha Machine is a break from that, and while the Buddha Machine II is still just as serene and enjoyable as the original (and the increased complexity of the loops is a lovely development), I can’t help but wonder whether it’s at a dangerous precipice. If FM3 continues down the road of updating the Buddha Machine with new user-controlled hardware modifications in each generation, how is it any different from an iPhone or Facebook profile, overflowing with applications that users are likely to use a couple times and then forget about? (Coincidentally, the Buddha Machine is now available in virtual format as an iPhone app.) Then again, looking at it from a practical standpoint, it’s not exactly easy to sell the same hardware with five new minutes of music for $27, particularly when the loops continue to be available as free downloads.

Revising a statement I made earlier, the heart of the Buddha Machine is its preset loops, which, hopefully, are not due to be replaceable any time soon. The inability to go and download hours (or even minutes or seconds) more music to replace that which you might be growing bored with forces the listener to reckon with the box on its own terms. It’s still an admirably stubborn piece of technology, even with the new pitch controller, and the new loops are beautiful. It’ll also be interesting to see if people really take to home circuit-bending of the Buddha Machine II -- it’s a relatively expensive piece of equipment to risk damaging, but the possibilities are intriguing. In the meantime, I’m crossing my fingers that FM3 maintains the one-thing-at-a-time restraint for the next installment.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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