What makes an instrument an instrument?

A lot of the pieces of equipment used by people who make electronic music don’t seem like instruments. They’re connected to ‘digital audio workspaces’ that combine all kinds of simulated effects panels and electronic versions of instruments, or clips, or sound bytes, and combine them into songs. The people who do this sort of thing seem more like producers than musicians.

When you see a DJ, do you feel like they’re playing an instrument? Or conducting something? Or switching between all sorts of things? There’s certainly performance, skill, mastery, and taste. But watching all that done on a single piece of gear somehow feels more like watching a musician with an instrument:

That thing in the video is a custom-made quadruple-sized MidiFighter, and the guy playing it is Shawn Wasabi. MidiFighter is a specific kind of ‘launchpad’ that has arcade-style buttons. Launchpads are category of tools that have programmable buttons for playing sound clips and looping those clips. There are other kinds out there, and a lot of homemade ones, too. Looking at photos online, it seems like a lot of people use one or two of them as part of their performance setup. It also seems like a lot of people program the lights just to indicate on/off/looping states.

Programming animations into the buttons for a performance is pretty special. Without the animations Shawn Wasabi uses, it would still look like an amazing performance on an instrument. With them, it’s art.

I suppose that the MidiFighter could move from being a tool or piece of gear to being an instrument even as a 4×4 grid, but something about the added complexity and required skill and commitment of the 8×8 grid plus animations pushes it from the realm of a thing that is being used to a thing that is being played.

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