The sounds of a tiny plastic Buddha
January 17, 2009 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Nebraska-born musician Christiaan Virant was in Beijing performing drone-like ambient music with his Chinese collaborator Zhang Jian, under the name FM3 (mostly in Chinese); as pioneers of the electronic movement in China, most of their money came from sound installations at art galleries, which entailed wiring up rooms with sound equipment. Mulling a simpler and cheaper way of doing this, Virant was wandering around a Buddhist temple in southwest China when he spotted a little plastic box on the altar (one such possible example), piping out loops of the tinny, digitized chants played endlessly at such places. Intrigued, he found two of the devices in the temple gift shop and bought both. The idea of an instant sound installation was born. That was almost four years ago.

Such chant boxes are commonplace around Asia, but Virant found that they were mostly produced only in volumes of 2,00,000 or more. It took him a year to persuade a factory in a village near Jinjiang in Fujian province to make them in the quantity he wanted: 300. “We thought that would last a lifetime,” he recalls. In reality, they sold out in a few weeks. By August 2007, their factory in Beijing is churning out 500 a day. Total sales at that time were approaching 50,000 units and still going strong. In November 2008, the second version was released.

These little music makers are called Buddha Machines, which is a literal translation for the plastic boxes that play looping chants. Both versions are roughly the size of transistor radios (warning: some pages are blinding due to choice of colors). Each version has a different set of nine short original loops created by FM3, all released under Creative Commons; the tracklist for version 1 is here, and the second here. Both versions have a built in speaker with volume control, and a built in line-out jack for headphones or external speakers. They run off of AA batteries or a 4.5v supply. The original version came in 7 color options (as well as a limited run encased in pressed tea leaves, and a possibly unreleased run in porcelain cases. The second version comes in 3 colors, and gains a pitch-bending wheel, allowing for some fun distortion. FM3 worked with Agile Partners to make an iPhone app that replicates the original version, and there is a flash-based tribute, the FM3 Buddha Machine Wall that is an array of 7 x 3 Buddha Machines, also based on the original version.

There are numerous fans of the simple little loop-box. The story goes that Alan Bishop bought twenty-four of these on sight, and Brian Eno bought eight. Sasha Frefe-Jones has a good write-up and mini-interview, discussing her experiences and thoughts on the various versions, and talking with Christiaan Viant about some aspects of the Buddha Machine. Numerous tracks have sampled the Buddha Boxes, and this music has been featured in the Jukebox Buddha compilation which featured a track by Sunn O))); Robert Henke's work sticks more to the original samples and sound.

There's a Russian fansite, which contains good info (if you understand Russian), and a nifty gallery (if you don't). YouTube has plenty of hands-on videos (this one from Gearlog), buddha-bending, and the machine playing with others (in this case, the mini Kaos Pad).
posted by filthy light thief (26 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa, what a post. I picked up a Buddha Machine v2 at Other Music last week and absolutely love it.
posted by muckster at 5:34 PM on January 17, 2009

I turn my Buddha Machine on every week or so. Its low tech nature is part of its appeal. I like about half the tracks. The other half are not as positive in their psychological effect, in my opinion.
It's a unique cultural phenomenon, and I'm glad to read about its provenance in greater detail here!
posted by kozad at 5:39 PM on January 17, 2009

Thanks for the post! I've long wondered about these things. One small nit to pick: Sasha Frere-Jones is male
posted by ardgedee at 5:43 PM on January 17, 2009

muckster - I've been reading about this for a while now, and finally had a few hours to properly edit it all.

kozad - it seems like they might work better in groups, as is evidence from the Buddha Machine Wall, and the Buddha Boxing, which is more of performance than sport (they drink some local wine during the event, and have a fairly specific "tech rider" (PDF linked at the bottom of this page), which details setup for an event, depending on audience size.

ardgedee - dz'oh! Maybe an editor can fix my mistake?
posted by filthy light thief at 6:03 PM on January 17, 2009

Awesome post filthy light thief. Cool to learn about this new trend. I like this piece from the Robert Henke collection.

I'd think that actual Buddhist chanting as a loop would be as entrancing. Examples: one, two, three.
posted by nickyskye at 6:08 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

nickyskye - I'm tempted to buy the more ornate-looking Chinese loop machines. I've found players with five, eight, and twelve "songs." The last item links to The Loop-O-Mat, which has some of these, plus a model with five Chants/Prayers, and then the The Cadillac of Buddhist jukeboxes, which includes 69 loops.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:18 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Killer post, filthy. Thanks!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:35 PM on January 17, 2009

I bought the v1 Buddha Machine a few years ago and it's a wonderful little device. There have been times when I've turned it on while working and gradually forgotten it was there until hours later. I also highly recommend FM3's other musical output, as listed here.
posted by 40 Watt at 6:41 PM on January 17, 2009

The Cadillac of Buddhist jukeboxes

so pour me another cup of green tea,
for it is the best in the land...
put another quarter in the Buddhist jukebox,
and play the Sutra Chantin' Man
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:51 PM on January 17, 2009

This is a very well made post, thanks.

ps. Sasha Frere-Jones is a man.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:52 PM on January 17, 2009

Wonderful post. I had no idea these existed. I love the Buddha Machine Wall! (But it turns out pu'er tea was familiar; I just ran into an article on the collapse of that market....)
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 6:56 PM on January 17, 2009

I saw Virant chat about these at a MUTEK conference back in 2004. I picked up one of these guys and it sits on my desk. Every now and again I turn it on for a little calming ambience.

Living in China, his main motivation, as I recall from his talk, was to publish music that would be difficult to copy. Hence, the use of a small plastic box with a chip inside and a single, tinny speaker.

There's a little 1/8" headphone jack if you really want a duplicate, but the sound is mono and the recording quality isn't that great. The novelty is not in distributing it on MP3, but in the entire packaging.

Despite the archaic technology, as a music publication it is a fairly clever idea. And the archaic nature lends his sound a lovely, noisy etherealness.

Nice post, brings back a lot of memories of Montreal.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:12 PM on January 17, 2009

I read about these years ago on Boing Boing, but it took this post to make me get it. Thanks!
posted by grobstein at 7:16 PM on January 17, 2009

If you want the Buddha Machine Wall to run as a standalone app, get Fluid (Safari-based for the Mac) or Prism (Firefox-based for Linux/Windows/Mac) and follow the directions. I think I'll be using this as my office background music for a while.
posted by ardgedee at 7:40 PM on January 17, 2009

I cannot wait to use this as an obnoxious marketing tool for my band.
posted by thedaniel at 8:04 PM on January 17, 2009

Read about it last week on the New Yorker; the additional linkage provides a fascinating depth to the machine. I often find that I need music to concentrate; the Buddha Machine's sound is exactly what I was looking for.

The other cool thing is that, for once, there is a Singaporean distributor for memetic stuff like this.
posted by the cydonian at 8:05 PM on January 17, 2009

It struck me that the non-FM3, actually-used-by-Buddhists original chant boxes are exactly the kind of random Chinese gadget that drop-ship superstore DealExtreme would sell super-cheap. And indeed they are.

They've actually got what looks like exactly that same 69-loop box, but for only $US21.90 (PayPal only) including delivery anywhere in the world, versus Loop-O-Mat's $US56.99 within the US. There are currently three other boxes there as well, all under $US10 delivered.
posted by dansdata at 10:00 PM on January 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

About 10 years ago, when I was working at my university's campus library, one of the original Chinese gadgets that these are modeled after found its way into our lost 'n' found (presumably by one of our international students).

It went unclaimed for a couple months, so I proceeded to take it home and use it to drive the roommates crazy in times of boredom. After the novelty wore off, I basically forgot about it, and it disappeared (or maybe the roommates destroyed it).

Even as someone who dabbled in music production myself, I would have never guessed that there would be a viable market for those things. I'm still surprised by their success, but I'm happy that people were more inspired than I was by them. I'll admit, it's probably a more useful production tool than Songsmith.
posted by p3t3 at 11:18 PM on January 17, 2009

dansdata, thanks! I wonder what "standard Taiwan sound source" means (three of the four items claim that as one of their selling traits). I wish they all had samples of their sounds, because I'd only get the 69 loop box if it contained all of the other ones.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 AM on January 18, 2009

flt, same here -- looking for samples of some these other boxes. One reviewer on the 69 loop jukebox says "I liked the 'Tibetan' model a bit better, because I found the songs on that one to be more 'trance-inducing,'" so I'm curious.

BTW, don't underestimate the use of the pitch wheel on the Buddha Machine 2.0. It's not just for momentarily bending the sound -- by slowing it down or speeding it up significantly, it makes it feel as if you're getting much more than 9 loops.
posted by muckster at 10:38 AM on January 18, 2009

Ooh - I should have searched for "buddhist" rather than "buddha", to find the real DealExtreme Super-Duper-Dharma Price Blowout, I'm Mad Gautama and I'VE GONE CRAZY products!

There's one 4-Song Digital Buddhist Jukebox for $US4.28 delivered, and one 5-Song Jukebox for four dollars even. (I can't wait for them to start offering tabla machines.)

The product page for the $4 box says that it features "sturdy construction and exquisite design" and "great clarity of sound" (and, more plausibly, a headphone socket). User reviews suggest that this is one of those devices that appears to have been constructed by putting all of the components and a teaspoon of molten solder in an asbestos bag and shaking vigorously. There also seems to be some disagreement over whether it's powered by two AAAs or one AA.

But c'mon. FOUR DOLLARS.

I'm kind of thinking that if it's incredibly chintzy, highly unreliable, and makes strange sounds that irritate and discomfit all who hear them, then that may be the point. You could walk up to someone looking a bit the worse for wear at a party, hand them the device, and say "this is the Buddha", and the stranger it was, the truer your statement would be.

Or seem.

Or whatever.

Anyway, I've bought one of the four-dollar boxes.

(And I'm not trying to sucker anyone into clicking on links for my 99.6%-worthless DealExtreme affiliate account, either. No such tomfoolery is embedded in the above a-hrefs. You can append "~r.24492410" to the links yourself, if you're feeling charitable.)
posted by dansdata at 8:44 AM on January 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm kind of thinking that if it's incredibly chintzy, highly unreliable, and makes strange sounds that irritate and discomfit all who hear them, then that may be the point. You could walk up to someone looking a bit the worse for wear at a party, hand them the device, and say "this is the Buddha", and the stranger it was, the truer your statement would be.

This comment favorited for above-average insight.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:01 AM on January 19, 2009

here's a quick python/gtk/gstreamer app (should work on any recent linux distro) I hacked up that plays loops until you get bored and kill it. Download and extract one of the loop sets from FM3 and run *.wav (or *.mp3 .. or any other file type).
posted by plant at 9:06 PM on January 19, 2009

plant - If you want overlapping ambient noise, try out boodler with those samples.
posted by Pronoiac at 4:35 PM on January 23, 2009

Other non-crafty ways to get multiple loops to play (for Windows users): allow multiple instances of WinAmp (older versions use less resources, if that's a concern), or copy Foobar2k. The latter is messier, as you have multiple copies of the same program strewn about, but it doesn't require using WinAmp.

Or, just leave the Buddha Machine Wall churning in the background.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:18 PM on January 26, 2009

Two of the deal extreme boxes arrived yesterday. The $4 has a few songs of one monk chanting, but it takes a bit getting used to and isn't nearly as relaxing/pleasant to my ears as the ambient sounds of the Buddha Machine. The 13-song box is a little better, but these are still "songs" rather than ambient noise, and I'm sure the one that's going to get the most use is still my Buddha Machine 2.0.
posted by muckster at 10:13 AM on February 1, 2009

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