Machinewerks: The Black Dog Branch Out
As South Yorkshire techno stalwarts The Black Dog launch a new hardware company, we asked Martin Dust to tell us a little about the motivation behind the project, the design process for their first product and their reasons for choosing to manufacture in the UK.
Given the obvious benefits of involving artists in the design process, it’s surprising how few manufacturers of dance-focused hardware and software fully engage with the artist and DJ community. Guitar, bass and drum manufacturers bend over backwards to obtain artist endorsements for signature models, carefully crafted to suit the exact needs of each musician, but for some reason electronic music companies have always seemed a little more reticent to consult professional electronic musicians for product suggestions and major design decisions. Sure, you’ll see the occasional artist endorsement, but in the world of electronic music that’s typically just a marketing tool rather than a sign a particular artist’s been involved in developing the product in any way.
Instead, the onus often falls on artists to take matters into their own hands and develop the tools they need to create and perform their music. In many cases that means writing custom software, commissioning a bespoke synth or maybe hacking together a custom controller, but these instruments rarely reach a level of sophistication or universal appeal which justifies mass production.
What’s more interesting is what happens when an experienced artist spots a niche – a product which doesn’t exist and would also be useful to other producers – and dives head first into creating a commercial solution, drawing on their own experience to guide the research and development process. It happens relatively rarely, but when it does the results can be incredibly effective. Look, for example, at Ableton Live, first developed by Monolake’s Robert Henke and Gerhard Behles in response to their own assessment of the shortcomings of existing DAWs. Since its launch in 2001, Live has had a major impact on the way developers consider the needs of dance music producers when designing software.
“The onus often falls on artists to take matters into their own hands and develop the tools they need to create and perform their music.”
The Black Dog are usually introduced using the same old cliches: Sheffield techno legends… Warp Records… line-up changes… But one crucial factor which is often overlooked is their consistent passion for progression – a refusal to stand still and repeat the same thing. Over the last 12 years, Ken Downie, Martin Dust and Richard Dust have consistently explored new musical ideas. The trio’s latest project, however, is an altogether more radical departure than a change of sound.
Frustrated at weaknesses in existing electronic music gear and inspired by the idea of creating tools to help other musicians, the trio have formed a new hardware company, Machinewerks. As Martin Dust explains, Machinewerks is “a Black Dog project [but] Ken is living on a boat in the middle of nowhere at the minute so his input is limited and we’ve brought Das onboard to help with the electronics. I guess it’s more of a collective really where people move freely between music and making equipment.”
The first Machinewerks project is the CS X51 USB/MIDI control surface, which launched on Kickstarter last week and, at the time of writing, has raised just under £7k of its £27k funding goal, with 24 days remaining. Future plans include a DJ controller and a mixer. We asked Martin to explain some of the reasons for launching Machinewerks and to talk us through the development of the company’s first product.
Martin Dust writes…
The roots of Machinewerks: years of market research
For years we’ve been using other people’s controllers but have never really been happy with what’s available. They often didn’t have enough controls, were too big and heavy for regular travel, or they always had loads of features we’d never use. Some of the quoted features looked great but when it came down to it, we’d never use them when playing out. The ‘cool’ features just ended up being a useless novelty.
We wanted to design something pure that delivered the essential features in a high quality form, while avoiding those eye-catching gimmicks. It had to be something that we wanted to own, something we could gig with and use in the studio.
Everybody has their own idea about how to apply a MIDI controller to their setup, but these ideas change once you start trying to use it for real. A lot of seemingly good ideas are impractical once you’re mixing or jamming in the studio – they can actually break your workflow. We’ve spent the last eight months trying things out. It breaks your heart when you think you’ve found a great idea, only to find that it just doesn’t work once you’ve built it!
“We wanted to design something pure that delivered the essential features in a high quality form.”
It also got to the point where everything we owned was getting old and failing. It just wasn’t built for the heavy use we put things through. I dropped my Bitstream and it hasn’t worked since. Ken and Rich’s controllers started changing volumes on their own as the pots began to fail! It was time to do something. Unfortunately, many of the controllers currently available seemed to be a compromise and for us that was the start of it all. We knew that we could build something better and figured that we can’t be the only people who wanted this. We’re now about to find out if that is actually true.