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Move over, Kraftwerk: These musical instruments really are the robots

One Hacker Band is a guitar, bass and drums that play themselves

We all love a good engineering passion project here at The Register and hopefully guitar-oriented music too. With One Hacker Band, these realms collide with surprising tunefulness.

We've already marveled at the Floppotron 3.0 computer hardware orchestra made up of 512 floppy disk drives and other whirring, clunking retro machinery programmed to screech out renditions of "Imperial March", "Entry of the Gladiators", and "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

But what if we told you the instruments in One Hacker Band played themselves? The mind behind the project has rigged up custom versions of the rock and roll power trio – guitar, bass, drums – to perform Nirvana's most popular song as well as a host of other hits including Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water", Aerosmith's "Walk This Way", and Metallica's "Enter Sandman".

One Hacker Band manages all this – from picking the strings to "fingering" the notes and even "palm" muting – through the magic of some quite powerful and fast servomechanisms strapped to neck and bridge of the guitars (or to the rims of the drums) and programmed to squirt out the chosen cover.

OK, it's all a little bit "robotic" at times, but can you blame them? That's what they are. Just like AI can't write a convincing news story (unless you're CNET), machines and software won't be able to truly capture that characteristic sloppiness of Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix.

All the same, One Hacker Band is a major feat of software, engineering, and musical knowledge rolled into one. Because the ends of the servos are not real fingers joined to a real hand that can zip up and down the neck, they can only produce single notes or barre chords over a limited number of strings, thus the instruments themselves also have to be tuned a certain way to get the desired results, which is making our heads spin just thinking about the complexity at every level to get this working.

Plans are afoot to make the band more capable by adding more guitars, bringing in more notes and strings that the current iteration can't hit.

Though this is a raw engineering project, we can't be far off from a fully AI-powered robot band performing original music if anyone is crazy enough to make that happen. Indeed, One Hacker Band has already demonstrated that it can perform music generated artificially through the Magenta Studio plugin in Ableton.

We sent One Hacker Band an email to rack his beautiful mind about the genesis of the project. If he gets back to us, we'll update the piece. Otherwise, you can explore his corpus of work here. ®

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