From orchestrating derelict CRT television monitors to organizing arrays of baby monitors, Darsha Hewitt mobilizes old technology towards novel ends. Her latest project, A Sideman 5000 Adventure sees the Berlin-based Canuck digging into the innards of an obscure drum machine and using that opportunity to not only conduct research, but stage an electronics history lesson for the internet. After discovering a semi-operational Wurlitzer ‘Side Man’ drum machine from 1959 (the world’s first drum machine, in fact) Hewitt decided to make her exploration of this eccentric electro-mechanical device public and launched an extended video tutorial series. Equal parts irreverent and educational, Hewitt demonstrates through disassembly to highlight the Side Man’s major components, and uses them to discuss electronics fundamentals and talk through other related topics such as how vacuum tubes work, and how sound is transformed into electrical signals. After seeing her engage in a fascinating conversation about the project at the recent MUTEK_IMG event in Montréal with sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne, CAN reached out to Hewitt to learn a bit more about her predilection for vintage drum machines.
↑ Hewitt introduces the Side Man, cues up a “weird grandpa techno” foxtrot beat, and delves into the machine’s inner-workings
In Montréal you opened your artist talk with a quip that you “often find the technologies you work with in the garbage.” Was your discovery of the Side Man this serendipitous? What about the device compelled you to want to focus on it for an extended period of time?
I was not so lucky to find it in the trash. I found my first Side Man on Germany’s ebay ebaykleinanzeigen.de. It was in a basement in Hamburg and I paid a cool 300€ for it. At that time, it was just a starting point for inspiration and I did not yet know what kind of artwork I would extract from it.
One of the reasons I decided to focus on the machine for such a long time is because I had to. Most of the time there is an abundance of technical documentation surrounding culturally significant music gear such as the Roland 808 – Side Man unfortunately had very little accessible information so, I had to reverse engineer it. Since I am not an engineer it took me over a year to fully understand how it works. During this process I recognized that it was an ideal machine to learn about electronics from – the components are huge and beautiful and it makes really neat sounds it makes the sometimes dense technical info fun. It only made sense to me to revive the machine by highlighting its inner workings by making it the star of a TV show.
People are generally familiar with the difference between digital and analog electronic instruments but the Side Man is electro-mechanical – what does this mean in terms of its operation, sound quality, and your working to reverse-engineer it?
It means that it has moving parts and it is very heavy! Instead of relying on smaller transistors, programmable chips and trigger switches to select rhythms and tempo, Side Man uses a motor and a very smart set of mechanical parts to do the job. The moving parts add much character to the Side Man sound quality – it hums, whirs, and the metal control level requires a bit of force to maneuver. Controlling Side Man is not very elegant so I feel more like a operator when I’m playing it and less like a performer.
The mechanics actually make reverse-engineering easier, since you can physically see what is going on when Side Man is generating rhythms. It also meant that I had to make sure not to swing my ponytail too close to it while I was working on it… it’s embarrassing and scary to get your hair caught in a high speed motor.
I’m really struck by the image of the tempo wheel, rotating away and basically ‘scrolling’ over its percussive hits – it seems so graphic and rational compared to a digital sequencer (which is completely abstract in comparison). Do you think electro-mechanical electronic assemblies have a more explicit clarity than contemporary digital technologies and is that is why you are drawn to working with them?
Yes! Side Man is like a world class Pinata – you crack it open and it’s a party. It overflows with exciting surprises that are fun to discover. Because it was made prior to some of the big advances in technology that has made the consumer electronics market what it is today, Side Man innovations like the tempo wheel and vacuum tubes are ‘out in the open’ – you only need a standard screwdriver to open it, and you’re in. The fact that we see mechanics at work and moving parts when we activate it allows for one to easily deduce what is going on. That, and the fact that the electronic components are so big makes it is a perfect platform for covering electronics basics.
Unlike Side Man, trying to get into one of today’s fast gadgets is like trying to find a pearl in the world’s most stubborn old clam. You have to smash it open but then you only find rot – no pearl, just mess and destruction. This is what industry competition and the market’s desire for cheap, quick and easy has lead to – planned obsolescence. You wanna fix it? Too expensive to repair – thow it out, buy something new. Want to learn how it works? Good luck! Key components are encrusted in opaque silicon, resistors and capacitors are often smaller than flecks of pepper and impenetrable without serious magnifying goggles – Curiosity and knowledge gets kicked out when we are led to believe that intervening on our machines will lead to trouble.
↑ In the most recent episode of A Side Man 5000 Adventure Darsha peers into the Side Man’s control panel
Teaching is quite prominent in your practice. What made you decide to release this project on YouTube and Vimeo and how do these very public arenas differ from more traditional workshop and classroom contexts?
My main motivation with this project was to make The Side Man famous – so, making videos for the internet seemed like a good strategy for this. Furthermore, I was interested in expanding my practice outside of the standard gallery, museum, and festival context. Working with video is very new to me and making work that is primarily meant to be experienced online is also new. I have other technical demonstrations on my YouTube channel (that are a lot less refined) and it connects me to people that I might not necessarily come across in one of my classes at the Bauhaus or at a media arts festival. For instance, in the comments section I’ve engaged in conversation with a 10 year old doing research for a science fair and of course, I’ve participated in flame wars with trolls who criticize my technique.
As you say in the videos the Side Man was originally marketed as an “economic alternative to hiring a musician” to help solo organists become lean mean gigging machines, and the device was of course the world’s first drum machine. What do you think the Side Man contributed to drum machine and electronic instrument design?
Hm…I did not spend much time looking into this historical aspects of side man – I mainly had geek tunnel vision and hunted for the schematics and information about how to understand vacuum tubes. Also, this is the first drum machine I have really gotten to know so I don’t have much to compare it to reference. That said, having talked to specialists in the field of the history of sound technology, I know that there is not actually a whole lot out there about Side Man. But, I think this is changing – I know of at least one academic that is researching the historical aspects of side man. I would be really happy if my videos could contribute to this kind of research.
Beyond scrutinizing its engineering and operation in your video series, can we expect any installations or projects drawing on the Side Man from you in the future?
Of course! I have already collaborated on an audio-visual work with Montréal Artist Nelly-Eve Rajotte – that was presented at the Goethe Institute in Montréal earlier this month. The work made lush macro-investigations of the machine that were projected on the facade of the building along with a composition made with side man beats. Other than that, I want to continue to host Side Man happenings such as more listening sessions – something that I am really excited about is that I actually now have two Side Mans and they sound really great together and go in and out of sync in really wonderful ways – I definitely think this would be great to present as a performance.
Nelly-Eve was not your only collaborator, when we chatted in Montréal you were excited about how this was kind of a community project that allowed you to draw on the expertise of several other peers. Who all did you rope into helping you and what did they contribute?
It’s true! I sure did rope in a lot of people for it. My team and supporters include: Lauren Moffatt, Daniel Stigler, Create Digital Music, Polynr., Jonathan Sterne, and of course Wolfgang my beloved retired TV repairman friend. Also, I was only able to invest so much time and energy into it because it had good financial and organizational support from the Art and Civic Media program at the Innovation Incubator at Leuphana University – Lüneburg, FACT Liverpool, and the Bauhaus University – Weimar.