Why single-purpose computers? (or not)

i’m interested in a broad discussion about why people do or do not use / buy / design / understand single-purpose sound computers (pisound, norns, organelle, axolotl, bela, MOD, &c) when, indeed, laptops can do all/most of the same things.

the reasons can be pragmatic (space, cost), aesthetic, philosophical or whatever.

this topic is a bit religious and can get rather discursive, so maybe it would be good to have it away from more “tech support” oriented topics.

personally: i like having something like a norns because it is small, self-contained and has a different “psychic footprint” on stage. it functions as a satellite device for “computer music stuff.” if i never played outside of the house i would not have much use for it.


I’m happy using a laptop because
I need one in my house for other things,
have been making music I’m really happy with for years,
have no experience with the alternative, and
have never felt some kind of barrier when musicing with others using one.

ETA: probably another aspect, but not specific to single- or multi-purpose computing, is having been doing computer-based music for >20 years I’m not used to the idea I could spend disposal income on music-making stuff. Putting aside replacing my computer, I might’ve spent about $500 in the last decade at most?


that’s quite understandable of course. i use laptops with other people also. but it is also a very nice option to have a kind of secret laptop sometimes.

i don’t expect this to be a universal need any more than, say, a drum carpet.

pragmatically: i like to not have to drive to gigs and a small thing helps with that. my smallest netbook+interface configuration was, i dunno, 2x-4x the size of norns, had about the same retail cost, and was fiddly to set up.


I’ll be interested if people talk about limited interfaces being more enjoyable. Sometimes I miss a tiny LED screen and knobs and buttons from hardware samplers etc.


my interaction with my conventional computer follows well-traveled paths that lead to a lot of different activities, most of which are extremely perfunctory and a precious few of which are exciting and creative.

I spend time and energy trying to make sure that balance is functional and I try to approach my laptop as something that reacts purely to my intention, rather than something that has these well-worn pathways that I follow (often without realizing it). I would love to think of my multi-purpose machine as a single(variable)-purpose machine all the time, but I often fail in that.

a dedicated device sequesters my musical creative time into a space that doesn’t even feel adjacent to rest of what a multipurpose computer represents. it also has well-worn pathways, but none of them have to do with anything non-musical. it doesn’t share the same entry point as me checking my email or half reading random internet things.

there’s also ideally meaningful benefits that are entirely practical and not psychological (time to boot, stability, affordances), but I think those ultimately matter less to me.


quick laptop pros for me:

  • I already own it
  • I’m pretty hard set on creating the tools that I use, so I don’t need to rely on tools by others except for inspiration. ideas are cross-platform.
  • don’t have to worry as much about running into processor power restrictions
  • I think all the boxes are limited to 2x2 audio I/O rn ?
  • multi-tracking is still pretty limited to laptops rn
  • I use it for all my visual/other art, kind of a one machine fits all thing for me which is cool
  • A/V performances
  • I can program on the machine, in theory that could become part of performance
  • monomes and other boxes are my interfaces regardless, so mouse and keyboard aren’t really a downside
  • a laptop is still a pretty necessary part of post-production for me, so it’s not like it isn’t going to take up space wherever I’m recording
  • I think it’s easy to avoid the bad headspace if you can think about your laptop as an art tool. that’s something I’ve adjusted to - It can be easier to get distracted. having multiple user accounts for work/art can help that.

having said that, if playing out ever becomes a serious thing for me I’ll probably get a norns. having less is always nice and laptops are big. I think I have a lot to improve in terms of my performance being engaging before what I have on stage becomes terribly important though.


For me, one big reason is headspace. Using a device that is for one removed from general internet access and also made for a specific purpose just focuses me in a way that a laptop does not. While I can see that software is also purpose-made, having one tangible thing for one purpose is what works for me. (Which is why I would love a hardware version of the OP-1 tape recorder, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
This may also be because I have terrible discipline but oh well.

Another reason is that for the most part, these small devices “just work”. I feel like since they are made and designed with some kind of additional hardware interaction in mind (midi controllers / other audio gear / sensors / whatever), these interactions work flawlessly compared to using a laptop and other hardware. I have very little time for making music these last few months so whenever I have to spend time dealing with technological issues or setup or whatever it just frustrates me to no end.


This has been echoed elsewhere on the forum, but for those of us who spend our “9 to 5s” at the laptop, it’s really nice to get away. Of course, I write this on my iPhone immediately after finishing up work for the day, right before I’m about to hop on Max/MSP…


I’m one of those and just don’t feel that need to switch, or not to the extent of contemplating going and buying something.

I’m writing this on my laptop while looping some stuff I’ve started for the latest Disquiet Junto, so I can certainly relate to the distraction comments!

Funny, I’m new-ish here, and to the Norns scene too, and I was just asking the same question in a Norns related post --which is probably blasphemy here (LOL). I’m genuinely curious to the allure of it though, when you can accomplish the same stuff on a laptop or stand alone hardware. I think it has more to do with fetishism of boutique niche things that are outside of the mainstream than anything else. You see this all over the internet on every type of gear forum. Obviously, I fall victim to it as well, because I’m here, and I’ve spent the last year building a Eurorack system, but I try to avoid trends best I can and judge each tool on their merits, and not get sucked into the mystique.


But can you really? Others here can put this more astutely than me, but you may be able to come up with a similar product on, say, a Digitakt, a modular rig, or just in Ableton, but the process of getting there is going to be incredibly different. For me, making music isn’t wholly about the product (what, with my five monthly listeners?). I make music largely for the process and the process between these three couldn’t be more different. So, if your accomplishment is derived from what comes out of the speakers, sure. But if it’s informed also by what precedes this, then interface/platform/whatever really, truly matters.


I’d argue that the assumption that you can do the exact same thing on a laptop is flawed since process / interface / circumstance are all wholly different, no matter which machine you use. Also, I’m trying to interpret your comment regarding fetishism as not shitty but I’m having trouble, I’m assuming you meant it generally but it still reads as if you think noone can own a single-use music machine (whatever that may be) without it being fueled by gear fetishism? This kinda implies that owning a laptop and anything that it could replace is somehow wrong? But I think I may be too cynical when it comes to what people may mean when tone does not really translate well online. I’m genuinely curious how you meant it.


I have a friend that buys Thinkpad X220s in bulk, treating them as disposable special purpose computers.


I think the big-o difference here is whether yr interested in making tools or using tools made by others. If you’re the designer you can make the tool and the process work well for the interface that you have, but if you’re interested in using tools that are well designed by others the options in software may feel sub-par compared to hardware. I think this has a lot to do with the market of hardware compared to software. there’s also a lot more freedom for making tactile interfaces using hardware.

norns or organelle are kind of nice I guess for bridging the gap of personal design and well designed hardware interfaces by others.

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I think you’re both on the same page. They said ‘accomplish’. The journey is different, yes.

I think for me the allures are:

  • Aesthetics and design provide a different way to interact with technology which keeps our brains from going down same rabbit holes

  • The limitations on what can be done at any given time provide focus, freeing from the distraction of updates, notifications, or just checking emails or social media when you are at a blank slate

  • The open source community is full of constant and wonderful surprises that constantly push the platform forward


Part of why I’m here is the beauty of the instruments…

And the beauty of the community…

And the beauty of the music that these wonderful people are making with these amazing tools…

When you look closely at different people’s rigs, they are all at least a little different…

Which tells me that the tools are important but not as much as the inspiration at the heart of the interaction between the artists and their tools…

So, start somewhere and go towards whatever calls you! I’m convinced for myself that it’s better to start at all than to start “right.”


i only have one laptop and i use it for all my visual work - it’s too precious and critical to my livelihood to also bring to music shows.


A real tangible benefit to single-purpose computers is responsiveness. You are far more likely to get a snappier experience on a dedicated computer than a general purpose laptop. The bela board, for instance, is capable of latency times of around 1ms which is insanely responsive. Bare metal embedded systems such as the ones you’d find on eurorack systems can do even better than that, and those are technically single-purpose computers as well.

That being said, most of my sound work is done on a laptop. It doesn’t feel as nice, but it sure is very convenient.


When I start counting microprocessors in my house I tend to give up when I get into the dozens…