Why single-purpose computers? (or not)

As others have stated, design and interfaces matter. Different objects inspire us to work differently and produce different results. Even if it is theoretically possible to get the same outcome from a laptop, to suggest that this makes it “better” than alternatives is to value results over process, and prioritize its power, versatility and convenience over the many other factors that can make an artistic tool enjoyable and inspiring to work with.

When someone criticizes a piece of equipment by stating they could do what it does with their computer, my thought is, “great, you should do that then.” No one is keeping score on who is most efficiently spending their money. The best tool is the one that you like the most.

I don’t mean to direct this at anyone specific here. I’ve just noticed it’s common for people to publicly criticize a piece of equipment by comparing it to a laptop, and I’ve never really understood the motivation in doing so.


cannot repeat this enough

i have had a couple smaller ~computer devices over the years and all of them have been about simply clearing the laptop from my vision and process, if only for part of the work. if i had the time and resources to invest in something more customizable like an aleph or norns this is exactly the appeal of such a thing to me. less to work with, maximizing function, less to carry to gigs!


I enjoy making music with samplers and synthesizers and sequencers on my laptop very much. But the way I work and the music I make with instruments that do similar things and are not inside my laptop become very different. I become different too. It’s harder but I enjoy it more. I could set up my laptop with one thing and hook a controller to it and decide to not look, but I would still look. I don’t know when a computer goes from being more (or all) instrument or more (or all) laptop. But I do feel the objectness (sorry that’s a terrible word) of objects very much when I interact with them. I don’t mean to derange the thread but I remember someone talking about Whitehead once, saying “I prehend the cup, but the cup also prehends me.”


in a way, it can be similar
to a drum carpet
physical and psychic space
on stage


Other posters have done a good job giving the pros for using a laptop, so I guess I’ll touch on the cons.

The main things I hate about “all purpose computers” (in a descriptive sense, because after all by definition any computer is an all purpose computer) are:

  1. my laptop and the software on it constantly want to update themselves. It would be fine if that only fixed bugs or added new features without removing old ones; but in practice, new bugs get introduced, compatibility with older formats gets lost, features get removed or broken, etc. And that’s not mentioning the software that bugs me about updating AND also wants to charge me for the upgrade.

  2. my laptop gets more unusable year by year, mostly because software engineers keep adding abstraction layers that slow everything down (but make things easier for them; understandable enough). If your goal is to get a character on the screen to display as fast as possible after you’ve pressed a key, then the best computer you can get is an Apple II. How sad is that?!

  3. my laptop also becomes less and less understandable every year because every software manufacturer wants to keep my data for themselves and present it in obscure ways that their incompetent designers thought were good ideas. Once upon a time, every piece of software stored its data in a fairly easy to retrieve way, that made it possible to inspect it/transform it for another piece of software/etc. Now many computing systems don’t let the end user view the files on their drive anymore, and you can forget about exporting it to use it with other software.

  4. A side effect of 2) is that one needs to upgrade their machine every few years to keep doing the same thing that worked just fine on a laptop that is now unusable (and forget about replacing just the components that need upgrading/replacing). We now have a pretty solid sense of how fucked the planet is; should we really be keeping on stripping rare metals from the earth and releasing carbon in the atmosphere just to display webpages that take 100% CPU to display ads with HD video and parallax? There are uncountable discarded laptops that one can acquire for $20 on eBay that would be totally usable today if efforts were made in making software more efficient year over year. I have a 2009 netbook in my bag right now running a customized ArchLinux (because that’s what you have to do), and it can still play 1080p videos totally fine, lets me write text/code, listen to music, edit photos, etc. The main thing that doesn’t work on it is the web. In 2009 it could load my bank’s website just fine; today, the page is too sluggish to use. No matter that the operations I do on my bank’s website are literally the exact same as I did in 2009 (view numbers, type in numbers). This is just completely bonkers!

This sad state of affairs means that I am all for single purpose computers - and certainly not just for music! I want single purpose computers for every creative activity. Video editing, music making, typesetting, web browsing, you name it. The more isolated a computer is, the less access it has to my data, the fewer things the manufacturer of that computer can do to introduce their shitty ideas of what “user experience” is into my life, the better. None of the issues above have shown up when I’ve used say a dedicated piece of synth hardware.

George R R Martin, one of the most successful contemporary writers, keeps an old DOS machine running WordStar 4.0 because he feels that that’s the tool that best gets out of his way and lets him focus on his work. He has it all figured out. Mainstream software & hardware in 2019 is manipulative, user hostile, sluggish, lacking in features that were available 20 years ago, terrible for the environment, and just can’t (and shouldn’t!) be trusted.


I don’t own a Norns, but I do design interfaces and instruments using single-purpose computers, mostly for personal use. It’s primarily about immediacy - when the muse speaks, every step from where I am (somewhere picking my nose) to where I want to be (making music) is another obstacle. So if it’s simply turn on/rock out, that makes it that much easier to capture the moment. But if I have to turn on, close my browser, intentionally ignore all the updates, posts, and notifications, open Max, change my i/o settings, build the patcher, etc, I risk becoming distracted or missing the boat.
Also, sometimes I just want to bring a little musicky thing somewhere without thinking about letters or language or other things that the laptop stimulates. Specialization helps me isolate and dedicate space-time to the task at hand.
All that said, I love my laptop dearly and have no intention of abandoning it.


I very much agree with you, however manufacturing all those single purpose computers is also not great for the environment.


I’m not sure norns can actually be considered single purpose, which is why I bought it. however, any one of my drum machines or synths would easily qualify as a single purpose computer.


I think if there is mystique then perhaps the understanding of the functionality has not been communicated or understood fully, and this may be intentional. For the former likely for purposes of marketing and for the latter to spark ideation and creativity.

I was thinking in regards to another thread about Max and Monome and how it’s actually quite annoying to navigate allowing people to develop little bits of musical software that are shareable. Max actually does a phenomenal job of this, with the downside of the semi-walled garden Max is. Pd is more open, but much more intimidating for a non-coder, and SuperCollider is perhaps even more intimidating. There’s Reaktor, too, of course, but I don’t know much about it.

But in general, the whole point of Monome stuff seems to be to let the community build and share uses for their instruments, and more generally to celebrate building and sharing musical devices and programs. So there’s this tension where it really ought to be easier to get in on the fun, but there are set-up costs and shifting software targets and and and…

And then I realized that the whole point of the Norns—or an whole point, if you will—is that it really is striving to be a platform where music-makers can flex their creativity at instrument-building without worrying about all the side-tracking business of actually designing and maintaining standalone programs that have to interface with an unfriendly OS or host DAW.


This. The former is what annoys me. I have no issue with specialized sound computers; I’ve owned a few - Eventide H9, Strymon Magneto, Nebulae. I just don’t like the cultivation of mystery of a product through nebulous copy on a website and forum feedback loops, it makes it feel exclusive, not inclusive to me. Combine that with the high price point and low production and inevitably there will be some misplaced hype and cult status that forms. I used to spend a fair amount if time on guitar forums and the same stuff would happen, as I’m sure it happens in every niche market. I find it very annoying.

Yep, that’s exactly it.


So here’s an inclusive argument - the software for norns (and most monome products) is open source and anyone can play in that sandbox. It’s pretty easy to look behind the “mystery” to see what’s going on.

You can build a fully functional norns “clone” with a raspberry pi for about $100 (I have 2 on my desk right now) - so there’s a low cost entry point if you like.

FWIW - I contribute to the norns codebase and I don’t actually own an monome norns, grid or arc. I’ve built fully working DIY versions of those 3 devices, but I’m a nerd like that.

Perhaps to bring this back to the main topic - I’m all about single purpose computers. I’ve got a RasperryPi here that I’m dedicating to ORCA for example. I also build numerous things with Teensy microcontrollers (which are really just little single purpose computers arent they?)


to be clear I’m sure Monome is out to spark creativity and inspire and not shroud a mediocre product with abstraction for cool factor.


Though I’ve embraced modular, I still love a DAW. I find hardware + software makes a great combination that maximizes flexibility. For some things, you can’t beat a big screen and a mouse and a big fast SSD and a library of hundreds of plugins and thousands of samples. For others, knobs and sliders and cables and analog signal paths are where it’s at.

My modular has an ER-301 and a Teletype in it. I don’t think of them as more computers, but rather as spaces to summon other modules into (or create them ad-hoc). Again, it’s about hitting a combination of flexibility and feel. There’s a little compromise involved, but perhaps less compromise than there would be with other solutions.

I suppose I could get some Expert Sleepers gear and use Reaktor instead of Teletype and ER-301, but that has no appeal to me. (I honestly kind of don’t like working with Reaktor, though I tolerate it for the sake of a few excellent things others have done with it. I don’t think it’s the best interface for what I want to do.)


Was going to comment but @crim says most of what I want to up above…

What I like about the current renaissance of the SBC/Iot controllers is that you can put computing power in anything pretty much. So we shape our tools. Laptops are “big screen connected to a keyboard”, Norns is small screen connected to handful of knobs and buttons and runs my grid easily, etc etc. I suspect we are going to see more and more functionality taken away from the laptop - look at watching TV - ignoring for a moment we had separate devices because although TV is a subset of the internet it was invented first - we did all have a period of TV/films on the laptop and now we are often have tiny computers that are in or plugged into big screens in front of sofas. My phone takes some of the load because it’s in my pocket and I don’t need to go to my desk . Music is at the forefront of this breakout because keyboard/screen isn’t great for music - a great many of us want knobs and dials. But I suspect a great deal more computing will move into more specialist devices with different physical forms

Tools matter to us. When I learned to cook properly I bought myself a really nice Wüsthof knife - what does that do that the cheaper knives I have don’t? nothing. But it’s a pleasure to use, it was made by someone who understands what a knife is used for in cooking, using it adds to the cooking experience.


i’m readily reminded of a prior thread concerning the differentiation of artist and artisan.

perhaps there’s a similar distinction to make between instrument and implement based upon workflow—an instrument being a tool whose operation is guided primarily by its own limitations, and an implement being one conversely dependent on the intent of the user?

anyway, i personally find making things much more entertaining when the tools have at least some influence of their own :slight_smile:


Well put, really sums up the current state of tech


I decided at some point that if I’m going to spend hundreds or thousands of hours in front of something, learning and creating with it, using it to architect the deepest personal expressions of my soul, then it has to be an Instrument, not just a Tool. an Instrument (loosely defined) is something you learn with and over a lengthy focused period eventually develop some psychic connection and symbiosis with. you learn the muscle memories, feel your body and nerves in sync with your mind, and it fades away as mundane object to become a cipher for and conduit of you as an artist and person. this is possible with programmable sound boxes - at their best, these are Instruments for making Instruments. the design/building process is itself an absorbing pleasure and creative act. and then you can sit down and play your personalized Instrument and become familiar with it, which is deeply satisfying.

a laptop promises this - and the better software like VCV Rack delivers to some degree, imo - but the vast polymorphism that made computers so ubiquitous is also the thing that keeps them from being Instrument-like. it turns out polymorphism is good and promises depth and flexibility, but needs to be constrained within a certain set of creative focal points in order for something to approach the beauty and possibility of an Instrument.

or i’m just making this all up. at the end of the day, what excites me creatively is more emotional than rational, but i think i’m usually better off seeing where it leads than trying to dampen my enthusiasm by sticking to what’s sensible and financially sound.


Yeah, for the record my goal isn’t really in trying to bash these products, more interested in the psychology of it. I’m a designer and I work at a marketing firm so maybe Im just sensitive to this stuff. All I can tell you is what I felt what when I tried to learn about these products for the first time, I came away more confused after viewing the website than enlightened or excited. I deal with peoples’ online experience all day, looking at how a webpage (through copy and design) determines user experience. That’s my experience, as an outsider coming into this world.