If You Meet the Buddha Machine on the Road, Hack It


Looking for that perfect holiday gift for your most sonically adventurous friends or loved ones? Look no further.

The Buddha Machine, introduced in 2005 (and blogged here many many many many times before), is a portable little sound-loop device in a plastic box introduced five years ago by the China-based duo FM3 (aka Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant). It so resembles an impressively generic AM radio that Muji products look like Prada by comparison.

The first two generations of the Buddha Machine contained short varied loops of ambient sound. Generation two (2008) introduced pitch control, allowing the user to alter the speed of the loops; this was, in part, a nod to enthusiasts who'd hacked the first generation. I always find myself slowing the loops as much as possible, to get them to their drone-iest, which suits the device's zone-out charm and its background-music functionality.

The third generation, newly released this month, retains the pitch control but replaces all those electronic-audio recordings with loops recorded on an ancient Chinese instrument known as the qin. This gen-three Buddha Machine is named the Chan Fang (or 禅房), which translates as Zen Room. (Between the second and third generations there was also Gristleism, a device that resulted from a collaboration between FM3 and Throbbing Gristle, whose longtime member Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson passed away late last month.)

The qin, or guqin, or 古琴, is the ancient Chinese zither. It's a long instrument with seven strings, and its history dates back thousands of years.

This third version of the Buddha Machine was introduced just this month, and it's already been hacked, as FM3 announced yesterday via Twitter [Video Link].

Circuitben, the British hacker who made the adjustments, clearly appreciates the droning quality of the Buddha Machine -- his hack involves extending the pitch wheel "a wee bit," as he puts it.

And here's a nifty little video featuring all three generations of the Buddha Machine (first in front, second in middle, Chan Fang in rear):

My wish list for the fourth generation of Buddha Machine would be the ability to easily upload our own sounds to its chip.

More on the Buddha Machine at fm3buddhamachine.com.


  1. I first got a “buddha box” at The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Ukiah, California. The City has a website here: http://www.cttbusa.org/ (And to answer the obvious questions: Yes, they have many more than 10,000 buddha statues/paintings in the main meditation hall alone, and Yes, you can usually visit, but call ahead to make sure there will be someone who speaks English to help you out.)

    Anyway, I went there because I heard of the name of the place, and happened to be in Ukiah on other business, and after walking around, paying respects, listening to some of a recorded lecture in the main hall, and eventually going to the gift shop, they offered me a buddha box. It plays one audio loop, continuously, whenever you switch it on. The circuitry inside the box is a lump-of-black-epoxy IC chip, and a handful of analog components. The loop it plays is very similar to this one http://www.angelfire.com/mt/mondotaiwan/Buddha.html

    Those of you who are interested can look up “Pure Land Buddhism” to find out why these buddhists are so into chanting. You don’t have to believe their stories to get benefits from the machine — yes, it’s intentionally relaxing and calming, and no, it’s not supposed to be hypnotic.

  2. RE the Muji reference – these are very reminiscent of Muji products, and perhaps a little cheaper looking. I understand using exaggeration to make your point that they’re breathlessly simple in design, but you really can’t say something like Muji is Prada by comparison – that’s way beyond a little exaggeration!

    When I walked into the Muji store in Bangkok (it’s located in Central at Chidlom BTS) I felt like I “died and went to heaven” so to speak – the minimalism was overwhelmingly awesome. I had to restrain myself from buying everything there (I got a few small things).

    I know I’m off topic but I really found that comparison disingenuous. These are not more minimalist than Muji products :)

  3. Whenever I’ve seen buddha machines I’ve always wanted one where I could record my own loops.

    Then I realised I really didn’t need it, because my Yamaha pocket field recorder can already do that, among many other things, in a much nicer package :)

  4. Check out my circuit bent chanting Buddha Box I did a few years ago.
    It was received from a friend who got it from a Buddhist Temple in LA. They give them to you if you ask.
    It now is much more versatile.
    Chanter: http://techdweeb.com/Chanter.html
    I also have one of the 2nd gen FM3 ones waiting to be improved.

    (Hi Marc)

  5. Regarding Marc’s wish for a 4G buddha with upload capability… not likely in the Buddha Machine series, but am currently onworking a new device which might possibly allow user loops. its a different form factor than the buddha, but still a hand-held, self-contained music playback unit. in a retro-vibe… also, have been working for at least 3 years on a solar-powered buddha, but thwarted by high cost and low power output of smaller solar panels. recently solved the power problem however, so next gen buddha likely sun powered.

  6. Wanted to make sure that folks knew that @mandopop is in fact Christiaan Virant, half of the FM3 duo who develop the Buddha Machines.

    And @univac: Thanks for sharing that. Man, been a long time since we’ve been in touch. Great to see your name pop up in here.

  7. Nice to see you writing for BB Marc! Always interesting stuff.

    And mandopop, perhaps a collaboration is in order? You build, I bend.

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