Shawn Wasabi is an LA-based musician, but not in the way you might traditionally think. He doesn’t just play a guitar or piano or produce songs in a DAW (digital audio workstation, like Ableton Live or FL Studio). He’s a controllerism artist, using a piece of equipment called the Midi Fighter 64, a custom 64-button controller commissioned from music tech company DJ TechTools.
Controllerism artists use physical MIDI controllers like the Midi Fighter 64 in conjunction with a DAW, allowing them to perform complex musical routines live. Wasabi uses his Midi Fighter 64 with software called Ableton Live on his MacBook. Samples are loaded into Ableton, which are programmed to play when individual buttons on the controller are pressed, a process called MIDI mapping. Most controllers use rubber buttons — “squishy,” Wasabi says while scrunching his face — that have a maximum life of 40,000 presses before failure, and use a metal dome contact that’s prone to error.
This is what drew Wasabi to DJ TechTools’ Midi Fighter, which operates like a traditional controller, but doesn’t use rubber buttons. Instead, it has Japanese Sanwa OBSF-24 arcade buttons with LED rings that can be programmed to display different colors or even trigger multi-button animations.
“I really like arcade buttons,” says Wasabi, “and people love feeling keyboard clicks. Playing on a Midi Fighter, it’s reminiscent of playing on arcade cabinets. There’s the satisfying haptic feedback with arcade buttons that you don’t really get from other buttons. These buttons are also designed to be fast and rapid-fire and withstand being spilled on and being beat up by hundreds of kids every day.”
Wasabi faced a roadblock though: at the time, the Midi Fighter only came in a 16-button model, and he wanted a 64-button version comparable to what other companies were producing. Sixteen buttons simply wasn’t large enough for the complex pieces of music he wanted to perform.
So, he bought multiple 16-button models and connected / MIDI mapped other electronics in order to have more functions to play with. In one of his first published YouTube performances, “Mac n’ Cheese,” Wasabi uses two 16-button Midi Fighters in conjunction with a PS3 controller and an Xbox controller, which were mapped using application MotioninJoy. “I even mapped the motion-sensing in [the video game controllers],” says Wasabi, “so when you lean them back, it switches it to another bank of sounds.” The setup was a stopgap solution, but it required an immense amount of work. “It was overwhelmingly complex, even for me to understand,” says Wasabi. “I felt like it was too much. I realized after I made that, I was like, ‘Wow, I need to scale back on this.’”
Shortly after, Wasabi reached out to DJ TechTools, inquiring about creating a 64-button version of the Midi Fighter. He was eventually put in touch with engineer Michael Mitchell, the Midi Fighter’s original designer, and a prototype was designed and 3D printed for Wasabi to use.
“Marble Soda,” the first routine Wasabi recorded for YouTube on the 64-button prototype, immediately went viral. It looks more polished than his earlier videos. There’s professional lighting, and it’s set against a baby blue background with bubbles slowly drifting across the screen. The sound is evolved, too. “Marble Soda” is decidedly more twee than Wasabi’s earlier electro-influenced music, like the OST to a Nintendo game that could also be played at a rave. The mashup uses over 150 samples, and his fingers dexterously fly across the board, lighting up the buttons’ LED rings and triggering designs and animations (including a pokéball). One of his favorite samples, he says, is Super Smash Bros.’ Home-Run Bat effect. “It makes this really airy sound that sounds really cool.”
“It’s a lot of muscle memory,” says Wasabi. “I’ve built the dexterity from doing it for several years; it gets ingrained in you. You have to learn how your hands move. It’s a lot less about learning what each button does than learning about developing patterns. ‘Marble Soda’ took me about a month [to memorize].”
Wasabi’s popularity soared, and so did interest in the Midi Fighter 64 as he made more videos and increasingly featured the controller on socials in absurd situations. People wanted to know about this one-of-a-kind hardware. Where could they get it? Was it really the only one in existence? Why wasn’t it for sale? A fan started a Change.org petition asking DJ TechTools to make it en masse, available for purchase. It got thousands of signatures. And DJ TechTools noticed.
Then, in 2016, Wasabi’s car was broken into. His Midi Fighter 64 prototype was stolen, along with his MacBook and hard drive. The gear that had become his calling card was gone. Wasabi went back to DJ TechTools asking for a replacement to be made, and eventually, they acquiesced, creating and giving him a higher-quality replacement. While designing the replacement, the company decided to make a limited 20-unit run of the Midi Fighter 64, gifting the prototypes to artists around the world. The resulting explosion of its popularity combined with the Change.org petition from Wasabi’s fans prompted DJ TechTools to mass-produce the Midi Fighter 64 this year.
For the past three months, the company has been busy manufacturing its first 1,000-unit run, and on June 2nd, the Midi Fighter 64 became available for public purchase for the first time. DJ TechTools had 64,000 Sanwa arcade buttons shipped from Japan, the custom firmware was updated to include easy animations, and each Midi Fighter 64 is hand-assembled, one at a time, by the company’s in-house “circuit bender and DIY maker.” Each one is numbered, signed, and shipped with a certificate of authenticity.
Ean Golden, founder of DJ TechTools, thinks this could signal “the new way that product development may happen in the future thanks to new hardware and social tools.” Without Wasabi’s creativity and persistence, the controller would have never been built. “I think this story is a beautiful example,” says Golden, “of young makers using the technology around them to get things built that support their art.”
In the end, Wasabi is simply grateful that people want to watch and listen, and that DJ TechTools helped his vision come to life. “I’m really happy with how everything’s going,” he says. “With the Midi Fighter 64, the music I’m making, and the videos I’m working on, it’s incredible.”
The Midi Fighter 64 can be purchased via DJ TechTools for $499.