EVER SINCE Sam Phillips stuffed some wads of paper into an amplifier, inadvertently creating the fuzzed-up, overdriven electric guitar sound on Ike Turner’s 1951 rave-up ‘Rocket 88’, pop musicians and producers have turned happy accidents into great records. But the history of house and techno, in particular, is underpinned with fits of serendipity and creative perversions of recording technology.
In the early ’80s, Detroit techno pioneers like Juan Atkins and Derrick May – inspired in part by club DJs who’d begun using turntables as instruments, and limited by a profound lack of expendable dough – began picking up secondhand analog drum machines and keyboards that had been dumped by musicians who thought the equipment sounded too mechanical. Atkins & Co. were able to create techno music with these seemingly clunky tools precisely because they didn’t want machines that sounded like human drummers. “For some, I guess, ‘synthesize’ means ‘duplicate,'” Atkins says. “But for me, ‘synthesize’ is synonymous with ‘create.'”
The gear that Atkins and others used is the pulse of modern electronic dance music. The Roland TB-303 Bass Line is a bit like the Forrest Gump of all things electronica, its muddy squelch having been present, like a comedic cameo, in the mix of nearly every key mutation of house, techno, big beat, and jungle. What follows is a history of the 303, the 808, and a few other marvellous dumb-bots, as well as a look at the accidents and ecstatic noise that have emerged from the crossfire between technology and hare-brained human creativity.
The Mutant: THE ROLAND TB-303 synthesizer
In 1982, the Japanese corporation Roland introduced the TB-303 Bass Line. Company engineers designed the synthesizer to be used by musicians for recording demos, or rough sketches of songs, which could be played for music-industry executives, then later redone with “real” instruments – presumably after the songwriter had landed a lucrative contract. Roland also envisioned the box as a rehearsal device for electric guitarists who found themselves without flesh-and-blood bassists. The 303, however, sounded nothing like an actual bass guitar. American musicians, disappointed with its two-dimensional, mechanical sound, began selling their slightly used 303s to pawnshops, and by 1985 Roland ceased production.
But the TB-303 was reborn as a much stranger beast that year: Earl “Spanky” Smith picked up a 303 in a Chicago secondhand music store and took it back to his place, where his musical partner, Nathaniel Jones, tinkered with the box. Jones, who was beginning to DJ under the name Pierre, played with a row of knobs – Resonance, Decay, and Cut Off Freq – for adjusting the bassline; the controls were meant to be set, then left alone during recording or rehearsal. But Pierre programmed a bassline, hit the Run button, then cranked each of the knobs to its upper limit as the bassline was playing back. The 303 reacted with a piercing, almost obscene screech.
“Spanky was saying, ‘Keep doing it, keep doing it!'” Pierre remembers. “It wasn’t meant to squeak and squeal and all that kinda stuff. We just knew it sounded weird and energetic and funky. We thought, ‘Wow, this thing is really a jolt of lightning!’ So we taped it and took the tape to [legendary DJ] Ron Hardy’s place, the Music Box. We played it, and by the third time people were going crazy.”
Though they didn’t know it at the time, by adding the warped, druggy 303 sound to then-standard club beats, Pierre and Spanky had invented a new genre of dance music: acid house. They dubbed themselves Phuture, then released their 303 experiment as ‘Acid Trax’. That record, as well as other tunes like Sleezy D’s ‘I’ve Lost Control’ and Adonis’ ‘The Poke’, were club hits in Chicago; once imported to England, they became salvos in a massive youth cultural movement that begot electronic subgenre after subgenre. “One of my friends used to live on a mushroom farm,” says the Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands, “and he had this shed at the back of his garden. We used to sit in there playing a 303 – that was my idea of a perfect afternoon.” The box, which can be made to emit everything from wet squeals to bird chirps and peeps, reached the top of the American Billboard charts in 1997 via Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land.
But the TB-303’s acid sound had already achieved immortality. The year before, Roland moved to capitalize on the machine’s popularity with techno producers by introducing the MC-303 Groovebox, a synthesizer that could simulate the mutant TB-303 Bass Line as well as beats from the TB-909 and TR-808 drum machines. Pierre remains philosophical about his discovery of the sound that launched a thousand 12-inch records.
“When you make music, you just never know what the heck is going to happen. Some mistakes are good – it’s just a matter of knowing which ones are good and which aren’t.”
The Stepchild: THE ROLAND TR-808 DRUM MACHINE
After pioneering the manufacture of drum machines, Roland began to lose its competitive edge in the early ’80s, particularly when rival Linn introduced the LinnDrum, which featured beats derived from digitally sampled drums. For musicians in pursuit of an authentic sound, the LinnDrum overshadowed analog synthesizers like Roland’s TR-808, which seemed mechanical by comparison. But the 808, introduced in 1979 as a tool for high-end professional musicians to record demos (original list price: $1,195), was slowly finding favour with producers of the then-nascent form of music now called hip hop. In 1982, a black Trekker from the South Bronx named Afrika Bambaataa and the downtown producer Arthur Baker used an 808 to record the intergalactically funky ‘Planet Rock’, perhaps the single most influential track in the history of hip hop, techno, and electro music.
But Roland wasn’t listening. It had already ceased production of the machine, even as Chicago DJs like Jesse Saunders picked up 808s secondhand and began using the box in an ingenious way: They “played” it live, like an electric guitar or any other old-fashioned instrument. Saunders employed the 808 as the unifying thump of his marathon 6- to 12-hour sets at the Playground club (which typically included ‘Planet Rock’ and tunes by the B-52’s). This was the dawn of house music, yet the TR-808 would play an even more crucial role in techno, especially after trailblazers like Juan Atkins embraced the little black box. Years later, electronic innovators were still name-checking the device. In 1988, a British group that helped define ambient techno named itself 808 State; in 1997, breakbeat scientist Optical redefined dark drum and bass with his sinister, sternum-rattling ‘Moving 808’s’ single. But many techno musicians were, and still are, drawn to the internal imperfections of the 808, to everything it wasn’t, instead of everything Roland had wanted it to be.
“The 808 and the TR-909 [another key drum machine] both had what I’d call a certain ‘slip’ to them,” explains second-wave Detroit techno pacesetter Richie Hawtin, also known as Plastikman. “They didn’t lock at a certain exact tempo. Even when the tempo meter read 130 beats a minute, it only said that because there were just three digits in the counter. That timing slip gives those 808s a certain groove. You can actually open up an 808 and there’s some extra knobs inside, so you can detune the box. You’ll get lower tones, slightly snappier snares. These little knobs were manually set at the factory, so every 808 is completely different. My track ‘Spastik’ is basically just an 808. It’s the most well-balanced track I’ve produced yet. And it’s annihilated everybody who’s ever heard it.”
The Workhorse: THE TECHNICS SL-1200 TURNTABLE
“The Technics 1200 is the only turntable,” says Moby. “That’s where all the samples come from.” Techno music’s man of the hour is merely stating the worst-kept secret in electronic music. Since its introduction to the home stereo market almost 30 years ago, the Technics SL-1200 has been the tool of choice for professional DJs as well as sampling musicians. The deck has endured because it’s built like a tank: Made of steel and diecast aluminium, it weighs in at 27 pounds, and has incredible rotational stability and a very long service life.
Technics began selling the SL-1200 in 1973, and New York-based proto-hip hop DJs like Grand Wizard Theodore and Afrika Bambaataa almost immediately began to creatively misuse the decks. They invented scratching when they found that the motor would continue to spin at the correct rpm even if the DJ wiggled the record back and forth on the platter.
But turntablists and beatheads are still finding new ways to hack the SL-1200. Influenced by the hyperspeed mixing techniques of techno DJs like Jeff Mills, Detroit ghetto tech DJs like Disco D (real name Dave Shayman) sling together short blasts of Miami bass, drum and bass, and “booty” records with surreally filthy lyrics, playing every track at impossibly fast speeds. Disco D routinely opens up the turntable, adjusts a little-known small blue knob in the rear right corner of the deck, then reassembles the machine, which is then capable of spinning records up to 14 percent faster than they were meant to be played.
“Some people say you can never get a 1200 back to normal after you’ve adjusted it that way,” explains Disco D. “Actually, I’ve run into problems with promoters who aren’t so happy I’ve done that to their turntables. But I specify right there in my booking contract that that’s what I do. If you want me to play, I’m gonna have to mess up the turntables.”
The Screamers: THE NORD LEAD 1 KEYBOARD, AMEK SYSTEM 9098 EQUALIZER
In the sacred AI text Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter uses dialog between a tortoise and Achilles as a metaphorical device to explain mathematical concepts. In one of these, the tortoise invents a record that is unplayable because it is composed of sounds that will cause a turntable to vibrate and shake so violently that it shatters into a hundred pieces. Detroit techno legend Derrick May has never read Gödel, Escher, Bach, but in 1995, he one-upped the tortoise. He created a tune that was so dissonant it could not be made into a record.
In 1995, the Swedish company Clavia introduced the Nord Lead 1 keyboard, which used digital signal processors to emulate analog synthesis and give the instrument “the warmth and richness of the traditional analog sound”. Ironically though, when May used the synth in combination with actual analog recording gear, he produced sounds that traditionally give recording engineers migraines.
May was making a song called ‘To Be or Not to Be’ for the soundtrack of a PlayStation videogame called Ghost in the Shell. His setup included the Nord Lead 1 and an Amek System 9098 outboard equalization module, a device that producers typically use to attenuate, emphasize, or otherwise pump up selected frequencies in the audio spectrum. May went a little further: Intent on creating a whooshing effect known as phasing, he jacked up the amplitude of a few selected audio signals so high that they fell out of synchronization with the other sounds. The resulting tape could not be transformed into a master, the original recording that is necessary to manufacture a vinyl record.
“They couldn’t do it because at one point the track was so out of phase, it would cause the mastering needle to burn out,” May says. “And those needles cost $400 or $500 a pop. So I got a call from the guys at the plant in Belgium saying, ‘Look, we gotta compress it, because you did so many crazy-ass things.'” Compression, a method of sound signal processing and readjustment, tamed the wilder tones of ‘To Be or Not to Be’ so it could be included on Innovator, a compilation of May’s work. But he insists that his original version is exponentially more mind-blowing.
“I actually prefer to master all my music onto a reel-to-reel tape deck,” he says. “With today’s technology, everybody’s using some form of software to master records, which is limiting them – the program logic says, ‘These sounds are wrong.’ That means that no matter how radical you may be, if you don’t record within the set boundaries, fuck it, you can’t do it. So there’s this invisible law in technology that’s policing our music.”
The Transformer: THE AKAI S950 SAMPLER
Sampling technology has been as essential to electronic music as Stratocaster guitars have been to rock ‘n’ roll, but one machine, the Akai S950, has played a particularly crucial role. German producer Atom Heart used an S950 when he recorded ‘Cosmic Love’ – the blueprint for trance music – with techno duo Resistance D in 1992. In 1993, a new Akai S950 lit up the life of Josh Davis, a kid from California, who would soon be known as DJ Shadow. He used the console to perfect a method of blending one sample into the next, instead of neatly placing them side-by-side, which leaves a split second of digital blank space in the mix – but one that’s audible to the trained ear. Shadow’s approach, later displayed in the track ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’, from his groundbreaking Endtroducing …, gave his downbeat aural collages an organic feel and kick-started the electronic subgenre thereafter known as trip hop.
But the S950 was also the infernal device responsible for a happy accident during the 1995 recording of a lesser-known, slightly sinister tune called ‘Don’t Laugh’ by the Philadelphia DJ Josh Wink. It happened after Wink pulled a long weekend of late-night club sets and went into his studio to start recording.
“I’d had three hours of sleep in three days and been traveling, and I was so head-screwed that the only thing I really felt like doing was laughing,” Wink explains. “So I sampled myself laughing, then put a simple Roland 303 line over that, and then added a 909 kick-drum sound, open high hat, and a clap. That’s basically the track. The accident in the track happened when the sample started changing in pitch. By mistake, I’d hit the value transpose knob on the 950, and all of a sudden the sample got pitched down an octave. I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ There was just so much tension in there that it made the song pretty eerie. And after the record came out, people started coming up to me and saying, ‘Dude, I had the worst trip of my life because of you.'”
Wink, who says he doesn’t do drugs, later went on to spur a Roland TB-303 revival with ‘Higher State of Consciousness’, a hymn to the disruptive, ear-splitting power of that box. But after ‘Don’t Laugh’, he developed a theory about studio mishaps: “Sometimes the best things come about from mistakes. Usually, the ‘Oops!’ become the ‘Ahhhs!'”
© Pat Blashill, Wired, 5 January 2002