Bluffers Guide To 303:808:909

Bluffers Guide To 303:808:909

Sorry to put a spanner in your kraftwerks but Techno, in case you hadn’t noticed, has got fuck all to do with technology. The sounds of Detroit were made with cheap boxes with less complex wiring in them than the average pocket calculator. Derrick, and his Gary Numan obsessed mates couldn’t afford anything else at the time. Yet over zealous fan boys insist on making simple music signifying a vague futurist agenda. Little wonder then that the now antiquated equipment used by the pioneers of techno has become over-valued and overworked in bedrooms and studios across the land. Can’t keep up with the counter bores at your local record store? Feel like a girl when the lads are talking techno-twaddle? Then read on for an instant guide to the machines they all want for Christmas.

If you need a reason why you can’t have a decent conversation with any DJ who has been inside a twenty-mile radius of a recording studio, then you need to speak to Roland. Not Ro-land with the glasses on from Grange Hill, but a Japanese electronic musical instrument manufacturer who, opening for business in 1972, couldn’t have foreseen the influence its percussive gadgets would have on a whole genre of music. Roland’s first products were square-bear synthesisers and pianos. Sales of their cheap and cheerful Dr Rhythm Drum Machine in 1979 convinced them however, that there was a demand for unrealistic bongs, clicks and clonks.

Before the DR55, drum machines had looked like your mum’s dressing tables with flashing lights and sounded like the entire contents of a knife draw been thrown down the stairs. And you couldn’t program them either. Roland technology had invented the future. Oh dear. Next stop, Depeche Mode.

If the DR 55 was a rhythmic Lada, the TR 808 was recognised as a percussive Rolls Royce of its day. By the time it had really started to make its mark around 1987, it was almost a decade old and the cabaret pianists who had originally bought it had also forgotten about it. It’s sad to say that despite its quaint charms, the 808’s familiarity has bred contempt. Although it can be heard used in an almost inspirational manner on Rhythim Is Rhythim’s ‘It Is What It Is’ and it’s distinctive bass drum boom is still sworn by, it never really had the punch to power house like the TR 909. Still, Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing is built around it and many mid-eighties soul records would be largely empty had it not been made available. Add to this the fact that, even now, you can’t make an Electro record without sampling the endearingly crap cowbell sound, and it’s clear that the TR 808 will go down in rhythmic history.

The cream coloured horror box referred to as the TR 909 might have gone down in history too had a load of UK deadheads with ideas buzzing around their empty heads like lonely wasps not got their hands on this now creatively unsalvageable machine. It got off to a good start in the hands of, Farley, {ln:Armando}, Mike Dunn and Steve Poindexter as the essential jacking box. The 909 was house music and we loved it dearly until some English burk found out you could multiply the snare drum sound until it became a kind of sonic blur, ever increasing in volume. Hey Presto! A house DJ with the musical intelligence of a Toto fan had invented the infamous drum roll- Saturday night nightmare of every discerning dancer. Now its sad subtlety- free thump plots the course of a million double-pack remixes and, as a result of its popularity with the under-educated, should you want to buy one, you won’t get much change from a grand. Cheaper say, to sample yourself running a stick along the school railings and far more original. If you still have a 909 and are feeling a bit of a herb by now, why not, like Derrick May and Aphex Twin, pretend to your mates that you have taken the top off yours and fiddled around with it to make it sound better then everyone else’s.

The {ln:Roland TB-303}, smallest and most influential box of them all, began life as an impenetrable automated bass player. Only people with heads as big as Brian Eno’s could figure out how to work the 303. A commercial flop for Roland until…

The great {ln:Marshall Jefferson} once told me that nobody in Chicago could get anything out of this silver machine so someone came up with the solution of taking the batteries out, putting them back in, switching the 303 on and seeing what happened. That could explain a lot of the nonsensical, impossible genius of early acid. The batteries story is probably bollocks but, then again, pre- 1987, you’d have died of shock had you heard someone strolling down the street whistling Acid Tracks. As a result of records like this, the 303 became known as the acid machine. Acid, put simply, is the sound made by a constantly repeating pattern modulated with the little knobs on the top of the machine so it becomes bassier, then more extreme or squelchy and distorted. Most of the great acid records consist of a drum pattern and someone twisting these knobs round for an hour or two. Boring now, I know, but it sounded like all hell was being let loose back then. The fact that the 303 died a creative death several years back did not however stop Josh Wink from making a career out of shaking his fake dreads around, hunched over a 303 while treating us to the house equivalent of a sad metal guitar solo. Add to this the fact that lads with no shirts on, in the time-honoured fashion of air guitarists at rawk shows across middle America, now twist their thumbs and fingers around in mid-air during the acid sections of progressive house records, and it’s clear much damage has been done.

Yet, the simple aims of the faceless men from Osaka- to provide the drummer-less with drums; the bass-less with bass, have inadvertently provided us with a lot of great music. Even so, the great house/techno dustbin is so full of mindless nonsense, I suggest that, rather than joining in when the lads start talking Roland numbers, you should declare the conversation bollocks and start talking about Moogs and Theremins like the proper little clever dick I know you are.


by John McReady

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