It is a well known fact that certain synths or pieces of hardware have changed the course of dance music throughout the genre’s history; however, only the committed enthusiasts know why these bits and pieces of hardware became so popular in the first place. For example, why was the Roland TR 909 or the TB 303 so widely used, to the extent that a whole new sub-genre, or rather, an entire sub-culture, came about as a result?
In the weeks to follow, I will publish a series of articles on obscure synths. To start the sequence, I’ll begin with one of the most famous examples of an instrument that makes the most out of its limited resources – the Roland TB 303 (which I will simply refer to herein as the ‘303’).
Roland TB-303 (Originally released in 1982)
When Roland conceived the 303 in 1981, the unit was originally targeted toward bands as a cheap replacement for a human bassist. The 303’s primary function was for non-bass playing band members to program in their own bass lines in a conventional style; however, very few artists had time to learn its complex programming. In the following links, you can hear the 303 in some semi-popular songs of the 80s being used this conventional way…
“Justice”- Paul Haig released in 1983
“Heat of the night”- Imagination (1982)
Heat of the Night by Imagination is a great example, the track almost exclusively consists of the 303, percussion, and vocals. This track is fantastically uplifting – I had no idea the 303 could sound so smooth! It’s funny how shocked I am when listening to the 303 doing what it was originally built to do.
However, some tracks started break the rules in the 303 handbook, such as Orange Juice’s “Rip it Up”, which was released in 1983.
Orange Juice - “Rip it Up” (1983)
In this track, we can decipher the signature 303 resonance squelch, albeit sequenced in a relatively conventional bass pattern.
Another track that is even closer to the signature acid sound is “Raga Malkauns” by Charanjit Singh – “Synthesising: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat” – released in 1982. This track predates all of the others and is the elusive proto-acid track.
The 303 transcends musical boundaries, as demonstrated in Sakata Sextet’s “Uma” – wacky electro-jazz from 1982. Please understand that when I say wacky, I mean it in the most literal sense.
Sakata Sextet - “Uma” (1982)
Despite some impressive programming from many musicians around the world, for most, the conventional, natural bass sound that the 303 was designed to facilitate was out of their technological grasp. News spread of its complexity and it lost what little appeal it had to its intended audience; as a result, the price of the bass machine went way down. The value of the 303 dropped so much it ended up in pawn shops and discount stores. This meant artists were left with what was essentially an affordable, but unpopular synth that could be found in most second hand music shops. This was perfect for poorer house producers from Chicago.
DJ Spank-Spank and Pierre’s masterpiece "Acid Tracks" (1987).
In 1987, the techno collective Phuture, comprising the late DJ Spank and DJ Pierre, produced what is arguably the first ever acid track using the 303. When DJ Spank first started to the use the 303, he was trying to make a bassline without the instruction manual – something that didn’t often come with a second-hand 303. The tricky and somewhat cryptic nature of pattern programming meant that there was no preconception of melodic content, which led to the erratic and dissonant note sequences that is heard in acid house tunes. DJ Spank invited DJ Pierre over to see what he could do with the machine. Pierre started tweaking knobs, messing around with the famous resonance and cut off filter at complete random. The result are the filter sweeping squelchy baselines of acid house. DJ Pierre is considered the founder of acid house as we know it today.
Phuture playing live with the Roland TB-3
The tasty squelchy sound produced by the 303 could be put down to chance, although I would say that it was a cocktail of innovative thinking and resourcefulness infused with a lack of options. DJ Spank-Spank and DJ Pierre had to make the 303 work for them. They had to make the most of what they had – this defunct, impossible to program, silver box – and in 1986, that’s exactly what Spank-Spank and Pierre did.
DJ Spank-Spank (1965-2016)
What is lacking in current electronic music production is that same innovation – the will to push the machines we already own to their limit. This is partly due to the rise in popularity of the culture. As it grows, it gradually becomes commodified and pushed into mainstream consumerist culture, which focuses more on getting people to buy their products than explore other creative ways to use their resources.