The Silver Dream Machine: The synthesizer that accidentally changed the world.

Tb303_closeup The Silver Dream Machine: The synthesizer that accidentally changed the world. - No Dough Music - House Music Blog

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. By that reckoning, you certainly shouldn’t judge a synth by it’s cheap plastic casing. On first impressions you would probably not take much notice of this little silver box with it’s array of silver knobs and switches scattered over its clumsy exterior. The red LED lights are hardly anything to improve it’s looks either. This ain’t no Roland Jupiter 8 or Clavia Nord Lead to look at (just in case you’re not familiar with aforementioned synths, they’re virtually supermodels in the world of synths, with looks so good they’re enough to make just about anyone blush just by the perfection of their aesthetics alone).

The 303 is an monophonic analogue bass emulating synthesizer with a simple pattern-based step sequencer. It’s sound is generated by a single oscillator which offers the user a choice of two waveforms, saw or square wave. It contains a simple but extremely effective voltage controlled filter section with resonance, cut-off, and envelope controls to shape the sound. There are also knobs to adjust tuning, envelope decay, tempo and accent. It is a very light and flimsy piece of kit that on initial inspection feels like no more than a cheap child’s toy. But we all know how deceptive looks can be. Even by turning the box on and experimenting with it for a period of time isn’t always going to guarantee you anything to make much noise about.

 

So why is this arguably one of the most important musical instruments of the last 30 years? Along with a group of Chicago based dance music producers in the 80’s, an emerging music scene in the UK and a lot of sensational tabloid headlines, this little box of tricks unintentionally permanently changed things in the musical spectrum. When abused correctly, it was the characteristic sound which made this synth the must-have item in every dance producers arsenal but it was the after-effects of the parties based around this synthesizer that caused tabloids to react with such extreme knee-jerk spasms of completely irrational behaviour. Even the Government and the British police got involved as the scene grew into a movement that would become bigger than anybody had anticipated. Now lets go back to the very beginning and see how this all started and exactly what happened along the way to warrant the synth having such a legendary status.
 

 

At the time of it’s release in 1982 the 303 barely caused a ripple in the music world. It’s full name is Roland TB-303 Bassline. The TB part stands for “Transistor Bass” (whereas the TR used in the name of many of Roland’s drum machines stood for “Transistor Rhythm”). 1982 was a time before MIDI – the computer sequencing standard which allows synths, drum machines and computers to “talk to one another”. It was a time before home computers and sequencers were common place. Music around this time was very much performed as opposed to programmed. Drums machine and synthesizer arpeggiators were the first signs of computer controlled timing and even these were considered a novelty by some, with many “real musicians” dismissing the newly popular synth sounds as soul-less and nothing more than a fad.

The TB-303 Bassline was released to Western markets for around $400. Aimed squarely at guitarists, Roland cleverly identified the need for them to have a portable bass accompaniment to play along with. Much like the drum machine, this was designed to be a virtual musician. Roland chose to colour the plastic casing in a matt silver finish, incorporated the futuristic words “computer controlled” into the design of the TB’s casing understanding the worlds interest in all things future at the time. After all this was the ’80s and everything that could shine, did shine. This was meant to be the cutting edge of future music technology. The Bassline was ready to go and guitarists would never need to play alone again.

 

 

 

In their hurry to get the unit shipped to the Western markets, Roland made a huge error: The manual was initially only printed in Japanese. Many of the Western musicians who bought the machine and attempted to program the unit, assumed that this would be a minor problem easily rectified by a manual with the correct language translation. If only it would be that simple. Roland did eventually release a translated version the TB’s manual in English but this is where the real problems began. It was still next to impossible to program even with a PhD in computer sciences. Few people found much success with the unit, many discarding it as a total waste of time and energy but the lucky few who managed to work out how to program the notoriously difficult to program bass emulator, found the sound it gave wasn’t that of a realistic bass at all but often a buzzing lifeless drone, sometimes sounding quite random and not musical at all. The accents were often jarring, the slides between notes were nothing like a real bass guitar and the repetition often looped in unmusical loops of 13 or 15 semiquavers per bar. The filter section took it even further away from anything usable, giving an even more synthetic sound which meant the results were often so far from anything that a human would produce that it simply didn’t gel with the sound of a guitar at all making it almost useless to most of the people who’d just invested a fair sum into the machine.

The 303 would ultimately be rejected by the musical community and to further distance itself from the musicians it was aimed at, the 303 had a bizarre ability to write it’s own sequence into it’s basic built in note-sequencer. Unlike most computer memory banks, it contained random information if nothing was inputted into the machine and because it had the choice of picking any of the 12 notes in the chromatic musical scale, very often it would select a collection of notes that formed a melody that was fairly usable but very often – not being confined to any musical laws – the sequencer would shun the familiarity of all previously known forms of music. After all this was completely random and sometimes this randomness would give us a dark twisted intimidating rhythm that defied musical description. As yet noone had noticed any uses, let alone beauty in this aspect of the machine and it would still be sometime before anyone would consider adding a drum section to the abstract tones completing its intention to force clubbers the world over to surrender any possibility of holding onto their marbles. There is much scepticism surrounding the recording studio folklore that many acid tracks were created without writing anything at all. If anyone was to turn on a 303 now without any prior programming and turn the filter knobs you can appreciate just how easily this box could give some very interesting and extremely psychedelic results. For the record, many acid tracks were created using the random notes already residing in it’s memory including Phuture’s Acid Tracks, which will be discussed in greater detail later.
Despite a huge backlash, there were some pop and New Wave artists using it as it was intended, as a bass emulator and to reasonable effect too but due to the, almost impossible to use, manual (even in English!) the machine’s appeal was extremely limited so in 1984 Roland ultimately decided to call it a day with the failing 303.

It’s commercial failure did not cause many tears to be shed at the time and there was very little hysteria following Roland’s decision to discontinue the unit as then it was not exactly a must-have item of that time. And so the remaining TB-303’s would be confined to the reject bins of music stores around the world and so it seemed the story of the 303 was about to end. Curtains fall. Music fades. Audience applause. Thank you and good night… Let the credits roll. Or so you’d think…

 

 

For all of its failing and idiosyncrasies there would still be some people showing an interest in the machine. As the musicians who bought it as a bass emulator had no use for it, many of the unwanted unit’s were being sold second hand for as little as $50. One of the people who would pick up one of these bargain boxes was a young Chicago based musician, DJ Pierre. In 1985 he took a 303 to over friend and collaborator Earle Smith aka Spanky. Along with another member of their band Nathaniel Jones, the three guys decided to take a closer look at the TB-303. Using the apt artist name Phuture (later to be called Phuture 303), they attempted to incorporate the Bassline into their compositions.

The 2 beat acid bass line which dominated their debut release was about to take on a life of it’s own, as DJ Pierre dared to turn the knobs on the unit while it regurgitated abstract notes forming an unfamiliar melody. DJ  Pierre claims “I tried to turning the knobs and the sound started changing to this sound and the other guys were like “keep doing what you’re doing” and we just hit record and jammed for hours. Marshall Jefferson, who had already made quite a name for himself in the Chicago House music scene heard the record and was suitably impressed to take the track further with his connections with the local record label Trax. Jefferson urged them to slow the track down from 125 to 120 beats per minute claiming the track was simply too fast at 125 bpm. They took his advice and took the tape-only recording to DJ Ron Hardy who loved the record so much that he immediately played it at his own club night but it’s strangeness didn’t initially strike a chord with the Music Box crowd where Ron Hardy was resident. Instead it left the dance floor empty.

A stubborn Ron Hardy did not take to this well and forced the clubbers to listen to the record again. This time some people made their way to the dance floor beginning to understand the bizarre melody pumping out of the speakers. Convinced this was the beginning of something new, Ron Hardy chose to play it a third time. This time the club embraced the record as they finally seemed to understand the point of this strange music and the track went down a storm, so Ron Hardy being Ron Hardy, decided before the night was over to give the record one final spin. It was on the fourth play of playing this record that the place truly erupted. Legend says, people were screaming hysterically whilst other were caught in a hypnotic track locked to the monotonous groove punctuated by it’s cowbell percussion. It was at this moment Acid House music was born. Many people believed the record was Hardy’s own creation, nicknaming the as-yet untitled record “Ron Hardy’s Acid Trax” elevating the already huge buzz surrounding the track to the legendary status it ultimately saw. Trax records would release the 12 minute epic in 1987 which would spawn a million copy cat records many of which became Acid House classics in their own right.

 

While this music was being produced in Chicago many people in the United Kingdom would be taking to this new sound very positively and many began to run nights, some of which were consisted of only Acid House music. The first of these was Shoom, run by Danny Rampling in 1987.

The Hacienda in Manchester would also be one of the first in the UK to hold Acid House nights with their “Hot” nights attracting more than a casual following. By 1988 illegal Acid House parties were being held in warehouses and railway arches as ordinary clubs did not meet the capacity demands the popularity of this new music required. It was common place to meet outside pubs and clubs waiting for a car to guide you to the nearest party. Although there were very few regulations, the majority of the party’s were trouble free events. Many of the people attending wore smiley t-shirts with baggy psychedelic clothing.

Beads and flowery images inspired by the loved up ’60’s were commonplace and as the music continued to attract a record numbers of revelers the media dubbed the period the Second Summer Of Love. With the interest in Acid House growing at a very fast pace the media were quick to spot something big was happening and so they jumped on the bandwagon with newspapers such as The Sun even selling Acid House t-shirts celebrating the new youth movement. Ironically, it was the same hypocritical newspaper that would kick start the Acid House backlash that would result in the Police and government attempting to ban the parties claiming they were sordid drug fueled, gang organised events which were a danger to the kids of the nation. This style of exaggerated, largely fictional, melodramatic reporting would only serve as an advertisement for the events and glamorised the image of them making them more appealing to young people.

They would in turn become more popular than they ever were before with The Government and Police now rushing new laws and bills through parliament in a desperate bid to cure the country of this evil terror that was gripping the nation’s youths. TB-303 Acid House records were now even starting to enter the UK top 40 with records such as Jolly Rogers “Acid Man” and D-Mob’s “We Call It Aciiied” finding considerable success. The latter despite it’s title did not have any 303 acid sounds at all. Instead it had a warbling mid range synth sound which missed the point really but it’s use of the popular London chant “Aciiied” ensured it’s popularity in clubland. London keyboard wiz Adamski also entered the charts with his acid classic NRG – using the imagery of Lucazade bottle designs, he perfectly summed up the mood at the time. Lucazade, which was becoming a popular thirst quencher at the parties, understanding this was a new market chose not to sue Adamski for copyright infringement but instead embarked on a huge billboard advertising campaign with simply the letters NRG and an upside down bottle after the letters, forming a giant exclamation mark. Sales of the drink rocketed as a result.  By 1989 party organisers looked for increasingly bigger venues and as the music turned less acidic and more energetic and positive, Rave culture was being conceived which was simply an extension of the Acid Parties. The 303 had started something that was never quite going to go away.

 

The Police now admit that despite hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers money and countless wasted Police man hours, they failed to control the scene and only drove it further underground in their attempt to erase it. The scene grew throughout the 90’s with the parties maintaining the same positive outlook the original Acid House parties began with. By this time, the Acid tag was largely lost and the 303 was hardly heard in clubland but occasionally an artist would produce a record on the machine that would capture that spirit Phuture and Marshall Jefferson invented and put the 303 back on the dance floor. Here are some of the more notable moments post ’88: in 1992 German techno artists Hardfloor took Acid House music to another level when they put the synth through a guitar distortion pedal on their record “Acperience”, doing for Acid House what Rock and Roll did for guitars in the 50’s giving it an edge that was very fresh sounding. Richie Hawtins Plastikman moniker also ensured Acid House returned to the dance floor in 1993 with his album Sheet One and another important artist to bring Acid House and the 303 back to the dance floor was Josh Wink. An American producer who found new ways of producing acid lines from the 303. The story goes, he used a modification by the company Devilfish which gave the 303 a much wider frequency range and helped create the screaming acid lines heard at the end of his Acid breakbeat hit single “Higher States Of Consciousness” which reached a very respectable number 8 in the UK singles charts.

 

 

Who invented Acid?

Although Phuture’s Acid Tracks is widely accepted as the first acid house record, there is some debate as to who invented the feel of acid house with some claiming there is more to it than just the sound of the TB-303. DJ Pierre is probably the man who is most commonly awarded the title, as he was the person to turn the knobs that caused the actual moving squelchy sound on the record that became “Acid Tracks”. Contrary to popular belief, Marshall Jefferson did not have the idea to call the record “Acid Trax” – it was Ron Hardy’s regular Music Box crowd that came up with this idea. Few could have predicted just how influential this name would become. Larry Heard is another contender for the title as his record Washing Machine had extremely acidic overtones. It came out well before the release of Acid Trax but many say this track does not get a look in as it did not use a 303 for it’s squelchy synth sections. And lastly, Adonis. A man who produced many of the finest early hypnotic house tracks before the word acid had even been conceived. His seminal tracks “We’re rocking down the House” and “No Way back” – despite not having a smidgen of the acid sound anywhere – it lay down the foundations for head nodding, trance inducing, four on the floor dance music that was soon to dominate dance floors everywhere.

 

The 303 has seen many clones since it’s popularity peaked in the mid 1990’s. Electronic musical instrument manufacturer, Novation attempted to cater for the demand for the almost impossible to get hold of 303 with their Bass Station synth, which became a very popular machine itself gaining a respectable following of it’s own while it did so. There have since been many other hardware copies of the 303. None of them have quite captured the 303’s personality which stems largely from it’s filter section andit’s very unique take on bending notes.

As most electronic music today is made with software, there was inevitably going to be soft versions of the 303. Swedish software company Propellerheads were the first to create a usable soft synth version of the TB-303. Their version incorporated 2 other classic Roland machines, the 808 and 909 drum machine all of which now have extremely high price tags due to their rarity, demand and legendary status’ but by far the best software version of the 303 is Audiorealism’s Bassline. A soft synth so close to the real thing you’d be forgiven for thinking it is one. More recently electronic schematics and DIY kits have appeared on the Internet encouraging people to create their own 303’s. The “x0xb0x” is one of the more popular attempts encouraging users to build the synth from scratch.

 

 

Whilst much is documented about the Phuture story and the Acid House scene in the UK, very rarely do we hear even a mention of the designer of this revolutionary piece of kit. Considering what Tadao Kikumoto has done for the world of electronic music, there really should be a shrine somewhere dedicated to this man. A  place where people can go to worship the great one responsible for so much in cutting edge music over the last 20 years. Not only did he design the world changing 303 synthesizer, he was also the designer of the TR-909 drum machine. Take those two machines away from the electronic musical equation and the world would be a different place. Obviously electronic music would have existed but without the 909, House music would have have had a different anchor resulting in a slightly different story – no other drum machine at the time came close to it’s solid pounding kick – and without the 303, it is fair to say that Acid House may never have happened at all.

Now let’s be clear about what Acid House is. Acid House was originally a style of music that came from Chicago that was an off-shoot of the already popular post-disco genre, House Music. When Britain chose to embraced it, it turned into a scene that grew faster and deeper than anyone could have possibly predicted. Over time, it took over lives and spawned a generation of post-Thatcher entrepreneurs who took her advice to go out and do it yourself, possibly a little too literally. Acid House was now much more than just a scene. It was much more than a trend. It sounds cliched today to use the expression “state of mind” but this was exactly what it was for many of the people who lived their lives surrounded by the music coming from Chicago and New York. There are far too many influential records and artists to list but without the seminal productions of people such as Mr. Lee, Lidell Townsend, Maurice Joshua, Mr. Fingers, Fast Eddie Smith, Charles B, Ralphi Rossario, and Sleazy D the scene may never have grown into what it became and we may never have had the life changing moments in club land that we can look back to today.

These producers made records that inspired and motivated people at a time in the UK when many people had very little to turn or aspire to. The timing of House music’s emergence was extremely convenient. The timing of Acid House felt almost fateful. It’s legacy lives on today as the TB-303 continues to enjoy a legendary status with units changing hands nowadays for up to £2000. Today, there are many 303 powered Acid House records still being released. Its is almost 30 years since the release of the 303 and over 2 decades since the first Acid House records came out but it’s influence can still be felt today. To steal the tagline used by of Jockeyslut magazine, “Viva Acid House” indeed.