Good life, good life
September 11, 2016 3:07 PM   Subscribe

Roland, the Japanese manufacturer of electronic musical instruments, has announced faithful remakes of the iconic TB-303 bassline synthesizer, TR-909 drum machine, and VP-330 vocoder. The 303 and 909 in particular are revered in the worlds of house, acid, and techno, and are used on hundreds of records you know and love. Each have a distinct sound you can identify in a mix immediately. They're priced at $350-400, comparable to the low prices back when the gear was first released that made them attractive to unknown bedroom producers - while the originals go for thousands on the second-hand market today, affordable only for wealthy collectors and professionals. Peter Kirn dives in with impressions and offers a roundup of early comparisons and reviews.

A brief documentary on the 303 goes into its history and contribution to acid house and dance music. A section of The Shape of Things That Hum discusses how the instrument has a mind of its own. Pitchfork touches on the original 303 innovators, and highlights the current people pushing it forward. A two-part documentary on the history of house music and the TR-909 is also available. Mumdance demonstrating his 909.

A few examples I find noteworthy:

Inner City - "Good Life" (1988, 303 and 909 on a timeless jam)
Charanjit Singh - "Raga Bhairav" (1982, wild 303 sequencing from an Indian classical musician, prefiguring acid house)
Aphex Twin - "Acrid Avid Jam Shred" (1995, listen for the solo 909 breakdown at 4:30)
Bjork - "Hunter" (1997, innovative use of the 909 snare by Mark Bell, tweaking its decay knob in real time)
Plus Two - "Stop Fantasy" (1983, early use of the 303 in italo-disco)
Underworld - "Juanita" (1996. Underworld used their 909 and VP-330 vocoder on many songs)
posted by naju (117 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
Feel free to share your own favorite tracks. There are countless great songs made with these fairly humble machines.
posted by naju at 3:18 PM on September 11, 2016


They're priced at $350-400, comparable to the low prices back when the gear was first released that made them attractive to unknown bedroom producers

I wonder what the difference in price was between the Roland stuff and the high end of drum machines (which would be what, LinnDrum?)
posted by thelonius at 3:25 PM on September 11, 2016


According to Wikipedia, the LinnDrum was introduced in 1982 at a list price of $2,995. The 303 was $400, and the 909 was $1,195.
posted by naju at 3:27 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


faithful remakes

That's a good way to start a vigorous and nerdy debate in synth circles :)

The original TB-303 uses analog circuitry. The new TB-03 (like most of Roland's recent instruments, including their other recent TB-303 remake, the TB-3) is virtual analog – a digital simulation of analog sounds. Specifically, it uses Roland's proprietary "ACB" technology, which emulates the physics of an analog circuit on a component-by-component level.

Analog vs. virtual analog (VA) is a perennial holy war in the synth world – with some folks insisting that analog is (often) superior, and others insisting that those people are pretentious twits, and that there is no audible difference between the two.

Roland's TB-03 and TB-3 aren't even the only 303 clones on the market – far from it. There's the Bassbot TT-303 from a French company called Cyclone Analogic – it's true analog, and I love mine. Another big player is the x0xb0x (also analog), an open-source design (patterned after the original TB-303's schematics) that you can build yourself (or purchase pre-made from a variety of sellers, in a variety of different styles and enclosures).

But there have actually been scores of clones of the TB-303 – both hardware and software. As you'd expect, they vary widely in faithfulness to the original. Some of the earliest offerings, in particular, are particularly lazy cash-ins – bearing little more than passing resemblance to the 303.

And this thread wouldn't be complete without Phuture's "Acid Trax" (1987), one of the records that invented acid house.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:32 PM on September 11, 2016 [24 favorites]


The addition of MIDI is nice. Makes it easier and cheaper for younger hobbyists to explore without the workarounds.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 3:35 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


Wikipedia also says the 909's price was $1,195, to give an idea of what was "inexpensive" in electonic music at the time (as opposed to, say, a $60 PO-12 or $150 Volca Beats today).


Native Instruments also announced/released the Maschine Jam on "909 Day" and I have to wonder if the date was intentionally chosen.
posted by Foosnark at 3:35 PM on September 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oh, and you can't have a thread about acid house without some Luke Vibert.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 3:36 PM on September 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


Were the originals this small? I think my fat fingers would fumble all over this, but I would love a 909. The Boutique series Juno devices turn me off for the same reason.
posted by Evstar at 3:36 PM on September 11, 2016


I used "faithful" because the sound is pretty close and the layout, look, and functionality are all near-identical. Sound-wise, I'm pretty favorable to analog but I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference in a track. Worth debating though, sure.
posted by naju at 3:38 PM on September 11, 2016




One of my favorite TB-303 tracks is Alexander Robotnick's "Problèmes D'Amour" from 1983 – one of the first dance tracks (if not the first) to feature the 303 (although it doesn't make use of the extreme resonance settings and realtime knob-twiddling that later came to define acid house).

It shows that the 303's sequencer, with its rubbery yet stiff robo-funk feel, was a crucial to its success as its much-celebrated filter. It's a cheesy and highly dated disco trifle, but it's hard to argue with that groove.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:40 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


(In comparison, their TR-8 take on the 808 from a few years back didn't feel particularly like a faithful remake in look and functionality)
posted by naju at 3:41 PM on September 11, 2016


Yeah, you can't talk about the 303 without mentioning Hawtin. All of his stuff is worthwhile, but I've always preferred his later, less banging / more experimental stuff as Plastikman. He's the master of a certain strain of minimalism – subtle drama via gradual change within a relentlessly repetitive framework.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:46 PM on September 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


Were the originals this small? I think my fat fingers would fumble all over this, but I would love a 909. The Boutique series Juno devices turn me off for the same reason.

No, they're all mini-y. A real 909 is large, see for example, this video. It's a big chunky thing basically the size of old pizza-box style desktop computers.

That completely turned me off the boutique series as well. That and the limited voices. I expect that they're waiting to cash in, at least with the synths, on a big "pro" model that has 49-61 full sized keys and all the sounds.

Ditto for the weird mini yamahas.
posted by emptythought at 3:47 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


There are also at least two open-source clones of the TR-909: Project 9090, and E-Liktronic's Nava.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:55 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Woah, great link there potato planet! Project 9090 looks right up my alley.
posted by Evstar at 3:57 PM on September 11, 2016


when is roland going to do something new and innovative in the synth realm? all i'm seeing is passable recreations of past glories while yamaha at least comes up with some new tricks, if expensive ones and korg is coming up with lots of neat and cheap genuine analog ideas, some of which i have and use, along with their cool digital stuff

been reading through the gearslutz discussion on this - they're not impressed at all
posted by pyramid termite at 4:00 PM on September 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


The cool thing about the TB-03 is that it has on-board overdrive, delay and reverb, which were all used alongside an original TB-303 in this track that was probably the best thing about Blade.

The recent trend of reissuing/remaking old instruments excites me. I feel like EDM songwriters and producers for the last twenty years (including me) have relied completely on truly excellent multitrack, non-destructive audio production software to the detriment of live playing and experimentation. There are plenty of softsynth/drums out there, but there is something really cool about live manipulation of control voltages and beats, especially if you're into an experiential scene rather than a recording scene.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:05 PM on September 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


pyramid termite, I couldn't agree more. Almost every instrument that Roland released in the early-mid 80s is now a sought-after classic – shit, the x0x gear became the foundation for multiple genres of music, and you don't get more influential than that. But they haven't done anything interesting since then. They made all of those corny grooveboxes in the 90s (which now litter the back rooms of secondhand shops by the dozen), and now they just churn out these cheap plastic "Boutique" clones, like a classic rock band issuing special-edition remasters of their old albums.

Meanwhile, the Korg Minilogue (I have one) is an entirely new design, with a new sound and new ideas – not just a reheated cash-in on Korg's glory days. The upcoming Volca Kick looks interesting too. And with Behringer entering the synth market with the astoundingly affordable (≈US$1,000), 12-voice polyphonic, true-analog Deepmind 12 (with built-in effects), it's clear that Roland is no longer the innovator – and hasn't been for quite some time.

The recent trend of reissuing/remaking old instruments excites me.

Really? It bores the heck out of me. As much as I love the TR-808 and TR-909, we've heard those sounds on literally thousands of records. I'd much rather have some new instrument designs. (I can't deny my love for the 303. Still, the market for 303 clones is already saturated – there really wasn't a need for yet another.)

The cool thing about the TB-03 is that it has on-board overdrive, delay and reverb

That would be cool, except that the overdrive sounds godawful to my ears. YMMV, of course.

This YouTube channel demonstrates the TT-303 and x0xb0x played through a bunch of different distortion pedals (and other effects), in case you're wondering which one to buy to go with your silver box :)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:16 PM on September 11, 2016 [5 favorites]




The exciting reissue is the vocoder.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:24 PM on September 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


The x0Xb0x is the clone I've heard the most about, and it is analog and I think it's really cool. I've heard it doesn't perfectly capture the resonance of the 303, though - best thought of as it's own take on the 303 rather than a perfect recreation. I'd be interested in a head-to-head comparison between the x0xb0x and this remake, which on initial listen seems to get the details down pretty well.

I'm all about this small form factor. I have limited desk space and I especially need smaller gear that can sit in front of my modular case and other stuff. I'm similarly looking at the newly released ARP Odyssey desktop module, which looks like a perfect size and without the keys I have no need for.
posted by naju at 4:25 PM on September 11, 2016


I'm not much liking the overdrive either. The gearslutz crowd has a bit of a tendency toward snobbishness, but I'm not really hearing anything here that the various and sundry clones don't already do just as well and cheaper.
posted by tclark at 4:27 PM on September 11, 2016


And while I'm 100% about innovation (I've got everything from crazy innovative new eurorack stuff, to Reaktor weirdness, and everything in between), there is definitely a place for these sounds, and some instruments are timeless, iconic, and proven. I don't believe the sound of a 909 will ever be stale for me. It hits you in all the right places.
posted by naju at 4:29 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


the drums were ok on that but that 303 was getting awfully shrill and thin - rebirth sounds better than that - so does my electribe ea and my volca keys and bass - not quite the same, but different - but then different is good
posted by pyramid termite at 4:38 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


I was SO hoping these wouldn't be digital remakes, but I knew in my heart of hearts they would be. Totally agree about Korg actually coming out with useful, inspired new stuff. It's a huge shame that Roland won't.
posted by destructive cactus at 4:43 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


There are plenty of softsynth/drums out there, but there is something really cool about live manipulation of control voltages and beats, especially if you're into an experiential scene rather than a recording scene.

I absolutely agree with this but I would rather see new devices with new limitations to work against. Korg does a fantastic job of this. Can you imagine if Roland found their own Tatsuya Takahashi and said to him/her "You have the entire resources of Roland at your disposal. Invent a $400 drum machine. Only limitations are it sounds nothing like an 808 and does not use the row-of-buttons interface"?
posted by No-sword at 4:51 PM on September 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


As much as I love the TR-808 and TR-909, we've heard those sounds on literally thousands of records. I'd much rather have some new instrument designs.

I completely understand. My first hardware synth was a Minibrute, for which the two big selling points were #1 price and #2 doesn't sound like anything else out there. My next one (wallet willing) will be something with a shit-ton of patch points and weird waveforms (wtf is a "blade" anyway?).

Can you imagine if Roland found their own Tatsuya Takahashi and said...

I can't, that's the problem! :) But I'm unsure if any of the big guys with their own factories can match the necessary invention that's happening at the small instrument shops, even with the weirdness of Takahashi-san. A proper look at the East Coast/West Coast divide in synthesis and where it fits into the world of music should be its own FPP.

Even in East Coast-land, there are plenty of people out there doing weird things with CV generators and weird trigger interfaces, and not just in Eurorack modular. The things I see being done with Ableton as a sound engine in terms of UI/UX are kinda nuts, like in here (at about a minute in).
posted by infinitewindow at 5:19 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Neglected wallflower at the party, 303's old buddy the TR-606 sits in the corner and mopes.
posted by ovvl at 5:21 PM on September 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


Roland has at least started putting knobs on stuff again. But I agree about the VA and I'm not at all a hardware guy. In fact it's because I'm a software guy that I'm not very interested in purely VA hardware - if I'm gonna shell out for a box I want it to have big capacitors and shit inside, not more software.
posted by atoxyl at 5:28 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


ovvl, the Aira TR-8—a prior digital remake of the 808 and 909 that naju mentioned above—has an option to model the 606 Drumatix sounds and replay the 707 samples.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:34 PM on September 11, 2016


Thank you for introducing me to a line of music that I had no idea I dug until this post and found myself turning up the music to scare my cats out of the room and unconsciously moving my body to the beats
posted by Karaage at 5:41 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


I guess the counterargument would be that we've actually reached a point in time where people are starting to express their appreciation of the particular sonic character of stuff like the Nord Lead/MS-2000/AN1X/JP-8000 - that big wave of VA hardware synths. In other words "aliasy slightly-weird early fake digital" is now its own retro aesthetic, just like everything else. And meanwhile VA keeps getting closer anyway - filter emulations in particular have made some major advances - so maybe people should be concerned less with what's inside the synth and more with just interface and sound. (I would not rate these interesting for sound but there's a reason that style of interface is in demand).
posted by atoxyl at 5:53 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


This looks like a cool project - RE-303: billed as "a replica, not a clone", to the point where an original 303 board can apparently be replaced with it.
Q: Hasn’t this been done already?
A: Actually no, not in the purest form. We’ve had the x0xb0x which sounded very close but didn’t look the part. We’ve had the TT-303 which looks that part but is not a genuine replica of the original hardware. The RE-303 circuit boards have been made by dissecting a mint condition pristine TB-303 and manually recreating the board in CAD from the hardware rather than the service schematics. Every nuance and mistake in the hardware not in the service notes is recreated in the RE-303. It really is for all intents and purposes a TB-303.
A friend tells me that the original 303 uses a fair number of parts that are long obsolete. Roland would have to pull a Moog, sourcing the original parts at prohibitive expense, and they'd probably be unable to mass produce. If they used substitutes, it's unknown whether that would affect the sound. So I don't think it's as simple as "this should've been analog" necessarily. I'm curious how exactly the discussion went down internally.
posted by naju at 6:41 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Unless you are a dog, and probably not even then, there is no reason to think a digital emulation of any of these synthesizers would sound any different from the original with big capacitors and transistors.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:43 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


A friend tells me that the original 303 uses a fair number of parts that are long obsolete.

Yes, because better parts have been available for decades cheaper because of manufacturing economies. Same reason you can't buy new vacuum tubes any more. If you are trying to copy *any* design from the 1970's you will run into this, but only in audio will you run into purists who don't believe the better parts deliver the same performance. It really isn't magic. It's sine waves stacked on top of one another, and that actually works better with components that have better frequency response.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:48 PM on September 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


While the difference between a software plugin and analog hardware is often noticeable to me, I think Roland's ACB modeling in particular is pretty convincing. Resident Advisor also points to a Muffwiggler discussion where a blind test of Roland's SH-101 recreation was done, and most people thought the digital version was the real thing. And those guys are analog purists to the core.
posted by naju at 6:49 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you don't think there's anything fresh, beautiful, and innovative out there, I'm not going to let you play my Minilogue.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:23 PM on September 11, 2016 [7 favorites]


Unless you are a dog, and probably not even then, there is no reason to think a digital emulation of any of these synthesizers would sound any different from the original with big capacitors and transistors.

Of course there is.

Digital emulation is only as good as the model. And modeling analog parts has come a long way, but modeling at the part level and modeling the interaction at the fundamental, harmonics and all of the various types of interference that comes in is not as simple as running a fourier transform on more and more complicated audio waveforms.

Voltage response of capacitors, resistors, diodes, and all sorts of other things vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, from lot to lot (within design tolerances). And these responses are not perfect. Voltage in a real world circuit is not, to many decimal places, exactly equal to the product of the Current and the Resistance.

This is not analogous (pun sort of intended) to capturing an audio waveform on tape or as a digital waveform. In that case, I agree with you.

In the world of dozens to hundreds of electrical parts all interacting in complex - even chaotic - ways, digital emulation may be getting better all the time, but it has not yet achieved true fidelity.
posted by tclark at 7:30 PM on September 11, 2016 [8 favorites]


Bringer Tom, what kind of "better" do you have in mind when you talk about "better parts"?

Sure, you can remake an old circuit design using modern parts which are "better" in the sense that they have an objectively superior noise floor, frequency response, etc. – but those differences affect the color of the sound, and the sound is the entire point of a musical instrument. The argument for using old, "inferior" components is that they aren't, in fact, inferior for the purpose at hand – their quirks and imperfections are part of what gave the instrument its character.

Early VAs sounded flat and lifeless because they were too perfect. Manufacturers had to learn to program in the "imperfections" of analog circuits, such as subtle tuning drift in the oscillators, and waveforms that are weird approximations of squares and sawtooths instead of being mathematically perfect, and so on.

Have you ever heard a completely naïve software synthesizer, with zero attempt made to imitate the "inferior" performance of analog components? Like, a perfect square wave, run through a low-pass filter which has a perfectly even response curve, and so on? I have – I've written the code myself. It sounds like absolute shit. It's boring and unmusical. Two decades of R&D have gone into figuring out where and how to inject slop and noise and feedback and nonlinear weirdness into VA models in order to make them sound like the real thing.

there is no reason to think a digital emulation of any of these synthesizers would sound any different from the original

This depends entirely on the quality of the digital emulation. Again, many early VAs were absolutely audibly different from real analog. The original Access Virus just sounds like software to me (I don't know about later versions). Some people like that. I don't.

I'll concede that some VA has gotten pretty good – I don't like the TB-03's built-in effects, but I doubt I could tell the clean sound apart from the real thing in a blind test.

But for me, it's roughly analogous (heh) to practical effects vs. CGI in film. Can most people tell the difference between high-quality CGI and the real thing? Probably not. Does knowing what's "under the hood" (so to speak) still affect your experience of the film? If you're a certain kind of film buff, then sure.

An audience might not know the difference between analog and VA, but I do – and I just like playing an instrument and knowing that the sound is coming from a complex interplay of control voltages sputtering through analog components, more than I like playing an instrument and knowing that it's just a CPU running a mathematical model of that process. Is that purely rational? Nope, but spending thousands of dollars to make repetitive bleepity bloopity noises isn't especially rational to begin with. For me, the process and experience of making music is as much the point of it as the end result.

I mean, my Microbrute has to warm up when I turn it on, until the tuning stabilizes. I like that.

If you don't think there's anything fresh, beautiful, and innovative out there

Oh, there definitely is – we are blessed to be living through a golden age of synthesis. But the fresh and innovative stuff isn't coming from Roland :)

On preview: multiple jinx, tclark
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:40 PM on September 11, 2016 [7 favorites]


Love the drums on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 by Aphex Twin.

Ageispolis for example.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:41 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


I was watching this release with interest, and I do want them (I never liked my Volca Beats and the reverse keyboard color scheme of the Volca Bass makes it almost impossible for me to spend more than a few minutes on), but I think the TR-09 and TB-03 are just a touch overpriced when compared to their more feature-rich brethren in the Boutique line: the JP-08, the JX-03, and the JU-06.
posted by sourwookie at 7:55 PM on September 11, 2016


An audience might not know the difference between analog and VA, but I do – and I just like playing an instrument and knowing that the sound is coming from a complex interplay of control voltages sputtering through analog components, more than I like playing an instrument and knowing that it's just a CPU running a mathematical model of that process.

I agree with the rest of your comment, but this is what I have trouble wrapping my head around. You seem to be saying that even if there was a perfect one-to-one recreation, flaws and all captured, zero sonic difference, you would still not use the digital model because you know it's not analog circuitry, and that spoils all the fun. That's fine, I guess, and it's probably not uncommon. But this is why some people accuse analog purists of pretension :)
posted by naju at 7:56 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


Nah, not saying I wouldn't use it – just that it's one of the things I like about my analog instruments.

If I were claiming that I have golden ears which allow me to hear sonic differences that the plebs can't, or that my preference is anything other than a personal quirk which is admittedly indefensible on purely rational grounds – then yeah, that'd be pretentious.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:02 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


yah its the crumminess of some of the parts that give the tb-303 its 'sound'. its been a while but i remember the square wave for example, isn't symmetric or even very...square. the power supply is ripply/droopy which feeds back into the audio. the components would get non-linear when resonance gets turned up high. etc. the original design was made very cheaply - perhaps that was part of its charm? :)
posted by ladyada at 8:16 PM on September 11, 2016 [19 favorites]


Oh hey, it's the designer of the x0xb0x! Hi! :)

I love MetaFilter.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:19 PM on September 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


With the latest generation of emulation, I now use some in-the-box guitar effects, which I never did before the last couple years. Amplitube 4 definitely has some "good enough" tones that I'm OK with using it on my next album. But I also know that if I had an actual Orange/Mesa heads and cabinets here in my room, I'd use those instead.
posted by tclark at 8:19 PM on September 11, 2016


hihi potato, i'm just co-designer, was a team effort!
i have been waiting for a year for the right thread to post in
finally got my $5 worth, yeah!
posted by ladyada at 8:22 PM on September 11, 2016 [30 favorites]


From the little exposure I've had to these newer boxes, they seem to at least have a richer sound than those first generation boxes like the MC-303.

At least glad to see that there is still a market to inspire these various iterations.

Then again, when Roland puts out a 909 themed turntable and mixer, I wonder how much of these are just dumb attempts to cash in on nostalgia.
posted by p3t3 at 8:31 PM on September 11, 2016


Same reason you can't buy new vacuum tubes any more

Um, you absolutely can buy new vacuum tubes, they're just not made in the US. (Mostly Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and China.)
posted by soundguy99 at 8:43 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh wow, hey ladyada! I built a x0xb0x many years ago, sourcing the parts myself back when kits weren't available, and it was a fantastic learning experience and it still sounds great. I need to thank you and the team for getting that project out into the world, it was really influential and educational for me.

That being said, I also love what Roland is doing with their Boutique line. I grew up fascinated by the sound of dance music but with not a lot of money to invest in gear. A TR-808 and a Jupiter-8 have always cost more money than I could ever reasonably afford, but I bought a TR-8 and a JU-08 for $600 for the used pair last month, and they are very, very similar in terms of programming and sound to their full-price, full-size counterparts. You can say it's nostalgia, but these are still great-sounding, functional instruments that help get me in touch with the creative process of some of my favorite music even if they're not perfect simulacra. (The JU-08, in particular, is a cornucopia of really far-out sounds that I never imagined the Jupiter-8 being able to make.)
posted by eschatfische at 8:48 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I saw that turntable. I'd be embarrassed to play on that, frankly.

Honestly, part of my dislike for reissues of old sounds is that I'm not trying to be Disco Stu, clinging forever to the glory days of the 90s. Not that I'm trying to be on the cutting edge of music trends, either – I'm just sayin', I'm not a 22-year-old raver anymore, and I'm not trying to confine myself to those sounds forever. Give me new avenues to explore.

Then again, I'm sitting here twiddling my TT-303 as I type this, so what do I know.

those first generation boxes like the MC-303

You have summoned a very 1990s Roland spokesperson in a velour bowling shirt to tell you about the hottest new thing on the MC-505.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:49 PM on September 11, 2016 [7 favorites]


Unless you are a dog, and probably not even then, there is no reason to think a digital emulation of any of these synthesizers would sound any different from the original with big capacitors and transistors.

This seems to be suggesting this is just the old argument about the bandlimited nature of digital recording, which it isn't - though I guess one of the major limitations of early digital hardware and early softsynths was the presence of audible aliasing, which is related to that whole argument. Anyway it's more about unstable or non-linear behaviors of particular analog circuits which you at least have to deliberately and painstakingly emulate if you want your digital version to sound the same.

In my personal opinion VA has gotten very good in the wake of U-He Diva in 2012 (I think) and developers starting to incorporate fancy circuit-solving methods instead of just digital translations of what the filter function is supposed to look like. Even if it doesn't sound precisely the same under all conditions - keep in mind, as it is popular to point out, that one Moog emulation might not sound any more different from one Moog than one Moog sounds different from another - there are vintage emulations now which have it to my ears. (It being the ineffable "every possible patch sounds great" character of your favorite classic synth). But that took a lot of work to achieve and it's still ongoing, and with modulars and such there are people doing things with analog that I would think are quite out of reach of feasible digital emulation right now. Whether you care about that is up to you - of course a good fake analog synth might sound better - not more accurate, better - than a crappy real analog synth. Not to mention what a good, not-at-all-analog, pushing-the-boundaries-of-digital synth can do...
posted by atoxyl at 8:51 PM on September 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


(I know other people answered this - I started writing my comment earlier then I got distracted but sunk costs...)
posted by atoxyl at 8:53 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


These look pretty cool, and this discussion is kinda weird.
posted by bongo_x at 10:51 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, sorry if I contributed to that. I posted because I was excited to share some of the great stuff about these instruments and their history and scenes - had no idea it would delve into an analog vs. digital debate, which I mostly find to be a tired, played-out conversation tbh.
posted by naju at 11:30 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the link to Charanjit Singh's Raga Bhairav. Completely new to me and the commentator on this page (which has a summary of the other 9 disco ragas) put it better than I could:
I had heard of this record through the years, like the same way you might hear of Bigfoot, Chupacabras,or Nessie. It was a myth, something that just should not be, a rumor that in 1982 an electronic acid house record was made in India with rollin 808s and layered 303 and 909-like sounds. I came across acid house and acid music in oh i dont know, maybe 1988? something like that. Eventually, the myth came to reality, and in my hands landed a reissue of the mythic record, and yes it does and did exist, and India was rockin acid house in 1982, wow.
posted by rongorongo at 12:46 AM on September 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


This is a great thread, and I'm really happy that there's so much acknowledgement of the cultural impact of acid house and the 303 and the 909 Richie Hawtin's unrivalled skill at operating them while someone makes him a nice genteel cup of tea, and how it's so cool that Jeff Mills did his thing with two 909s and the Montpelier Philharmonic, and so on.

However.

This is all tiptoeing around the ugly truth: that the TB-303 is responsible for the unrefined visceral brutality that is HARD ACID TECHNO.

Hardfloor - Lost in the Silverbox
DJ Misjah - Access
Solar Quest - Acid Air Raid

I've heard it described as "music that will kick your ass so hard you'll be shitting shoes for a month". There are many things I love about dance music, but there's nothing like the sound of a banging 303 to make my jaw clench and my hands reach for the sky.
posted by doop at 1:46 AM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


Apparently Solar Quest put his original (pre-vinyl) mix of Acid Air Raid on Bandcamp.
posted by atoxyl at 2:14 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm sure I post this all the time when this comes up but for my money the best 303 line (starts at 2:55). Like - it resists my attempts even to analyze what it's actually doing because it's so perfect.
posted by atoxyl at 2:21 AM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]




Sorry – I wasn't trying to debate analog vs. digital. Believe it or not, I couldn't care less what folks use, as long as it makes them happy :) A lot of my interest in this stuff has to do with the technical / engineering end, so I was just discussing that.

Toxik Twinz- "I Can't Hear You (Acid Mind Eraser Mix)"

Every time I listen to electronic dance music (not "EDM") from this era (especially acid breaks and funky house), I notice that high-pitched, sustained single-note string sound that's used to build tension in, like, every other track.

I guess it got overused and people got sick of it, because you never hear that anymore. Almost as much as the 303 itself, though, that's the sound that really evokes 90s warehouse raves for me.

A couple examples of 303-inspired stuff in the modular synth world:

The Stepper Acid module from Transistor Sound Labs is a pattern sequencer with 303-style accent and slide.

The Metropolis sequencer from Intellijel (here used to drive an Intellijel Atlantis) also has a 303-style slide.

The fetishism of the 303 really knows no bounds. Even before there were (competent) clones on the market, there was the Devilfish, a set of hardware modifications to the original TB-303 which adds all sorts of weird features.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:47 AM on September 12, 2016


(Great thread. Loving all the 303 lore. Now I'm going to go digging for my old copies of "Computer Music" (from ~1999 to 2004), to simultaneously rediscover some of those great sounds, and why I suck so hard at making/playing them. )
posted by Artful Codger at 5:59 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


In the Pitchfork article linked in the FPP, John Frusciante mentions the connection – spiritual, not musical – between punk and acid house.

He's certainly not the first to make that connection, but I think it's really important to understanding the spirit of early acid house and techno. "Acid Trax" was a drum machine and a weird pawn-shop synthesizer making bizarre, repetitive squealing noises for twelve minutes, stamped cheaply on a few hundred twelve-inches. Most people at the time (or even today) wouldn't acknowledge that recording as music, or the skills that went into creating it as musicianship. It was audacious and raw and alien.

That is punk as fuck.

Many acid records, especially in the early days, were raw as shit. These musicians weren't working in professional studios, or even modern home studios with iMacs and Pro Tools – they were running a few pieces of secondhand gear through a secondhand mixer, and recording to whatever was available. As DIY as any punk album.

Good luck getting any outside recognition of that, though. Rockism is most visible when it comes to dance-oriented electronic music. Go into any hipster record shop, and you'll find plenty of synth-happy albums: Krautrock, old novelty Moog albums, chinstrokey avant-ambient stuff, electropunk, maybe a Four Tet or Boards of Canada record, etc. But anything with a 4/4 beat, or any whiff of "DJ culture", is conspicuously absent. There's just a giant hole there. There are occasional, specific Hipster Approved™ exceptions that only prove the rule: the odd New Order 12", or self-ironizing indie-dance stuff like LCD Soundsystem. Anything that unapologetically celebrates the groove is verboten.

(Can you tell that this happened to me yesterday?)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:34 AM on September 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


Isn't part of the reason for the lack of presence in record shops that the genre largely eschewed the album format? You'd easily expect to walk into any halfway decent shop here in the UK and be able to pick up Goldie's Timeless, for instance, but you'll struggle to find any singles other than maybe 60s/70s 45s if the place leans heavily to second-hand.
posted by Dysk at 7:12 AM on September 12, 2016


Could be part of it, I suppose. But my impression is that rave and electronic music gained much more mainstream acceptance in the UK than in the US. Over here, dance music has always been relegated to specialty shops. If you ask for the "electronic" section in most shops, you'll get waved to a tiny section in the back (if you're lucky), generally accompanied by a suspicious half-smirk.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:19 AM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


(Seriously, I don't think folks in the UK generally appreciate that the "disco sucks" attitude never really went away in the US. It's only in the last 5–10 years, with the rise of the "EDM" thing, that dance music has become a US pop-culture phenomenon on anything resembling the scale of UK rave in the 90s.)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:43 AM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


escape from potato planet, I think you nailed it. The "disco sucks" movement is totally still around.
Some folks still don't think of dance music as serious music.

I swear there was an article recently about the racial, (and sexual identity, etc...) overtones of that movement, but I can't recall where.
posted by prozak at 7:59 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


To be fair, indie record stores don't sell dance music in Europe either.
posted by dydecker at 8:14 AM on September 12, 2016


Long time reader, first time five bucks.

Escape From the Potato Planet is on the ball with the read on punk rock ethos being imported by early dance culture. This culminates in London when actual punks get ahold of acid house and decide it isn't banging enoug, then London Acid Techno is born. These guys, Dave the Drummer and the Liberators, took the sounds coming out of Misjah's and Hardfloor's boxes and gave it a snarl:

London Acid City (1996)

No one told them that rave techno is dead, so they kept on going.

One night in Hackney (2004)

The London Acid scene is still going strong 35 years later. The mainstay label Stay Up Forever is still rocking the 303 and 909, and there was even a special SUF 100 vinyl set commemorating the 100th release on the label. This is my favorite track of the bunch

One Bassline (2012)

There is a serious rabbit hole of amazing techno, some of it teeth grindingly brutal and some of it so tongue in cheek you can taste the uvula. These guys just kept getting better and better and teaming up with new blood as well.
posted by jonnay at 8:37 AM on September 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


Skeptical about Roland's nostalgia reissues - seems like another attempt to cash in that's sort of past date... but thanks for all the great comments that are totally improving the Monday work soundtrack.

More acid:
Woody McBride
Dungeon Acid
Universal Indicator (with a 606 too - always preferred those to the cleaner 808s/909s)
posted by remembrancer at 9:45 AM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Also related, I did a little video about how the Original TB-303 makes it sound, and why an actual analog synth would sound different than analogue synth: I'm Jonnay - Episode 4 - The TB303 is a real character.

I wonder if the next phase in analog modeling is going to be in adding specific character to specific instances of software/hardware synths?

On Preview, even moar London Acid Techno:
Acid Corp - Muy Punk This is a BANGER.
Tassid (Lethal Poison is a gooder)
TiK ToK & Paul the Hat
Mobile Dogwash
posted by jonnay at 10:09 AM on September 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


I wonder if the next phase in analog modeling is going to be in adding specific character to specific instances of software/hardware synths?

Roland will probably be the first to crack whole-universe holographic emulation in their quest to reproduce the exact 808 that Afrika Bambaataa used. There'll be MIDI CCs for the amount of jostle felt on the subway riding to the studio and number of times a butterfly flapped its wings in Patagonia the previous winter.
posted by No-sword at 10:25 AM on September 12, 2016 [11 favorites]


Awesome post and discussion. I've been messing around a bunch with a couple pocket operators from teenage engineering and an op1, and an now wondering if I should grow up and get a cheap 303 knock off from Craigslist....
posted by kaibutsu at 10:53 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Analog vs. virtual analog (VA) is a perennial holy war in the synth world – with some folks insisting that analog is (often) superior, and others insisting that those people are pretentious twits, and that there is no audible difference between the two.

This exact same debate rages in the guitar world as well and it bugs the living hell out of me.

I have a Fender Mustang IV amp. Two 12-inch speakers and 150 watts. I've turned the volume as high as 5 (of 10) in the house for about a half a second before I came to the conclusion that I was going to blow out my ear drums.

It digitally emulates basically every famous guitar amp that you care to name (though they'll be named to tell you which amp it is without infringing trademarks) and I think most guitar players would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the original analogue amp and it's digitally emulated version if they played them blind.

Not only that, but I can manage the whole thing from my PC via a USB connection. This lets me drag and drop effects pedals, fine tune every setting, and even save that setup. Heck, you could even use the 1-99 presets to save your own custom setups in the order that you play them in your set. Just start at 1 and use the pedals to switch.

Are there subtle difference between the two? Certainly. But go listen to a track famous for it's guitar sound and then listen to that same song played live, even the original artist often can't reproduce the same sound as they did on the album for a variety of reasons.

But even if you're not "chasing tone" (trying to match the sound of some specific guitar/amp/string/pick/effect setup) and you can detect differences between the two and you prefer the analogue sound. Well, I picked up that amp used on craigslist for $200 with all the pedals (themselves a $150 add-on) and even brand new at MSRP it's only $700. To get all the stuff you'd need to make as many different tones, you'd need to add at least three zeros to that number.

I mean, if you're a professional musician and/or you have lots of extra money to throw at it, I still think it's a waste and no one can tell but the stakes are a little higher so I get it. The cost isn't important in those situations. Digital might get you 99% of the sound and for 99% of the people, that's already way more than they need or can even use (getting the tone of Keith Richards's riff on Satisfaction right doesn't do much good if you play like shit) and cost is an issue.

But really, I think it's just a stupid thing to debate. The performance is close enough that the difference usually come down to the artist and besides, I'm going to choose the best solution for my scenario and it's dumb of me to judge someone else for making different choices in their, scenario.
posted by VTX at 11:23 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the next phase in analog modeling is going to be in adding specific character to specific instances of software/hardware synths?

This is not analog modeling, but I thought it was kinda neat: I've got a Teenage Engineering OP-1 (which is digital hardware), and my favorite synth engine in it, called DNA, is designed to sound different for each unit.
DNA - CPU ID Noise Synthesis
Also in this update is a completely new synthesis engine. DNA adds CPU ID Noise Synthesis, meaning it’s a noise synth, based on the Analog Devices 64-bit Blackfin processor ID, unique to every single OP-1 unit. Every synth will therefore potentially have a slightly different sound. Sometimes tonal, sometimes not, this engine adds a truly expanded sonic pallet to the OP-1. Filter, Wave number, Wave modifier and Noise can be directly controlled via the knobs. The DNA graphics is set to resemble a Kaleidoscope, where sound and visuals are abstractly interlinked. Developed in-house.
posted by naju at 12:06 PM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


omigod so much acid
,d88b.d88b,
88888888888
`Y8888888Y'
  `Y888Y'
    `Y'
posted by fraula at 1:14 PM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


You have summoned a very 1990s Roland spokesperson in a velour bowling shirt to tell you about the hottest new thing on the MC-505.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:49 PM on September 11 [6 favorites +] [!]


Oh, man.

I worked in a studio shop for a looooooooooooong time, selling synths, MIDI controllers, Pro Tools rigs, etc, etc, and
while I've never watched this video before, I saw more real-life product demos like this than I care to remember, and the tone was identical: a musician-turned-pitchman with a sort of Hip High School Geography Teacher vibe about them.

It didn't help that the Roland grooveboxes were never really that cool to begin with - glorified sample playback/modulation systems bundled with a just-okay step sequencer, all of which had this weirdly "canned" sound, like a karaoke version of your favourite club track (I noticed that earlier in the video there's an attempt at a remake of "Magic Carpet Ride" by The Mighty Dub Kats aka Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim). My co-workers hated demonstrating them, and I don't remember selling a single one during that time.

It was as if Roland understood that "hey, our old synths and drum machines are as popular as ever" without understanding why, and instead of creating new instruments with interesting quirks, they just kept repackaging sampled renditions of their Junos, andTBs, and x0xs into new shiny silver boxes.
posted by tantrumthecat at 1:23 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


this thread just keeps on getting better. Thanks all.

(chinstrokey... gulp... )
posted by Artful Codger at 4:14 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I find the whole "Mods verses Loggers" debate really interesting, because there's lots of audio subtleties involved, and both sides have valid points. Granted, there are Models that sound quite stunning. But classic Analog has a quirky quality to it that can be unique.

Regarding desktop recording, there's a quote from 'I Dream of Wires', paraphrase:
"After staring at a screen all day at work, I don't feel like coming home and staring at a screen."
posted by ovvl at 6:00 PM on September 12, 2016


I find the whole "Mods verses Loggers" debate really interesting, because there's lots of audio subtleties involved, and both sides have valid points.

But not nearly enough people ask if it's the right sound for what they're doing, just if it's "Right" according to some arbitrary judgement. I'm one of those that believes there is no right, wrong, good or bad sounds, just what's good for the track.

I still sometimes like to use really old software synths that were indeed poor emulations at the time with lots of flaws. But now they have a vibe. That's what the old Roland machines were. Then people made great music with them. Now you have people that obsess over and praise those old machines and totally look down on thousands of other hardware and software instruments, totally missing the point.

"After staring at a screen all day at work, I don't feel like coming home and staring at a screen."

Yes, that's what these boxes are really about. Despite growing up in the Rock world long before DAW's existed, I'm much more comfortable in software, but lots of people want to move knobs and push buttons to make sounds.
posted by bongo_x at 6:46 PM on September 12, 2016


I just returned from synthesizer camp in Huguenot, NY, where I spent three solid days in ecstatic electronic congress with synthesists of all varieties, and now I'm standing at my standing desk with an Oberheim OB-1 crowding my feet because there's nowhere to put it in the synthesizer Stonehenge that is my bedroom.

I performed in four distinct sets—one solo storytelling piece with a live freestyle soundtrack, a collaboration with Modulator ESP in which I largely did insectile ornamentation, a set with some of the most amazing ambient bandmates imaginable, in which two of us purloined a piano and did a live modular processing bowed/plucked soundboard freakout while the rest of the band worked their own magic, and a comictronic trio piece I was invited into by an esteemed pair of synthesists, and I did it not with the carload of irreplaceable unstable analogue gear that used to travel with me. For this go-round, I took an iOS device (and a backup), a knob controller, a tiny key controller with polyphonic aftertouch, a microphone, a pair of mic stands, and a few cables and adaptors, collected in a rig that fits perfectly across the panniers of my motorcycle whilst still allowing me space for a duffel, a tent, and a sleeping bag.

There was a buzz about the upcoming Roland announcement around the camp, largely because there are insiders there who knew full well what was coming, but it's just such an...oddness to me that we are back into a new golden age of synthesis tech, with music machines running in 64-bit virtual spaces on iOS that could never, ever have existed in the nostalgiazone that gives us all these retro clunkworks for a crowd that seems to think of the eighties as the sole realm of sonic perfection.

It makes me scratch my head, particularly the entirely played-out 303 (see also: 101, 202, 505, 707, 808, 909), and I suppose it's all part of the whatever-floats-your-boat reality that's the healthiest way of being in a complex musical ecosystem, but I have to wonder why we're so fixated on '82 or '88 or '92 or whenever when there is so much amazingness in virtual space with real-world controllers. Maybe I'm less romantic, having spent the eighties singing the song of "WHY THE FUCK ISN'T THIS THING WORKING?" over all those longed-for darlings of the modern set. The OP-1 naju mentions is genuinely a billion times better than trying to beat another splurchy worn-out acid noise out of a 303, but it's not got the same cachet despite having the build quality of a tiny Volvo and the sound of the highest high end in the eighties.

Curious.

[Note to self: sell this mountain of analogue crap off before it loses its sparklepower]
posted by sonascope at 6:50 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, Robert Wyatt and restrained 303 for me, thank you.
posted by sonascope at 7:00 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


In my experience, the diehard analog purist market is relatively small and extremely picky. Roland will sell a ton of these digital re-issues through Guitar Center, Sweetwater, etc. But if they made a 99.999% accurate analog clone of the x0x boxes, half the people would be complaining about the 0.001% difference while the other half would be complaining about the quirks, tuning, and noise.

Fortunately, I think a lot of musicians have moved past the "analog is always better" point of view, and are more accepting of anything that sounds good. Also, it seems like the retro window has moved to the late '80s, with FM and noisy aliased digital synths coming back into fashion.
posted by bradf at 7:25 PM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm such a software guy but I started poking around YouTube for OP-1 videos and now I have a little crush. But I should probably like, make stuff with the gear I already have.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:41 PM on September 12, 2016


To keep the acid flowing: TM404 - 303/303/303/303/606.

I used to be an all-hardware act. I've since moved to hardware + laptop. Towards the end of my hardware career I was shocked at how many people confused "hardware" with "analog".

There is a distinct difference between composing a track on a computer vs. on a hardware sequencer. My hands could fly across my RM1x sequencer because I knew the machine. Hell I was an extension of the machine.

On the other hand with music "in the box" (on a computer) it is a lot easier getting some things done. Like having more than 16 channels is painless and mixing is a million times easier. Never mind being able to drop another compressor onto a track without needing to drop >$200 on a piece of hardware.

I've written a plugin using MAX/MSP and wired up a piece of custom hardware. The custom hardware was way more rewarding, but the MAX/MSP plugins have their own joy, and a zillion times easier!

Boxes like Push/Maschine are cool, and they help bridge the hardware gap, but in my experience Ableton is still Ableton and there is still mouse shuffling. This can also be a plus when you're doing micro-adjustments to the timing of notes.

It's not that one way is necessarily better, it's just a series of tradeoffs. Are you just taking your phone with a few controllers? Or are you lugging a synth that needs it's own infrastructure? There are always tradeoffs. Fine ones that work for you!

when there is so much amazingness in virtual space with real-world controllers.

This is true. But the space is VAST. I think that is part of the drive for some people. With a 909 you have 16 steps not even that many sounds. With a modern DAW + controller the space is countably infinite. The constraints of a box can influence the creativity.

Me? I just like banging acid techno. So a 303 clone (or two) were a must. The accent sweep circuit can be emulated, but there is something really fascinating with how the resonance interacts with the cutoff and the mod amount, and even potentially messes with the supply?

If I were going to kit out an acid-techno battlestation tomorrow, I wouldn't hesitate in getting the new Roland boxes. Please don't misunderstand my love for analogs quirks to be confused with an "Analog is always better" mindset.

The OP-1 naju mentions is genuinely a billion times better than trying to beat another splurchy worn-out acid noise out of a 303

They do different things, don't they? That's like saying the DX-7 is a genuinely a billion times better than trying to beat another worn out meedly-meedly electric guitar.

There is something else to consider here as well. The old Roland boxes are (somewhat) repairable and definitely mod-able. I don't think you can devilfish microcontroller code as easily.

Forgive me for self promotion, but I have a Darkish banger, Mellow 10 minute downtempo journey, and even some
Trap. All of it acidic in some way or another.
posted by jonnay at 9:51 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm a huge fan of 80s Chicago acid house and 90s acid techno, but wanted to also give mention to some of the newer artists still doing 303 and acid music.

TM404 - Jonnay beat me to it, but a great example of an analog purist who is still able to put a little modern twist on it. Like a less spastik Plastikman; slower minimal hypnotic stuff.

Some more:
EOD - Zinking
Lost Trax - It's You
VC-118A - Propulse (Lost Trax Remix)
Jared Wilson - Acid Morning
Recondite - Tie In
Rolando Simmons - Marriage Acid
Tin Man - No New Violence
posted by p3t3 at 10:21 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Has everyone else seen the ZOOM ARQ AR-96? That looks pretty innovative to me.
posted by gen at 10:51 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


TM404 is great. I've been looking for this kind of stuff, as I've worn out my Aphex Twin and Autrechre, and that's about as much as I know. Beyond Boards of Canada.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:37 AM on September 13, 2016


I've worn out my Aphex Twin and Autrechre, and that's about as much as I know. Beyond Boards of Canada.

Straying off topic but along these lines, a couple recent strong albums come to mind from Skee Mask and Cloudface.
posted by p3t3 at 6:28 AM on September 13, 2016


That's like saying the DX-7 is a genuinely a billion times better than trying to beat another worn out meedly-meedly electric guitar.

I mean, that's objectively true though. I can prove it:

1. Let p be the proposition "FM synthesis electric piano"
2. QED
posted by No-sword at 8:13 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]



1. Let p be the proposition "FM synthesis electric piano"
2. QED


I'm pretty sure this isn't the vapourwave thread.
posted by jonnay at 11:59 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


In fact it's because I'm a software guy that I'm not very interested in purely VA hardware - if I'm gonna shell out for a box I want it to have big capacitors and shit inside, not more software.

The difference here is you're not going further by saying something like, "And therefore analogue gear is better."

I think that if you've made a well-informed decision to use one over the other, I shouldn't be judging you for what that decision was. I can assume that you made the best decision for your situation. I might be curious about what drove your decision, but there isn't a value judgement attached to it.

The people who engage in the analogue/digital debate disagree and think you're dumb for making whichever decision you've made.
posted by VTX at 12:45 PM on September 13, 2016


The FM electric piano problem is a people-just-don't-really-want-to-learn-to-use-their-synthesizers problem, not an FM synthesis problem. FM synthesis is perfectly straightforward and visceral if you take a little time to learn how it works, even on a pain-in-the-butt menu-based hardware model.

You've got a little note going here, of a certain pitch, and you use another note to scraunch up the first one, by amounts regulated by LFOs and envelopes. The algorithm determines what's scraunching up what, using four to six notes ("operators"), and if it's feeding back scraunchiness into the scraunchification loop. Easy.

Give me a DX7 over a guitar any day. The guitar's got it beat in basic articulation and touch, but the sound is dull as dishwater, which is why there's a whole insane stomp box industry. Learn to use your operators and algorithms, though, and there's a whole pocket universe in there.
posted by sonascope at 2:10 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


FM Electric Pianos have their place, but anyone who claims to be a strange analog sound enthusiast owes it to themselves to spend an afternoon with a Volca FM.

Yeah, and the thing is, it's not analog. A lot of the pining for "analog" is really just dislocated pining for things with knobs and buttons rather than icons on the same screen you do your tax returns on. (I absolutely feel it too, which is why I have one of each Volca even though I've never recorded anything with any of them.)
posted by No-sword at 3:49 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've worn out my Aphex Twin

Here you go.
posted by STFUDonnie at 5:59 PM on September 13, 2016


As a guy who started with trackers, moved on to stringed instruments, and has recently come back to hardware synthesizers, I'm fully in agreement that it's the knobs and button UI that matters, not the analog digital split.

I've been considering finding or building a suitably crazy USB controller for sunvox for exactly that reason...
posted by kaibutsu at 6:56 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


The most successful melding of hardware and software I've seen is the Nord Modular from the late 90s. I picked one up a few years ago and I'm still obsessed with it. You spend a lazy Sunday afternoon building a modular synth on your computer - throwing in any of about a hundred modules up to the processor limit and patching them together to create something weird or cool sounding. It's really intuitive and painless once you get your bearings. Then you put it on the hardware synth itself, which is a keyboard and a bunch of unlabeled knobs that you can assign to one or more parameters on the synth you've made. Then your synth just sits there in the hardware memory, and you can play it with the quality of an old dedicated digital hardware synth (really interesting VA - same engine as the increasingly-coveted early Nord Leads) and you don't have to touch the computer any longer to make music with it. Just tweak knobs and play keys to your heart's content. It works incredibly well and it's so deep yet fun. A modern (and cheap!) version of this concept is the Axoloti.
posted by naju at 11:41 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


The most successful melding of hardware and software I've seen is the Nord Modular from the late 90s.

I concur, and I've got three Nord Micro Modulars spread across my various live rigs precisely because they sound absolutely fantastic, they have flexibility that is mind-boggling (short, unfortunately, of having a long delay line available), and when used with an external MIDI knob or slider setup, are as physical and visceral in use as any "real" modular...except modules are basically free, so if you want twenty LFOs in a patch, you're good to go.

And a decent used one costs, including an XP laptop for editing, about the same as Roland's belated clone of a little silver box designed to do basslines for polka bands, which is why I can not quite fathom the excitement over these new-old things. To each their own, I suppose, but I think I'd rather tinker with a half-dozen audio-rate modulators flubbishly schrumbling up a line of delay-based resonators instead of just beautifully replicating the sound of records from '91.
posted by sonascope at 2:30 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


The guitar's got it beat in basic articulation and touch, but the sound is dull as dishwater, which is why there's a whole insane stomp box industry. Learn to use your operators and algorithms, though, and there's a whole pocket universe in there.

I apologize if this is harsh but this seems close to "not even wrong" territory.

Acoustic guitars sound fine, they vary in tone from warm to bright. I'm sure you're not trying to say that acoustic guitars sound dull.

Electric guitars are only half the instrument, the amp and the associated effects is the other half. They're meant to be played together. One of the arguments in favor of analogue amps is that how you strike the sting (attack) affects the tone so you, in effect are playing both the guitar AND the amp. Digital amps have started to be able to emulate that effect as well. I've heard it said that one of the things that makes getting Hendrix songs to sound like they did when Hendrix played them is getting the amp and effects adjusted correctly and then getting the attack right. (A Marty Schwartz video about how to play "Purple Haze" I think. I can probably dig up a link if anyone wants).

That said, I've played my electric guitar acoustically, it's a great way to practice without rattling windows. It's not very loud but it doesn't sound dull to my ear.
posted by VTX at 9:47 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, if your first sounds dull, you might have a bad guitar. If it sounds dull through an amp but fine unplugged, you might have a bad amp, or bad pickups. The time of anything is a matter of taste, of course, but there is huge variance in how harmonically rich and complex the sound of one guitar is compared to another.
posted by Dysk at 9:55 AM on September 14, 2016


(As in, the variance is huge between guitars of the same make, model, year, etc. Wood is not a homogenous material.)
posted by Dysk at 9:56 AM on September 14, 2016


I apologize if this is harsh but this seems close to "not even wrong" territory.

Yeah, I didn't even know what to say to that. Saying guitar sucks because you have to use amps and pedals to make interesting sounds is like saying synths suck because you have to use filters and modulation.
posted by bongo_x at 10:25 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


(As in, the variance is huge between guitars of the same make, model, year, etc. Wood is not a homogenous material.)

Even if both guitars are identical (there are other materials used for guitar bodies), the strings (gauge, material, coating), and the pick play a part as well. I think those things make more of a difference to the tone than the consistency of the wood but that depends a lot on how it's sourced, where it's made, what the specs are, etc.

But the more you change the signal coming out of the guitar, the less that other stuff matters. The highly distorted, over-driven sound from, say, The Black Keys (which uses THREE different amps at the same time in some overly convoluted setup) probably depends a LOT more on the getting the amps setup correctly than it does which guitar you're using.

The irony is that I can download a user created profile from Fender to my Mustang IV and with a little bit of fiddling, get my sound to come pretty darn close. With something made for a professional and a professional to set it up, I bet it could get close enough that few outside of Auerbach himself would be able to tell the difference.
posted by VTX at 10:49 AM on September 14, 2016


Even if both guitars are identical (there are other materials used for guitar bodies), the strings (gauge, material, coating), and the pick play a part as well. I think those things make more of a difference to the tone than the consistency of the wood but that depends a lot on how it's sourced, where it's made, what the specs are, etc.

Well yeah, and the biggest impact of all will be the player. None of this detracts from the fact that guitars do sound very different, and some will sound dead while others sing. It's also true that if you bury any signal in enough distortion (and other effects) you'll lose a lot of the nuance of the original source.
posted by Dysk at 11:05 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Well yeah, and the biggest impact of all will be the player.

Ugh, yeah. That reminds me that I need to practice more.

Got so busy with work I lost my calluses. :(
posted by VTX at 11:11 AM on September 14, 2016


I don't see what's hard to understand about the fact that (electro)acoustic instruments have vastly more (and more variable) parameters available in terms of how the notes you play on them are articulated, and if you've done synthesis for a while you're surely aware of how strongly even just a differently-articulated attack can alter your experience of the rest of a sound in the decay and sustain stages. It's a tradeoff: you get that in exchange for a comparatively constrained timbre space, and sometimes you want that, sometimes you don't. Writing off the entire class just seems like the inverse of the snobbery I sometimes see from players of traditional instruments, and neither of those is a good look or, imo, an especially musical attitude.

Anyway, I actually just came in here to talk about the value of using a known sound grounded in practice. I love timbral exploration -- there is probably no electronic musician I admire more than Wendy Carlos -- but thoughtful use of e.g. a 303 evokes a whole history of usage in anyone who knows the sound, and that gives you a huge space of meaning to explore. Plenty of bad music has been made by slapping together a bunch of well-known sounds and expecting the referents to bear the weight of making your music seem well-constructed, but plenty of bad music has also been made by just shooting a rocket into the far reaches of timbre space without ever having put the work in to learn how to steer it. Again, tradeoffs. I'm mostly glad people will have an easier time playing with these units now.
posted by invitapriore at 11:22 AM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yes invitapriore.

The overlap between people who can create interesting new sounds and people who can make music anyone wants to listen to is small, like people who can write songs and people who can sing.

Working with a known sound can be great or shit, but it's a valid method. Hence the 3 million tracks with the Amen break. And yet I still like to hear it used well.
posted by bongo_x at 11:36 AM on September 14, 2016


Give me a DX7 over a guitar any day. The guitar's got it beat in basic articulation and touch, but the sound is dull as dishwater, which is why there's a whole insane stomp box industry. Learn to use your operators and algorithms, though, and there's a whole pocket universe in there.

Just an attempt to defend this (though sonascope is more than capable of defending himself!) - he states plainly that the guitar wins as far as articulation and touch, so we're all in agreement there. When he says the sound is dull, I'm hearing not that the sound is bad or unpleasant, but rather we've heard it a million times before. An acoustic guitar is not going to surprise us with its pure, unvarnished tone, unless it's an especially amazing model maybe, the equivalent of a Stradivarius able to blow us away with nothing more than a simple strum - rather it's what's done with that tone, rhythm, phrasing, articulation, songwriting that makes the music interesting. And we can make the tone more interesting by dressing it up with effects and processing of the signal (amps, pedals). With FM synthesis, though, before you even get to the stage of effects, modulation, filtering, processing, articulation or dynamics, you've got an insane amount of sound sculpting options for just the basic tone. Again, that's before processing the signal. Sure, with an analog synth, your basic tone is often a sine or square wave that's dull as dishwasher. He's not talking about that with the DX7, which is capable of something different. (Most use it for its cheesy 80s piano preset, but that's a crime and they should go to music jail)
posted by naju at 11:39 AM on September 14, 2016


So maybe I'm hung up on the use of the word "dull", because that makes me think of the tone as flat, boring, lifeless. And if I leave a set of strings on my guitar for a good LONG time, it will start to sound.

But when it's got good strings the terms I'd use to describe the sound are things like bright, clear, vibrant, brilliant. And it's a multi-tonal instrument so I can play six notes at once and create a really full sound.

So maybe a better word would be "unoriginal"?
posted by VTX at 1:13 PM on September 14, 2016


I'd say "timbrally undifferentiated," maybe. There's only so much texture a plain guitar string will give you, and most of that revolves around the noise of the pick.

Better?

There's a very good reason why you virtually never actually hear a raw, untreated electric guitar on a record, which is that the signal is barely removed from sine waves and does not inherently carry much variation beyond pitch and articulation and string-handling sounds. That said, because it's so simple and linear, it is a fantastic sound source for a complex and nonlinear processing environment (aka pedalboard).

The DX7, though, to return to the original point, is a complete environment. It's not really a processing environment, as there are no filters at all beyond some basic antialiasing that's really about dealing with the limitations of 1980s DAC circuits. For each voice that sounds, there's just six sine waves acting on each other in an arrangement that can be varied by the user, and each sine wave gets an envelope to control what it's doing, so you can do immensely complex manipulations with just those six sine waves. There are no filters, effects, delays, distortions, or anything else except what you can do with your basic operators, algorithms, and modulators, and there's something potent and almost magical in that. When you listen to the sounds a DX7 can do outside the presets beloved by lazy producers, the possibilities are astonishing.

There's definitely an organic advantage to the touch on a guitar, which is why I actually love using my crappy old guitar as a polyphonic oscillator feeding into a modular (in my case, either a Nord Micro Modular or Audulus/Model 15 on iOS). My strings are so old that they are almost just sine wave oscillators in a Karplus-Strong model, and that's golden for a source.

So when I say dull, I mean it in the sense of not rich, lush, or inherently varied, rather than sooo boring. In the wrong hands, of course, they are, but it's more a statement on the actual output of the instrument than tastes, and yeah, If I had to start with a plain electric guitar or a plain DX7, I'd take the latter, because I'd already be in a position to produce a greater range of timbres before I had to delve into the expanded realm of processors. It's a personal aesthetic, of course, which is what makes the world so interesting.
posted by sonascope at 1:42 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think I'm seeing your point but I don't think your comparison is fair. An acoustic guitar is designed at the entire instrument, an electric guitar is only half of one and that's by design.

So I think what you're getting at is that it takes a bunch of extra processing in the guitar amp to get as much flexibility and...novelty? out of it as you can get with a DX7.

To be clear, there isn't judgement here, this is new information for me so I want to understand your preferences so that they can influence my own.
posted by VTX at 1:59 PM on September 14, 2016


There's a very good reason why you virtually never actually hear a raw, untreated electric guitar on a record, which is that the signal is barely removed from sine waves and does not inherently carry much variation beyond pitch and articulation and string-handling sounds. That said, because it's so simple and linear, it is a fantastic sound source for a complex and nonlinear processing environment (aka pedalboard).

There's an entire world of amplifiers between big pedalboards and completely dry guitar signal. You don't hear the latter much, because it sounds crap. It's not intended to sounds good. It's intended to sound good once it's been coloured by a speaker. You absolutely do hear guitar tones that are just guitar through cable to amp, mic'ed. It's probably most guitar tones you hear, in fact.
posted by Dysk at 6:24 PM on September 14, 2016


Isn't that basically what you're doing when you keep the gain turned down with no effects?

If understand it correctly, that's one of the ways that you can "play" the amp. You turn the gain up so you're right at the edge where there is noise in the signal. Use a light touch and you get bright, clear guitar, a little harder and some of the rougher slightly over-driven tone shows up.
posted by VTX at 9:06 PM on September 14, 2016


With a good amp, there isn't a point where you can say that noise.starts entering the signal, there's a gradual compression along with pronounced overtones that slowly melds into overdrive. At no point is the signal really 'clean' in that sense - even with the gain way down, the amp will be colouring the tone.
posted by Dysk at 11:48 PM on September 14, 2016


I'm late to the party, but Hardfoor - Acperience 1 kills it.
posted by panaceanot at 2:56 AM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Someone else is late to the party.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:46 PM on September 16, 2016


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