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July 18, 2005 5:04 PM   Subscribe

Bassline Bassline. Rock has its electric guitar, hip-hop has its turntable/mic, and electronic music has its Roland TB-303. One of the few single instruments that can claim to define the entire genre, its history is an interesting one: "Bassline Baseline is a video essay that investigates the invention, failure and subsequent resurrection of the mythic Roland TB-303 Bass Line music machine in the last two decades of the 20th century."
posted by afx114 (24 comments total)
I'm guessing the reason no one's posted yet is because our heads all exploded upon hearing about science and the intermediation of knowledge in the first 3 minutes of that video. *rolls eyes*

I wouldn't quarrel with the idea that an electronic device might take the flagship place in electronic music that analog instruments take for rock, etc, I don't think the 303 is it, unless you're a huge acid / gabber fan.

Anway, for anything more house-ish, I would argue that the flagship pieces are the Roland TR-808 and the "wheels of steel", Technics 1200 turntables. House basically evolved from disco records mashed together over 808 drum lines, synthetic bass was not necessary because there were all sorts of grooves on the records.

In fact, this documentary seems to be skirting right around the issue since the narrator expressly talks about 808 State, but somehow fails to mention the box it was named after, Roland's TR-808, as well as the fact that pretty much every sample track they play also uses a drum machine (occasionally the TR-909, by the sound of some of them, but still).
posted by rkent at 5:47 PM on July 18, 2005

Nice post, and interesting video despite the overly dry narration.

I'll admit to being an ex-local dj turned electronic vinyl collector, so I've followed the "303 culture" for over a decade now. There is a bit of a retro 80s acid revival going on in techno/house at the moment, and Soul Jazz Records just released a pretty comprehensive compilation of the early Chicago acid classics with some seriously extensive liner notes that go a bit deeper into the history of the 303/acid movement strictly within the scope of house music.

Also, for the desktop music tinkering crowd: the video mentions the Propellerhead "Rebirth" virtual 303 software, but all my producer friends swear by the AudioRealism BassLine plug-in for truer 303 emulation (previous free incarnation available here).

On preview, yeah they unfortunately forgot the 808 & 909 part of the history, but not a bad basic intro.
posted by p3t3 at 5:52 PM on July 18, 2005

If that video was propoganda of some sort, it was lost on me. It was just kind of sterile.

Great link though. I can imagine people arguing over this stuff for the next 50 years, hopefully.
posted by bardic at 5:59 PM on July 18, 2005

/Not snarking. Really enjoyed the links.
posted by bardic at 6:00 PM on July 18, 2005

Yeah, the 808 needs some props too, but that's why I said "one of the few..."

Additionally, the 808 is pretty much a requirement for hip-hop too. They even sing about "808 druuuumzz" in the lyrics. The 303 is special in that, apart from the few Top-40 tracks using it for novelty, it has remained strictly within the confines of electronic/techno music.
posted by afx114 at 6:15 PM on July 18, 2005

I like to think that the narrator is simply an advanced computer text to speech engine. He exhibits some weird TTS-like pronunciations. In any case, great link and video.
posted by zsazsa at 6:22 PM on July 18, 2005

While I usually remain silent on most issues, I would have to step in here and say that I believe that the 303 is a major candidate for the flagship instrument.

While disco grooves and 808 drumlines were used in the creation of early chicago house, the 303 really was used also very extensively at that time. Frankie Knuckles, and Derrick Carter were both knob twisting like crazy at that time Early acid house did not have the sampling technology that emerged later, and tape edits of grooves were still very rudimentary, but the style and sound of the 303 is very distinctive.

Great Post!
posted by djdrue at 6:32 PM on July 18, 2005

BTW, the Syntecno TeeBee is better than the original because it has built in MIDI/CV, plus an MS-20 ring modulator. :)
posted by afx114 at 6:38 PM on July 18, 2005

Outside of electronic music, which really ain't my domain, the (sadly now-defunct) Unicorns make pretty rockin' use of some Roland products.

Thanks for the post, my boyfriend is a synth nerd and I've started learning about this stuff in spite of myself.
posted by ITheCosmos at 6:38 PM on July 18, 2005

One of the few single instruments that can claim to define the entire genre

Well, a subgenre or two. There's plenty of electronic music that wouldn't consider using a 303.

Didn't realize 808s are big in hip-hop; I thought they were all about the Akai MPC.
posted by Foosnark at 6:40 PM on July 18, 2005

...overly dry narration

Not that there's any mention of it, but it sounds like it was narrated by Chuck Palahniuk of Fight Club fame. I listened to a radio interview with him the other day where it was introduced by Chuck reading from his new book and it sounded exactly like this narration.
posted by bruzie at 6:50 PM on July 18, 2005

Yah MPCs are huge in hip-hop, but what do you think they're sampling? 808s. Dr. Dre popularized the 808 in his NWA days, and to this day both he and his proteges use it a lot and pay it respects. Lyrics from The Game's "How We Do" (2005):

Fresh like, uhh, Impala, uhh
Chrome hydraulics, 808 drums

Those big rumbing thunderclaps you hear coming from tricked out lowriders are probably 808 kicks.

Not to mention the huge effect the 808 had on the Miami scene and "booty bass" ... hell, without the 808, would 2 Live Crew have existed?
posted by afx114 at 6:52 PM on July 18, 2005

I don't believe that the 303 has been used solely in acid/novelty tracks. I'm pretty sure that Marvin Gaye used one on his later albums -- possibly Sexual Healing.

You don't get that distinctive squelch sound on anything other than dance music though.

> Early acid house did not have the sampling technology
> that emerged later

Come on, what about Todd Terry's stuff? Can U Party is pretty much all samples, and there wasn't a bigger record in that second Summer of Love that was 1986/7.

Or the various EuroHouse stuff that pretty well did nothing but sample various old Salsoul records like Loletta Holloway's 'Love Sensation' and First Choice's 'Let no man put asunder'?

Even classic Chicago house records like LNR's 'Work it to the bone' used sampling, albeit more in the style of the stuttering sampled vocal a la Paul Hardcastle's N-n-n-nineteen', rather than the wholesale ripping off of elements from other records. I suppose it's possible that the same effect could have been achieved by a tape edit, but it sure sounds like sampling to me.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:56 PM on July 18, 2005

direct link
posted by blue_beetle at 7:09 PM on July 18, 2005

OK, forget what I said earlier, Nate does a good impression of Chuck.

/Dang, stuffed up my first MF comment...
posted by bruzie at 7:10 PM on July 18, 2005

I feel compelled to mention that Josh Wink eventually lost the Higher State of Consciousness beat when the 303 it was on got accidentally unplugged. It made me feel sad and sorta happy at the same time when I heard that.
posted by 31d1 at 7:39 PM on July 18, 2005

Hehe. The 303 line for Higher State is basically just one note repeated/tweaked anyways, so probably not too tough to re-program. That track definitely hasn't aged too well, but to be fair, everyone was caning the crap out of it back when it came out.

Regarding the 808 and hip-hop: the ultimate 808 hip-hop has to be Too Short! That was pretty much the only instrument besides his voice (and the occasional synth line).
posted by p3t3 at 8:05 PM on July 18, 2005

The 303 always gets the credit, but lots of acid records actually use the Roland MC 202 Microcomposer.
posted by w0mbat at 10:35 PM on July 18, 2005

So would the Nord Lead be the equivalent for psytrance? I've never seen a "live" act without one on stage. P.S: I got through about 10 seconds of that.
posted by Astragalus at 10:48 PM on July 18, 2005

I really enjoyed this. Thank you.
posted by lenny70 at 1:52 AM on July 19, 2005

This is great. I dream of finding a 303 at a car boot sale. I think my 909 feels lonely without one to play with.
posted by sam and rufus at 2:50 AM on July 19, 2005

Interesting that the bassline on 'Jam on it' was not a 303, but doubled with one, that would have been some interesting programming. I think it is easy to get something out of a 303, but to be able to really master one and produce interesting tunes is very difficult.
It's nice to know I like records with a 303 on even when I don't reccognise that there is a 303 being used!
All delivered with a voice-over that had all the passion of a speak and spell.
The documentary also doesn't mention the Devilfish modification that is responsible for the newer 303 sound since the mid 90s, along with the MC303. It makes it all a bit more shiney sounding (like the 303 on 'Smack my bitch up').
p3t3, thanks for the heads up on the SoulJazz album, will have to check.
posted by asok at 4:46 AM on July 19, 2005

Quoth Sir Mix-alot: "The 808 kick drum, makes the girlies git dumb..."
posted by stenseng at 9:24 AM on July 19, 2005

before the Akai MPC, hip-hop producers used to bow down before the 808 (there's no deeper boom bass than an 808 shoved through mighty compression :) ) and the E-mu SP-12 (12 bit drum sampler famed for its grit).

also, i would include among legendary among electronic instrument sounds: the 909's kick drum with distortion (tight); the 909's snare (Madonna's "Vogue" wouldn't have been the same); the 808 cowbell (for better or worse)...

i liked the doc, thanks for the link.
posted by Al_Truist at 11:24 AM on July 19, 2005

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