"Sometimes you've got to wait another generation. You've got to wait in the desert for forty years, for the next generation to evolve and save the people. But eventually it happens."
-DJ Soul Slinger
"You don't have to have had any piano lessons, drum lessons, any kind of music lessons to make this kind of music. Any guy can go and spend $2000 or $3000, sit in his bedroom, and he can make music. What you like is what you sample and what you use."
-LTJ, quoted by Kodwo Eshun, "House: The Reinvention of House" in "A History of Electronic Music" (Caipirinha Productions, Inc., New York, 2000), p. 70.
XXIII. THE EIGHTIES, PART 3
House music and EDM evolved in the eighties as a musical reaffirmation of life in the face of death and Puritan oppression. But this evolution would not have been possible without a number of wondrous technological innovations that truly democratized the making of music by enabling virtually anyone with a couple thousand dollars and talent to participate in the creation of exciting new genres of dance music.
1. The Drum Machine
Aside from the turntable and mixer, the drum machine was the first instrument used by DJs and producers. They first appeared in the late sixties and were marketed under the names Rhythm Ace and Rock Mate. These early drum machines, or rhythm boxes as they were called, were primitive devices that could store a couple dozen pre-programmed rhythms.
Roland introduced in the late seventies the first drum machine with a microprocessor that enabled the DJ or producer to record and store his or her own drum loops. This was a significant improvement, especially for the studio musician, for one could pretty much dispense with a live drummer and the related complexities of attaching mics to each drum and recording the rhythms over and over again to get them just right. Now one could link the drum machine directly to the mixing desk and manipulate the rhythms as one wished.
In 1982 Roland produced the legendary TR-808 drum machine which still has its devotees today. The device was easily programmed, although it was still an analogue device and not MIDI enabled. The next year Roland improved the 808 by incorporating both digital and analogue technology and MIDI into the TR-909.
Also of note is the Roland TB-303 bassline machine also released in 1982. Many believe that the 303 was poorly conceived, but it played an important role in the creation of the Chicago house sound. DJ Pierre, for example, pushed a button on his 303 and found that that "acid sound was already in it" and used the device to create the first acid house tracks.
2. The Sampler: Freedom to Store and Refashion Music
The first music storage medium was the record. Before recording technologies the only way to experience music was to listen to live bands and orchestras. Records made heretofore unimaginable varieties of music available to everyone.
In the eighties a new medium for storage was made available to DJs and producers. This awesome new tool was the sampler.
Very simply, a sampler consists of an analogue-digital converter, memory for storage, and a digital-analogue converter. The analogue sound is recorded into the sampler and digitized. Digitized means that these sounds are turned into 16-bit binary numerical values. They can thus be more efficiently stored and refashioned as one wishes. The sounds can be re-used and changed to suit the needs of the musician. The digital-analogue converter enables these digital sounds to be audible to the human ear again.
The implications for the music industry of sampler technology were enormous. One can take any segment of music, change it, mix it with other musical segments, and create a new track that incorporates elements of the original with the new. Using samplers and drum machines, for example, old disco songs -- vocals and instrumental elements -- could be sampled, new rhythms and other enhancements added, and transformed into house music. There are, of course, legal issues with copyrights to original work when sampling techniques are used. But this technology provided creative musicians with limited resources the means to produce high quality product without having to hire orchestras, vocalists, and expensive studio time. One could, literally, make music in one's bedroom.
The first samplers had limited memory and could only digitize a few seconds of music. Advances in computer technologies in the eighties and nineties, however, now enables musicians to sample and work with hours of music.
3. The Technics Turntable
Ah, the Technics turntable. Most of you grew up with Technics and, I would think from your perspective, the 1200 is a relatively simple, dependable device without much high tech pizzazz. For those of us who DJed in the seventies, however, the 1200 series was a precious gift from the gods. A magical tool that would take the art of the DJ to new levels and help shape the history of EDM.
The disco era created a demand for a turntable designed with the specific needs of the working DJ in mind. In the late 70's Technics began creating such a device. The 1200 MK2, which was to replace the Technics 1100 A.
Revolutionary. You bet. First, it had a BIG start and stop button. A light for working in the dark. A pitch regulator which allowed for pitch regulation of plus or minus 8%. The 1200 MK2 also had a strobe light that revealed the 33 1/3 and 45 norm rpms on the deck. When you adjusted pitch it showed the effect visually in the dark.
Further, unlike other turntables that were belt-driven, the 1200 was designed with a direct drive mechanism. This means that the speed of the turntable is controlled by a highly precise quartz-locked pitch control that allows minimal speed variations of only 0.01 %. This was very important in the development of house music where accurate mixing of recordings with accurate pitch control over long periods of time is required. Direct drive also provided rapid start and breaking times. The 1200 reaches 33 1/3 speed in only 0.7 seconds.
The chassis of the 1200 was also novel in that it provided great protection from loudspeaker vibration or DJ monitors because the head shell was molded from a single piece of metal and the turntable was fitted with anti-vibration rubber.
Then the tone arm. Friction free suspension with height adjustment using a rotating ring on the plinth that rotates a precision gearwheel allowing regulation of the stylus height with great accuracy. The tone arm could be tuned to the DJs need by using the anti-skate regulator so that the stylus weight could be modified from zero to 2.5 grams.
The Technics SL1200 MK2 (silver) and SL 1210 MK2 (black) have been built the same way for the past twenty years and have become the reference turntables for any serious DJs. "Wheels of steel" indeed. Drag them down to a beach and play 'em all night long. Then schlep them to a warehouse. Back to the studio. And onto the dance floor. These precision instruments are built like tanks, yet provide astonishing accuracy in the most challenging environments.
I confess I am a person that is deeply moved by flashing lights and high tech gadgetry. I was recently faced with the purchase of a new turntable and carefully examined the new products available. I anguished for a time, and then bought a new SL 1200 MK3. Yes, to my mind the 1200s are still the best and, lordy knows, they set our hands, hearts and souls free in the eighties and nineties.
B. THE TECHNOLOGY FREED OUR CREATIVITY
These technological wonders -- the drum machine, sampler, and the Technics 1200 -- provided the essential tools for the creation of house and EDM. As disco died in the early eighties and dance floors emptied due to cultural changes and AIDS the music industry put dance music on the back burner. There was no longer lots of money available for high-cost dance music production with live vocals, instrumentals and high end studio equipment. Fortunately the pioneers of house and EDM were provided the right instruments at the right time to begin the electronic dance music revolution.
NEXT: THE EIGHTIES, Part 4.