For The Record: Technology is Making Music Better Once Again

Words by: Ben Raven
Posted: 8/5/18 10:10

A test model of Behringer's 808 inspired drum machine at this year's Superbooth.

If you think dance music isn't as good as it used to be, technology may be about to prove you wrong.

Music technology geeks, were sent into a spin of excitement by today’s announcement from Behringer of their plans to remake the classic Roland TR 808.

For those of you not quite grasping the magnitude of this news, the 808 is arguably the most important drum machine ever made and is responsible for providing  some of the most important game changing tracks to have ever graced our dancefloors.

Part of the secret to its success was its initial failure. Like Roland’s other seminal products of the early 1980s such as the TB 303 that  and the 909, they were initially a flop and flooded the second hand stores and pawn shops of the times. At the turn of the decade however a new wave of producers such as Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk were dictating through tracks like Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ and Kraftwerk’s ‘Metal On Metal’ that the future of music was electronic.

A nation of inspired wannabe producers couldn’t afford synthesizers like the Yamaha CS-80 that Vangelis famously used in his Bladerunner soundtrack or the Fairlight sampler keyboard, the most desirable instrument of the time whose cost ran into the tens of thousands of dollars. But when they turned to their local second hand shops for a solution however, Roland’s unwanted cast offs were waiting for them and the rest is dance music history.

Since then there have been many attempts at cloning the TR-808. Roland themselves recently released the compact digital TR-08 but few have hit the mark quite like the original. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the ageing circuits of these vintage machines have a sound of their own and no two units are exactly alike anyway, thanks to the unpredictability of analogue synthesis.

Hunt on Ebay for a second hand model and if you’re lucky enough to find one in good working order, you’ll pay around the three thousand pounds for the privilege of owning one. By comparison, Behringer’s announcement of their plan to sell their own 808 inspired drum machine that combines an analogue modelling of the original’s circuitry with the modernising touches of USB connectivity and the extra addons of filters and a Wave Designer (for adding punch to the sounds) sounds like the prayers of many 808 enthusiasts have finally been answered. Albeit, by a rival company.

Afrika Bambaataa's 'Planet Rock famously lifted the riff from Kraftwerk's classic to invent hip hop and electro overnight in 1982.

Behringer have courted much controversy in recent years for their plans to create new machines inspired by some of the most famous vintage synthesizers. The Behringer Model D undercuts the classic Minimoog Model D by nearly three thousand pounds. Sure it doesn’t have a keyboard and many of the other expensive touches that the Minimoog has. But it does sound astonishingly like the original for a fraction of the cost.

There are plenty of other examples of  classic synth remakes and Behringer have many more up their sleeve and when you add them all up, this new wave of cut price replicas is creating once again the same technology climate that kickstarted house, techno, hip hop, electro and everything in between.

At the turn of the Millenium however a different kind of revolution was taking place. The advent of digital music making software democratised the music making process and broke down the barriers for bedroom producers wanting to make electronic music. DAWs like Ableton Live and Logic, quickly replaced the hardware studios that had dominated the 80s and 90s. But with them came a change in sonic standards. Much of the electronic music of that decade sounds sounds quite thin and a little too clean and digital by comparison with today’s electronic music or that of the 80s and 90s. That’s of course a sweeping statement and there are obviously exceptions to that rule. But the proliferation of in-the-box production sucked some of the life and soul out of the music making process as producers swapped jamming for mouse clicking.

The view from the booth as the London Modular Alliance play live.

By the 2010s a rebellion was underway with the return of vinyl and the boom in hardware synthesis. The change in today’s music can be heard across the board. There is still plenty of poor quality music being made of course. That fact will sadly never change. And as 'good' and 'bad' is in the eye of the beholder, we won't get into the argument of what a good and bad record actually is. But is is undeniable that music is now being made with better instruments, and by producers with more widely available knowledge than ever before. 

We now have the best of both worlds at our fingertips. Analogue as well as digital hardware being used with software DAWs like Ableton that are more powerful and easier to use than ever.

In addition, the boom in modular synthesis is similarly changing the landscape of how music is made. It is aided by an industry dominated by small artisan companies making bespoke devices that push the limits of what music technology can do with every day that passes.

Adding even more fuel to the fire is a new educated generation of young producers coming through the ranks who are attending schools like London’s Point Blank or studying music technology in third level education. And for those who can’t afford to attend in person, YouTube is flooded with tutorials offering advice on all aspects of music making.

Combine all of these things together and we are currently sitting in the primordial soup of the next wave of electronic music makers who have better and more affordable instruments and more knowledge than ever before. It is impossible to predict what the future of electronic music, will sound like. But we can hazard a guess that thanks once again to the intervention of technology, it is going to sound even better than ever.

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