It only takes a few hours and a computer to set up a digital studio. Access to cracked software and free plugins is plentiful, and there is a constant flow of low cost MIDI control devices being passed from owner to owner via Ebay and Gumtree. This is, of course, a good thing: music is therapeutic and satisfying to create, and with the high cost of instruments and tuition, the accessibility of electronic music makes it hugely appealing to creative minds.
Unfortunately, the vast nature of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) can be less inspiring than they may seem. Although versatile, these programs have so many functions that the producer’s intentions can become vague. As is often the case, the expanding market has encouraged the manufacturing of devices less and less specific, as well as software that merges too many functions and instruments.
It seems that passionate producers have begun to grow weary of the infinite digital expanse that is software production, seeking a path to sonic satisfaction through rare, older pieces of music technology instead. The novelty of portable, MIDI-centric equipment has worn thinner than its weak plastic casing, whilst the price for analogue machines keeps rising. Are the technology giants taking note? Korg reissued their classic MS-20 synthesiser, but the increased portability of the instrument was clearly to attain certain profit margins above anything else; Roland released a new model in their legendary Jupiter series, which bore no genuine relation to its predecessors except its name, and have followed with the news of three reissues of classic Roland instruments, the TR-808, 909 and (presumably, as it has yet to be announced) the TB-303.
The manufacturer and the customer have different needs. Whilst the manufacturer prioritises profit, focussing on developing the concepts of their original machines and rectifying their fundamental flaws, the purists within the musical community – who undoubtedly pray for, yet fear, these reissues the most – wish to maintain the character of their beloved instruments more than anything. The news of the AIRA Roland revival has created a wealth of discussion as to the pros and cons of bringing back some of the most famous machines in music’s history: and all of this with only two vague teaser videos.
“Musicians want new and exciting things” declares Atsushi Hoshiai, Roland’s spokesperson for the TR-808 video. It is a very contradictory statement to make in the middle of a video dedicated to the 808 and its importance in electronic music’s history. Musicians as a rule do not want new and exciting things. From orchestras to rock bands to electronic artists, passionate musicians have always cherished the classics. The TR-808 and 909 have continued to roll and pulse underneath the sound of dance and hip-hop since they were first released three decades ago, and while Roland seems keen to keep it that way… is this really the right way to go about it? Any producer – or anyone at all, for that matter – can get their hands on multiple versions of either kit with the click of a mouse. Sample packs come in nearly every DAW and can be found online in seconds. It is the actual machine, the physical part, that should remain sacred. With remaining 808s becoming sparse and expensive, witnessing one live in action has become more and more of a spectacle, and its power is undeniable. Winter Son, who has become known for his live performances with his band Ghosting Season and alongside DJ Jozef K, told us “I love using the 808 because it’s got the feel of a real instrument, you can put it up there with traditional instruments like the guitar or piano. It lets me get pretty rough with it too, which is how I am live sometimes. It’s become an extension of me when I play live, the claps and snares are pure aggression!”
Interestingly, the appeal of vintage equipment often lies in its unpredictable nature. The sound that can be strained from the TB-303 when pushed to its limits of resonance became the defining timbre of the acid house movement, and the random nature of its modulation is difficult to replicate. It’s also the limitations of these machines that makes them appealing to producers, who often want to be forced into a creative pattern by their constraints. John Talabot touched on the subject in his RBMA lecture. When asked if there is a beauty in restriction, he replied, “I love restrictions… one of my favourite styles is Chicago House and Chicago house was born from a four-track machine, one drum machine and one synthesiser… For me it’s one of the nicest kinds of music ever”.
Perhaps it is the desire to achieve the kind of sonic revelations that these pioneers once did, that draws people to these restrictive, outdated machines. They sound beautiful and nostalgic, too, but the appeal lies in the creative focus and the environment they inspire. It is physical, it is an instrument in which you can immerse your mind and body, it is more than just a plugin lost within the infinite Ableton channels.
The new models are sure to be inspiring and successful. But will Roland allow the reissues to stay true to their predecessors? Or will they instead inevitably venture into numerous built-in effects, digital processors, and features that cannot possibly match the permanence of the originals. The TR-808 was intended purely as a rhythm machine, a backing track, and it is the simplicity of this idea that has allowed it to stay relevant. With too many modifications and additions, its reputation could fade irreversibly.