Song of Roland

The Roland 303 bass synthesizer didn't inspire musicians at first -- but a software emulation of the techno sound now sings to many a fan.

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Wing Poon found his way to the Propellerhead Web site entirely by accident — and discovered software there that answered questions he hadn’t even asked. “I thought I’d look up some info on the band Propellerheads,” he tells me, “and stumbled upon this software that was exactly what I wanted.” Today, the 25-year-old software engineer from Sydney, Australia, runs a Web page devoted in part to the “highly addictive software” he found there.

Instead of the retro dance grooves of the British band Propellerheads, Poon had come across a Swedish company called Propellerhead Software that has created an ingeniously crafted software emulation of three classic music machines — two drum machines and a bass synthesizer — that virtually define the techno sound.

The Roland 303, the bass synth, was first brought to market in the early ’80s. Designed to provide a rudimentary bass backing for guitarists jamming alone at home with their drum machines, the 303 produced a not altogether convincing emulation of an electric bass — and it didn’t help that bass lines had to be laboriously programmed into the machine note by note, using a one-octave keyboard that couldn’t even be played in real time. And so Roland pulled the machine off the market in two years, and it was more or less forgotten — except by musicians too cash-strapped to load up on the newer (and presumably better) gear.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s that budget-conscious musicians in search of a cheap bass box discovered that the 303 could sound pretty good if you twiddled the knobs just right — if, Spinal Tap style, you turned all the knobs up to the proverbial 11. In 1987, a Chicago artist known as Phuture released his first 303-based “Acid Track” — a stripped-down dance groove with a trippy hypnotic sound that would soon come to define what was then known as acid house. Other musicians soon discovered that the sub-bass sounds of the kick drums in the Roland 808 and 909 drum machines could produce sonic booms powerful enough to literally shake the room. And in no time, aspiring acid house musicians began clamoring for the machines that produced those wonderful buzzing bleeps and booms. Electronica artists give shout-outs to their favorite gear: Fatboy Slim titled one of his compositions “Everybody Needs a 303″; Daft Punk has its “Revolution 909″; and then, of course, there’s the band 808 State. And the price of the discontinued machines went through the roof — and has remained there.

But a new generation is discovering the joys of the Roland machines — this time as software. Propellerhead Software’s aptly named ReBirth is an emulation of the 303 bass synth and the 808 and 909 drum machines, which has caught on with people around the planet. And a devoted community of musical hackers has created thousands of alternative sounds that can be played with software.

“I thought acid was dead,” says Paul O’Reilly, a San Francisco plumber, who first ran across the software while hunting for software to produce some serious “chill-out” ambient music. “I was overwhelmed by the sounds that I was making with this software five minutes after downloading and have been hooked since.”

When it was first released in 1997, ReBirth seemed to exude a certain nostalgic charm — much like the emulations of “vintage” video games that have caught on with older Gen-Xers eager to relive the glory days of their teen years. But some early adopters thought it would be too limited to become a “serious” musical instrument itself. At a time when professional music software offers literally dozens of tracks and a seemingly endless array of sounds, ReBirth only offered three tracks, with no sampling capabilities — and its synthesizers couldn’t even play chords.

So, a number of ReBirth musicians began hacking their way into the core of ReBirth’s code, figuring out how to use the software in ways it never was intended to be used — much like the original acid house pioneers had done with the real 303 a decade earlier. They replaced the machine’s drum sounds with sounds of their own — and shared their hacks with other fans. Soon others, armed with graphics software and a lot of patience, began modifying the look of the machine as well, providing new “skins” for the graphic interface along with new sounds.

Before long, an entire community of musical hackers began to grow up around these ReBirth “mods,” as these custom-built Rebirth sound modules came to be known — and the software began to inspire devotion among several hundred fans.

“ReBirth and the ReBirth site are the promise of computers and the Internet fulfilled,” writes ReBirth fan Fred Stesney in a post on Propellerhead Software’s message boards. “When I see this much creative potential delivered to this much talent in a supportive community where that talent can invent purely for art’s sake, it makes me happy to be alive at the end of the 20th century.”

The second version of ReBirth came with an extra drum machine — an emulation of the 909 — in part to allow potential mod-makers more flexibility in adding their own sounds, which range from sampled drum loops to bouncing house chords and even jazzy-sounding horns, all ingeniously shoehorned into the software’s drum sequencers. The mods are designed to produce Rebirth songs in distinctive flavors — from dark Industrial dissonance to trippy, sitar-laden ambient trance. Some mods duplicate the wails of famous divas or other soundbites from the early days of acid house. There are no restrictions on the sounds you can stuff into a mod: one recent addition to the Propellerhead archives, BadRat, is based on samples of a pet rat scampering in its cage, which makes for a unique percussive effect, to say the least.

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The people at Propellerhead “were a little slow at first to accept the mod scene,” recalls Dennis Schissler, a mechanical engineer from San Diego and a ReBirth fan, “But eventually [the company] came to see how much the free development increased the value of its product.” Today, there are dozens of “official” mods posted to the Propellerhead site — and numerous other “unofficial” mods posted on other ReBirth fan sites, such as “Computer Controlled.”

Far from being slapdash amateur hacks, most of the ReBirth mods are remarkably slick productions, with tight, clean samples and elegant graphic interfaces that are often a considerable improvement over the relatively straightforward original, which is designed to more or less faithfully reproduce the look of the real-world Roland boxes. According to Kurt Kurasaki, a skilled and energetic mod-maker who goes by the nom de Net of Peff, the toughest thing about mod making is getting the animations of the knobs to work correctly. (He’s got a section of his Rebirth fan site devoted to the fine art of cobbling knobs together.)

ReBirthers have been eager to share their songs as well: The Propellerhead archives now contain well over 1,000 songs sent in by users around the globe; there are countless other songs posted on unofficial Web sites and passed around via e-mail. Meanwhile, a number of ReBirth-only musicians have set up a virtual community of their own on MP3.com, posting dozens of Rebirth-only tracks and releasing three compilation CDs.

“Every which way you care to measure it, it’s big,” says Wing Poon of the ReBirth community. “In age, in geography, in musical tastes, in lifestyle, in professions, in food preferences, in philosophical standpoints. The range is as wide as music’s appeal to people around the world.”

Well, not quite: the Rebirth community is overwhelmingly, even somewhat oppressively, male — you’ll have to look long and hard to find any female ReBirthers. But the cult does indeed span the globe: You can find ReBirth users — thousands of them, judging by the software’s sales — tucked away in nearly every nook and cranny of the world, from Iceland to Saudi Arabia, from Latvia to the Dominican Republic. (In pulling together this piece, I corresponded with a 49-year-old financial controller in Sheffield, England, a computer consultant from Sweden and the San Francisco plumber, among others.)

It’s “like a wet dream coming true,” says Propellerhead CEO Ernst Nathorst of his software’s near-cult status. “Naturally, we’re happy about the fact that so many musicians all over the planet have chosen our creation. But it is even more fantastic to see how active they are, exchanging songs, communicating via e-mail, forming bands, creating mods, supporting each other, etc.”

Much of this activity takes place at the Propellerhead site itself. The company has embraced the mod scene, posting officially sanctioned mods on their home page (only the slickest looking and sounding qualify) and developing free software tools to assist in mod-making. Now would-be mod makers don’t have to hack anything at all — merely replace the default sound samples and graphics with files of their own, using Propellerhead software’s ModPacker or the fan-built ReNovator.

So what is it about this software that inspires such dedication? Much of the appeal can be traced to the almost magical properties of the Roland 303 itself. As Simon Reynolds points out in “Generation Ecstasy,” his recent history of techno music and rave culture, the 303 produces “bass patterns as polytendriled and trippy as a computer fractal, riddled with wiggly nuances, smeary glissandi, curlicues and whorls. Precisely because programming the machine is so complicated, the 303 tends to generate inspired errors and happy accidents, in much the same way that chaos theory generates complex phenomenon out of simple iterated processes.”

But the current cult status of ReBirth transcends acid house nostalgia. Though some ReBirth songs sound virtually identical to the stripped-down acid house of the late ’80s, many of those making the music today have never touched a Roland in the real world — and may not have even heard acid house before they started twiddling the ReBirth knobs.

“One can create very complex stand-alone tracks entirely with ReBirth alone that sound very 1999,” says Schissler. “I suspect that few users have ever seen a 303, 808, 909 and many probably had never heard of such things prior to learning about ReBirth.”

Part of the key to ReBirth’s appeal is that the software not only recreates the sound of the 303 — it recreates the experience of using a 303 as well, and for considerably less money. The interface is a mass of knobs and faders that can be adjusted and readjusted (with mouse clicks) in real time. Like the Roland machines it emulates, ReBirth is built for fiddlers and twiddlers. With just a few quick twists of a knob, you can transform its sound from austere Kraftwerk-style bleeps to skronky, funky bass noodlings; the notes themselves become far less important than how they sound.

The experience of Rebirth can be as exhilarating and addictive as any deeply immersive video game: it’s Daft Punk, the home version.

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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