The intersection of music and technology is a space for happy accidents. From Bowie and Eno throwing away synthesizer manuals to the advent of DJs scratching records, the misuse of machinery results in groundbreaking sounds. In that spirit, we bring you this short list of music tech
The centerpiece here and most contemporary of the bunch is Roland’s SP-404. The sampling workstation came after the popular SP-303. Though utilized by heavy hitters like Radiohead, Grimes, and Beck, the 404’s richest legacy is in the Los Angeles-centered Lo-fi movement.
Much like Roland-relatives the TR-808 and TR-909, the 404 is enjoying a resurgence. In particular, Flying Lotus and Dibia$e both infiltrated streaming platforms using the device. Celebrate its legacy with this video on the artists creating groundbreaking music with the SP-404. Additionally, listen to this playlist to hear some brilliant music tech in action.
Flying Lotus, Madvillain, J Dilla
“All Caps,” “She Moves She,” and “Workinonit”
When Roland released the TB-303 Bass Line in 1981, it debuted as an accompaniment tool for guitarist. Discontinued in 1984, the misunderstood box flooded second-hand music stores. Meanwhile, inventive Chicago electronic producers like DJ Pierre of Phuture experimented with the 303. These pioneers found its squelching sound energizing.
The rest is the stuff of rave history. The TB-303 gave birth to the acid house movement. It remains a music tech and cultural touchstone.
Phuture, Josh Wink, A Guy Called Gerald
“Acid Tracks,” “Higher State of Consciousness,” and “Voodoo Ray”
Many associate the Theremin with sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. However, it started life as a Soviet research tool. Invented by Lev Sergeyevich Termen, early players could manipulated the instrument without contact. A miraculous device, indeed.
The Theremin consists of antennae and a pair of oscillators for frequency and amplitude. Initially, it was more novelty piece than true music tech tool. In later years, the sound of Termen’s creation graced classics by the Beach Boys and others. Since then, it’s even the subject of a documentary. Get lost in the Theremin’s spooky tones on the playlist below.
Beach Boys, Flaming Lips, Portishead
The Theremin isn’t the only music tech item here with espionage in its past. Originally designed by Homer Dudley of Bell Labs, the vocoder was used to mask communications during WWII.
The vocoder’s complex filter system became a party trick for creating robotic sounds. The device is equally important to Laurie Andersen’s art rock and the disguised vocals of Daft Punk. Dudley’s visually striking (and vaguely menacing) device remains the go-to instrument for android emulation.