As tech goes, so went tech-dependent music. The evolution of electronic music coincides closely with technological advances in music production tools, and the expansion of styles can be traced, with uncanny accuracy, to releases of new gear. After a launch or update, artists would find new and original ways to use the tools available, and they often exploited the quirks and flaws of a piece of gear to produce their music. As portable synthesizers evolved through the 1970s and ’80s, electronic artists welcomed the new sonic palette as the means to express the aesthetics of a generation that grew up in the Digital Revolution.
Heading into the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s, new waves of electronic musicians embraced technology’s increasing potential, but still retained and refined the sounds of the iconic synthesizers and drum machines of ’80s. These iconic tools can be broken down to three basic categories: synthesizers, drum machines and samplers, and turntables and CDJs. Below, you’ll find the quintessential pieces of gear in each category, followed by albums that best utilized the gear.
Sounds from Outer Space
In 1971, Bob Moog released the Minimoog, the first fully integrated synthesizer. Built for portability, the instrument features knobs and buttons to control sounds as opposed to the cumbersome patch cables found on earlier modular synths. Though the Minimoog can’t play more than one note at once (leaving chords and layers out of the question), the high quality of the sound still attracts musicians.
Essential Album: One of the pioneers of electronic music, German group Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (1974) prominently features the versatile sounds of the Minimoog. In conjunction with electronic drums, a couple other synths, and some acoustic instruments, Kraftwerk captures the feeling of driving along the famed high-speed motorway. With the smooth, otherworldly synth lines and recurring thematic material, the music gives a feeling of both stasis, as you’d get from sitting in a car, and momentum, being propelled through a landscape.
Roland released the Transistorized Bass 303 in 1981 as a tool that could record and play bass accompaniments for solo guitarists. The 303 was designed with a quasi-keyboard button interface that allowed users to input note data into the sequencer. With a wonky, inauthentic bass sound and a user interface that was less than friendly, the instrument was sidelined until DJs in the early Chicago house music scene started to experiment with it. The 303s idiosyncratic sound is frequently described as squelchy, but it can be tweaked endlessly, which lent to its popularity.
Essential Albums: The TB-303 shows off its otherworldly sounds in Jesse Saunders On and On (1984), the first album by the godfather of House music. The influence of disco and R&B is quite prevalent on the record, but Saunders interspersed revolving lyrics and mesmerizing melodies into the mix. Then there’s Richie Hawtin, known for his minimalist techno music produced under the alias Plasktikman. He was on the forefront of the Detroit techno scene in the 1990s, and Sheet One (1993) is Hawtin’s first recording as Plastikman and showcases the TB-303 in clean, layered sound. Spacey sounds from the 303 interweave with drum beats and percussive hits in long, repetitive grooves. Finally, there’s Tommy Hamilton and Keith Tucker, who make up Aux 88, a techno group from Detroit that is known for pulsing bass-heavy tracks. The 303’s squelchy low end is prominent on the group’s second release, Is It Man or Machine (1996).
The lineage of electronic music is murky: within the umbrella term of electronica, genres spawn countless subgenres and artists frequently record under a number of different aliases, so a little background is helpful.
In the 1970s, European and Japanese groups experimented with synths and drum machines, which paved the way for synthpop — which features a synthesizer as the main melody instrument. But the effervescent quality of synthpop didn’t resonate well with everyone, and its style was contrasted most notably in the Midwestern United States. Chicago and Detroit, in the mid- to late ’80s, planted different seeds of electronica. House music began in Chicago, at a club called the Warehouse, and this groove-heavy dance music was influenced by disco and funk. Over the decade, it would grow to become the most popular type of electronica. In Detroit, minimalist techno was born — DJs would mix up to 70 records in a hour, layering fast beats that continuously transformed over a night. In the clubs, young people found an outlet to dance and electronic artists found a venue to experiment. A few years later, a genre of electronica sprung up in UK clubs called jungle. Influenced by the dub music of Jamaica, jungle music grew as an expression of London’s urban youth, and included faster, more disjointed rhythms.
The yin to all this dance music’s yang came in the form of ambient music. In clubs, ambient music served a utilitarian purpose and was played in specific rooms, where dancers could relax. Ambient music has since grown from its functional roots into a highly complex art. Within electronica, genres have crossbred freely, resulting in countless microgenres. Though the lines between subgenres are blurry and the genres themselves are hyper specific, the essential tools used to create electronic music are universal.
Drum Machines and Samplers
Roland TR-808 & TR-909
Released in 1980, the Transistor Rhythm 808 was created to allow musicians to replicate the sound of a drum kit and then record and play back beats (it could store up to 32 patterns). With a relatively affordable price and sounds that were artificial in the best possible way, the 808 became an iconic tool in both electronic music and hip-hop by the early 1990s. The Roland TR-909, the 808’s successor, raised the bar by including digital samples for cymbal and hi-hat sounds and a 16-step sequencer (16 buttons along the bottom of the interface that correspond to beat values in a measure) that allowed users to more easily manipulate grooves and chain up to 96 patterns together. Like the 808, the 909 offers perks of low cost and quirky sounds, making it incredibly popular in the dance music world.
Essential Albums: Yellow Magic Orchestra, made up of Haruomi Hossono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, was the first band to use the TR-808. The artificial drum sound of the 808 found a welcome home among the world of synth melodies found on BGM (1981). Paving the way for synthpop, the sounds on BGM were emulated by countless producers throughout the 1980s. On the ambient spectrum, there’s Richard D. James, who produces music under the name Aphex Twin and AFX. Analord (2003-2005) is a set of 11 EPs — made up of 42 tracks recorded over a period of three years — that finds a balance between the ambient music that made James famous and acid techno (featuring the melting lines of the TB-303).
Akai S1000 and MPC Series
The Akai S1000 sampler was released in 1988 and became an instant hit with producers for its ability to splice, crossfade and trim music in 16-bit CD quality. The S1000 also has the ability to stretch time in music without altering the pitch. Its general ease of use and high audio quality make it a favorite, especially for jungle and drum & bass DJs. The MPC (Music Production Center) sampling sequencer was first released in 1991, but had such a following that Akai released updated models every few years until 2012. The MPC allows users to sample, manipulate, store and sequence music (later models include features such as a 300,000-note sequencer and a 64-track mixer).
Essential Albums: Scottish duo Boards of Canada, consisting of Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, effortlessly blend elements of ambient and downtempo electronica with complex elements of IDM (“intelligent dance music”) on Geogaddi (2002). Though the use of the Akai S1000 may not be evident to the listener, the sampler played an integral role in melding surreal audio samples into an undulating aural texture. There’s also Guillermo Scott Herren, the producer known as Prefuse 73, who combined elements of hip-hop, electronica and failures of electronics (glitches) into a subgenre referred to as glitch-hop. The second studio album released by Prefuse 73, One World Extinguisher (2003), was made using an Akai MPC and features wobbly grooves intermingling with funky samples in highly structured pieces.
Turntables and CDJs
Layers Upon Layers
Technics SL-1200 Series & Pioneer CDJs
The backbone of any DJ setup has always consisted of turntables and a mixer. A minimum of two decks are used to layer beats in real time, but great DJs can mix up to four. As technology has evolved, DJ equipment has followed suit, and turntables like the Technics SL-1200 series have fallen out of favor (because let’s face it, lugging around cases of vinyl is heavy) while feature-packed CDJs like the Pioneer CDJ-2000, released in 2009, have become mainstream.
Essential Albums: Hailing from Detroit, Jeff Mills is a minimalist techno DJ whose work in the early 1990s elevated him to god-like status in the electronica world. Mills’ live setup is stripped down and consists of three decks (previously Technics turntables, but now Pioneer CDJs) and a Roland TR-909. Showing the master in his element, Live at The Liquid Room – Tokyo (1996) is quintessential techno. Then there’s Ricardo Villalobos, who blends house music and minimal techno on In the Mix: Taka Taka (2003) creating a subgenre called microhouse. This album is not overtly sophisticated and allows for Villalobos’ skills — making selections and mixing tracks — to shine.