Back in the late seventies I was house producer in a recording studio. One day an artist brought in a little black box called a ìBoss Dr Rhythmî. It was the first time I had seen a drum machine. It was cute looking machine about 6 inches by 4 but no drummer would have felt threatened by it. The machine was programmed in steps of 12 or 16 (beats per bar) and had a selection of sounds that were close to drum sounds but very electronic and the rhythms it produced were quite robotic. What interested me was that you could now have a ìdrummerî at home to practise, write songs with and make simple pre-demos. I went out and bought one for seventy quid, actually I wish I still had it now. (Thanks to Joseph Rivers you can play this machine virtually – Click Here)
The Dr Rhythm was produced by Roland. Roland later came out with another, more sophisticated drum machine called the Roland TR-808. This machine had more sounds and functions but to my ears the sounds were still a bit thin and electronic. However, the convenience of being able to programme beats and make recordings without having a drummer answer you back was quite alluring. (Actually, I think one of the main reasons there was a desire to replace drums with a machine was that the most time consuming part of any recording session was setting up the drums microphones and getting the sound right). Around this time the Linn Drum came out which sounded very close to the real thing but it cost a fortune. I took out a second mortgage and bought the next best thing, a Drumulator. The thing about the Linn Drum and the Drumulator was that they were fully programmable but used samples of REAL drums. They sounded pretty convincing at the time but I can now spot most records made in the 80’s using the Linn Drum.
Shortly after purchasing the Drumulator, I visited the music store that sold it to me. I heard a sound coming from the demonstration area. They were most embarrassed; shortly after taking an arm and a leg from me for the Drumulator, Yamaha had just released a range of drum machines that came very close to the real thing but cost just a little over 200 quid! Not to be outdone Roland also produced a series of machines that were also very good. Of these the Roland TR-909 was destined to become a classic. About the same time Roland also released a partner piece of kit called the Roland TB-303 ìBass Lineî which I actually thought sounded ridiculous. However the TR-909, TR-808 and the TB-303 were about to become classics. Some people probably threw them in a skip, others are probably making a fortune on e-bay. (I forget what I did with my Roland TR-707 but that was only a near classic)
My early opinion of these machines was based on how closely they emulated real instruments but as it turned out, this was not their major selling point. Possibly one of the most memorable uses of the TR-808 was on Marvin Gaye’s ìSexual Healingî. It is also quite prominent on Chris De Burgh’s ìLady In Redî. Phil Collins has used it a lot too, not to replace real drums but to supplement them. The TR-909, particularly the bass drum is heard on virtually every dance record of the late 80’s and through the nineties. Then with the Acid House craze the TR-909 and TB-303 combination became de-rigueur.
In 1997 something very influential in (electronic) music making happened. This was long after productions on these devices had ceased so if you wanted that sound you would have to trawl the second hand shops and probably pay a fortune. Swedish software producers, Propellerheads came up with ìRebirthî. Rebirth was/is a virtual music production machine consisting of a TR-909, a TR-808 and TWO TB-303’s. Not only did these “virtual instruments” sound like their namesakes but they looked and operated just like the hardware versions too. It seems perfectly logical now as these machines are simply computers themselves but at the time this was groundbreaking. Propellerheads have gone on to produce some fantastic software with their flagship being ìReasonî, a whole rack of virtual synths, effects and samplers etc.
Now, in September 2005 Propellerheads have announced that they are ceasing production of Rebirth. To commemorate this influential piece of kit they have placed it in a museum that we can all visit on the web. Visitors to the Rebirth Museum can download a copy of Rebirth for FREE. YES ! the Propellerheads team have now made Rebirth a free program and it’s free to distribute so long as their copyright is observed. Also freely downloadable from the site are nearly 4000 songs and a large range of MODS. (Mods change the appearance and sound set of your Rebirth module).
I bought this software some time ago but what excites me about this development is it means that I can now distribute CD’s. This means I can run some music projects and introduce people to this program without worrying about the budget.
Some people advocate “drag and drop” packages like Acid and Dance EJay as tools to introduce people to music making. I’m not a great fan of “drag and drop” wav loop packages ’causeI don’t think you learn anything by making music this way. Alternatively, using Rebirth even a non musician could, with a little help start making something with Rebirth where they are in full creative control. Because Rebirth utilises step programming and builds tracks using patterns it demonstrates perfectly the connection between maths and music and therefore could be a great tool for numeracy projects.
It also has great potential for collaborative projects too. Because all the sounds are generated by your computer the files that actually make up the songs are relatively small. You could email a song to a friend and the file would drive their version of Rebirth. They might add a little more to the track and send it back to you. Other online collaboration tools could be built. This has been possible for some time using other music building tools but not without a cost factor or a free program of the stature of Rebirth.
Thank you Propellerheads for great software and a great business ethic!
Thank you to Joseph Rivers for some of the Images taken from his The Audio Playground Synthesizer Museum. I’d like to visit there one day. Meanwhile we can visit the museum online.
And a couple more Synth museums:-