History of Techno Music - The Synths And The Samples PT I
Part I - 1970s to 1980s
The Dawn Of Techno Music Production.
Whether you're a Techno aficionado, a producer looking for inspiration on your next Techno piece or just seeking out some authentic sources for your sample packs we've put together a 3 part series tracking the history of Techno music all from a synthesizer and sampling perspective.
We look at the hardware used at the time, helping you understand what equipment and synthesizers were used in Techno music from its inception right the way through to the current. A look at how the hardware has changed, and in some ways gone full circle.
But to start the history of Techno music production we need to start back in the late 70s.
Electronic synth music from Great Britain, the European continent and even Japan was fast becoming the music of the time, now household names like David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Gary Numan were making their mark on the music scene alongside the Italo Disco sounds of Georgia Moroder and Synth Pop Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Music was evolving from traditional instrument bands to a new class of sound, a sound of the future, a sound of electronic, the sound of power and individuality.
These sounds, already rippling their way across continents and oceans to the USA reaching Detroit, the birthplace of Techno, and we can pin it right down to a suburb named Belleville where a trio of class friends Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May spent their late 70s and early 80s listening and talking about the synth music emerging from across the world.
With drum machines such as the Boss DR-55 and the fabled Roland TR-808 becoming more readily available on the used market allowing producers opportunity to create music without a traditional band formation.
Detroit was recovering from severe post Vietnam war economic downturn and there was a distinct counter culture movement simmering away. The trio took a trip to Chicago where Disco and House music was already becoming popular.
From these experiences in Chicago they came back to Detroit and reimagined their own versions of Disco and House, infusing the styles with the more minimalist, industrial influences from Detroit and thus Techno was born.
Now we understand a bit about the inception and influence, Llet's take a look at the popular synths used during those early pioneering days of Techno music.
ARP Odyssey and the smaller ARP 2600
Listening to the audio demo below it's becomes very quickly apparent why the ARP Odyssey and 2600 became so popular in the early Techno days. It's minimal organic sound, coupled with big modulation provided a solid tonal framework of which Techno was built upon. It did everything, from Drums well before the TR-808 was even on the drawing board, it did dark, tearing bass sounds, noises, blips, squeaks, resonating lead lines and pretty much everything else in between.
The inclusion of a Ring Modulator and snappy envelope generators really helped shape the minimalist style percussive and drum sounds which so early on started to define Techno
- Oscillators - 3 VCOs: VCO 1 saw / sqr; VCO 2 saw / sqr / tri / pulse / sine; VCO 3 saw / sqr / pulse
- Filter - 24db lowpass, self-oscillating; Digital Ring Modulator:
- VCA - Env 1: ADSR
- Env 2: AR; Linear or Exponential control; Envelope Follower
Korg MS-10 and MS-20
This MS-10 power synth, popular for its resonating aggressive tone, being monophonic it couldn't provide chords, instead being used for its weird, sci-fi type sounds, blips, flashes, lfo drops amongst the more usual bass and leads.
With Juan Atkins recording demo tapes of sounds from his Korg MS-10 setting the scene for what was to become a whole movement in music stating in his interview with Korg
.."What defined my sound is that I would make total electronic productions. I would take the MS-10 and make drum sounds out of a closed filter with gated noise, some kick drums and high hat sounds, on and off, all off of the MS-10. I would make a whole drum kit just based off gated noise and filtered noise, and build up these arrangements, they were totally done on this one synthesizer. The sound was amazing."..
- Oscillators - 1 VCO with mixable white/pink noise generator
- LFO - One LFO w/ multiple waveforms
- Filter - One lowpass VCF
- VCA - ADSR with Hold
- Control - CV/GATE
The Drum machine of choice of early electronic music pioneers before the TR-808 had reached the scene.
It had a limited feature set featuring just 4 sounds but through the the built in step sequencer it provided the rhythmic drum sounds that sat behind early Techno music.
Comparatively inexpensive for the time and with a 16-step drum patterns it set the musical roadmap of which Techno started its journey on and was an early pioneer in step sequencing drum machines, firmly paving the way for the TR-808 the following year.
- Polyphony: 4 Voices
- Sounds: 4 sounds (Kick, Snare, Rim, Hat)
Released a year later than the Boss DR-55 the TR-808 is considered one of the most influential drum machines of all time. Initially picking up appeal in the Hip Hop genres it was soon after seized upon by Techno music pioneers and Electronic music experimentalists and was hugely influential in shaping the early stages of Techno.
Musicians could easily program their own drum patterns via the built in step sequencer with a toggle switch to trigger each sound and triggered sounds being represented across the 16 light up buttons it was easy to grasp.
Early techno musicians played the 808 out live over hours long club sessions a far cry away from Rolands original intent of it being a studio drummer replacement.
The TR-808 used synthesis rather than samples to produce drum sounds, these artificial synthetic drum sounds and initially derided mechanical style drum rhythms instantly found a new fans amongst Techno producers and DJs.
- Polyphony: 12 Voices
- Sounds - Kick, Snare, Low/Mid/Hi Toms, Low/Mid/Hi Congas, Rimshot, Claves, Hand clap, Maracas, Cow bell, Cymbal, Open hihat, Closed hihat, Accent
Roland TB-303 Bassline
The TB-303 sounds influence in Techno music is not to be underestimated.
Much like the TR-808, its original purpose was to be a substitute for a real human Bassist when the need surfaced. But again the static mechanical sound and limited flexibility prevented them catching on and TB-303s quickly started filling up second hand shops.
Its low price on the used market and the mainstream unpopularity was a powerful combo in the underground counter culture scene so it was quickly absorbed into the producers repertoire and integrated itself into Techno sound.
- Oscillators - 1 VCO : Sawtooth or Square waveforms.
- Filter - 18dB/oct lowpass resonant filter
- VCA - Control pots for Decay time and Accent intensity
- Sequencer - Patterns: 64; Songs: 7
- Control - CV / GATE / DIN Sync
Sequential Circuits Pro-One
A highly influential synth in the early Techno music production scene.
Relatively low cost in comparison to the Poly synths like the larger Prophet 5 of the time the Pro-One featured a big, bold sound and the Curtis filter lent itself well to lead sounds, mono pads, bass and sharp resonant sounds.
Featuring a built in Arpeggiator and Sequencer this no doubt helped it's popularity in the emerging Techno music scene, the ability to CV sync your TR808 and Pro-One for pulsing rhythmic bassline and kick rhythms making producers, DJ's and musicians really feel like they were at the cutting edge of a new realm of music production.
- Oscillators - 2 VCOs, VCO A saw/pulse, VCO B saw/tri/pulse, Noise
- LFO - saw, tri, pulse
- Filter - 4-pole lowpass with Cutoff, Resonance, ADSR Envelope, Keyboard Tracking
- VCA - ADSR Env
- Control - CV/GATE
Roland RS-09 string synth
Juan Atkins, father of Techno himself was quoted confirming to owning and using an RS-09 string machine in his early Techno days.
Being Polyphonic and aimed at an Organ and String machine it offered a range of sounds such as pad chords that simply weren't available on other machines.
- Polyphony - Duo/Polyphonic
- Oscillators - 2 VCOs (String or Organ)
- Effects - Ensemble/Chorus
- Control - Gate Out only
The DX7s' the first real all digital synth, appealing to musicians due to the cost, a feeling of owning a piece of the future as a step forward from large, heavy analogue machines and the distinctive tones offered by the digital architecture. It was also one of the first synths to come with MIDI capability, which was cutting edge for the time.
It relied on just 1 data slider for input and control and a tiny LCD screen for visual feedback it was a nightmare to program and is largely credited for being responsible for spawning the after market synth preset industry.
Those who could program the DX-7 however were rewarded with a plethora of sounds unobtainable anywhere else. Best exemplified by this Techno demo below in which every Techno sound is being sequenced from the DX7
- Polyphony: 16 voices
- Oscillators: 16 bit Digital 6 operator FM
- LFO: Sine/Square/Tri/SAW up/SAW Down/Random
- VCA: 6 Envelope generators 8 parameters each
In Part II of our next instalment we look at how the hardware evolved through the early 90s and into the 00's including the rise of the hardware sampler and 'virtual' analogue synth and what impact this had on the Techno sound along with the wider genres.