Good Technology

keyboardsBy the mid 1970s, electronic effects and early synthesizers were nothing new, but they were totally out of the price range for ordinary people. Keyboard wizards like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson had been twiddling away for most of the previous decade. Often classically trained, many prog rock musicians used the new technology to administer clever arpeggios, choir sounds or even end of the world explosion noises to give their respective projects both gravitas and a pinch of techno-elitism. The equipment was specialist, complex and very, very expensive.

home organOther examples of bewildering and expensive equipment of the 1970s included the home organ. Aunty Betty had one. Mostly it was obscured by a layer of dusty doilies and pot plants, but very occassionally she’d open it up, switch it on and trundle out something that sounded a bit like the songs you’d hear at the ice rink. Vibrato-ed versions of “The Last Waltz”, eked out by slowly following the colour coded dots on the instruction booklet. Whether it was The Last Waltz or not, that’s how everything sounded.

EH-R-12-BIGIn 1976, guitar effects manufacturers Electro-Harmonix, quietly released a budget drum machine. Initially intended as a practice tool for guitarists, the Rhythm-12 had preset rhythms and a tempo and volume control. It was one of the first low budget drum machines on the market. You can hear it in all its glory at dubsounds.com

Initially, and with 12 onboard rhythm patterns to choose from, plus a tempo control, the possibilities seemed endless. Having had access to one myself in the early eighties, I can report back that after an hour or so, the possibilities seemed fairly limited, but it was new, and a new way of approaching things was sometimes all that mattered. You could be your own one girl bedroom band and record all your scrappy attempts at songwriting ….but this time WITH DRUMS!!!

In the hands of dance music producers, electronica took on a whole new dimension. Far from the noodling layers and special effects of progressive rock, synthesizers were allowed to do what they do best – stabbing out rhythmic and repetitive riffs. Released in 1977, producer Georgio Moroder used full on machinery to drive the incredible “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, and despite its Disco beat…you couldn’t help but take notice.

1280px-Casio_vl_toneThe giant leap forward for the bedroom band was the release of Casio’s VL-1 keyboard in June 1979, it was the first commercially available monophonic synthesiser. With it’s button keys and child sized dimensions, it was portable, accessible, and most importantly utterly unassuming. It was exactly those toy-like qualities along with its price tag and the fact that you were automatically limited to playing one note at a time, that made it so popular.

Bands started to form with new technology at its core. Casiotone followed up with the polyphonic MT60, as did other manufacturers who released their own budget techno to keep up with the interest. Gone was the need for any particular line-up, and by 1981 artists like Tubeway Army, Depeche Mode and Soft Cell began the move to reconfigure what we even meant by “band”. In 1982, the band Trio featured the full sonic force of the Casio VL-1 on their super smash hit “Da Da Da” – they even took it onto Top of The Pops with them, to show just how futuristic they were feeling.

Until 1980, the classic band line up of drums, bass and guitar was almost unavoidable because there were no easy alternatives; no synths, no sequencers, no drum machines. If you wanted drums you had to have a drummer, but post 1980 and with the advent of affordable technology, bands could comprise of any number of people, or hardly any at all … as long as they had machines. It really did feel like the future had arrived.

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1 thought on “Good Technology

  1. As OMD were fond of saying, what could be more Punk than not even learning how to play a guitar [complete with requisite bloody fingers…] and still making music in the most direct way possible. Best of all, even a cheap mono Casiotone keyboard could be transformed dramatically if you ran it through a pedal or reverb box. One the positive side, the barriers to entry for making music dramatically lowered in the new era. A few hundred for a for a cheap synth and a Portastudio enabled a generation of bedroom music makers to express their ideas. On the other hand, the possibility of “preset pop” became manifest. As usual, the ones with the better ideas rose to the top of the heap. All of this just in time for the wave of New Pop [ca. 1981-1982] where a premium was placed on one’s ideas about Pop rather than boring technique. I maintain that on the axis of ideas-technique that the closer the artist is to the “ideas” end of the axis, the more I am apt to enjoy their work. People who can sing and play well, but have nothing of interest to say about the human condition were chaff to my ears.

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