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Part 2: Return of Analog

Back to Exploring Analog series

A Long Time Ago

Ah, the simple beauty of an analog signal. That, right there was what started the analog hype in California half a century ago. To be able to use a simple signal as a control pulse, let it interact with other signals and convey musical information; these uses meant anyone could experiment with combinations of oscillators, filters and amplifier components bought by the ounce from a nearby Radio Shack. Similar musical experiments took off in other corners of the world, fueled by very different ideas, music and hair.
“I think there are variations of techno which are still a level underground. The true, stripped-down sound for the underground.”
Tommy Hamilton of AUX 88, who started out using SH-101s and 808s when analog was clinically declared dead, discusses what makes Detroit such a pivotal place for techno bass to emerge.
Read the Elektronauts Talk

The Great Analog is Dead

For an analog revival to happen, it first had to die, and die it did. The popularity of analog synths dropped sharply by the late Seventies, partly because of the fixation of trying to achieve natural and realistic sounding instruments. Sure, we can make a pretty convincing electric guitar sound by running an analog sawtooth signal through a resonant filter and a proper amp, but in terms of realism, the synths didn’t compare well to traditional instruments. Hold on, what if we direct some of our analog experimentation toward making a drum machine instead?

Long Live the Analog!

If we make a low oscillator tone with a very quick attack and decay, we’ve got a rudimentary bass drum. Let a pulse trigger a resonant filter directly, to produce another tonal drum. We could trigger bursts of noise from an analog component to make a hi-hat, or alternate triggering a whole bunch of oscillators extremely quickly to get the metallic shimmer of a cymbal. The possibilities are endless. There were some artists who embraced the fact that synthetic instruments had a transcendent quality, that unnatural, for art, disruption and progress was a good thing and mimicry was not.

Then the TR-808 happened. Few of its drum sounds were convincingly realistic, but as it happened, people didn’t want realistic in a musical machine. They wanted different, distinct and awesome rather than real. The Eighties, kicked off with this iconic piece of kit, saw analog synthesis stake its claim in the emerging digital age. Just listen to the riveting, sensual impact of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. Public Enemy, Whitney Houston, Beastie Boys and Cybotron all used it. Besides being a definitive part of most breeds and blends of techno, you’ll still hear Kanye West, Beyoncé and Britney Spears sing its praise.

Digital Rules

Not so fast. Digital ruled the Eighties, right? Digital computer chips capable of sampling or FM synthesis replaced analog components in synths and drum machines. Arguably the first sample-based drum machine, the Linn LM-1, was also released in 1980. Faster, cheaper, better, huh? No, not really, just different. Digital did give us new forms of synthesis, more detailed control and repeatability, though. What if we could have both at the same time?
“Often, I have a sound on a synth or a drum machine, and I want it louder or I want it more punchy or I want it richer, you know, I want it more aggressive.”
Susanne Sundfør, no stranger to experimentation or beautiful combinations of acoustic, analog, and digital sounds, loves her Machinedrum and Analog Heat.
Read the Elektronauts Talk

We’re All Connected

Forget all the above. There are pure vibes. Few other things were ever pure analog or pure digital. For as long as we can remember, hybrid synths and drum machines were some of the most memorable, exciting and useful ones. The ones where the digital and the analog duties were balanced just right. In terms of sound, connectivity and control.

One neat example of this is found in the sound engine of the Analog Rytm. Each voice offers a selection of machines. Each machine presents a different arrangement and use of the analog components. For example: the machine called CLASSIC uses a VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator) with a dedicated amp and envelope to produce clear, deep and melodic 808ish kick sounds. Switching to the machine called FM instantly (thanks to digital control of the array of analog oscillators) turns it into a two-oscillator frequency modulation synthesis kick instead, for that sizzling electric kick sound.

The point here was to illustrate the massive coming of age of the drum machine in recent history. It has made the journey from being a shy and simple beat box, hiding in a dark corner, to stealing center stage and becoming an instrument in its own right, defining entire genres. Was that clear at all? Never mind, none of that matters here. The greatest thing about the drum machine is not its past merits, or what we use it for today, it is all the future wonders we’ll create.

Analog Drum Machine Timeline

There have been so many rhythmic machines throughout history; the first mechanical ones probably date back hundreds or even thousands of years. Here, we present a choice of seven analog drum machines from recent history. Naturally, we throw the Rytm in there because we think our take on analog is pretty special.

1967 1972 1980 1983 1997 2011 2014

1967 – Mini Pops

Korg released many versions of this portable organ beat box during the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies. This travelling musician’s beat box started the race among manufacturers to minaturize drum machines, and it contributed to the curious, repetitive sound of early electronic and experimental music.

1972 – ComputeRhythm

Featured a small set of primitive drum sounds and radio buttons for programming patterns. Patterns could be stored and re-loaded using punch cards (data storage made of stiff paper). Despite its name, the sounds were all buzzes, clicks and chimes made by analog components. Produced by EKO.

1980 – TR-808

Roland made this neat piece of technology, which made sure analog sound staked its claim into the future, too. The clear, melodic sound of the 808 was heard throughout all popular genres: R&B, soul, funk, disco, hip hop, rock, you name it. Became intertwined with the rise and evolution of techno.

1983 – TR-909

The successor to the 808 had more distinct, raw sounding analog engines and PCM samples. A perfect companion to the 808 for the early techno producers emerging out of Detroit at the time. Which one do we love more? The 808 with its strong low analog kick and its melodic cowbell, or the aggressive 909 with its digital crash, ride and hat? It’s a tie.

1997 – XBase 09

In a decade when music software and sample libraries was the norm, and decent emulation of classic analog drum machines began to take off, this little shiny beauty by JoMoX stood out in the thin crowd of hardware analog drum machines. Offering a delicate mix of analog sound generation and digital samples, this was truly an heir to the 909 (and the 808), for a new breed of musicians.

2011 – Tempest

This robust and, as always, excellent piece of analog hardware from Dave Smith Instruments is nothing short of a complete programmable drum synthesizer, performance instrument and sequencer, packed with a hefty number of pre-set samples from classic drum machines.

2014 – Analog Rytm

With loads of great analog drum synthesis, digital samples and new musical ideas, this Elektron instrument brings nearly a century of drum machine history under one sleek hood. The improved MKII version from 2017 added quick and easy sampling and more powerful performance controls.

Analog Rytm MKII

Fuse distinctive analog percussion with samples. Bring in the power of sequencing and performance controls. The Analog Rytm MKII is a one stop solution beat machine.

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Analog Four MKII

The Analog Four MKII represents the best of two worlds. Inimitable analog impact combined with razor-sharp digital accuracy. This is an analog synthesizer for the creative artist.

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