Beyond the Underneath: The humble machine that created acid house

Derin Savasan / The Tufts Daily

The 11th edition of the music production software “Ableton” was officially launched on Feb. 23rd. The next day, the Shanghai Ableton User Group had a jam session with the newest version of Ableton implemented, as well as a range of electronic music instruments.

I walked toward the drum machine and saw John adjusting the nobs. This was my first time seeing him not in front of a DJ set but something else. He said he doesn’t necessarily like producing tracks, but he likes “machines.” He handed me the headphones and started to adjust another “machine.” Along with the classic 4/4 house beat, the bass sound from the headphones became more and more acidic. I started to smile. 

About acid. Acid is a subgenre of house music and techno that has a very polarized spectrum of like and dislike from both music consumers and producers. You could tell from its name that this genre does not have the “everyone would like me” type of persona because, just like how its name is said, it’s not neutral.

The acid sound is so eroding and squelchy, you could find it extremely edgy and relieving in terms of its rawness and fluidity, or extremely irritating and unbearable in terms of its fickleness and squeaky resonance. It’s either the feeling of being immersed in a pool of energy and anticipation, or the feeling of being locked inside an unbearable boiling pot of auditory torture. Sometimes acid music literally sounds like acid — boiling and popping bubbles of music notes. It can be artistically concrete in the imitation of liquid but also abstract and malleable to create other audio environments.

“303?” I asked.

“No, TB-3 — similar!”

I wished the synthesizer, or the “machine,” he was adjusting was a Roland TB-303 since TB-303x is the synthesizer that technically created the sound of acid. TB-3, as it says on its official website, is “based on the wildly influential TB-303.”

Even though nowadays TB-303 is being acknowledged as one of the most influential synthesizers in the history of electronic music, it was a commercial failure at first. So much so that the synthesizer was discontinued in 1984, only two years after its first release. Its original purpose of mimicking bass guitar sound to accompany musicians in live performance was questioned back then due to its squelchy tone that didn’t resemble an authentic bass sound at all.

However, in 1987, a group of electronic musicians called Phuture from Chicago started to experiment with the potential of TB-303. They created the unique squelching, resonant and liquid sound” and released “Acid Tracks” in 1987 that marked the birth of the acid genre. 

Some notes in “Acid Tracks” still make me squint due to the sharp, penetrative popping squeaks. Nevertheless, the evolving tone from rumbles to bubbles and the ever-changing nature of this track show off the great flexibility and capacity of acid.

I was playing around with the nobs and sequencing on TB-3, trying to bring out as much various tonality as possible. That’s the reason I like acid music: it’s raw, radical and boundless. It mingles with your heartbeat and makes you wonder what could arrive next.


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