Along the Lines of the Roland TB-303: Three Perversions of Acid Techno

Botond Vitos

Monash University, Australia

DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2014.06.01.14

During the early years of electronic dance music (EDM), certain producers discovered creative new ways for using drum machines and synthesisers which had been originally designated by manufacturers as substitutes for “real” instruments and human performers. These artists, sometimes accidentally or unintentionally, produced copies without originals by steering away from the natural referent and using these “fake” instruments not as imitations but for their own special sonic attributes (Butler 2006: 70). Similar to a musical meta-language, many EDM tracks are primarily concerned with the qualities of the medium into which they are embedded; their content is frequently subordinated to this concern, and lyrics are often non-existent or applied as atmospheric effects reinforcing the sound. Following McLuhan (1964), in such instances the medium becomes explicitly the message, reflecting an engagement with the intertwined mediums of electronic sounds and drugs from which a range of cultural and historical ties unfold.

This article illustrates this argument through the case study of acid techno squat parties in Melbourne, in which sound, drug and environment interact as three ghostly layers influencing the vibe. The discussion draws on interview fragments (predominantly from a focus group conducted with acid techno performers/organisers and regular partygoers) from my recent PhD research of Melbourne EDM scenes. A significant element of my study addresses the exploitation and exploration of accidents and malfunctions in EDM. In acid techno the Roland TB-303 bass synthesiser is responsible for the acid sound, the history of which emerged from the creative perversion of technology by certain early producers. This went hand in hand with the reattribution of pharmaceutical drugs as recreational and found its emblematic habitat in the post-industrial space of the warehouse squat party.

Techno and the Roland TB-303

Particularly in the genre of techno, the key structural particularity of the music lies in the manipulation of repetitive loops: the music is thus engaged in further repetitions of a copy that lost its original. The aesthetic dimension of this engagement is reminiscent of Warhol’s early production of soup can series in pop art, through which he “attacked the concept of originality in an original way” (Baudrillard 1997: 11). In techno tracks the act of copying the copy is associated with subtle changes in the sound layers, leading to a differential repetition. The layers are typically endowed with percussive, rhythmic functions: contrary to most genres of popular music where drums establish the meter of the track while remaining in the background, in techno “drums are the music, to the extent that the few melodic elements that are present (e.g., the riffs) frequently assume a percussive role as well” (Butler 2006: 93).

Figure 1. Series of Roland TB-303 Bass Line Generators. Image by Author (2013).

One of the “fake” rhythmic instruments that had been perverted by early EDM producers, the Roland TB-303, reached iconic status, particularly in the contemporary acid techno subgenre. The TB-303 Bass Line synthesiser was unsuccessful for its designated scope because it produced “inauthentic” sounds, and its design made it incompatible for playing, yet suitable for programming music (Butler 2006: 68). By applying its built-in effects in the “wrong” way to its programmed sound patterns, certain EDM artists—most notably Chicago-based DJ Pierre (Brewster and Broughton 2000: 315)—started creating extremely resonant, squeaky and distorted sound layers. In the words of a Melbourne acid techno producer:

Jake (28): The birth part is where the bass line is, which is what the 303 is, it's a bass line instrument originally, when the knobs are turned down. So it's more just a bwoh-bwoh-bwoh-bwoh... a base tone. It's not a frequency that catches in the high range; it's more the feeling, the sub-feeling. But once you start to turn up the cut off and resonance [knobs], it really takes your body with you. And I think if you have acid or hallucinogenic drugs, once you hear acid techno, your body actually rises with it; your mind travels with the tone. It's a repetitive tone that will only have, maybe, an 8–16 bar loop, but the way that you turn the knobs to change the actual frequency outcome, it keeps it interesting, it doesn't just go on being the same forever.[1]

In acid techno this modified bass line (which is very far from the sound of the bass guitar) is used in conjunction with the physically moving grooves of hard techno music, contributing to a kinaesthetic intensity that is often further amplified by drugs. As explained by another focus group participant:

Cooper (35): Yeah, that's just something about the power or intensity of it. A lot of people think hard music is aggressive or, you know, there's something unsocial about it, but really, for me it's like, you can't say a sports car is evil or aggressive, but you know, it must be really enjoyable to drive on, because it's powerful. And the music basically is just the only thing . . . that's caught me. And for some instances I wouldn't even say techno is like music to me. I hate saying this because it's kind of cliché. But music to me, I like a lot of bands and stuff like that, but the only thing that actually gives a physical response to music, regardless of, you know, drugs or no drugs, is techno and acid techno.[2]

Cooper’s words signal a highly functionalist approach to (acid) techno, where the music is praised for its rhythmic and sonic qualities that trigger physical impulses in the listener.

The Marriage of Sound and Drug

The consumption of popular recreational drugs such as acid (LSD) and ecstasy (MDMA) became organically connected to the techno genre after its exportation from Detroit to the British rave parties of the late eighties (Sicko 2010: 78–80). The emergence of recreational drugs can be regarded as a technological appropriation, with both MDMA and LSD being invented as pharmaceuticals first and then appropriated for other uses (Redhead 1993; Russell 1993).

In the focus group I conducted both drugs were frequently mentioned, with acid considered particularly conducive for directing attention on previously unnoticed layers in the music.

Jake: The TB-303, which is the main instrument of acid techno, is referred to as the acid sound. Which, hence, acid techno. Basically the particular tone, and the way it changes frequency, and the way it rises and drops, on certain drugs can really take you to, for the lack of another term, take you to another world. I took a lot of LSD and hallucinogenic drugs at one particular event to see one particular acid techno artist, and I was, like, the drunk guy at the party. I could barely stand up straight. I was stumbling all over the place. Two of the weirdest guys that I would usually be looking at, I saw at the corner of my eye, going: look at this guy. Looking at me, tapping each other, laughing: look at this guy! But it really opened up my perception to sound and frequency range. Hearing this particular tone from speakers higher than the roof, and, you know, your mind grabbing onto different parts of it, that you wouldn't usually zoom in on when you would go to a party “straight”.[3]

Jake’s introduction of the hallucinogenic potential of the TB-303 (which he also mentions in the first fragment of this article) resonates with certain cultural commentaries. Although the exact etymology of the sonic attribute “acid” is unclear, anecdotic evidence links it to LSD consumption in the early Chicago house scene (Brewster and Broughton 2000: 314), and its first appearance in EDM discographies is dated to the “Acid Tracks” (1987) single released by Chicago-based group Phuture, the inventors of acid house (Sicko 2010: 72). Acid house, together with Detroit techno, was exported to the U.K. in the late 1980s, where acid would mistakenly become a buzzword for predominantly ecstasy-related moral panics during the heyday of the rave scene (Sicko 2010: 78). Nevertheless, the hallucinatory or LSD-like qualities of the acid sound are commonplace. For instance, Brewster and Broughton (2000: 314) evoke its perfect synergy with the “LSD induced frenzy” of early Chicago clubbers, whereas Sicko (2010: 72) describes the TB-303 as emitting “aural equivalents of liquid mercury—the sounds of psychedelic hallucination”.

Experiencing acid (techno) while on acid (LSD) can thus be a decisive experience, opening up one’s “perception to sound and frequency range”. For participants such as Jake, the two synergistic components are inextricably linked in the formation of a recurring theme in techno that draws on this expanded flow of frequencies. Monelle (2006: 25) highlights that musical texts, similarly to literary texts, are transforming meaning, adding an imaginative dimension to the one inherent language. Acid in techno correlates to a transformative and imaginative expansion of this fusion of the linguistic sound/drug mixture: for Jake it signifies a powerful aesthetic experience, the exact definition of which is problematic (“for the lack of another term”). Furthermore, in this case even the linguistic signification relates to processes of technological appropriation, creating further shifts in meanings or losses of original referentiality: the TB-303 is no longer used as a “fake” instrument; LSD is no longer a pharmaceutical drug.

Urban squat spaces

The history of acid techno is interwoven with technological perversions, such as exploring the acid sound of the Roland TB-303 bass synthesiser, or the rediscovery of pharmaceutical drugs such as LSD or ecstasy as recreational. This is complemented by a third appropriation of (predominantly) industrial spaces, such as abandoned warehouses and factory buildings used for dance events. In Melbourne, the use of squatted spaces was an international import first and became a necessity later, with increasing regulation and security measures pushing the subgenre to the margins of urban nightscapes. The eerie atmosphere of such settings is a good companion to the squeaky frequencies of acid, as the recollections of a partygoer from a recent party suggest:

Stan (23): A kind of theatre/factory sort of structure with no purpose, just kind of sitting there with no reason in the middle of what is quite a dynamic and industrial area. It’s quite good to see this relicy type of artifact [that looks like] the 50s or 40s factory that’s sort of fallen on hard time[s]. But I’m not sure what they did there, it’s a mystery what they did there. It’s not quite a theatre, not quite a factory; it’s quite enigmatic as a venue. . . . There is something very artistic about a disused industrial building. It just seems like a place in incredible flux, which is on the cusp of being demolished, but in that sort of transition between what it was and what it will be, in a sort of limbo.[4]

Just as early EDM producers were exploring the “gaps” in technologies outside of their intended or “useful” applications, with the TB-303 being one of the notable examples for this process, such places “in incredible flux”, as the one evoked by Stan, are discovered as gaps in the machinic landscape to be filled with the technological imaginary of EDM. Such desolate environments carry the connotations of familiarity and freedom for the interviewees, as opposed to the “shinier” but severely regulated commercial clubscapes of Melbourne’s CBD.

Apart from warehouses, the parties may occasionally transform other urban spaces such as disused areas under highway overpasses or abandoned car parks:

Lucas (42): For example, New Year’s Eve, two years ago. Underground car park, literally, underground, circular car park ...

Cooper: In suburbia, in a rich area.

Lucas: And yeah, we went on all night. Two sound systems, heaps of people.

Cooper: And this is an underground car park that's probably eight storeys down, and the bottom six storeys filled with water. That's why it was, you know, too expensive to demolish, because of all the water in there. . . . Yeah, we looked at it, we looked at this place on Google Maps, and it's just this big black hole. And that’s basically the entrance to this, where the building used to stand, you know.[5]

Such provisional settings conjure a shroud of uncertainty that separates the acid techno phenomenon from everyday urban reality by both contributing to the effect of the drug/music interplay and disguising the party from the gaze of the wider public and the authorities. Partygoers are thus invited to immersive journeys that traverse through the fringes of the urban nightscape and typically evade mainstream (mass and online) media trajectories, just as the location evoked in the fragment is situated in the blind spot or “black hole” of Google Maps.

Conclusion: Perverting Machines

The Melbourne acid techno parties addressed in this article are shaped by sound, drug and environment as three intertwined layers of technological appropriation. As Cooper confirms: “techno is like a drug to me now”,[6] and these two components may contribute to an aesthetic experience that is organically connected to the use of squatted urban spaces. From the afterlife of technologies and (predominantly) industrial environments, acid techno parties may invoke machine-ghosts that are sometimes brought back to haunt the everyday as well, as the concluding fragment humorously suggests:

Sophie (34): My dad used to joke that the music I listened to sounded like when he used to work at the factories [laughs]. Like the machinery. . . . And my mum has caught me dancing to the washing machine before [laughs]. And the other day at work, I'm like: someone's playing really good music, who is that? And I'm wandering around the offices, trying to work out who it was, who is playing good music, and I realised it was a dot matrix printer. It was like: oh god, I need help [laughs].[7]

Author Biography

Botond Vitos is a PhD candidate at the School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. He received an MA in Cultural Anthropology and an MA in Dutch Studies from the ELTE University, Budapest, Hungary. His research interests include electronic dance music studies, the media ecology of the electronic dance floor, the relationships between music and technology, and the cultural contexts and meanings of drug use. His PhD project "Experiencing Electronic Dance Floors" is a comparative analysis of the techno and psytrance scenes in Melbourne. Email:


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Monelle, Raymond. 2006. The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military and Pastoral. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press

Redhead, Steve. 1993. “The Politics of Ecstasy”. In Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture, ed. Steve Redhead, 7–27. Aldershot: Avebury.

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[1] Focus group (Melbourne), 24 January 2012.

[2] Focus group (Melbourne), 24 January 2012.

[3] Focus group (Melbourne), 24 January 2012.

[4] Individual interview (Melbourne), 23 June 2012.

[5] Focus group (Melbourne), 24 January 2012.

[6] Focus group (Melbourne), 24 January 2012.

[7] Focus group (Melbourne), 24 January 2012.