The Synths and Drum Machines of 10 Classic Electro Tracks

Heavy, booming beats. Icy synthesizers. Robotic vocals. These are the hallmarks of classic electro, a genre of music that ruled the clubs, rollerskating rinks, and backyard breakdance battles in the 1980s. Although it only lasted a short period of time—roughly from 1982 until 1986—its influence can still be felt (and heard) today in modern dance music, pop, and hip-hop.

While this piece won't get too deep into the history of electro (for that, we recommend our thorough "A Not-So-Brief History Of Electro"), we will shine a light on the gear used in 10 seminal tracks, as well as some of the recording tricks the artists used to get their signature sounds.

While it's not much of a spoiler alert to say that the Roland TR-808 drum machine played a big part, as did vocoders, like the similarly vocoder-abusing robot Transformers, there's more to electro than meets the eye.

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force - "Planet Rock" (1982)

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force - "Planet Rock"

Any conversation about electro naturally starts with Afrika Bambaataa and "Planet Rock." Released in 1982 on New York hip-hop label Tommy Boy, "Planet Rock" was an instant sensation and introduced the world to a new kind of dance music. It was recognizably hip-hop—there was rapping after all—but the usual disco drums and backing band were replaced with a drum machine and synthesizers. This is how they did it.

Of course, that drum machine was the Roland TR-808. It had already been on the market for two years when Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker cut "Planet Rock," which likely caused a boost in sales, at least in big cities with access to dance clubs. The punchline? According to legend, they didn't even own one and hired a guy they found in a classified ad to bring one in and program it.

"Planet Rock" is pretty minimal—another defining element of electro—with little but glassy synth strings to provide musical accompaniment. These came courtesy of future New Order producer John Robie and his Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. The polyphonic Prophet-5 would go on to appear on a ton of classic electro tracks (see below). It was played live by Robie, purposely aping Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express," one of Bambaataa's favorite records at the time. (The beat was also influenced by Kraftwerk, specifically "Numbers.")

Additional instrumentation included bass from a Moog Micromoog (played, as with the Prophet-5, live by Robie) and the soon-to-be ubiquitous orchestra hit banged out on a Fairlight that they found in the studio. While often misidentified as a vocoder, the vocal effect in "Planet Rock" is actually Bambaataa rapping through a Lexicon PCM 41.

Heavy 808, cold synths, snappy bass, minimal arrangement, and robotic vocals—the basic building blocks of "Planet Rock" would be used again and again in the next few years, and beyond. The "Planet Rock" sessions also yielded the backing tracks for Planet Patrol's "Play at Your Own Risk," a vocal-lead R&B number that kicked off the R&B/electro crossover movement.

Egyptian Lover - "Egypt, Egypt" (1984)

Egyptian Lover - "Egypt, Egypt"

While many of electro's major players were in New York, the genre was by no means restricted to the Big Apple. Gregory Broussard, better known as the Egyptian Lover, was at the forefront of Los Angeles electro, a scene that also included a pre-N.W.A. Dr. Dre and his World Class Wreckin' Cru and the L.A. Dream Team. "Egypt, Egypt," with its Middle Eastern-style melodies and vocoder boasts, is his crowning achievement.

At the center of the track is a devastating beat laid down on the Roland TR-808. What really sets the Egyptian Lover's 808 apart from others is his use of the trigger pulse as a percussion element. The engineer for the "Egypt, Egypt" sessions accidentally hooked up the trigger out to the mixing board but it sounded so good they left it in.

Roland SVC-350 vocoder
Roland SVC-350 vocoder. Photo by Rogue Music

The synthesizer on the track is none other than the Roland Jupiter-8. As with "Planet Rock," it provides melodic support but largely stays out of the way to let the drum machine do its thing. The Egyptian Lover was a DJ for the party collective Uncle Jamm's Army and he arranged "Egypt, Egypt" as a dance song, with placement of turnarounds and other song elements reflecting how he would cut in records to keep the dancefloor hyped.

The last piece of the "Egypt, Egypt" puzzle is the vocoder. While there were a number of units around in 1984, the vocoder of choice for most electro artists was the rackmount Roland SVC-350. It was the same for the Egyptian Lover and it's what gives this track such flavor.

The Egyptian Lover is still going, DJing, touring, and releasing records using largely the same gear. His latest record, 1986, is out now.

Twilight 22 - "Electric Kingdom" (1983)

Twilight 22 - "Electric Kingdom"

Most of the electro cuts on this list are fairly minimal, with just a drum machine and a single synth to provide a skeletal melodic motif. Not "Electric Kingdom." Released by Twilight 22 in 1983, the track is a real tour de force, packed full of synthesizers expertly played.

The men behind the music were Gordon Bahary, a keyboard whiz who had previously worked with Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, and Joseph Saulter, who provided vocals along with Bahary. We got in touch with Bahary to get the story behind the song.

No surprises that the drum machine the duo used was the TR-808. However, Bahary augmented the rhythms from Roland's machine with some sounds that he made with an ARP Odyssey synthesizer.

"I had created a drum machine long before they were actually manufactured," he explains. "This was in 1977 for Stevie Wonder. We were at IAM Studios in Irvine, California recording his followup to Songs in the Key of Life. I created a kick and snare on the ARP." The Odyssey was also used to provide the bassline (played live!) as well as the lower sound that underpins the 808 kicks.

Vintage and Modern Odysseys

The Odyssey also allowed Bahary to create ring modulation sounds for use as accents. "The ring modulation was done with the ARP. I had created a touch-sensitive keyboard before they were manufactured. So the harder I pressed, the louder the sound, or the filter would open, or both, giving it expression," he says. "Years later it became standard."

When asked if he used a polysynth on the record, Bahary says, "Yes, the (Sequential Circuits) Prophet-5 for harmony on the lead melody. Very fat sound and great filters." All of those unique melodies were inspired by his childhood. "My parents are from the Middle East, and these types of melodies were always playing in the house as a kid. I wanted to take the most opposite musical ideas and combine them."

"Electric Kingdom" is full of choral sounds and orchestral percussion as well, like timpani. These were played with an E-Mu Emulator. "The E-Mu sampler was used for voices," Bahary says. "It had a floppy disk. I recall the anticipation for a small file to be loaded." The harpsichord, however, was not sampled, but real. "I saw it at Kingdom Sound Studios (coincidentally named) and [asked] the engineer, 'Can we do a take with this?'"

Lastly, the vocoder was a Korg VC-10.

Bahary is still active in music and has just built Electric Kingdom Studios in New York, complete with the new Rupert Neve 5088 automated console and 24-track tape. His new solo album will be released later this year through The Orchard/Sony.

Cybotron - "Clear" (1983)

Cybotron - "Clear"

The influence of Kraftwerk is strong in classic electro. "Planet Rock" combined "Numbers" and "Trans Europe Express" into one potent whole. The Egyptian Lover has described his music as Kraftwerk meets Prince. The influence of the four Germans is also apparent in the "Home Computer"-like climbing chromatic sequence that forms the repeating motif for "Clear," the 1983 dance floor bomb by Detroit's Cybotron.

Comprising future techno architect Juan Atkins and Vietnam veteran Rik Davis, Cybotron took their electronic experiments to the next level after hearing "Planet Rock" on a trip to New York and buying an 808. This formed the backbone for "Clear," as it did for so many other classic electro tunes.

There is less clear information on the making of "Clear" than some other tracks but there are clues and decades-later recollections.

"Clear," like other electro jams, has the requisite icy synth strings. Polysynths, however, were extremely expensive in 1982 when they recorded the song. It's unsurprising then that they turned to a Roland RS-09 string machine for poly duties.

Other gear in Davis' arsenal at the time included an ARP Odyssey and Axxe as well as a Sequential Circuits Pro One, a favorite for bass and popular with electro producers at the time. Atkins' first synth was the Korg MS-10, which, as he explained in an interview with MusicRadar, he used for "weird, UFO-type sounds and effects."

Atkins told Reverb earlier this year that the Pro One's sequencer was an integral part of "Clear": "I had a TR-808, a Pro One, and a Korg MS-10. And what you could do with the Pro One is that it had a sequencer on it and you could trigger the sequence from the trigger out from the 808."

Cybotron would soon break up but Atkins would continue evolving electro (and later techno) as Model 500. While electro soon died out in its birth place of New York, it continued to be popular in Detroit, with groups like Drexciya and Aux 88 furthering the sound.

Newcleus - "Jam On It" (1984)

Newcleus - "Jam On It"

A funky bassline. High-pitched cartoon voices. A story about a sound clash between aliens and Superman. In 1984, there was no cut more popular with breakdancing kids than Newcleus' "Jam On It." We spoke with Ben Cenac, aka Cozmo D, about how the song came together.

Like most other electro tracks, Cenac managed to get a lot of mileage out of a few pieces of gear. "I was forced to make the most of a very limited situation back then," he explains. Again, the drum machine of choice was the TR-808. There was nothing else that could even come close in terms of analog impact.

As for that incredible bassline, it was provided by the Sequential Circuits Pro One. Essentially one voice of the Prophet-5, it was a go-to bass synth for lots of electronic acts in the early '80s. And not just electro either—it was even a favorite of Skinny Puppy.

The sequenced line in the track came from another famous Roland box, the TB-303. The 303 didn't really get popular until the Chicago guys started to abuse it a few years later, but its use in electro wasn't without precedence either. Check out Shannon's "Let The Music Play" for another example.

Remember Cybotron's Roland RS-09? Newcleus used one too. Although by this time string machines had a reputation for being cheesy, you get the most from what you can.

We asked Cenac how he was able to sync everything together, this being before MIDI. "The 808 and the 303 were programed individually in song mode and synced together via a Roland Sync cable," he explains. "The bassline was programed using one of the Pro One's two 16-step sequences and triggered via the 808's accent out."

Lastly, we just had to ask how they made the famous wikki wikki voices. "We slowed down the master tapes to record the vocals." Sometimes it's just that simple.

Hashim - "Al-Naayfish (The Soul)" (1983)

Hashim - "Al-Naayfish (The Soul)"

"It's time!" With that famous vocoder intro, 17-year-old Jerry Calliste Jr., better known as Hashim, announced his presence to the world. His debut record, "Al-Naayfish (The Soul)"—with its insistent broken beat, eerie synth strings, and turntable scratching—has become one of the most recognizable entries in the electro canon.

The inaugural release on Cutting Records, "Al-Naayfish (The Soul)" was made—like most classic electro—with very few pieces of gear. Like Cozmo D and Newcleus, Hashim made the most with what he had, building up the song at New York's Secret Sound Studio with a single drum machine and synthesizer.

The main focus of the song is, of course, Roland's TR-808 drum machine. With so much 808-based hip-hop happening in New York in the early '80s, local music shops must have been doing a brisk business.

Korg Poly-61
Korg Poly-61

The rest of the record was accomplished with one synth. No, not the Prophet-5, although that would be a very good guess. Hashim instead used a Korg Poly-61 to provide bass, strings, and the arpeggio, the latter likely synced to the 808 to match the tempo.

Hashim would follow up "Al-Naayfish (the Soul)" with another devastating electro record, "We're Rocking the Planet," which would add an Oberheim DMX to the percussion mix. The DMX, which used samples rather than analog synthesis, was the other big hip-hop drum machine, popular with artists of the time like Run-D.M.C. and (unsurprisingly) Davy DMX.

Herbie Hancock - "Rockit (1983)"

Herbie Hancock - "Rockit (1983)"

"Planet Rock" may have been the record that turned New York onto electro, but "Rockit" turned on the world. Produced by Bill Laswell of Material and something of a last-chance gamble for Herbie Hancock, "Rockit" combined electro rhythms, scratching, and of course Herbie's incendiary playing into a cultural touchstone.

Star Instruments, Inc. Synare 3 PS-3
Star Instruments, Inc. Synare 3 PS-3. Photo by Steve's Gear Locker.

Let's start with the rhythm section. Laswell and his team put together a backing track, using an Oberheim DMX supplemented with a Synare likely triggered by the DMX. Laswell was a bass player by trade, and although the bassline in the track feels like it was fingered, it's too synthetic for a guitar. The Moog Minimoog listed in the album credits is the more likely candidate.

Once the backing track was done, Laswell went into the studio with Herbie, who wrote the famous lead melody. This was played on a Rhodes Chroma and overdubbed a number of times to create a wide feel.

Herbie also wanted to add some scat vocals and used his Sennheiser VSM-201 vocoder to achieve this. The VSM-201 is the same vocoder that Kraftwerk used on their records and—while too rare and expensive for most electro producers—was not out of the reach of Hancock.

The final key element to "Rockit" was Grandmixer D.ST's scratching, with the DJ wearing down the grooves in a copy of Fab Five Freddy's "Change The Beat." "Rockit" also contains a Led Zeppelin guitar stab from the album Coda, triggered from a Lexicon Prime Time delay unit.

Herbie's gamble with "Rockit" paid off big time and it helped bring the jazz veteran back into the limelight, shining some light on hip-hop and electro at the same time.

Pretty Tony - "Fix It In The Mix (1983)"

Pretty Tony - "Fix It In The Mix (1983)"

Electro is generally associated with New York but it had a massive presence in Miami as well. Known down south as freestyle and later as bass music, Miami's love for electro was largely down to the efforts of one man, Pretty Tony. The brains behind Freestyle ("Don't Stop The Rock"), Debbie Deb ("When I Hear Music"), Trinere ("They're Playing Our Song"), Tony also served up records under his own name.

"Fix It In The Mix" was the first Pretty Tony record. Released in 1984, it was made—like many other electro songs—with the bare minimum of equipment. Like Hashim and "Al-Naayfish (The Soul)," Tony managed to get all of that music from just a single drum machine and synthesizer (and of course a vocoder).

The drum machine? Why, of course it's the Roland TR-808. No matter whether New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, or Miami, the drum machine of choice for classic electro was the 808. The 808 would go on to play an even bigger role in Miami bass music, with samples of the boom extending its power and bass response.

As for Tony's synthesizer, like Hashim he opted for something different than the Prophet-5. "Fix It In The Mix" was made entirely with a Roland Juno-60, an instrument not usually associated with hip-hop. After a few hit records, Tony would actually go on to buy a Prophet-5 though.

One of the defining moments of "Fix It In The Mix," particularly in the B-side dub, is the sound of breaking glass. While he later used an Emulator, on this track he had to do it the old-fashioned way: by recording it with a microphone. "The breaking glass, I took a cardboard box and I put a dumbbell in it," he explained in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy. "I hung the mic over down in it and threw a champagne glass, hit record, and broke it. That drove people crazy."

Unlike the Egyptian Lover, Pretty Tony never used his own voice on his records, only vocoders. While it's hard to find confirmation, it's a good bet to assume that he used the Roland SVC-350, the rackmount version of the VP-330. This same unit was favored by Dynamix II, who would keep the flame of Miami electro lit into the '90s and beyond.

Whodini - "Magic's Wand" (1982)

Whodini - "Magic's Wand"

Whodini—comprising Jalil Hutchins, John Fletcher (aka Ecstasy), and DJ Grandmaster Dee—were one of the first hip-hop groups to have sizable hits. Their debut single, "Magic's Wand," a primer on the history of rap and radio host Mr. Magic, wasn't one of them. However, it wasn't for a lack of trying. With production from a young Thomas Dolby, it's got one of the most infectious rhythms in hip-hop. Let's see if we can tease out how it was made.

"Magic's Wand" came out in 1982, around the same time as Dolby's debut album, The Golden Age of Wireless. It's safe to assume that the gear employed on "Magic's Wand" would be similar to that of his own release. For both, he avoided the use of any typical drum machines. No TR-808 or DMX here. Dolby instead used a Simmons electronic drum set triggered by Tangerine Dream's old PPG 360 Wave Computer. Esoteric but what do you expect from Thomas Dolby? He also had a Fairlight, which could have been used to add percussive noises.

How about the bass? There's clearly a fretless bass involved but the synth bass could have been a Moog Source, as played on "She Blinded Me With Science," or a Micromoog, which he used when playing live around the time.

While "Magic's Wand" is not your typical electro track, it does have some deliciously funky synthesizer playing, including some chords that could only come from a polysynth. Dolby was known to use a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. We'd put our money on it.

Lastly, let's address the vocoder that delivers the hook. In a sequence recorded for TV show Riverside, Dolby demonstrates some of the gear he used around this time. There is a Roland VP-330 clearly in the background. It fits the bill.

"Magic's Wand" would appear on their debut self-titled album in 1983, alongside tracks recorded with Kraftwerk-producer Conny Plank. Not your typical hip-hop backing tracks, to say the least.

Man Parrish - "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)" (1982)

Man Parrish - "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)"

We started in New York in 1982 and that's where we're going to end. Man Parrish's "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)" was released around the same time as "Planet Rock" and coincidentally also featured synth playing by John Robie. Despite using similar equipment, the two tracks could not be more different. Where "Planet Rock" is tight, "Hip Hop" is loose and more experimental, almost psychedelic at times. Let's check out the gear Man Parrish used to create his influential record.

"That (record) except for a few overdubs was basically done in my bedroom on an eight track/channel Tascam tape recorder and mixer," Man Parrish told Magazine Sixty. "'Hip Hop Be Bop' was just basically me playing around with some sounds and grooves that then got developed into the track you hear now."

As with most other seminal electro cuts—and despite being one of the first electro records released—"Hip Hop Be Bop" employed a TR-808 to provide the beats. The drum machine's famous cowbells are particularly well represented.

Man Parrish has stated that he used two synthesizers on this track, both from Sequential Circuits: a Prophet-5 and Pro One. While he doesn't specify which synth played the bass, it's safe to assume it was the Pro One, given that it's a sequenced line, and Man states that he made use of the onboard eight-note sequencer.

"You have to remember, this was all way before MIDI, and before computers," he explained in the same interview. "We had to do all kinds of tricks to synchronize the different tracks on tape to play at the same time… Everything from punching in and out of the track, overdubs, and using the 808 drum machine to send trigger pulses, via the rimshot pattern, to advance the analog sequencer to the next step. We basically wrote the sequencer rhythm part on the drum machine, and the sound of the rimshot pulsing would drive the analog sequencer."

Man Parrish would follow-up "Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)" with the more conventional "Boogie Down Bronx" and would have a Top 20 hit in the UK in 1987 with "Male Stripper."

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