ReBirth RB-338 2.0

(Propellerhead Software/Steinberg)

Every new trend in popular music brings a corresponding upswing in sales of the machines used to make it. What Brian Wilson did for Moogs and Nirvana did for Fender Mustangs the X-ecutioners are now doing for Technics SL-1200 turntables. And flattening the issue severely, Oval mainstay Markus Popp, who’s made several entrancing minimalist albums out of snips of other people’s CDs, says he will bundle his final release with software enabling fans to construct Oval-esque abstractions on their own computers. It’ll be as if each Fiona Apple album came with a baby grand piano.

Though we squall about stars, we’re suckers for sound, which is why reluctant marketing guru Tom Frank can write an entire article for Harper’s based on the premise that a certain Chicago pop musician is brilliant simply because he collects vintage analog synthesizers; it’s also why the Dust Brothers have had more hits in the past ten years than any of their clients: Hanson, Beck, Tone-Loc, the Beastie Boys, the Rolling Stones. The fact is, if you want to make a difference in music, you have to change the machine.

Luckily, in the digital age instrument invention isn’t just for eccentric Harry Partch-type geniuses. And with the advent of electronica as a popular form, music is more than ever purely a symptom of circuit parameters. Now, in the gray area between the ecstasy-addled hive mentality of the dance floor and the solitude of the computer terminal, a hyperactive cult of music makers is turning a $200 music-software package called the ReBirth RB-338, developed by the Swedish company Propellerhead Software (, into a perpetual work in progress.

The ReBirth RB-338 is a computerized version of the classic Roland synthesizers and drum machines, some of the most hallowed beatboxes of the early 80s. Old-school rap got its badass kick from the TR-808 drum machine (Big Black used a predecessor, the 606); trance and acid house owe their squelches to the TB-303 synth. Like the Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera, the plastic Rolands were once priced as toys, at about $200 a pop, but now that they’re no longer manufactured, they command more than $1,000. The creative way around this inflation has been to reverse-engineer hardwired boxes that do the same thing, or better yet, to write computer code that emulates the circuitry. ReBirth’s version 2.0, officially released this week, includes simulations of both the 808 and its successor, the 909, plus two 303s and a set of delay, distortion, and compression effects.

Fans of technology and of themselves, ReBirth users have made interesting mush of the distinctions between musician and engineer, not to mention those between manufacturer, marketer, and consumer. Ideas spread quickly among users because ReBirth song files are tiny, using about as much disk space as this article, and are very easy to swap over the Internet–a much faster distribution system than pressing and selling CDs or records.

Like the real 808 and 303, ReBirth is most easily used to make somewhat dated styles like electro, hip-hop, and acid house. But to make ReBirth a suitable instrument for jungle, Baltimore designer Scanner (no relation to the British musician) replaced the sampled drum sounds with his own to create one of many ReBirth modifications, or “mods,” called Wobble. Wobble’s selection of tweaked sounds, including time-stretched bass drums and snappy double-snare hits, drastically changes the character of ReBirth. Even the wood-grain frame that shows up on-screen with the original version has been given a chrome makeover.

Since users were getting the most out of ReBirth by hacking the program anyway, the makers have made version 2.0 easier to change. There’s also an official page on the Propellerhead Web site where you can download slick mods like Alien Birth, Resist, and Pitch Black Edition, plus a utility called ReNovator that lets you create your own.

While any sampler could theoretically do what the RB-338 does, ReBirth lowers the bar significantly, as the Casio did for piano music–and with the same mixed results. Judging by the winners of a recent ReBirth songwriting contest (sponsored by Cherry Coke), the most polished music made with the software tends to sound safe and mildly uplifting, resembling mainstream European techno or video-game sound tracks. But the beauty of the format is that not only can you remix the bad taste out of a song–you can revise the machine itself so that only sweet music, to your ears, will be possible.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.