The Elements of Style

“May you never hear surf music again” —Jimi Hendrix (in “Third Stone from the Sun”)Maybe you won’t hear it again. But whenever a spring reverb goes BOINNNGGG, some elemental part of your musical DNA will think “surf music.” Whether it’s the Chantays doing “Pipeline,” or any of those surf groups from the ’60s that hit the stage with their Fender Jaguar and Mosrite guitars, the use and abuse of spring reverb became so associated with surf music that it became part of the surf music style.

We tend to think of style as musical trademarks. But in today’s techzone, gear can be a part of style. A big part, in fact — in some cases, gear has defined a style. Would “electro” music be the same without the Roland TR-808 that powered Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (which is also claimed to be the most sampled record in hip-hop)? Would Hendrix have been the Jimi Hendrix Experience without that stack of Marshalls? Would “acid house” even exist without the TB-303?

To answer my own questions, no. So when you’re working in different styles — because you’re into the music, you’re doing a commercial (“gimme that ’50s kinda rockabilly sound”), or it’s time to score a video and you need to recreate a particular moment — there’s an “Element of Style” that can help you put it across.

Let’s look at the gear that became synonymous with various styles. And because we’re not into just giving history lessons here, we’ll tell you how to cop those styles today.

Style: Rock
Gear: Marshall Amps

Why: As Jeff Beck said, “It has that growl that no other amp has.” Hendrix, Angus Young, Slash, Billy Gibbons, and many others have worshipped at the Church of Marshall. But why?

Originally, Marshall amps weren’t that different from vintage Fender amps, although Marshall favored closed-back cabinets and Fender, open-backed. As the years progressed, though, Marshall ditched 6L6-family output tubes in favor of EL34 types with comparatively high plate voltages, which gave a different, more aggressive type of characteristic when overdriven. And when Marshall switched from tube to solid state rectification, the amps gained a “stiffer,” faster response with cleaner transients. Marshall also favored using more gain stages, along with passive EQ stages that didn’t offer as drastic a tonal variation but weren’t as “lossy” as others; as a result, there was more signal to overdrive subsequent stages. The bottom line was a tougher, crunchier, yet also more defined sound that seemed tailor-made for a big, “reach-the-last-row” rock guitar sound whose growth paralleled that of Marshall.

Copping that style today: Marshall amps are still being made, and Jim Marshall remains actively involved in the company — so unless you’re a hardcore purist, trips to eBay aren’t necessary. But also, modeling hardware (Line 6 POD, et al) and software (Native Instruments Guitar Rig) have emulations of Marshall amps. Whether they “nail” the original sound or not is a matter of open debate, but no one would deny that if they don’t, they at least provide cool noises in their own right. And when recording Marshalls, remember it’s not just about distortion, but a defined, “tuff” sound. To preserve that sound, if you’re using any kind of compression or limiting, dial in several milliseconds of attack time to let the transients “speak.”

Style: Dance
Gear: Roland TB-303 Bass Line

Why: The TB-303 (for “Transistor Bass”), invented by Tadao Kikumoto and released in 1982, was a companion to the TR-606 (“Transistor Rhythm”) Drumatix drum machine. The pair was supposed to provide a robo rhythm section for songwriters; while the TB had typical synth controls, it was meant to be more of a set-and-forget device. However, what happened when you didn’t set-and-forget — but twisted the knobs in real time, preferably jacking up the resonance while sweeping the cutoff and adding glide — became the foundation for acid house, techno, jungle, and a zillion other variations of dance music. (Go to The Prodigy’s website at for their love letter to the TB-303.)

What separated the TB-303 from other synths was the lack of slavish devotion to the 24dB/octave low pass filter. It instead had a three-pole filter, with a very distinctive resonance compared to “normal” filters. It had other quirks, too; the “Accent” option influenced several aspects of the sound, not just volume. And the “slide” function provided a liquid, ever-changing element to otherwise static patterns.

When it was introduced, the TB-303 was a commercial flop. But now, whenever you want to add some dance music style, the TB-303 sound is the foundation.

Copping that style today: Good luck on finding a TB-303. Instead, grab Propellerhead ReBirth 2.0 (recently discontinued, but now available as a free download from, which stakes its own claim to fame by being the first vintage instrument emulation. Its realization of the TB-303 (and TR-808) is uncannily close; however, the program works only under Windows and Mac OS 9.x (no OS X). Another software option is the TB-303 refill for Reason, also from Propellerhead. But why not go to the source? Roland has re-introduced the TB-303 sound with their MC-303 groove box and also as a plug-in for their VariOS system. And finally, the Alesis Ion synthesizer has a great emulation of the TB-303 filter. It doesn’t emulate any of the operational aspects, but it does deliver that sharp, biting, totally off-the-wall TB-303 filter quack.

Style: Old School Rap/Hip-Hop
Gear: E-mu Systems SP-1200 Drum Machine/Sampler

Why: A 1987 update of the SP-12 (released in 1985 and itself an update of the Drumulator), the SP1200 was a drum machine/sampler combination that let musicians put phrases into the rhythm, not just drum sounds. But what made it a trademark sound for artists from Freddy Fresh to Roni Size is generally agreed to be the 22kHz sampling rate and 12-bit resolution, coupled with E-mu’s unorthodox sampling mojo. The resulting dirty, gritty sound provided the perfect bridge between vinyl and digital audio technology. The SP1200 was used on hundreds of hit records, including those from mainstream artists like Phil Collins.

Copping that style today: Despite numerous re-issues, in 1998 E-mu ran out of the SSM chips needed to make the SP-1200. But the availability of “low-res” plug-ins means that you can dial in a 22kHz/12-bit sound and (at least on paper) get some of the “grit” that made this unit a staple. What’s harder to replicate, though, is the “sample-skipping” technology E-mu used to change pitch, which was very different from other pitch transposition schemes of that time; no current plug-in or processor emulates this effect.

Interestingly, the other huge kingpin of hip-hop, Roger Linn’s MPC60, also featured 12-bit resolution, although the sampling rate was bumped up to 40kHz (its predecessor, the Linn9000, featured 8-bit technology).

And let’s also give a nod to the Roland TR-808, which like the TB-303, was another product that ended up getting used for purposes other than its original intention. It’s pretty easy to get an 808 sound; just about every sampler has a set of 808 samples, and ReBirth (see above) includes a model of it. But what made the 808 special was trimpots you could adjust by taking the cover off. Much of the 808’s “hum drum” sound was created by upping the kick drum resonance to the point where — well, let’s just say that if you’re at the light next to a car and all you hear is a low sine wave rumble, odds are that’s from an 808 kick drum set for the maximum possible resonance.

Style: Psychedelic Rock
Gear: “Backwards” Analog Tape

Backward tape effects weren’t new in the ’60s — they were a staple of musique concrète — but as bongs lit up all over the world, doing things like reversing guitar solos, vocals, and other sounds fulfilled the desire for “trippy” sounds. Whenever a band these days wants to either make fun of the ’60s or pay tribute to it, backward tape effects are sure to be part of the mix.

Copping that style today: If you still have an analog multitrack, it’s easy: Flip the reels over so they run in reverse, do your overdub, then re-flip. But you probably don’t have an analog multitrack, and backward effects can’t really be done in real time. So take your DAW, and bounce a quick premix to one of the DAW tracks. Use DSP to reverse the track (most DAWs can reverse a track; if not, import the premix into a digital audio editor, reverse, then re-import back into your DAW). Now play your part along with the reversed premix. When you’re done, reverse the overdub and, if necessary, slide it to fit in best with the song.

The only realtime option that comes close is that some delay lines can buffer your sound and spit it out in reverse (for example, the Psychedelay module in Guitar Rig does this). However, there will always be a delay caused by filling up the buffer, so unless timing isn’t crucial, the off-line DSP reversal route rules.

Style: Rockabilly,’50s Rock, Country
Gear: Slapback Echo

Why: In the ’50s, multieffects didn’t exist — but tape recorders did. And the easiest way to get an echo was to feed some signal into a spare two-track, three-head tape recorder. You’d roll tape in record mode, the signal would get recorded at the record head, and play back from the play head. But the play head was physically a few inches from the record head, so it would play back later — instant delay. If you mixed this in with the main signal, you’d have a quickie slapback echo.

Adventurous engineers sometimes took this a step further and created a feedback path, so the signal from the playback head would recirculate back to the record head, and create another echo. With enough feedback, you could get multiple echoes — and with even more feedback, there would be weird sci-fi sounds generally used in movies to signal the arrival of alien invaders.

You didn’t have much choice of delay times; typically the tape speed was set to 15ips, although sometimes 7.5ips would be used for slower echoes, or 30ips for faster ones. The delay time was typically in the 50–70ms range or the 100–140ms range for slower tape speeds.

Copping that style today: Of course, you can insert a two-track/three-head analog recorder in your mixer’s inserts, and do things the old school way. Don’t have a tape recorder? Well, don’t think you can just set up a digital delay with the right delay time and be home free. We’re talking analog tape here; one option is the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, which uses actual tape and can be found second hand without too much difficulty. If you want to use an effects box, then all the elements of trying to create an analog tape sound rear their oxide-addled heads: subtle distortion, a more muffled sound with subsequent repeats, and the like. Many delay boxes include a high frequency rolloff control to reduce highs, particularly in the feedback path that creates multiple echoes; trust me — you want this switch turned on.

Style: New Age, ’80s Pop
Gear: Yamaha DX7 Synthesizer (and Other FM Synths)

Why: Analog synths ruled — until Yamaha’s DX7 became the first hugely successful digital synth. It was under $2K, had velocity, lots of voices, and a unique, clear sound that analog just couldn’t do. But it was also a bear to program, so musicians kept relying on the same factory presets: the complex electric piano sound, the wimpy sorta brass sound, the killer bass line, and others. These became so overused that Congress passed a law levying a $1,000 fine on anyone using the ersatz-Rhodes preset in New Age music. Well not really, but it just goes to show how easily overexposure can turn a lovely sound into the Kenny G of the synth world.

Copping that style today: Yamaha hasn’t forgotten what put their digital keys on the map; if you have a Yamaha S80 or Motif series synth, you can expand it with the PLG150DX FM synthesis plug-in board. Or look around for the DX200 (released in 2001) or the classic TX802 FM synth. In software-land, Native Instruments FM7 is like a DX7 that went on to graduate school. But truthfully, certain DX7 patches have become so universal you’ll find some of the faves in virtually all sample-playback synthesizers and samplers — particularly that love/hate electric piano.

Style: Progressive Rock
Gear: Mellotron

Why: The Mellotron was basically a tape-based sampler that played big sounds: choirs, strings, flutes, and so on. And Prog Rock acts liked big sounds, so they liked Mellotrons; who can forget those pitch-bent strings in the Moody Blues’ tunes? Well, probably a lot of roadies would like to forget it: The Mellotron was heavy and difficult to maintain. But groups from the Beatles to Yes couldn’t live without it.

Copping that style today: The Mellotron Mk VI is an actual production Mellotron; for more info check out, which also offers sample CDs, spare parts, and more for older Mellotrons. Speaking of samples CDs, check out Ilio’s Legendary M400; for virtual instruments, GMedia’s M-Tron (distributed by M-Audio) is the way to go.

Style: Pretty Much Anything
Gear: Minimoog

Why: The Minimoog was the “breakthrough” synthesizer that brought synthesis to the masses. The Moog Modular was too big and expensive, Buchla’s synths weren’t mainstream enough for pop, and the dawn of inexpensive digital technology was still years away.

What made the Minimoog unique was its Zen-like simplicity compared to other electronic instruments of the time, and its chameleon-like abilities to fit in anywhere — from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s bombastic progressive rock to the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s fiery fusion to thundering techno bass lines to rock, new wave, pop, jazz — you name it. The Minimoog was an instrument that could go from delicate subtlety to in-your-face aggression. Even more remarkably, it had no memory — you had to dial in the sounds you wanted from scratch — and only one voice.

Copping that style today: Minimoogs are rare, although Moog Music’s Voyager is basically a 21st century version of the Minimoog. Fortunately, despite Bob Moog’s recent death, the company has said it’ll continue producing his instruments. But the Minimoog is also the most emulated vintage synth in history. Creamware, Arturia, Steinberg, GForce, and many others have tried to capture the Holy Grail in a plug-in, and while nailing the real Mini sound is tough, they do a good job. I’m particularly fond of Creamware’s Minimax, which is available as a plug-in for their SCOPE systems, as well as a hardware tone module.