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07 July 2019

VFT at 30. Thirty Years of Variable Frequencies.

2019, marks the 30th anniversary of the incarnation of VFT aka The Variable Frequency Technician. To mark the occasion I thought I would write an article charting my struggles from a broke, frustrated teenager in the late 80's to a independent label and website owner today.

There are audio snippets included throughout, some of which is very rudimentary stuff recorded over 30 years ago. The article might be a bit technical in places for those who aren't familiar with music production, however I have provided links where possible.

Part 1.

Introduction to Acid 1987 - 1988.

I was bitten by the Acid house bug during the late summer of 1988 however my first exposure to it was actually a year before in the summer of 1987 when I heard Phuture's Acid Trax at a house party.

There used to be regular house parties in my home town of Peterborough back in the 80's, (these parties were pretty legendary in themselves with DJ's coming from out of town to play at them. Incidentally, Maxim Reality from The Prodigy (know to us locals as Keeti) also sometimes MC'd at these parties.

It was at one of these parties where I got my first introduction to the House music scene while I was still in school. I used to take a ghetto blaster to these parties and put it near a speaker and record as much of the night as I could fit on a C120 Cassette.

The tapes came out a bit tinny because I was just recording through the built-in microphone. But no matter, at least I was able to re-live these parties in my Walkman until the next one came along.

It was on one of these house party tapes that I had unwittingly recorded 'Acid Tracks' and after playing it back a few times it was clear that this was a cutting edge piece of underground House music. There had been nothing like it before. It sounded completely alien.

I remember playing the track to a girl called Natasha whom I was friendly with at the time and her response was, "It sounds like a bird!", referring to the relentless twittering sound of the Roland TB303 that is present throughout the track.

I just thought it was a one off track and I never heard any other comparable tracks until about a year later when a friend of mine, Kevin, gave me a mix-tape that contained a bunch of records he had bought by mail order on his mother's credit card (whether she was ever aware of this I do not know!)

The mix-tape contained a whole bunch of tracks that used the same sound I heard on 'Acid Tracks' a year earlier, with tracks by artists such as Terry 'House Master' Baldwin, Maurice Joshua, Phortune, Fast Eddie and the late great Armando to name a few.

It was then that I realised that a new sub-genre of House music had arrived and Phuture's 'Acid Tracks' was not a one-off record but the very start of something new.

It was as if the flood gates had opened during 1988 as a torrent of Acid records appeared from both Chicago and the UK. By the end of September I was completely hooked. And I had also just turned 18 that same month. Possibly the perfect time to come of age?

The Hunt for Acid.

This new Acid sound was truly like a drug to me during late 88' and I could not get enough of it. I was walking around with my headphones on all day just soaking up this new Acid sound.

Then one evening it dawned on me that I could probably make this sort of music myself if I had the equipment - but first I had to identify what it was they were using?

I eventually found out when a friend of mine Carl, told me that he had recently read an interview with Marshall Jefferson in a music technology magazine in which he mentioned that DJ Pierre used a TB303 on Acid Tracks.

I managed to finally track down a TB303, in early 1989 when another friend of mine Steven, told me that there was one for sale in a junk shop near where he lived.

I went and checked for myself the following day and Steven was indeed right. At the very back of the shop I could see a TB303 on the shelf priced at 84.00 pounds

In order to raise the cash to buy it I got a job at the local McDonald's restaurant and spent the next few weeks flipping burgers.

I remember every night after my shift I would run to the shop and peer through the window to make sure the 303 was still there!

And after a few weeks, I finally had the cash I needed and promptly I quit my job. Then on a drizzly afternoon in April 1989 I bought the TB303 which was my first and so far, my only piece of musical equipment.

I was just in the nick of time too because it wasn't long before the price of TB303's began to skyrocket and within a couple of years they were commanding prices in the hundreds of pounds.

A fuzzy snapshot of my bedroom floor early 1990.
My TB303 is in the centre of the cluster of equipment.
Other bits in the picture are: a borrowed Vestax 4 track
Recorder, a borrowed Korg DDM10 drum machine,
a Tandy home keyboard and a TR606 drum machine.

Around the same time that I got my hands on the TB303 my friend Nick acquired a Korg DDD1 drum machine which he had no use for so he lent it to me.

The problem was I was unable to link the drum machine to the TB303 because of incompatible interfaces. The drum machine was a more modern piece of kit with a MIDI interface, whereas the TB303 used the older DIN sync interface.

Fortunately, another friend Paul, provided the solution when he lent me a device called a Korg KMS30, which was a box that sat between the TB303 and drum machine and allowed me to play both units together in synchronisation.

And so by May of 1989 I had cobbled together enough equipment to start experimenting and making some basic tracks.

Casey Tucker - SBE. May 1989 (age 18)
Some really rough lo-fi Acid with my TB303
synced to the Korg DDD1

If you want an authentic TB303 today, you had better be prepared to pay the price!
The above screen shot was taken from eBay June 2019. Cheaper clones are
available, so only true die-hards would consider paying these kinds of prices.

VFT Is Born.

In June 1989 I came up with the name of VFT, initially standing for Variable Frequency Technology, it shortly got changed to Variable Frequency Technician. The idea was to create a futuristic alter ego for my Techno and experimental projects.

First Ever VFT track. June 1989 (age 18.)
Again just a TB303 and Korg DDD1 being used.

By the start of 1990 I was still borrowing equipment from friends to compliment what little gear I owned myself. I have to at this point give a shout out my old mate Sean Johnson who loaned me a Yamaha PSS 680. And later also a Yamaha VSS 200 budget sampling Keyboard, which I used on the unreleased demo below.

Reminiscence (Version 1.)
Recorded February 1990 (age 19)
Roland TR606, TB303 and Yamaha VSS 200 sampling keyboard

July 1990. Among the empty bottles and cigarette packets are:
1.Tandy Home keyboard (used for the preset chords and strings.)
2.TB303. 3.TR606. 4.KMS-30 Synchroniser. 5. DR550 drums.

It was the start of a new decade and I needed to buy more equipment so I wasn't so reliant on borrowing stuff from other people.

When I was 19 I secured a job in a factory that made electric kettles and other gadgets which enabled me to save up for my next piece of equipment and my first brand new piece of kit, the Boss DR550 Drum machine.

This machine expanded my percussion palette with higher quality drum samples and also offered Latin percussion, tambourines, congas and other assorted drums - including a few sounds taken from the Roland TR808.

Vinyl Debut.

In the summer of 1990 I made my first appearance on vinyl when I was asked by fellow city band, Shades Of Rhythm if I would like to contribute a track to a project they were working on under the name Frenzied Bass.

The track in question was an Electro influenced number called Fenland Bass with vocals by Shades of Rhythm's lead vocalist, Rayan Gee and featuring the rhythms from my little Boss drum machine and melody from my TB303.

Around this time, my friend Mark Goodliff introduced me to a guy that he had met on his travels whilst on vacation in America and who was now in the UK visiting relatives. His name was Richie Hawtin and he was from Windsor in Canada, just across the river from Detroit.

Me and Richie hit it off straight away because we shared the same taste in music. I invited Richie to my place to show him my basic set up and play him what were no doubt some very rough tracks.

Richie told me that he was going to start a record label when he goes home and suggested that I should send him a demo.

Synths and Sequencers.

I still needed a proper synthesizer and to drop the home keyboard I was using which only had preset sounds. Back in 1990 we were fortunate to have a Music Village music store in town (which sadly has long since closed) where I bought my first synth, a second hand Casio CZ101, which I still own to this day and would become a staple in my future compositions for the next decade.

Next I needed something to record everything to, a digital sequencer, so I bought the cheapest thing I could afford, a Korg SQD8 linear sequencer.

All I have to say about this thing is that kids today don't know that they're born when they complain about today's latest DAW's.

This device was akin to recording onto an analogue tape machine and had no pattern function so you couldn't record small sections and join them together, rather you had to play everything the whole way through and punch in and out to edit and erase mistakes.

There was a step record function available but you needed degrees in computer science and music theory to figure it out!

But you could say the same for the TB303. User interfaces were not quite so friendly back in the 80's when much of this equipment came out.

Despite its limitations, I did knock out a few tracks on the SQD8. My friend Paul was pretty impressed by what I had managed to coax out of it so he bought if off me but was soon frustrated when he had to deal with the crippling limitations and sold it soon afterwards.

What I really needed was a computer. And there was only one music computer worth owning in the UK in the early 90's, the Atari ST.

These were the industry standard music computers due to their MIDI ports, which allowed them to be hooked directly to synths and drum machines and anything else that had MIDI connections with no need for any special adaptors.

Those with a knowledge of music computer history will know that some of the top DAW's of today had their beginnings on the Atari ST, namely Steinberg Cubase and Emagic Logic.

I bought my first Atari ST computer in early 1991, a second hand machine for 170.00 UK pounds from a computer shop that still exists today. It had a single sided floppy drive with 512 megabytes of memory and no monitor so I had to plug it into a portable TV.

Next I needed some software and this came in the form of a copy of Steinberg 12, a promotional copy that I got from my friend who worked in the music shop from where I bought my CZ101 synthesizer.

New Home & Record Deal.

I left home in 1991 at the age of 20 and rented an apartment around the corner where I was able to set up a studio in the living room and get down to practising my production skills. I also landed myself a DJ residency at a local nightclub called The Attic.

By the summer I had a collection of finished tracks and demos, which was just as well because Mark Goodliff contacted me to tell me that he had been speaking to Richie in Canada who was asking if I had any demos I could send over?

Things are a little fuzzy at this point but I remember having a telephone conversation with Richie a few weeks later where he told me that he liked the tracks that I'd sent him and he would like for me to go over to Canada so we could record them again in his studio.


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