Roland Alpha Juno synthesizer (1985) / The “Hoover” sound


In 1985, Roland introduced the Alpha Juno, an analog polyphonic synthesizer with digitally-controlled oscillators. The year prior, Roland had released the Juno-106, which featured dedicated hardware sliders for every parameter; the Alpha Juno series relegated all editing to a single “Alpha wheel,” wherein the parameter is selected with a membrane button, and the value of the parameter is changed by twirling the wheel at the top left corner of the synth:

While the switch from dedicated sliders to a single adjustment wheel made editing the Alpha Juno’s patches more cumbersome, the sound architecture in the Alpha Juno offered unique waveforms that the 106 lacked. The Alpha Juno’s preset patches included standard fare like “Piano” and “Violin,” among other recreations of typical instruments. However, one of the presets, patch number 86, was titled simply “What the,” a fitting title for a sound that truly defies comparison with any known musical device. A growling, menacing, heavily-modulated wall of noise, the patch eventually came to be known as the “Hoover sound,” due to the only sonically-similar instrument being a vacuum cleaner. It’s a swarm of angry bees, it’s a rabid electronic shriek, and it became a staple sound in early-90s electronic music. “Dominator” by Human Resource and “Mentasm” by Second Phase were both released within weeks of eachother in 1991, so it’s unclear who used it on a released recording first, but Prodigy scored their first hit “Charly” with the Hoover sound in August of the same year. It’s an interesting moment in music history: the Alpha Juno synths had been out for years, yet the pure abrasiveness of Patch 86 evaded any musical application. However, as dance music evolved, it began incorporating atonal and dissonant noises. When Human Resource, Second Phase, and Prodigy took a risk with the patch, they essentially spawned entire new sub-genres of electronic music, ranging from Gabber to hard house. Veeeehhhhuuuuhh!! (Text approximation of the “Hoover” sound)

Killer Cuts (1995)

In 1995 I was in the fifth grade. My best friend at the time was a fellow Super Nintendo fanatic named Tim Kim. We’d ride our BMX bikes to his apartment after school and spend every afternoon drawing robot warriors and playing Mega Man X. He and his older brother were big fans of Killer Instinct; I never got big into fighting games, but he let me borrow the Killer Cuts CD, which was included with the the first 100,000 released copies of the game. (He later gave it to me as a gift for my 10th birthday party at a Q-Zar lazer tag arena.) The record features hi-fidelity arranged renditions of each character’s theme music, which played when you fought on that character’s stage. This was one of the first records that I got really into… I listened to it constantly on my badical Sony CD Walkman. It would serve as the background music for riveting matches of tabletop wargame Necromunda or The Omega Virus. By the end of the 90s it was scratched beyond the point of playability, and I think I accidentally sat on it and shattered it while getting back into my mom’s minivan after a Q-Zar lazer tag match.

I haven’t heard this music for probably two decades. It’s fascinating that my brain managed to store these tracks so well; listening to this record now, it’s all extremely familiar, and I’m remembering samples and segments that I haven’t heard since the Clinton administration. I also wasn’t big on genre classification back then, but if we’re to use Wikipedia and Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music to evaluate these songs, the record is loaded with Goa trance / Psytrance — 135+ BPM, plodding mechanical analog synth basslines, techno flourishes, party-pumping house samples, and a heavy Eastern-Indian melodic sense. “Full-bore” is menacing ’90s industrial techno-by-numbers, whereas “The Instinct” goes down a more industrial-metal path, with Terminator 2: Judgment Day string pads and orchestra hits propping up holdover reverb-soaked wailing Satriani synth-guitar solos from the late ’80s. “Yo Check This Out!” and “Freeze” are slightly awkward attempts at funky urban hip-hop, the latter featuring some convincing Fat Boys-esque beatboxing.

Given that the music was intended to be background noise for beating up futuristic cyborgs as a skeleton man or werewolf, it’s all pretty straightforward ’90s action sequence sounds. But thanks to the magical massive library of information on the internet, this obscure album is again available to my ears after all these years. Listening to this record takes me back to a special time, before puberty and severe crippling depression, when my imagination ran wild with cybertronic fantasies and robo-delic delights, and I was still capable of deriving satisfaction from life. C-c-c-c-combo breaker!!