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The next-gen player piano is turning 10

January 1997, Ernst Bathorst-Noos got an urgent phone call from his Internet service provider.

"I don't know what kind of porn you're putting on our network," the caller yelled at Bathorst-Noos, "but you take it down now!"

That's how Bathorst-Noos and the other two co-founders of a fledgling software company, Propellerhead, found out they were on to something.

But what they were on to wasn't porn. It was a rough-draft download that let users create hard-driving dance music similar to songs heard in nightclubs. Better yet, the program's graphics looked like the Roland TB-303, the iconic, near-mythical music instrument of the underground dance scene.

Thanks to the program dubbed "ReBirth" -- as in rebirth of the beloved 303 -- people who knew nothing about making music could click a mouse a few times and produce growling bass notes, howling high notes and boom-chick-boom drum parts. It was like the arrival of the home piano. The audience went from just listening to music to creating it.

As word of this software spread on the Internet, downloaders clogged the network of Bathorst-Noos' Internet service provider. Bathorst-Noos explained that it wasn't porn attracting all the downloaders, just good clean fun. "Boy, he was mad," Bathorst-Noos, 46, of Stockholm recalls with a chuckle.

Propellerhead squared things with the Internet service provider, polished their rough little program, and in April 1997, "ReBirth" -- the first software music synthesizer for the masses -- went on sale.

A decade later, you can't escape the influence of "ReBirth."

Artists from Wyclef Jean to the Killers are handy with software synthesizers; film scores that sound like symphonic orchestras likely were created via computer; and TV and radio commercials have background music that's cheaper to make with software on a laptop than it is to make with hired musicians. Anyone who noodles around at home with Apple's popular GarageBand musicmaking software is creating an ode to "ReBirth."

All of that was a dream 10 years ago.

"That was a month where our world was turned upside down," says Ernie Rideout, editor of Keyboard magazine. "I remember when we got it in the office, all work stopped. (Instrument reviewer and writer) Greg Rule installed and it came running out of the office: 'You've got to check this out!' It sounded so good."

For $200, "ReBirth" offered the growl, boom and spit of two TB-303s and a Roland TR-808 drum machine -- out-of-production instruments that would have totaled at least $3,000 on the second-hand market, if they could be found at all.

Fans of dance music quickly bought the program, and those with programming knowledge started tweaking it. They figured out how to use their own sounds, not just the sounds available in "ReBirth," and they used the software to share music over the Internet.

"We didn't expect that," Bathorst-Noos says.

"ReBirth" stood alone, but once Propellerhead gave it the ability to work simultaneously with other musical instruments, the world of so-called softsynths exploded.

Touring pros started using "ReBirth," though many wouldn't admit it. Few artists want to be known for using gear that's aimed at the do-it-yourself-at-home market. but the "ReBirth" sounds were good enough so only purists could tell the difference between a real 303 and an emulation.

Today, it's not odd to see two people with laptops walk on stage and perform a concert.

The 18-month-old Princeton Laptop Orchestra is taking the idea further, banding together 15 musicians who use only laptops to improvise a new kind of music that has little to do with dance. The ensemble, known as plORK, treats each laptop as a separate instrument, as opposed to an orchestra in a box.

In pop music, synthesizers have come in and out of favor over the years, reaching a peak -- or nadir, depending on your view -- in the 1980s, says Andy Kellman, editor of the online reference All Music Guide. After '90s rock relegated synthesizers to the realm of dance music and hip-hop, they are making a bit of a comeback. The Killers, Arcade Fire and other bands meld the sounds of 50-year-old electric guitar technology with undercurrents of hardware and software synthesizers - though Kellman says detractors still dismiss synthesizers as "just hitting buttons and not putting a lot of thought into it."

In the end, it's all music, says musician and author Derek Johnson: "Every viewpoint is valid as long as the people concerned are making music."