Slave to the Rhythm (from 20/09/2017)

Posted 10th November, 2017

The History of the Drum Machine

Created to aid organists in the early 30’s, the drum machine has kept dance floors stomping ever since. From Hip Hop, Disco to Rock ‘n’ Roll, their relentless beats can be heard on countless hits and have led to whole genres of music being born. With todays ever-evolving hardware and increasing demand for ‘old-skool’ nostalgic inspired sounds, it definitely feels like these drumming robots are more than just a passing phase in music.

The 1931 Rhythmicon 'Drum Machine'

Drum machines kicked off in the early 30s when Leon Theremin invented the Rhythmicon. This clunky, strange keyboard-like machine was able to play complex polyrhythms but was hardly a thing of musical delight, described once as being similar to the ‘sound of calling geese’. Following this, units like the Wurlitzer Side Man were designed specifically to recreate the sound of live drums. The Side Man was sold as an accessory to a Wurlitzer organ and came encased in a solid mahogany frame. It is considered the first mass-produced drum machine.

Then the 70s happened, the defining era for the drum machine. Funk turned to disco, and these now programmable machines led the way for all sorts of creativity. Sly Stone (American 60s/70s Funk genius) is known to have tucked himself away in his Hollywood mansion with a Maestro Rhythm King and can be heard throughout his iconic album “There’s A Riot Goin' On”. This ability to write music alone with percussive assistance, a new phenomenon, suited Sly’s notoriously reclusive lifestyle.


"Just Like A Baby" by Sly & The Family Stone from the album "There's A Riot Goin' On"

2000 miles away from Sly in Nashville, a man named J. J Cale was recording his debut album “Naturally”. More surprisingly this Country Rock artist was also using a drum machine as the fundamental percussive instrument throughout his album. Cale used the Rhythm King’s rival, the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace. J. J Cale went on to be acknowledged by the likes of Eric Clapton and Neil Young as “one of the most important artists in the history of rock”.


J. J Cale - "Call Me The Breeze" from the album "Naturally"

In 1978 Roland released the Compu-Rhythm CR-78, a programmable drum machine that allowed for rhythms to be stored as presets. Long gone were the days of the Salsa drum pattern, the Compu-Rhythm took things to the next level and assisted in creating pop mega hits like Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” and “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.

Roland CR-78 'Compu-Rhythm'

2 years later in 1980, Roger Linn an American electronics designer produced the Lin LM-1 Drum Computer. This revolutionary piece of equipment was the first of its kind as it used digital samples with a far higher quality of sample rate than its predecessors. Artists such as Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac were fans of this drum machine during its early release and the LinnDrum can be heard on tracks such as Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller” as well as Prince’s “When Doves Cry”. This beat box had raised the bar once again for drum machines and producers across the globe made these a studio staple.


Prince - "When Doves Cry"

In the same year the LinnDrum was released so was the Roland TR-808. This unit opted to use analog sound rather than digital and has been described as one of the most influential inventions in popular music with it being used on more hit records than any other drum machine. The 808 became the cornerstone for emerging genres like Dance and Hip Hop, with its early use on tracks such as Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” or Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” attracting a cult following among underground musicians. Samples of the TR-808 are still heavily used in modern day music to this day, with its booming kick being a fundamental part of most R&B and Hip Hop. The 808 was discontinued in 1983 and a year later it was replaced by the TR-909, Roland’s first MIDI enabled unit. The 909 was another success with Hip Hop and the Electric Music scene and can be heard thudding away in countless Techno and Acid House songs from the time.

Roland's TR-808 Analog Drum Machine

During the 90’s, the advent of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) software and instrument emulations led to the demise of drum machines. Computers took over and the bulky hardware was left to gather dust. Cubase by Steinberg was released in 1989 and this was one of the first computer based platforms for arranging and tracking. From this point forward computers have become an every day part of music production, allowing flexibility and ease of creativity. This hasn’t meant the end of drum machines though, what with a huge come back for hardware and physical units, artist’s creativity and workflows are helped ever more through intuitive designs by brands such as Roland, Nord, Elektron, AKAI and Native Instruments. This combination of software, analog equipment, samplers and hardware have joined forces and brought forward a new generation of gear that continues to bring musical expression, inventiveness and imagination to the masses.

Elektron's Digitakt

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