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Roots of Electronica: Drum Machines

An Evolution of The Beat: From the Sideman to the 808

From the name alone, the two most essential components of electronic dance music are extremely obvious:  electronics and a danceable rhythm. Far less evident, however, is how the parameters of this combination are precisely defined. The presence of a beat and a synthesizer does not necessarily mean the resultant song will be EDM.  For example, a ’60s Garage-Psych song might contain electronic accents and big drums. However, it will remain a far cry from what a reasonable person would call electronic dance music or even electronic music.

A genre is a tricky thing to pin down. However, one of the more efficient ways to go about it is to identify a core element, like an instrument, and place it at the center of the sound and style. For example, not every song with a guitar is considered to be Rock. On the other hand, for the most part, there is no real Rock music without a guitar. The guitar is the key link between the different strains of a massive genre. Guitars make it reasonable to claim that there is some kind of connection between the music of Elvis and Metallica. For electronic dance music, this core element and instrument is the drum machine.

The drum machine exemplifies electronic dance music from classic House to Breakbeat, to modern EDM. This is to such a degree that it is not hard to track down ultra-minimalist songs like “Stardust”. This song pretty much only consists of drum machine sounds. The drum machine is the great equalizer. It is the thing that makes songs that are incredibly different sound incredibly similar from the sonic vacuum of a club bathroom and ties a galaxy of subgenres together under one united flag.

Rhythmicon

The advent of the drum machine was not necessarily the advent of the drum machine “sound”. The first ever drum machine, the Rhythmicon, sounds more like a malfunctioning Pacman machine than an actual “drum”. Developed by avant-garde composer Henry Cowell and the prolific inventor Leon Theremin (creator of the namesake instrument) in 1931, the Rhythmicon was designed to generate complex polyrhythms via a system of rotating discs and electric photoreceptors. While a significant step forward for music technology, the Rhythmicon’s blippy, spastic “beats” were hardly very significant for the music itself. The popularization of the drum machine would require the instrument to produce recognizable and attractive noise: a feat first accomplished by the Wurlitzer Company some 20 years after the Rhythmicon first debuted.

Sideman

In 1959, Wurlitzer, a company mainly known for its electric pianos and organs, created the first commercially available drum machine known as the Sideman. The Sideman was not “playable” in the sense of a modern 808 but rather controlled by a panel on top of a large wooden cabinet that contained preset drum patterns like “Samba” and “Waltz” and switches for speed variability. The drum sounds were generated by a rotating wiper arm that brushed specific contact points to make its unique rhythmic noises. Impressively for an early synthetic drum machine, the Sideman’s drum sound didn’t come off as a tinny simulacra of a real drum, but instead had the kind of uncanny, lite-disco quality that would mark the drum machine as a distinct instrument, desirable not only as a precise means of generating rhythm but also as an aesthetic novelty.

In the years following the release of the Wurlitzer Sideman, many other companies such as Nippon and Ace Tone began patenting their own preset drum machines, and several musicians began to explore the possibilities of their strange, synthetic rhythms. The drum machine was a natural fit for fringe rock outfits of the ’70s such as Can and Yellow Magic Orchestra, but it also found its way into the upper echelons of the Pop world, appearing in hit tracks from artists like Robin Gibb and Sly & the Family Stone. At the dawn of the ’80s, the drum machine appeared ready to become a significant part of the modern musical landscape.

The LM-1 and LM-2

In 1980, Linn Electronics released the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer. It was the first drum machine designed with digital samples. The LM-1 was the brainchild of guitarist Roger Linn. Linn set out to create a drum machine with sounds that could transcend the thin tics and chirps that had been the standard since the 1960’s. At the suggestion of Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro, Linn teamed up with session drummer Art Wood. Together, they recorded a series of drum samples and programmed them into a computer chip. The resultant drum machine became a massive success.

Its deep yet pristine sound proved the perfect backdrop for the maximalist electro-pop of the 1980’s. The LM-1 and its successor, the LM-2, appear on a variety of ’80s hits, from the novel (Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”) to the sublime (a-ha’s “Take on Me”) to the novel and sublime (Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbuster’s Theme”). The late, great Prince probably most adequately honored the sound of the Linn drum machine. He used it extensively in many of his most classic albums, including the titanic Purple Rain. Prince was such a fan of the original LM-1 that his model is currently on display at Paisley Park, open for viewers who want to catch a glimpse of the sleek ’80s computer that powered some of the most indelible pop music ever recorded.

Although the LM-1 and 2 helped make the drum machine a true musical mainstay, the very thing that made them famous models has ironically served to dim their current appeal. As time has passed, music became less tethered to any pretense of “naturalness”. Innovators in genres like house, hip-hop, and EDM, have then eschewed real sounding drums in favor of more synthetic ones. There isn’t any drum machine that defines an artificial, contemporary sound more than the Roland TR-808.

The TR-808 and the LM-1

The TR-808 is the most famous drum machine in the world. It is a massively influential instrument, whose cultural impact is quite extensive. In fact, its technical sounding title has entered the popular lexicon on the back of name drops from rappers and producers the world over. Released in 1980, the analog TR-808 originally appeared flat and unnatural in comparison to the LM-1.

Overall, the LM-1 machine was considered to be a failure. It received poor reviews that ultimately resulted in weak sales. Over time, the hypnotic, elegant capabilities of 808 rhythms found a cult following in experimental hip-hop/dance producers. Most notably, Afrika Bambaataa, whose 1982 song “Planet Rock” helped cement the 808 as a key aesthetic component of a new wave of electronic music. Over time, rap and electronic began to seep into the mainstream. As this happened, so too did the 808 along with the very concept of the “electronic drum sound”. Eventually, the 808 and its counterparts had far surpassed not only digitally sampled drum machines but also drums in general.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hh1AypBaIEk

Drum machines today

Today, organic, live drums are difficult to find in any legitimately popular genre outside of the country. In fact, even the “drum machine” itself has become less of an instrument. In part, this is due to its integration into music workstations and general sequencers like the Novation Launchpad. Not only do they provide electronic drum sounds, but they also a variety of sampled noises and melodies. The general trend over the years has been away from the flexible live drummer. Instead, the direction is towards the drum machine’s tight, artificial sound.

It is essential, however, when considering this evolution not to write off the rise of drum machines and sequencers directly. These tools are not to be taken as some sort of natural solution to the problems musicians face. True, programmed drums might be more precise and palatable. The unique aesthetic qualities that drum machines can provide is the real reason modern sensibilities favor electronic rhythms. Drum machines like the TR-808 helped lend beats a unique and vivid power. Furthermore, they led marshal music into new realms of potency. The rhythms of programmed drums and drum machines are strict and fixed yet resound. They have a vividness that only electronics are capable of touching. Of course, descriptions like these are hardly necessary. Especially when considering the deep history of drum machines and their immense impact on music. It speaks so loudly for itself.

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Michael Coe

Michael Coe is a regular contributor for OneEdm’s “Roots of Electronica” series. He lives in Los Angeles, California and is a writer and performer for the multimedia collective Count the Clock. Interests include music, writing, music writing, and everything in between

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