The Drum Machines of Cocteau Twins

Few bands that came out of the creatively fertile 1980s were as unique as the Cocteau Twins: a phantasmagorical mix of Elizabeth Fraser’s otherworldly vocals and Robin Guthrie’s effects-laden guitars, they sounded like nothing else before it and would go on to influence countless bands and genres.

While much has been said about Fraser’s operatic vocals and poetic lyrics—not to mention Guthrie’s heavenly guitar playing and effects chains—very little attention has been paid to their use of drum machines. This could be because the band was rarely photographed with one, preferring to run the rhythm track off a reel-to-reel when performing live and in music videos. It’s also likely because the vocals and guitar were so distinctive that they overshadowed everything else.

Whatever the reason, it’s time to shine a little light on the unsung element of the band: the rhythm machines.

How They Used Drum Machines

With a very few exceptions, as we’ll get into later, Robin Guthrie preferred programming digital samples of acoustic drums to analog drum machines. This was first done with pre-loaded rhythm boxes like the LinnDrum and E-mu Drumulator, and later on samplers like the E-mu SP-1200 and Akai MPC60. “Better 12-bit than no bits, eh?” he said on a Cocteau Twins message board in the 2000s (archived here).

As technology progressed, Guthrie became aware of computers but still preferred hands-on programming. “The awkward combination of computer and hardware I found quite distracting and tried to stick to more ‘musical’ composition tools, such as the Akai MPC60 and the E-mu SP-1200, where I could sample at will.”

However, Guthrie used drum machines for more than just percussion sounds: keen listeners to the Cocteau Twins will probably have noticed rhythmic gating of guitars in their songs—particularly on later albums like Heaven Or Las Vegas—which was accomplished by syncing hardware gates to the clock on his drum machines.

Drum machines were also convenient to use. “I could never use a drummer because I’m so used to the precision and timing of a drum machine,” he explained to Sound On Sound magazine in 1989. “And drummers make an awful lot of noise—imagine Liz trying to sing with a great big drum kit behind her.”

Despite the presence of live drums on later albums, Guthrie resisted hiring a live drummer until the band’s final tour. Any sense of human feel is a testament to Guthrie’s skills as a programmer, as well as improvements in drum machine technology such as swing and velocity.

Looking at the history of the band, there’s a clear progression in drum machine use—Guthrie often abandoned an older unit in favor of something newer and more natural. They were rarely top of the line, which ultimately allowed the band to avoid sounding like every other outfit at the time.

“The long and the short of it is that most of the Cocteau Twins’ drums I programmed were on the ‘not quite’ best of equipment of the day and are burned to tape,” he said on the same message board. “Having said that, however, I must point out, if even for my own sanity, the beats and rhythms I put on Cocteau Twins records remain, to me, something very vital.”

Official video for "Carolyn's Fingers" by Cocteau Twins, off the 1988 album Blue Bell Knoll.

Before 4AD

From the start, the Cocteaus’ use of drum machines was born from necessity. “The reason for having a go at drum machines, especially in the ‘80s when the whole idea was pretty young, as far as programmed beats and sampled sounds were concerned, there wasn’t much choice,” Guthrie explained.

Before signing with 4AD and recording their debut album Garlands, they used affordable analog drum machines—mainly a Boss DR-55 and two Soundmaster SR-88s. The Boss DR-55 was particularly popular with post-punk bands like New Order in the early ‘80s as it was cheap and programmable albeit very limited. The Soundmaster SR-88 was similar in its execution.

The Cocteaus got around their limitations by running them through guitar amps, fuzz and spring reverbs, pairing those with self-built white and pink noise generators “to thicken out the sound,” said Guthrie. These never made it onto Garlands, unfortunately—the album’s producer had other ideas.

Roland TR-808
"Blind Dumb Deaf” (Garlands)

When Guthrie, Fraser, and then-bassist Will Heggie, arrived at the studio to record Garlands in 1982, both the engineers involved and 4AD label head and producer Ivo Watts-Russell balked at the idea of using their DR-55 and SR-88s.

Instead, the “grown-ups,” as the 19-year-old Guthrie derisively referred to them, insisted they use the newly-released Roland TR-808 instead. “This made the drums sound very clean but weak,” Guthrie lamented, “lacking the power that we were used to in concert. I mean the stuff we used sounded way more like hip-hop than electronic.”

“Blind Dumb Deaf” clearly features a TR-808, and despite the presence of delay on the snare and the washy hi-hats and cymbals, you can hear what Guthrie was complaining about. Although it has its charms, it doesn’t quite work with the raw post-punk guitar textures and rumbling bass. With one later exception, this would be the band's only use of an 808 in their discography—the band would turn to digital drum machines on their next record.

Linn Instruments LM-1
“Feathers-Oar-Blades” (Lullabies EP)

The Lullabies EP, the band’s next release, was once again produced by Ivo, but it sounded much more like the Cocteau Twins as we know them today. This time they utilized a Linn Electronics Linn LM-1—Roger Linn’s first instrument and a milestone in drum machine history. With digital samples of acoustic drums rather than analog approximations, the Linn provided a punchy, driving motorik rhythm for “Feathers-Oar-Blades.”

Linn Instruments LinnDrum
“Peppermint Pig (12” Version)” (Peppermint Pig EP)

Roger Linn’s follow-up to the LM-1, the massively popular LinnDrum, was the drum machine of choice for the next EP, Peppermint Pig, released in 1983. Guthrie wasn’t a huge fan of the LinnDrum though, mostly because of how popular it had become. “I used to have a Linn but now I hate them,” he told International Musician & Recording World in 1984. “You can tell them a mile off if you know the sound and everyone uses them. I really dislike them now.” This was the last time he’d use a Linn-branded drum machine, though it was not the last time he’d use a Roger Linn-designed device.

E-mu Drumulator
“Sugar Hiccup” (Head Over Heels)

Head Over Heels, the band's sophomore album, is where they really started to come into their own, and the first that definitely sounds like Cocteau Twins. By this time, Will Heggie had left the band, leaving the duo of Guthrie and Fraser to record the 1983 album by themselves. Guthrie had also taken over production duties and opted for a slightly softer sound which featured an E-mu Drumulator.

Released that same year, the Drumlator may not have been the most popular in the shops at the time but that lack of recognition helped make it part of the Cocteau’s signature sound. “I like the sound and the price, and just for a change it almost sounds like real drums,” Guthrie told International Musician & Recording World in the same issue. They would go on to use the Drumulator on the Sunburst and Snowblind EP and again in a slightly modified form on their breakthrough album Treasure.

E-mu Drumulator with Digidrums Rock Drums
“Lorelei” (Treasure)

1984’s Treasure was a landmark album for the Cocteaus that saw improvements in both their songwriting and Guthrie’s production—it also marked the debut of their multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde. They worked in some new gear, including an E-mu Emulator sampler and Yamaha DX-7 for bell sounds, but they stuck with their E-mu Drumulator with an important upgrade.

The change? Guthrie swapped out the original eproms for Digidrums’ Rock Drums chips, which featured samples of John Bonham from “When The Levee Breaks.” It gives the backing tracks a distinctive sampled edge but with a Drumulator feel.

In the magazine One-Two Testing, Guthrie explained how he used the Drumulator on the record. “We start with a very basic guide drum on the Drumulator. I’ve tried all the drum machines and that’s the most straightforward machine to work with. Examples? Well, supposing you wanted to erase a particular drum from a song. On some machines that would take you ages. With the Drumulator it’s straightforward. Tuning of the drums on it would be helpful, I suppose, but you could always varispeed them once they were on tape. I’ve got some of the new chips for our Drumulator—the Rock chips sound great. I’ll stick with that machine.”

Roland TR-707
“Aikea-Guinea” (Aikea-Guinea)

However, Guthrie didn’t stick with the Drumulator and by 1985’s Aikea-Guinea EP he had replaced it with a Roland TR-707. Listeners can clearly make out a 707 on the title track, with its bright punchy kick and distinctive toms. He liked the 707 enough to use it on a number of the EPs in this period, including Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In A Shallow Bay.

E-mu SP-12, E-mu SP-1200, Yamaha RX5
“A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” (Blue Bell Knoll)

1988's Blue Bell Knoll was a game-changing album for the Cocteau Twins. With US distribution handled by Capitol Records and scoring an alternative radio hit with “Carolyn’s Fingers,” the band's popularity continued to grow.

It was the first release recorded at their new studio, September Sounds Studio, built upstairs from Pete Townsend’s Eel Pie Studios. The album also saw Guthrie starting to work with sampling drum machines like the E-mu SP-12 and SP-1200 for the first time, which really freed him up to experiment with rhythms. (He even revisited 808 sounds sampled into his SP-1200 on “Athol Bose.”)

The penultimate song, “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat,” is indicative of Guthrie’s drum programming of the era. Working with live-sounding drums and heavy processing, it creates a mood grounded in reality and yet not of this world. To achieve this, he used his SP-1200 for drums but also to trigger the outboard effects.

“The sort of synthy percussive sound that runs all the way through and is all on its own in the intro is a bunch of filtered delays triggered from the drums," he explained on a message board. "I used a Lexicon PCM70 for this (same with the ‘synth’ rhythm thing on 'Blue Bell Knoll').

The filtery pulsating wah sound which appears from the choruses to the end, well, the exact guitar I can’t remember but the gist of the sound is a triggered gate, triggering 16th notes from the metronome output of the sequencer, an E-Mu SP1200, then wah-ed.”

Akai MPC60 MK1, E-mu SP-1200
"Heaven Or Las Vegas” (Heaven Or Las Vegas)

Often considered their crowning achievement, Heaven Or Las Vegas sees Guthrie continuing to work with sampling drum machines and perfecting a human-sounding drum style. The Akai MPC60 MK1 (released in 1988) was the big addition to his drum machine arsenal for this album, an instrument that he really loved.

“I started with a (Boss) Dr. Rhythm and just basically went through them all,” he said to Sound On Sound in 1989. “We’ve got about 10 or 12 drum machines now. I like the MPC60—the Akai-Linn one, designed by Roger Linn who made the original LinnDrum. The MPC60 is very good. You can sample all your own drum sounds into it. It’s the easiest drum machine to program, it’s got the best editing facilities on it, and it’s got a 99-track sequencer built in as well.” Praise from Robin Guthrie—rare indeed!

Akai MPC60 MK1, Roland CR-1000
“Theft and Wandering Around Lost” (Four-Calendar Cafe)

The next record, 1993's Four-Calendar Cafe, saw Guthrie continuing his love affair with the Akai MPC60, adding preset rhythms from a Roland CR-1000 when needed. “Theft and Wandering Around Lost” from the record was recorded in Guthrie's favored waltz time. Way back in 1984 he answered some reader questions in One-Two Testing magazine. To the question, “A lot of the songs are in waltz time,” he replied, “That’s because I program the drums on the majority of the songs, and they tend to be in 6/8 or 3/4, maybe 60 or 70% of them. So yes, it is intentional. I suppose it feels more comfortable to play to, for me.”

Akai MPC60 MK2
“Violane” (Milk & Kisses)

For their final album, 1996’s Milk & Kisses, Guthrie bought a minorly upgraded Akai MPC60. It was still 12-bit but added a metal case as well as a headphone output on the front panel. “Violane” is indicative of the sound of the album, with its slow rock rhythm and acoustic kit samples.

What’s remarkable is how little Guthrie’s programming changed over the course of the band’s history: while the drum machines themselves shifted frequently, his programming always remained consistent—rock-solid, grounded, and lifelike. Perhaps this is why their use of drum machines has always been ignored: it’s easy to mistake it for the real thing.

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