Video: A Brief History of the Drum Machine

Editor's note: The drum machines featured in this video come from the private collection of Moby.

These days, if you turn on the radio to a local pop station or fire up a Top 40 playlist on a streaming platform, you're going to hear music built on electronic rhythms. Sequenced and loop-based production has become the dominant form of pop music production, and while most of today's chart-toppers are created with software on a laptop, the sounds and the compositional process find origin in a technology with a much longer lineage: the drum machine.

Early Experiments

The earliest contraption that we could label as a drum machine came about in the 1930s in the form of the Rhythmicon. Commissioned by American composer Henry Cowell and designed by the mysterious Leon Theremin, the Rhythmicon could play multiple rhythms or polyrhythms at once, echoing the modernist serialism of composers like Arnold Schoenberg.

The Rhythmicon didn't sound especially good and was really more of an experiment than a marketable product. And while it established the concept of a device that could play ongoing loops of rhythms, it would be another 20 years before the next major drum machine milestone.

In the late '50s, the Chamberlin Rhythmate and Wurlitzer Sideman both offered ways to trigger preset drum parts designed to accompany an organist or a family singalong. The Chamberlin played back recorded drum parts on actual audio tape, much like a Chamberlin or Mellotron keyboard. The Sideman generated sounds via mechanical inner-workings like a big music box.

These were large machines that sat on the floor and offered limited—if groundbreaking—functionality. The Sideman's rhythms included such styles as the Cha Cha, Waltz, and Bolera in a format that would be carried on in the next generation of drum machine design.

Preset Rhythm Boxes and Organ Add-Ons

Moving into the 1960s, the basic preset formula established by the Sideman would be adopted and expanded by more and more instrument makers that would integrate new electronic components into their designs.

Solid-state transistors specifically allowed drum machines to shrink in size, starting with the Thomas Band Master Model 55. In Japan, new companies like Keio-Giken (later known as Korg) and Ace Tone (the predecessor to Roland) would build an entire industry of devices designed as accessories for the organs of companies like Hammond in the United States.

Ace Tone and Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi loved music, and with a background working with watches and clocks, it's easy to understand how the young engineer would develop an interest in this new type of timekeeping device.

But breakthrough drum machine tech wasn't an exclusively Japanese enterprise—tons of other companies would enter the drum machine market in this era, building their own takes on the basic, preset rhythm box format.

The Elka Drummer One, with its individual volume controls over each drum sound, was made in Italy and became a favorite of Krautrock iconoclasts like Cluster and Kraftwerk. The Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 was famously used by Sly Stone and can be heard all over 1971's classic There's a Riot Goin' On. This record included the number one hit, "Family Affair"—the first chart-topper to include a drum machine track.

Sly & The Family Stone - "Family Affair"

Yet while machines like the Rhythm King and Drummer One were starting to find their way onto the recordings of experimental and pop-oriented artists alike, the functionality was still limited. For as much creative energy as Sly Stone was able to wring out of the Rhythm King, it was still a basic metronome-like device that was restricted to old-school patterns like like Fox Trot and Samba.

For musicians to be able to make the next creative leap with how drum machines functioned and shed their perception as tacky boxes for church organists, there would need to be a new level of control.

This occured with the rise of what we now call "programmable drum machines."

The Dawn of Programmability

The concept of programmability in the context of a drum machine refers to the ability of players to create their own patterns out of the sounds found inside of the box. Programmable drum machines came about first in 1972 when the Eko ComputeRhythm was released with a basic beat matrix, a format that's been included on most drum machines ever since. A kit electronic company called PAiA also distributed a programmable drum machine in 1975, which some consider the first true example.

In 1978, Roland released the CR-78 CompuRhythm, the first drum machine to include a microprocessor. While not Roland's first attempt at programmability, the CR-78 allowed users to save entire sequence—and it was this model that resonated the most with musicians.

You can hear it here on Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and in Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight".

Blondie - "Heart of Glass"

Two years later, Roland would strike back with a new machine—a fully programmable device with a unique set of synthesized analog sounds including a booming bass drum and idiosyncratic cowbell, handclaps, and claves. The TR-808, as it was dubbed, remains, without question, the most important drum machine of all time.

While not a successful product during its three-year production run, this colorful, iconic box would go on to become an integral component in a myriad of beat-based musical styles. '80s hip-hop innovators like Afrika Bambaataa and the Bomb Squad production team (best-known for their music for Public Enemy) used 808s to expand the sonic palette of the nascent genre. Later, its clap and bass drum sounds would become fundamental ingredients of bounce, crunk, and other forms of Southern hip-hop, which laid the groundwork for much of what you've heard on pop charts from the early 2000s to today.

Listen to Usher's "Yeah" featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris for a good example of the 808's lasting sonic legacy.

Usher - "Yeah"

Yet for as unmistakable as the hits and snaps of the 808 remain, no one would argue that its synthesized tones sounded anything like a real acoustic drum set. But in the early '80s, that's what more and more musicians were hoping for—real drum sounds. And to achieve that goal, we need to look to another early '80s bit of tech: the sample-based drum machine.

Sample-Based Drum Machines

The first sample-based drum machine—that is, a drum machine that plays pre-recorded drum sounds instead of synthesized ones—was the Linn Electronics LM-1 designed by one Roger Linn. It relied on then-expensive digital memory, and with a price tag of $5,000 in 1980, was mostly regulated to pro-level studios. Unlike many revolutionary music tech designers, Linn wasn't an engineering wunderkind with a Ph.D. He was a musician. He worked with other musicians, talked to other musicians, and learned how to code and build his instruments from a place of musical necessity.

Linn thought of his devices as inspirational songwriting tools, not full stand-ins for human drummers. But this conception didn't stop a who's who of '80s producers from giving the sounds of the LM-1 and follow-up LinnDrum a perennial placement in the pop charts. You can hear Prince's LM-1 on many of his biggest hits, and his machine still stands enshrined at Paisley Park.

Prince - "When Doves Cry"

While Linn's designs are usually positioned as the key turning point for '80s drum machines—introducing such drum machine concepts as "quantization" and "swing"—they weren't the only new and innovative instruments hitting the market in the '80s. Most synth manufacturers began to produce their own rhythmic devices as part of their broader product line: the Oberheim DMX, with its swappable memory cards, was a hit with early hip-hop producers. The Sequential Circuits Drumtraks was the first sample-based drum machine with MIDI integration, allowing it to connect to all sorts of other synths and devices. The E-Mu Systems Drumulator offered an even cheaper option for sample-based drums and became a huge seller.

For Roland's part, the 808 was followed by the hybrid digital-analog TR-909, which similarly failed to sell especially well in its day. Found on the shelves of pawnshops in Detroit and Chicago, though, the 909 would do for techno and house what the 808 did for hip-hop.

And throughout this whole period, the programmability of these machines continued to improve. Players could more easily create beats in real time, and these instruments grew increasingly playable. The Linn 9000—the final product offered by Linn Instruments before its demise—introduced a new generation of velocity-sensitive pad controllers to trigger drum sounds, signaling the sort of device that would define the next generation of beat-making tech.

From MPC to Ableton

Once drum machines like the LinnDrum set a new standard for sound based on the use of pre-recorded samples and open-ended programmability, the next step was to allow users to record and sample their own drum sounds.

Standalone samplers in a synth context had existed for awhile, and were pioneered by companies like Fairlight and New England Digital. Dave Rossum's E-mu Systems was another earlier popularizer, and followed up the hit Drumulator with the SP-12 and SP-1200 in 1986 and 1987. These machines brought sampling to a drum machine paradigm in a wide-scale way, and remained popular with hip-hop producers for years to come.

And then came the MPC.

Designed by Roger Linn for the Akai company, the MPC is more than a drum machine. It's an integrated, inclusive workstation that allowed a musician to both sample and sequence sounds. It could do the work of a drum machine with the added playability of a set of 16 responsive pad controllers and more.

1988 Akai MPC60

There were a number of MPC models produced in the '80s and '90s—starting with the MPC60 and including the MPC3000 favored by the J Dilla and the MPC2000XL favored by Kanye West—which were joined by similar machines from Korg, E-mu, and plenty of other firms. These all laid the groundwork for future beat-making stations such as the Native Instruments Maschine, and would, to a certain degree, predict the entire all-in-one workflow of software DAWs like Fruity Loops (later renamed FL Studio) and Ableton Live.

And in many ways, the music production community is still living in this era. While the technology has advanced and the aesthetic standards have evolved, the concept of merging and sequencing different sounds in a totally limitless way remains the defining workflow of modern music production.

From the MPC and other all-in-one stations onward, it's not so much about drum machines as standalone devices, but more about drum machine sounds and interfaces as part of a complete music-making system. And despite this expansive digital landscape, hardware drum machines remain as popular as ever.

Today's crop includes decidedly throwback models like the Roland AIRA TR-8, which includes the classics sounds of the 808 and 909. There's the mammoth Dave Smith-Roger Linn collab, the Tempest, and a growing number of pocket-sized units like the Korg Volca Beats or Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators. Elektron in Sweden offers a wide range of imaginative grooveboxes, and a growing list of adventurous boutique makers are pushing the concept in entirely new directions.

The engineers behind these instruments understand the renewed appeal of tactile, hardware drum machines, and have designed and iterated to meet the evolving needs of modern musicians. It's what drum machine designers have done this entire time, and why these beat-making devices in all their many forms have earned a place at the very center of today's music-making galaxy.

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