Beats Through Time: The Stories Behind Four Landmark Drum Machines

Are all those bumper stickers true? Do drum machines really have no souls? I tend to think that a piece of gear only has as much soul as the person who uses it, and with landmark musical innovations, perhaps as much as the person who invented it. If you look at the history of drum machines and the stories behind the people who made them, though, the answer becomes clear.

The Rhythmicon

1931

In the early '30s, two curious innovators collaborated to make a bizarre and sophisticated piece of gear. Sometimes referred to as the first drum machine, the Rhythmicon used rotating wheels, lights and photoreceptors to create complex rhythms out of a systematic splitting of the harmonic series.

Imagine pushing a tone through a multi-band EQ. Instead of cutting and boosting different frequencies however, the Rhythmicon would separate these frequencies rhythmically.

If a fundamental frequency sounds once, its next harmonic sounds twice, followed by the next harmonic sounding three times, and so on up the harmonic series. The player of the Rhythmicon would manipulate these mathematically divided blips using a seventeen key keyboard.

Leon Theremin, who ten years prior invented the famous instrument bearing his namesake, took on the challenge of engineering this oddity based upon the musical explorations of avant-garde composer Henry Cowell. In the end, the instrument fell short of being something Cowell frequently used, since there was no way to create expressive dynamics or to accent and extend notes. He lost interest after one buzzed-about performance in NYC.

Wurlitzer SideMan

1959

The storied history of the Wurlitzer family and its musical instrument company goes back over a hundred years to the importation of horns and band instruments during the U.S. Civil War. As fairs grew popular in the late 1800s and the noise of mechanical rides created a need for louder instruments, the company made an organ that was loud enough to cut through the din.

That type of organ would become a staple in theaters as well. Founder Rudolph Wurlitzer’s son took over after prohibition, building on the success of their carnival and theater organs with jukeboxes and eventually electric pianos. In 1959, they also made what many consider the first drum machine.

Sold as an accessory to Wurlitzer organs, the SideMan could produce a Waltz, a Bolero, a Shuffle, a March and a Tango, among other rhythms. It used vacuum tubes and moving mechanical parts to trigger its synthetic sounds. The user could adjust the speed of the electric motor (which rotated a mechanical arm across a disc of metal contact points) to control the tempo of any preset rhythm or metronome. Each sound could also be triggered individually.

The SideMan’s new, otherworldly sounding percussion gained popularity among musicians and inspired a wave of drum machines to come. It wouldn’t be until the '70s, however, that you could program your own sequenced beat without knowing your way around a soldering iron.

EKO ComputeRhythm

1972

The same year Wurlitzer released its SideMan, Oliviero Pigini founded what would become one of the largest guitar and bass manufacturing companies in Europe. EKO (which also produced instruments under the Vox brand name) would supply the guitar rock boom of the sixties. In the early '70s, they would also make what was arguably the first programmable drum machine.

In 1959, Pigini’s contemporaries saw his new company as a risky endeavor and focused on boosting accordion sales rather than starting to make guitars. His hometown of Castelfidardo, Italy was an entrenched accordion manufacturing town. After the second world war, the town became a bright spot for an economically depressed Italy. Accordions were in high demand in the late '40s, but changing musical tastes by the late '50s would validate Pigini’s move into guitars.

EKO kept its forward thinking spirit into the '70s when they developed the EKO ComputeRhythm. This game-changing drum machine allowed the user to program rhythms using six rows of buttons (an innovative interface at the time), or by loading patterns using punch cards.

The ComputeRhythm was priced too high to be accessible to most, and they didn’t really sound all that great. Only about twenty were made, but the fact that the machine allowed the user to create his or her own patterns was huge. Drum machines were no longer necessarily confined to pre-programmed rhythms like Western or Shuffle.

Roland TR-808

1980

A little less than ten years later, the programmable “Transistor Rhythm” 808 was released. It was conceived as essentially a glorified metronome to help musicians create demos in the studio, but just as Roland’s Space Echo never found use as a machine for reproducing long announcements, the 808 would never be restricted to just demos.

Given his lifelong interest in both technology and music, it’s no surprise that the Wurlitzer SideMan was something that had intrigued Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland.

Growing up as an orphan, Kakehashi taught himself how to repair watches.After the SideMan’s release, his company, then called Ace Electronics, would design innovative rhythm boxes for the Hammond Organ Company to sell as an accessory to their organs throughout the '60s. But it wasn’t until the 808 that Kakehashi’s new company, Roland, would make an indelible mark on the history of the drum machine.

Released in 1980, the TR-808 was used on some notable sessions in its short time in production, but it was discontinued in 1983. Machines that could produce more realistic drum sounds started to appear on the market, causing the 808 to be seen as an obsolete piece of technology.

This sparked a drop in price which put the 808 into the hands of a generation of musicians who programmed its sixteen synthetic sounds into entire genres of music. It didn’t hurt that the 808’s kick drum sound could rattle the windows, and that its timing was incredibly precise. The rest is history.

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