Prince's Drum Machine: How His Use of the Linn LM-1 Heralded a New Age of Pop Rhythm Creation

When a young hotshot guitarist named Roger Linn first took his prototype drum machine to swank rockstar parties in Los Angeles, he was so early in the building process that he had to jury-rig the contents into a cardboard box.

That makeshift container would be an odd bit of music history if still around today. (Linn has no recollection what became of it.) Still, you could say the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer was a gift-wrapped box of creativity for another young inventive genius, one Prince Rogers Nelson.

As the cornerstone of Prince's soul-funk-rock-cosmic funhouse, the LM-1 guaranteed that his music would stand apart from that of his contemporaries. Not that this secret weapon came cheap; when Linn introduced it in 1979, he priced it at $5,000. Only 525 were ever made, and used LM-1s were just about impossible to find when Prince landed one—meaning he likely paid the equivalent of $17,600 (plus tax) in today's money to get it. Even now, when a rare original model pops up on Reverb, one can go for anywhere between $4,000 and $10,000.

Linn LM-1 Drum Computer.
Notice the array of individual outputs with tuning knobs.

Yet given the hits the Artist coaxed out of its sliders, knobs, buttons, and chips, his LM-1 goes down as one of pop music's best gear investments. And as the LM-1 supercharged his career, Prince propelled the modern drum machine into the spotlight. Other artists—including Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson—would all make amazing music with the gadget; the Human League's 1981 smash single "Don't You Want Me" compelled countless music fans wonder, "What's that sound?"

Prince, though, made the LM-1 such an integral part of his music that it's impossible to imagine his most beloved songs without it. Where others might be just as happy using some other drum simulator, Prince played his LM-1 like a man possessed, as though mounting and mangling a real drum kit. "Drum machine aficionados regard Prince as some sort of Hendrix of the LM-1," the Guardian proclaimed in 2009, an apt description if ever there was.

Just how did Prince turn pop music's first sample-based drum machine into a magic box? While notoriously secretive about his studio techniques, Prince did leave behind clues as to how he doctored the LM-1 to create his own percussive planet.

Just Press Play? No Way.

"Real drums at your fingertips." That was how Roger Linn advertised the LM-1 in the product's brochure. That said, it makes a huge difference whose fingertips we're talking about here, and Prince wasn't content to touch a few of the 46 buttons and get out of the way. For him, the motto might as well have been "Real drums with your fingerprints." Prince left his marks all over the machine by putting it through paces Roger Linn never intended, but still marvels at to this day.

The Linn LM-1 product brochure.

"Prince's hits made such an impact because of his creative use of the LM-1," Linn told me in a 2017 Reverb interview. "I tried to contact Prince a couple of times but never heard back. He was very important to my success."

Unlike other artists who merely programmed a simple beat and let it repeat as-is, Prince manipulated the LM-1's preset sounds, aggressively finger-drummed patterns and fills, and—as you'll read more about below—used the machine's individual and stereo channel outputs to run the one-shots and patterns through effects.

"He didn't just select a stock beat and press play, but rather used it in unusual and creative ways, from his detuning the drums to no longer sound like drums, to the unusual beats he programmed, to how he featured it in the mix," Linn said.

Not even Linn knows exactly how Prince did his thing, and even those closest to him seem to have spotty recollections. This has led to some wide speculation online from fans and modern-day producers still hoping to learn the secrets of Prince's use of the LM-1. But here, we've reconstructed a roadmap into some of his trademark sounds and songs, hoping we've gathered enough intelligence to recreate his realm of purple percussion.

A No-Frills Foundation

This much we know: Price was not a gearhead. A remarkable guitarist, he utilized fewer than a dozen stompboxes over his career, more than half of them stock Boss pedals. Nor—despite rumors discussed on forums—is there any evidence that Prince went under the hood of his LM-1 to perform any hardware modifications, at least not at the time of his most famous '80s recordings.

One other pesky forum topic to address: Prince did own and sometimes use the next iteration, the LM-2 LinnDrum, which allowed players to swap in new sounds thanks to EPROM chips. However, even with some more advanced features, the LinnDrum did not allow for the same fine-tuning of all of its hits, nor did it have the peculiar internal swing to its sequencing that Prince preferred. "He tried the LinnDrum when it came out, but he didn't like that one," Prince's engineer Susan Rogers told TapeOp in 2017.

Thus he started with the same foundation as any other LM-1 owner, a library of one dozen tunable sounds: two congas, two toms, snare, bass, hi-hat, cowbell, claps, rimshot, tambourine, and cabasa (but no cymbals, alas). The 8-bit samples of real acoustic drums and percussion were performed by Linn's friend, drummer Art Wood (making Wood, you might say, a default member of Prince's rhythm section).

But with one foot firmly in a guitar player's world, Prince mixed his pedals with the Linn in a way its inventor never envisioned. Thus what Prince did to those sounds once they left the LM-1's metal chassis made his use of it so special.

Of those closest to Prince in the studio, Rogers—Prince's trusted engineer that stayed virtually by his side for five years, beginning with the Purple Rain sessions and continuing to 1988—offers the best glimpse into how he captained the LM-1. Aside from her integral role at the board, she's wicked smart: Rogers now holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is a lauded researcher in music cognition and psychoacoustics.

As part of her first gig at Prince's service, she installed an API console at his downstairs home studio, located in his split-level ranch home (repainted purple, natch) in suburban Minneapolis. Like Prince and Linn, she was in her 20s at the time (just 27).

In a 2016 interview with iZotope, Rogers recalled why the LM-1 became Prince's go-to drummer in a can:

"Prince liked it because on the back of it there were individual outputs for every individual sound, and there was a tuning knob for each individual sound. You could individually tune every drum that you wanted."

Then... enter Prince the guitar god.

"He liked to take a percussion mix that would come out of the output of those little faders and run it through his Boss effects pedals. So, let's say for example, the hi-hat, cymbals, cabasa, and claps might all be running through a Boss pedal where we could add distortion. We had that heavy metal pedal, the brown one. He had the orange distortion pedal, and the delay, the blue one."

Of course, it's easier to remember colors than names. So based on Rogers' descriptions, photos of Prince's pedalboard, and the little bits Prince disclosed about his gear, this is likely the selection of pedals Prince used to doctor the LM-1:

Prince's Boss Pedals

"We would take his Boss pedalboard from his guitar rig and just plug it into the output of the drum machine and we could send claps, or snare or toms usually, and hi-hat, whatever we liked through this mixture of the Heavy Metal pedal and the Flanger and the Chorus and the Delay and the Distortion," Rogers told Red Bull Music Academy in 2016. "Dialing in on the pedalboard—dialing in the sound for the percussion—was one of the tricks that he invented and that others copied in his work."

Prince also owned a Dunlop Cry Baby wah-wah and Rotovibe, the former used to occasionally accent his LM-1 (see below).

"When Doves Cry," the LM-1 Soars

Prince - "When Doves Cry"

Given the LM-1's standalone place in the final mix—the only accompaniments for most of the song are vocal and keyboard—"When Doves Cry" is one of the easier songs to deconstruct. Much has been made of a hollowed-out sound at the song's opening, which has even earned its own nickname among Prince fans: the "doorknock."

Linn told The Current in 2017: "That was merely a recording of what's called a cross-stick snare drum, which is a snare drum stick where you hold the tip onto the drum head, and you slap the stick against the rim of the drum. He just used that normal sound, but he decided to tune it down about an octave or more to get what you refer as the 'knocking' sound."

While you'll find LinnDrum aficionados remarking that the knocking must have come from the LM-2 (which certainly contains a similar sound), in this interview, Linn was discussing the LM-1. "He did the same thing with the tambourine. He turned it into this loose jangling thing that didn't sound like a tambourine at all. These became characteristic sounds on his records, so then, of course, a lot of folks stole them," Linn said.

With bonus points for its purple paint job, the Boss BF-2 Flanger became an A-list pedal for Prince to change the LM-1's tone. On "Doves," listen for the narrow-band, constricted flanging painted on to the tom accents. While distinctive, the texture is so subtle that it's tough to pick out which drum triggers it as it darts in and out. (That Flanger, a favorite, can also be heard on the drums of "If I Was Your Girlfriend.")

Note also that Prince's guitar freakout in the "Doves" intro makes generous use of the Boss OC-2 Octaver. Given how ferociously fast Prince worked in the studio, it's possible he picked up what was already out and treated the LM-1's kick drum with just a touch of OC-2. (Low octaves also figure into Prince's vocals.)

Another Prince trick that may have figured into this song involved the British-made AMS RMX16 digital reverb. Prince loved to run the kick drum through its reverse tube program and the AMS patch was definitely used on another Prince hit without bass, "Kiss" (though there is some debate whether the LM-1 or a Linn 9000 was used).

The song "1999," from the 1982 album of the same name, features The Revolution and drummer Bobby Z, with LM-1 drum fills (note the consistent attack, cascade, and beat sequence) populating the verses and chorus. Listen closer and you will hear the Cry Baby adding stabs of wah to the Linn and live drums. In places where you detect thickening delay, know that Prince was fond of tight settings of about 150ms, which may have come from a Boss DD-3.

On "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," it may sound at first blush as though Prince just lets the LM-1 do its thing, unadorned of any effect. As on "When Doves Cry," a basic loop anchors the rhythm and the song stunningly recalls stripped-back, "Family Affair"-era Sly Stone. But underneath the minimalist throbbing, Prince applies distortion (probably the Heavy Metal or Boss DS-2) to tom accents and doubles the attack of kick drum hits with wobbly synthesizer chords. (You can also hear a propulsive, double-kick pattern he played ferociously by hand on "Darling Nikki.")

Prince - "Ballad of Dorothy Parker"
Soul in the Machine

Prince and his LM-1 made for a remarkable marriage of computerized technology and creative mastery. If you believe in synchronicity, it's entirely possible that he and Linn connected on some unseen levels: two twenty-something guitar players, both geniuses with creative minds wrapped around ways to change the role of rhythm in pop music.

If the spiritual angle sounds like a stretch, consider these final words from Linn and the Purple One that cross over with as much soul as a kick and snare locked in transcendent rhythm:

Prince in a rare Guitar Player interview: "You have to respect your spiritual base. You have to respect the instrument. The volume and tone of an instrument are so important."

Linn, recalling a magazine article he saw years ago: "It showed a picture from his Paisley Park studio, in Minneapolis, of his original LM-1 Drum Computer, and it had a lamp on it. It was like a shrine."

On perhaps a more practical if no less astonishing level, Prince's precise tailoring of individual drum sounds was a harbinger of our age of contemporary pop rhythm production.

Today's DAW-based producers will think nothing of tinkering over each hit of their kicks, snares, and claps—pitch-shifting and effecting individual drum tracks until they sound exactly as they wish. Prince brought to bear that same exacting tonal perfection with the relatively crude instruments of his time, committing the drum sounds he heard in his head to tape with just the LM-1's own pitch knobs and his Boss-filled pedalboard.

Maybe it was just the Purple One's personal taste, perhaps it was prescience, but pop rhythm creation followed in his steps.

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