The 3 (or 4) Most Influential People in the Development of Drum Machines

dancing to the drum machine
Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World by Dan Le Roy is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Any history of the drum machine could easily end up as an arid list of arcane equipment and impenetrable technical detail. Thankfully, Dan LeRoy has written a new book—Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World—that is as much about people and relationships as it is about electronic musical equipment. And it’s a rattling good read.

Dancing To The Drum Machine is also—particularly in the early stages—a book about the creative possibilities of technical limitations. The story breaks down into two main eras: the preset machines, and the programmable ones. Preset drum machines were rhythmically limited and didn’t sound like drums. Even so, musicians as diverse as Robin Gibb, Sly Stone, J.J. Cale, Arthur Brown, Kraftwerk, and Echo & The Bunnymen made great music founded on the pattering pulses of devices like the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace or the Korg MiniPops.

Once drum machines became programmable, almost everyone got into the game. By that time, we were into the ‘80s, the golden age of the standalone drum machine. ZZ Top, Phil Collins, Sly & Robbie, Trevor Horn, Steve Albini, almost the entire first wave of hip hop artists—it’s more a case of who didn’t use drum machines rather than who did.

The machines from this era split into two broad categories: the ones using electronically generated sounds, like the Roland TR-808, and those using sampled sounds, like the LinnDrum. Both are examined and explained in some depth in this book, as are all the drum machines you’ve ever heard of—and plenty you haven’t.

Throughout, Dan LeRoy’s story is driven by insights and anecdotes from musicians and inventors. These are drawn from a dizzying array of interviews and other sources. The detail accumulates into a pleasing and cogently argued account of how drum machines developed until they became ubiquitous. Who did what, and how, and why.

I talked to Dan about the great, the good, and the best in the drum machine story, and why those machines from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s can still, today, offer musicians something we can’t find anywhere else. So, Dan, if you were asked to choose three key people in the history of the drum machine—musicians, inventors, anyone—who would they be, and why?

He replies that two of his three choices would be pretty obvious. “Although I am going to cheat a bit on the first one: Ikutaro Kakehashi, known as ‘Mr. K,’ the founder of Ace Tone and then Roland electronics. He’s the guy whose vision made possible just about everything that we think of as a drum machine. Yet he also mentored his competitors. Roger Linn, in particular, spoke to me at length about how ‘Taro’ helped him find his way, even when the two men were trying to outpace one another in the field of drum machines.

“But I think it’s unfair to talk about Roland without also mentioning Tadao Kikumoto,” Dan adds. “He’s the man most responsible for the development and sound of two of the most important drum machines ever created: the Roland TR-808 and TR-909. Both were seen at first as huge disappointments, and Kikumoto carried the weight of those apparent failures for years. Yet he’s a true gentleman who’s not interested in vindication or gloating. So count both Kakehashi and Kikumoto as choice number one.”

Don Lewis performs with his LEO synth system.

Dan’s second nomination is for someone who, he reckons, rarely gets his due, especially when it comes to drum machines. “The American musician Don Lewis amazed Kakehashi with the improvements he made to the original Ace Tone Rhythm Ace drum machine. And through his long standing friendships with Mr. K and Tadao Kikumoto, Lewis kept pushing for many features we now take for granted in drum machines: everything from handclaps to programmability.”

Lastly, it’s the aforementioned Roger Linn. “Like Don Lewis, Linn was a musician as well as an inventor,” Dan says, “and his first drum machine—the Linn LM-1—reflected all the things musicians wanted, but which had been previously out of reach. Realistic sampled sounds, but also features like tap programming and quantization. And then, after Linn Electronics flamed out, the second act to Linn’s career—with Akai—was arguably even more important for drum machines than the first.”

I asked Dan to nominate the three most important preset drum machines. “Ikutaro Kakehashi’s Ace Tone Rhythm Ace is the unit—light, compact, and affordable—that really begins modern drum-machine history. Once Kakehashi and his team figured out how to generate preset rhythms with a diode matrix circuit, it opened the door for countless musicians—most notably Sly Stone—to innovate by starting, stopping, and stacking up patterns.”

His second choice for importance is the Farfisa Rhythm 10. “Italian-made, but it’s the machine that really kickstarted drum-machine culture in Germany—and, of course, that includes Kraftwerk. Thirdly, let’s give a little credit to the Korg MiniPops series, too. These machines actually became more important after programmed units became available—because it made these old preset units more affordable. Without them, bands like Echo & The Bunnymen might never have existed.”

For my next choice-of-three question, I asked Dan to choose the most important programmable drum machines. “The one that gets forgotten is the Roland CR-78,” Dan says, “the first widely available programmable unit. And it’s still surprising to see how fast people started having hits with it. The big one was Phil Collins and ‘In The Air Tonight,’ but look at the list of others: Hall & Oates, Blondie, Roxy Music, Ultravox, OMD, Visage, John Foxx, and on and on.”

While more people have heard, and used, the LinnDrum than its predecessor, Dan’s second choice in the programmable category is Roger Linn’s LM-1. How so? “Because it came first, and because its features, including the individual tuning pots, were so important to the sounds that people—and Prince especially—created. And then the Roland TR-808 is the most obvious choice of all, though you can also argue that its successor, the 909, might have been responsible for creating more musical sub-genres.”

Finally, I asked Dan to select three game-changing recordings that used drum machines—one from the ‘60s, one from the ‘70s, one from the ‘80s. “No huge surprises here,” he says. “In 1969, Robin Gibb’s ‘Saved By The Bell’ showed that a drum machine could serve as the backbone of a mainstream pop hit. Two years later, Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘Family Affair’ became the first No.1 hit to use a drum machine. The proof of its influence is that at least half the people I interviewed for my book mentioned it at some point.”

Picking a game-changer from the ’80s is trickier, he says, but he goes with The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me.’ “Not only was it a massive hit in the UK and US, but also its reach was an early commercial for the Linn LM-1. Quite a few people I interviewed remembered wanting the drum machine on this song. And even though the LM-1 was incredibly pricey at the time—$5,000—several of them finagled a way to get one.”

Retro appeal aside, I wondered if Dan thinks a standalone drum machine offers anything to the contemporary musician that can’t be had elsewhere—and I mean using the machine as it was designed to be used, not its sounds sampled and used on a DAW or similar. “I go back to something that Warren Cann said to me. He was the drummer from Ultravox and is a guy who knows more about drum machines than anyone who hasn’t actually created one. His dream is to create the ultimate standalone drum machine: a unit that would incorporate all the advances in drum-machine technology, but with dedicated controls for all functions, instead of scrolling menus.”

Doesn’t that seem impractical? “Well, even Warren admits that the time to build and market such a machine has probably passed,” Dan says. “But when you think about the ‘retro’ machines that have been successfully introduced over the past decade, like Roger Linn and Dave Smith’s Tempest, this idea isn’t so far-fetched.”

Dan thinks there’s a bigger issue here besides just gear and features. “One of the ideas in Dancing To The Drum Machine is that the Linn 9000 really marked the end of an era. The moment the drum machine becomes part of something else—like a machine that generates basslines and offers sampling—you’re moving toward the all-in-one workstation. You can understand how exciting it was for musicians to have a do-everything box. But the inevitable consequence is that drums, and especially drum programming, became less important.”

There was a real art to drum programming, he says, and he thinks that has been lost. “It sounds silly, maybe, to claim ‘authenticity’ for people who programme their own beats rather than just use samples and loops. But I’d make that argument. And it’s the argument I’d make for the standalone drum machine, even today. Just look at the continued popularity of the Alesis SR-16, for example. A machine that focuses only on programmed drums forces the user to focus on programming drums. I think there’s real practical and artistic value in that, even if most people might not see it.”

Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World by Dan Le Roy is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

About the Author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info at

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