Famous Five: Classic Drum Machines

In this month’s ‘Famous Five’, we take a look at five of the most iconic drum machines that helped transform the sound of pop, house, techno and hip-hop.

Roland TR-808

No history of the drum machine (or history of contemporary music, for that matter) would be complete without a mention of Roland’s most iconic machine. Even for the musically uninitiated, when you hear the phrase ‘drum machine’, the 808 is what springs to mind. Many are surprised to learn that despite its iconic status and near-universal adoration, the 808 was actually considered something of a failure on initial release. Reviewers showed disdain for the ‘unrealistic’ sounds that the analogue generator produced and many saw it as inferior to the more technologically advanced Linn LM-1, which featured digital sampling and shuffle capability.

As the perception of drum machines shifted and they began to be seen as creative instruments in their own right, rather than tools for the imitation of physical drum kits, the aspects of the 808 that first prompted criticism have been embraced as integral to its unique character. The versatility and range of the instrument attracted musicians and producers from various genres: it became integral to the development of house music and hip-hop and is still relevant today, often used in contemporary styles such as footwork and grime.

READ MORE: A Brief History of the Roland TR-808

Linn LM-1

Roger Linn’s first foray into the world of drum machines was a pioneering instrument: the first to use digital samples of a real drum kit, the LM-1 featured recordings of session drummer Art Wood’s percussive tones. The machine stored 12 8-bit samples – kick, snare, hi-hat, tambourine, cabasa, tom, conga, cowbell, clave, and hand clap – each of which could be tuned and mixed separately, making the machine particularly useful in professional studios. The user could program these sounds into patterns that could be stored on an extensive memory bank capable of holding over 100 patches.

It’s hard to overstate the innovation in this incredible device: in addition to pioneering the use of digital sampling, the LM-1 was also the first drum machine in history to offer quantization and swing, features that Linn reportedly came up with by accident. The machine was popular with producers throughout the 80’s, featuring on tracks from Prince, Michael Jackson ABC and Giorgio Moroder, but it failed to break into the mass market thanks to a hefty $5,000 price tag. Linn followed this innovative machine up with a more accessibly priced offering, the Linndrum: the story goes that Roger was motivated to improve upon his original design after Roland Corporation founder Ikutaro Kakehashi gave him some sound business advice at a NAMM conference in 1982.

Oberheim DMX

Tom Oberheim honed his engineering talents as a designer of synths: long before entering the world of drum machines, he was responsible for designing some of the first commercially available polyphonic synthesizers. His first entry into the drum machine market came with the Oberheim DMX, a digital drum machine released in 1981. Following swiftly on from Roger Linn’s groundbreaking LM-1, the DMX featured 24 individual drum sounds derived from 11 digital samples, with room for 100 sequences and 50 songs.

The DMX’s punchy and lifelike tone made it popular in the growing hip-hop community – it was used by pioneering producers like Larry Smith and Rick Rubin, and can be heard in tracks from Run DMC, Slick Rick, and The Beastie Boys.

READ MORE: A Brief History of the Roland TR-909

Roland TR-909

Successor to the legendary 808, the 909 would go on to become equally revered in its own right due to the momentous impact it had on the development of house and techno in the 80s and 90s. Legend has it that a young Derrick May made a fateful phone call to Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles in 1984, offering him one of the two 909s he’d recently acquired. May taught the producer how to program the machine and he began to use it both in the studio and on stage, cueing up beats underneath records during his DJ sets and inspiring further generations of producers to incorporate the 909’s weighty kick drum and crisp hi-hats into the emerging genre.

The 909 was a hybrid, featuring some analogue sound generation alongside sample-based hits, and its 16-step sequencer took advantage of a newly emerging technology at the time, the MIDI protocol.  Despite its progressive technology, the 909 was discontinued only a year after release, making way for the fully sample-powered TR-707.

Akai MPC60

The Akai MPC is not just a drum machine, but a multi-functional audio workstation. The MPC series was the brainchild of Roger Linn, inventor of the LM-1 and LinnDrum – it featured the same swing and quantization technologies that he pioneered earlier in his work on those machines, as well as the velocity-sensitive drum pads and user-generated sampling capabilities. However, the MPC is far more advanced than the Linn series: it could play 16 voices simultaneously, and featured the option to import samples than floppy disc drive.

READ MORE: A Brief History of the Akai MPC

The MPC60 is an extremely versatile instrument. Entire albums have been created using this one tool – DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’ is a famous example. It’s played a pivotal role in hip-hop production, while also being notably utilised by house producers Moodymann and Theo Parrish.

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