The humble drum machine is truly the unsung hero of popular music. Unlike the Fender Stratocaster, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who, in passing a shop window, might shout something like: “My god, that’s the Roland TR 808 that Prince used in ‘Da Da Da’!”. The drum machine is just not nearly enough of a tart to warrant that kind of response.
Where the electric guitar shouts, “Hey hey guys, watch me woo this chick,” the Drum machine says: “Sorry, amigos, I don’t think I can go out tonight. I’ve got a bunch of documents I need to cross-reference thoroughly.” And yet, this piece of clunky machinery has yielded some of the best, most evocative pop music of the late 20th century.
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re already pretty familiar with what a drum machine is. But for those who are less familiar, the drum machine is a piece of kit that essentially does what it says on the tin. It’s a piece of electronic hardware that can be programmed to produce various beats in a variety of styles.
Like guitars, there are various types of drum machines, each with unique properties and sounds. They can be manipulated with wondrous results and have been used in a wide array of genres, from prog-rock to jazz.
Below, we’ll be looking at five drum machines that helped shape the sound of modern music.
5 drum machines that changed music forever:
Maestro Rhythm King
The Rhythm King was one of the first drum machines to really make a name for itself. Used by Sly And The Family Stone on their 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’, it is fairly rudimentary compared to some of the other machines on this list. The MRK–2 has 18 preset rhythms and can’t be programmed. It has a single speed setting, a volume knob, and a tone knob. That’s it.
But in the hands of Sly and the Family Stone, the MRK-2 was utilised to great effect. Using it as the foundation of ‘Family Affair’, Sly exploited the drum machine’s ability to hold a groove with metrical precision – foreshadowing its use in electronic dance music. Thanks to the success of ‘Family Affair’ (it hit number one in the US), the drum machine developed a mainstream appeal that it had previously lacked.
The CR-78 was the last of a dying breed. With its wooden exterior, it was one of the earliest drum machines to gain real traction in pop music. However, it was one of the last to come with presets like ‘Bossa-Nova’, and ‘Samba’. From ’78 onwards, musicians wanted something they could play with and manipulate.
But that didn’t stop Blondie from using it in their new-wave hit ‘Heart of Glass’. The CR-78 had come out that same year and was combined with real drumming to give the track an intoxicating, disco-inspired rhythm. Debbie Harry once recalled the moment Blondie purchased the drum machine which would give them a hit: “Chris and Jimmy were always going over to 47th Street where all the music stores were, and one day they came back with this little rhythm box, which went ‘tikka tikka tikka’,” Debbie Harry once said. “And the rest is history!”
Linn LM – 1
Created by electronics pioneer, Rober Linn, LM-1 is distinct from many of the drum machines on this list because it uses samples of real drums rather than synthesizing them from scratch. The Linn LM-1 was released fairly late in the game (1980) and, according to its creator, was designed less as an instrument in itself and more as a realistic accompaniment to guitarists such as himself. Linn “wanted a drum machine that did more than play preset samba patterns and didn’t sound like crickets.”
And he certainly got that. The Linn LM -1 was the first drum machine on the market to use digital samples. It ended up defining the sound of ’80s music and was practically inescapable for a time. It was utilised by the likes of ABC, Devo and, notably, Michael Jackson, who used the Linn LM-1 in his track ‘Thriller’.
The MPC is legendary. Released in 1988, it was one of the most advanced pieces of electronic music hardware on the market. It contains so many options and add-ons that it’s less of a drum machine and more of an audio workstation.
And yet, in the late 1980s, it was relatively affordable, allowing a whole generation of young music producers to use the MPC in their tracks. As a result, the MPC has been credited (alongside the Roland TR-808) with forging the sound of hip-hop, having been incorporated into the music of Kanye West, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Buadhu to name just a few. J Dilla’s MPC is so iconic that it’s now in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection.
Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, commonly known as the 808, is perhaps the most influential drum machine on this list. It is comparable only to the Fender Stratocaster in the way that it has shaped modern music. And, like the MPC60, this was largely due to its user-friendly set-up and affordability. Produced by Roland between 1980 and 1983, the TR-808 became the drum machine of choice for hip-hop artists such s Run DMC and Afrika Bambaataa. It is also the source of those booming kick drums on Marvin Gaye song ‘Sexual Healing’.
That classic 808 kick sound also made it the first choice for electronic, jungle, and dnb producers throughout the 1990s and early ’00s, and its lo-fi percussion sounds crop up in a good many of Aphex Twin’s pioneering recordings. Today, the influence of the 808 can be heard in pretty much any form of electronic music, from trap to drill and everything in between.