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A drum machine is an electronic musical instrument designed to imitate the sound of drums and/or other percussion instruments.
Most modern drum machines are sequencers with a sample playback (rompler) or synthesizer component that specializes in the reproduction of drum timbres as well as the sound of other traditional percussion instruments. Though features vary from model to model, many modern drum machines can also produce unique sounds (though usually percussive in nature), and allow the user to compose unique drum beats.
Early drum machines
Early drum machines were often referred to as "rhythm machines." In 1930–31, the spectacularly innovative and complex Rhythmicon was realized by Léon Theremin on the commission of composer-theorist Henry Cowell, who wanted an instrument with which to play compositions whose multiple rhythmic patterns, based on the overtone series, were far too difficult to perform on existing keyboard instruments. The invention could produce sixteen different rhythms, each associated with a particular pitch, either individually or in any combination, including en masse, if desired. Received with considerable interest when it was publicly introduced in 1932, the Rhythmicon was soon set aside by Cowell and was virtually forgotten for decades. The next generation of rhythm machines played only preprogrammed rhythms such as mambo, tango, or the like. The first commercially available rhythm machines were included in organs in the late 1960s, and were intended to accompany the organist.
The first largely successful drum machine was the Rhythm Ace. It was released around 1970 by a company then called Ace Tone (later called Roland). The Rhythm Ace was a preset-only unit; it was not possible for the user to alter or modify the pre-programmed rhythms. A number of other preset drum machines were later released in the 1970s. The first major pop song to use a drum machine was a cover version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Somebody's Watching You" recorded by Little Sister. The song, produced and composed by Sly Stone, entered the R&B charts in 1971. The first album in which a drum machine produced all the percussion was Arthur Brown/Kingdom Come's Journey, recorded in November 1972 using a Bentley Rhythm Ace.
Drum sound synthesis
A key difference between such early machines and more modern equipment is that they used analog sound synthesis rather than digital sampling in order to generate their sounds. For example, a snare drum or maraca sound would typically be created using a burst of white noise whereas a bass drum sound would be made using sine waves or other basic waveforms. This meant that while the resulting sound was not very close to that of the real instrument, each model tended to have a unique character. For this reason, many of these early machines have achieved a certain "cult status" and are now sought after by DJs and producers for use in production of modern techno and electronic music.
Programmable drum machines
The first stand-alone drum machine, the PAiA Programmable Drum Set, also happened to be the very first programmable drum machine. It was first introduced in 1975 , and was sold as a kit, with parts and instructions which the buyer would use to build the machine.
In 1978, the Roland CR-78 drum machine was released. It was one of the first programmable rhythm machines, and had four memory locations which allowed the user to store their own patterns. The following year, Roland offered the Boss DR-55. It was the first fully programmable drum machine for under $200. The DR-55 had four sounds, and enough memory for only 16 rhythms. Hardly passable by modern standards, but in its time, the DR-55 was a relatively affordable breakthrough.
The Linn LM-1 Drum Computer (released in 1980 and pricey at $4,999) was the first drum machine to use digital samples. Only 500 were ever made, but the list of those who owned them was impressive. Its distinct sound almost defines 80s pop, and it can be heard on dozens of hit records from the era, including The Human League's Dare, Gary Numan's Dance, and Ric Ocasek's Beatitude. Prince bought one of very first LM-1s and used it on nearly all of his most popular recordings, including 1999 and Purple Rain.
Many of the drum sounds on the LM-1 were composed of two chips that were triggered at the same time, and each voice was individually tunable with individual outputs. Due to memory limitations, a crash sound was not available except as an expensive third-party modification. A cheaper version of the LM-1 was released in 1982 called the LM-2 (or simply LinnDrum). It cost around $3,000 and not all of its voices were tunable, making it less desirable than the original LM-1. The Linndrum included a crash sound as standard, and like its predecessor the LM-1, featured swappable sound chips. The Linndrum can be heard on records such as Men Without Hats' Rhythm of Youth and The Cars' Heartbeat City.
It was feared the LM-1 would put every session drummer in Los Angeles out of work and it caused many of L.A's top session drummers (Jeff Porcaro is one example) to purchase their own drum machines and learn to program them themselves in order to stay employed.
Roland "x0x" machines
The famous Roland TR-808 was also launched in 1980. At the time it was regarded with little fanfare, as it did not have digitally-sampled sounds; drum machines using digital samples were a good deal more popular. In time though, the TR-808, along with its successor, TR-909 (released in 1983), would soon became a fixture of the burgeoning underground dance, techno, and hip-hop genres, mainly because of its low cost (relative to that of the Linn machines), and the unique character of its analogue-generated sounds. The TR-808's sound only became truly desirable in the late 1980s, about five years after the model was discontinued. In a somewhat ironic twist, it is the analogue-model Rolands that have endured over time as the Linn sound became somewhat overused and dated by the end of the decade. The 808's and the 909's beats have since been widely featured in pop music, heard on countless recordings right up to this day.
Programming can be done (depending on the machine) in real-time: the user creates drum patterns by pressing the trigger pads as though a drum kit were being played, or using step-sequencing: the pattern is built up over time by adding individual sounds at certain points by placing them, as with the TR-808 and TR-909 along a 16 step bar. For example, a '4 to the floor' generic dance pattern could be made by placing a closed high hat on the 3, 7, 11, and 15th steps, then a kick drum on the 1, 5, 9, and 13th steps, and a clap on the 5 and 13th. This pattern could be varied in a multitude of ways to obtain fills, break-downs and other elements that the programmer sees fit, which in turn can be sequenced- essentially the drum machine plays back the programmed patterns from memory in an order the programmer has chosen.
If the drum machine has MIDI connectivity, then one could program the drum machine with a computer or another MIDI device.
Because these early drum machines came out before the introduction of MIDI in 1983, they used a variety of methods of having their rhythms synchronized to other electronic devices. Some used a method of synchronization called DIN-sync, or sync-24. Some of these machines also output analog CV/Gate voltages that could be used to synchronize or control analog synthesizers and other music equipment.
Drum machines can either be programmed in real time (the user hears a metronome and plays beats in time with the metronome) or in step time, where the user specifies the precise moment in time on which a note will sound. By stringing differently-programmed bars together, fills, breaks, rhythmic changes, and longer phrases can be created. Drum machine controls typically include Tempo, Start and Stop, volume control of individual sounds, keys to trigger individual drum sounds, and storage locations for a number of different rhythms. Most drum machines can also be controlled via MIDI.
By the year 2000, standalone drum machines became much less common, being partly supplanted by general-purpose hardware samplers controlled by sequencers (built-in or external), software-based sequencing and sampling and the use of loops, and music workstations with integrated sequencing and drum sounds. TR-808 and other digitized drum machine sounds can be found on archives on the Internet. However, traditional drum machines are still being made by companies such as Roland Corporation (under the name BOSS), Zoom, Korg and Alesis, whose SR-16 drum machine has remained popular since it was introduced in 1991.
There are percussion-specific sound modules that can be triggered by pickups, trigger pads, or through MIDI. These are called drum modules; the Alesis D4 and Roland TD-8 are popular examples. Unless such a sound module also features a sequencer, it is, strictly speaking, not a drum machine.
- Online Drum Machine - generates MIDI files