Drum Machines


The technology of digital electronic music took a new turn in the late 1970s, when the first programmable “drum machines” became available. Drum machines are electronic systems consisting of digital signal processing circuits and memory. They provide realistic drums and percussion sounds for live music and recording.

For more than a hundred years, mechanical devices have been used to help musicians “keep the beat” while practicing, but these had never been intended for performances. In the 1960s, makers of home electronic organs began introducing the first drum machines, intended mainly to liven up home playing or to provide small bands of limited means a substitute for a live drummer. These early drum machines offered a narrow range of pre-set percussion sounds and generally did not sound much like real instruments.

The first truly programmable drum machines first appeared around 1979 and included the Roland Company’s CR78 Compurhythym. While it still didn’t sound much like a real drummer, the CR78 pointed the way towards a much more flexible percussion instrument and pop musicians such as Peter Gabriel and others began experimenting with them.

Many musicians say that the real breakthrough was engineer Roger Linn’s LM1 of 1979. Manufactured and distributed by his company, Linn Electronics, the LM1 cost a whopping $5000. The main difference between it and earlier drum machines was its ability to record digital samples of up to 15 actual percussion instruments, then play them back at virtually any tempo or in any combination. The user could program the LM1 to play a sequence of percussion sounds, rather than just repeating a sound over and over, so that the effect was much more like a real drummer.

Like many expensive instruments, many LM-1s were purchased by recording studios and lent to musicians for use in the studio. In this way, the Linn and its contemporaries, such as the E-Mu Drumulator of 1983 rapidly became part of numerous recordings in the early 1980s. Linn Electronics followed on its success with the LinnDrum in 1982. Aimed at individual musicians and bands, it carried a lower price tag of $3000. Yet the company hit a roadblock with its third system the Linn 9000, and the business went under in 1986.