The First Drum Machine


Al-Jazari, an Arab engineer in modern Turkey, invented the first programmable drum machine. Moreover, his drum machine was described in The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which was written in 1206. His musical device specifically featured four automaton musicians, including two drummers. It floated on a lake to entertain distinguished guests at royal drinking parties. This programmable drum machine operated in a way where pegs bumped into little levers that operated the percussion. Consequently, the drummers could play different rhythms and different drum patterns.


Rhythmicon (1930–1932)


Léon Theremin developed the Rhythmicon at the request of Henry Cowell. He wanted an instrument that could play compositions with multiple rhythmic patterns, that was far too hard to perform on existing keyboard instruments. Various rhythmic patterns based on the harmonic series were possible with 16 different combinations. The player could link each combination to each of the steps in the rhythm.

The Rhythmicon originally received a warm welcome from the general public when it was first unveiled, but interest, unfortunately, subsided very quickly. Only three copies were ever produced. One still exists and is on display at the Theremin Center of the Moscow Conservatory. Rhythmicon was unlike any of its successors, which were based on rotating drums. It used vacuum tube oscillators and photoelectric sensors to capture the light passing through disks with punched holes.


Chamberlin Rhythmate (1957)


Harry Chamberlin, an engineer from Iowa, created the Chamberlin Rhythmate in 1957. This machine allowed users to select between 14 tape loops of drum kits and percussion instruments performing various beats. What’s more, this stand instrument operated with tape loop recordings of acoustic drums playing multiple rhythms. It also had a built-in speaker. Like the Chamberlin keyboard, the main intention for Rhythmate usage was the family singalongs. Finally, around 100 units were sold.


Wurlitzer Sideman (1959)


In 1959, Wurlitzer released the Sideman, which generates sounds mechanically by a rotating disc, similar to a music box. This machine was initially an accessory of the Wurlitzer organ and a trademark of the dance band era. A slider controls the tempo (between 34 and 150 beats per minute). Additionally, buttons on a control panel triggered the sounds individually. The Sideman was a success. However, the musicians’ unions criticized it. Eventually, they ruled that musicians can only use it in cocktail lounges, and only if the keyboardist earns the wages of three musicians. Wurlitzer ceased production of the Sideman in 1969.


Raymond Scott (1960–1963)


In 1960, Raymond Scott constructed the Rhythm Synthesizer. Afterward, in 1963, he made a drum machine called Bandito the Bongo Artist. Scott’s machines were eventually used for the recording of his album Soothing Sounds for Baby series (1964).


Keio-Giken (Korg), Nippon Columbia, and Ace Tone (1963–1967)


In the early 1960s, a notable accordion player Tadashi Osanaia consulted a nightclub owner in Tokyo, Tsutomu Katoh, about the rhythm machine for accompaniment in a club, Wurlitzer Side Man. Osanai consequently convinced Katoh to finance his efforts to build better machines. Afterward, In 1963, their new company Keio-Giken (later Korg) released their first rhythm machine, Donca-Matic DA-20. This machine was using the vacuum tube circuits for sounds and mechanical-wheel for rhythm patterns.

In 1965, Nippon Columbia filed a patent for an automatic rhythm instrument. It was a simple automatic rhythm player capable of electronically producing various rhythms in the characteristic tones of a drum, a piccolo, and so on. Moreover, it had some similarities to Seeburg’s patent from 1964.

Later, in 1967, Ace Tone founder Ikutaro Kakehashi (later founder of Roland Corporation) developed the preset rhythm-pattern generator using a diode matrix circuit. It had some similarities to the earlier Seeburg and Nippon Columbia patents. Kakehashi’s patent describes his device as a “plurality of inverting circuits and/or clipper circuits”. A counting circuit synthesizes the output signal of the counting circuit” where the “synthesized output signal becomes the desired rhythm.”

Also, in 1967, Ace Tone commercialized the FR-1 Rhythm Ace, its preset rhythm machine. This machine offered 16 preset patterns, and four buttons to manually play each instrument sound (cymbal, claves, cowbell, and bass drum).


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