Programmable Drum Machines


Eko released the first programmable drum machine “ComputeRhythm” in 1972. This was the first programmable drum machine that had a 6-row push-button matrix. With it, the users could enter a pattern manually. Moreover, the user could also push punch cards with pre-programmed rhythms through a reader slot on the unit.

Another standalone drum machine came to light in 1975. The PAiA Programmable Drum Set was a kit with parts and instructions which the buyer would use to build the machine.

In 1975, Ace Tone released the Rhythm Producer FR-15 that enables the modification of the pre-programmed rhythm patterns. The first microprocessor-based programmable rhythm machine was released in 1978. Roland CR-78 had four memory storage for user patterns. In 1979, a simpler version with four sounds, Boss DR-55, came to light.


Drum Machines That Use Digital Sampling


The Linn LM-1 Drum Computer (released in 1980) was the first drum machine to use digital samples. It also introduced revolutionary rhythmic concepts such as swing factors, shuffle, accent, and real-time programming. Only about 500 were ever made, but its effect on the music industry was extensive. Its distinctive sound almost defines the 1980s pop. You can hear it on hundreds of hit records from the era. Prince bought one of the very first LM-1s and used it on nearly all of his most popular albums, 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. You could individually tune each voice with individual outputs. However, it had memory limitations, so a crash cymbal sound was not available except as an expensive third-party modification. A cheaper version of the LM-1, the LinnDrum, appeared in 1982. Like its predecessor, the LM-1, it featured swappable sound chips. You can hear the LinnDrum on records such as The Cars’ Heartbeat City and Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack for the film Scarface.

Following the success of the LM-1, Oberheim introduced the DMX. The DMX also featured digitally sampled sounds and a “swing” feature similar to the one found on the Linn machines. It became prevalent in its own right, becoming a staple of the developing hip-hop scene. Other manufacturers soon began to produce machines, e.g., the Sequential Circuits Drum-Traks and Tom, the E-mu Drumulator, and the Yamaha RX11. In 1986, the SpecDrum by Cheetah Marketing, an inexpensive 8-bit sampling drum external module for the ZX Spectrum, came to light, with a price less than £30.


Roland TR-808 


In 1980, the Roland Corporation launched the TR-808 Rhythm Composer. It was one of the earliest programmable drum machines. With it, users could create their rhythms rather than having to use preset patterns. Unlike its predecessors, the 808 is entirely analog. This means it generates sounds non-digitally via hardware rather than samples. Launched when electronic music was far from mainstream, the 808 received mixed reviews for its unrealistic drum sounds and consequently was a commercial failure.

After building approximately 12,000 units, Roland discontinued the 808 production. Hip-hop, dance track producers, rediscovered the TR-808 in 1982 band eventually became the trigger for much of the subsequent dance-oriented, electro, and techno music genres. But it became a huge success only after it was no longer in production. The drum sounds in the TR-808 are produced using ringing filters and filtered noise.

Throughout the 1980s, the TR-808 attracted a cult following among underground musicians for its affordability, ease of use, and distinctive sounds, particularly its deep, “booming” bass drum. It became a foundation of the emerging electronic, dance, and hip hop genres. The TR-808 was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine. Its popularity with hip hop, in particular, has made it one of the most influential inventions in popular music. Music producers continue to use their sounds as samples included with music software and modern drum machines.


Ronald TR-909


In 1983, the TR-909 came to light. It was the first Roland drum machine to use MIDI, which synchronizes devices built by different manufacturers. It was also the first Roland drum machine to use samples for some sounds. Like the TR-808, the TR-909 was a commercial failure but had a lasting impact on popular music after inexpensive units circulated on the used market.

Alongside the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, it shaped the development of electronic genres such as techno, house, and acid. TR-909 was an improved TR-808, with more accenting detail possible than the TR-808. It also provided a shuffle control to provide swing in the patterns. Once again, it became the machine to use for dance music almost as soon as it stopped being manufactured.


Later Machines


By 2000, standalone drum machines had become less frequent, partly replaced by general-purpose hardware samplers controlled by sequencers, software-based sequencing, and sampling. 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 famous examples. Unless such a sound module also features a sequencer, it is, strictly speaking, not a drum machine.


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