Audio / Buying Guide

Drum Machines: A Brief History

The drum machine is one of the most misunderstood of all musical inventions. Relentless in its metronomic precision, the humble beat box provides a flawless rhythm section that never tires of playing the same four-bar loop and never, ever, argues over “musical differences” with the rest of the band. But for all their dependable service over the years, some consider these obedient machines as the epitome of all that is lifeless, artificial, and robotic in music. One frustrated Los Angeles musician even mounted a misguided campaign some years ago with bumper stickers emblazoned with the slogan “Drum Machines Have No Soul.”

One thing you should absolutely get straight about drum machines is that they are just that: machines, a tool for musical expression. Put into the right hands and the proper musical context, they can be finessed to create awe-inspiring rhythmic artistry. But a drum machine cannot and should not ever be a replacement for a human drummer. If you’re a drummer and are worried about being replaced by a machine, you should probably work on your chops!

While commercial drum machines have been available in various forms since the 1950s, they only became viable for professional use during the late 1970s when Roland released the world’s first programmable rhythm box, the CompuRhythm CR-78. All of the sudden, gone were the days of cheesy rhumba and waltz presets meant to accompany organists in polyester suits; overnight, the pop music landscape was overtaken by the sleek, futuristic beats of machines like the LinnDrum, Roland TR-808, and Oberheim DMX.

In the intervening decades, drum machines continued to grow in sophistication, evolving from basic but powerful analog circuit-based designs, to early digital models housing samples of real drums inside EEPROM memory, to the later sampling and sequencing workstations favored by hip hop and R&B producers.

Interestingly, as with a lot of other music hardware, drum machines started to look a bit long in the tooth with the arrival of virtual software emulations in the late 1990s. Conventional wisdom of the time questioned the need for a studio filled with aging, difficult-to-service hardware, when meticulously recorded sample libraries of any vintage drum machines were readily available to be loaded into a DAW and sequenced to your heart’s content.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and, as anyone with a passing interest in music technology is aware, we are in the midst of a full-blown hardware renaissance. In the flurry of renewed interest in all things knob- and button-festooned, it almost seems as though there’s a new drum machine being released every week.

With the multitude of different feature sets, varieties of sound engines, and choice of pure hardware or hybrid hardware/software units currently on offer, what’s a newcomer to drum machines to do? Whether you’re brand new to drum programming or a seasoned pro looking to upgrade your setup, this guide will highlight some of the best offerings to help you find that perfect beat.

“Drum Brains”

While this guide is primarily focused on stand-alone boxes with built-in sequencing and some combination of buttons or pads for triggering sounds, let’s take a detour and discuss some products that can very easily be integrated into a traditional acoustic kit to provide more non-traditional drum timbres or, alternatively, integrated into very unconventional triggering systems for even more exotic sound possibilities.

So-called “drum brains” have been utilized for years as the sound-generating modules behind elaborate electronic drum kits. (Music fans of a certain age may remember British maker Simmons’s distinctive, hexagonal-shaped drum pads that were a favorite of ’80s New Wave groups.) Piezo transducers attached to the drumheads of the various kit components triggered the modules for these electro-acoustic kits. But the sounds themselves could hardly be described as resembling anything like a traditional drum kit.

The lack of realism can be attributed to the fact that each drum sound was, in fact, generated by subtractive analog synthesis, using some combination of complex wave shapes and noise with filtering and envelope generation. But it wasn’t long before modules filled with digital samples of real drums replaced the distinctive sound of analog drum synthesis, and the Simmons was relegated to history’s dustbin.

Swedish manufacturer Nord has done a commendable job of rescuing drum synthesis from near obscurity with the Nord Drum2. Based on virtual analog modeling, a technology borrowed from the company’s revered Nord Lead series, the Drum2 is capable of generating a vast array of percussive sounds using a bevy of real-time synthesis techniques. Utilizing a relatively straightforward architecture of six identical drum voices based on three key sound-generating components (click, tone, and noise), everything from meaty analog bass drums to sizzling snares and hi-hats to melodic tuned percussion can be generated.

But perhaps the Drum2’s most interesting feature is the many different ways in which those voices can be triggered. Beyond the standard MIDI connections that enable the unit to be triggered by drum pad controllers, keyboards, and tablets (there’s even a free, compatible app for the iPad called Nord Beat), the module houses six drum-trigger inputs on standard ¼" jacks and a proprietary RJ-45 connector to attach a dedicated drum pad specially designed for the Drum2, the Nord Pad.

The multitude of connectivity options means that the Drum2 is not limited to one type of player. A rock drummer looking to supplement their rig with more unconventional sounds might gravitate toward using a combination of acoustic drums with triggers in concert with the Drum2, while the combination of the Drum2 and Pad might appeal to solo or duo performers who favor a more compact setup. Modular synthesizer enthusiasts could also find a lot of possibilities with the six trigger inputs by firing off drum sounds with step sequencers, clock dividers and multipliers, logic generators, and other more esoteric time-based functions.

X0X-Style Drum Machines

For those who may not be familiar with electronic music gear, the numbers “808” probably don’t have any particular significance. But in the worlds of EDM, techno, house, hip hop, and R&B, the Roland TR-808 is a staple machine. Its signature sound, a booming bass drum that’s laid the foundation of hits by everyone from Marvin Gaye to Kanye West to Taylor Swift, is currently, undoubtedly, one of the most frequently used sounds in pop music.

Despite its present legendary status, upon its release in the early 1980s, the TR-808 was hardly itself a hit, with one reviewer famously comparing its analog sounds to “marching anteaters.” While many were put off by the TR-808’s relative lack of sonic realism in relation to the more expensive machines like the digitally sampled LinnDrum, others, particularly producers in the underground dance music scene, gravitated to the TR-808 and the entire Roland ecosystem, including the TR-909, TB-303, SH-101, among others. And because of the machines’ model-numbering convention and the uniformity of its step-programming system, enthusiasts dubbed them “X0X” boxes.

TR-808, first of the “X0X” boxes

While the original machines have skyrocketed in price, X0X-style interfaces have since become a fixture of many drum machines and desktop synthesizers. Featuring an array of buttons corresponding to 16 steps in a bar, beats are programmed in one drum at a time as the sequencer loops continuously. Accents and fills can be added, or swing can be applied to make the rhythms less rigid. And, finally, patterns can be chained to form the overall structure of a song. The interface clearly has its limitations—anyone hoping to mimic Neil Peart or Gene Krupa should probably steer clear—but, often, simplicity is just the thing to zero in on a track’s particular vibe or groove.

A popular budget option for musicians enamored by step-sequenced analog drums is Korg’s diminutive Volca Beats. Featuring a mix of analog and PCM-sampled drums, the Volca features six individually tunable analog voices corresponding to kick, snare, hi tom, closed hat, and open hat, as well as four sampled percussion sounds. While its somewhat anemic kick won’t soon be mistaken for an 808’s, its familiar 16-step sequencer, digital and analog sync options, and ability to shape sounds via recording of real-time parameter changes make it a solid choice for producers looking for a simple, easy-to-use groove box.

Roland has for years recycled the sounds of the TR-808 and TR-909 in numerous incarnations of its Groovebox series of instruments. But where those instruments merely housed sampled versions of the original TR machines within a familiar X0X-style interface, the company’s newest rhythm machine, the AIRA TR-8, utilizes Roland’s newly developed Analog Circuit Behavior technology to faithfully model the originals’ analog circuits. The obsessive attention to sonic detail extends to the unique fluctuations in tone color that occur when multiple instruments are entered as accented steps, a quirky “feature” of the originals. With its customizable kits utilizing drums from the TR-808 and TR-909, as well as modern-day production conveniences such as a side chain input and on-board reverb and delay, the TR-8 does an excellent job of upholding the Roland legacy while adding some future-relevant niceties.

Elektron offers an even more future-forward take on the X0X approach with its Analog Rytm, an 8-voice analog drum machine with the ability to load user samples, offering extensive interfacing capabilities with digital audio software. Distinguished by its dual method of drum programming—step entry on 16 buttons, as well as real-time finger drumming on 12 velocity sensitive pads—the Rytm excels not only as the rhythmic centerpiece of a modern studio but as a cutting-edge performance instrument for live sets. With the Swedish maker’s signature Parameter Locks (per-step modulation sequencing) and Sound Locks (per-step sound changes), the Rytm allows sonic possibilities far beyond the usual, vanilla X0X drum sequences. Another unique innovation of the Analog Rytm (along with its 4-voice analog synth companion, the Analog Four) is the recent incorporation of Overbridge, a technology that serves as a gateway between the worlds of analog hardware and digital audio workstations. Enabling sample-accurate synchronization of audio and hardware parameters with DAWs like Ableton Live, Overbridge allows the Rytm to function just like a virtual instrument plug-in, with comprehensive software control over every sound parameter housed in the hardware.

Sampling Drum Machines

While analog drum machines are great for achieving the punchy, hard-edged synthetic sounds required for many styles of electronic music, some producers, particularly in the hip hop and R&B realm, favor the grittier sound of sampled drum breaks. Although limited by today’s standards, 12-bit sampling began to be incorporated into dedicated drum sequencing workstations with machines like the Emu SP-1200 and the Akai MPC60, beginning in the late 1980s. Typically featuring maximum memory capacities of a Megabyte (or less!) and less-than-CD-quality resolution, producers of the day made the most of such limitations, pushing the hardware to unforeseen musical conclusions.

What these machines lacked in specs they made up for in the distinctive “swing” of their sequencers, lending a more human feeling to programmed drums. Coupled with the ability to “chop” (edit into individual drum hits) sampled drum loops onto pads for triggering, the SP-1200 and MPC60 virtually defined the choppy, loop-based style of classic hip hop.

Akai continued to refine the MPC throughout the ’90s and 2000s, designing a range of hardware products around the company’s signature 16-pad grid and pattern-based sequencer. In recent years, the MPC (MIDI Production Center) concept began to lose some of its luster as music technology evolved from dedicated hardware units to software-based sampling. But Akai’s rebranding of MPC (now Music Production Controller) indicates a newfound direction for the company, a synthesis of familiar hardware with the power and flexibility of software.

That synthesis takes on a remarkably compact form factor in the company’s MPC Studio, a streamlined controller designed to integrate into the most compact of computer-based setups. Featuring a full complement of the classic MPC hardware controls, but jettisoning the multiplex of audio and MIDI jacks of the originals for a single USB port, the Studio offloads all sampling and sequencing duties to the included MPC Software, allowing even a modestly specced laptop to become the centerpiece of complete sample-based productions.

For producers requiring more comprehensive interconnections with outboard gear, keyboards, and sound modules, the MPC Renaissance features the same familiar MPC interface and livery, with the added integration of the MPC Software. Older producers who’ve perfected their “sample flipping” techniques on machines like the MPC60 and MPC3000 will feel right at home with the Renaissance, and will certainly appreciate Akai’s emulations of the sound of its vintage machines (as well as the SP-1200), which are baked into the unit’s analog-to-digital convertors.

While Akai has only recently caught up to the possibilities offered by feature-rich software, Berlin-based Native Instruments has spent the better part of the past two decades perfecting software instruments for music production and DJ’ing. Since 2009, NI has added Maschine, a tightly integrated software-and-hardware package geared toward beat making. With its by-now-predictable 16-pad grid layout of pads, the Maschine series appears, on the surface, quite similar to the Akai MPC range. But with its advanced integration with third-party plug-ins, including NI’s own Komplete suite of instruments, as well as an extensive sound library covering just about every drum sound imaginable, Maschine can serve as the hub for just about any computer-based music production. The package is offered in three flavors: Maschine Mikro, Maschine, and Maschine Studio—covering the gamut from the beat-making on-the-go prowess of the Mikro to the nearly stand-alone operation offered by the Studio’s dual, color LCD screens.

Clearly, the variety of dedicated hardware for beat makers is in no short supply. Whether your musical bag is reggae, pop, hip hop, R&B, or EDM, B&H has you covered with a range of rhythm-focused tools for every level of expertise.

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