What is a Drum Machine & why do you need one?

Drum machines fuelled the sounds of the 80s, and chances are you've come across their iconic sound at some point. But just what exactly are they? This blog will shine some light on the history of drum machines, what makes them tick and which modern analogue drum machine is right for you.

Ricky Pontin

Ricky Pontin

It’s impossible to listen to the radio these days and not hear the impact of the drum machine! They’ve quickly become one of the most iconic pieces of music hardware ever. After the inception of the drum machine in the late 70s, the sounds of Roland’s 808 and 909 have become synonymous with electronic music. They’re now household names in the music industry in their own right.

But what exactly are they?

Our story starts all the way back in 1206 (yep you read that right) where drum machines were first conceptualised. A crude water clock controlled mechanical rhythm device – explained in the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Al-Jazari – laid the foundations. Using cams shafts and pegs to make model musicians play percussive instruments, this primitive device demonstrated the first programmable drum sequencer. Moving the pegs would change the rhythm.

We’d have to wait another 770 years before we started to see the drum machines we know and love today. Modern drum machines are electronic musical instruments that produce drum sounds through synthesis or sampling. Most include an onboard sequencer to play these notes in a predefined rhythm, otherwise they don’t make for very good drummers! The sounds can typically also be triggered live by hitting a pad.

The CR-78, LM-1, TR-808 and DMX aren’t just a list of number plates you might jot down on a long car journey. They’re some of the most influential rhythm machines ever produced. The 80s would have sounded unrecognisable without them. Their identifiable rhythmic precision brought with them the sound of the future. As The Human League’s Martin Rushent said, “electronic music can now stand up as a true form…The influence of it all is really going to change the whole industry” (Electronics & Music Maker Magazine in 1982). And change the industry it did!

How did this happen?

Roland introduced the CR-78 in 1978. While not being fully programmable, it found success with artists like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gary Numan and Genesis. If you’ve heard ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie, or ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins, you know what we’re talking about! But it was the release of Roland’s 808 and 909 in 1980 and 1983 that really blew the doors open to the analogue drum machine world.

808:

The 808 is fully analogue and programmable, though its unrealistic sounds were not enough for commercial success. It’s since attained legendary status through the then emerging electronic and hip-hop music scenes. If you know Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ or Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, you know how the 808’s legacy began! Its influence is so massive that many people in music production use ‘808’ as slang for ‘Electronic Kick Drum’!

LinnDrum:

The sequel to the LM-1 from 1980, you’ll know Roger Linn’s monster machine from the sounds of Deniece Williams’ ‘Let’s Hear it for the Boy’, A-Ha!’s ‘Take on Me’ and ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Armed with tambourine, kick, snare, hi-hat, cabasa, two toms, conga, cowbell, clave, and a hand clap, it was an early digital powerhouse featuring 8-bit samples. Its Lo-Fi charm means the LinnDrum still has a huge fan base to this day!,

909:

The release of the 909 brought with it new samples for the crash, ride and hi-hats. It also used analogue synthesis for the other voices as well as utilising MIDI for synchronisation. Despite being yet another commercial failure, the 909 achieved legendary status through the genres of techno, house and acid; Daft Punk even named ‘Revolution 909’ after the machine. If you’ve heard ‘Show me Love’ by Robin. S or ‘Vogue’ by Madonna, this sound is already in your head!

So why on earth are they so expensive?

Unfortunately, these mysterious, beloved machines, like all good pieces of art, were a bit ahead of their time and didn’t sell well at all. When it became impossible to manufacture them due to discontinued components, they became obsolete, leaving relatively few units in the wild. Fading into obscurity, they wound up in charity shops, skips and the hands of cash-strapped musicians. These musicians just so happened to make hugely influential music and spawn genres while they were at it! 808 State, Aphex Twin and Daft Punk are just a few names that made these previously unloved machines so desirable.

They’re desirable, they’re rare – that means they’re expensive… £3000-£4500 expensive!

Current drum machines

So, you want an analogue drum machine, but don’t want to re-mortgage the house. What can you do? Don’t worry, there are some fantastic modern alternatives out there! At less than a 10th of the price of the original models, you can get incredibly close to the sound you know and love. But you’re not buying plugins or samples here – there’s still real, analogue hardware in there!

Behringer RD-9

The new Behringer RD-9 is a modern amalgamation of all its predecessors. It houses a mammoth 64-step sequencer, 10 unique drum voices, an onboard wave designer and dual-filter to not only give you access to some fantastic analogue drum sounds, but also the tools to manipulate them into something new. Inspired by the legendary TR-909, the RD-9 aims to offer the same satisfying tactile experience that the original 909 models were so beloved for.

Arturia Drum Brute

Arturia don’t tend to shy away from stepping outside of the norm when designing their products, and the Drum Brute is no exception. With 17 distinct and analogue built in drum instruments, and a 64 step sequencer, the drum brute really brings analogue drums into the 21st century, and allows you to put your ideas into rhythms as fast as you can conjure them up. The drum brute is built around connectivity, which makes it a great central hub for your hardware.

Elektron Rytm MKII

Whilst still being a fraction of the cost of the original analogue drum machines, the Elektron Rytm MKII is pricey, but its functionality is unprecedented. With 8 distinct voices, a 13 track sequencer, and a shed load of synthesis options, the Rytm MKII is all you really need. With vast power at your fingertips and a 128 x 64 pixel OLED screen, you can adjust any parameters on the fly with ease, and program in entire tracks with no external hardware if you wanted.

Roland TR-8S rhythm performer drum machine

The TR-8S aims to be a one size fits all solution drum machine, built from the ground up with live performances in mind. A vast sound library, FM synthesis and the ability to import your own samples, makes the 8S a fantastic drum companion, especially if you are planning on doing live performances. The 8S features the exact sounds from Roland’s iconic machines like the 808, 606 and 909 etc, with each sound detailed just like the originals “down-to-the-circuit”.

Roland TR-08

A recreation of the classic 808 which is truly faithful to the original. Roland’s Boutique format aims to encapsulate the whole experience of playing the original 808 model…minus the eye watering price. With a more compact enclosure and the addition of a compressor, gain, tune and pan controls, the TR-08 offers the best of both worlds, with the sounds and user interface of the original 808 model, fused seamlessly with new modern controls.

Shop Analogue Drum Machines

Why do you need a drum machine?

Simplicity

When it comes down to it, drum machines are simple. Yes, modern synthesisers and keyboards can offer drum solutions with built-in drum sounds and sequencers, but analogue drum machines are easier to play and control. Each drum sound on an analogue machine has a respective pad which will trigger it, like a drum. On top of this, you can see which pad is being triggered and the progress of the sequence via LEDs on the pads.  These are all features which aren’t present on synthesisers and keyboards, because drums are not their priority.

More versatility

Having knob-per-function controls at your fingertips allows you to modulate cut-offs, attacks and effects instantly. This makes live performances and control over your drums a walk in the park – especially when compared to alternatives, like virtual drums, which can leave you menu diving for days on end.

You can’t beat the real thing

It’s true, all of the sounds of the original drum machines have been resampled thousands of times and reached almost every corner of the internet.  Many DAWS even come with a lot of them preinstalled. But these digital and sampled recreations will never be up to scratch when compared to the actual sounds produced by their analogue counterparts.

They’re fun!

The most important thing to consider when buying any piece of musical hardware (despite pretending it’s not), is whether it’s enjoyable to use. Drum plugins and other alternatives like many digital drum solutions can be a labyrinth of menus and parameters which can take hours just to sequence a simple drum pattern. Analogue drum machines are satisfying to use, and punching in drum patterns is simple to understand and addictive. Drum machines do what they say on the tin, they do it remarkably well and are a joy to use because of it.

What’s Next for drum machines?

With a plethora of drum machines being released and even more exciting new releases looming on the horizon it’s clear that analogue drum machines are back, and with modern tweaks and utilities added, and price points finally out of the realms of absurdity, this time they’re here to stay.

Behringer RD-8 MKII

Designed for live performances, the new and improved RD-8 MKII includes step repeats, note repeats, real time triggering, autofills and overdubbing to make rhythms more interesting. These features, paired with the ability to cue up songs from memory without interrupting playback, make live performances with the RD-8 MKII a breeze.

Behringer LM Drum

Behringer recently announced that a LinnDrum clone is in the works. It likely won’t be an exact recreation of the original, instead it will implement more modern technologies such as a display and velocity pads. But the generated sounds and general interface will remain for the most part the same. It seems peculiar for any industry to work backwards. But these drum machines, particularly the Linn drum, are so iconic that none of the modern digital or sampled reboots can even come close to their iconic sound. Whether the Behringer LinnDrum will fare any better, we will have to wait patiently and see.

Conclusion

Drums have always been a bottleneck for artists and bands when practising and performing due to their size and noise. Drum machines have been a saving grace for drum-less artists for the best part of 40 years. Despite the improvements in digital and virtual drum engines, the sounds produced from analogue machines cannot be beaten. There’s a reason the classic 808 sounds are still so popular to this day.

If you enjoyed reading this, why not check out more of our learn articles?

We’ve also collated a selection of other relevant content below too:

Shop at Andertons

Ricky Pontin
Ricky Pontin

Responses & Questions

Leave a Reply