The History of the Drum Machine

The appearance of sophisticated drum machines in the early 80s had a profound affect on the direction of music.  NPR has this history of how these boxes changed the world.

About 10 years ago, a disgruntled pianist in Los Angeles named John Wood began a popular bumper sticker campaign with the slogan, “Drum Machines Have No Soul.” Not everyone was convinced, including producer Eric Sadler.”Drum machines don’t run themselves,” Sadler says. “It’s the people who put into the drum machines that give the drum machines soul, to me. I’ve definitely given some drum machines some soul.”

Here’s the thing: The earliest drum machines were never intended to be studio recording devices. Take Wurlitzer’s 1959 Sideman, one of the first commercially available drum machines. It used vacuum tubes to create its percussive sound and was intended for organ players who perhaps didn’t want to pay a drummer to join their lounge act.

“It’s about 2 feet and some change tall,” says Joe Mansfield, author of the new book Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. “It’s maybe a foot and a half wide, and it looks like something that would belong in an old, wood-paneled library to me. It’s a distinctive-looking thing; at first look, you wouldn’t think it would be a drum machine.”

Drum machines were still largely novelties throughout the ’60s and ’70s, but musicians slowly began to play around with them, says Dante Carfagna. He’s the producer behind the recent compilation album Personal Space, which examines early pop experiments with drum machines and other electronics.

Read on.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “The History of the Drum Machine

  • January 21, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Guy doesnt even mention the CR78 given to Phillip Collins by Roland, his initial reluctance to even touch it, and its eventual use on In The Air Tonight. I guess the badass overcompressed drum fill gets most of the credit, but still.


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