It may seem hard to believe, but the drum machine has been around for well over 50 years now. While most of us are familiar with some of the more famous examples, such as the Roland TR-808 and 909 or the Akai MPC series, there are a ton of really interesting rhythm-making machines hidden away in the dusty corners of obscurity that are less recognizable. I thought it might be fun today to take a look at some of those.
We'll start out with what many acknowledge as the first drum machine (no, I don't count the Rhythmicon, as interesting as it is), the Chamberlin Rhythmate, first introduced in 1957. Like many of the first drum machines, it was designed to accompany organists. What makes the Rhythmate rather unique is that it used tape loops to play back the rhythms. As such, it sounds quite different from the early analog cheeseboxes based on synthesized sounds. The tapes it used had 3 tracks, each with 14 different beats.
2 years later, Wurlitzer introduced the Sideman, the first commercially-produced drum machine that utilized truly electronic sounds (10 different sounds, to be exact). Like many of the early drum machines that followed, it featured a small selection of preset rhythms with a user-variable tempo. What made it kind of unique is the way in which these rhythms were played back. A rotating metal disc with electrical contacts strategically spaced around its edge acted as a primitive sequencer of sorts. While it was an ingenious design, it obviously limited the flexibility of the machine. For the time, however, it was quite revolutionary.
The Metasonix D-1000 is a modern drum box very similar to the Sideman in the way it produces sounds.
The Quintron Drum Buddy was an outrageously expensive ($5,000, to be exact) analog drum machine produced in New Orleans in the early 2000's. Like the Sideman, it used a rather unique method of sequencing its rhythms - a rotating cylinder with strategically punched holes allowed light to pass through and shine on 4 different "receivers", each wired to a specific sound. Weirdly, one of the people who bought one was Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Portlandia fame!
The Paia Drummer Boy was another preset rhythm machine based around electronic sounds released in the late 60's. As with most of Paia's products it was a build-it-yourself affair sold in kit form to electronics enthusiasts. If you feel up to the task, you can have a look at the schematics here.
The electronic music revolution's impact was so wide and deep that even the toy manufacturers wanted to get in on the action. One great example of this is Mattel's Bee Gees Rhythm machine, a small keyboard that also included 4 preset rhythms. Its creators could scarcely have imagined the exposure their little toy would get when German electropioneers Kraftwerk used on to play the lead on the infamous "Pocket Calculator". Mattel also made a compact set of drum pads called the Synsonic Drums.
The Clef Master Rhythm was a drum machine produced in the late 70's/early 80's that many refer to as the "poor man's 808", largely due to its very boomy kick drum tone. Perhaps most unique, however, was the ability to switch the snare sound between a standard snare and a brushed snare for jazzier vibes.
As we moved into the late 80's, drum machines that used sampled sounds became all the rage. The Dynacord ADD-One is one of the lesser-known models. What makes it especially notable is that although it sampled at 12-bits, the sample rate was 50hz, which was virtually unheard of at the time.
Many people assume that software-based drum machines didn't show up on the scene until fairly recently, but in fact, software-based instruments like the Cheetah SpecDrum first began appearing in the mid-eighties. The SpecDrum was actually marketed as a low-cost peripheral for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer. While the sound itself was produced by the hardware, rhythms were programmed on the computer and users could even sample their own sounds in glorious lo-fi.
Preceding the SpecDrum by several years was the Movement Systems Drum Computer. It combined both analog drum synthesis and 8-bit samples built into a casing complete with monitor and keyboard, thus the name. It was extremely rare, but gained quite an audience thanks to 80's hit-makers Eurhythmics, who famously used it on "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)", among other tracks.
Obviously, there are plenty more obscure drum machines than the ones listed above. Do you have any favorites I missed? Share them with us in the comments!