Questioning Drum Machines

Column: Features   |   Date Published: Thursday, 18 August 16   |   Author: Cody Atkinson   |   1 month, 1 week ago

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your eyes; I come to praise drum machines, not to bury them. The evil that drummers do lives after them, The good fills oft interred with their bones. This week Cody Atkinson investigates the rise of drum machines across music. You could call it the rise of the machines. Or something really similar, for copyright reasons.

OK, why are you writing about drum machines?

Well, my attention was drawn by a RIP Society tweet, as faithfully reproduced below:

            New band PHONE open for feedtime (@subpop) on Saturday. Just notice feedtime are the            only band on the bill w/o a drum machine #ThatsSo2016

OK then, why don’t you treat me like an idiot and lay out a brief history of the drum machine?

Gladly. The first drum machine (or at least probably the first one) was the Rhythmicon, invented in 1930 by Henry Cowell and Leon Theremin. Yes, Leon Theremin invented the Theremin too. The Rythmicon was great except it didn’t really work.

Like all good musical instruments then…

A few tape-loop based machines were launched in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including the Rhythmate, Side Man and Bandito the Bongo Artist. They were a step forward, but still pretty rudimentary.

And that step forward was?

Solid state. Starting with Gulbransen and Seeburg in the early ‘60s, drum machines became small enough to put on electronic organs, and then slowly evolve from there. Soon Korg got in on the act, as did Yamaha and Univox. In ‘72 the first programmable machine came out (Eko), and in 1980, the first machine with digital samples (Linn). But the machine to finally make the big leap wasn’t one with all of the technological bells and whistles...

So what was it?

The Roland TR-808, a programmable drum machine with synthesized sounds, like some of the older machines. It’s probably played on more big songs than any real person has, and has a very distinctive, much recognised sound. The 808 was accessible, easy to use and most importantly (and especially after production was ceased) cheap. Once Roland brought out their newer drum machines that were more heavily reliant on “real drum sounds”, the old 808s were sought out by early dance and house producers, not to mention a plethora of pop stars of the day.

Where would I have heard it?

Well, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ for starters. Maybe also on ‘Planet Rock’ by Africa Bambaataa. Or on a bunch of New Order, Beastie Boys, Talking Heads, Prince or Michael Jackson tracks. The tinny snare hits, the hissy high hats, the punchy bass, all recognisable – as long as you know what you’re looking for.

So I’m across drum machines. Great.

Glad you’re happy.

But there’s been a lot of backlash against the use of drum machines over the years, right?

Yeah, they’ve copped a bit of heat over the years. Whilst some drummers have fully embraced them and utilised their potential, other miserable shithawks have decried their rise. And yes, people who stand in the way of progress with no actual downsides are miserable shithawks.

Such as?

Well, everyone’s fourth favourite former member of Nirvana, Dave Grohl, who said, “all that shit ruins music these days.” Grohl continued his shittest, mildest take by saying, “drum machines work for pop artists but when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll – don’t fuck with the human element.”

The Human Element sounds like the title of a shitty futuristic thriller…

Grohl was apparently unaware of all the great rock ‘n’ roll bands that had utilised drum machines instead of real drummers. I’m going to start listing them here, but I will note one that Dave should know. Big Black, whose guitarist Steve Albini recorded Nirvana’s best album In Utero. Good work Dave!

What about these days? Does anyone use drum machines?

Let’s run with “yes” as the answer. Anecdotally, more and more bands on bills seem to use drum machines, at least in their early days. That Feedtime bill above is just one example of many, and drummers seem in shorter supply than in the past.

Sometimes you can’t get a drummer, and often the music just sounds better without one. Even a handful of Canberra bands, such as Wives, Wet Dream and TV Colours have used drum machines in recent times and it absolutely works. In an extremely unscientific study, I would suggest that drum machine usage has doubled in the last year. And if this trend continues, every band will have a drum machine instead of a drummer by 2084.

So what will the post-apocalyptic, drummer-free universe look like?

I’m glad you asked. With drum machines taking the jobs of every drummer and percussionist in every musical act, the now-unemployed drummers are destined to walk the earth, aimlessly hitting things that get in their way. Rhythmically, of course. Eventually, drum machines will start to correct the imprecise beats of the former drummers, and add some dope fills as well. The drummers will eventually start to band together, and form a small sovereign nation on the outskirts of Siberia, in mostly uninhabited territory. Eventually the “beaters”, as they call themselves, will find a charismatic leader and plot their next course.


The solution becomes clear quickly: to rise against the (drum) machines. Led by caveman aficionado Dave Grohl, they use cricket and baseball bats (now called “the big drum sticks”) to smash the machines one by one. However, what the “beaters” don’t realise is that the machines have evolved and can take almost any form. All phones and computers can house drum machines, and millions worldwide carry them without knowing. Eventually, Grohl breaks down after working out that if they destroy all machines, they can’t record their own drums in the future. Out of nowhere, a suburban mum suggests that Grohl sends his own son back through time to kill Cowell and Theremin, and sort this all out once and for all.

Let me guess, this is coming…


Man I hate sharing a column with you.



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