Drum Machines: A Recorded History, Part 1: Analog Drum Machines
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
This episode will be the first in a series about drum machines. I will feature vintage recordings of analog drum machines—such as those made by Chamberlin, Wurlitzer, and Roland from the 1950s to the 1980s. In another episode of this series, I will explore digital drum machines often with digital drum samples, such as those produced by Linn and Oberheim in the 1980s. I also have many sample recordings of electronic drumming instruments—the kind one physically plays like drums—so perhaps that will be a future podcast theme as well.
What is the definition of a drum machine? This varies. It is not a sequencer for melodies and tones, nor a way to specify a short series of notes that could be repeated automatically, which is how the Rhythmicon worked, an invention in 1932 by Leon Theremin for composer Henry Cowell. I plan on doing a podcast or two around the subject of sequencers in music and even the arpeggiator, which is a kind of specially design musical sequencer. For my purposes, a drum machine is an instrument that reproduces preset, but modifiable patterns of rhythms and percussion sounds. There are analog drum machines, using circuits and oscillators to mimic drums, and sampling devices which used prerecorded analog samples of actual drum performances. Some of these analog drum machines were enhanced with digital programmability by the end of the 1970s. We will explore analog drum machines in this part and digital sampling drum machines, with programmability in the next part.
When it comes to writing about the history of music technology, much can be done by tracking the timelines of inventions and products as they became available over time. Knowing the timeline will tell you which products were invented, when they became available for use, and how they worked. But that is only a small part of the story. What the timeline can’t tell you is which products made an impression on the musicians of the time and slipped into the public consciousness through performances and recordings. After all, a patent is just a patent until the associated products are brought to market. Such was the case in 1978 when Mattel released the Bee Gees Rhythm Machine, a simple drum machine toy with four rhythm sounds and a monophonic keyboard.
There is, in fact, a patent for this that I found but it was submitted in 1979 and approved in 1980. This was a toy. Yet, listen to Kraftwerk’s Pocket Calculator from 1981 for the distinctive sound of this simple little instrument. Their distinctive use of this rhythm-making toy made an immediate impact on music of the time. Let’s listen to Pocket Calculator in which the repeating melody line is played on the rhythm machine as well as some beats.
So, while the timeline is important, I place a lot of value on contemporaneous evidence for the impact of a technology in readings from the press but primarily in the way that such inventions were used in making music released on recordings. Hence the Archive of Electronic Music, a library of evidence for electronic instruments in the context of the music for which they were used.
A challenge I’ve face in finding recordings of drum machines is that the earliest units—produced in the 1950s and 1960s—were essentially for use at home by amateur musicians. Professional musicians such as jazz artists viewed them as gimmicks and didn’t really need them anyway. You won’t find a recording by organ players Earl Grant or Jimmy Smith that contain any evidence of a drum machine, as far as I know. It is perhaps no coincidence that the original drum machines were sold to accompany the home electronic organs made by the likes of Wurlitzer, Lowrey, and Thomas.
Drum machines had their initial success not as standalone boxes, but as built-in options found on home electronic organs. Wurlitzer, Thomas, and Leslie released various organ models equipped with their own rhythm machines. Even Hammond got into the act before going out of the tone wheel organ business in 1975; one of the very last tone wheel organs they made, the model T-402, included a built-in drum machine. A rhythm machine was often embedded into the organ controls for easy access at the flick of a finger while playing chords and melodies. Organ makers such as Wurlitzer also had some success selling standalone drum machines for use with any keyboard. We’ll hear examples of each—the standalone devices and the built-in devices—in this podcast.
I am organizing these recordings by the devices so you can hear how different brands of drum machines sounded. One thing they all seem to have in common are preset rhythms with Latinesque labels, such as Cha Cha, Mambo, Tango, as well as Waltz and maybe some settings for Rock or Popular kinds of beats. There were also choices for the type of drum sound you could create, from snare to tom to cymbal and clave or wood block. In nearly every case, you could select the type of rhythm by pushing a button and then adjust the tempo to match your accompaniment. Beyond that, any additional features or rhythms were considered gravy.
Now we have all heard drum machines. Most every major chart-topping rock, hip hop, popular, even jazz artists released hits using these devices. So, as it typical of the Archives of Electronic Music, I want to find some of the hidden, experimental gems that you may not have heard before, instrumental versions of popular songs, demo tracks, and simply wild explorations of drum machine programming even with the simplest of devices. I hope these tracks demonstrate the extremes to which these devices could be used. We’ll explore some of the historically important drum machines and sample their recordings and then finish up the podcast with a longer set of tracks featuring drum machines of varied or even unknown origins. You can find a complete playlist for this program on the podcast website with all of the details I could muster about each track.
Before we begin with the drum machines, I thought it would be informative to listen to an example of how organists had previously been accompanying themselves with percussion effects. It was all done by playing the sounds manually on the keys and pedals, not a small feat and certainly one that required a special acumen playing many parts at once. Here is an example from 1958, the heyday of the electronic theater organ. The record is by George Wright and it’s played on a 5-manual Wurlitzer theater organ. Using a combination of pedals and keys, he was able to manually create percussion sounds as he played the accompanying chords and melodies, which was the way it was done prior to a drum machine. You can detect the ever-so slightly missed timings here and there and the variety of sounds he could conjure from such pedals as bass, kettle, and field drums, cymbals, brush cymbals and trap drums. On the keyboard he had access to such voices as the snare drum, brush cymbal, tambourine, castanets, Chinese block, tom tom, sand block, and various mallet instruments. All played without a program or sequencer. This was the common performance practice for such artists on the electrified theatre organ in the 1950s.
We'll hear the Chamberlin Rhythmate, invented in 1949 and updated with several models until around 1970. This was the brainchild of American inventor Harry Chamberlin and was a step in the evolution of the Mellotron, the famous tape-looping keyboard that was a fixture in many rock bands. The Mellotron’s humble beginning were in a box with a loudspeaker devoted to playing loops of drum beats. It was not operated by a keyboard, like the Mellotron, but had several buttons for choosing the desired rhythm accompaniment.
I could not unearth a vintage recording of the Chamberlin Rhythmate. But the Roth Händle Studio in Sweden lends one out for recordings, such as this track made in 2006 by a group called Two Times the Trauman. The sound of the device is heard clearly beginning at 13 seconds into the track.
We come now to products made by Wurlitzer, the Side Man and Swingin’ Rhythm drum machines. The Side Man first offered by Wurlitzer in 1959. Like the Chamberlin, the electronics were vacuum tube powered but the sounds were created electronically rather than being prerecorded on tape. These were electronic imitations of drum sounds that could be played in various rhythm patterns and speeds. The sounds were created by a single voltage-controlled oscillator and included 10 drum tones—such as Bass Drum, Brush, Claves, Cymbal, Maracas, Temple Block, Temple Block II, Tom Tom I, Tom Tom II, Wood Block—and 12 patterns including Patterns: Beguine, Bolero, Cha Cha, Foxtrot 2 Beat, Foxtrot 4 Beat, March, Rhumba, Samba, Shuffle, Tango, Waltz, Western. Inside the Side Man was a rotating disc with metal contacts across its face to sequence the various drum sound patterns.
Again, finding a vintage recording with the Side Man is a bit of a challenge. What I have instead is a modern recording by LCD Sound System from 2010 that uses an authentic Side Man that is pretty clearly audible in the mix of many vintage synths and effects. It opens the song and is heard throughout.
A widely popular drum machine from Wurlitzer was the Swingin’ Rhythm sold from 1969 through about 1975. This standalone box had settings for five rhythm patterns and five drum sounds. The drum sound buttons, designed like organ tabs that you press down, could also be played individually to manually add accents to rhythms.
You will also find an example of the Wurlitzer Orbit III organ from 1971. This was essentially a standard electronic home organ but it was equipped with a monophonic synthesizer that could be played by a mini keyboard and also the pedals. This instrument, as well, had an integrated drum machine based on the Swingin’ Rhythm.
Timeline of historically important drum machines:
Rhythmate Model 50 1966-1970
Side Man 1959-1965, cost $395
Swingin’ Rhythm 1969-1975
Linn LM-1 1980-83 $4000 to $5500
LinnDrum 1982-85 $3000
Linn 9000 1984-86 $5000 to $7000
DMX Programmable Digital Drum Machine, 1981-85 , $2895
For an encyclopedic list of almost every drum machines ever made, and there were dozens of variations and models up until around 1985, check-out the excellent books by Alex Graham, a UK-based drum machine specialist.
1. Two Times The Trauma, “Freak Show” from I Fell In Love With An Ocean (2006 Starfly). There is an original Chamberlin Rhythmate at Roth Händle Studios in Stockholm, plus some other precious vintage equipment used in the making of the first album by Two Times The Trauma. Double Bass, Vocals, Magnus Eugensson; Drums, Percussion, Optigan, Mellotron, Tin Whistle, Turntables, Chamberlin Rhythmate, Mattias Olsson; Electric Guitar, Eric Fallope; Mellotron, Orchestron, Tobias Ljungkvist; Tuba, Fredrik Wennström; Vocals, Cecilia Åhlfeldt; Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Mattias Eriksson; Xylophone, Daniel Kåse. Recorded at Roth Händle Studios 3 & 4, Stockholm. Mellotron bee tape set used with kind permission from Gaby Stenberg. Yamaha GX-1 used with kind permission from Benny Andersson. Orchestron French Horn disc on 'In Your Eyes' used thanks to Zac Rae. All Optigan, Mellotron and Chamberlin Rhythmate service and maintenance was performed way beyond the call of duty by Markus Resch.
Wurlitizer Side Man and Swingin’ Rhythm
2. LCD Sound System, “Somebody’s Calling Me” from This Is Happening (2010 Parlophone). Somebody's Calling Me; Finger Snaps Snaps, Matt Thornley; Finger Snaps Snaps, Synthesizer Casio MT-68, Wurlitzer Sideman, EMS VCS3 Putney, Korg Poly Ensemble, Bass, Piano Acoustic, Keyboards Roland System 100, Vocals, James Murphy; Mixed By, DS; Trombone, Jason Disu; Written-By, J. Murphy.
3. Glenn Derringer, “The Girl From Ipanema” from Wurlitzer Swingin' Rhythm (1968 Wurlitzer). Glenn Derringer at the Wurlitzer electronic organ, demonstrating the Wurlitzer Electronic Swingin' Rhythm attachment with an unspecified Wurlitzer electronic organ. Each track on this demonstration disc explains the Swingin’ Rhythm settings that were used. For “The Girl From Ipanema,” the settings were: “Moderate Bossa Nova. The Swingin’ Rhythm was set at Latin, tempo control set to 1 o’clock.” What more can I say?
4. Dick Hyman, “Strobo” from the single Strobo/Lay, Lady, Lay (1969 Command). Dick told me about this track, which was one of his Moog experiments that didn’t make it onto his two albums around this time. Normally, he produced his Moog tracks with the help of synthesizer programmer Walter Sear. But in the case of this single, he did all the programming. For “Strobo,” he used a drum machine. It sounds like a Swingin’ Rhythm.
5. Jean-Pierre Sabar, “Fool on the Hill” from Super-Danse/Les Orgues Électroniques De Jean Pierre Sabar (1969 Sava). French LP of instrumental cover versions of popular music, all played on the Wurlitzer 4300 electronic organ with integrated Multi-Matic Percussion unit and Swingin’ Rhythm, which was also sold as a standalone drum machine. In this case, I’m having a little trouble telling the difference between the drum machine and what sometimes sounds like a drum set with bass and toms. The settings on the organ indicate that the pedals can be used to play “drum” and “cymbal” sounds, and the Swingin’ Rhythm unit had buttons for drum, brush, snare, block, and cymbal. Still, I can’t account for the tambourine sound but so much of this rhythm section sounds like a drum machine repeating sounds robotically that I must assume that this is a combination of live drummer and drum machine.
6. Jerry Styner And Larry Brown, “Dock of the Bay” from Orbit III (1971 Beverly Hills). Album produced to showcase the sounds of the Wurlitzer Orbit III organ, the “orbit” portion being a a third, two-octave keyboard that was a monophonic synthesizer. The instrument was equipped with the latest Wurlitzer rhythm machine built in. On this track, you not only hear sounds of a drum machine that sounds similar to the Wurlitzer Swingin’ Rhythm machine introduced in 1969. Although the liner notes suggest that all of the sounds were created using the organ, there appears to be a regular human drummer playing along (probably percussionist and co-producer Larry Brown). I say this because there is a hit hat heard throughout and although Swingin’ Rhythm had setting for a Snare, Brush and Cymbal sounds, as fills for the rhythm settings, they really did not reproduce the hit hat sound that is heard here. That and the miscellaneous drum fills added throughout sound more “played” than mechanized. Anyway, that’s my take after examining this recording as compared to the actual sounds of the Swingin’ Rhythm unit.
7. Byron Melcher, “Spanish Flea” from The Entertainers (1966 Thomas Organ Co.). Thomas Organ was one of the leading makers of electronic organs for the home. On this track, you can hear the Playmate rhythm component, a drum machine with 15 preset rhythms. The Thomas organ drum machine, circa mid-1960s. Thomas Organ was another maker of electronic organs for the home market. By 1966 they had created the Playmate rhythm component, a drum machine with 15 preset rhythms and a standalone device called the Band Box that had 10 preset rhythms. These were often sold as part of their Color-Glo line of transistorized organs. Color-Glo helped amateur musicians by lighting up the keys for preprogrammed melodies and chords to guide them along.
8. Johnny Kemm “Taboo” from Latin Days (1970 Concert Recording). This album was created using the Lowrey Theater Console Deluxe organ model H25R-2 equipped with the built-in Automatic Rhythm drum machine feature.
Not Sure What These Drum Machines Are
9. Robin Gibb, “Mother and Jack” from the single Saved by the Bell/Mother and Jack (1969 Polydor). There was brief period in 1969 when the Brothers Gibb, otherwise known as the Bee Gees, had a sibling riff and Robin went off on his own to record some solo projects while Barry and Maurice completed a two-man Bee Gee album called Cucumber Castle. Perhaps because he was working along, Robin used a drum machine to mark time while recording various tracks and in the case of a few songs, he kept the mechanical rhythm as part of the finished recording. This might be the earliest purposeful use of a drum machine on a pop hit. I include it hear because it is probably a Swingin’ Rhythm, although it might also be a Seeburg Select-A-Rhythm, also available at the time.
10.Bruce Haack “Saint Basil” from The Electronic Record For Children (1969 Dimension 5). Tape composition, drum machine, and synthesis by Bruce Haack; Directed by P. Pandel; Performer, The Children Of Holy Trinity Cathedral School. Bruce used an unidentified drum machine on this album of children’s music.
11.Michael Iceberg, “Mexican Hat Dance” from Does It Live: 100th Week At Walt Disney World (1977 Hihomusic). This album was only sold to tourists as a souvenir at Walt Disney World during the Michael Iceberg residency as a performer at Tomorrowland Terrace during the late 70's through the late 80's. Unknown drum machine, but likely a Roland Rhythm TR-55.
12.Miha Kralj, “Apokalipsa” from Andromeda (1980 PGP). Yugoslavian record from synthesist Miha Kralj features a Roland CompuRhythm CR-78. Composer, producer, Synthesizer, Vocoder, Sequencer, Drum Machine, Effects, Miha Kralj.
13.Gary Numan, “Slowcar To China” from Dance (1981 Atco). Bass , Mick Karn; Percussion, Gary Numan, Tim Steggles; Polymoog, Prophet 5, Roland JP 4, CP30, Claptrap, Electronic Drums Roland CR78, Gary Numan; Viola, Chris Payne.
14.The Noyes Brothers, “Byte to Beat” from Sheep From Goats (1980 Object Music). Synthesizer and electronic drums, Solamar. The Noyes Brothers had two members, Steve Miro and Steve Solamar. They were from the UK and Solamar seems to be the only artist on this track and uses an non-specific Roland drum machine. This track is taken from a double LP, the only record I know of for the Noyes Brothers.
15.Comateens, “Ghosts” from Comateens (1981 Cachalot Records). Here is a group who’s unofficial fourth member was a Roland Compu-Rhythm CR-78. The inner notes for the album featured profiles of all of the artists, including Lyn Byrd on synthesizers and vocals, Oliver North on guitar and vocals, Nic North on bass, and vocals and the Roland machine, which was described as having a square black head, no body, with red, blue, and yellow buttons. In addition, the notes state that the Roland drum machine was born in Japan and existed as 3,468 separate pieces before assembled and called upon to serve with the Comateens.
16.Joël Fajerman, “Espace – Oiseaux” from Azimuts (1981 PSA). French record by Fajerman featuring a Roland TR 808 Rhythm composer, and instruments such as the Multimoog, Prophet 5, Korg polyphonic 3100, Clavinet D6, ARP sequencer, Oberheim module.
17.SPK (System Planning Korporation), “Emanation Machine R. Gie 1916” from Information Overload Unit (1981 Side Effects). Australian industrial sounds released in the UK. Guitar, Bass, Tape, Vocals, Mike Wilkins; Synthesizer, Roland Drum Programming, Effects, Vocals, Graeme Revell; Synthesizer, Effects, Dominic Guerin.
18.Rüdiger Lorenz, “Out of the Past” from Invisible Voices (1983 Syncord). This late pharmacist/synthesist from Germany played all the instruments on this album, including Korg Polysix, Formant Synthesizer, Roland Vocoder VC 10, Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, Moog Sample & Hold, MXR Stereo Chorus, Electro-Harmonix Flanger, PPG Sequencer, Elektor Ringmodulator, and Pearl Vorg Echo-Orbit.
Other analog drum machines
19.Bob Hacker, “Careless Hands” from One Man Opry: Bob Hacker Plays The Yamaha Electone D (1980 Yamaha). This album, produced by Yamaha, features some of the wacky analog synth effects it could produce as well as its built-in drum machine. This was a spinet style organ, a small upright keyboard with pedals for the home market.
20.Arthur Brown and Kingdom Come, “Time Captives” from Journey (1973 Polydor). Brown used Bentley drum machine to provide drums on this track. The Bentley was actually a UK version of the Roland TR-77 which was the very first product Roland released under they own name. In the US this same unit was sold by Hammond as the Auto-Vari 64. The unit has 5 faders for Volume, Tempo, Cymbal/HH/Maracas, Guiro, Snare, Bass Drum. The TR-77 has 6 faders for Tempo, Fade Time, Volume, Bass D, Snare D, Guiro & Hi-Hat/Cymbal/Maracas. Bass, Percussion, Vocals, Phil Shutt; Bentley Rhythm Ace, Vocals, Arthur Brown; Electric Guitar, Vocals – Andy Dalby; Mellotron, Synthesizer [Arp 2600, Vcs3], Piano, Theremin, Percussion, Vocals, Victor Peraino.
21.Kraftwerk, “Radioactivity” from Kraftwerk – Radio-Activity (1975 Capitol).Electronics, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter; Lyrics by Emil Schult, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter; music by Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter; Electronic Percussion Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flür; Vocals, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter.
22.Schoolly D, “P.S.K.-What Does It Mean? (instrumental version)” from P.S.K.-What Does It Mean? / Gucci Time (1986 Schooly D Records). A remix of this track that features only the drum sounds of the The Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer. This drum machine was one of the first Roland instruments to be equipped with MIDI, and was the first analog/digital hybrid machine, combining analog circuits for its drums with digital samples for its cymbal and hi-hat sounds. You can hear how Schooly D isolated the cymbals and drums on this track.
23.Pixie Ninja, “Leng Plateau” from Colours Out Of Space (2020 Apollon Records). Another recording using the Chamberlin Rhythmate in the Roth Händle Studio in Stockholm. Roth Händle studios is run by producer and musician Mattias Olsson who collects, restores, and offers vintage musical gear for use by visiting bands. There is so much to listen to here with Pixie Ninja’s hard-driving and somewhat deranged mix of vintage, cranky electronic instruments and modern guitars and synthesizers. You can hear the Chamberlin Rhythmmate in this track, a Bandmaster Powerhouse Drum Machine (the one that used 8-track tapes), and an Electro-Harmonix DRM-16 Drum Machine. Godin Shifter 4 Bass, Korg Krome 61, Korg Volca Keys, Korg Monotribe, Nord Lead A1, Glockenspiel, Polar Circle Bells, Kalimba, Marius Leirånes; Drums, Percussion, Mother Modular System, Mellotron M400, Philicorda Organ, Chamberlin Rhythmate, Fender Rhodes, Hohner Clavinet, Blind Typemachine, EMS VCS3, Casio PT-88, Roland JV-8080, Roland SH-101, Electro-Harmonix DRM-16 Drum Machine, Moog Taurus, Korg MS-10, Optigan, Roland VP-330+, Bandmaster Powerhouse Drum Machine, E-Bow (Bass Gizmotron), Jenco Celeste, Grand Piano, Mattias Olsson; Fender Stratocaster, Gretsch G5320T, TC Electronic AEON Infinite Sustainer, Korg Krome 61, Korg microKORG, Nord Lead A1, Arturia Microbrute, Stylophone 350s, Glockenspiel, Jostein Haugen; Rickenbacker 12 String Electric Guitar, Fender Rhodes, Philicorda Organ, Mellotron M400, Hampus Nordgren-Hemlin.
Opening: Negativland, “Side 1, Track 3” from Negativland (1980 Seeland). An unidentified drum box is heard throughout this track. It sounds a lot like the Wurlitzer Swingin’ Rhythm. Recorded Dec. 1979-April 1980. This privately release album had a hand-made sleeve made of cut-and-paste artwork assembled with xerox, wallpaper, black construction paper, and magazine photos. Beneath these pasted portions, the cover itself is spray painted and stenciled with parts of the band name, as well as hand-numbered. Synthesizer, edited by, voice, tape, David Wills; Tape, Electronics, drum machine rhythms, Booper (an electronic oscillator), Clarinet, Organ, Viola, Loops, Guitar, Mark Hosler, Richard Lyons.
Description of previous way of producing drum sounds: George Wright, “Happy Talk” from Goes South Pacific (1958 HiFi Records). George Wright on the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ, an electronic organ popular in the 1950s.
Introductory dialog: Johnny Kemm “I Say a Little Prayer” from Latin Days (1970 Concert Recording). This album was created using the Lowrey Theater Console Deluxe organ model H25R-2 equipped with the built-in Automatic Rhythm drum machine feature.
Description of Chamberlin Rhythmate: Audio track demo of the Chamberlin Rhythmate from the YouTube video posted by instrument collector Dan Hicks (aka Peahix), a collector in California.
Description of Wurlitzer Side Man: Audio track demo of the Wurlitzer Side Man from the YouTube video posted by instrument collector Dan Hicks (aka Peahix), a collector in California.