pop music in the age of the drum machine

by Ubirani Ferreira

We’re supposedly living in the golden age of tech, where revolutions in product design, communication, even AI, are touted everyday. And so we tend to think of the 70’s as being the Stone Age, the age of 8-Track tapes, laser discs, gas guzzling muscle cars, but that would be a mistake. People are always assuming that what happened in the past was crude, primitive, and not worth the time. But that’s because the most lasting changes disappear from sight and become the everyday world.

So let’s go back to 1979, to a truly mind altering moment. It is the advent of the drum machine, a revolution so profound that we don’t even know that it happened anymore. It shook the music industry from the high (record companies) to the low (street kids); changed production, the sound, the personnel, the rhythms of how we listen and create music.

No more drum sets and no more drummers. The machine doesn’t take up any more space than a shoebox, and ranges from hundreds to thousands of dollars. What was once the province of the studio became possible in the apartment and expanded who could legitimately create professional sounding recordings. And yet, no one really cares to pay attention, so this article is about 3 of the most pivotal drum machines in popular music history: the Linn LM-1, the Roland TR-808, and the SP-1200. These 3 machines completely flipped music production on its head, and we are now living in its after effects.

Ladies and Gentlemen, THE Linn LM-1!

The Revolution

If your assuming that this is some old dried out technology, I would calmly reassure you that you’re wrong, and then tell you to shut up and sit down. Roger Linn designed what we know as the Linn LM-1. It’s the first drum machine to use acoustic drum samples, and one of the first programmable ones. The elevated icon that is Prince, who we all so dearly love and miss, wouldn’t have reached his legendary status without the undeniable sound of the Linn LM-1. He was one of the first people to own one these machines, and put it to work. Since its release in early 1980, (retailing for $4,995[1]), its effects have been far reaching, literally defining the sound of 80’s pop music. Still, the price range for this drum machine was unbelievably high and only 500 were ever made, so its influence was on the high-end side of the equation.

Both Purple Rain and 1999, two of Prince’ best selling and greatest albums, are the result of the LM-1. Prince was a genius in using the machine’s tremendous versatility, causing a chain reaction in the pop music world. In “When Doves Cry” you can hear the ticking 8 bit hi-hats bash throughout the intro followed by the echoing crack of the snare. That’s typical of the fluidity of LM-1. Once Prince showed us how to do it, the 80’s pop vibe caught fire. The immediate response to the LM-1 was a lower-priced, smaller packaged machine that packed the same booming punch. This was the Roland TR-808, and from then on, sound system music would never be the same.

All right, my friends, can I have a palm blast for the Roland TR-808!

The Revolution Cheaper

The Roland TR-808 was the technological break through that hip-hop needed, as it was the cheapest way of producing a bassed-out huge drum sound. Although, crispy might be a little too flattering, this 8-bit kit sounds as blunt and hyper-80’s as the LM-1. Too bad it doesn't really sound like actual drums.

The 808 is a rhythm composer, which made it popular for house and dance music. It can store 32 different rhythms and has a unique analog sound that is made up of 5 different percussion sounds. Its spaced out cowbell, hard kick, piercing snare, and open and closed hi hats all bleed out of early 80’s music. It had a control for the decay, which, as an attempt to sound like an acoustic drum, made the machine able to emit super low frequencies that would become part of the iconic sound of hip hop.

The Roland dropped the price down by a three fold of the Linn drum and so obviously it was more accessible and its influence wider. This tiny loaf of bread-sized instrument that created a massive sound was now in the hands of the untrained, and got put to work. In fact, the TR-808 eventually went on to be used in more hit records than any other drum machine, and that’s a big claim.

Remember Records, they were once the revolution

One of those hits, which shook from the west coast to the entire country, was Eazy-E’s “Boyz In Da Hood” that came out in 1987. This song did more than just pound speakers; it pounded on the ears of people around the country, challenging the mainstream notions of the ghetto experience. The lyrics, written by Ice Cube, were direct peek into the daily life of a kid in a poor, crime ridden African-American neighborhood.

As Eazy brings the intro out with those timeless lyrics “woke up quick, at about noon just thought that I had to be in Compton soon,” a hard electric guitar riff and the marching sounds of the cowbell hold the tempo behind his high-pitched voice. As the bar finishes the endless boom of the 808 kicks come in on the one. Its a dead giveaway when you hear that needle point quantized clicking for a hi-hat and kick crushing the upbeat; it has gotta be the godly 808. Like the beastie boys said, “Well everyone gettin’ down make no mistake, nothin sounds quite like an 808.”

The iconic sounds of this machine weren’t its only purpose, it was the amount of strength it had. No extra compressors or filters were need to get this sound banging, so obviously Dr. Dre knew what he was doing when he bought this drum. The sparseness of the drum and the space that gives his voice almost creates a sense of a man screaming alone. It would be acapella, except that he has one of the most fascinating pieces of equipment to hit the music world creating a soundscape like no one has ever heard before.

The only sample is a loud guitar riff (sampled from some beastie boys joint) that busts in on the last 8th. This one single was the definition of hard, the true vibe of gangsta rap. Also, it was a reflection of the social demographic in L.A., meaning these kids might not have a fully equipped studio to mess around in, but they got moms basement to stash a mic, turntable, and 808. What followed this drum was the creation of hip hops next ally, a machine that’s warmth became so iconic that’s its quadrupled in cost since its release over 20 years ago. What other machine could hold such powerful sound and be so highly sought after in hip-hop, if any? The answer is blue and a bit larger than the 808.

And finally, for your edification, THE SP 1200!

The Revolution at the End of the Revolution
The next rattle in the world of low-fi drums hit the market in 1987, bringing that 12-bit powerful grit to the surface and branding hip hop and dance with its phrase sampling sound. At the time of its drop, 5 seconds of sampling time was a major expansion. If you didn’t have this machine, you couldn’t consider yourself to be a hip-hop producer, especially in New York.

Every master producer from Dj Premier to J Dilla put these machines to work, taking advantage of the warm sounding acoustics they would bring out. A big blue box that could hold up to 100 songs, 100 patterns, and 5,000 note maximum for drum sequences. This unbelievable box is known as the SP 1200, created by EMU Systems. It was the product of a majorly successful SP 12, which only had 1.2 seconds of recording time on it and a much smaller memory bank.

The 1200 boasted a huge 5-second difference in recording time, and also had a few other minor tweaks. While having all of these other drums available by the time this machine was released, there was an obvious advantage to having the 1200 on your side as a producer. The answer lies in the final product, the record. Everyone agrees that the SP has an incredibly warm sound, and it makes the drums on any vinyl recording sound classic and unmistakable. The combination of sample size and drum sounds have made this machine a staple in hip-hop sound, and even aesthetic. Its impossible to credit one producer with the innovation of using this instrument, but what DJ Premier was able to do with it changed the game for ever.

In Gang Starr’s “Check The Technique” the mystery of how diverse the SP 1200 can sound is revealed. The smooth combination of Premiers production and Gurus calm yet fierce style makes this record a hall of fame worthy piece of hip hop. As the 80’s closed and the 90’s came, music production became more complex. That means that the way a song could be made/recorded became harder and harder to decipher. Different sounds became transparent and layers of tracks were slammed on top of each other like Photoshop layers. What happens as Dj Premier starts dropping songs in the late 80’s, is this unclassified sampling technique becomes almost impossible to recognize--not because it’s not distinctive, but because it’s everywhere.

Bringing out a famous soul cut from Marlena Shaw, he is able to dice up the melody/vocals in such a way that the drums from the sample are quantized up with his drums on the 1200 for a fatter sounding kit, or are they? Older hip-hop tracks might have been a little easier to find the seams, but being able to decipher how production went on a song became difficult to read, and frankly, we’ll never know for most. The epic strings bring the intro out, and the nasty kick of the 1200 hits as Guru devastates with his lyrical flow. The warm soft but high snare snaps as the 90 bmp lush hi hat brings us through the tremendous technological changes to the moment where we no longer are able recognize them.


The Last Stand

What we have reached now is a new world of music production. There are studios and programs that exist now that surpass any fathomable idea from 20 years ago. Songs are made/recorded at the drop of a dime in any circumstance, even on the bus on someone’s iPhone. With this progress in production, most people would think its a joke to have to spend time and money on clunky hardware and records when the entire world exists on a metal briefcase called a lap top. But let us not forget the founders and pioneers who came into the world years ago when things weren’t so accessible, and give some appraisal to the drum machine. These three machines, along with many others, aren’t the reason these artist’s gained fame. The creative talent each individual put out is the reason, but it was the gained accessibility of functionality of these drum machines that helped project it. The LM-1, TR-808, and SP 1200 are groundbreaking tools of production that will be remembered in history as game changers by the folks that used them.

©Ubirani Ferreira and the CCA Arts Review

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