Zoë Blade\'s notebook

Drum machine

Novation DrumStation
Novation DrumStation

The drum machine started out life in the late 1960s as an accompaniment to the home organ, playing a simple rhythm for the musician to play along to. While a useful addition to the organ, it had little use in the studio as it sounded nothing whatsoever like an acoustic drumkit and could only play a handful of rhythms chosen by its manufacturer.

By the early 1980s, the analogue drum machine had evolved considerably. It was no longer a part of the organ, but an instrument in its own right. Its various sounds could be tweaked — the snare drum made snappier, the open hi-hat given a longer decay, and so on — while maintaining its distinctive character. More importantly, it could be programmed by the musician to play new rhythms, opening it up to new genres. Another feature that made it more studio friendly and more professional was the inclusion of a separate output for each part of the virtual drumkit. This enabled musicians to use different effects, such as delay and reverb, on each part of the kit, and allowed each part to be equalised seperately. Despite all these useful features, however, it still failed to sound even remotely like an acoustic drumkit.

Meanwhile, at the higher end of the market, the digital drum machine was released. As it featured samples of real drumkits, it sounded very much like the real thing, and its analogue counterparts became very cheap very quickly. The drum machine had finally become realistic, although it was far from perfect — the sound of an acoustic snare drum alone varies immensely based on where you hit it and how hard, whereas the digital drum machine typically had only one or two snare drum samples. The same was true of most other parts of the drumkit. For all the celebration of their realism, digital drum machines still lacked expressivity.

By the late 1980s, many composers of electronic music decided that they didn't want a realistic emulation of an acoustic drumkit. What they really sought in a drum machine was a decent sound all of its own: something unmistakably synthetic, with its own character. The secondhand price of many analogue drum machines subsequently rocketed. In particular, Roland's TR-808 and TR-909 models became highly sought after, not only fetching respectable secondhand prices, but also being cloned by other companies in an attempt to satisfy musicians' appetites for their sounds.

From the 1990s onwards, there have been two main ways to obtain the synthetic sounds produced by analogue drum machines, besides getting enough money together to buy one. To reproduce the sound of almost any drum machine, you can either find, buy or make samples of it. As long as you don't need to tweak the sounds, this method works well, as you can emulate a lot of different drum machines using just a single sampler, providing you have the appropriate samples. (The Dance Megadrums sample CD is good for this.)

The other way to get synthetic percussion sounds — in particular, the tweakable sounds of the TR-808 and TR-909 — is to buy a clone. Several exist, including the Novation DrumStation and the Jomox Airbase99, both of which are 1U rackmounts and MIDI compatible, making them fit into a studio much easier than even the originals they're designed to emulate.

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General concepts: Analogue step sequencer | CV/gate | DIN sync | Digital sequencer | Digital step sequencer | Digitally controlled oscillator | Drum machine | Fidelity | MIDI | MIDI sequencer | Noise | Oscillator | Program (synthesiser) | Pulsewidth modulation | Sampler | Sequencer | Sub-oscillator | Tape sync | Tracker

Types of hardware: Drum machine | Sampler