The Record
2:04 pm
Tue January 28, 2014

Gimme The Beat (Box): The Journey Of The Drum Machine

Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 4:06 pm

About 10 years ago, a disgruntled pianist in Los Angeles named John Wood began a popular bumper sticker campaign with the slogan, "Drum Machines Have No Soul." Not everyone was convinced, including producer Eric Sadler.

"Drum machines don't run themselves," Sadler says. "It's the people who put into the drum machines that give the drum machines soul, to me. I've definitely given some drum machines some soul."

Sadler was part of The Bomb Squad, the production team behind Public Enemy, which used drum machines — among many other devices — to help shift the sound of pop music in the late '80s.

Here's the thing: The earliest drum machines were never intended to be studio recording devices. Take Wurlitzer's 1959 Sideman, one of the first commercially available drum machines. It used vacuum tubes to create its percussive sound and was intended for organ players who perhaps didn't want to pay a drummer to join their lounge act.

"It's about 2 feet and some change tall," says Joe Mansfield, author of the new book Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. "It's maybe a foot and a half wide, and it looks like something that would belong in an old, wood-paneled library to me. It's a distinctive-looking thing; at first look, you wouldn't think it would be a drum machine."

Drum machines were still largely novelties throughout the '60s and '70s, but musicians slowly began to play around with them, says Dante Carfagna. He's the producer behind the recent compilation album Personal Space, which examines early pop experiments with drum machines and other electronics.

"Perhaps the artist didn't have a band, so they tried to re-create that band with the electronics around them: a drum machine, a synthesizer, maybe a guitar," Carfagna says. "I think it might be a function of loneliness in a very strange way."

Then, in 1971, Sly & the Family Stone recorded There's a Riot Going On, one of the first hit albums to prominently feature a drum machine — a Maestro Rhythm King. Mansfield grew up marveling at how Stone deployed the machine's tinny beats. "That record used the Maestro Rhythm King in a way, in a studio, that I'm sure it wasn't meant to be used. It was amazing," he says.

By the early '80s, major pop acts had latched on to drum machines in a big way — but many just used the machines' built-in rhythms, as in Hall and Oates' 1981 hit "I Can't Go for That." Around the same time, such hip-hop pioneers as Grandmaster Flash began to make beat boxes a prominent part of rap music production.

A few years later, newer beat boxes were sampling actual drums, creating a harder, punchier sound that hip-hop producers grabbed onto, says the Bomb Squad's Sadler. The Oberheim DMX was one of the most popular.

"All the rhythm machines before was kind of little tight sounds. It didn't have that sound that sounded like a real kick drum, or a bass drum," Sadler says. "With the DMX, it was like, wow, this sounds more like real drums to me."

But when it comes to punch, no drum machine has been more popular than Roland's TR-808, debuted in 1980. For Mansfield and other musicians, the 808 stands out for its signature kick drum, with a low-end boom you can feel in your bones. "It's definitely something that would get people's attention," he says.

Today most producers simply re-create the sounds of an 808 using software rather than fussing with hardware that few thought would survive 30 years of use. But Carfagna suggests there's still a market out there for the original machines and their unique sonic personalities.

"Those sounds do have a certain character now, which echo a different era. Like, the snare drum on the Rhythm King sounds nothing like the snare drum on the 808," Carfagna says.

As for Mansfield, his Beat Box book includes only a fraction of his collection — a collection that keeps growing. "Today, I purchased a machine called Elgam Match-12 I've been looking for for a little bit," he says. "I happened to find it on the German eBay site."

And so, the beat box goes on.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's hard to listen to pop music today and not hear the sound of the drum machine. It began as little more than a glorified metronome, but it's since worked its way into home basement studios as well as state-of-the-art recording facilities. A new book chronicles the history and influence of the drum machine in all its wood and plastic-paneled glory. Oliver Wang has the story.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: About 10 years ago, a disgruntled pianist in Los Angeles named John Wood began a popular bumper sticker campaign with the slogan: Drum Machines Have No Soul. Not everyone was convinced, including producer Eric Sadler.

ERIC SADLER: Drum machines don't run themselves; it's the people who put into the drum machines that give the drum machines soul to me. I've definitely given some drum machines some soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (rapping) ...put it up on the board. Another rapper shot down from the mouth that roared...

WANG: Sadler was part of the Bomb Squad, the production team behind the hip-hop group Public Enemy which used drum machines - among many other devices - to help shift the sound of pop music in the late 1980s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE")

ENEMY: (rapping) I'm public enemy number one. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. Yeah, that's right...

WANG: Here's the thing: the earliest drum machines were never intended to be studio recording devices. Take Wurlitzer's 1959 Sideman, one of the first commercially available drum machines. It used vacuum tubes to create its percussive sound. It was marketed to organ players who perhaps didn't want to pay a drummer to join their lounge act. Joe Mansfield demonstrates the Sideman.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

WANG: Mansfield is the author of "Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession."

JOE MANSFIELD: It's about two-feet and some change tall. It's maybe a foot and a half wide, and it looks like something that would belong in, like, an old, wood-paneled library to me. At first look, you wouldn't think it would be a drum machine - which I didn't when I found it.

WANG: The instruments were still largely novelties throughout the '60s and '70s but musicians slowly began to play around with them says Dante Carfagna. He's the producer behind the recent CD compilation "Personal Space" which examines early pop experiments with drum machines and other electronics.

DANTE CARFAGNA: I think a lot of these cases, perhaps the artist didn't have a band, so they tried to recreate that band with the electronics around them: a drum machine, a synthesizer, maybe a guitar. So I think it might be a function of loneliness in a very strange way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL ABOUT MONEY")

SLY STONE: Hey, I gotta out of here and get some money, man.

WANG: Then in 1971, Sly Stone recorded "A Riot's Going On," one of the first hit albums to prominently feature a drum machine. He used the Maestro Rhythm King and Joe Mansfield grew up marveling at how Stone deployed its tinny beats.

CARFAGNA: That record used the Maestro Rhythm King, in a way in a studio, that I'm sure it wasn't meant to be used, and it was amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMILY AFFAIR")

STONE: (singing) The family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. Oh, yeah, a family affair. A family affair. It's a family affair.

WANG: By the early 1980s, major pop acts latched onto drum machines in a big way but many just used the machines' built-in rhythms. Mansfield points to Hall and Oates' 1981 hit, "I Can't Go For That."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T GO FOR THAT")

MANSFIELD: Yeah, that's pretty much pre-programmed in there. They just souled(ph) out the kick and snare and high-hat a little bit, but that's it.

HALL AND OATES: (singing) Easy, ready, willing, overtime. Where does it stop? Where do you dare mean to draw the line?

WANG: Around the same time such hip-hop pioneers as Grandmaster Flash began to make beat boxes a prominent part of rap music production.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLASH IS ON THE BEAT")

GRANDMASTER FLASH: (rapping) One, two, one, two, three, and listen to this. Just listen to this. Just listen to this. Just listen to this. For all you MCs in a crew, this is what we want y'all to do...

WANG: The Bomb Squad's Eric Sadler says that by the mid 1980s, newer beat boxes were sampling actual drums, creating a harder, punchier sound that hip-hop producers grabbed onto. One of the most popular was the Oberheim DMX.

SADLER: All the rhythm machines before was, kind of, little tight sounds, and they didn't have that sort of sound that sounded like a real kick drum or a bass drum and that sort of thing. And with the DMX, it was like, wow, you know, this sounds more like real drums to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBERHEIM DRUM MACHINE)

WANG: However, when it comes to punch, no drum machine has been more popular than Roland's TR-808, debuted in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF TR-808 DRUM MACHINE)

WANG: For collector Joe Mansfield and other musicians, the 808 stands out for a signature kick drum with a low end boom you can feel in your bones.

MANSFIELD: Just imagine the 808 bass drum pounding the speakers in a club, it's definitely something that would get people's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TR-808 DRUM MACHINE)

WANG: Today, most producers simply recreate the sounds of an 808 using software rather than fussing with hardware that few thought would survive 30 years of use. But Dante Carfagna suggests there's still a market out there for the original machines and their unique sonic personalities.

CARFAGNA: Those sounds do have a certain character now which echo a different era.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASIO DRUM MACHINE)

WANG: As for Joe Mansfield, his "Beat Box" book only includes a fraction of his collection, a collection that keeps growing.

MANSFIELD: On eBay Germany today, I purchased a machine called Elgam Match-12. It's a machine I've been looking for, for a little bit. And I happened to find it on the German eBay site.

WANG: And so the beat box goes on. For NPR News. I'm Oliver Wang.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM MACHINE)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.