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In 2004, John Wood stood outside Hollywood’s Amoeba Records, selling bumper stickers emblazoned with the slogan: “Drum machines have no soul”.
“It’s a common-sense call for better music,” Wood said to his potential customers, canvassing support for his one-man crusade against the drum machine, the Society for the Rehumanization of American Music. When a journalist from the LA Weekly interviewed Wood at his apartment, he argued that modern pop music was to pre-70s pop music as pro wrestling was to professional boxing. “LL Cool J is not Marvin Haggler,” Wood said. “LL Cool J is Hulk Hogan.”
Wood’s campaign wasn’t just misguided, it was pointless. By 2004 the drum machine as an object was more or less done for. Its 80s heyday was over, largely replaced by software versions of what were crucial studio tools that had shaped not just pop music, but helped to invent hip-hop, house and techno. Wood probably wasn’t aware that software and recording techniques had become so advanced that even the intricacies of a jazz session drummer could be recreated inside a computer if you knew what you were doing.
It’s not difficult to see why Wood, a classically trained pianist, would dislike the drum machine. It was developed out of a practical need for a device that could provide rhythmic accompaniment when there was no drummer on hand. Drum machines went from simple playback devices to instruments that could be programmed; being cheaper than a real person, they made their way into the fabric of popular music before the technology advanced enough to make their sound indistinguishable from a real drum kit played by a human. The synthetic, rigid patterns they made lacked a human touch.
The earliest example of what could be considered a drum machine was the Rhythmicon, a device developed by Russian inventor Leon Theremin at the request of American composer Henry Cowell. Cowell wanted to use modern technology to do something that a human couldn’t do, in this case transpose multiples of a wavelength into beats, resulting in a device that created alien polyrhythmic pulses. Wood would probably have been horrified by it.
What the Rhythmicon did have in common with later drum machines was character unique to itself. Though the drum machine was created for practical reasons, a series of technological developments and happy accidents helped it to become a device that people used as passionately as a piano and as innovatively as the electric guitar. Whether Wood liked it or not, by 2004 it had created an entirely new musical language.
What follows is the story of 14 of the most important drum machines to shape that dialect, from the engineers that made them to the artists that used them...
.... Read the full article by Scott Wilson at factmag.com