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For the Windows drumming program, see Drum Machine (software).

A Yamaha RY30 Drum Machine

A drum machine is an electronic musical instrument designed to imitate the sound of drums or other percussion instruments. They are used in a variety of musical genres, not just purely electronic music. They are also a common necessity when session drummers are not available or desired.

Most modern drum machines are sequencers with a sample playback (rompler) or synthesizer component that specializes in the reproduction of drum timbres. Though features vary from model to model, many modern drum machines can also produce unique sounds, and allow the user to compose unique drum beats.


In the early 1960s, a nightclub owner in Tokyo, Tsutomu Katoh was consulted from a notable accordion player, Tadashi Osanai, about the rhythm machine he used for accompaniment in club, Wurlitzer Side Man. Osanai, a graduate of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University of Tokyo, convinced Katoh to finance his efforts to build better one.[1] In 1963, their new company Keio-Giken (later Korg) released their first rhythm machine, Donca-Matic DA-20 using the vacuum tube circuits for sounds and mechanical-wheel for rhythm patterns. It was a floor-type machine with built-in speaker, and featuring a keyboard for the manual play, in addition to the multiple automatic rhythm patterns. Its price was comparable with the average annual income of Japanese at that time.[2]

Early electronic drum machines[]

During the 1960s, implementation of rhythm machines evolved from electro-mechanical vacuum tubes to fully transistorized solid-state electronics. As a result, sizes were reduced to desktop size, from earlier floor type machines.

Nippon Columbia (1965)

In 1965, Nippon Columbia filed a patent for an automatic rhythm instrument. It described it as an "automatic rhythm player which is simple but capable of electronically producing various rhythms in the characteristic tones of a drum, a piccolo and so on."[3]

Korg (1966–1967)

Korg's effort was focused on the improvement of reliability and performance, along with the size reduction and the cost down. Unstable vacuum tube circuitry was replaced with reliable transistor circuitry on the Donca-Matic DC-11 in the mid-1960s, and in 1966, bulky mechanical-wheels were also replaced with compact transistor circuitry on the Donca-Matic DE-20 and DE-11. In 1967, the Mini Pops MP-2 was developed as an option for the Yamaha Electone (electric organ), and Mini Pops was established as a series of compact desktop rhythm machines. In the United States, Mini Pops MP-3, MP-7, etc. were sold under the Univox brand by the distributor at that time, Unicord Corporation.[2] Korg's Stageman and Mini Pops series were notable for "natural metallic percussion" sounds and incorporating controls for drum "breaks and fill-ins."[4]

Ace Tone (1967)
Hammond Auto (Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-2L).png
Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-2L (1967), Template:Smaller
Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-3 - "The Synth World in Naniwa" screenings, talk, and live - UPLINK, Shibuya, 2014-08-24.jpg
Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-3 (1967)

In 1967, Ace Tone founder Ikutaro Kakehashi (later founder of Roland Corporation) developed the preset rhythm-pattern generator using diode matrix circuit. Kakehashi's patent describes his device as a "plurality of inverting circuits and/or clipper circuits" which "are connected to a counting circuit to synthesize the output signal of the counting circuit" where the "synthesized output signal becomes a desired rhythm."[5] It was an improvement over his earlier R1 Rhythm Ace, a fully transistorized electronic drum instrument, which was a commercial failure in 1964 because it lacked pre-programmed drum patterns.[6]

Ace Tone commercialized Kakehashi's preset rhythm machine, called the FR-1 Rhythm Ace, in 1967. It offered 16 preset patterns, and four buttons to manually play each instrument sound (cymbal, claves, cowbell and bass drum). The rhythm patterns could also be cascaded together by pushing multiple rhythm buttons simultaneously, and the possible combination of rhythm patterns were more than a hundred (on the later models of Rhythm Ace, the individual volumes of each instrument could be adjusted with the small knobs or faders). The FR-1 was adopted by the Hammond Organ Company for incorporation within their latest organ models. In the US, the units were also marketed under the Multivox brand by Peter Sorkin Music Company, and in the UK, marketed under the Bentley Rhythm Ace brand. Ace Tone founder Ikutaro Kakehashi later left Ace Tone and founded Roland in 1972, and continued to develop drum machines there.[7]

Early preset drum machine users[]

As the result of their robustness and compact size, rhythm machines were gradually installed on electronic organs as accompaniment of organists, and finally spread widely. Ace Tone drum machines found their way into popular music starting in the late 1960s, followed by Korg and Roland drum machines in the early 1970s.[8]

An early example of drum machine use can be found on The United States of America's eponymous album from 1967–8. Drum machine tracks were heavily used on the Sly & the Family Stone album There's a Riot Goin' On, released in 1971. Their song "Family Affair" was the first #1 pop single to feature a drum machine.[9] Osamu Kitajima's progressive psychedelic rock album Benzaiten (1974) also utilized drum machines, and one of the album's contributors, Haruomi Hosono,[10] would later start the electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra (as "Yellow Magic Band") in 1977.[11] French singer-songwriter Léo Ferré mixed a drum machine with a symphonic orchestra in the song "Je t'aimais bien, tu sais..." in his album L'Espoir, released in 1974.

Ace Tone users (1969–1971)

The first major pop song to use a drum machine was "Saved by the Bell" by Robin Gibb, which reached #2 in Britain in 1969. It used a "slow rock" rhythm preset on Ace Tone's FR-1 Rhythm Ace.[4][12] The German krautrock band Can also used a drum machine on their song "Peking O" (1971), which combined acoustic drumming with Ace Tone's Rhythm Ace drum machine.[13] The first album on which a drum machine produced all the percussion was Kingdom Come's Journey, recorded in November 1972 using Ace Tone's Bentley Rhythm Ace.[14]

Roland users (1972–1974)

Timmy Thomas' 1972 R&B single "Why Can't We Live Together"/"Funky Me" featured a distinctive use of a Roland drum machine[15] and keyboard arrangement on both tracks. George McCrae's 1974 disco hit "Rock Your Baby" used a drum machine,[16] an early Roland rhythm machine.[15]

Drum sound synthesis[]

A key difference between such early machines and more modern equipment is that they use sound synthesis rather than digital sampling in order to generate their sounds. For example, a snare drum or maraca sound would typically be created using a burst of white noise whereas a bass drum sound would be made using sine waves or other basic waveforms. This meant that while the resulting sound was not very close to that of the real instrument, each model tended to have a unique character. For this reason, many of these early machines have achieved a certain "cult status" and are now sought after by producers for use in production of modern electronic music, most notably the Roland TR-808.[17]

Programmable drum machines[]

In 1969, musician Don Lewis gave performances with an Ace Tone Rhythm Ace drum machine that he had modified, decades before the popularization of instrument "hacking" via circuit bending. He made extensive modifications to the Ace Tone drum machine, creating his own rhythms and wiring the device through his organ's expression pedal to accent the percussion, unique at the time. Lewis was approached by Ace Tone president and founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, who wanted to know how he had achieved the sounds from the machine Kakehashi had designed. Prior to Kakehashi's founding of Roland Corporation in 1972, Lewis and Kakehashi had discussed the idea of a programmable drum machine.[18]

In 1972, Nintendo released the Ele-Conga, one of the first programmable drum machines. It could play pre-programmed rhythms from disc-shaped punch cards, which could be altered or programmed by the user, to play different patterns.[19]

In 1975,[20] Ace Tone released the Rhythm Producer FR-15 that enables the modification of the pre-programmed rhythm patterns.[21]

Microprocessor introduction[]

Roland CR-78 presets

Some of the presets on a Roland CR-78
Problems listening to the file? See media help.

In 1978, Roland released the Roland CR-78, the first microprocessor-based programmable rhythm machine,[7][22] with four memory banks to store user patterns,[23] and controls for accents and muting.[22] Its combination of programmability and familiar preset rhythms made it popular from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, widely adopted by artists such as Blondie, Phil Collins, Ultravox,[23] Underworld, Fatboy Slim, BT, Gary Numan, 808 State, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Edgar, Genesis, Überzone, Brian Ferry, Men Without Hats, John Foxx and OMD.[24] In 1979, a simpler version with four sounds, Boss DR-55, was released.[Citation needed]

Digital sampling[]

Linn LM-1 (1980)

The Linn LM-1 Drum Computer (released in 1980 at $4,995) was the first drum machine to use digital samples. Only about 500 were ever made. Its distinctive sound was widely adopted by early 1980s synthpop, heard on many hit records from the era. However, its popularity declined in the late 1980s.

Toshiba-EMI's LMD-649 was a sampler created by engineer Kenji Murata for Japanese electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra, who used it for extensive sampling in their 1981 album Technodelic.[25] The LMD-649 had drum machine capabilities, playing and recording PCM samples at 12-bit audio depth and 50 kHz sampling rate, stored in 128 KB of dynamic RAM.[26]

Other manufacturers soon began to produce machines, e.g. the Akai MPC series, the E-mu Drumulator, and the Yamaha RX11.

Roland TR-808 and TR-909 machines[]

Roland TR-808 drum machine.jpg
Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer (1980)
Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer (1983)

Roland TR-808 patterns

Various patterns played by a Roland TR-808
Problems listening to the file? See media help.

The famous Roland TR-808, a programmable drum machine, was launched in 1980. The TR-808 included unique artificial percussion sounds, such as “the hum kick, the ticky snare, the tishy hi-hats (open and closed) and the spacey cowbell.”[17] The machine is particularly noted for its powerful bass drum sound, built from a combination of a bridged T-network sine oscillator, a low-pass filter, and a voltage-controlled amplifier.[27] The bass drum decay control allows the user to lengthen the sound, creating uniquely low frequencies which flatten slightly over long periods,[27] which can be used to create basslines[28] or bass drops.[29] It was the first drum machine with the ability to program an entire percussion track of a song from beginning to end, complete with breaks and rolls.[30] The machine includes volume knobs for each voice, multiple audio outputs, and a DIN sync port (a precursor to MIDI) to synchronize with other devices via the Digital Control Bus (DCB) interface, considered groundbreaking at the time.[31] The machine has three trigger outputs, used to synchronize/control synthesizers and other equipment.[32][31]

At the time it was received with little fanfare, as it did not have digitally sampled sounds; drum machines using digital samples were more popular in the early 1980s. In time, however, the TR-808, along with its successor, the TR-909 (released in 1983), would become a fixture of the burgeoning underground dance, electro, house, techno, R&B and hip-hop genres, mainly because of their low cost (relative to that of the Linn machines) and the unique character of their analogue-generated sounds. It was first utilized by Japanese electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra in the year of its release, after which it would gain worldwide popularity with Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and Afrikaa Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" in 1982.[17]

In a somewhat ironic twist it is the analogue-based Roland machines that have endured over time as the Linn sound became somewhat overused and dated by the late 1980s. The beats of the TR-808 and TR-909 have since been widely featured in popular music, and can be heard on countless recordings up to the present day.[17] Because of its bass and long decay, the kick drum from the TR-808 has also featured as a bass line in various genres such as hip hop and drum and bass. Since the mid-1980s, the TR-808 and TR-909 have been used on more hit records than any other drum machines,[33] attaining an iconic status within the music industry.[17]

While the TR-808 was fully analogue synthesis-based, the TR-909 combined analogue synthesis with digital sampling.[34] The TR-909 was also notable for being the first MIDI-equipped drum machine.[35][36] In turn, the TR-909 was succeeded in 1984 by the Roland TR-707, which was entirely based on digital sampling.[23]

MIDI breakthrough[]

E-mu SP-1200 (111607sp1200).jpg
E-mu SP-1200 (1987)
Akai MPC60.jpg
Akai MPC60 (1988)

Because early drum machines came out before the introduction of MIDI in 1983, several methods were used for having their rhythms synchronized to other electronic devices. The Roland TR-808, released in 1980, used a method of synchronization called DIN-sync, or Sync-24,[31] which could be used to synchronize/control synthesizers and other music equipment via the Digital Control Bus interface.[31][37] The Oberheim DMX, released in 1981, came with a feature allowing it to be synchronized to its proprietary Oberheim Parallel Buss interfacing system.

In June 1981, Roland Corporation founder Ikutaro Kakehashi proposed the concept of standardization between different manufacturers' instruments as well as computers, to Oberheim Electronics founder Tom Oberheim and Sequential Circuits president Dave Smith. In October 1981, Kakehashi, Oberheim and Smith discussed the concept with representatives from Yamaha, Korg and Kawai.[38] In 1983, the MIDI standard was unveiled by Kakehashi and Smith.[39][40] The first drum machine to use the MIDI standard was the Roland TR-909, released in 1983.[35] Since its introduction, MIDI has remained the musical instrument industry standard interface through to the present day.[41]

By the year 2000, standalone drum machines became much less common, being partly supplanted by general-purpose hardware samplers controlled by sequencers (built-in or external), software-based sequencing and sampling and the use of loops, and music workstations with integrated sequencing and drum sounds. TR-808 and other digitized drum machine sounds can be found in archives on the Internet. However, traditional drum machines are still being made by companies such as Roland Corporation (including under the name Boss), Zoom, and Korg.

There are percussion-specific sound modules that can be triggered by pickups, trigger pads, or through MIDI. These are called drum modules; the Alesis D4 and Roland TD-8 are popular examples. Unless such a sound module also features a sequencer, it is, strictly speaking, not a drum machine.


Programming of drum machines are varied by the products. On most products, it can be done in real time: the user creates drum patterns by pressing the trigger pads as though a drum kit were being played; or using step-sequencing: the pattern is built up over time by adding individual sounds at certain points by placing them, as with the TR-808 and TR-909, along a 16-step bar. For example, a generic 4-on-the-floor dance pattern could be made by placing a closed high hat on the 3rd, 7th, 11th, and 15th steps, then a kick drum on the 1st, 5th, 9th, and 13th steps, and a clap or snare on the 5th and 13th. This pattern could be varied in a multitude of ways to obtain fills, break-downs and other elements that the programmer sees fit, which in turn could be sequenced with song-sequence — essentially the drum machine plays back the programmed patterns from memory in an order the programmer has chosen. The machine will quantize entries that are slightly off-beat in order to make them exactly in time.

If the drum machine has MIDI connectivity, then one could program the drum machine with a computer or another MIDI device.

See also[]

  • Electronic drum
  • Music sequencer


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