Mixdown’s Greatest Drum Machines Of All Time: Part Two

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Mixdown’s Greatest Drum Machines Of All Time: Part Two

Words by Mixdown Staff

From synth-pop oddities to techno workhorses, we wrap up our definitive list of the best drum machines ever

In case you missed it, last week we commenced the first part of our deep dive into the greatest drum machines of all time, and now it’s time to finish what we started and bring this one home.

Numbers ten to six were a real murderer’s row of cult classics and genre defining mainstays, encompassing everything from analogue also-rans and calculator-esque digital offerings right through to hybrid ‘tweeners and even a contemporary legend in the making.

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

We’re taking a little break here at Mixdown and so should you. We’re reposting some old favourites of yours and ours!

In this final instalment the stakes are indeed higher, the quantising sharper and the kicks poised to ruin many an inner ear, so we might as well get into it – without any further ado, here’s Mixdown’s Greatest Drum Machines of All Time: Part Two.

5. Elektron Machinedrum UW MKII+

Elektron as we know it, began in 1998 as the innocent collaboration between three Electronic music loving computer science students from Gothenberg, Sweden. Just two years on, the trio would create their second instrument, which turned out to be one of the most groundbreaking pieces of music tech of the 2000s: the Machinedrum MKI.

It was a digital drum machine with four drum synthesis engines, one for classic Roland TR style sounds, one for percussive FM synthesis, one for Emu SP-1200 and Simmonds style drums and one for emulating acoustic drums. The Machinedrum was successful thanks to these dynamic synthesis methods and a unique approach to sequencing that was inspired by the ‘xoxbox’ style of the Roland TR series but took this idea even further, thanks to the presence of parameter locks. This new approach to standard drum machine layout breathed new life into the Hardware side of electronic music production, and positioned Elektron as a major player in the space, with award-winning products like the Octatrack, still flying the flag for the Swedish trailblazers.

Four years after the MD’s initial release, a pleasantly punchy 12-bit sampling function was added to the User Wave models. The MKII series came along in 2007 to further improve the audio outputs and increase the pattern length before the final incarnation in 2010 which featured a ‘+ Drive’ , capable of storing 128 banks of user samples and patterns. The often lauded internal engines remained the same, and the combination of features worked together to redefine what was expected of a digital drum machine in the new millennium.

Even today, the Machinedrum is still arguably the most flexible box Elektron have ever created, featuring an unrivalled 16 tracks which can be assigned to any one of the 39 internal drum synthesis engines, sampling recording or playback, audio inputs, midi sequences or control voltage triggers. Each track features its own LFO, which can be assigned to whichever of the 16 tracks you desire as well as individual EQ and FX control. IDM and Techno are its obvious forte, but its dynamic nature makes it fitting for a wide scope of sonic applications. Venetian Snares, Extrawelt and Dntel are well known Machinedrum users but Autechre used the Machinedrum so extensively while producing Quaristice and during its subsequent tour that they’ve even released the sysex files for you to load into your Machinedrum at home – that is, if you are lucky enough to own one.

4. Oberheim DMX

The DMX was the second digital drum machine to be commercially released, hitting stores in 1980. Its iconic sound is synonymous with many a New Wave, Hip-hop and Synthpop hit from the era, the most notable being the highest selling 12″ record of all time; New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’.

It uses acoustic drum 8-bit PCM samples which are ‘μ-law companded’ to approximately 12-bit, then run back through its beefy analogue circuitry, in turn giving the DMX its characteristic punch. The result is a perfectly formed hybrid of early 80s digital and classic analogue sounds, just as revered for its sonic dark magic as it is for its pricetag. The presence of premium analogue components in the DMX has meant that the iconic stripey boxes are some of the most sought after machines out there, it’s legendary curtis filters famously being used in some of the greatest polysynths of the era (the Oberheim OB Xa and 3rd Revision Prophet 5, being just two examples).

With it’s tone adjusters and virtuoso ability to program all kinds of rolls, flams and time changes with the greatest of ease, the DMX is without question on of the more ‘musical’ drum machines on this list- on paper at least. It’s simple navigation and straightforward playlisting naturally lend the DMX to all kinds of detailed sequencing and nuanced pattern making. Not that anyone would ever accuse the DMX of sounding ‘natural’. The inherent gated-ness of the samples themselves, coupled with the DMX’s rather idiosyncratic sense of timing (for some reason the hats are programmed 3ms ahead of the kick and snare) combine to give the DMX an anxious, pacing lurch that only adds to the units renowned sense of ‘not quite’ realism.

Tonally speaking, it’s anything but demure and it’s this combination of mid-rangey punch and cutting sonic clarity that have seen the DMX become a particularly important contributor in the evolution of hiphop, elevating the production work on Run DMC’s ‘Sucker MC’s’ and ‘It’s Like That’ and in turn propelling the boom-bap into the mainstream in the mid-80’s.

Two years after the initial release of the DMX, Oberheim released the DX – a simplified version with slightly less sounds. The Oberheim Prommer was a useful accompaniment that allowed you to burn your own samples to EPROMS for use with the DMX or DX but ultimately it was the original sounds (having been engineered perfectly for the hardware) that earned its acclaim. One of the iconic drum machines of the 1980’s, the DMX saw heavy use from artists as diverse as Madonna, Phil Collins, The Cure and Run DMC, but perhaps it is still ‘Blue Monday’ that best sums up the DMX’s unique combination of punch and programmability: those breakdowns still sounding as fresh today as they did in 1983.

3. Linn Electronics LM-1

Upon release in 1980, the clunkily named ‘Linn Electronics LM-1 Drum Computer’ was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. The world’s first digital drum machine and only the second programmable drum machine ever released (after being pipped at the post by Roland just a couple of years earlier), the LM-1 was something of a departure from everything that had come before it.

Whereas previous drum machines had relied on analogue voice chips, resulting in rich but decidedly artificial sounds that shared little in common with their real world counterparts, the LM-1 employed actual sampled drum hits (albeit in beautifully archaic 8-bit form).

Being able to reproduce acoustic drum tracks with dynamics and swing was a game-changing advancement for 1980 and needless to say it shook the recording industry to its core. Loaded with twelve 8-bit samples covering the basics (bass drum, snare, three toms, hi-hats, tambourine, congas, claps, cowbell and rimshot), patterns could be recorded in real-time or step sequence, then saved to one of the 100 storage slots. These could then be chained together and saved in one of the 8 individual song slots, in turn meaning an eight song set could now be directly saved onto the unit itself, to be recalled anywhere, anytime.

It cannot be stressed enough how much of a game changing advancement this was in 1980. With its eight song slots and 100 saveable patterns, Artists could now use the drum machine as the rhythmic foundation for an entire project. No longer a static studio entity or novelty sideshow, the LM-1 changed the way pop music was conceived, recorded and later performed, ushering in the kind of sequencing and electronic workflow that we now take for granted. Artists loved it for its punchiness and incredible timekeeping abilities. Engineers loved it because they no longer had to worry about keeping drum mics in phase. Roger Linn’s dream of a programmable ‘drum computer’ had taken the pop landscape by storm.

By 1982 the original LM-1 had been succeeded by the Linndrum, which increased the sample rate and added ride and crash samples as well as increasing functionality with new feature such as trigger inputs etc. Later the Linn 9000 came along which was the grand finale of the series before genius creator Roger Linn set off to work on the MPC series for Akai. Despite all that has come since, the LM-1 still remains the original and the best, its classic sound and instantly recognisable sample bank finding its way onto innumerous hits from the ’80s, by artists like Prince, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, The Human League, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Michael Jackson.

2. Roland TR-909

Released in 1983 at the height of the ’80s tech boom, the TR-909 was to be the penultimate release of Roland’s legendary TR series. It was the first Roland drum machine to incorporate a mysterious new technology called MIDI, as well as being the first Roland drum machine to break the all-analogue tradition of the TR series prior, with its incorporation of digital samples of hi-hats and cymbals to go alongside its very analogue (and very Roland ) Kick, Snare and Tom sounds.

The result was something special and if there is one word that immediately comes to mind when describing the sound of the 909; its power. The room rattling sonic profile of the 909 is borderline inseparable from the very genres it helped spawn. It’s without question the defacto sound of techno and house, as well as being a storied sonic presence in any number of dance and electronic sub-genres. Safe to say, it’s one of the most influential pieces of music equipment ever released, its ridiculously familiar off-beat hi-hats being one of the foundations of modern music as we know it.

Upon release however, TR-909 was largely met with ambivalence from its target market (professional pop producers who were more interested in the realism of the Linndrum sound). It was only once the first run of 909’s were discarded and banished to the thrift stores and garage sales of the world, that the once premium drum machine would fall into the hands of pioneering bedroom and DIY producers, who would take the 909 and completely reshape the sound and feel of dance music into what we hear today.

Whereas the DIN Sync standard of the previous Roland machines was somewhat restrictive (i.e. exclusive to Roland products) the incorporation of the universal MIDI standard meant the 909 could now effectively talk with other machines in the gear eco-system. This unsexy feature had massive technical implications, in many ways setting the template for modern electronic music production as we know it. Perhaps the 909 is best represented as the bridge between modern functionality and the classic analogue/lo-bit digital sampling characteristic of the golden age of drum machines, its unique combination of sounds bouncing off one another to create the perfect sonic palette for the dancefloor.

Whether intentional or by accident, Roland had stumbled upon something incredibly rare with the 909, a sound so iconic that it almost transcended the ‘drum machine’ tag all together, being treated almost like it’s own standalone instrument. Almost.

Used by: anyone who’s anyone, but most notably Air, Moby, The Prodigy, Faithless, Freddy Fresh, Aphex Twin, The Chemical Brothers, Inner City, Joey Beltram, Jeff Mills, Derrick May and countless others.

1. Roland TR-808

And the winner is… The Roland TR-505 (not actually). Seriously though, if we are talking the GOAT, it can only be the Roland TR-808. It’s the ubiquitous drum machine of our time (and all time), and its legacy only continues to grow and grow with every passing year. You’ve heard it a thousand times before and you’ll hear it a thousand times again and odds are it still won’t be boring.

To many, the sound of the 808 is the ideal that all analogue percussion is measured against. In the context of 1980 (and following the realistic samples of the Linn LM-1), the Roland unit, with its all-analogue drum synthesis sounded closer to the blippy, analogue machines of the 70’s and less like the gated snares that were en vogue at the time.

Rest assured, realism was the original end goal but the analogue components had a mind of their own and took the sound of the 808 in a distinctly artificial direction. A certain transistor (often rumoured to be faulty in 808 origin myths) imparted its character onto the output resulting in its distinct, sizzling sound. This was seen as a catastrophe in the eyes of the Roland brains trust, but proved to be a the happiest accident of all time, as it was this additional 10khz boost that gave the 808 its phenomenal attack and bite, traits that have seen it grow to become the undisputed king of contemporary music.

Much like the TB-303 bass synthesizer, the TR-808 took a while to find its audience; but when it did, it spread like wildfire. Its distinct tonal characteristics, combined with its expressive performance-based layout, would prove the perfect vehicle for propelling the sound of popular music into the future.

It’s this unique sonic fingerprint that also makes the 808 such a fitting choice across so many different genres – between the LF boom of the kick and the spritely snap of the snare, the goalposts are extremely wide in terms of frequency profile. This expansive divide between kick and snare leaves an open canvas for melody and groove. You can fill the space with the 808’s other primary weapons; the rounded toms, bouncy congas, harp claps, the clicky clave and the carefully controlled hi-hats, or you can choose to overlay lashings of lo-fi hip-hop samples, cutting stabs of Chicago house or fructose adjacent pop leads – the possibilities are endless with this amount of sonic space at ones disposal. It goes without saying that a lion’s share of contemporary electronic music is owed to the sound of this machine and the workflow it has inspired.

So expressive are the sounds on the 808, that they’ve even been described as a kind of musical Esperanto; an intracultural language with the power to unite the world’s diasporate musical traditions under a single rhythm track, one that feels familiar and yet at the same time completely alien. It’s creepy to think that something as synthetic as the TR-808 can be so firmly embedded in the human experience, but its all part of the machines unique, other worldly allure.

Sound wise, the individual outs on the 808 open it up to all kinds of processing and sonic re-interpretation. By running its iconic sounds through a particular preamp, compressor or effect unit, producers are able to add a level of expression and personalisation to a very established set of elements.

Released into a pre-MIDI world, the TR-808 comes equipped with Roland’s own DIN Sync (perfect for the 303s and 101s lauded by acid, house and techno producers) as well as three trigger outputs, the most of any drum machine at the time. These helped improve the overall functionality of the unit by allowing the TR-808 to sync with the control voltage analogue synthesisers of the early 1980s.

As the years have passed since their initial production run between 1981 to 1984, the 808 has continued to evolve on a unit by unit basis, further increasing the challenge felt by contemporary manufacturers attempting to replicate the original. While it may be rare to find two original units that sound exactly the same, manufacturers will continue to try their luck with an array of 808 clones and emulators flooding the market in recent times, but at the end of the day nothing beats the original.

Fitting given Roland’s Japanese roots, that Tokyo legends Yellow Magic Orchestra were one of the first to see the true value of the 808 sound all those years ago, pioneering it’s use throughout the early ’80s. It wasn’t long before the 808 made its way over to Queens, with Run DMC being one of the earliest adopters of the iconic sound in the rap game. It wasn’t just rap and synthpop that saw the merit in the 808’s weirdo topology either, with Techno pioneer Juan Atkins even going as far as to say “my whole career has been based on this machine”.

Given its ubiquity in contemporary culture, it’s almost easier to list who hasn’t used an 808, but a quick rundown would include heavy hitters like Egyptian Lover, Beastie Boys, Aphex Twin, 808 State, Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Drexciya, Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye, Dr Dre and essentially the entire genre of Southern trap.

To play an original 808 is to many music producers, the equivalent of meeting The Pope. It’s a level of reverence generally reserved for the absolute figureheads of a particular movement. Needless to say, the 808 is just that.

This article was originally published July 3, 2020.

Revisit the first part of Mixdown’s Greatest Drum Machines of All Time here.