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The 10 drum machines that changed musical history

Roland TR-727
(Image credit: Roland)

When technology takes the lead, music always follows, and while the simple provision of a reliable beat doesn’t sound like much, the invention and adoption of new drum machines has consistently kickstarted entire music genres and created countless classics that are celebrated to this day.

Here, we pick just 10 landmark machines, tell their stories and praise them to the skies via the music that they made possible.

Hit it.

1. Linn Electronics LinnDrum

It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the original Linn LM-1 from 1980 and its better-sounding, more tweakable follow-up (simply named ‘LinnDrum’ from 1982) had on modern music. Previous machines used simple synthesizer circuits to ‘recreate’ (aka crudely emulate) real drum sounds but - let’s face it - they never quite passed muster.

Don’t get us wrong. Classic electronic drum machines are an ear-grab all their own, defining electronic music’s rhythms, structures and robotic soul, but you could never say that any drum machine pre-Linn ever actually sounded like a drum kit.

Which meant that - for years after their invention - electronic drums were used purely for ‘electronic music’, forever the poor relation of ‘real’ music, which still proudly struggled with mic'ing up a real kit and finding someone skilled, sober and reliable enough to show up night after night and hit it as mechanically as possible.

Thus, the LinnDrum basically ‘reset’ music. It teamed an easily programmed ticking heart with an expert pick of well recorded real drum sounds delivered through the all-new magic of digital sampling. The LinnDrum put real sounds in the hands of non-drummers for the first time, liberating non-bands and (dare we say it) non-musicians so that they could finally make great, era-defining music.

Want to hear it in action? The definitive Linn album is Dare by The Human League and even more so its remix album, Love and Dancing. Thrill to the most hi-tech sound around (circa 1982) and realise that, for most of the time, you’re simply listening to a Linn (opens in new tab).

While it was possible to swap out the ‘one sound per chip’ EEPROMs inside the LinnDrum - and there was a whole side industry built around expansion chips - most users simply stuck with the excellent factory sounds on board.

The ability to pitch up and pitch down the sounds (as well as change volume and pan levels) did give users some flexibility (most notably signing-off Prince’s signature sound, the pitched-down Linn rimshot that's all over Let’s Go Crazy (opens in new tab) and When Does Cry (opens in new tab)) but it’s incredible to think that hundreds (if not thousands) of hit records all use the exact same clicky, crisp and still-so-relevant kick, snare, hi-hats, toms, cymbals, cowbell and claps that Roger Linn recorded and digitised. 

So next time you’re stuck for drum sounds just lean on the Linn. That’s what they all did in the '80s (opens in new tab)

2. Roland TR-727

Yes, we’re skipping the digital Roland TR-707, the much-loved perfect beat go-to for early '90s pop stars (and all over every track by Erasure (opens in new tab), INXS’s Need You Tonight (opens in new tab) and countless Chicago house tracks (opens in new tab)) and going for its little-known Latin American twin instead…

The 727 is perhaps dance music’s most unsung hero, spicing up previously 100% electronic tracks all around the late '80s and early '90s with its brittle, unrealistic take on the infinite nuances of Latin percussion. Bongos, congas, agogos, timbales and even a same-every-time digital bell tree - this one’s got the lot.

Based on the 707 and sharing the same chassis, controls, body and screen, it was conceived as the perfect digital partner to its brother, offering quirky ‘new’ sounds programmed completely separately then slaved in sync via its trusty DIN Sync socket or all-new MIDI capabilities.

And while there were those that dutifully used it alongside the 707, its harsh, faux ‘Latin’ sounds - and the mechanical, unrealistic way in which the machine invited you to program them - instead kickstarted an era of experimentation, finding a home alongside everything from Dr Rhythm to Fairlight on countless pop and house crossover hits.

The 727 first hit the spotlight on Raze’s classic Jack The Groove (opens in new tab), which teams 727 with all analogue predecessor (and much-loved, but under-rated) Roland TR-606. When the 727 dropped, 48 seconds in, back in 1986, it was like a new dawn for dance music. 

Thrill to the incredibly automated timbale flams at 2:26 and the tick-tocking, hi and lo agogo bells that went on to be a signifier of ‘street’ for years to come (see also top of their game ‘imperial phase’ Pet Shop Boys with Always On My Mind (opens in new tab) and countless Stock Aitken Waterman production line smashes (opens in new tab) for evidence). Did anyone even know agogo before the 727?

Meanwhile, its clattering congas and bongos worked overtime, funking up hundreds of stiff-as-a-board stabs at pop passing off as dance. (See New Order’s Round & Round (opens in new tab) and Erasure’s Victim of Love (opens in new tab)).

Looking for that unmistakable faux-funky retro sound? Good news. The 727 has been reborn as a hidden highlight in the expansion options for Roland’s present day TR-8 and its sounds come built into the TR-8S. Software fans, meanwhile, can find both TR-707 and TR-727 plugins on the Roland Cloud.

3. Movement Systems Drum Computer

Before Linn there was Movement. The Movement Systems Drum Computer was very narrowly a precursor to the simpler, more affordable, better sounding and more powerful Linn, and the first machine to truly team flexible pattern-based programming with artificial drum sounds. 

Its focus was heavily on the programming angle, delighting in giving the user a full QWERTY keyboard with which to type instructions and requiring a separate computer monitor to see what it was up to. It was also ahead of its time, offering not only analogue synthesized tones (like its contemporaries from the likes of Roland) but also the first 8-bit digitised drums, too.

The digital sounds however, while realistic, lacked any kind of punch and presence, and so its analogue components more commonly found favour and dwarfed them in the mix, giving the Movement a curious, caught between two stools analogue-meets-digital sound.

It soon became something of a staple in hugely expensive early '80s London studios and as such appears across many '80s hi-tech hits from the likes of Kajagoogoo, Japan and The Thompson Twins.

Most prominently, it was a staple of synth pioneer Thomas Dolby on tracks like Windpower (opens in new tab) and One of Our Submarines (opens in new tab) which bear its meaty, unusual impact. See also Eurythmics smashes such as Love Is A Stranger (opens in new tab) and Sweet Dreams (opens in new tab), the video of which features the band’s Dave Stewart casually tapping at one throughout.

The Movement One soon begat the Movement Two which built its monitor into the machine, increasing its size and weight considerably while sporting a striking orange paint job.

Sadly, both Movements were deemed so unreliable that, rather than being taken out in person, their output was usually committed to reel-to-reel tape to front gigs and TV appearances – a move which played a significant part in establishing the ‘it's all on tape’ trope that electronic bands still contend with to this day.

4. Oberheim DMX

Arriving hot on the heels of Linn’s 1980 LM-1, Oberheim’s DMX was a case of the synth giant playing catch up and entering new territory, bypassing the synth tech it was famous for for its own 100% digital Linn ‘clone’.

The DMX went more than a few beats better, though. Firstly, it featured a vast 24 sounds - up from the rival Linn’s 12 - all digitally recorded as 8-bit (as per the Linn), but digitally companded to 12-bit resolution to produce an arguably more airy, bigger, more realistic sound. Most tellingly, the choice of sounds is excellent, right up there with the line-up in the LinnDrum with some (the claps in particular) becoming sought-after hip-hop classics.

There was also the fact that it was part of the Oberheim family of synths being released alongside the company's DSX sequencer, all of which used a proprietary Oberheim system to sync up. While the Linn always sat solo, a notorious sync-free grump to work alongside, the DMX, DSX and OB-8 synth were - at the time - a music producer's integrated dream come true.

And there was even the Oberheim Prommer, a (by today’s definition) super-simple sampler that could burn (or ‘blow’ as it was referred to at the time) EEPROM chips that could then be inserted into the DMX, Linn expansion-style. Now, for the first time, users could fill a drum machine with their OWN samples. Imagine that. 

Though expensive (£2,500 on release) the DMX soon found its fans, its most upfront airing being the machine gun-like kick drumming on New Order’s Blue Monday (opens in new tab), a song designed so that the band could leave the stage and let the machines finish the gig for them.

It’s also the beat provider behind Pet Shop Boys' West End Girls (opens in new tab), Madonna’s Holiday (opens in new tab) and Into The Groove (opens in new tab) and - by virtue of being the perfect partner to the DSX sequencer Jimmy Jam was learning to use at the time (Jam being a huge Oberheim fan who still uses the OB-8 to this day) - it’s the downpitched drum machine on The Human League’s Human, too. (Get the full story on the duo’s DMX studio mistakes that made history right here.)

5. Linn 9000

Yes, we’re sneaking in a second nod to Roger Linn and his drum machine progeny with the Linn 9000, a product that, while not quite as revolutionary as his groundbreaking originals, deserves rather more credit than it got during its time at the top of the drum machine tree.

Here, not only did we get 18 excellent new drum sounds (recorded at the extra fidelity of 12-bit over the original’s 8) but innovative features such as pressure-sensitive pads and the shuffle/swing and repeat functions (injecting off-beat feel alongside the quick and easy manufacture of snare rolls, hi-hat lines and tom fills) that would go on to be a mainstay of the much-loved, long-running Akai MPC line (which we'll get to later).

The 9000’s party piece was in applying Linn’s drum sequencing and quantising tech to the rest of the music, too. Thanks to the wide adoption of MIDI by 1984, keyboards such as the Yamaha DX7, Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 and Roland Juno-106 could ‘talk to each other’ and the first MIDI sequencers - digital recorders such as the the Roland MSQ-7000 that recorded MIDI events rather than audio - could be used to control the lot.

The Linn 9000 therefore pulled off double duties, combining top-flight digital drums (from the makers of the world’s favourite digital drum machine) with a digital sequencer/recorder with a huge 7000-note capacity, great ease of use, innovative looping recording features (opens in new tab) and even a front-mounted floppy disk expansion to store your songs. Here - at last - was a digital box that - with the addition of a few keyboards - could be used to produce an entire track.

Easily the most prolific 9000 lovers were producers Stock, Aitken, Waterman, who not only used the sequencer to arrange all their early hits but used its drum sounds (most notably its unmistakable toms, congas and cowbell) all over hundreds of hits such as Say I’m Your Number One (opens in new tab) for Princess and Never Gonna Give You Up (opens in new tab) and Together Forever (opens in new tab) for Rick Astley.

Plus, with the addition of a sampling card add-on (released after launch), users could finally sample their own sounds into memory and save them on floppy, a revelation in an era still dominated by the £20,000+ Fairlight.

That’s not to say that the 9000 was cheap. With a starting price of £4,500 for the base unit in 1984, entering the world of the 9000 was strictly pros only, and held the machine back from wider adoption. Its death knell came with the advent of cheaper and more powerful sequencing on Atari ST computers (many running Steinberg’s Cubase precursor Pro-24) effectively ending Linn’s reign and - arguably - the drum machine’s guaranteed place in the modern studio.

6. Roland TR-808

There are as many waxing online odes to the Roland TR-808 as there are superb records that used it so we’ll keep it brief. The 808 is a musical epiphany in three movements.

Firstly, there’s the accuracy of the beat. Before drum machines (and the best-in-class accuracy of the 808) music ebbed and flowed not so much through choice but through a failure to find decent drummers. Now beats were rock solid and an audience could finally, truly lose themselves in the music, free from spell-breaking vagaries and imperfections. After years of drilling percussionists to be as perfect as possible (even Kraftwerk had two drummers (opens in new tab)) now a programmable machine could take the strain.

Next there’s the ease of use. The 808 invented what has become known as the ‘TR recording’ feature still present on Roland’s top-flight hardware today. Its Dr Rhythm DR-55 nailed simple 16-beat programming before it, but on the 808 there are 16 buttons representing 16th-notes across a four-beat bar.

There it is. The mainstay of popular music mapped out in front of you. A four-beat bar with all the bits in between just waiting for you to drop in sounds…

Drummers were appalled by the simplification, but new music makers, too damned fresh to learn to play or learn music notation, loved it. Four kicks, two snares and a line of hi-hats. Tom here and there. Tambourine… Cowbell? Done.

Finally there are the sounds. Aiming to take a major step on from the crude, semi-programmable home organ rhythm boxes that preceded it (see the Korg KR-55 later) the 808 was a large, flat, heavy box by necessity of the analogue synthesizer circuits on board.

Inside there were tunable toms, ‘Decay’ controls for the kick, cymbal and open hat, a ‘Tone’ control (a combo of pitch and timbre adjustment) for kick, snare and cymbal plus an intriguing ‘Snappy’ knob for the snare which ‘tightened’ or ‘loosened’ the sound in a way that sounds great but is impossible to describe.

The sounds are - of course - all-time classics and that super low kick is much-used to this day. So while ‘an 808 track’ unmistakably features the sound of the 808, there were enough edit-ables to give every track that used it its own personality. All highly commendable… And all flying in the face of the identikit digital drum apocalypse that was just around the corner.

Thus the 808 was both a triumph - with an overkill of high-quality warm, deep, editable analogue sounds - and a failure, by virtue of - once again - sounding nothing like real drums, especially when placed alongside the also-released-in-1980 all-digital Linn LM-1. I mean, you call that a cowbell?

There were some artists that grasped the 808 and made glorious music with it at the time (see Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing (opens in new tab), or The SOS Band’s Just Be Good To Me) but it was actually years later, with digital drums becoming passe and 808s getting ever more second-hand and affordable, that the real 808 ‘boom’ took place.

So… Newcleus' Jam On It (opens in new tab) (1984)… Loose Ends' Hangin On A String (opens in new tab) (1985)… LL Cool J's Rock The Bells (opens in new tab) (1985)… Beastie Boys' Brass Monkey (opens in new tab) (1986)… New Kids On The Block's Please Don’t Go Girl (1986)… Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody (opens in new tab) (1986)… 2 Live Crew's Me So Horny (opens in new tab) (1989)… Missy Elliot's Lose Contro (opens in new tab)l (2005)… Countless tracks through to Kanye West’s Heartless (opens in new tab) (2008) and beyond.

Does it sound like a cowbell? No. It sounds like the future…

7. Roland TR-909

So what lessons did Roland learn for its next drum machine, released three years later, with the 808 in serious danger of being eclipsed by the Linn? Answer: next to none.

Incredibly in retrospect, 1983’s 909 is yet another analogue drum machine, sticking firmly with the company’s belief in (and experience with) synthesizer circuits to make great new music. To simply produce a copycat digital drum kit - with all the lack of editing and limitation of sound - simply wasn’t the Roland way.

So, again, we’re treated to a range of high-quality analogue sounds that can be tuned and ‘snapped’ into all kinds of new shapes, at once upgrading the sound of the 808 and yet sitting perfectly alongside it rather than replacing it. Jury’s still out as to whether the new, clicky pit-of-the-stomach kick or face-slapping, built for rolling fills snare, or taut, tingling totally tunable hi-hats are the main event here.

The Roland team did acquiesce to a few digital elements, however, including sampled cymbals (recognising one of the 808's most derided weak spots) and hi-hats. However, the inclusion of samples made the 909 a confusing ‘hybrid’ upon release. “If they could ‘do’ digital samples, why didn’t they ‘do’ more of them?” wondered a confused audience hoping for an affordable Linn.

Instead the 909 was expensive (at £995) and - once again - it was only truly when the lust for ‘real’ digital drums abated that the machine earned anything like the reputation it still holds today.

With the 909 sitting on shelves retailers began to discount the machine at exactly the time when new DJ-derived music producers were looking to pick up their first beatbox. Thus the 909 became the go-to for a new breed of producers springing up in urban US cities such as Chicago and Detroit… And the rest is history.

Hear the 909 jacking to the maximum on classic house tracks such as Inner City's Big Fun, Farley Jackmaster Funk's Love Can’t Turn Around (opens in new tab) and Ralphi Rosario U Used To Hold Me (opens in new tab). Or on genre defining UK bangers such as 808 State’s Pacific State (opens in new tab), Oceanic's Insanity (opens in new tab) and Orbital’s Chime (opens in new tab). No 909? No party. And the beat went on, powering up pop hits such as Madonna’s Express Yourself (opens in new tab) and Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth (opens in new tab) right through the 90s and beyond.

While Roland quite rightly loves to big-up the machine to this day, in reality it was axed and replaced by the all-digital 707 in 1984 - just one short year after its release.

8. E-MU SP-12

There are other stories to tell about the twisted history of the sampler, but simply know for now that it was the Emulator (in I and II flavours) that truly brought sampling to the mainstream, slashing the cost of the expensive Fairlight while still delivering the goods.

That said, Emulator IIs weren’t cheap. You paid £7,500 for 17 seconds of sample time back in 1984, so it was still purely the preserve of the pro (opens in new tab), but with ever cheaper models from rivals on the cards, E-MU decided to undercut itself with its own SP-12 in 1985 (though still hardly a snip at £2,675…).

Recognising that many users used the E-II’s limited sample time for drum sounds, the SP-12 was so much more than a replacement for the Drumulator (a simple Linn clone). In addition to 24 digitally sampled drum sounds, the SP-12 offered E-II-style 12-bit sampling of a eight further sounds - provided you could squeeze them into its 1.2 seconds of memory…

By virtue of being built into a beatbox (and that sample time precluding its use for anything else) the SP-12 became the go-to box for cutting edge beatmakers, bridging the tech gap between the new rough and ready music being made via turntablism, and traditional studio recording. Now newer, bigger, fresher, rougher beats - sampling from rock and pop - could be sequenced alongside scratching and rap, ditching the sci-fi, dress-up futurism from early, electro works such as Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock (opens in new tab) to create the real new music from the streets (opens in new tab).

Yep: the SP-12 proved to be the essential ammo in the detonation of hip-hop.

Beloved of the likes of Run DMC, Ice Cube, Beastie Boys and many more, the SP-12 bridged the gaps and fused the rock/rap mash-up that went global. And with a ‘Turbo’ expansion released especially to feed its new fans, the SP-12 could now sample five seconds of music. Just the job for a little rhymin’ and stealin’ (opens in new tab)

9. Korg KR-55

While all the talk may be of Roland, in the late '70s and early '80s rival Korg was churning out far more drum machines. There were endless revisions of its ‘MiniPops’ series of preset machines, adding more sounds, more patterns, and all absolutely smashing it, hoovering up the burgeoning… er… home organ market…

Korg’s MiniPops (35… 45… 120…) were simple analogue drum boxes purpose built to crank out a little synthesized ‘Bossa Nova’ at the push of a button. Buttons could even be mashed together leading to funky fusions with the kicks, snare and hats from one preset being topped off by the bongos, congas and claves from another. Cool…

Anything was possible apart from programming your own beat, with the subtle nuances of drums and percussion parts best left to the pros.And while the MiniPops series ended with the KR-33 and bigger brother ‘55 featuring silicon chips delivering a new accuracy of sound and a wave of new presets, they still stopped short of letting users make their own grooves. All of which kind of explains why the 808 was so revolutionary one year later. 

Pre-808, anyone wanting to use electronic drums either had to a) Do a Kraftwerk and build (and play) your own (opens in new tab) or b) Get a little creative with the preset machines at the time, which is exactly what bands did with the KR-55.

Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell, the band’s debut, is driven by Korg’s KR-55 despite there not being a clearly audible ‘Cha Cha Cha’ on any of the album’s 11 tracks. The trick was to use the new machine’s onboard mixer (there were no separate outs per sound) to mute the offending ‘Latin’ parts, leaving a steaming line of 16th hi-hats and a crispy punchy snare. The ‘Mode then combined this with a zappy, clicky, kick drum produced by and sequenced from an ARP 2600, which ran in sync with the KR-55’s trigger output. Simple…

Check out the combo to devastating effect, delivering the sound of the future on 1981’s breakthrough hit New Life (opens in new tab), or ploughing a new furrow right through Jean Michelle Jarre’s Magnetic Fields (opens in new tab).

Eventually, the KR-55 and its MiniPops little brothers would go on to have a second (third?) life in the noughties as THE go-to ‘batterie’ for downtempo French chil (opens in new tab)l from the likes Air to hipster soundtracks from The Dust Brothers (opens in new tab)

10. Akai MPC60

If the SP-12 and SP-1200 ignited the world of sampling in hip-hop then it’s the MPC that poured the gas on it. Coming after Akai’s S900, S950, S1000 etc slick line of rackmount sample boxes (which dramatically undercut the pricey competition while delivering benchmark quality 12-bit sampling) 1988’s Akai MPC60 was a mash-up monster, being half sampler, half drum machine - plus arrangement and sequencing features that made it more than the sum of its parts. 

The MPC was a co-product of the hi-fi manufacturer-turned-musical upstart Akai and Linn pioneer Roger Linn, back for more after the demise of the Linn 9000. The machine bears his signature on the front panel.

In the face of an onslaught of affordable computer-based DAW software it was hard to see a future for the MPC, but that was before rap, R&B and hip-hop crews picked it up and ran with it.

Here was a simple, reliable box that had sufficient (quality) sample time to chop up and mash entire tracks. It had great, playable drum pads. The on-board drum sounds were on point. And the speed and ease of use meant that DJs could go from playing tracks to making them in record time. All without looking like you were checking your emails on stage.

Akai’s famous timestretching was included, as was – secret weapon - its ability to swing the beat in sensible, reliable, musical ways that put the wiggle in hip-hop and still hasn’t been bettered today. In short, if you were making hip-hop, you were making it on an MPC.

Take a listen to Entroducing (opens in new tab) by DJ Shadow (produced entirely on an MPC-60) and DJ Dilla’s incredible Donuts (opens in new tab) (MPC-3000) or countless hits from Dr Dre’s Chronic (opens in new tab) to Nate Dogg and Warren G’s Regulate (opens in new tab) for proof. All feature an MPC at their heart and all wouldn’t be the same without one.

Confusingly numbered upgrades followed, adding more memory and boosting quality - MkII… 3000… 2000(?)… 2000XL… 4000… 1000(!?)… Each had new features or a new price point, each confusing as much as delighting, and each increasing the machine’s ‘power’ and complexity as it sought to remain relevant against powerful new software (regardless of whether its audience wanted that or not).

Today, the MPC lines live on, with a range of hardware and software products still bearing the famous branding.

Daniel Griffiths is a veteran journalist who has worked on some of the biggest entertainment, tech and home brands in the world. He's interviewed countless big names, and covered countless new releases in the fields of music, videogames, movies, tech, gadgets, home improvement, self build, interiors and garden design. He’s the ex-Editor of Future Music and ex-Group Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Musician, Guitarist, Guitar World, Computer Music and more. He renovates property and writes for MusicRadar.com.

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