Blast from the past: Roland CR-78 CompuRhythm

Manufactured from 1978-81, the CR-78 originally sold for $1195.
Manufactured from 1978-81, the CR-78 originally sold for $1195.

Image courtesy of Perfect Circuit Audio

For many, drum machines are encapsulated by the big, booming sound of an 808 kick drum or the snappy whipcrack of a 909 snare. Resurrected by hip-hop and dance musicians, those classics reshaped our perceptions of what a drum machine could sound like; yet before they had their second shot, another Roland box made a very different sonic impression.

That machine was the CR-78 CompuRhythm. This costly drum machine offered 14 distinctive sounds that were quickly etched into the popular music of the day. Like Roland's later classics, the CR-78 used analogue synthesis, but its sounds are almost delicate by comparison to those that followed. The kick drums pop, the hi-hat sizzles and the snare politely spits rather than cracks. This was a drum machine that could carry a beat without getting in the way. As such, it found a place alongside many a drummer's kit, not least those of Phil Collins and Ultravox's Warren Cann.

Some of the CR-78's sounds - like the chirping guiro and tinny tambourine - had the schmaltzy character of ice-rink organs, while others could be made otherworldly by applying the "Metal Beat" modulation to the hats.

The included drum patterns ranged from basic rock to skittering disco beats, but users weren't tied to presets. It wasn't the first programmable drum machine, but the CR-78 was the first one you didn't have to build yourself. Unfortunately, programming was only possible via a pedal plugged into the TS-1 jack or the ultra-rare WS-1 Programmer, both of which were cumbersome. Modern users have found methods of coping - Expert Sleepers' Silent Way MIDI-to-CV plugins being one - but most CR-78 owners are content to mix and match the built-in patterns, switch drum sounds in and out and call up the various fill patterns. This latter technique is surprisingly effective, and a great number of interesting patterns can be derived in this way. A savvy CR-78 user can cobble together a full song arrangement on the fly, essentially playing the front panel like any other instrument.

Syncing it up

The CR-78 was easy to interface with other analogue instruments. Synchronisation options included trigger and 24 PPQ clock sync. It was a popular sidekick for Roland's then-available Jupiter-4, a synth with a built-in arpeggiator designed to be so interfaced.

While Roland's TR-808 and TR-909 have long been considered classics (and carry secondhand prices to match), the CR-78 is now becoming sought after. Consequently, in the past few years, prices have been on the rise, and yet, thanks to the simplicity of the box's internal sounds, it's pretty easy to recreate the thing using samples, plenty of which can be found online. Additionally, there are a fair few software drum machines that can do the job quite nicely.

Three great CR-78 emulations

Arturia Spark VDM

Arturia apply their skills to this simulacrum of not one but 30 vintage drum machines, including the CR-78. Arturia's Spark hardware boxes are cool, but you can get the Spark VDM software on its own for less than a hundred bucks. Here, samples and analogue modelling are combined with synthesis and effects. Preset and programmable patterns included.

FULL REVIEW: Arturia Spark

Marvin Pavilion reTromine

If you're rocking a 32-bit Windows DAW (or a host that can load 32-bit plugins), you can get a taste of the Roland CR-78 without spending a dime, thanks to Marvin Pavilion's reTromine, just one of the developer's series of Tromine drum synth plugins. Here, you get 15 sounds sampled from the CR-78, edited and pre-mapped across a span of MIDI keys.

READ MORE: Marvin Pavilion reTromine

Logic Cafe CR-78 Drum Machine

Logic Pro X users on the hunt for that vintage CR-78 sound can avail themselves of this free EXS24 instrument from Here, 13 samples from the real thing are edited and mapped to the keyboard, ready to play. It's just one-shot samples of the individual sounds, though - you'll have to provide your own patterns.

READ MORE: Logic Cafe CR-78 Drum Machine

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