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Vintage music tech icons: Roland CompuRhythm CR-78

Vintage music tech icons – Roland CompuRhythm CR-78
(Image credit: Future)

Music Tech Showcase 2021: Over the past four decades, the sound of the drum machine has put an indelible sonic signature on popular music. Yet this most certainly wasn’t always the case. In its earliest days, the drum machine was met with open hostility by the music industry. It was even banned for a time by the Musicians Union. 

Why the rancor? In the case of the Union, it was feared that the drum machine would steal potential paying gigs away from their card-toting members. 

While this may in fact have eventually transpired once sampling came into play, it’s laughable to think that the hissing chatter of a ’70s-era rhythm machine posed a serious threat. Those machines were associated with the schmaltzy bossanova beats of the home organ and rarely found their way onto serious recorded works.

Released in 1978, the CR-78 would be the first drum machine to make a significant cultural impact

One of the major shortcomings of those early rhythm boxes was a lack of programmability. They invariably provided a limited selection of cheesy patterns that in no way reflected the popular musical styles of the day.

The CR-78 was Roland’s attempt to rectify the situation. PAiA had beaten Roland to programmability with their DIY Programmable Drum Set by three years, but the CR-78 was the first to be marketed through retail stores, and it had the advantage of not requiring any soldering skills on the part of the buyer.

Roland themselves were no strangers to the drum machine. Roland president Ikutaro Kakehashi had previously founded a company called Ace Tone, whose first product was – yep, you guessed it – a drum machine. In fact, a variation of Ace Tone’s debut model, the FR-1 Rhythm Ace was later fitted into Hammond’s home organs.

Box frenzy

Released in 1978, the CR-78 would be the first drum machine to make a significant cultural impact. Whether or not Roland intended the CR-78 to meet the needs of professional musicians is debatable. 

Initially issued in a faux woodgrain veneer, it too was chock-a-block full of Granny’s favourite ice-rink rhumbas. Nevertheless, coming as it did during the birth pangs of the New Wave, the CR-78 quickly found its way onto a number of significant recordings, more on which in Persuasive Percussion.

The CR-78 was not what a modern reader would think of as a drum machine, but rather – as the bright orange legend across the top suggests – as a rhythm computer. 

Indeed, the CR-78 used bona-fide microprocessor-based circuitry and, like many a drum machine thereafter, a slim allotment of user memory. Said memory was required for storing a handful of patterns created by way of the included TS-1 Memory Write Switch or the optional (and easier to use) WS-1 Programming Switch.

These switches were plugged into a dedicated socket around back, which is joined by inputs for an external clock source (24 PQN), another for a Start/Stop signal and one more to trigger variations. Low and high impedance outputs are available, as is a Trigger output that can be used to send a pulse to an analogue sequencer.

(Image credit: Future)

Panel discussion

The front of the unit sports a colourful array of pattern selection knobs, each giving a satisfying ‘thunk’ when pressed into action. 17 preset pattern selections are made available across two rows, with a toggle switch for accessing A or B variations. 

A common trick was to press two pattern buttons simultaneously, thereby producing a combination of the two. More variation is offered in the form of a quartet of buttons that allow the user to cancel bass, snare, hats/cymbal, and cow bell/claves.

A common trick was to press two pattern buttons simultaneously, thereby producing a combination of the two

On the subject of variation, the CR-78 provides a section dedicated to the task, with a rotary switch that allows the user to dial in an assortment of fills and breaks. These can be triggered manually, or by setting the function to Auto and telling the machine to do it for you every 2, 4, 8, 12 or 16 bars.

Other niceties include a Balance slider for adjusting the mix between the bass/snare and the hats/cymbals. Further interest can be added by raising a pair of sliders that bring in the immediately recognisable tambourine and guiro sounds.

Also instantly familiar is the effect of the Metal Beat slider. This adds a distinctive metallic modulation that may or may not be an attempt to impart the impression of a ride cymbal.

In addition to obvious functions like a Start/Stop button and a nice big Tempo knob, there is a pot for increasing the gain of accented beats, and a pair of three-position rocker switches that can be used to select long, short or no fade in and fade out when the Start/Stop button is used.

Get with the program

Finally, there’s the all-important and rarely used Programmer section. User patterns can make use of up to four tracks and an 11-position rotary switch allows you to choose which of the CR-78’s (un-editable) sounds are being programmed into a given track.  Those sounds include kick, snare, rim shot, hi-hat, cymbal, high and low conga and bongo. Accent is likewise programmable.

If you need an unashamedly electronic rhythm that won’t overtake your mixes, better solutions are hard to come by

There are some workarounds if you lack a programmer. This reviewer has managed to write programs using a kludge partly based on an analogue modular sequencer. Some users have employed MIDI-to-CV plugs like Expert Sleepers’ Silent Way, and at least one commercial solution has been made available.

However, programming one’s own patterns is not crucial to appreciating this delightful machine. Its sound alone is enough to earn it pride of place in any analogue fan’s collection. It pumps and percolates, ticks and snaps in its own special way. The raw analogue drum tones are bursting with character and it can add instant atmosphere to a mix. 

If you’re looking for the floor-shaking rumble of a TR-808 kick, you’ve come to the wrong place. However, if you need an unashamedly electronic rhythm that won’t overtake your mixes, better solutions are hard to come by.


Roland’s CR-78 virtually oozes with analogue cool and there’s just enough variation available.

Original RRP $1,195 | Used from £1,000

Buying a used Roland CompuRhythm CR-78

Second-hand prices are going up fast, so you’ll want to be prepared

1. Programmability means battery-backed memory and that, in turn, means battery leakage. Most common CR-78 failures are due to leaking batteries, so pop the hood and check the battery itself and look for damaged traces.

2. Don’t hand over your cash before spending time with a prospective purchase. Not every issue is immediately apparent. Your humble reviewer’s own CR-78 arrived from the seller seemingly unscathed, but began to elicit an incessant whine once it warmed up, necessitating a trip to the service bench.

3. Ask yourself: are you really going to program the CR-78? If not, you might be better off spending your money on a related unit. For example, the CR-68 offers most of the sounds and patterns but isn’t programmable. Another thing the CR-68 doesn’t have? The inflated second-hand price.

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