Gimme The Beat (Box): The Journey Of The Drum Machine : The Record What began as little more than a glorified metronome has worked its way into bedroom studios and state-of-the-art recording facilities alike. A new book chronicles the history and influence of the drum machine in all its wood- and plastic-paneled glory.
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Gimme The Beat (Box): The Journey Of The Drum Machine

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Gimme The Beat (Box): The Journey Of The Drum Machine


It's hard to listen to pop music today and not hear the sound of the drum machine. It began as little more than a glorified metronome, but it's since worked its way into home basement studios as well as state-of-the-art recording facilities. A new book chronicles the history and influence of the drum machine in all its wood and plastic-paneled glory. Oliver Wang has the story.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: About 10 years ago, a disgruntled pianist in Los Angeles named John Wood began a popular bumper sticker campaign with the slogan: Drum Machines Have No Soul. Not everyone was convinced, including producer Eric Sadler.

ERIC SADLER: Drum machines don't run themselves; it's the people who put into the drum machines that give the drum machines soul to me. I've definitely given some drum machines some soul.


PUBLIC ENEMY: (rapping) ...put it up on the board. Another rapper shot down from the mouth that roared...

WANG: Sadler was part of the Bomb Squad, the production team behind the hip-hop group Public Enemy which used drum machines - among many other devices - to help shift the sound of pop music in the late 1980s.


ENEMY: (rapping) I'm public enemy number one. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. Yeah, that's right...

WANG: Here's the thing: the earliest drum machines were never intended to be studio recording devices. Take Wurlitzer's 1959 Sideman, one of the first commercially available drum machines. It used vacuum tubes to create its percussive sound. It was marketed to organ players who perhaps didn't want to pay a drummer to join their lounge act. Joe Mansfield demonstrates the Sideman.


WANG: Mansfield is the author of "Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession."

JOE MANSFIELD: It's about two-feet and some change tall. It's maybe a foot and a half wide, and it looks like something that would belong in, like, an old, wood-paneled library to me. At first look, you wouldn't think it would be a drum machine - which I didn't when I found it.

WANG: The instruments were still largely novelties throughout the '60s and '70s but musicians slowly began to play around with them says Dante Carfagna. He's the producer behind the recent CD compilation "Personal Space" which examines early pop experiments with drum machines and other electronics.

DANTE CARFAGNA: I think a lot of these cases, perhaps the artist didn't have a band, so they tried to recreate that band with the electronics around them: a drum machine, a synthesizer, maybe a guitar. So I think it might be a function of loneliness in a very strange way.


SLY STONE: Hey, I gotta out of here and get some money, man.

WANG: Then in 1971, Sly Stone recorded "A Riot's Going On," one of the first hit albums to prominently feature a drum machine. He used the Maestro Rhythm King and Joe Mansfield grew up marveling at how Stone deployed its tinny beats.

CARFAGNA: That record used the Maestro Rhythm King, in a way in a studio, that I'm sure it wasn't meant to be used, and it was amazing.


STONE: (singing) The family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. It's a family affair. Oh, yeah, a family affair. A family affair. It's a family affair.

WANG: By the early 1980s, major pop acts latched onto drum machines in a big way but many just used the machines' built-in rhythms. Mansfield points to Hall and Oates' 1981 hit, "I Can't Go For That."


MANSFIELD: Yeah, that's pretty much pre-programmed in there. They just souled(ph) out the kick and snare and high-hat a little bit, but that's it.

HALL AND OATES: (singing) Easy, ready, willing, overtime. Where does it stop? Where do you dare mean to draw the line?

WANG: Around the same time such hip-hop pioneers as Grandmaster Flash began to make beat boxes a prominent part of rap music production.


GRANDMASTER FLASH: (rapping) One, two, one, two, three, and listen to this. Just listen to this. Just listen to this. Just listen to this. For all you MCs in a crew, this is what we want y'all to do...

WANG: The Bomb Squad's Eric Sadler says that by the mid 1980s, newer beat boxes were sampling actual drums, creating a harder, punchier sound that hip-hop producers grabbed onto. One of the most popular was the Oberheim DMX.

SADLER: All the rhythm machines before was, kind of, little tight sounds, and they didn't have that sort of sound that sounded like a real kick drum or a bass drum and that sort of thing. And with the DMX, it was like, wow, you know, this sounds more like real drums to me.


WANG: However, when it comes to punch, no drum machine has been more popular than Roland's TR-808, debuted in 1980.


WANG: For collector Joe Mansfield and other musicians, the 808 stands out for a signature kick drum with a low end boom you can feel in your bones.

MANSFIELD: Just imagine the 808 bass drum pounding the speakers in a club, it's definitely something that would get people's attention.


WANG: Today, most producers simply recreate the sounds of an 808 using software rather than fussing with hardware that few thought would survive 30 years of use. But Dante Carfagna suggests there's still a market out there for the original machines and their unique sonic personalities.

CARFAGNA: Those sounds do have a certain character now which echo a different era.


WANG: As for Joe Mansfield, his "Beat Box" book only includes a fraction of his collection, a collection that keeps growing.

MANSFIELD: On eBay Germany today, I purchased a machine called Elgam Match-12. It's a machine I've been looking for, for a little bit. And I happened to find it on the German eBay site.

WANG: And so the beat box goes on. For NPR News. I'm Oliver Wang.


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