In defence of the lowly drum machine

“This next band…doesn’t have a drummer!!” So intoned a breathless Dick Clark in 1984 during a broadcast of his American hot 100 countdown radio show. We were transfixed. What could that mean? To a 13 year old who was just discovering music and for whom pop or rock music meant a guitar, a bass, drums, a singer and maybe a keyboard. What was this non-drummer lunacy?? As it turned out he was talking about Depeche Mode who were enjoying their first North American mainstream success with “People are People”. Clark was positively verkempt at the notion. To young teen Softsynth’s ears it sure sounded like they had drums in there, perhaps Clark was simply insane. It seemed a reasonable conclusion.

Little did we know we were already in love with the sound of the drum machine. The Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again” was driven by the most awesome drum sounds we had yet heard. Thomson Twins’ “Wish You Were Here” was similarly driven forward by a soft, metronome-like beat that sounded somehow…cooler than traditional drums.

Shortly after that we purchased O.M.D.’s 1980 self titled debut and it started to make more sense. (Bear in mind this was 1984 – we didn’t have the interwebs to consult for quick answers to the questions of the day…). This, clearly was not a set of drums keeping the beat. This was something…other.

In 2009 the drum machine (by which we also refer beats rendered by softsynths and programmed drums in general) is, perhaps more than ever looked upon as something alien, something “less” than. Even electronic bands who use programmed drums in the studio, often to great effect, feel the need for “real” drums for live shows (see: Depeche Mode, MESH, De/Vision, Goldfrapp, Lady GaGa, many others). Why has it gotten a bad rap? Are drums sacrosanct? Is it the need for the drum solo to denote a real rock show? Are electronic drum pads just so uncool that only a big-ass full set of skins that would do Rush proud will suffice in this age?

The main reason Softsynth is a fan of the drum machine is the sound one can get from it. While a traditional kit can produce awesome fills, solos, and other imperfections that lend a realness to a song one may not be able to get from a programmed sequence, it can produce one essential sound. Now that sound can be adjusted with dampeners, with using different snares or toms, and other manipulations but ultimately it’s one core sound. Programmed percussion can produce any sound in the world built into a beat (Imogen Heap does this beautifully often using voice samples as a percussive device) and that is wonderfully freeing. It can produce a sound truly unique and can colour the outer edges of a song in a way one can 0nly get using this tool. And even with that freedom to experiment with sound the inherent sound of the drum machine is something magical in itself. One cannot help but hear a classic Kraftwerk song and not feel transported back in time by the sound collage they were able to create, even with the rudimentary technology available. In a book on Depeche Mode published in the mid 80’s the percussive sound they achieved on their early material was describes as “the resonance of a pencil eraser tapping against headphones”, which is ridiculously evocative and accurate and yet that’s not a bad thing. That is a sound so associated with that era that many bands like Nothern Kind and Venus Hum work hard to emulate even in 2009. It’s a sound of an era. A sound that kept perfect time with a soft padding or a tinny echo and one that is unmistakenly electronic.

The notion of programmed drums has come a long way from the 1930’s when the Rhythmicon and later the thematic programmed beats (bossa nova, swing, etc) which eventually accompanied most popular organs by the 60’s were the order of the day. From the late 60’s Roland adaptations on the concept, used by Can on Tago Mago in the early 70’s,  to the programmable samplers of the 80’s, to MIDI later that decade the drum machine has played a key role in the development of modern music. It’s an instrument onto itself, no longer content to be seen as a replacement instrument. It’s not a sub for a drum kit, it is what it is, a fully realized part of the musicscape itself. Without it there would be no hip hop as we know it, no dance music, no true electronic music, no trip hop movement, and no Kills. We would be the worse for it.

Softsynth celebrates this key component to the electronic scene and says to the electro bands of the day, “let your MIDI hang out! No one’s judging.”

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2 Responses to “In defence of the lowly drum machine”

  1. Do you know what “A-Ha” used for their drum machine in “Hunting High and Low”?

    • softsynth Says:

      You know, funny, I’ve been trying to find out actually but nothing forthcoming. Pretty basic analogue drum machines of some kind but no idea what exactly…

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