electronic music basics

Drum Machines in Electronic Music

A drum machine is a type of electronic musical instrument that appeared in the 1930s.

Drum machines create the same types of noises that a drum makes along with other percussion instruments and can be used in place of regular drums. Most present-day drum machines are even able to program the music artist’s distinctive drum rhythms.

A Vintage Drum Machine
A Vintage Drum Machine

Additionally, drum machines have become very popular in creating background music for different artists and genres, especially hip hop and dance. The purpose of a drum machine, other than to create amazing music, is to remove the necessity of a live drummer and still offer many different sounds for artists. Major music labels even began using drum machines to save the money that live studio drummers expected.

Drum machines can also be used to quickly make a demo without requiring a drummer in the studio and setting up a full drum kit. The machine may not be able to fully replace live drummers, but If placed into the hands of a truly incredible artist, it will create astonishing music.

Drummer at a concert
Drum machines are sometimes used to replace a live drummer – either in the studio or at a venue.

Drum machines are still heavily around today and are always undergoing redesign and technology advancements.

What are the common features of drum machines?

Drum machines are typically shaped like a box and consist of a keypad that looks almost like a computer keypad. The modern drum machines come with important features, such as pressure sensitive pads, built-in effects, and programming and editing features.

Drum machine showing keypad
Drum machine showing keypad

The pressure-sensitive pads are how the drum machine makes different types of sound. By touching the pads, different sounds will emerge from the machine. The artist playing the drum machine can pick which sound they want to come from each pad. By pressing these pressure-sensitive pads, a new drum pattern can be recorded and used for their future music.

The built-in effects are usually one of the most amazing aspects of drum machines. Modern drum machines generally have several unique built-in effects for the musical artist to try out and experiment with until they find the one that matches what they are looking for.

The program and editing features are how a musical artist can record the drum sounds and combine them with other sounds to create music. When it comes to programming on drum machines, it is different for each machine. Most machines have programming that can be completed in real time, which means the musical artist generates drum patterns as the pads are being pressed.

Another programming method is step-sequencing; this is when a pattern is created over a period of time by adding segments of sounds and placing them where needed. Another programming technique is song-sequence, which is when the drum machine repeats the programmed patterns from memory in the order that the artist chooses.

Also, if a drum machine has MIDI connectivity, the artist can program the drum machine with a computer or another gadget accessible with MIDI.

A MIDI Controller might be used along with a drum machine.
A MIDI Controller might be used along with a drum machine.

How are drum machines used in modern music?

Drum machines are still very popular and being used in today’s modern music. A well-known artist that uses a drum machine for his music is Kanye West. In 2013, he was on stage performing his songs and revealed his small drum machine. All he had to do was push one button and it would begin the beat for his song. In fact, his most popular songs and most of his album, College Dropout, uses a drum machine for the background music and sounds. Another artist that uses a drum machine for some of his songs is Frank Ocean. It is obvious that his song, Blonde, has a beat from a drum machine. Dr. Dre also firmly stands behind using a drum machine and is known to have a few easily accessible in his studio every day. Additionally, Outkast is a band that frequently used a drum machine often in their unique-sounding songs.

Music has changed and it will continuously rely on electronics, technology, and digital gadgets. If an artist can use a drum machine, they can technically be labeled as a musical artist and a producer. Being able to create music while also working on the technology aspects of modern music has produced many highly skilled musical artists that are also producers, performers, beatmakers, and orchestra conductors. These special types of artists know how to create rhythms and percussive sounds, and they have the knowledge of how to bring their songs into existence.

Without the drum machine, electronic music and the hip-hop genre may not have existed. Thanks to the drum machine, an artist does not need a certain number of musicians with instruments to create their music. Instead, it made it where solo artists and producers can put together wonderful music, and it all came from a machine with buttons, built-in effects, pressure-sensitive pads, and programming.

What is a Drum Pad?

Similar to a drum machine is the drum pad.

This device is also used to simulate a real drum set – but you play it using drum sticks – rather than buttons.

Drum pad being played with drum sticks
Drum pad being played with drum sticks

What are some famous drum machines?

The very first drum machine was the Rhythmicon, which was introduced in 1931. Leon Theremin created the machine for Henry Cowell. The reason Cowell wanted the machine was because he wanted to use technology to do something a human could not do. So, the idea of being able to create multiple wavelengths into beats sounded terrific to him. This drum machine fell short and was difficult to use. It consisted of sixteen different rhythms but was quickly neglected.

The Linn LM-1 is the first drum machine to utilize digital sampling to generate percussion and drum sounds. This drum machine was created in 1980 with only 500 available. This was the beginning of the era of sound machines impacting the sound of pop music extensively. The drum machine caused a lot of unemployment for live drummers in Los Angeles at the time, which led to them purchasing drum machines to find employment. The famous music artist, Prince, was one of the first people to buy a LM-1 and he used it on almost all of his songs, including the popular Purple Rain. Once it was realized that the LM-1 was thriving so well, the Oberheim DMX was released to the public. The DMX drum machine was extremely popular as well when it came to the hip-hop music genre.

Roland TR-808 is another drum machine that was very popular when it came to hip hop music. This drum machine was released in 1980 and was able to create a very loud, “ground-shaking bass.” This drum machine was one of the first programmable devices that artists were able to use to produce their own rhythms and beats. This was great for musical artists because they did not have to use any of the preset patterns. The Roland TR-909 was created in 1983 and was the beginning of using MIDI. With MIDI, artists and producers are able to sync various devices. Both the 808 and 909 had long-term influence on popular music, and they helped lead the evolution of the popular techno, house, and acid genres. Furthermore, both of these drum machines are currently still being used in today’s music.

Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production
Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production

Drum Machines – In Summary

Drum machines are here to stay in modern electronic music.

Their flexibility allows them to be used for all sort of interesting creative musical styles.

They require less physical skill – so the barrier to entry is lower than a real drum set.


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