I've owned many of the lower-end machines and they still remain my favourites of the breed.
I began to take drum-machines seriously around 1978 when I found it nearly impossible to find a drummer who could play more than one type of rhythm, could play at a consistent tempo for more than 2 minutes and who owned a kit that didn't take up a whole room.
The first drum machine I laid hands on was an Electro-Harmonix Rhythm 12 I bought from a junk shop in Leeds:
It wasn't the answer I was looking for.
Things were beginning to move in the world of the drum-machine around that time and during 1978 the Roland Corporation released their CR78 CompuRhythm which changed the game in that it allowed the user to programme 4 of it's memories (so long as the user bought the programming button add-on).
The downside of the CR78, for mere mortals, was the price.
In 1980 Roland's subsidiary company Boss released the DR55 Dr. Rhythm.
Even though it's now considered a 'classic' I never really liked the sound of it. Far to harsh for my taste.
It had another downside.
It allowed the user to programme the bass drum, snare drum, rim-shot (ha!) and accent but not the hi-hat which could only be switched between 8's and 16's and didn't have an open hi-hat option.
I did end up owning one for a while but it wasn't my first programmable machine.
My first machine was The SoundMaster Memory Rhythm SR88.
The picture is of a later variant of the SR88 which provided clock and step trigger outputs allowing the machine to control other devices.
More on that later.
The version I had came in a pale blue case and didn't have the trigger outputs.
Four fully programmable soft analogue sounds (BD,SD,HH,CY), allowed a fill variation to be added at 4, 8 or 16 bars and is still to this day my favourite drum-machine ever.
My approach to these machines was not to consider them 'drummers' but percussive instruments in their own right.
I developed a system of programming involving some element of chance based on this thinking:
Each bar memory had 16 steps (4 x 4).
Each step could be on or off.
I drew the variations (X=beat 0=rest) sets 01-08 start with a beat, sets 09-16 start with a rest:
01: X000 09: 0XXX
02: XX00 10: 00XX
03: XXX0 11: 000X
04: XXXX 12: 0000
05: X0X0 13: 0X0X
06: X0XX 14: 0X00
07: XX0X 15: 00X0
08: X00X 16: 0XX0
Usually I'd button-hole someone and ask them to give me 2 numbers between 01 & 08 and two numbers between 09 & 16 and those variations would become the bass drum patten.
Another set of four numbers would become the Hi-Hat patten.
The snare drum would be put in at beats 05 and 09 then, using a variation from the 01 to 08 column and stretching it over the 16 steps, I'd add the Open Hi-Hat.
So, a beat using pattens 01, 13, 5 & 14 for the bass drum, 05, 09, 06 and 16 for the Hi-hat, 06 for the open Hi-hat and a Snare drum on the off beat would sound like this: SR88 Demo Beat which is nothing out of the ordinary but demonstrates the principle.
Another method was to just use one variation per drum per patten and run the drum-machine through an echo pedal which produced some fabulous beats.
The lack of any way of directly synchronising the drum-machine to my Wasp synth & Spider sequencer became frustrating so I traded my first SR88 for a Boss Dr. Rhythm but I was never happy with it and as soon as the upgraded SR88 appeared I dumped the Dr. Rhythm.
I look back on that period of about 2 years as being the most fun I've ever had during my whole involvement in electronic music.
I've owned lots of different drum-machines since then, some of which I can remember:
- Roland TR808
- Roland TR707
- Roland TR606 (c/w TB303 acid-machine)
- Yamaha RX21
- Boss DR110
- Boss DR220
- SoundMaster ST305
- Mattel Synsonic
- Korg MiniPops Jnr.
- Boss DR202 Dr. Groove.
I've downloaded the individual drum samples of the SR88 and used them in the Reason programme which allows me to press a button to randomise the patten but it's just not the same somehow.
Which brings me to the point of all this memory lane business.
Since I bought an iPod Touch I've wondered why no one's come up with an app that features all those Bump, Tish, Pop, Ticky, Ticky analogue drum-machines I love.
Then, last Thursday, I found someone had.
It's called FunkBox (rubbish name) and even though it doesn't feature my beloved SoundMaster SR88 it has a version of the classic Maestro Rhythm King Mk II which is all I'll ever need and can be heard here:
Having had an exchange of emails with the very helpful Mr. Chris Kerns at Synthetic Bits (FunkBox developers) I have the SR88 samples installed which now makes FunkBox the perfect drum-machine.
(I did add an apology for suggesting 'FunkBox' was a rubbish name.)