What Do You Call a Machine That Hangs Out With Musicians?

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 5 2013 8:08 AM

Select-a-Rhythm

What do you call a machine that hangs out with musicians?

A Roland TR-808
A Roland TR-808

Photo by Gary Land

Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense features maybe the most famous opening of any concert film. David Byrne strides onstage in a gray suit and white canvas sneakers and lays a boombox at his feet. “Hi,” he says. “I got a tape I want to play.” He presses a button and a pulsing, slithering rhythm emerges. The crowd goes wild; Byrne strums the opening chords of “Psycho Killer.”

The boombox is a lie; it’s not even mic’d. The sound that fills the stage and screen is a Roland TR-808, plugged into a mixing board far from the camera’s gaze, defined by invisibility. The 808 is the Steinway of drum machines, the most famous model of the most important instrument since the electric guitar. When KRS-One introduced D-Nice as “the human TR-808” on Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx” in 1986, it was the highest compliment he could bestow on a beatboxer. “I know y’all wanted that 808,” declared Big Boi on Outkast’s “The Way You Move” in 2003; given that the song hit No. 1, Big Boi knew right. In 2008 Kanye West named an album after the machine, 808s and Heartbreak; Kanye being Kanye, heartbreak got the cover. Even David Byrne wouldn’t let it have its close-up.

The TR-808 and 74 other objects of its kind finally receive their due in Joe Mansfield’s Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. Beat Box is a cleverly designed, lavishly illustrated, and endlessly fascinating coffee-table history of the drum machine. Mansfield is a drum machine collector as well as a historian and music-biz veteran, best known to hip-hop fans as the producer behind Ed O.G. and Da Bulldogs’ 1991 classic “I Got to Have It.” Mansfield bought his first drum machine in 1985, at age 15 (a mint-condition 808, for $250); he has since accumulated upwards of 150.

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Like most books of its kind Beat Box is a primarily visual experience. Mansfield provides various specs for each machine and an occasional anecdote; Dave Tompkins—whose brilliant 2010 history of the vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, is probably the closest thematic relation to Mansfield’s book—christens the volume with a terrific foreword. But the stars of Beat Box are the drum machines themselves, lovingly photographed by Gary Land and laid out on the page in all their glorious, colorful, idiosyncratic detail. Some appear straight out of Star Trek, others straight out of Toy Story; some are designed like immovable furniture, others like transistor radios. Flipping through Beat Box it quickly becomes apparent that for much of the drum machine’s history, the people building them had no clear idea what they were doing, even if the people using them increasingly did.

The drum machine is a mind-bogglingly weird idea. For starters, what defines one? No one calls a metronome a drum machine, though several of the machines in Mansfield’s book (the Seeburg Select-a-Rhythm, the Conn Min-O-Matic Rhythm) offer “metronome” functions, which seems a little like equipping an iPhone with a Dixie-cup-and-string attachment. The earliest drum machines were intended to literally replace drummers themselves. Beat Box’s opening profile is of the Wurlitzer Sideman (1959), generally considered the first drum machine ever made. The original ad copy for the machine, reproduced for our interest and amusement, essentially pitches the Sideman as a band member you don’t need to pay. Even the name invites a new version of the old joke: What do you call a machine that hangs out with musicians?  

Beat Box.

Beat Box also offers a glimpse into the drum machine’s imagined possibilities, in emergent, unresolved, often soon-to-be-aborted forms. In the book’s early pages, most machines we see were designed primarily as collections of preset rhythms. Among these are such vague and dusty archaisms as “Foxtrot,” “Watusi,” “Twist,” and my own personal favorite, “Teen.” The Maestro Rhythm King, used by Sly Stone on his 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On (widely considered the first mainstream album to feature a drum machine), boasts 18 variously colored buttons, each adorned with labels like “Cha Cha,” “Go-Go,” “Slow Fox,” and “Western.”

And yet by the time Roger Linn introduced his groundbreaking LM-1 Drum Computer in 1979—the first machine to offer digital samples of actual acoustic drums—there was nary a preset rhythm to be found. The LM-1—a machine so powerful that in 1984 it let Prince release “When Doves Cry” without a bass track—contains 18 different individual drum sounds (snares, kicks, hi-hats) and is equipped with a 13-channel mixer. Nothing about the LM-1 is user-friendly or convenient, nor is it meant to be: It is proudly conscious of its own artistry, and that of its prospective users.