I’m fortunate to have quite a few friends with eclectic musical tastes, who continually expose me some of the best, albeit often obscure, sources for inspiration. They arrive as random selections sent with a simple “you’d appreciate this” note attached. Good friends that they are, they rarely miss the mark. Most intriguing is when a cluster of things from different people carry a similar theme, converging to a need on my part for some sort of musical action.
A few years back I received a huge dump of gigabytes of audio and video. Within it were some concert footage and performances this friend and I had been discussing; I consumed those quickly in an effort to keep that conversation going. Tucked amidst that dump however, was a copy of the movie Liquid Sky. I asked the friend about it because the description of the plot–“heroin-pushing aliens invade 80’s New York”–led me to believe it wasn’t really my thing (not a big fan of needles). Although my friend insisted I’d enjoy it, it took me several months if not a whole year before I finally pressed play.
Even though Liquid Sky was not my favorite movie by any measure, it was immediately apparent to my ears why my friend insisted I check it out. The film’s score was performed completely on a Fairlight CMI, capturing the synthesized undercurrent of the early 80’s New York music scene, more popularly seen in the cult classic Downtown 81, starring Jean Michel Basquiat. While the performances in that movie are perhaps closer to my tastes, none of them compare to one scene from Liquid Sky that I fell in love with, instantly:
The song grabbed me so much, I quickly churned out a cover version.Primus Luta “Me & My Rhythm Box (V1)”
While felt good to make, there remained something less than satisfying about it. The cover had captured my sound, but at a moment of transition. More specifically, the means by which I was trying to achieve my sound at the time had shifted from a DAW-in-the-box aesthetic to a live performance feel, one that I had already begun writing about here on Sounding Out! in 2013. Interestingly, the inspiration to cover the song pushed me back to my in-the-box comfort zone.
It was good, but I knew I could do more.
As I said, these inspirations tend to group around a theme. Prior to receiving the Liquid Sky dump, I had received an email out of the blue from Hank Shocklee, producer and member of the Bomb Squad. I’ve been a longtime fan, and we had the opportunity to meet a few years prior. Since then he’s played a bit of a mentoring role for me. In the email he asked if I wanted to join an experimental electronic jazz project he was pulling together as the drummer.
I was taken aback. Hank Shocklee asking me to be his drummer. Honestly, I was shook.
Not that I didn’t know why he might think to ask me, but immediately I started to question whether I was good enough. Rather than dwell on those feelings, though, I started stepping up my game. While the project itself never came to fruition, Shocklee’s email led me to building my drmcrshr set of digital instruments.
A year or so later, I ran into Shocklee again when he was in Philadelphia for King Britt’s Afrofuturism event with mutual friend artist HPrizm. By this time I had already recorded the “Me and My Rhythm Box” cover. Serendipitously, HPrizm ended up dropping a sample from it in the midst of his set that night. A month or so later, HPrizm and I met up in the studio with longtime collaborator Takuma Kanaiwa to record a live set on which I played my drmcrshr instruments.Primus Luta x HPrizm x Takuma Kanaiwa – “Excerpt”
Not too long after, I received an email from NYC-based electronic musician Elucid, saying he was digging for samples on this awesome soundtrack. . .Liquid Sky.
The final convergence point had been hanging over my head for a while. Having finished the first part of my “Toward a Practical Language series on Live Performance” series, I knew I wanted the next part to focus on electronic instruments, but wasn’t yet sure how to approach it. I had an inkling about a practicum on the actual design and development of an electronic instrument, but I didn’t yet have a project in mind.
As all of these things, people, and sounds came together–Liquid Sky, Shocklee, HPrizm, Elucid–it became clear that I needed to build a rhythm box.
What stands out in Paula Sheppard’s performance from Liquid Sky is the visual itself. She stands in the warehouse performance space surrounded by 80’s scenesters posing with one hand in the air, mic in the other while strapped to her side is her rhythm box, the Roland CR-78, wires dangling from it to connect to the venue’s sound system. She hits play to start the beat launching into the ode for the rhythm machine.
Contextually, it’s far more performance art than music performance. There isn’t much evidence from the clip that the CR-78 is any more than a prop, as the synthesizer lines indicate the use of a backing track. The commentary in the lyrics however, hone in on an intent to present the rhythm box as the perfect musical companion, reminiscent of comments Raymond Scott often made about his desire to make a machine to replace musicians.
My rhythm box is sweet
Never forgets a beat
It does its rule
Do you want to know why?
It is pre-programmed
Rhythm machines such as the CR-78 were originally designed as accompaniment machines, specifically for organ players. They came pre-programmed with a number of traditional rhythm patterns–the standards being rock, swing, waltz and samba–though the CR-78 had many more variations. Such machines were not designed to be instruments themselves, rather musicians would play other instruments to them.
In 1978 when the CR-78 was introduced, rhythm machines were becoming quite sophisticated. The CR-78 included automatic fills that could be set to play at set intervals, providing natural breaks for songs. As with a few other machines, selecting multiple rhythms could combine patterns into new rhythms. The CR-78 also had mute buttons and a small mixer, which allowed slight customization of patterns, but what truly set the CR-78 apart was the fact that users could program their own patterns and even save them.
By the time it appeared in Liquid Sky, the CR-78 had already been succeeded by other CR lines culminating in the CR-8000. Roland also had the TR series including the TR-808 and the TR-909, which was released in 1982, the same year Liquid Sky premiered.
In 1980 however, Roger Linn’s LM-1 premiered. What distinguished the LM-1 from other drum machines was that it used drum samples–rather than analog sounds–giving it more “real” sounding drum rhythms (for the time). The LM-1 and its predecessor, the Linn Drum both had individual drum triggers for its sounds that could be programmed into user sequences or played live. These features in particular marked the shift from rhythm machines to drum machines.
In the post-MIDI decades since, we’ve come to think less and less about rhythm machines. With the rise of in-the-box virtual instruments, the idea of drum programming limitations (such as those found on most rhythm machines) seems absurd or arcane to modern tastes. People love the sounds of these older machines, evidenced by the tons of analog drum samples and virtual and hardware clones/remakes on the market, but they want the level of control modern technologies have grown them accustomed to.Controlling the Roland CR-5000 from an Akai MPC-1000 using a custom built converter
The general assumption is that rhythm machines aren’t traditionally playable, and considering how outdated their rhythms tend to seem, lacking in the modern sensibility. My challenge thus, became clearer: I sought out to build a rhythm machine that would challenge this notion, while retaining the spirit of the traditional rhythm box.
Challenges and Limitations
At the outset, I wanted to base my rhythm machine on analog circuitry. I had previously built a number of digital drum machines–both sample and synthesis-based–for my Heads collection. Working in the analog arena allowed me to approach the design of my instrument in a way that respected the limitations my rhythm machine predecessors worked with and around.
By this time I had spent a couple of years mentoring with Jeff Blenkinsopp at The Analog Lab in New York, a place devoted to helping people from all over the world gain “further understanding the inner workings of their musical equipment.” I had already designed a rather complex analog signal processor, so I felt comfortable in the format. However, I hadn’t truly honed my skills around instrument design. In many ways, I wanted this project to be the testing ground for my own ability to create instruments, but prior experience taught me that going into such a complex project without the proper skills would be self defeating. Even more, my true goal was centered more around functionality rather than details like circuit board designs for individual sounds.
To avoid those rabbit holes–at least temporarily, I’ve since gone full circuit design on my analog sound projects–I chose to use DIY designs from the modular synth community as the basis for my rhythm box. That said, I limited myself to designs that featured analog sound sources, and only allowed myself to use designs that were available as PCB only. I would source all my own parts, solder all of my boards and configure them into the rhythm machine of my dreams.
The wonderful thing about the modular synth community is that there is a lot of stuff out there. The difficult thing about the modular synth community is that there’s a lot of stuff out there. If you’ve got enough rack space, you can pretty much put together a modular that will perform whatever functionality you want. How modules patch together fundamentally defines your instrument, making module selection the most essential process. I was aiming to build a more semi-modular configuration, forgoing the patch cables, but that didn’t make my selection any easier. I wanted to have three sound sources (nominally: kick, snare and hi-hat), a sequencer and some sort of filter, which would all flow into a simple monophonic mixer design of my own.
For the sounds I chose a simple kick module from Barton, and the Jupiter Storm unit from Hex Inverter. The sound of the kick module was rooted enough in the classic analog sound while offering enough modulation points to make it mutable. The triple square wave design of the Jupiter Storm really excited me as It had the range to pull off hi-hat and snare sounds in addition to other percussive and drone sounds, plus it featured two outputs giving me all three of my voices on in two pcb sets.
Filters are often considered the heart of a modular set up, as they way they shape the sound tends to define its character. In choosing one for my rhythm machine the main thing I wanted was control over multiple frequency bands. Because there would be three different sound sources I needed to be able to tailor the filter for a wide spectrum of sounds. As such I chose the AM2140 Resonant Filter.
The AMS2140 PCB layout, based on the classic eMu filter
I had no plans to include triggers for the sounds on my rhythm machine so the sequencer was going to be the heart of the performance as it would be responsible for any and all triggering of sounds. Needing to control three sounds simultaneously without any stored memory was quite a tall order, but fortunately I found the perfect solution in the amazing Turing Machine modules. With its expansion board the Turing machine can put out four different patterns based on it’s main pattern creator which can create fully random patterns or patterns that mutate as they progress.
I spent a couple of weeks after getting all the pcb’s parts and hardware together, wiring and rewiring connections until I got comfortable with how all of these parts were interacting with each other. I was fortunate to happen upon a vintage White Instruments box, which formally housed an attenuation meter, that was perfect for my machine. After testing with cardboard I laid out my own faceplates, which and put everything in the box. As soon as I plugged it in and started playing, I knew I had succeeded.Early test of RIDM before it went in the Box
I call it the RIDM Box (Rhythmically Intelligent Drum Machine Box). I’ve been playing it now for over two years, to the point where today I would say it is my primary instrument. Almost immediately afterward I built a companion piece called the Snare Bender which works both as a standalone and as a controller for the RIDM Box. That one I did from scratch hand wired with no layouts.
My current live rig with the RIDM Box and the Snare Bender (on the right)
While this is by no means a standard approach to modern electronic instrument design (if a standard approach even exists), what I learned through the process is really the value of looking back. With so much of modern technology being future forward in its approach, the assumption is that we’re at better starting positions for innovation than our predecessors. While we have so many more resources at our disposal, I think the limitations of the past were often more conductive to truly innovative approaches. By exploring those limitations with modern eyes a doorway opened up for me, the result of which is an instrument like no other, past or present.
I will probably continue playing the two of these instruments together for a while, but ultimately I’m leaning toward a new original design which takes the learnings from these projects and fully flushes out the performing instrument aspect of analog design. In the meantime, my process would not be complete if I did not return to the original inspiration. So I’ll leave you with the RIDM Box version of “Me & My Rhythm Box”—available on my library sessions release for the instrument.
Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications.
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Before Roland’s new TR-8 Rhythm Performer, a contemporary drum machine, was unveiled this year, the company released a series of promotional videos in which the machine’s designers sought out the original schematics and behavior of its predecessor the TR-808, an iconic analog drum machine from the early 1980s. The TR-808 holds cultural cache–most recently due to its use by Outkast, Baauer, and Kanye West–that Roland is interested in exploiting for the Rhythm Performer. The video features engineers closely examining the TR-808’s sound with an oscilloscope, trying to glean every last detail of the original’s personality.
Things were not always this way. Upon its initial release, the TR-808 was widely dismissed. Because it did not sound like “normal” acoustic drums, many established musicians questioned its utility and many ultimately disregarded it. However, its “cheap” circuit-produced sounds became bargain-bin treasures for emerging artists. Since its sounds now play such a large part in the landscape of electronic music, this essay takes a historical perspective on the TR-808 Rhythm Composer’s use and circulation. By analyzing how Juan Atkins and Marvin Gaye used the TR-808 in the early 1980s, I show how the TR-808 created a sonic space for drum machines in popular music.
Drum machines, though commonplace today, were once seen as kitschy tools for broke amateur musicians. As audio engineer Mitchell Sigman explains, the 808’s low, subsonic kick drum and “tick” snare characterized a departure from the realistic, sampled drum sounds produced by high-end drum machines in the early 1980s. The 808 uses analog oscillators and white noise generators to make sounds resembling the components of a drum set (kick, snare, hi-hats, etc.) And, although these sounds are now commonplace, most contemporary artists use them precisely because they sound robotic, not because they sound like drums. Even though the 808 at first seemed a failed imitation of “real” drums, the comparatively low cost of the 808, which originally retailed around $1,195, attracted musicians who were unable to afford other similar machines such as the LinnDrum that retailed at more than twice that price. Roland advertised the machine as a “studio” for musicians on a budget and even as they began to disinvest from the 808–as testified by the company’s decision to invest in marketing and research for other products–the 808’s so-called noises began their movement into mainstream American popular culture. In Detroit, electronic musician Juan Atkins, now known as one of the innovators of Detroit Techno, began experimenting with the machine’s sonic capabilities as early as 1981, while other artists such as Afrika Bambaataa were also using it in the Bronx by 1982.
A landmark year for the 808, 1982 saw the release of Juan Atkins’ “Clear” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” tracks that illuminate the key features each musician realized in the 808. For Atkins, the machine was something he felt could embody his early career; Atkins’ use of the 808 represented a pivotal moment in the American musical landscape, in which the futurism of the sound of synthesizers echoed other segments of the nation’s sonic imagination. Gaye’s use of the 808 was a clear departure from his body of Motown work. Although the instrument enabled different sorts of experimentation for the two, the new sorts of sounds the machine produced allowed them both to explore new possibilities for musical meaning. Just as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco argue in Analog Days that analog synthesizers required validation by musicians such as Geoff Downes and Keith Emerson a decade before, the 808 broke into the mainstream through artistic experimentation.
In the early ‘80s, Juan Atkins was learning all he could about electronic music. As an able musician and the son of a concert promoter, Atkins was poised to couple his musical knowledge with a new breed of electronic musical instruments such as the 808. Together with a tightly knit group from Detroit, Atkins succeeded in promoting techno from a subculture to part of a global dance music scene. According to Atkins, the popularity of Detroit Techno came from its adoption in European urban centers like London and Berlin, which lent the music additional meaning stateside. In an interview with Dollop UK, Atkins emphasizes that the 808 was central to this musical development, as he calls the 808 (among other machines) “the foundation[s] of electronic dance music.”
Under the moniker of Cybotron, Atkins released the song “Clear” in 1982. “Clear”’s proto-techno soundscape pushes the 808 to the front of his mix, and provides the track’s backbone. The solid, resonant kick, swishy open high hat, and the piercing snare are decidedly machinic, departing from most rhythmic trends in popular music to date, since, as music scholar John Mowitt points out, a sense of “human feeling” comes hand-in-hand with drumming.
Atkins embraced these machine sounds and considered the 808 his “secret weapon.” Its ability to be programmed, manipulated, and warped on the fly lent it a very particular kind of performance and music making that Atkins exploited. Rather than rely on the breaks that DJs could find on records, the 808 allowed Atkins to create beats to his own liking, placing kick, snare, and hi-hat hits where he found them to be most effective. Because of this flexibility, the kitsch of the 808’s sounds empowered the difference between his music and other artists’ creations. The breaks Atkins produced on the 808, for example, were obviously impossible to find on vinyl.
As Bleep43, an online EDM collective, notes, Atkins’ vision for electronic music would eventually pick up in London, where he relocated in the late eighties. Although Detroit Techno had achieved regional success in the US, record sales and performance dates in London signaled techno had found a larger audience abroad. Although Atkins considers himself an eclectically “Detroit” artist, he recognizes the impact of his work globally, and thinks of the modern Berlin flavor of minimal techno as a notably clever offshoot.
Marvin Gaye’s struggle with depression, drug use and relationship issues were the context for the subtle and understated 808 rhythmic backing he used in “Sexual Healing.” Gaye’s use of the 808 in “Sexual Healing” differs vastly from Watkins’ in “Clear,” operating as a tool of texture and punctuation from the noticeable timbric changes to the clever placement of handclaps and clave in the composition. While Gaye recovered from his personal crises in Belgium, Colombia Records sent him an 808 because it was more portable than a studio drummer. It also offered sonic capabilities new and exciting to Gaye’s seasoned ears.
The drum machine’s prevalence in “Sexual Healing” shows how culturally marginal sounds move into mainstream musical culture. Gaye and his producers, already squarely in the center of popular American music, experimented with the sound of the 808 not in an attempt to break through, but rather to exercise musical flexibility. Since he was already an extremely successful pop artist, Gaye’s use of the 808 marks him as a sonic risk-taker and innovator, weaving the machine sounds of the 808 seamlessly but noticeably into R and B.
The machine’s normally powerful snare is invoked only at the quietest of velocities, often being replaced by the now iconic handclap. Unlike many contexts in which the 808 is heard such as “Clear” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” “Sexual Healing“ manages to keep everything low key. Matching the lyrics that espouse peace, harmony, and sense of internal struggle (Whenever blue tear drops are falling/And my emotional stability is leaving me/Honey I know you’ll be there to relieve me/The love you give to me will free me), Gaye uses the 808 to evoke a surprisingly contemplative and serene atmosphere. It is this use that best shows the machine’s strange versatility, as both a harbinger of radically innovative musical genres and its ability to produce tranquil rhythmic textures for popular music.
Although Atkins and Gaye’s work exemplify the TR-808’s early adoption, a long road toward mainstream popularity remained because of Roger Linn’s more “realistic” sampled drums sounds included in his high-end machines. The LM-1 and its successors (famous for hit singles like Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”, Hall and Oate’s “Maneater,” and Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”) made sampled drums the gold standard of computerized rhythmic backing. In fact, Roland’s next drum machine, the TR-909, implemented samples alongside synthesis. As a result, 808s couldn’t be given away until musical innovators gave its sounds gravitas (Sigman, 2011, 46).
The 808’s shift from sonically trashy and undesirable to ostensibly hip signifies a culturally important moment within the history of music technology. As shown in the examples above, subtle moments of economic, emotional, and geographic necessity seeded the popular music industry for the eventual 808 boom today. When techno eventually broke through to global popularity, the 808 was so fundamental to the canon of the genre that it has managed to retain a place of fundamental sonic importance for musicians and producers.
11:40, 6/11/14: This essay was re-edited for clarity, grammar, and flow by Jennifer Stoever.
Ian Dunham is a musician and music scholar originally from northeast Ohio. He earned a B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University in the Recording Industry within the College of Mass Communications, and then worked as a recording engineer in Nashville and Germany. Afterward, he earned an M.M. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin, where he also operated a home recording studio. He will start a PhD in Media Studies at Rutgers in the fall, where he will pursue research related to music and copyright.
Featured image: “1980 Roland TR-808” by Flickr user Joseph Holmes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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