Exploring Drum Machines

While not shoveling or marching around in the snow I’ve been experimenting with drum machines in the studio. To be more precise, drum machine plugins and samples. Here’s what I found…

I’ve always favored real drummers but the one track on the upcoming album uses a drum machine really seems to work so I’ve decided to take a second look at them. I’ll admit I’m attracted to their minimalism if not always their sound. In the hands of a skilled programmer a drum machines can impart enough groove into a song to obviate most other rhythmic elements. You can ditch the bass and rhythm guitar or keyboards and construct a while tune with just the drums and a vocalist. It’s an enticing promise of sparseness, sonic space, and reduction of effort.

So diving into the drum machine world, here’s what I found

Physical Drum Machines

I did some research on them and it seems to my mind all the really great drum machines were made in the 80s. Why? It’s the same old story: usability. Just look at a Linn LM-1 or a Roland TR-808. These devices are simple, simple, simple! They have one set of sounds, physical controls for almost all features and just invite experimentation. Newer drum machine have too many options, too many sounds, and too many menus. Ugh! Why are electronic instruments are so vulnerable to feature creep? You don’t see guitars with 37 strings and function menus do you? But I digress. It seem the most revered drum machines (and thus most expensive) would be:

  • Early Roland TR-anything (303, 606, 808, 909) but particularly the 808 – THE synthpop and hip-hop drum sound. By all accounts these are great machines with the 808 being iconic. Personally, I’m not big on that iconic sound, but hey, to each their own.
  • Linn LM-1 – Only 500 made but it IS the sound of 80s drums. It has a mere 12 instruments but with them you can summon up enough classic pop tracks to reduce your fingers to stumps.
  • Linn LinnDrum – less desirable than the LM-1, but still very good
  • Oberheim DMX – competitor of the LM-1 which while less ubiquitous, has some great punchy sounds – just try to use the clap without instantly being transported into Prince’s “1999″. In many ways similar to the Linn LM-1 but with fewer sounds and slightly less signature kick and snare. Overall, I prefer it to the Linn.
  • Sequential Circuits Drumtraks (Drum-Traks?) – Not as punchy as the Linn or Oberheim, somewhere in the middle in ease of programming, and shockingly – has midi. I might actually buy one of these just to play around with.

I’m going to add in a personal favorite, the Korg Minipops 7 which is more a rhythm box than a drum machine and plays “organ preset” patterns. Its most famous for being prominently used by Jean Michel Jarre on “Oxygene”. Though hardly a “great” drum machine it’s low-fi and cheesy sounds somehow work for me.

As I said before, the Roland TR-808 is positively worshiped in some circles and several companies make faithful hardware recreations of it with The Miami from Acidlab looking like the best.

Drum Machine Software

If you want to keep cost down and avoid having another piece of hardware cluttering your studio, there are tons of software options. Here’s a few:

  • Yur DAW - Most DAWs these days seem to have drum machine-like functionality built in. Ableton has Drum Racks and it seems to work pretty darn smartly. Before buying you might want to see what’s already lingering on your hard drive.
  • iDrum – I tried this once when it first came out and wasn’t too taken by it. Now that it has an iPhone app I may give it another chance.
  • Nepheton – This is a very cool emulator of the Roland TR-808. I downloaded the demo and it’s very nice, and yes, the TR-808 is perhaps the greatest of all the drum machines – I just don’t like the way it sounds…
  • Tattoo – This doesn’t actually exist yet, but I love Audio Damage’s products so much I’m definitely going to try it when it comes out.

Drum Samples

There are endless drum sample libraries and no, I haven’t tried even a tenth of them, but here are a few I have tried and liked:

  • GarageBand – You can mine the samples or import the whole kits into your DAW (they’re mapped to standard GM midi). Great bang for the buck. I particularly like the “African” kit from the world music expansion pack. To do this just go fishing around where Garageband keeps it’s instruments and see if your sampling software can do an import. I used Ableton’s sampler with no problems.
  • Ableton Drum Machines – I sprung for this and generally like the results. The sounds are good and they are all pre-programmed for Live. There are some issues though. Again, they got a little fancy in creating the kits and I find doing any real tweaking to be a bit confounding. Also, for some reason the nice pitch transpose option in the Live Mixer doesn’t work. You have to go into each specific instrument to find its tuning option and it would have been nicer to have the level, panning, and pitch front right there in the mixer.
  • DubSounds – They sell a great many samples of vintage drum and rhythm machines.
  • GoldBaby – This guy has an interesting take on samples where he runs the drum machine thru various tape machines or even presses them to vinyl before recording them. This gives his samples a lot of grit and character.
  • Freesounds – a bunch of, well, free sounds. I found a very serviceable set of Korg Minipops 7 samples here and nabbed them for nothing.

Other Drum Machine Resources

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