Commentary
7:40 am
Tue August 6, 2013

Musical Space: The Most Culturally Important Instrument Since The Electric Guitar

Credit Wikimedia Commons

The drum machine is the most culturally important new musical instrument since the electric guitar.

Electronic drums have been around for generations, and the early ones sounded like the cheesy rhythm attachments on home organs.

Things changed in 1980, when the Linn LM-1 made its way into recording studios. This machine was used on hundreds of hit records, but it didn’t just move pop music to a more electronic sound; it changed the way pop musicians work.

The Linn drum machine was the first to use digital samples of real drum sounds, so it was the way pop producers and musicians were introduced to the idea of composing with a computer. Instead of music being “written,” it was now “programmed,” and the output was decidedly computer-like: immaculately precise and infinitely repeatable.

Repetition is the second revolution sparked by Linn drums. Instead of writing verses, choruses, and bridges, digital sampling allowed a musician to build a song in layers of repetitive loops.

Michael Jackson worked this way when he paired up with producer Quincy Jones on the “Thriller” album. The entire song “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'” is a collection of hooks and riffs laminated onto a single measure of programmed drums that repeats, unchanged, for over five minutes.

Here is the technical beginning of electronic dance music. The Linn drum machine has a lineage that can be traced to the bass drum thump of house, electro, techno, and dubstep, and is the reason why the electric guitar has been usurped by the computer as the main instrument of pop.

Originally aired April 30, 2013.