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Drum Machine: EDM's Electronic Heartbeat

Updated on September 3, 2012

The Beat of Electronic Music

What is EDM without one of these? Drum machines were initially created to provide drum accompaniment to guitar musicians in the 1980s. Their ability to keep a regular beat, good prices on the secondhand market, and off-kilter sounds made them instrumental in the creation of House, Techno, Electro, Trance and every genre that followed.

Today thanks to more powerful computer processing power their function has largely been replaced with software synths and samplers. However, as has been proven time and again, the retro sound is continually being revived. Some producers even go to great lengths to achieve that classic vintage sound that only drum machines can provide. Some sounds such as the TR-808 are so classic as to be timeless. Furthermore some producers still prefer the good old fashioned (and fun) approach!

Drum Machines

Roland's drum machines were used by the bedroom producers of House and Techno music because of their relatively low cost on the secondhand market in the 1980s. This was a cheaper alternative to the more expensive and realistic sounding (at the time) Linn Electronic's LM-1 and LinnDrums. The Linn machines were used by variety of musicians who were able to afford them, mostly Pop musicians, in 1980s music. The distinctive pattern on New Order's 'Blue Monday' comes from an Oberheim DMX. Ironically, the Roland machines that were considered outdated at the time would outlive their newer sample based brethren in popularity, commanding top dollar even to this day. This once again demonstrates the principle that everything is a matter of taste and that humans are fickle creatures.

The Roland TR-808 came out in 1980 and was used extensively in the Hip-hop community and by House and Techno musicians. When the TR-909 was released in 1983 many of those musicians migrated to the newer machine. The TR-909 had a much grungier sound compared to the clean analogue sound of the TR-808. Derrick May once sold a TR-909 to Marshall Jefferson in order to obtain desperately needed rent money, and in doing so the machine became a common fixture in both Techno and House music.

1983 saw the introduction of Roland's TB-303 "Bassline" synth and a similarly designed analogue drum machine the TR-606. Although it is analogue, the sounds on the TR-606 are not tweakable.

Roland replaced the TR-909 with a sample based model, the TR-707 in 1984. The TR-707 features both Din Sync and MIDI ports and can be used to synchronise older drum machines and synths together. The TR-707 can be heard on many House tracks even to this day.

Prices for the discontinued TR-808 and TR-909 still remain high given the age of the machines. The TR-606 and TR-707 are generally less expensive although the prices can fluctuate every so often.

The Linn and Oberbeim machines still command respectable prices.

Roland Drum Machines (1980-1986)


Types: Analogue vs Digital


This generates analogue signals which are then "shaped" into various drum sound by means of filters and envelopes. Analogue drum machines generally do not produce convincing accoustic drum sounds and were largely abandoned by the industry in the mid 80s. Some allow for the modification of pitch, attack, decay, etcetera.

Models of this type include: Roland CR-78, Roland TR-808, Roland TR-606, Roland TR-909 (although the 909 cymbals are in fact 6-bit samples)


Digital drum machines utilising an array of techologies from simple digital "samples", often created from recordings of real drums, to PCM ROM and maleable AWM. The sounds tend to date depending on the age of the machine however towards the end of the 90s, as technology improved, these machines could sound very realistic. While realistic drum sounds could be seen as an improvement for some musical applications (to replace or stand in for a live drummer for instance), this is not necessarily the case for electronic music (particularly any EDM style) where the use of synthetic drum tones have become more desirable.

Models of this type include: Alesis SR-16, Alesis SR-18, Casio RZ-1, Linn Electronics LM-1, Oberheim DMX, Roland TR-707, Roland TR-727, Roland TR-505, Roland TR-626, Yamaha RY-30, Yamaha RX-5, Roland R-5, Roland R-8

Although not strictly drum machines, Akai produces the MPC series which features a great sequencer and are often utilised for drum programming.

There has been a resurgence of interest in hardware drum machines (yay!) in recent years as demonstrated by Elektron's Machinedrum ( Even more exciting is the Tempest drum machine produced by Roger Linn and Dave Smith in 2011. This is an impressive combination of analogue and digital technologies that goes far beyond any existing drum machine.

Jeff Mills TR-909 live

Drum Machine Manufacturers

All the companies here have produced drum machines or sampler based systems which act in a similar manner.



Boss (Roland)



Emu Systems


Linn Electronics



Sequential Curcuits



New YouTube vids

A complete workout on the TR-808 drum machine.

Do you own/use any drum machines?

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