See the First “Drum Machine,” the Rhythmicon from 1931, and the Modern Drum Machines That Followed Decades Later

When I think of ear­ly drum machines, I think of the Roland TR-808, the machine that changed pop music in 1980. I also think of its sib­ling, the Boss DR-55, rivals like the E‑Mu Dru­mu­la­tor, and pre­de­ces­sors from the 60s and 70s like the Mae­stro Rhythm King. I do not think of the Rhyth­mi­con, nor did I know it had exist­ed until very recent­ly. I doubt many peo­ple have ever heard of it, yet it can prob­a­bly claim the title of the first drum machine—or at least first rhythm machine—ever built.

The machine came into being in 1931 when Amer­i­can com­pos­er Hen­ry Cow­ell—in search of a means of trans­lat­ing his increas­ing­ly com­pli­cat­ed rhyth­mic pieces—contracted Leon Theremin, inven­tor of the musi­cal device that bears his name. Theremin came up with the Rhyth­mi­con, “a quirky, clunky, key­board-based machine that was able to play com­plex polyrhythms in pre­cise loops,” writes Peter Hol­slin at the Red Bull Music Acad­e­my Dai­ly.

Although only three mod­els of the machine were ever produced—one now lost—and Cow­ell only wrote a cou­ple of pieces for the machine before los­ing inter­est, it remains, as musi­col­o­gist Mar­garet Schedel has point­ed out, “a con­cep­tu­al leap” in instru­ment design and a direct ances­tor of today’s rhythm and sequenc­ing tech­nol­o­gy. The Rhyth­mi­con was the first for­ay into what Schedel calls “inter­ac­tiv­i­ty,” mean­ing, Hol­slin writes that “you sim­ply press a key to acti­vate a sequence—much like you can do today with the arpeg­gia­tor of a key­board….” The Rhyth­mi­con used pho­to­elec­tric tech­nol­o­gy:

The keys were each con­nect­ed to a light that turned on when you pressed them. The lights then shined through a sequence of holes punched into two discs that rotat­ed via a motor. On the oth­er side of the discs was a pho­to­elec­tric sen­sor that, when acti­vat­ed by the pat­terns of light, sent the Rhythmicon’s unique sig­nals to a tube amp and thus to a speak­er and out to daz­zled audi­ences.

Audi­ences may have been impressed by the oper­a­tion, but they were con­sid­er­ably less daz­zled by the sound of the thing. One review­er in 1932 described its range of tones as “a cross between a grunt and a snort” up to “an Indi­an war whoop.” As the video above shows, the third ver­sion of the machine—built by Theremin in the 60s from junk parts—“sounds like it’s mak­ing geese calls.”

Oth­er, lat­er rhythm machines were designed specif­i­cal­ly to recre­ate live drums, rather than sim­ply make rhyth­mic sounds. One notable entry in the his­to­ry of drum machines is the Cham­ber­lin Rhyth­mate, a tape loop drum machine designed in 1949 by Har­ry Chamberlin’s key­board com­pa­ny. Meant to accom­pa­ny an organ play­er, the device con­sist­ed of 14 tape loop record­ings of real acoustic jazz drum kits, along with per­cus­sion instru­ments like claves, cas­tanets, and bon­gos. If you’re famil­iar with the work­ings of anoth­er ear­ly elec­tron­ic instrument—one that caught on in pop music thanks to the Bea­t­les—you’ll rec­og­nize the mech­a­nism here as near­ly iden­ti­cal to that of the Mel­lotron. Cham­ber­lin invent­ed that strange, lat­er elec­tron­ic instru­ment using the same tech­nol­o­gy as he had for the Rhyth­mate.

After the Rhyth­mate came the Wurl­itzer Side­man, designed for the same purpose—to give organ­ists a rhythm sec­tion. Cre­at­ed ten years lat­er in 1959, the Side­man is known as the first mass-pro­duced drum machine. (The Rhyth­mate sold at most 100 mod­els in the six­ties.) Its tech­nol­o­gy recalls that of the Rhythmicon—it uses a series of vac­u­um tubes that pro­duce a “sequenced” sound as a rotat­ing met­al disc makes con­tact with them. And as you can hear in the demo above, the Side­man hard­ly seems to be an improve­ment on Chamberlain’s tape loop machine; though its con­trols have much more vari­a­tion, the machine’s oper­a­tion is also much nois­i­er, in an almost indus­tri­al way. We’ve like­ly all seen vari­a­tions on this design in old organs from the 60s and 70s, which began to come stan­dard with some form of elec­tro-mechan­i­cal drum machine built in.

It would take near­ly a decade after the Side­man for the devel­op­ment of drum machines that musi­cians deemed wor­thy of using as fea­tured instru­ments. One such, the Vox Per­cus­sion King from 1966, became inte­gral to one of the defin­ing moments in elec­tron­ic pop, Kraftwerk’s “Auto­bahn” (above) from 1974. By the ear­ly eight­ies, the flood­gates of drum machine tech­nol­o­gy had opened, and dozens of com­mer­cial mod­els burst onto the scene. But despite all its short­com­ings, that very first rhythm machine, the home­ly Rhyth­mi­con, set mod­ern music on the road to “inter­ac­tiv­i­ty,” as Schedel writes, extend­ing “performer’s musi­cal capac­i­ties” and “antic­i­pat­ing the inter­ac­tive com­put­er music move­ment by sev­er­al decades.” Yet anoth­er rea­son to remem­ber the genius of Leon Theremin.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

Rick Wake­man Tells the Sto­ry of the Mel­lotron, the Odd­ball Pro­to-Syn­the­siz­er Pio­neered by the Bea­t­les

Meet the “Tel­har­mo­ni­um,” the First Syn­the­siz­er (and Pre­de­ces­sor to Muzak), Invent­ed in 1897

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.