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.