For all but the very ambitious, the late ’70s was still the domain of analog technology in the music game. Roger Linn had a different vision for the future though. To realise it, he would have to embrace digital technology. This new comparatively new sound making source inspired his exciting development, the Linn Electronics LM-1 Drum Computer.
While Roland was favouring analog synthesis to approximate the sounds of drums, Linn wanted to make his devices a whole lot more realistic. What he couldn’t have predicted was how the sound of his machines would shape many of the hits the ’80s.
The late ’70s was the primordial age of digital sampling. The Linn LM-1 fully embraced this new dawn, leaving an indelible imprint on drum grooves for decades to come.
A Personal Quest
Roger Linn wasn’t just the person who revolutionised drum machines. He’s also a talented musician in his own right. His skills on the guitar earned him touring gigs and songwriting with the likes of Leon Russell, Eric Clapton and more. It was this background in the creation of music that would lead him to experiment with electronic drums.
Up until that point, rhythm machines were pretty rudimentary. Most were conceived as a simple accompaniment instrument (Wurlitzer even titled their machine as such with the Sideman). This makes it hard to imagine these devices being at the centre of the creative process. This accompaniment-style of drum machine reached its zenith in 1978 with Roland’s CR-78.
Linn’s development of the LM-1 kicked off in that very same year, but his version of the drum machine was a far cry from the models that had previously existed. In an interview with Mark Vail, Linn stated that he, “wanted a drum machine that did more than play preset samba patterns and didn’t sound like crickets.”
To realise his vision, Linn got himself tooled up in BASIC – a computer coding language of the time. This would form the architecture of the LM-1’s programmability – in an instant pushing the expressive capabilities of the drum machine light years into the future. The fact that you could program patterns also gave the LM-1 as sense of legitimacy – setting whole songs against a sophisticated rhythmic backdrop was now a possibility.
The available scope to to inject compositional flair and sonic interest was unparalleled at the time. There were 99 program slots for patterns that could be chained together. You could infuse a human sense of groove by adjusting swing, shuffle and accents. There were faders and pitch control for all sounds. Plus each of the sounds – spanning kick, snare, hats, cowbell, claps, congas and more – had an output, making a lively overall mix easy to create.
The question of sound was entirely different. Historically, rhythm machines like the Chamberlin Rhythmate – which was relatively Jurassic in terms of the technology it had access to – relied on sounds being recorded to tape loops. Fast forward to the Roland era and analog synthesis was the go to method for punching out the grooves.
In hindsight, most rightly recognise the wonder of the tonal colours that was created in those early Roland examples. Linn’s goal, however, was to inject his sounds with realism. This is why he he took another technological leap for that period: digital sampling.
Though the LM-1 wasn’t necessarily a pioneer in this digital technique, the late ’70s was still very early days for this cutting edge method of recording sounds. The sounds were tracked at 8-bit/28kHz – when you consider that the CD standard is 16-bit/44.1kHz – it wasn’t exactly what we would consider hi-res. Yet, to have this resolution available in a machine that was still portable was nothing short of groundbreaking at the time.
The point was that you had real drums, right there at your fingertips. This breakthrough meant that Linn could do away with the “crickets” which he believed were the bane of previous models and instead enjoy full fat drums. In retrospect, the fact that they were sampled at a resolution lower than what we are accustomed to today adds to the gritty, heavy and rounded texture of its tones.
A Pretty Penny
As you can probably imagine, this device rich in new digital technology, with myriad options for incorporating into songs didn’t come cheap. Coming in at $5,500 USD in 1980 was enough to render it completely unviable in a commercial way. Therefore, it was mainly taken up by the people who had the financial means – aka rock stars.
Fortunately for Linn, this early adoption by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel and Prince meant that his machine would live long in the popular consciousness, even without big sales. He sought to rectify this with the LinnDrum (sometimes called the LM-2 to distinguish it from its older sibling). This model was more stable and importantly, around half the price of the original.
The price got jacked up again with the introduction of the Linn 9000 – a MIDI programmable machine with velocity sensitive pads. It was an innovative machine in its own right, but the competition by the time it was released (1984) was fierce, so the end was nigh for Linn’s pricey machines.
The history of audio is peppered throughout with devices that – while not becoming commercial successes in their own right – became harbingers of a new era. The Linn Electronics LM-1 was such a machine.
Fortunately for Linn, his influence did not begin and end with his short-lived collection of drum machines. He went to collaborate with AKAI on the MPC – a series of standalone sampler workstations that had a massive impact on the world of hip hop. Another notable collaboration was with synth luminary Dave Smith, which produced the Tempest drum machine.
But these later breakthroughs could not have possibly been conceived without the LM-1. It was a hitmaker on the charts, its design transforming the humble rhythm machine into a drum machine, an instrument that could stand on its own two feet.