When the first drum machines hit the market in the 1950s, they must have felt like the future. Imagine that—a robotic drummer that does exactly what you tell him to, and doesn't get loaded after the show. Of course, the human drummer never quite went out of style, but drum machines changed music forever.
In his new book Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession, Joe Mansfield traces the history of the boxes, from their barebones analog origins as machines designed for simple accompaniment, all the way to the microprocessor-loaded boxes sophisticated enough to serve as the central element in music.
More than just an encyclopedia, the book is a catalog of Mansfield's own passion for drum machines—the 75 featured in the book are only half of the 150 he owns. The best part of the handsome volume are the glorious photos by Gary Land, which the publisher, Get On Down, has been kind enough to let us publish here.
What strikes me the most is the dramatic evolution of design. The Wurlitzer Side Man from the 1959 reminds me of an old standing radio or the KLH 17 speakers in my grandmother's apartment. But in the 60s and early 70s, as drum machines crept into the mainstream, gear started to take after vintage guitar amplifiers. After all, Jimi Hendrix was fond of them, evidenced by his demo material, like the blues recording posthumously released on South Saturn Delta.
As analog beat keepers evolved into computers, they naturally adopted the aesthetic of the early personal data processors and plastic computers of the 1980s. But in looking at Mansfield's book, it's hard not to marvel at the incredible design variety—check out some of the highlights below.
Wurlitzer Side Man (1959)
Denon CRB-90 "Rhythm Box" (1972)
Roland TR-66 Rhythm Arranger (1973)
Gemini Beat Box R-777 (1978/1979)
Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer (1980)
Roland CR-8000 CompuRhythm (1980)