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The Beat Goes On | The Enduring Legacy of the LinnDrum

The Beat Goes On | The Enduring Legacy of the LinnDrum

Before 1980, drum machines were not taken very seriously by most musicians. They had been more the “beep and boop” of units like the Maestro Rhythm King with predefined patterns and robotic feel where the only control you had was tempo. Sure, there were the first generation of the analog Roland drum machines, the CompuRhythm units—the CR-68, which only allowed pre-programmed patterns; the CR-78, which introduced some limited programmability; and the legendary TR-808—which would later become the sound of hip-hop—but they didn’t sound like “real drums.” When Roger Linn introduced the LM-1 in 1980 (although prototypes had started showing up on recordings in ’79), it was the first unit to use digitally sampled recordings of real drummers, playing real drum kits. However grainy those early 8-bit samples may seem by today’s standards, at the time it was a revolution. The release of the LM-1’s successor, the LinnDrum (aka “LM-2,” although that was never part of the unit’s name) in 1982, with a higher sample rate, more memory for longer samples and the capacity to swap in custom sounds, made it even more realistic, helping the LinnDrum become a huge part of many 1980s hit songs. You want to get an idea of just what the LinnDrum sounded like? It’s all over Peter Gabriel IV and just about everything Prince recorded in the first half of the ‘80s, with “When Doves Cry” being a classic example.

The 1980s, in general, were the beginning of a sea change in recording and music technology, and it was an exciting time to be making music. CDs were the new format, aided by the development of reliable, affordable multitrack digital recording. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, if you’ve never seen it spelled out before) standards were still in development, and those funny-looking 5-pin DIN ports would start to appear on new products from Roland and Sequential Circuits (the Jupiter-6 and the Prophet 600, respectively) in 1982. New digital synthesis engines were being developed, making synthesis and, probably more importantly, synth programming easier and more accessible. Many of those new digital synthesizers included some ability to record and play back samples. The TASCAM Portastudio, originally introduced in 1979, was also starting to catch on, creating a boom in home recording. The development of the LinnDrum was a huge part of the technological wave that was beginning to break over the creative world.

Part Triggers on a vintage Linn Instruments LinnDrum

Introducing Roger Linn

At the center of all this was Roger Linn, a guitar player who, in his early 20s, toured with Leon Russell and has co-written hit songs for the likes of Eric Clapton and Mary Chapin Carpenter. But the Technical Merit Grammy he was awarded in 2011 by NARAS was based on his history as an electronic designer, having been responsible for several products that can conservatively be said to have changed the course of popular music.

As influential as the LM-1 and LinnDrum were, Linn has continued to have an impact on modern music making, largely through his design of the iconic MPC60 for AKAI in the late 1980s—a machine without which modern hip-hop would have been something totally other, if it existed at all—as well as newer products like the 2001 debut of the AdrenaLinn and the 2014 LinnStrument. But the story started with the drum machines.

Control panel of a vintage LinnDrum

The LM-1—A First Pass at Greatness

Roger Linn has admitted that the LM-1 began as a tool for his own songwriting. While Linn played guitar, bass and some keyboards, recording drums for song demos was always a problem, so he set out to create a solution. The suggestion to use digital samples of real drums reportedly came from Toto and studio keyboard player, Steve Porcaro, and is the key to what made the machine popular. Linn says that he’s not entirely clear, but the original drum samples are thought to have been recorded with either Jeff Porcaro or Motown drummer James Gadson. The real stroke of genius was Linn’s decision to not store drum beats, as previous analog drum machines had done, but to store individual drum sounds, without any reverb or other ambience. This not only saved on the amount of memory—very expensive memory at that time—required, but enabled the artist/producer/programmer to have complete freedom in creating a drum part. Or, at least, a drum part that could be built in two-bar segments at a resolution of 48 pulses per quarter-note (the equivalent of a 32nd-note triplet). With 100 slots for two-bar phrases, though, that was a lot of versatility. The LM-1 pushed existing technology to a whole new level. The LM-1 provided 12 separate sounds: kick, snare, hi-hat, cabasa, tambourine, two toms, two congas, cowbell, claves and hand claps. Each LM-1 sound was individually tunable, and there were individual outputs for each sound, in addition to a stereo output for the whole unit. Due to technical limitations with then-current programmable memory chips, cymbal samples other than hi-hat were not available on the LM-1. The inclusion of a tape sync signal output and input even enabled the LM-1 to overdub itself, and you could back up your recorded drum patterns (they were not yet called “sequences”) to a cassette tape to save them for later use.

With limited memory space and a 28kHz sampling rate, the sounds may not seem like much by modern standards, but at the time they were astonishingly good. The ad that announced the LM-1 simply had the headline “Real Drums.” With a $5,500 initial price, it found a following among a number of contemporary artists and producers (Prince, Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Gary Numan, Giorgio Moroder, Human League, ABC and others), but was expensive enough to manufacture that only a single production run of just over 500 units were made and sold. There was an option for custom samples to be made—just send a tape of the sound you wanted sampled to Linn, and you’d get back custom chips for your LM-1. This option was used reasonably often. Multi-Grammy winner Phil Ramone’s highly customized LM-1 resided for some time in Studio A at The Hit Factory in New York City. The next step, though, was destined to push the drum machine over the top and into mainstream music production.

The Speed of Technological Change

In the three years between the development of the LM-1 and the introduction of the next generation, now called the LinnDrum, the pace of improvement in digital components had greatly increased, and chip capacity and speed had grown immensely. At the same time, the cost of those components had come down substantially. The LinnDrum was able to take advantage of these circumstances. Expanding available sample memory enabled adding crash and ride cymbal samples, though these were large enough that they had to be spread over multiple EPROM (Electronic Programmable Read-Only Memory) chips. Increased speeds enabled the sample rate to be increased from 28kHz to 35kHz, enabling much better high-frequency response.

Mixer and top panel on a vintage Linn Instruments LinnDrum

The LinnDrum debuted in 1982 at a price approximately $2,000 less than the LM-1 had been. Most of this price drop was due to the decrease in the cost of electronic components, but there were some other changes that were perceived as a downgrade. Where previously every sound could be retuned, the LinnDrum restricted tuning to only the snare, toms and conga sounds, while a decay control was added for the hi-hat. The increased fidelity due to the higher sample rate and longer sample times more than made up for that new restriction though. The internal operating system had also been tweaked for reliability, resulting in a much more stable and less frustrating experience in the studio and, increasingly, in live performance where drum machines were beginning to show their faces.

The LinnDrum’s sequencing capability was unique for its time, with the ability to create, link and edit multiple two-bar patterns and control quantization (then called “error correction”), as well as adjust feel from straight time to 70% swing in six discrete steps, labeled A-F on the machine (Linn would greatly expand the swing function in his later design for MPC—one reason that machine remains a stalwart presence in the hip-hop world). The LinnDrum also improved over the LM-1 by adding trigger inputs for kick, snare and toms—a feature that was the forerunner of all the versions of drum replacement available today—and trigger outputs for syncing external devices like synthesizers. There were also CV (Control Voltage) inputs that could adjust tuning on the fly from an external controller. In those pre-MIDI days, this was an incredible amount of available control—so much control, in fact, that many LinnDrum users who didn’t read the manual in depth, had little idea of just how much their drum machine could do.

Separate outputs on a vintage Linn Instruments LinnDrum

The LinnDrum appeared on some of the most iconic hits of the ‘80s—“Take On Me” by a-ha, “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” and many, many others. The sound of the LinnDrum is a huge part of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” a song which hit the global charts for a second time in 2022, thanks to its appearance in the streaming series, Stranger Things. In “Running,” the LinnDrum lays down a rolling, compulsive pattern from the Linn’s punchy tom samples, while the sampled snare is doubled with an acoustic snare. All of this helped the LinnDrum become one of the most widely used production devices of the time, but, unlike many other popular pieces of equipment, because it was so easy to create custom sounds, you couldn’t always tell it was the centerpoint of the production.

Forward Motion

Unfortunately, the Linn 9000, an ambitious project that was intended to be the successor to the LinnDrum, was plagued by problems with an unstable operating system, and by increasing competition from larger manufacturers with deeper pockets. When Linn’s original company was sold in the late ‘80s, he moved on to develop a product that refined many of the concepts he’d started to develop with the LinnDrum and has, conceivably, gone on to eclipse the first generation of drum machines.

Partnering with AKAI, Linn designed the iconic MPC60, which brought to fruition many of the ideas he’d begun working with in the Linn 9000. The MPC60 brought us the 4x4 grid of triggers which have become known, familiarly, as “MPC Pads,” and quickly became the tool of choice for the burgeoning hip-hop scene. Since the MPC, Linn has been continuing his pursuit of multipurpose instruments and instrument controllers that cross borders and enable easier creation. After setting up Roger Linn Designs, he has developed the AdrenaLinn, a combination of guitar effect pedal, amp modeler, beat-synced effects and more, designed the Tempest drum machine in collaboration with long-time friend and synthesizer visionary, the late Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits fame, and the LinnStrument, an alternate MIDI controller that steps away from the conventional keyboard layout to offer a whole new way of creating music. Linn is still actively working at finding new ways to help musicians create, and we’re always excited to see what he’s coming up with next.

If this article has you interested in adding some ‘80s synthpop vibes or overlaying some Minneapolis funk on your own track, you can still find the occasional original LinnDrum on the market, or you can look into the wide array of sample packs and virtual instruments available. A couple of our favorites are Arturia’s Spark and several of the available sample packs for KONTAKT.

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