October 18, 2014
Taking inspiration from the LM-1, the DMX was made using digital samples of real drums. It was released in 1981 and features 24 individual drum sounds (created from 11 raw samples), 8-voice polyphony and a number of humanising elements.
An expensive drum machine but its punchy and realistic drum sound made it the machine of choice for many established artists in the ’80s. It was especially popular with early hip hop producers like Run D.M.C. and Slick Rick but was also widely used on new wave and synth pop records. Today it’s mostly used to make dancehall and reggae music.
Inspired by natural beauty, space and time, ambient composer Steve Roach uses a mixture of analogue and digital equipment to paint beautiful soundscapes. He was an early user of the DMX but later parted ways with the machine.
When did you first encounter the DMX?
I was living in West L.A. during the peak years of Oberheim, lots of friends worked there and I was in an electronic group with Danny Sofer who wrote the manuals and helped develop the machine. I would see prototypes at various stages of the DMX and entire Oberheim System which I would eventually own. That time was so exciting – to be at the birthing ground of those instruments and close to flame as it was happening.
Tell us about a record you made using the DMX.
For the tracks ‘The Breathing Stone’ and ‘In the Heat of Venus’ on Western Spaces, The DMX was the heart of the system. In this case with these pieces it was clocking everything you hear, The Oberheim System, Arp 2600, Ensoniq ESQ 1 Sequencer. A large number of synths and sequencers would all fire off in perfect sync when hitting play or record. These pieces I mentioned were created at the tempo you hear with each piece.
On some pieces at that time I would create patterns and eventually use them much faster that the orginal tempo they were built at. Here I would create the beat structure and then evolve the sequence patterns on the synced up synths at the same time, in a back and forth process, as well as tuning the drums as its evolving. Again the volume sliders on the DMX were key to the instant feedback and shaping of the piece. This approach is still at the center of how I work today in many respects.
What are some of the machine’s finer details?
I am not so aware of the tech details of the machine, as a user if I remember correctly the MIDI options came later. I met and worked for a guy called Scott Morgan who had a booming business at the time making custom eproms for the DMX. Through him and later the Oberheim Prommer Eprom Burner sampler, I had some hand made sounds that were undefined in terms of the source but were very emotional and hard hitting.
I would say the constant technique I would use never belting shut the lid of the DMX. I was always lifting the hood you could say and changing the pitch on each voice card with that small rotary wheel I can still feel on my finger tips. I would trade out voice cards all the time as well.
I almost always tuned every thing down and low, even a crisp snare would sound wicked combined with a custom sound and deep tuned conga. Even in the the middle of a show I would have the lid up tuning sounds on the fly as it was running.
And more generally how does the machine fit into the music you make?
At that time it was the heart beat of the system. Even if a piece would eventually evolve away from the DMX, it was a big part of starting a creative fire in the studio. Another few tracks to reference would would be disk one of Dreamtime Return. Slow motion and the deep tuned –verbed DMX set was vital for that entire project.
Well, sad to say I don’t have one now but this makes me want one back. I moved to a Akai -Linn MPC 60 back in the ’90s, I still have that here but there is something special about the DMX the sound, the interface, the limitations, all added up to a great hands-on, creative tool. Don’t know what led to me moving away from it other than perhaps I felt like after maybe 10 years of working with it I need to move into some other places. Might have to find one now!
Steve Roach’s studio 1987
A few days after chatting to Steve Roach, he got in touch again to give us news that the interview had encouraged him to get hold of a DMX:
After thinking about my process it got me to thinking about how I could use the DMX now and I might give it a go. All my custom DMX sounds were sampled into my MPC 60 so it lives on there, but it’s not the same.
So thanks to your interview-wakeup call, I’m heading in the direction of a friend in Baltimore who has one with a MIDI. I’m working out the details as we speak!
Kicked out of school at 16, he went on to become one of the premier names in jungle and drum and bass. His debut New Forms won the Mercury Prize in 1997 beating Radiohead, The Prodigy and even The Spice Girls to the award. For him the appeal of the DMX is its heritage.
When did you first get a DMX?
The first time I actually held a DMX drum machine was around 1995. I was working with a lovers rock singer called Richie Davies and when he used to come down to Bristol he would bring his DMX with him.
It was the version where you had to burn the chip to change the snare sound and had the pitch control so you could transpose the snare sound up and down. A universal reggae sound for the studio .
Due to my obsession with drum machines a very close friend of mine Lilly, who lives in Los Angles, bought me a DMX as a present and it still has a special place in my studio. I think I used the kick and snare on pretty much every record throughout the ’90s .
One of the downfalls of the model I had was that I had to keep lifting up the lid to change the pitch of the sounds. So I probably dodged a bullet a few times when touching wires. Also it was an American voltage so I had to make sure the right leads were in otherwise it would be bonfire night early .
Why is the DMX special to you?
It’s not just about the music I make but more about the era I was inspired by. I remember hearing a story about the early relationship between the hip hop artist and the rock engineers in New York’s famous Factory Studios and the way they would treat the DMX as a live drum kit. The snare and kit and hi hat would be mic’d up as if it was a drum kit and that’s how those early funk jams got it so fat. Deep down I love my old school hip hop, soul, funk and reggae and it was all about the drum machine. All my favourite records featured the DMX.
Tell us about a DMX record
When I was making New Forms there was one track called ‘Watching Windows’ which was one part SP12 and the rest was the DMX. I used the snare from my DMX in pretty much all of my tracks but the track I remember the most is ‘Watching Windows’ because of the tempo change from 120 t0 170.
(Innovative Communication, 1987)