Drum patterns and memories: 12 artists reflect on iconic drum machines

Drum patterns and memories: 12 artists reflect on iconic drum machines




Roland CR-78


A very basic machine compared to the others but when Roland launched it in 1978 it was their first programmable drum machine. This ability to program and store patterns lit the passage for the development of the LM-1, DMX, 808 and 909. The CR-78 features 34 in-built preset rhythms which use analogue voices that are unrealistic sounding but gives the machine a distinctive character.

The machine found its way on to many ’70s and ’80s classics like Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’, OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’, Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ and Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’. Rarely used today, we managed to track down an intriguing artist who is still incorporating it into his music.


John Foxx

Foxx’s career has comprised of a series of unusual and fascinating paths. Originally frontman of Ultravox, he left to follow a solo career dabbling in everything from ambient to glam rock to video game music while also pursuing ambitions in graphic design and film making. His most recent project sees him collaborate with Steve D’Agostino to release an LP entitled Evidence Of Time Travel.

When did you buy a CR-78?
In 1978 when they first came out. I jumped at it. It was the first programmable drum machine, even though it consisted mainly of variable preset rhythms. I’d used a previous cocktail-lounge machine with Brian Eno, when we recorded the first Ultravox album in 1976. He’d used it on Another Green World and I loved the strange sound. It was really new and original at that time.

To introduce the CR78, Roland really must have had their ear close to the ground to know what only a few key musicians wanted then, because it was a truly avant-garde idea to use a drum machine at all in those days – until that moment, they’d been the territory of lounge bar musicians – hence the leftover bossa-nova, cha-cha- cha and waltz presets.

What are the technical details of the machine?

In reality, it was a non-dancing Japanese programmer’s idea of strange Western generic rhythm patterns, so inevitably eccentric and electronic sounding – which endeared it to me immediately. You could also press in more than one preset button at a time and so combine rhythms, take elements in and out – and also you could buy an extra – a programmer button, to inject new bass drums and snares. Miracle.

Plus you could synchronise to a sequencer and plug everything up through effects and echoes to mutate things even more – even get the machine internally modified, so you could separate the instrument sounds, since it was all in mono and everything came out to a single jack.

Of course, conventional recording engineers despised all this because they were trained to handle real drums, but that was all so elaborate and time wasting. They literally took days to set up mics and EQ etc. A real pain. The CR78 was an instant liberation.Only a very few truly perceptive engineers- like Gareth Jones who I worked with on ‘Metamatic’ – realized that here was something new and a significant departure.

How did discovering the machine affect the way you made music?

It totally changed my working methods. I loved the fact that you could plug it in at home and you had a ready-made atmosphere and a strange rhythm – immediately. Absolutely perfect for writing.

Some of the patterns were really original and good – gave me strong ideas for songs as soon as I turned the little devil on. Of course, I realized that the CR78 was only the beginning of the road toward truly flexible rhythm devices, from it you could immediately see what else was needed for their evolution – sure enough, the 808 and 909 came a few years later, then the LinnDrum.

But I still found I liked the CR78’s primitivism, and found I kept on going back to it. I came to understand that its rigidity forces you to work in certain ways and I like that. Its very limitations would give me ideas. It also gave me a good part of my distinctive sound – and that’s absolutely essential for any artist. You have to differentiate yourself from everyone else somehow.

As soon as you hear that wonky, clattering metal beat, you’re right into an alternative sonic universe. And it was all mine – no-one else had ever used it so prominently, or in quite the same way. Always felt very gleeful whenever I switched it on. Off you went into another place. It was a true transportation device.I only ever wanted to use well-considered, simple machines that give immediate results. Complexity is not the same as complication. Anything unnecessarily complicated is therefore badly designed and would immediately hit the bin. I didn’t have time to mess around – there was so much else to do.

I like a machine that, when you switch it on, you light up. The CR78 certainly did that. Still does.

We hear your new album features the CR-78.

On Evidence of Time Travel, the CR-78 determines all the basic tracks and sounds – it really becomes a sort of a lead instrument, at least equal to the Arp. Steve D’Agostino – who worked on the production and arrangement as well as much of the composition – really loves those sounds and understands that sort of instrumentation better than anyone I know. He did it all so beautifully.

John Foxx & Steve D’Agostino
Evidence Of Time Travel
(Metamatic, 2014)