I Dream Of Drum Machines: Beatbox Fanatic

drum machine

"Drum Machines Have No Soul!"

A million bumper stickers can’t be wrong, right? For human drummers ’round the world it was a clarion call for action: Drum machines are heartless, cold-ass, robotic things that must not be allowed to replace the feeling, sweating, and perhaps even thinking flesh-and-blood tubwhacker.

It’s not a subject that drummers apparently ever grow tired of debating. Indeed the very term drum machine is even today fightin’ words to many drummers of the human persuasion. But guess what? It’ll never be resolved. Not to the satisfaction of drummers, anyway.

Those drummers, however, might like to know that there is another type of human being we’ll call The Music Fan, and yet another interested party called, well, let’s call him/her The Music Technician. The Music Fan is someone who hears music he likes, grows to love it, and wants to take part in its creation. He’s got loads of great ideas, but maybe not the instrumental chops to play them. He needs a way to make a sound, and the drum machine is his gate of entry.

One such music fan is author Joe Mansfield, whose love and affection for drum machines led to his 150-plus (and counting) collection of them, which are detailed in his new book, Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. The 200-plus-page coffee-table tome features 75 drum machines from the hip-hop producer and music industry veteran’s massive arsenal. Chock-full of gorgeous retro-kitschy graphic images of more than 75 drum machines dating from the 1950s to the late 1980s, the book features thoughtful essays and comments from drum machine programmers and pioneers Davy DMX, Schoolly-D, Marshall Jefferson, and Roger Linn.

Mansfield the music fan talks with good-humored reverence about his hallowed assemblage of drum machines. One might wonder about a grown man’s obsession with these quirky little devices, and whether he ought to consider getting some kind of counseling.

“Yeah, there might be a need for that,” he says with a laugh. “But these machines just have this quality about them – the way they sound, the way they look. So cool.

drum machine

“It started when I was young,” he says. “My mother used to play Sly & The Family Stone stuff when I was a kid, and I always liked that song ’Family Affair.’ I didn’t know why, but the drum machine in it interested me, there was something different about it, like the little poppy percussion sounds that I now know was a Maestro Rhythm King. And the album itself had drum machine all through it. I always liked that stuff.”

For the purposes of his massive collection and the Beat Box book, Mansfield defines the somewhat nebulous term drum machine like this: “If it’s a box or a rack – an older one, whatever it is – that has some kind of drum section in it, I’m collecting ’em. I’ve also got some that were units that were built into organs and removed to be used as separate units. And I have a Sony boombox from the early ’80s that had a preprogrammed drum section in it, and a Casio boombox that has a drum machine and keyboard in it. So, anything that has a rhythm machine in it, I’m interested in it.”

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