Roger Linn: The Technician As Musician

roger linn

DRUM Machine capabilities took a quantum leap from dorky Wurlitzer organ beats to the top of the charts when Roger Linn introduced the LM-1 Drum Computer in 1979. In one fell swoop, he altered the course of recorded drums and forced drummers to rethink their strategies forever. We spoke with him about his invention and its ramifications.

DRUM! Where did your interest in the drum machine begin? Was it a case of a void that needed filling? linn I was a guitarist, songwriter, and recording engineering in L.A. in the ’70s. For my song demos I could play guitar, bass, and fake my way on keyboards, but the more difficult instrument to play and to record in my home studio was the drums. I had an interest in computers and owned one, an early one, so I decided to write a program that would permit the programming of repeating drumbeats, and I wired my computer to a drum sound generator circuit board of an early Roland drum machine. Shortly after that, I had learned about storage of digital samples of audio on tape, and it occurred to me that the short duration of drum sounds could be practically stored on computer memories instead of tape, making them available for instant playback. So I added sampled sound playback to my prototype. Yes, I think it was a void that needed filling, and upon hearing my early prototype, people recognized the value immediately.

Your LM-1 was the first drum machine to use digital samples of acoustic drums. Its “human” rhythm feel must have been of critical importance to you in its development. What was your thinking about how to get a drum machine to play with a human feel?

Yes, an important goal was for it to sound like a real human drummer, and further to make the user’s programmed drumbeats sound natural and human. The original prototype used a screen-based step-programming method, which I found to be very slow and counterintuitive, so I wrote the code to permit programming in real time by hitting the drum buttons in time to a metronome. But this initially succeeded only in playing back the user’s bad timing, something abundant in non-drummers.

Oddly, my invention of timing quantization – which I initially called Auto Correct – was an accident. Because computer memory was expensive and most drumbeats consisted of only sixteenth-notes, I initially decided to store the drumbeats in memory as a series of only sixteenth-notes. When I first tried recording a beat in real time, I noticed that this had the effect of moving the notes that I played onto the nearest sixteenth-note. Voilà – time quantization was born.

Time quantization cleaned up the timing errors, but I still needed a way to make the programmed beats sound looser, less stiff than perfect sixteenth-notes. Having previously worked with the pianist and songwriter Leon Russell, he had taught me that different drummers used different degrees of swing timing, which he called “shuffle.” So I wrote an algorithm to add various degrees of delay to the playback of alternate sixteenth-notes of a drumbeat. Voilà number two – the swing feature was born, which I called Shuffle.

The introduction of sampled drum sounds, timing quantization, and swing were, I think, the most important factors in the natural human feel and sound of the LM-1.

The LM-1 and your follow up the LinnDrum’s development must have quickly suggested to you many potential expansions.

That’s true. My original drum machine prototype included a single-voice analog sequencer in addition to the drum machine function. I didn’t include that sequencer in the LM-1 or LinnDrum, something I always missed. So in the subsequent Linn9000, I added a MIDI sequencer with 99 polyphonic tracks, which enabled musicians to program much more of their arrangements. Also, I used the same loop-based real-time recording method for keyboard parts as for the drum parts, including both time quantization and swing. Musicians found it very fast and simple to create entire backing tracks.

Isn’t it true that the drum machine’s ability to play virtual rhythms – e.g. multi- or odd-timed polyrhythms that are devilishly difficult for human drummers to play – have in fact inspired drummers to up their game?

Drum machines did open new avenues of beat creation. One of the beat-creation methods I liked was to enter real-time record on the LM-1, then turn off the sound and randomly hit the drum buttons for about a minute. Then I’d turn up the sound and hear the beat that I randomly created. Because the quantization and swing moved my hits onto swung sixteenth-notes, often this resulted in surprisingly good beats, albeit after a few little tweaks.

Have you been on the receiving end of much harsh criticism from musicians regarding how the LinnDrum and similar devices have put musicians out of work? There was some tension in the early days. But drummers who embraced the new technology gained greater success. They realized that a drum machine is merely one of the drummer’s tools, same as acoustic drums or percussion instru- ments. A drum machine can’t think of a part that fits your recording, can’t create most of the subtle nuances of tapping a drum in a hundred different ways, and doesn’t have a knowledge of thousands of recordings from which to draw upon when playing with the other musicians.