Tuesday, June 10, 2008

LinnDrum: The Forgotten Classic

The LinnDrum is a piece of majestic musical machinery oft-forgotten in the timeline of electronic/pop music. It bears the name of its founder, Berkeley's own Roger Linn, who applied the foundation and concepts he pioneered in that instrument to the later blockbuster Akai MPC series of sampling workstations. It seems as if it has been cast permanently under the shadow of its much more popular little brothers the MPC's 60, 500, 1000, 2000, and 3000. Although never quite a workstation, that little wonder box laid the groundwork for the features that would later be implemented in the MPC series, such as sampling, tuning and volume control over individual sounds, external triggering of sounds (pre-midi), and the ability to load new sounds into the machine. It went through three iterations in four years- the Linn LM-1, the LinnDrum, and the Linn 9000.

As the first sampling instrument, it is a transition instrument that bridges the link between the early drum machines like the Rhythm Ace, a box that had fixed sound and rhythm patterns that sounded much like the ones that emanated from your grandma's home organ- and the powerhouse musical swiss army knives of today- sampling MIDI workstations equipped with tons of onboard memory, advanced sequencing, and banks of realistic-sounding drums.

But there is a certain characteristic that defines the LinnDrum. When one talks about the LinnDrum, the first thing that your brain conjures up is “that sound,” and the next is trying to remember all the songs that it was featured on. Most recognizable is that knocking kind of “boxy clank” rhythm best represented by the song “When Doves Cry,” by Prince. The unique sound of the LinnDrum was probably the reason for Prince's decision to leave a bass line entirely out of that song and to feature those drum sounds, center stage.

Prince is the artist most closely associated with the LinnDrum sound, seeing that it was featured on every 80's record of his, save for Dirty Mind (because it wasn't invented yet). He put it into service with every artist he is closely associated with, and that is a long list: Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, The Time, Shelia E, Jesse Johnson, Sheena Easton, He even used it with other artists that he produced, like Andre Cymone and Patti Labelle.

The LinnDrum touched almost every corner of popular music- its sounds were heard in Rock, Pop, R&B, Hip Hop and even soundtrack music- witness the Giorgio Moroder track from the movie “Cat People” and the ubiquitous hit “Miami Vice Theme.” John Carpenter and Vangelis also put the box into service as a compositional tool. A whole new branch of synth-flavored R&B dance music was ushered in due to its usage (check out the classic electro track “Freak-A-Zoid” by Midnight Starr) . Again, much of that credit is due to Prince. He first used the LinnDrum on his 1981 album “Controversy” on the song “Private Joy.” The stiff (in a good way) drum sounds complement the rest of the synth-funk track quite handily.

Prince was certainly amongst the first to use the LinnDrum on an album, but the distinction of first goes to Steve Hackett, a guitarist with the band Genesis. On the track “Overnight Sleeper” he manages to make innovative usage of its sound with intricately programmed drums in a Prog-Rock style in the vein of say, Tangerine Dream or Synergy.

The first appearance of the LinnDrum to surface on the mainstream charts was in the song “Don't You Want Me” by The Human League. A huge hit, but one that severely underutilized the capabilities of that machine. Really all the drums are doing in this song is keeping time.

You'll notice that a lot of LinnDrum drum tracks are recorded extremely dry to enhance the direct gritty, dirty quality of the sounds. Many of the tracks were programmed to utilize the machine's mechanical “funk.” Prince, being the musician that utilized the instrument the most, is also the one who worked the hardest on pushing the sounds and rhythms into a new realm. The LinnDrum's sequencer was said to have time lag limitations, but many musicians turned that supposed weakness into a strength. The LinnDrum was one of those legendary machines that is said to have strong “feel.”

Some producers used it to augment the sound of real drums. Listen to the way it's used on the Todd Rundgren song “Bang the Drum All Day.” The distinctive whomp of the snare is right there underneath the regular drum kit. Sometimes producers would layer drum sounds from this and other machines, so on a few of these tracks, you might not be hearing just the Linn.

The 80's (especially the mid-80's) were definitely the time for the LinnDrum. They would have not sounded the same without it. It helped push music into sonic territory that had yet been unexplored, even on a “Pop” level. Artists like Madonna, Midnight Star, Peter Gabriel, Prince, and The Thompson Twins created major hits with it. Would Michael Sembello's hit “Maniac” from the movie Flashdance have sounded the same if not for the LinnDrum? The rolling percussion of that song virtually defines it.

There are new artists that go the LinnDrum for that certain sound as well. Check out the song “Burn Rubber” by Dam-Funk. It is a retake on the classic by the Gap Band, given a modern run-through, but retaining its ties to the past through its use of the simple LinnDrum patterns and that distinctive “thwak.”

After 20 years, the old LinnDrum is making a comeback. Only now its taking the innovative mindset that started with the original and applying it to a whole new generation of music makers. The LinnDrum ll is a meeting of the minds, a collaboration between Mr. Linn and Mr. Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits and Prophet 5 fame. The machine was created from the idea that with so much electronic music being performance based, why not have a machine that caters to it? I'm sure this new instrument will do as much for music in the 2000's and beyond as the LinnDrum did during its heyday.

Here's a little musical tribute to the beautiful machine that Roger Linn created- the LinnDrum.
-Marcel Grimsley

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