Linn Electronics LinnDrum

Produced: 1982-85 Made in: United States Designed by: Roger Linn Number produced: 5,000 Sound-production system: digital sampling Price new: $2,495 Today's

Produced: 1982-85
Made in: United States
Designed by: Roger Linn
Number produced: 5,000
Sound-production system: digital sampling
Price new: $2,495

Today's prices: Like new $600 Like, it's okay for its age $500 Like hell $250

If one name is synonymous with dragging the drum machine out ofits organ accoutrement niche, that name is Linn. While in his early20s, California guitarist Roger Linn was sufficiently ticked offabout the state and cost of drum machines that he built his ownbeat box. The Linn LM-1 was the first commercial drum machine thatused sampled drum sounds instead of analog, synthesized binks andbonks; hence, it is considered the first digital drum machine.Linn's design cut across stylistic barriers. Anyone who couldafford a Linn machine, from Prince to Peter Gabriel to XTC, boughtone.

Linn began producing the LM-1 in 1979, but only about 500 weremanufactured. It wasn't until three years later that Linn's secondproduct, the LinnDrum, firmly established the line. A substantialinstrument measuring almost two feet across, the LinnDrum quicklygained classic status thanks to its sampled sounds andrevolutionary rhythmic concepts such as swing factors, shuffle,accent, and real-time programming, all of which have since rootedthemselves in beat box technology.

The first thing that set the LinnDrum apart was the sounds,which are big and beefy, like real drums. “I think werecorded at a 35 kHz sample rate,” says Linn. But in one ofthose happy accidents, he didn't apply the filtering that's normalfor such a modest sample rate — “It made the drumssound dull,” Linn says — and the resulting distortionand sizzle provide much of the instrument's realism and bite.

Among the LinnDrum's 15 separate sounds are crash and ridecymbals, both of which were absent from the LM-1. Other soundsoffered are cabasa, tambourine, high and low congas, cowbell, handclaps, hi-hat, three sizes of toms, kick, snare, and rimshot. Any12 sounds can be selected for simultaneous play.

A number of session drummers provided the raw sonic material forthe LinnDrum. You can easily insert new chips into the LinnDrum,providing it with a theoretically limitless tone palette. Thisdesign allowed Linn to offer customers the option of burning theirsounds onto a chip, free of charge, if they would make those soundsavailable to the company in return. A number of those customercontributions made their way into the LinnDrum.

Operating a LinnDrum is mostly a quick and friendly affair. New2-bar patterns can be programmed in real time and quantized (ornot) on input. Different instruments and passes can use varyingquantization factors, and the patterns loop automatically, lettingyou keep adding as the pattern rolls by. If you don't like what youjust played, simply hit Erase and the offending instrument buttonwhile the pattern plays. It's a fantastically swift and satisfyingway of working.

Sounds can be recorded into any of 56 user patterns in real timeby hitting the generous-size pads or in step time. You also get 42preset patterns that cannot be rerecorded. Patterns can be chainedinto Songs, of which 49 can be stored internally. In addition, theunit's cassette interface lets you store Song data on tape.

Each drum can be individually tuned — seven of themdirectly from the front panel using dedicated knobs — andeach can be panned and mixed using separate sliders. The keyinstruments — including kick, snare, and hats — havetwo (or three, in the case of the snare) Accent (level) buttons, soa pattern can use the same drum at different volumes. Although youcan remix the levels in real time with the faders, you cannotrecord the level changes in a pattern. Hi-hat decay appeared at theback on the LM-1 but made the LinnDrum's front panel. This featurelets the user set the length of the relationship between open andclosed hi-hat, adding considerably to the instrument's humanfeel.

Obviously the LinnDrum's sound continues to play a huge part inits popularity; the Internet is swarming with Linn samples. But theLinnDrum also has a particular timing feel, partly due to itsresolution (96 ppqn, maximum) and partly because of its shrewdhuman shuffle/swing feature that offers six percentage levelsbetween fully straight beats and regular swing-time feels. Althoughthe overall resolution is a fraction of that in a modern sequencer,the lilt this feature provides sounds convincingly natural.

The LinnDrum was designed as a professional piece of equipment.At the rear are 15 individual instrument output jacks, ExternalSync and Trigger ports for connecting with other timed devices, andfive Trigger inputs that allow the LinnDrum to be played with padsor to be triggered by any incoming audio signal. Because theLinnDrum was introduced about a year before the MIDI specificationwas adopted, MIDI never appeared on a production model; it isinteresting that the LinnDrum offers all the control options thatMIDI would soon provide collectively. One of Linn's few regretsseems to be that, despite his intimate knowledge of drum machines,he did not offer much input into the discussions that led to theMIDI specification.

The importance of the LM-1 and the LinnDrum cannot beoverstated. Those instruments took drum machines out of the toy boxand put them into the professional studio. Linn's musical andintuitive cut-and-paste-style user interface resurfaced insubsequent instruments made in cooperation with Akai, notably thepopular MPC series, which remains a key tool for hip-hopmusicians.

The LinnDrum has not yet scaled the giddy heights of hipness (orprice) achieved by contemporaries such as the Roland TR-808 or eventhe E-mu SP-1200. Fortunately, Forat Electronics (staffed byex-Linn employees) offers a variety of modifications, including aMIDI retrofit that lets the instrument integrate with currenttechnology. Forat ( also offers service, repair, anduser manuals. Some additional information is available from RogerLinn Design (

Julian Colbeck has toured everywhere from Tokyo to SãoPaulo with artists as varied as ABWH/Yes, Steve Hackett, JohnMiles, and Charlie.