On the surface, there's not much that DJ Premier, the Human League, Peter Gabriel, Don Henley and Prince would seem to have in common, unless you consider the fact that the key gear they used to create some of their biggest hits was designed and engineered by one man — Roger Linn. From the LinnDrum rhythm that drives Madonna's “Borderline” to the complex Akai MPC60 sequences that adorn DJ Shadow's “Midnight in a Perfect World,” Linn's creations have exerted a profound influence on the way artists produce music.
It all started in 1979 with the release of the Linn Electronics LM-1 Drum Computer, the first drum machine to offer actual sampled drums — unlike earlier units such as the Ace Tone (Roland's predecessor) Rhythm Ace, whose sounds were synthesized approximations of a drum kit. The LM-1's architecture was based on prototypes that Linn had developed in 1976, when he was working as a session guitarist in L.A. “I was a guitar player and songwriter,” Linn says, “and I produced recordings on my own and for other people. I could play guitar, bass and some keyboards, but the hardest instrument to play and record was the drum kit — I wanted something that could do that for me.”
Linn recruited his friend and fellow session vet Art Wood to record the strikes on the drum kit; the LM-1 didn't include cymbals (the memory needed for the long decay of a ride or crash cymbal was too expensive at the time), but it did come with 12 percussion sounds — all programmable with separate outputs — as well as time-correct and swing functions, neither of which had ever appeared in such a compact unit.
“The term I used on the LM-1 was ‘timing correct,’ commonly called ‘quantize’ in current DAWs. Also, timing correct with variable shuffle [swing] timing were my inventions and had never appeared on any other product before,” Linn says.
Only 500 LM-1s were made, and their $5,000 price tag only added to their exclusivity. But the LM-1 and its slightly less expensive successor, the LinnDrum, consistently landed in the right hands; from Prince to Peter Gabriel, every topflight producer had to have one. “The funny thing about it,” Linn remembers, “is that one of the biggest sales areas in the world for me was this one little section of Beverly Hills. Stevie Wonder was one of my earliest customers, and Giorgio Moroder lived only a few streets away from him. Every Christmas they would buy a few of my products for their friends.”
As Linn's company grew, so did the demand for a machine that did everything — sampling, sequencing, touch-sensitive tap programming, MIDI interfacing, mixing and file saving. His answer was the Linn 9000, but there were problems right from the start.
“The 9000 had a lot of good ideas in it,” he insists, “but it was very unmanufacturable. I was trying to take this huge step above the LinnDrum, and at the time, to make that product was very difficult for the features I wanted. Unfortunately, I also decided that I had to start being a real company president and get out of the day-to-day engineering, so I hired a bunch of people to design the 9000 because I thought I wasn't good enough. In retrospect, it would have been better if I had brought in someone to manage the day-to-day operation of the company and I'd stayed in engineering because that's really what I do well.”
Executives at Akai thought so. In 1986, after Linn Electronics closed its doors, the company approached Linn about collaborating on a new machine that would improve upon the design of the ill-fated Linn 9000. “It worked out very well,” Linn says, recalling the creation of the Akai MPC60 sampling workstation. “I think what made the MPC60 great is that I was able to focus entirely on the engineering and the software creation, so I really pushed hard to make this product right. It was also my way of saving my soul. I felt bad about losing my company and that the Linn 9000 had been unreliable, so I put my heart and soul into that MPC60. And I had no idea about the uses that it would be put to. I was blindsided by the fact that people sampled entire measures or multiple measures of songs, instead of using sampling just for drum sounds.”
In fact, the MPC60 quickly became the hip-hop producer's main compositional tool. But it wasn't long before Akai sought to claim the unit's legacy as its own; although Linn continued to collect royalties on MPC sales until the company was bought by Numark in 2004, the MPC3000 was the last unit to have Linn's name on it when it was introduced in 1994 (aside from the late-'90s MPC3000 reissue, the MPC3000LE).
Linn soon rebounded with the founding of Roger Linn Design and the introduction of AdrenaLinn — an effects processor, amp modeler and drum machine, now in its third iteration, that counts such illustrious guitarists as Tom Morello and John Mayer among its users. “Even back when I worked on recordings in the mid-'70s — in particular Leon Russell's Will ‘O the Wisp — I was using a big E-mu modular system, sometimes to treat a guitar with beat-synchronized filter changes,” Linn explains. “Years later, I thought, why not put all this into a low-cost guitar box that has the drum machine and the MIDI sync built in?”
Linn is currently working on his next big item — a “superdrum machine” called BoomChik that he's co-designing with Dave Smith (founder of Sequential Circuits and the godfather of MIDI). “I've always made products I wanted to have myself,” Linn enthuses, “and this will really give you the best of both of us. It's still a ways off, but it's going to be very cool, so we're both very excited about it.”