Gear Geek: Dawn of the Drum Machine

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Built in 1963, the very first Donca Matic is proudly displayed in the lobby of Korg''s headquarters in Tokyo.

Photo: Courtesy Geary Yelton

Most EM readers know something about the history of synthesizers, but what about drum machines? The very first was almost certainly the Rhythmicon. Built in 1931, commissioned by American composer Henry Cowell, and constructed by Lev Termen (aka Léon Theremin)—the inventor of the Theremin—the photo-receptor-based Rhythmicon specialized in playing polyrhythms, up to 16 rhythms at one time. Terman only built three units, and it was never intended to be a commercial product.

The first drum machine available for sale was the Chamberlin Rhythmate (1949), designed by Harry Chamberlin, the man who invented sampling (see the September 2010 “Gear Geek” online at The Rhythmate played loops of magnetic tape containing prerecorded patterns played by a real drummer.

A sliding knob moved the playback head across the tapes to select different loops. A lever adjusted tempo by changing the tape-playback speed, altering pitch as well. The device resembled a hi-fi cabinet and contained a tube amplifier and a built-in speaker. It also had inputs for an external instrument and a microphone, as well as a footswitch jack for starting and stopping the tape. Very few Rhythmates were ever built, and it was relegated to the dustbin of history.

Ten years later came the Wurlitzer Sideman, a large, heavy beat box in a walnut, cherry, or mahogany case for less than $400. Several models were sold between 1959 and 1965. A rotating arm brushed against a circular disk of electrical contacts to trigger individual circuits for each electronically generated sound. The Sideman enjoyed some success among home organists and working soloists, who bought them to accompany their performances onstage (incurring the wrath of the American Federation of Musicians).

A sliding lever controlled tempo by changing the arm''s rotation speed, and a dial let you select preset rhythm patterns (rhumba, waltz, tango, etc.). Two additional dials selected five woodblock and five cymbal variations, and a switch chose either 2- or 4-beat foxtrot variations. You could manually trigger 10 sounds (including simulated bass drum, maracas, and brush, but no snare hit) by pressing buttons.

In 1963, nightclub owner Tsutomu Katoh partnered with popular Japanese accordionist Tadashi Osanai to build a better beat box, forming a company called Keio Electronic Laboratories, which later became Korg. The result was the DA20 Donca Matic, which worked on the same electromechanical principles as the Sideman. Like its predecessors, the Donca Matic was quite large and had built-in tube amplification and speakers. The DA20 offered 26 patterns (including twist, 6/8, and Japanese folk song), and you could turn 11 sounds (including snare) on and off within those patterns. A dial resembling a pitch-bend wheel adjusted tempo, and a 10-note mini-keyboard triggered individual sounds. Three years later, Keio unveiled the first solid-state Donca Matic, the DE20. Future transistorized rhythm boxes omitted the amp and speakers, greatly reducing their size and cost.

Former EM senior editor Geary Yelton lives in Asheville, N.C., surrounded by beautiful mountains and wonderful toys.