They are usually used when session drummers are not available or if the production cannot afford the cost of a drummer. Also, many modern drum machines can also produce unique sounds, as well as allowing the user to compose unique drum beats and patterns that might be difficult to perform by a human drummer. Most modern drum machines are sequencers with a sample playback (rompler) or synthesizer component that specializes in the reproduction of drum timbres.
In 1930–32, the spectacularly innovative and hard-to-use Rhythmicon was developed by Léon Theremin at the request of Henry Cowell, who wanted an instrument which could play compositions with multiple rhythmic patterns, based on the overtone series, that were far too hard to perform on existing keyboard instruments. The invention could produce sixteen different rhythms, each associated with a particular pitch, either individually or in any combination, including en masse, if desired. Received with considerable interest when it was publicly introduced in 1932, the Rhythmicon was soon set aside by Cowell and was virtually forgotten for decades. The next generation of rhythm machines played only pre-programmed rhythms such as mambo, tango, or bossa nova.
In 1957, a Californian named Harry Chamberlin constructed a tape loop-based drum machine called the Chamberlin Rhythmate. It had 14 tape loops with a sliding head that allowed playback of different tracks on each piece of tape, or a blending between them. It contained a volume and a pitch/speed control and also had a separate amplifier with bass, treble, and volume controls, and an input jack for a guitar, microphone or other instrument. The tape loops were of real acoustic jazz drum kits playing different style beats, with some additions to tracks such as bongos, clave, castanets, etc.
In 1959, Wurlitzer released an electro-mechanical drum machine called the Side Man, which was the first-ever commercially produced drum machine. The Side Man was intended as a percussive accompaniment for the Wurlitzer organ range. The Side Man offered a choice of 12 electronically generated, predefined rhythm patterns with variable tempos. The sound source was a series of vacuum tubes which created 10 preset electronic drum sounds. The drum sounds were 'sequenced' by a rotating wiper arm with contact brushes on it that swept around a phenolic panel with corresponding contacts arranged in a pattern of concentric circles across its face; these were spaced in certain patterns to generate parts of a particular rhythm. Combinations of these different sets of rhythms and drum sounds created popular rhythmic patterns of the day, e.g. waltzes, fox trots etc. These combinations were selected by a rotary knob on the top of the Side Man box. The tempo of the patterns was controlled by a slider that increased the speed of rotation of the wiper arm. The Side Man had a panel of 10 buttons for manually triggering drum sounds, and a remote player to control the machine while playing from an organ keyboard. The Side Man was housed in a mahogany cabinet that contained the sound-generating circuitry, amplifier and speaker.
In 1960, Raymond Scott constructed the Rhythm Synthesizer and, in 1963, a drum machine called Bandito the Bongo Artist. Scott's machines were used for recording his album Soothing Sounds for Baby series (1964).
During the 1960s, implementation of rhythm machines were evolved into fully solid-state (transistorized) from early electro-mechanical with vacuum tubes, and also size were reduced to desktop size from earlier floor type. In the early 1960s, a home organ manufacturer, Gulbransen (later acquired by Fender) cooperated with an automatic musical equipment manufacturer Seeburg Corporation, and released early compact rhythm machines Rhythm Prince (PRP), although, at that time, these size were still as large as small guitar amp head, due to the use of bulky electro-mechanical pattern generators. Then in 1964, Seeburg invented a compact electronic rhythm pattern generator using "diode matrix" (U.S. Patent 3,358,068 in 1967), and fully transistorized electronic rhythm machine with pre-programmed patterns, Select-A-Rhythm (SAR1), was released. As the result of its robustness and enough compact size, these rhythm machines were gradually installed on the electronic organ as accompaniment of organists, and finally spread widely.
In the early 1960s, a nightclub owner in Tokyo, Tsutomu Katoh was consulted from a notable accordion player, Tadashi Osanai, about the rhythm machine he used for accompaniment in club, Wurlitzer Side Man. Osanai, a graduate of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University of Tokyo, convinced Katoh to finance his efforts to build better one. In 1963, their new company Keio-Giken (later Korg) released their first rhythm machine, Donca-Matic DA-20 using the vacuum tube circuits for sounds and mechanical-wheel for rhythm patterns. It was a floor-type machine with built-in speaker, and featuring a keyboard for the manual play, in addition to the multiple automatic rhythm patterns. Its price was comparable with the average annual income of Japanese at that time.
Then, their effort was focused on the improvement of reliability and performance, along with the size reduction and the cost down. Unstable vacuum tube circuit was replaced with reliable transistor circuit on Donca-Matic DC-11 in mid-1960s, and in 1966, bulky mechanical-wheel was also replaced with compact transistor circuit on Donca-Matic DE-20 and DE-11. In 1967, Mini Pops MP-2 was developed as an option of Yamaha Electone (electric organ), and Mini Pops was established as a series of the compact desktop rhythm machine. In the United States, Mini Pops MP-3, MP-7, etc. were sold under Univox brand by the distributor at that time, Unicord Corporation.
In 1965, Nippon Columbia filed a patent for an automatic rhythm instrument. It described it as an "automatic rhythm player which is simple but capable of electronically producing various rhythms in the characteristic tones of a drum, a piccolo and so on." It has some similarities to Seeburg's slightly earlier 1964 patent.
In 1967, Ace Tone founder Ikutaro Kakehashi (later founder of Roland Corporation) developed the preset rhythm-pattern generator using diode matrix circuit, which has some similarities to the earlier Seeburg and Nippon Columbia patents. Kakehashi's patent describes his device as a "plurality of inverting circuits and/or clipper circuits" which "are connected to a counting circuit to synthesize the output signal of the counting circuit" where the "synthesized output signal becomes a desired rhythm."
Ace Tone commercialized its preset rhythm machine, called the FR-1 Rhythm Ace, in 1967. It offered 16 preset patterns, and four buttons to manually play each instrument sound (cymbal, claves, cowbell and bass drum). The rhythm patterns could also be cascaded together by pushing multiple rhythm buttons simultaneously, and the possible combination of rhythm patterns were more than a hundred (on the later models of Rhythm Ace, the individual volumes of each instrument could be adjusted with the small knobs or faders). The FR-1 was adopted by the Hammond Organ Company for incorporation within their latest organ models. In the US, the units were also marketed under the Multivox brand by Peter Sorkin Music Company, and in the UK, marketed under the Bentley Rhythm Ace brand.
A number of other preset drum machines were released in the 1970s, but early examples of the use can be found on The United States of America's eponymous album from 1967–8. The first major pop song to use a drum machine was "Saved by the Bell" by Robin Gibb, which reached #2 in Britain in 1969. Drum machine tracks were also heavily used on the Sly & the Family Stone album There's a Riot Goin' On, released in 1971. Sly & the Family Stone was the first group to have a number #1 pop single that used a drum machine: that single was "Family Affair". The German krautrock band Can also used a drum machine on their song "Peking O". The 1972 Timmy Thomas single "Why Can't We Live Together"/"Funky Me" featured a distinctive use of a drum machine and keyboard arrangement on both tracks. Another early example of electronic drums used by a rock group, is Obscured by Clouds by Pink Floyd, from early in 1972. The first album on which a drum machine produced all the percussion was Kingdom Come's Journey, recorded in November 1972 using a Bentley Rhythm Ace. French singer-songwriter Léo Ferré mixed a drum machine with a symphonic orchestra in the song "Je t'aimais bien, tu sais..." in his album L'Espoir, released in 1974. Osamu Kitajima's progressive psychedelic rock album Benzaiten (1974) also utilized drum machines, and one of the album's contributors, Haruomi Hosono, would later start the electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra (as "Yellow Magic Band") in 1977.
A key difference between such early machines and more modern equipment is that they use sound synthesis rather than digital sampling in order to generate their sounds. For example, a snare drum or maraca sound would typically be created using a burst of white noise whereas a bass drum sound would be made using sine waves or other basic waveforms. This meant that while the resulting sound was not very close to that of the real instrument, each model tended to have a unique character. For this reason, many of these early machines have achieved a certain "cult status" and are now sought after by producers for use in production of modern electronic music, most notably the Roland TR-808.
In 1972, Eko released the ComputeRhythm (1972), which was the first programmable drum machine. It had a 6-row push-button matrix that allowed the user to enter a pattern manually. The user could also push punch cards with pre-programmed rhythms through a reader slot on the unit.
Another stand-alone drum machine released in 1975, the PAiA Programmable Drum Set was also one of the first programmable drum machines, and was sold as a kit with parts and instructions which the buyer would use to build the machine.
In 1975, Ace Tone released the Rhythm Producer FR-15 that enables the modification of the pre-programmed rhythm patterns. In 1978, Roland released the Roland CR-78, the first microprocessor-based programmable rhythm machine, with four memory storage for user patterns. In 1979, a simpler version with four sounds, Boss DR-55, was released.
The Linn LM-1 Drum Computer (released in 1980 at $4,995) was the first drum machine to use digital samples. It also featured revolutionary rhythmic concepts such as swing factors, shuffle, accent, and real-time programming, all of which have since rooted themselves in beat box technology. Only about 500 were ever made, but its effect on the music industry was extensive. Its distinctive sound almost defines 1980s pop, and it can be heard on hundreds of hit records from the era, including Phil Collins's In The Air Tonight, The Human League's Dare, Gary Numan's Dance, Devo's New Traditionalists, and Ric Ocasek's Beatitude. Prince bought one of the very first LM-1s and used it on nearly all of his most popular albums, including 1999 and Purple Rain.
Many of the drum sounds on the LM-1 were composed of two chips that were triggered at the same time, and each voice was individually tunable with individual outputs. Due to memory limitations, a crash cymbal sound was not available except as an expensive third-party modification. A cheaper version of the LM-1 was released in 1982 called the LinnDrum. Priced at $2,995, not all of its voices were tunable, but crash cymbal was included as a standard sound. Like its predecessor the LM-1, it featured swappable sound chips. The LinnDrum can be heard on records such as The Cars' Heartbeat City and Giorgio Moroder's soundtrack for the film Scarface.
It was feared the LM-1 would put every session drummer in Los Angeles out of work and it caused many of L.A.'s top session drummers (Jeff Porcaro is one example) to purchase their own drum machines and learn to program them themselves in order to stay employed. Linn even marketed the LinnDrum specifically to drummers.
Following the success of the LM-1, Oberheim introduced the DMX, which also featured digitally sampled sounds and a "swing" feature similar to the one found on the Linn machines. It became very popular in its own right, becoming a staple of the nascent hip-hop scene.
In 1986, the SpecDrum by Cheetah Marketing, an inexpensive 8-bit sampling drum external module for the ZX Spectrum, was introduced, with a price less of than £30, when similar models cost around £250.
In 1980, the Roland Corporation launched the TR-808 Rhythm Composer. It was one of the earliest programmable drum machines, with which users could create their own rhythms rather than having to use preset patterns. Unlike the more expensive LM-1, the 808 is completely analog, meaning its sounds are generated non-digitally via hardware rather than samples (prerecorded sounds). Launched when electronic music had yet to become mainstream, the 808 received mixed reviews for its unrealistic drum sounds and was a commercial failure. Having built approximately 12,000 units, Roland discontinued the 808 after its semiconductors became impossible to restock.
Over the course of the 1980s, the 808 attracted a cult following among underground musicians for its affordability on the used market, ease of use, and idiosyncratic sounds, particularly its deep, "booming" bass drum. It became a cornerstone of the emerging electronic, dance, and hip hop genres, popularized by early hits such as Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock". The 808 was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine; its popularity with hip hop in particular has made it one of the most influential inventions in popular music, comparable to the Fender Stratocaster's influence on rock. Its sounds continue to be used as samples included with music software and modern drum machines.
The 808 was followed in 1983 by the TR-909, the first Roland drum machine to use samples (for its cymbal and hi-hat sounds) alongside analog sounds. While the 808 was important in the development of hip-hop, the 909, alongside the TB-303 bass synthesizer, influenced dance music such as techno, house and acid.
Because these early drum machines came out before the introduction of MIDI in 1983, they use a variety of methods of having their rhythms synchronized to other electronic devices. Some used a method of synchronization called DIN-sync, or Sync-24. Some of these machines also output analog CV/Gate voltages that could be used to synchronize or control analog synthesizers and other music equipment. The Oberheim DMX came with a feature allowing it to be synchronized to its proprietary Oberheim Parallel Buss interfacing system, developed prior to the introduction of MIDI.
By the year 2000, standalone drum machines became much less common, being partly supplanted by general-purpose hardware samplers controlled by sequencers (built-in or external), software-based sequencing and sampling and the use of loops, and music workstations with integrated sequencing and drum sounds. TR-808 and other digitized drum machine sounds can be found in archives on the Internet. However, traditional drum machines are still being made by companies such as Roland Corporation (under the name Boss), Zoom, Korg and Alesis, whose SR-16 drum machine has remained popular since it was introduced in 1991.
There are percussion-specific sound modules that can be triggered by pickups, trigger pads, or through MIDI. These are called drum modules; the Alesis D4 and Roland TD-8 are popular examples. Unless such a sound module also features a sequencer, it is, strictly speaking, not a drum machine.
Programming of drum machines are varied by the products. On most products, it can be done in real time: the user creates drum patterns by pressing the trigger pads as though a drum kit were being played; or using step-sequencing: the pattern is built up over time by adding individual sounds at certain points by placing them, as with the TR-808 and TR-909, along a 16-step bar. For example, a generic 4-on-the-floor dance pattern could be made by placing a closed high hat on the 3rd, 7th, 11th, and 15th steps, then a kick drum on the 1st, 5th, 9th, and 13th steps, and a clap or snare on the 5th and 13th. This pattern could be varied in a multitude of ways to obtain fills, break-downs and other elements that the programmer sees fit, which in turn could be sequenced with song-sequence — essentially the drum machine plays back the programmed patterns from memory in an order the programmer has chosen. The machine will quantize entries that are slightly off-beat in order to make them exactly in time.
If the drum machine has MIDI connectivity, then one could program the drum machine with a computer or another MIDI device.
While recordings in the 2010s are increasingly using drum machines, "...scientific studies show there are certain aspects of human-created rhythm that machines cannot replicate, or can only replicate poorly" such as the "feel" of human drumming and the ability of a human drummer to respond to changes in a song as it is being played live onstage. Human drummers also have the ability to make slight variations in their playing, such as playing "ahead of the beat" or "behind the beat" for sections of a song, in contrast to a drum machine that plays a pre-programmed rhythm. As well, human drummers play a "tremendously wide variety of rhythmic variations" that drum machines cannot reproduce.
Drum machines developed out of a need to create drum beats when a drum kit was not available. Increasingly, drum machines and drum programming are used by major record labels to undercut the costly expense of studio drummers.