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The Linn LM-1 Drum Computer

Article from Electronics & Music Maker, September 1981

Linn LM-1 Drum Computer.

We have watched the horizons of the electric guitar expand constantly as new technology enables the musician to bend, distort, and mutate his sound in ways the original makers of the instrument could never have dreamed of. The very nature of the instrument, once electrified, lent itself so readily to such experimentation. Over the past decade modern musicians have taken to the synthesiser far more rapidly than anyone would once have imagined. The synthesiser is now an established part of the musical world and, as players master them, synth design and technology grows in sophistication almost daily. Indeed, keyboard instruments will never be the same again...

The technological Genie has now been applied to the process of rhythm making, not with the hesitant steps of before but with a real bang. The result is the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer. The Californian based company have produced a drum machine in the truest and most literal sense for, unlike other units available, the Linn gives you real drum sounds. They've been digitally recorded and encoded on to chips. Like any other example of ground-breaking hardware it has its share of faults; some petty and perhaps a matter of taste, and others which are not petty, perhaps even serious. Even so, there is still only one word with which I would unhesitatingly describe the Linn - incredible.

The quality of its sounds? They're going to be a shock for people used to the artificialness and hitherto general wetness of rhythm machines. True, the obviously synthetic nature of their sounds can be very appealing but it is eventually very limiting. Also to be considered are sounds that are good at front room listening levels or through a guitar amp's spare channel in a rehearsal room soon prove to be an entirely different matter when put under the magnifying glass of studio monitors or when cranked up through thousands of watts of PA at a gig.

I've exhausted a lot of time and money developing and experimenting with my drum machines to achieve more versatility under such conditions and to try and get more 'guts' into the sounds, with varying degrees of success. Companies producing rhythm machines appear to have paid remarkably little attention to these aspects, for they knew their products were being utilised by the home-organ crowd (hence the proliferation of bossa-novas and tangos) or by people desiring a token rhythmic backing in order to cut down on their compliment of musicians (ship's cabaret acts, lounge pianists etc.), all not necessarily the most discriminatory of users. Even so, most of the rhythm voices were a joke. But, gradually, as a few musicians who were not afraid of the future and who wanted to find new and more interesting ways of providing percussion began to pioneer new techniques, things changed. They experimented upon and bastardised those rudimentary machines until finally the manufacturers took note of the trends in modern music to electronics and came up with some slightly better efforts.

Generally, one is faced with units possessing marginally more realistic patterns of beats and a few more controls in addition to the usual 'tempo' and 'stop-start' are featured. So much for the past.


The Linn's 12 drum and percussion voices, which range from that of a basic drum kit (bass drum, snare, high-hat, high & low toms) through to tambourine, clave, cabasa, high and low congas, cowbell, and handclaps, are all immaculately real. Because they are real. Thus, each one possesses the accepted 'classic' sound characteristics that are the general norm when one thinks of, say, a snare drum. Although, almost of necessity, they are very M.O.R. sounds, they are all ideal source sounds and eminently recordable - the ideal jumping off point for the musician and sound engineer to doctor or pervert wherever their whims lead.

All voices are tuneable for pitch and ALL are sensibly available separately via their own individual outputs if you decide not to use the master stereo high or low level outputs. At last you can give separate treatments to a snare or bass drum without having to suffer the treatment of the entire rhythm; this one feature alone gives endless possibilities.

The relative levels of all the drums/percussion are controlled by a master volume and via a 13 channel mixer which can also place any of the voices exactly left, centre, or right, within the stereo picture if you decide not to run mono.

That's the barest and most basic description of what the Linn operates with. The idea of using regenerated sounds from the real thing is a major step forward in this field, but it's not that particular breakthrough that I want to rave about here. The real essence of what makes the Linn important lies - if you haven't guessed by now - in its name. Not the Linn Drum Machine or the Linn Rhythm Unit or what have you but the Linn DRUM COMPUTER.


Yes, you program this machine to do what you want it to do. You tell it what you want and when you want it, you don't have to wade through blocks of silly factory pre-set rhythms and blow dust off of antiquated 'fill-in's' that some clown at the manufacturers thought sounded good. You don't have to drive yourself mad trying to outsmart and double-think the Linn into playing something that's leagues away from the limited applications other rhythm units were designed for. And you don't have to modify it mechanically or otherwise to achieve any of this. Great!

You achieve this by programming the beats into the Linn's memory by tapping on the keys situated below the level faders. One plays along to a programmable metronome (hence that 13th channel you've been wondering about) whereby you then overdub, erase, accent, copy, edit, or ad lib to your requirements. A further refinement is the memory's ability to build complex chains of different rhythms link by link.

You can store up to 100 different beats in the memory. If you want more and have run out of memory you simply dump the information on to any reasonably decent cassette tape thus making room for new efforts. To retrieve the stored information you just reverse the process.

When recording you can lay down a 'code' on to tape so that you are not bound to the rhythm that other instruments were overdubbed to. If you change your mind you can go back, wipe the drum tracks, use the code on tape to drive the Linn, and then try something else. It'll all be in sync. The freedom this allows in a studio is incredible, the now-or-never days are over.

Another vital feature is the Internal Clock Out. By means of a rotary switch at the back of the unit you can select clock pulses to trigger sequencers or synths at whatever is required by that piece of equipment's design, at anywhere from ¼ notes to 1/192 notes. Again, you're not bound by the design dept's ideas of what you need, you can tailor your clock pulses to what is required for the song.

Warren Cann, electro-percussionist for Ultravox.

Using the chain facility enables one to place different beats in an order determined by the user. You can program an entire song format; an intro, verses, chorus, solo, fills, breaks, etc., whatever the arrangement calls for. You type in the number corresponding to the beat wanted and continue this for the order you want the beats to occur and the Linn will replay them in the order that they were entered. There are eight chains and each will hold up to 99 links. Editing these chains is easy, you can delete, insert, 'fast forward', or 'rewind' via the chain controls. By now you should see how the Linn justifies its computer name.

An utterly non-drummer type person can sit down with the Linn and, after an hour or so of familiarisation, have fun producing some quite respectable results. Practically speaking, your only limitations are your imagination and the degree to which you can master the somewhat tricky and dexterous knack of programming but, even here, the Linn can assist. Programming is made easier by varying types of self-correction settings which help you pull your small timing errors into time. You use the Auto-Correct facility in the mode most suitable for the type of rhythm being played to get the most accurate results, the auto-correct can move programmed 1/8th notes to the nearest 1/8th note and thus makes up for slight user errors. You can use the auto-correct in 1/8th note triplet, 1/16th note, 1/16th note triplet, 1/32nd note, and 1/32nd note triplet modes. Or you can turn it off entirely and enter programs totally in real time. I found this facility great and could only approach it in limited doses, but you'll find the auto-correct is a BIG help.

When you want to swing or shuffle the beats, you can use the auto-correct to place differing values of gain on the odd and even numbered notes, taking away any stiffness there may be on a rhythm. By combining some of the rhythmic voices which have been programmed with varying amounts of emphasis placed on them with other more rigid voices, some rhythmic variation can be used which would be impossible to obtain otherwise. Again, the programming takes practice but once you get into it more and more possibilities present themselves.

Left-hand panel controls.

Electronic or Acoustic

Now, lest more orthodox drummers feel the cold breath of insecurity and/or redundancy begin to blow down their backs, let me make a few things clear. As soon as someone says 'drum machine' I can immediately see whole battalions of drummers scoffing in disgust and deriding them for any number of real or imagined reasons. Most musicians in general, too. A number of people over the past few years have experimented with them and incorporated them into their songs or have even based their entire sound around them. Such efforts have so far attracted a certain label or stigma for them being cold and unfeeling, this may be so but in many instances this was the very aim of the people using them. The ultimate interpretation of the dictionary definition of the word 'rhythm' must surely be best realised by something incapable of human irregularity: a machine. I can't blame them for utilising drum machines then available for such uses because that's about all they were good for.

It seems even the public at large have an attitude quite similar to that of most musicians. While momentarily intrigued by some sounds, most appear to think 'it sounds stiff and artificial, it's too boring and metronomic to be raunchy or emotionally moving, they might be pleasant to occasionally toy with but they'll never amount to much...' Producers find them handy for laying down click tracks and people with home studios tend to use them when writing songs, either because they can't play drums or because the real thing is unavailable and would raise hell with the neighbours anyway. I don't agree with the people who shun them, they're going to be in for a big surprise, and the people who do use them are kidding themselves if they think they're doing anything beyond the merest scratching of surface potential.

Electronic advancements in the field of percussion are now being made and the time is nigh for a new breed of drummers to emerge, one who physically may never actually do anything more strenuous than tap keys but who has the potential for more power, attack, and tonal variation in his playing than any acoustic player. The key phrase in that provocative statement is ACOUSTIC. It's truly surprising just how many people forget that, like a violin (an instrument rarely considered akin to drums!), drums are an acoustic instrument. As such, I think they've been developed just about as much as they're ever going to be, for drums are essentially the same now as they were when they were merely hollowed logs covered with animal skin - but refined to a phenomenal degree. Face it, a modern top quality kit isn't going to get drastically much different. It'll get better in minor points due to better materials and innovative production techniques but the basic design work was all over years ago. Technology isn't going to make acoustic drums obsolete, it's just going to introduce many new percussion instruments. But, because drums and percussion have been to date almost exclusively acoustic as opposed to electric in nature, everyone seems to have different and conflicting opinions as to how this field should be approached.

Right-hand panel controls.

Electronic Percussion

Electronic percussion falls basically into two categories; the units activated by the player as if they were drums themselves and the player programmable 'drum machine' rhythm units where the player pushes buttons corresponding to beat patterns and then lets the machine produce the sounds.

At the present time the player activated units are the most popular, and certainly they are the easiest and most obvious - the present state of the art technology makes substituting a key on a keyboard for a rubber pad a very straightforward, logical step. You hit the pad with hand or drumstick thus sending a trigger and control voltage to an assortment of VCOs, VCAs, filters, etc., to initiate and modify a sound. This, without a doubt, is the easiest way for someone to depart from the traditional path of acoustic drumming. One plays the pads, either partially by interspersing accents on the pads with the main rhythmic work provided by the drum kit or by going the whole route and replacing the entire kit with equivalent pads.

This area has its benefits to be sure and it places much more rhythmic and tonal variation at the drummers disposal, for better or worse, than before. One can even record thunderous drum tracks in the front room of a thin-walled apartment whilst making no more noise than the comparatively quiet clicking of the sticks hitting the rubber practice-like pads. That last comment might seem to be of small consequence but when you think about the sheer volume of the phenomena, the possibilities for innumerable home studios take on different proportions.

Drummers and percussionists will incorporate such products into their playing more and more as prejudices are overcome, interest grows, and better products become available. Already,this type of equipment seems to be attracting the majority of the players and designer/manufacturers attention. A lot can be done with this idea and, when perfected further, this type of percussion synthesiser will attain a sizeable number of devotees so that soon they'll be as common as 'ordinary' drums are now.

Until the Linn, design in the second area of Player Programmable equipment has lagged lamentably behind. Why? Because there are simply not yet enough people conversant enough with the relevant, related areas of electronics, modern music (in both composition and live performance), and percussion, to realise exactly which paths the development of such equipment should follow, what facilities and functions it should have, what its behaviour in both studio and live performance environments should be, and how it should relate to other electronic instrument modes already available. Through my work in progressive music with all manner of synthesisers, sequencers, rhythm machines and multi-track recording techniques, I feel that I've the experience to conclude that at the present rate of development, even allowing for extrapolation, the truly definitive percussion synthesiser will not arrive for years.

But why a Player-Programmable unit instead of the Player-Activated type? Why opt for this direction? The advantages of the player-programmable percussion synth over either a drum kit or player activated units are multiple:

1) The immensely hypnotic effect of the perfect time-keeping of a machine.

2) The versatility and ease with which one can manipulate incredibly complex beat patterns and time signatures - often at tempos too demanding for human dexterity.

3) The convenience, efficiency, and elegance of dealing with electronically 'pure' source signals.

4) The scope of sound permutations and rhythm variations available when linked with other electronic hard/software.

Rear Panel connections.

Playing percussion

So far, the Linn is the most advanced of its kind. And this is no reason at all for drummers to feel that their jobs are in danger, that's utterly ridiculous. The Linn may be able to play rhythms that no two-arm'd, two-legged person can play. It can play them faster and much more accurately than a human could play. But it will take time for people to learn just how to exploit these particular traits to their best advantage - that will come with experience.

What has to be understood now is that the computer in the Linn will only do what you tell it to do (we'll leave 'happy accidents' out of this) and, rather than recoiling with thoughts of "Oh, we drummers don't have a chance now that the machines are here...' the positive attitude must be taken.

Yes, anyone can work out by rote the programming for the ingredients of a complex and impressive sounding polyrhythm - it's all just mathematics - but it takes an instrumentalist's vision and imagination to inject human feeling into what he's doing. And that's equally applicable to physically sticking a good solid shuffle or backbeat or programming a machine to do it. And, like any computer, the programmer's old adage still holds true: Garbage In equals Garbage Out. To get the most out of the Linn you have to know how to think rhythm, how to layer, how to compliment, what to leave out.

Conventional acoustic drummers are actually streets ahead with regards to the utilisation of these computers. You can't get the Linn to tell you when you're overplaying, whether or not a break is in the 'right' place, exactly how to compose a fill-in, and where to put it. These are things that are learned only from experience. They're learned by playing... the actual vehicle of expression, be it drum kit or drum computer, is irrelevant because exactly the same principles apply to both.

Drummers have a headstart in this area over everyone else, it's only that so much of their time and effort has been spent learning their instrument physically. Time wasted? Even while learning tedious motor skills and, muscle co-ordination/independence they've usually known far in advance what they want the accomplished end result to sound like... in their mind. Fundamentally we know there aren't many differences between the human brain and a computer, so what does a drummer do if not develop a whole mental catalogue of scores of different drum beats and their variations? One learns myriads of fills, breaks, and 'feels' to draw upon and insert here and there in whatever combination he wants... just like a computer would, with the appropriate programming. Just like the Linn can. And, as always, it's the person with the most interesting ideas who will capture people's attention, not necessarily the person with the most blinding technique.


Now, as I said earlier, nothing this new is perfect and the Linn is no exception. Quite amazingly, the guy who designed it was not a drummer. I think he did an incredible job under the circumstances but when I gave the Linn a good thrashing I quickly discovered a few flaws in the design. They weren't enough to discourage me but on a machine the quality of the Linn I certainly found them annoying.

Tempo is discerned via an LED display and adjusted by a rotary dial, this is adequate for normal usage but as a sole source of determining the speed, especially in the context of live performance, it simply isn't enough.

A 'fine tune' type of control is needed. The psychological aspects of performing in sync to the perfect, never varying tempo of a machine are fascinating. The perceived tempos are deceptively vulnerable to one's state of mind. If it seems 'too fast' when it's the same speed as previously decided upon it's often that the musicians are tired from, say, a long exhausting performance or effects from extensive touring. Or even ambient temperature or humidity. Mental, if not physical, fatigue may have set in. If it's 'too slow' then everyone could be buzzing from the feedback of an especially receptive audience reaction. Also, how one feels the first minute or so of a song can be greatly influenced by the tempo and general demeanour of the song preceding it. A loud fast song makes a slow song following it seem even slower. The acclimatisation of a slow song can influence you into starting the fast song that follows it too slow. A machine isn't affected but people are. The necessary adjustments that have to be made from time to time (ones which are usually done without conscious thought as well as deliberate ones, i.e. ritardandos) are too minute to be satisfactorily made with the existing control. It's important to be able to ride emotions with the tempo control and not remain a slave to one constant tempo from start to finish.

One incredibly silly thing is that the speed from the tempo LED display can only be determined whilst the Linn is not in the Run mode. You must be able to see at all times what the tempo is. Especially while the Linn is running! The display in beats per minute is fine but, again, provision must be made for much finer tempo increments to be dealt with. It makes for a less complicated facia on the Linn with the present method but it's vital that the tempo control has its own constant readout capable of indicating to one tenth beat per minute, i.e. 128.5 b.p.m.

My next gripe. When one has a fairly complicated rhythm set up and many voices are in use, it is often very desirable to be able to simply drop out one or more voices from the whole beat pattern instantly or to drop one out as one simultaneously adds another. The present system of faders does not provide any way to do this without actually moving the faders manually. This can prove to be awkward and, as often occurs, a very finely adjusted sound balance between voices is needlessly disturbed. The volume of the voices may have been set to obtain just a certain 'feel' and this is going to negate the effort involved in setting it all up.

The entire fader system is great but provision must be made to cut voices in or out instantly. I'd suggest some very small buttons at the bottom of each fader to insert or delete that voice from the pattern regardless of that voice's fader position. This now has some relation to my next complaint.

When using the individual separate voice output jacks at the rear of the unit their respective faders on the front facia no longer have any bearing on their volume level. You cannot control their volume with the faders. In the studio this is not necessarily any problem but for a live situation it is important that you should still be able to control the volume of a voice with the fader and of all of the individual outputs with the master level control. The afore-mentioned cut buttons should also be effective on the separate outputs.

The Linn has five buttons duplicating the voices of the bass drum, snare, high-hat, cabasa, and tambourine. They are exactly the same except that they are louder and are meant to be used as accent buttons for programming more emphasis and variation. Fine. But they have far too much volume on them. In some voice modes the level isn't too bad but on the majority they are set with far too high a level for accents within the context of the voice output. Again, it should be of the utmost importance for the Linn to have a control with which the level of the accent buttons can be varied according to taste and intended function. And if they could be programmed at varying levels even better! In fact, more memory capability all round would greatly enhance the Linn. I believe an additional memory expansion option is available from Linn which gives about 2½ times more available memory for drumbeats but the chain memory remains the same. I think a more equal split between beat and chain memory would be much more desirable.

My Linn (this isn't a solicited testimonial, I bought mine) had a few other faults but these were of the glitch variety and easily put right, probably because I had one of the first made and a few things had worked themselves astray. I realise that most of these criticisms are angled towards the Linn's shortcomings in a live performance situation but I feel it's very important that the Linn has the capability to emerge from the closet of studio wizardry and out on to the stage where it can be exploited to the fullest extent.

Your own sound chips

I'm told by Syco Systems, the people who handle Linn in Great Britain, that it's possible to change the chips of the individual voices. If you want you can send a tape of the relevant item(s), individually recorded, and Linn will make a chip out of it for you. Go into a studio with your own kit and then feed your Linn with your favourite drum sound. Or, and here things get even more interesting, someone else's drum sound! A possible thriving bootleg chip black market may be on its way. We may see electronic necrophilia. Actually, I don't think it makes any difference at all who hits the snare drum for making a chip as it's just a single beat which is needed, the criteria is its sound and how it was recorded. Personally I'd much rather see the Linn made capable of recording and storing any sound that's fed into it in an immediate process somewhat along the lines of the Fairlight synth. I can easily envisage an alternative method of programming the beats which many might find simpler to become accomplished with than the present method where, even with the Auto-Correct, one can make mistakes and become lost and frustrated in the maze of possible solutions before the path to the intended result is traced.

On the other hand, incredibly obvious needs like being able to alter the length of the measure to any duration you desire which has been overlooked by everyone else has been incorporated into the Linn. No doubt the company are proud of the LM-1 and justifiably so, for it is a vast advance on any other drum machine now available.

Drum Talk

People have been experimenting with new ways of getting sounds since the year dot. Instruments that have enjoyed a term of popularity at any given time have also simultaneously spawned scores of weird variations and abberations which couldn't overcome player prejudice and which usually failed to capture the public's interest or affection. The number of instruments commonly extant are only the hardiest specimens of all those that have been concocted. All along the way technology has been a strong influence on the sounds of an era, for once the first electric guitar was plugged into an amplifier, the effects its volume had wrote indelible writing on the wall for the big bands of swing. The introduction of electronics will broaden the field of music infinitely.

Once instruments could be classified into simple categories: ones you plucked, ones you bowed, ones you hit, and ones you blew into. It's not so simple anymore! Advances made in the area of keyboards illustrates my point. Once you just played the piano (we'll overlook harpsichords for now), simple, right? Then someone came along once there was electricity to utilise and invented the tone-generator and we had the Hammond Organ. Some people eagerly took to the possibilities this offered and others criticised it saying 'It's not a piano!' Well... obviously.

The electric piano appeared. Then things really went askew - the synthesiser appeared. Keyboard players split into so many differing factions regarding the relative merits of their instruments, at one extreme purists maintained that the unadorned acoustic piano was the only true keyboard. I mean, so what??? Fine... for them. At the other end of the scale some players just got on with using all the types of keyboards available to them. Sound familiar, drummers out there?

Developments in all instruments paralleled this type of thinking. Spanish and jumbo Western guitars faced the new electric guitars from Leo Fender and even the traditional upright string bass faded upon the introduction of the new portable, light (relatively), and LOUD electric bass. Even brass players were aghast at the invention of the saxophone and it was years before it was regarded as an instrument in its own right and not just some quack trombone-gone-wrong. Like the keyboards situation, there will be those who steadfastly remain loyal to an acoustic drum kit, those who go totally electronic, and all possible permutations in between. And no one will be more 'right' about their chosen mode of expression than another because it's all a matter of what is tasteful and applicable for the personality of the player and the context of the music.

Percussionists' horizons will broaden - what I find truly fascinating is that there are many people who, due to other people's past efforts in the exploration and development of the synth, now find it an entirely sensible and wholly reasonable proposition to go and buy a synth as their introductory musical instrument, totally bypassing the hitherto more conventional steps of keyboard or guitar first, then synth. It'll be the same for drummers. One doesn't have to be bound to getting a drum kit first if drums are what appeals to you.

There is absolutely a definite need and demand for a professional class percussion synthesiser, one which is not a knock-up job thrown on the market to test reaction with no real thought of what is required, and one which is not erringly considered to be the zenith of development. The synth needed is one which can meet, and surpass, the requirements of tomorrow. To date, when compared to keyboard synthesiser evolutionary design, the Player Programmable synthesis of percussion is still in its infancy, but I am convinced that it is this concept which will attain the most flexibility and popularity in future.

Warren Cann

'I was going to do an ordinary review of an extraordinary item but then realised there were far too many things needing to be said about the implications stemming from use of such an item... things which I feel need to be said; these stray far from the usual review format but are so relevant to the core of this subject that I've included them all.'

The Linn is so far ahead of anything else in its field at the moment that it's just not worth drawing comparisons. What is more significant about it is, I repeat, not so much the fact that it reproduces real drum sounds but that it is the first synth specifically designed to give so much control over programming and reprogramming rhythms. But, even so, I don't think that they've gone far enough! It offers great facilities to program its contents but nothing in the way of modifying those sounds. Those will be the next steps. The Linn is the 1st but only 50% of the potential of a drum computer is being utilised here. It has been said that good engineering is the art of inventive collation with a minimum of redesign of articles which, though they may be widely dispersed, are basically already in existence and at one's immediate disposal. With relatively short research and development time, it is possible to produce the future's percussion synthesiser TODAY. Soon someone will systematically incorporate all of the vital component functions of a drum machine, a basic synthesiser, a sequencer, a multi-track recording desk, and extensive memory circuitry - in such a fashion as to give the whole a greater value far beyond the sum of its parts. With such vast creative possibilities, with such broad musical value, the potential is staggering. This is not merely a 'substitute' for a drum kit... this is a NEW INSTRUMENT.

The LM-1 won't be for everyone, its price alone sees to that, you could buy a new Renault 5 for what the Linn goes for. But it's only the beginning. The LM-1 is a computer but it and the computers which follow are, surely, new instruments and new instruments will breed new players and new techniques. It's just the beginning...

Featuring related gear

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Previous Article in this issue

Chromascope Video Synthesiser

Next article in this issue

Kraftwerk Revealed

Publisher: Electronics & Music Maker - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


Electronics & Music Maker - Sep 1981

Gear in this article:

Drum Machine > Linn > LM-1

Gear Tags:

Digital Drums

Side A Tracklisting:

02:22 The Linn LM-1 Drum Computer.
03:04 Linn LM-1 [2]

E&MM Cassette #4 provided by Pete Shales, digitised by Mike Gorman.

Review by Warren Cann

Previous article in this issue:

> Chromascope Video Synthesise...

Next article in this issue:

> Kraftwerk Revealed

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