This is crucial information if you want to learn music production, especially electronic music using MIDI. I have been programming MIDI since 1989 and have owned several classing drum machines such as the Oberheim DX, Alesis HR-16, EMU SP-12 and the Roland TR-505. This article is a crash course in drum machines and how to use them.
What is a drum machine? -Drum machines are sequencers with a sample or synth component that makes drum sounds, and allows the user to make drum beats and play the sequence back in musical time. In other words, it is a programmable drummer.
Features of a drum machine are the ability to program a beat onto the sequencer such as kick-snare-hat or whatever, adjustable tempo and time signature, drum pitch and velocity control and sound mixing capabilities.
Do I need a drum machine? – Yes! Well, if you want to make beats and electronic music, the best place to start is with a drum machine. You can learn so many vital things about making music from just a drum machine such as songwriting, arranging and producing, sound mixing, MIDI programming and editing and sound signal flow. Yes you do need a drum machine and for that matter, everyone should currently have at least one. The one I currently have is the Oberheim DX.
How Do I Use My New Drum Machine? – You should be able to turn it on and hit the drum pads and make sounds. You’ll need to find the sound output and turn it up, and have a way to monitor the sound such as an amp, mixer or headphones. Now we need to find the sequencer controls.
Look for the play button and hit it. Do you hear a click sound? If not, find out how to turn on the metronome – the click that most likely goes “1, 2, 3, 4” at a certain tempo. Now that you have that going and you can make sounds, let’s find where the quantize function is.
What Is Quantize? – Quantization is to align the sounds you make onto a perfect grid, making the sequence sound like it’s played cleaner and more like an experienced drummer. You can quantize whole notes, 1/2 notes, 1/4 notes and so on at a resolution of your choice. I’m not going into music theory here, just experiment and if you are meant to get it, you will. Once you know what you’re doing you can turn it off and go without a net, and depending on your drum machine resolution it can end up sounding very natural.
Now that you have everything working it’s time to make a beat. Chances are, you already made one by playing the pads. That’s how they work. You play it and create the drum beat or sequence you like, then record it and refine it to it’s finished state.
How Do I Record a Sequence? – Usually the default mechanism for entering record mode with a device is to press record+play and you’ll start to hear the metronome. Adjust the tempo or speed to your liking and if you like, adjust the time signature. Play your drum sounds and hear the playback, then you should be able to make multiple passes or just let the sequencer run and overdub more drum parts. Now you can make multiple sequences and form them into a song.
As you can probably guess, older drum machines are less complicated to use and quick to learn. You can browse eBay for like 3 hrs looking over all the awesome drum machines people are selling. Find one and start exploring the sound and MIDI worlds.