Back in 1959, when the Rudolph Wurlitzer Corporation debuted the Side Man, originally intended as an accompanist for organ players who didn't have a live drummer to help them keep time, nobody could have foreseen the way drum machines would transform popular music. From Sly Stone's early experiments with the Funk Box to Rick Rubin's bombastic deployment of the Roland TR-808, beat boxes have opened up whole new worlds of creative possibilities for producers in all genres, from soul to pop to hip-hop.
Joe Mansfield, the Boston based producer responsible for records like Ed O.G.'s "Be a Father To Your Child," grew so fond of drum machines that he began searching for old beat boxes whenever he would go on record-digging expeditions. "I just started picking them up when they were cheap," he says. "Some would be in thrift shops. You could get one for ten bucks." His collection soon grew to the point where he required special storage for all his rare and unusual specimens.
Like all true collectors, Mansfield will never rest until he finds that one last piece: the EKO ComputeRhythm. "There weren't very many of them made," he says. "Recently they had one for ten grand, but I could never bring myself to pay that. If you see one for sale let me know."
Many of Manfield's treasures were chronicled in last year's coffee-table book Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession, and now 101 pieces from his collection are on view at Red Bull Studios on 18th Street in Manhattan as part the Red Bull Music Academy Festival. The exhibition, called Beat: Repeat, runs until the end of the month.
"Binary code doesn't know time," says RBMA's Torsten Schmidt. "It's extremely difficult for algorithms to know how time works. Just like when your Mac says something will take four hours to download and it takes 30 minutes. When you're talking 8-bit technology, it's even more unpredictable." Such idiosyncracies give each drum machine its own unique personality. What we're about to do right now is take a look back at the most important drum machines in music history—and some of the greatest music made with them.
The Wurlitzer Side Man