01:// The Art of Ghosts and Machines
The creator of one of the most revolutionary pieces of musical hardware in electronic music history isn’t especially fond of electronic music. He admits he isn’t familiar with what “Italo” is – which is just one of the genres that exist in large part because of the machines he created. He prefers to play guitars and, sometimes, mandolins.
The device that he created was just one in a long chain of revolutionary weapons, tools of electronic warfare that would reshape music in a way even more radical than fuzz distortion or synthesizers. But it was essentially a “do over” – a revision and expansion of a product so disastrous it had brought down his entire company.
He made it for a foreign corporation of murky origins that, appropriately enough, also always seems to be teetering on the verge of collapse.
Had Linn been able to play drums well enough, he never would have needed (and never would have thought to make) a drum machine.
The MPC was more than just a sampler, sequencer or programmable drum machine. It was a home studio before such a thing even seemed possible. Preserved in countless basements and garages, the MPC became a Swiss army knife for two generations of producers in electronic music and hip hop. It wasn’t the first sampler, but it was the best of its era – a vision of technology that would take the computer out of the back cabinets and allow human beings to play it like an instrument, to bang it like a drum.
02:// Programming Soul
The MPC is still an existing product line owned by the same company that introduced it, Akai. But our fetish for logos and corporate brand identities doesn’t trump the reality that Akai’s MPC was the baby of one man – one of America’s great inventors, Roger Linn.
Roger Linn has lent his name and expertise to a large (and still growing) body of music machines, but his background as a musician has been the crucial element. As a musician, he was capable of playing guitar and bass and could “fake it on keyboards,” but drums were the hard part – both to play them well and in time, and to make them sound good on quick and dirty demo recordings.
Necessity truly was the mother of invention. Had Linn been able to play drums well, he never would have needed (and never would have thought to make) a drum machine.
Reaching more than 30 years into the future, Linn wrote his first drum machine program on a computer. If 1970s technology could be stretched far enough to make that prototype work, there would be other limitations to this virtual drummer, as he found when he showed a prototype to Stevie Wonder. “Watching Stevie, a sightless man, it occurred to me that a screen grid was not as intuitive for musicians,” Linn told Dazed and Confused. “It needed to be something with more audible feedback that you could use in real time, so I went back to the drawing board.”
The machine that Linn drew up eventually became the LM-1 Drum Computer, which was released in 1979 by Linn’s first company, Linn Electronics. Most “off-the-shelf” drum machines had presets in generic styles (think of old Casio keyboards that played “samba” patterns). Circuit benders like Don Lewis had managed to hack these, but the sounds in Linn’s words were “like crickets.” The best and well-known disco remixers of the day made their own “loops” by recording kicks and snares to quarter-inch tape but this was a practiced skill hard to replicate on the fly.
The LM-1 on the other hand was programmable and demolished previous thinking of drum machines as inert metronomes. Only 500 machines of the LM-1 were sold (many by musicians who paid a deposit in advance – Linn almost foretold the dawn of Kickstarter too), but its sampled, organic drum sounds showed up in an incredible amount of influential pop songs, including Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” By going back to the drawing board, Linn said, he had “accidentally created the concepts of quantize and swing, a feature that effectively corrects human timing errors.”
The MPC was a Swiss army knife for two generations of producers. It wasn’t the first sampler, but it was the best of its era – a vision of technology that would take the computer out of the back cabinets and allow human beings to play it like an instrument, to bang it like a drum.
By using samples of real drum sounds and the ability to manipulate them, the LM-1 was going a long way toward laying the groundwork for samplers. Linn built upon this foundation with the LinnDrum, which sold far more units than the LM-1. With the LinnDrum, the drum sounds were burned onto EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory) chips which could be swapped out almost like the floppies and other removable media. And in the first nod to sampling, custom sounds could also be burned onto these, to make custom sound sets.
The success of the LinnDrum fed Linn’s ambition, but his background as a musician lead him to a groundbreaking solution to the problem of awkwardly swapping chips when one wanted to change drum sounds. An engineer’s solution to this would have been to expand memory: add more sounds burned onto more chips or larger chips. To make it so people could record their own sounds was a musician’s solution. And Roger Linn’s.
The Linn 9000 was possibly the greatest disaster in the nascent drum machine industry of the mid-1980s. It was also one of the most influential machines of all time. People have come up with many similes and pithy quotes to describe the Linn 9000. One popular joke dubbed it the “HALinn 9000,” after the renegade computer of Kubrick’s 2001.
With the Linn 9000, Linn attempted to combine the drum machine functions of the LinnDrum with the ability to directly sample sounds right into the same box. It was essentially the prototype of the MPC. Like the MPC, the Linn 9000 featured a prominent set of pads (18 in this case), a mixer, an LCD display and an expansion port for a floppy drive.
Everyone liked all of these things. What they didn’t like was the software bugs that caused the Linn 9000 to misbehave, sometimes catastrophically. In a letter which was republished in Keyboard Magazine at the time, Linn referred to “technical problems early on” and connected these problems with the Linn 9000 to Linn Electronics going out of business. It was expensive to “re-engineer, manufacture and service” and the company lacked the funds and investment financing to weather “all the classic ‘growing pains’ of a new business.”
03:// Re-Engineering the Future
Linn managed to push out one last software update to dealers before closing. Though the Linn 9000 had its share of detractors, it also had many passionate fans who had seen the genius through the tumult. They were taken aback when Linn Electronics was shut down as the 9000 seemed to be on the way to becoming stable. (Bruce Forat at Forat Electronics would continue to refine the software and after buying Linn Electronics’ remaining assets sold the drum machine/sampler as the “Forat F9000.”)
A bigger problem for Linn Electronics is that the electronics industry was going through a profound change. 500 units would no longer mark a successful start for a company; hobbyist tinkerers in garages were being supplanted in the tech industry by venture capital that made hobbyists into businessmen and jump-started product lines. To avoid a product failure (or even just slow sales) knocking a company out altogether, future inventors would have to team up with a company with professional sales, supply chain and marketing departments.
An introduction from the founder of Syco Systems lead to Linn’s introduction to a company called Akai. There is something of an aura of mystery around Akai. The company’s origins are unclear. It was founded by a father and son, Masukichi Akai and Saburo Akai, as Akai Electric Company, but its corporate history is fairly murky. It’s not certain which year it was founded (or even which decade). Akai had entered the electronic music industry in 1984, and soon after Linn Electronics’ demise hired the then-33 year old founder, Roger Linn.
“It was a good fit because Akai needed a creative designer with ideas,” Linn said, “and I didn’t want to do sales, marketing, finance or manufacturing, all of which Akai was very good at.”
Linn’s goal was to “re-engineer” the Linn 9000, though he had already taken the first steps when still working for himself. Just a month before Linn Electronics shut down, the company had showcased a product called the LinnDrum Midistudio. Apart from the electronics inside the box, one crucial design decision had already been made by the time the Midistudio was demo’d: the pads had been reduced from 18 on the Linn 9000 to 16, arranged in its familiar 4×4 square.
Often regarded in media coverage as a hip-hop device, the early MPCs were the thriving heart of every househead’s studio.
This refinement would continue at Akai. The 4×4 pads – the largest elements on the entire face of the machine other than the LED display – were big enough to be tapped during live performance, on stage, sort of like a keyboard. Big and inviting, they called out to people instinctively to play with them. Gone too was the blocky wood paneling of so many ’70s synthesizers and early electronic music instruments. The overall footprint of the machine also came out looking something like a square, which emphasized the intimacy and self-contained nature of the box. It wasn’t another just rack-mounted panel that plugged into an expensive studio. In many ways, the MPC was the studio, or could be in a pinch. This was no longer a machine which an uncanny knack for emulating realistic drum sounds. It was a machine that could, theoretically, emulate everything.
Akai called it the MPC, which stood for “MIDI Production Center” (later retconned into “Music Production Center”). The first model, the MPC60, proudly bore Roger Linn’s signature – such was his good name in the industry despite the demise of Linn Electronics. The MPC60 featured 12 bit sampling, a 60,000 note capacity and 99 track sequencer and after launch in 1988 it sold for $5,000.
04:// The Soul of the Machine
DJ Shadow – the producer who more than anyone would take the musical possibilities of the MPC to the absolute limit – described his first night after buying an MPC in a manner similar to how giddy teenagers in John Hughes movies describe losing their virginity.
“I was so ready,” he told Keyboard Magazine. “I’d fantasized about it for so long that when I got it, I took it home and I was shaking and sweating. I stayed up all night reading the manual front to back. I had to use it immediately because I was bursting with all these ideas…”
It’s hard to imagine that Shadow’s reaction was typical, but the MPC 60 and its successors were a phenomenal success. The EMU SP12 had been Akai’s chief competition, but soon came to be identified with the “first era” of sampling – a narrative that was hard to debunk when many EMU SP12 users themselves began switching to the MPC.
Linn had packed a tremendous amount of power inside that square box: producers could now create beats, sequence them, play pressure sensitive sounds and edit them all in one machine. People weren’t just grabbing drum hits or short loops from records, but recording live and using the MPC as an ad hoc studio. The MPC’s impressive memory allowed them to record longer and longer passages and assign and then trigger them from one of the 4×4 pads. They became incredibly inventive at pushing the machine to its limits by techniques such as recording at different speeds and the machine began to effect production itself. New terms like “chopping” entered the musical lexicon, and the limited duration of the samples would shape the very form of new genres like UK Garage and Drum’N’Bass.
The early MPCs are today often regarded in mainstream coverage as a hip hop device, but they were the thriving heart of a house producer’s studio. Cajmere used an MPC60 on many of the earliest Relief and Cajual records. James Curd of Greenskeepers described making some of his first recordings with live instruments using the MPC as a mobile studio, in a technique he calls “Chicago/ghetto style: put it right into the MPC and sampled it as the dude was playing.” Some of the most iconic records have been made because of its advances, and were shaped by its technical limitations.
The MPC probably reached its platonic, ideal form with 1994’s MPC 3000 (the numbers escalated quickly), which became the machine for many of the classic albums from this (second) golden age of sampling. The 3000 added stereo sampling, 16 bit linear 44.1 sampling with a capability of recording sounds up to 6 minutes in length, a slew of effects, a SCSI port and more. It was this model – one belonging to J Dilla – that would be enshrined in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Akai released a cut-rate version of the 3000 (called the MPC 2000) in 1997, but the 3000 was the last MPC that Linn worked on for Akai. The MPC is now one of the longest continually running product lines among all electronic music instruments, though the turmoil of the company has never really ceased. In the years since Linn’s departure, Akai has been bought out, bankrupted, had its CEO imprisoned in an $800 million accounting scandal and more. The classic brands of the music industry are usually heavily mythologized, but Akai’s corporate history on its website is reduced to just five sentences. Roger Linn’s name isn’t listed there either.
Unlike many designers, however, Linn has continued to develop new machines. In December 2001, he debuted the AdrenaLinn Guitar Effects Processor. Roger Linn Design more than makes up for the gaps in Akai’s history: with just a single man, the company has released products from effects processors to the Tempest, which Linn describes as “a truly unique drum machine created for the way people make music today instead of how it was made 20 years ago.” He even showcases a variety of products that never made it into production – interfaces and control systems that still might revolutionize music – or serve as the prototype for the next product that will.