Linn Programmable Drum Machine/Sequencer

Revolutionary prototype drum machine

Estimated value: £2,000+

Roger Linn's original prototype Programmable Drum Machine (photo: Felix Visser)

Roger Linn’s original prototype Programmable Drum Machine (photo: Felix Visser)

If rarity is one of the deciding factors in determining the desirability of a vintage classic, surely the rarest items of all will be some of the most valuable: unique prototypes, hand-made one-offs and highly limited pre-production units. Sadly, for various reasons very few remain in existence. The same story comes up again and again. Dave Smith tells us he has “no idea” whether any prototypes of his classic Sequential Circuits synths still exist or where they might be, adding that he “never was much one for keeping things around”. Roland’s press department informs us that the prototypes of classics like the TR-808, TR-909 and TB-303 are “long gone”.

It’s logical in a way. By definition, engineers are interested in advancing and improving existing designs rather than archiving every step of the R&D process. The one exception to the rule is Roger Linn, who played a pivotal role in shaping the modern drum machine as we know it (as well as defining the modern sampling workstation with the Akai MPC60). Linn’s contributions to musical history are well documented (we’re a little biased, but we’d recommend reading our recent interview with Roger for some incredible insight into the way swing became a standard feature of all modern drum machines and DAWs). Just as importantly, many of Linn’s prototypes and development models remain intact.

Would Linn’s prototypes command high prices if they were to go on sale? Right now, probably not. As important as they are in terms of their contribution to the development of electronic music equipment – and, of course, music itself – there simply isn’t a significant collector’s market for this kind of historical artefact… yet. But we’re confident that’ll change as collectors begin to acknowledge the importance of electronic instruments.

One of Linn’s rare pre-production MidiStudio units (think of it as the missing link between the Linn 9000 and the MPC60) sold through Vemia for £1,019 in 2008. As Linn explains: “The MidiStudio was a production product that was never released because Linn Electronics went out of business before we could finish the software. It was basically intended to be a more reliable, better-designed replacement for the Linn 9000. If memory serves, we made six of them, one of which I have. Also, while I worked with Akai they produced a product called the MWS76, which was basically a MIDI keyboard controller with an ASQ10 Sequencer in it. I’ve got one of those around somewhere too.”

Roger Linn "holding an MPC60 prototype and making an odd face"

Roger Linn “holding an MPC60 prototype and making an odd face”

Linn's Akai MWS76

Linn’s pre-production Akai MWS76

But as important as Linn’s later products were, we need to go back to the early days of his career to find the prototype which had the biggest impact on the way we all make music today. Many of the features of the revolutionary LM-1 were developed using a prototype model Linn referred to as the Programmable Drum Machine/Sequencer. “It permitted programming your own drumbeats [like the LM-1] but used analog and not sampled sounds,” Linn explains. “It also permitted programming monophonic sequences for playback on an external analog synthesizer. It consisted of an early computer called a COMPAL-80 running an Intel 8080 at 1.87 MHz. Inside the computer is my custom PC board providing trigger signals to the external beige box, which contained an analog drum sound generator board from an early Roland drum machine, as well as control voltage and gate jacks for use with an external analog synth. I wrote the operating program in BASIC and 8080 assembly language, which permitted me to poke little stars onto a screen grid with rows representing various drums and columns representing 16th-notes.”

Wait a minute. Analogue drums, cutting-edge sequencing options and the option to sequence a monophonic synth part? That sounds a lot like a Tempest. “Yeah, I guess you could call it Tempest very, very Lite!” Linn jokes. “I only made three: one for me, one for Leon Russell and a third that was lent to a friend and stolen. My unit now rests somewhere in the Cité de la Musique in Paris.” It is, however, most definitely a museum piece rather than a useable instrument. “I’m sure it can no longer be turned on and the program loaded from cassette storage, if the cassette hasn’t decayed.”

At this stage in history, Linn’s prototypes are best considered influential rather than necessarily valuable. Their potential market value will undoubtedly increase over the coming decades. However, as far as prototypes go, no drum machine will ever be able to match the prototypes of a certain synth in terms of impact on electronic music, desirability and potential market value…

Author Greg Scarth
30th September, 2013

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