In search of the beat

One of my favourite objects in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition is the TB-303. Marketed in the 1980s as a ‘base accompaniment’ for solo musicians it failed to impress. As a consequence TB-303s soon became available on the second hand market, where they were picked up by inventive DJs creating a new type of sound know as House in cities such as Detroit and Chicago. By pushing the TB-303 to its limits they found a unique ‘liquid’ sound that became the signature sound of Acid House. Together with the TB-303, drum machines played a pivotal role in the development of House music. Today there are few music genres that don’t use electronically produced drum sounds.

Roland TB-303 synthesizer on loan from the Museum of Techno (Credit: Science Museum)

In our sound (re)production stores at Blythe you can find two big wooden boxes. They are very early ‘rhythm accompaniment’ instruments. Much like the TB-303 they were intended to accompany solo musicians. But unlike the TB-303 both instruments are not purely electronic devices, they have mechanical parts as well.

Chamberlin Rhythmate in storage at Blythe (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The oldest of the two is a Chamberlin Rhythmate . It arrived on the market in the late 1940s, but was never very popular. It is a bit like a tape machine playing a pre-recorded drum rhythm on loop. Instead of one tape, there are fourteen. By moving the tape head from one tape to the other you can switch between rhythms. You can also speed up the tapes, or slow them down to change the tempo.

Wurlitzer Sideman in storage at Blythe House (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The other box is the aptly named Wurlitzer Sideman . This was built some ten years after the Rhythmate and doesn’t use pre-recorded material, but creates the sound electronically. Metal brushes attached to an arm sweep around a circular base, touching little contacts as they go along. When the brush and contact are connected, a current is sent to one of a number of sound-making circuits. The type of circuit that is activated decides the type of sound that is created. The speed at which the brush goes round defines the tempo.

It has been said that one of the founders of a well known company producing synthesisers and drum machines was inspired by the Sideman to start making his own drum machines. The company produced many popular instruments, but one of them initially didn’t do very well. It was called the TB-303.

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