A Beat Box Collector Chronicles The Rise and Fall of Drum Machines

DJ and drum machine enthusiast Joe Mansfield shares some fascinating details on drum machines, and famous beats.


Boston DJ/producer/drum machine connoisseur Joe Mansfield owns nearly 150 beat boxes but he still hasn’t landed his Holy Grail collectible: The ComputeRhythm.

Joe Mansfield

“You could store your beats on computer punch cards and slide them through the machine so it reads the rhythm,” Mansfield explains. “EKO only made 25 of them in the early ’70s, so that’s my crown jewel. I just can’t bring myself to spend $10,000 on it.”

The pricey ComputeRhythm remains one of the few drum machines to elude Mansfield’s grasp. Hooked on electronica-collecting since age 15, when he bought a Roland TR 808 after hearing the thick drums in dance track “Set It Off,” Mansfield now shares the fruits of his hoarding in the upcoming picture book Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession (Get On Down).

Hypnotic Grooves

Mansfield, who name-drops drum machine model numbers with the kind of music fan enthusiasm usually reserved for flesh-and-blood stars, compiled Beat Box to share his fondness for iconic grooves and the gadgets that produced them. He tells Co.Create, “People might not know that the whole rhythm backbone for Phil Collins’s ‘In the Air tonight’ is a preset on a Roland CR78 drum machine. Marvin Gaye uses a Roland in ‘Sexual Healing.’ And when you hear the kick drum that starts off New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ or the shh-shh sound in Salt and Pepa’s ‘Push It’? That’s the Oberheim DMX.”

Cheesy Charmers

Beat Box’s survey of techno-porn eye candy stretches back to the quaint rhythm toys favored by organ players in the 1960s who needed generic “cha cha” accompaniment for their lounge gigs. The Wurlitzer Swingin’ Rhythm, discovered by Mansfield in a Detroit thrift store, comes complete with rhythm pattern labeled “TEEN.” “These old machines were kind of cheesy,” noted Mansfield, “but they looked cool and cost next to nothing.”

Robot Drummers

By the early 1980s, hip hop popularized a new generation of programmable drum machines that made no effort to emulate the quirks of human musicians. Instead, boxes fed a new-found appetite for bulldozer beats repeated with metronome-like perfection. Mansfield said, “In the beginning, with the exception of Kraftwerk who wanted to sound mechanical, drum machines were supposed to sound as natural as possible. But then it evolved to where drum machines sounded like a robot playing drums and people said “That’s what we want.’ When you get a thumping 909 kick drum going all the way through a house music track, that’s hypnotizing for people on the dance floor. They liked that steadiness.”

Boxes with buttons gave way over the last decade to sampled drum sounds that come pre-bundled with digital recording software.Mansfield, who also helps run the Get On Down vinyl re-issues outfit, sounded philosophical about drum machinery’s rise and fall. “What are you going to do? The technolog I love was ahead of its time. People back then looked at drum machines the same way they look at newer technologies today. It just keeps moving.”


Check out the slide show for beauty shots from Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession.

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.