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The Return Of Roger Linn

Designer Drums
Published June 2002
By Paul White

Roger Linn's name may be forever associated with the birth of the first serious, sample-based drum machine in 1979, but now, after years away from instrument design, he's back with a new guitar-oriented product offering rhythmic filter effects.

Back in the late '70s, drum machines were most often found perched on top of electric organs. They could usually be identified by their wooden end-cheeks and a row of latching buttons along the front with preset names invariably including Foxtrot, Samba and Bossanova. They sounded as distinctive as they looked, with snare drums like gated sneezing, cymbals reminiscent of an aerosol underarm deodorant and kick drums like someone spitting melon seeds at a cereal packet. At around that time, guitar player, songwriter and electronics enthusiast Roger Linn decided that it just wasn't good enough!

Roger Linn with his latest product, the Adrenalinn.Roger Linn with his latest product, the Adrenalinn.Roger Linn: "I had a little studio in one room of my house based around a four-track recorder, a few guitars and a bass, and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Like most guitar players, I thought I could get by on bass and I could play keyboards a bit, but where I had problems was playing and recording drums. There were some drum machines around at the time, but they sounded like crickets, had preset beats and only tempo and volume controls — they were very limiting."

Linn Electronics

"I'd learnt a bit about computers by then. Digital tape recorders had just started to appear, albeit at very high prices, so I understood the idea of sampling. I already had one of the first affordable computers, and had the idea to make a drum machine that was programmable and based on sampled sounds. The computer memory used to hold the drum sounds was very expensive then, but you only needed very short recordings to reproduce one strike of each drum. So in 1979, the Linn Electronics LM1 Drum Computer was born. It was expensive — in the US they cost around 5000 dollars each — but musicians liked them. They couldn't believe the ghost in the machine that sounded like real drums. The LM1 had a high degree of programmability, and for the first time it enabled the user to apply quantisation or to add swing to their beats. This made it very easy for people to put their music into the box. I remember the excitement I felt when hearing it on pop records. I think the first big hit using it was 'Don't You Want Me' by The Human League.

"The LM1 became very popular, and in 1982, Linn Electronics followed it up with the LinnDrum, which was cheaper at $3000, and far more popular. A couple of years later came the Linn 9000, which was really too ambitious a project for such a small company. Though everyone loved the concept, it had some technical problems and ultimately Linn Electronics went under in 1986."

Akai & Roger Linn Design

"At that time, Linn products were being distributed in the UK by Syco Systems, co-owned by a guy named Stephen Paine. He knew the top people at Akai and put me in touch with them to see if we could collaborate on some product designs. During my subsequent relationship with Akai, we decided to build a line of products not dissimilar to the Linn 9000, and the first thing we created together was the MPC60 MIDI Production Centre — a sampling drum machine with a MIDI sequencer, SMPTE sync and so on. That was followed by the MPC60 MkII, which was a similar kind of thing, then came the MPC3000. In the mid '90s, Akai brought out their MPC2000 which, though based on my design concepts, was not directly designed by me.

"Around three years ago, I decided it would be a good idea to start another company of my own — Roger Linn Design. The company is based in Berkeley, California, where I live, and its first product is the AdrenaLinn, which is just about to be launched in the UK."

Ancient History — Creating Samples On The LM1

Today, Roger Linn acknowledges his design history by including a page on the Roger Linn Designs web site that covers his previous products. It can be found at www.rogerlinndesign.com/past-products-museum.html. Looking back, Linn seems frank in his assessment of such machines as the then-classic LM1 Drum Computer, his first drum machine.

"In retrospect, I'm amazed that I went to such trouble to do something that is so easy today on any computer! Creating the samples on the LM1 was difficult, because there weren't any good software or hardware tools for doing so. I had to design my own sampling system on an early computer I had. The LM1 used an encoding scheme called eight-bit companding, a method of extending the dynamic range of eight-bit samples that was used in telephones at the time. I built an analogue-to-digital converter that sampled directly into my computer, and wrote a program to control it, then burned the samples into memory chips.

"The sounds themselves mostly came from an LA session drummer and friend named Art Wood. The sessions were hilarious. The drummer would come into the studio, set up his drums, hit a drum once or twice, then leave! I also got lots of good samples from top musicians who wanted their own sounds made into chips, and who were willing to add their sounds to our available library. I remember a conversation with Brian Eno, who stated a desire to replace my fixed sampled drum sounds with banging trashcans and a variety of other percussive noises!"

Enter The AdrenaLinn

Having seen the AdrenaLinn demonstrated at the Winter NAMM show earlier this year, I get the impression that this product is taking you back more towards your guitar-playing roots.

"I always had an interest in rhythm and the application of computers in that area. When I used to record back in the late '70s with modular synths and early digital sequencers, I used to set up the sequenced control of analogue filters to produce the effect of stepping through filter tones. It was quite difficult to set up and required all kinds of complex gear and specialised knowledge, so most musicians weren't aware of it. That sort of thing always seemed to be in the domain of the engineer-musician rather than the creative musician. My aim was to make something that was quite low in cost and that anybody could use to create these sequenced filter tones. So the subtitle of the product is 'Groove Filter Effects + Amp Modelling + Drum Box'. 'Groove Filter Effects' means simply that your guitar tone or volume is altered in rhythmic ways over time, all in sync to an internal programmable drum machine or to MIDI. Examples of this include the classic 'sample & hold filter' sound, looped sequences of resonant filter or flanger tones, tremolo or auto-pan that always syncs to the beat, or a flanger or phaser that cycles exactly every eight measures. The sequences of filter tones are enabled by an internal 32-step programmable sequencer, and the tremolo and flanger are driven by an internal low-frequency oscillator, both of which play in sync to the internal drumbeats or to MIDI. Add to this a guitar amp modeller and tempo-sync'ed delay, and you've got some incredible new sounds.

DESIGNER DRUMS"At first glance, all those things might appear to be rather disparate elements, but with the exception of the amp modelling, they're not. They are all necessary to provide the rhythmic effects the unit produces. The amp modelling is included because a lot of those effects really shine when you add amp distortion to them. But the rhythmic effects aren't the whole story. You also get classic filter effects like auto-wah and 'talk box' sounds. But the real beauty is that the sound-design system allows a wide range of combinations of modulators and filters, which create many new and unique effects.

"Getting started is simple — you just plug in your guitar and, without doing any programming at all, you can choose from 200 different drumbeats and 200 different presets, each containing a unique combination of all the elements that alter the instrument signal. Of course, those presets are editable."

What's the amp modelling like?

"Well, those people who have tried it have compared it very favourably to the dedicated modelling preamps out there, such as the Line 6 Pod. In fact, the comments I've heard indicate that its dynamic touch sensitivity response might be better than the other units."

Is the drum machine complicated, or have you simplified it to meet the needs of the product and its target market?

"The drum machine is really quite simple and doesn't allow you to chain patterns like a typical stand-alone drum box. Its primary purpose is as a metronome to let you know when to play, so that the rhythmic effects will be in sync with your playing. It has no dynamic pads on the front panel, but does have over 40 sampled sounds, variable swing time and full step programmability, so you really can get some good beats. You can also route the drum sound through AdrenaLinn's own filters and processing, which means you can come up with some great processed drumbeats using nothing except the box itself."

Sequenced Filters

During your demos for the product, I heard an interesting sound that appeared to impose a sequence of pitched notes onto the guitar signal. What was that?

"One of the most interesting new effects is the use of the flanger to accentuate specific notes. When you add resonance to the flanger, it rings at a very precisely defined note. If you modulate the flanger with the 32-step sequencer, this results in a tuned sequence of fixed resonant notes applied to the guitar signal. Just strum a chord on the guitar and its sound is transformed into this amazing sequence of notes. Each step of the sequence has about an eight-octave tuning range. Among the presets, we have sequences based on blues scales, major, minor and more. There's also one I particularly like that uses a fast harmonic minor scale. And any sequence can be transposed in real time by hitting a key on a connected MIDI keyboard."

Does it do non-rhythmic effects too?

"Yes — the rhythmic effects are just half of it. You can get all the classic filter effects like auto-wah, talk box, volume swells, and filter swells, as well as the amp modelling. But the real fun comes in the new sounds you can make by assigning any of 10 modulation sources to any of the six filter types. For example, instead of an envelope filter — the 'auto-wah' sound — you could assign the envelope follower to the flanger for an 'envelope flanger'. You can modulate pitch with the note-trigger envelope generator in order to bend the initial pitch of each played note, or you can use a MIDI keyboard to affect the filter frequency. Of course there are presets for all of these sounds, but the possibilities are so limitless that people are coming up with sounds that surprise me! In a sense, it's like having a modular synth in which your guitar is the sound source.

"I must admit that I didn't create this product as the result of some market survey that said this is what everybody was crying out for. The truth is, I created something that, as a guitar player, I wanted to have. That is usually where my products start out, occasionally to my detriment. I make things that I think it would be cool to have."

User Interface & Feedback

There are clearly lots of creative possibilities here, so how have you made the user interface approachable? After all, guitar players are renowned for their aversion to anything too complicated.

"Well, page three of the manual is entitled 'I Wanna Use It Right Now!' and describes how to connect it and play presets and drumbeats in a few easy steps. So anyone can use it right away. However, for preset and drumbeat editing, we use a parameter matrix — selecting one of eight rows of parameters allows four knobs to control 64 parameters plus sequence and drumbeat editing. Admittedly that is more difficult to use than 64 separate knobs, but having 64 knobs would double or triple the product cost, so I think it is a reasonable compromise. It really is very fast to get to any parameter for editing, and for anyone who owns Emagic's SoundDiver MIDI editing software, we've developed an AdrenaLinn module that can be downloaded free from our web site. This allows a graphical editing system that shows all functions as on-screen knobs, sliders and switches for more visually intuitive editing, and lets you save any and all data to computer for backup or trading sounds over the Net."

Do you know how people are actually using the product?

"The AdrenaLinn has been shipping in the States since the end of last year, and I've had some very positive comments from the people using it. It's really an idea-creator — people plug into it and within a short space of time, they find out that this box inspires them to try new things and to come up with new musical ideas. It's possible to use it to come up with ideas that make a recording stand out from a sea of similarity — it can pull you in a new direction."

Is the sound quality good enough for serious recording applications, or is the unit just for live performance?

"There are some users with studios who process recorded tracks through the unit. It has 24-bit conversion and minimum 32-bit internal processing, so it's a high-quality unit."

Have you considered putting any of these rhythmic effects into a software plug-in?

"Yes, I've talked to some companies about that, though nothing is definite yet. I'd love it if someone wanted to make one."

The Future Sound of Linn

Do you have ideas for new products now that the AdrenaLinn is finished?

"I like rhythmic effects, and I like products that pull ideas out of you that you didn't know you had. I have several ideas for guitar products — some very creative music production tools are on their way.

"One thing I've been thinking a lot about lately is that there's a need for a completely new type of personal musical instrument that is easy to learn but has enough depth to allow virtuosity. I think we're at an exciting point in time where old instruments are dying out, and lots of new ideas for instruments are appearing. Some of these ideas will survive on their merits, and most will die. Many new musicians today don't play a specific instrument, but rather 'play' computer, sequencer, one of the new grooveboxes, or turntables. Right now, music created in this way is repetitive and limited compared to what you get from well-established instruments because the tools haven't had enough time to evolve, but I think it's going to improve. Maybe in about 20 years, the best of these ideas and new technologies will combine to form a whole new instrument for a new generation of musicians. I'd love to design such an instrument and have a lot of ideas about it, but I don't think my company is big enough to tackle such a task. Maybe I'll collaborate with a larger company.

"In the meantime, though, I'd like to have the chance to play my guitar more, because every time I've started out building something for myself, I end up running a company to build it for other people, and then I don't have the time to use it myself!"

Published June 2002