I wrote an article for Popular Music & Society about how Prince used Roger Linn’s first drum machine, the LM-1 Drum Computer. The article explores Prince’s LM-1 rhythm programming techniques and sound ideals by considering song examples, interviews with Prince’s engineers and musicians, and online fan discussion. I argue that given the constraints of music technologies in the early 1980s and the production workflows for using them, Prince’s drum programming remains a model of compelling groove-making. By sequencing rhythms, finger drumming drum fills, and incorporating unusual timbres from effects processing, Prince imbued the LM-1’s mechanical sound with the vibrant feel of a live drummer.
Since the article, unlike my blog, is behind a paywall and not easily accessible, here are four takeaways from studying Prince’s production practice:
Explore the sonic potentials, limitations, and creative scripts of one’s equipment. My favorite Prince quote I found is this: “I don’t ever read manuals. I don’t want to have a preconception about what a piece of gear should or shouldn’t do. I just start using it. I start pushing buttons, and I discover the sounds that I can make with it” (Duane Tudahl, Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984, p. 239).
Program electronic instruments idiomatically for the acoustic instrument being simulated or replaced. Prince’s drum programming always feels idiomatic to what an experienced drummer might play. This is especially apparent in the sound of Prince’s exuberantly freestyled drum fills, which convey a drummer’s exciting offbeat accents.
Have a fast, efficient, and continuous workflow. Since he was always writing, playing, and recording songs, Prince generated an iterative feedback loop for his production practice.
Understand individual pieces of equipment as links within a larger music production system. By connecting the LM-1 with other components of his studio such as guitar pedals, reverbs, and noise gates, Prince created a one-of-a-kind rhythm instrument with adjustable timbres that could be configured in numerous ways to suit the song.