by Native Instruments

Five synths and drum machines
that defined an era

Meet the gear that shaped the sound of early-’80s funk and boogie,
and inspired our new Expansion, MIDNIGHT SUNSET

Our new Expansion, MIDNIGHT SUNSET, turns back the clock to the late-’70s and early-’80s, encapsulating the iconic sounds of vintage funk, R&B, and boogie. It was an era defined by technology, as groundbreaking new synthesizers and drum machines began proliferating in music studios. We look at some classic gear from the time; technology that shaped music.


Linn Electronics & LM-1 Linndrum

The drum machines feared by drummers

Visionary designer Roger Linn set about making his first drum machine because he wasn’t content with the options that were available to musicians at the time – drum machines based on analog synthesis that sounded very little like real drums. In his own words, he wanted a drum machine that “did more than play preset samba patterns and didn’t sound like crickets.”

By sampling real drums and assembling them into an easily-programmable drum computer, he created the world’s first, commercially-available, digital drum machine, the LM-1. It’s no exaggeration to say that this black, wooden-clad box revolutionised music production when it was released in 1980. Its signature punchy drums are instantly recognisable in music by Prince, who put the LM-1 at the heart of his sound, making the drum machine his own in countless hits.

The Roland TR-808 is celebrated now (808 day is on August 8th, if it’s not already in your calendar), but it wasn’t such a success when it was released back in 1980. The real drum samples of the LinnDrum (Roger Linn’s follow-up to the LM-1) blew the 808 out of the water, technology-wise. And its relative affordability meant it sold far more units than the preceding LM-1, making it the drum machine of choice for musicians at the time.

Such a breakthrough was the LinnDrum, that even world-conquering drummers began to fear for the future of their craft. Watch the video below to hear Omar Hakim talk about why the arrival of the LinnDrum prompted him to get new business cards printed.

Sequential Circuits Prophet-5

The programmable, polyphonic prodigy

Along with Roger Linn, there was another sonic visionary whose technologies defined the era: Dave Smith. Still pushing the boundaries of analog synthesis today with his company, Sequential, it was his programmable, polyphonic analog synthesizer, the Prophet-5 (released under the original company name of Sequential Circuits) that was his first breakthrough, commercial success.

Unlike a lot of its competition it allowed musicians to recall sounds they had created via built-in patch memory. Manufactured between 1978 and 1984, The Prophet-5 was loved by musicians for its thick analog basses and dreamy string sounds – heard in countless funk, R&B, and boogie songs from the era.

An emulation of the Prophet-5, created by user Paule for the REAKTOR platform, can be found here.

Spot the Prophet-5 in the music video for the Hall & Oates seminal smooth jam, ‘I Can’t Go For That’.

Fairlight CMI

The original sampling powerhouse

Imagine a computer music workstation with only a few megabytes of memory. It might sound like nothing now, but when the Fairlight offered this to producers at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary. State of the art when it was first released in 1979, it was a sampling workhorse, offering complete editing of digital samples, as well as wavetable synthesis and powerful sequencing possibilities.

Taking home one of these babies would set you back an eye-watering £18,000, with later models commanding upwards of £30,000. Unsurprisingly, this made it pretty exclusive – only professional musicians could afford to use this drool-worthy piece of kit. Despite its price tag, this classic piece of retro tech helped establish sampling in pop music for decades to come.

One adopter was Herbie Hancock, who famously appeared on Sesame Street with his Fairlight CMI, entertaining a group of kids by playing back their sampled voices.

Oberheim OB-XA

Supersized synthesized sounds

‘Fat’ is a word often used to describe the sound of analog synths. By this measure, the Oberheim OB-Xa was XXXL. Even today, one press of the famed Unison button will give you some of the most bone-shaking bass sounds available from any synth.

Made to compete against the Prophet-5, the OB-Xa was released in 1981 and also offered patch memory – coming in four, six, or eight voice polyphonic models. This synth established the signature, big ‘Oberheim’ sound, heard in countless tracks from the decade.

Watch the OB-Xa make an appearance in the video for Prince’s iconic hit, 1999.

Oberheim DMX

Hard-hitting drums with a human touch

Along with the LM-1 and LinnDrum, the Oberheim DMX was a staple of ‘80s funk and boogie tracks. Like the LinnDrum, it offered real, sampled drum sounds. Each sound was fully-tunable, and it also came with ‘human-feel’ features like roll, flam, and swing, making it a very musical and flexible machine.

The secret to its weighty sound was down to the way it processed the drum samples. By using a special compander algorithm and analog filters to add extra punch and warmth, it was capable of producing some of the hardest kicks and snares around – still heard in music decades later.

Listen to some classic patterns from the DMX in the video below.

All of these technologies helped to shape the sound of the early-’70s and late-’80s – a sound captured in our new Expansion, MIDNIGHT SUNSET. Featuring over 50 kits for BATTERY and MASCHINE sampled from classic drum machines and acoustic drums, it also comes stocked with warm vintage tones from classic synthesizers, electric pianos, and more. Meaning you don’t have to take out a hefty bank loan on vintage gear to get era-defining sounds.

Find out more about MIDNIGHT SUNSET here.

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