Saturday, October 15, 2016

Linndrum – A gold mine for 80s beats

Linndrum: At last! I have been yearning for one for quite a while. They are incredibly rare here in Germany so it's a very difficult endeavor to find one. This June, I was leafing through eBay Kleinanzeigen and tried looking up "Linn" as a search word. Wow, look what's there! A Linndrum, here in Berlin! The ad was just a couple of days old and had about 55 page views. The price was more than humane, actually I was afraid that it was a scam, the price was that good! Anyway, I immediately sent the seller a message, declaring that I could drop by any time to collect the Linndrum for cash. I had to wait a couple of painful hours for the seller to reply to my message, but later that evening, he did, and: the Linndrum was still available!

So, the next morning I set out to collect the cash needed for the transaction from my bank's ATM. This is when the trouble started, since my bank was having issues with double bookings and false bookings, 13 million customers' accounts were affected, it was a huge outrage. So my account was suspended that day and I couldn't withdraw my own money! I was starting to panic... I was afraid that my Linndrum would be gone by the time I showed up at the seller's home. Totally unwarranted as it turned out, hehe... So I somehow managed to scrape all that cash together from some other account that I own, and with only 1 hour delay I showed up with a wad of cash in my wallet at the location where the Linndrum was staying, and my fears of it being a scam were swept away when I met the seller. I realized that I knew him! He used to work at a large music store here in Berlin and I had chatted with him many times before. We had the usual synth small talk and he let me try out the Linndrum which was wired up and connected to a pair of speakers. Half an hour later I left for my studio with a very heavy Linndrum under my arm and a big grin on my face!

The Linndrum

The Linndrum, what a classic! It was released in 1982 by Roger Linn, the inventor of the groundbreaking LM-1 a couple of years earlier. By the way, there is no such thing as an "LM-2", it was never called that way. It's called Linndrum, period. The Linndrum is all over the 80s, so many artists and producers were using it at that time. Its sounds really hit the spot if you are after synth pop or 80s disco drums. Bassdrum, snaredrum and hihat are simply gorgeous. The backbone of your 80s rhythm seciont! I also heavily rely on its toms, cowbell, clap and ride. Some of the other sounds are not that essential to me but it's still great to have them. I have it hooked up to my trusty old Ibanez RM80 mixing board. The Linndrum has a load of single outputs (one for each instrument), so you can treat each single voice differently with your mixer channels and outboard processors. Additionally, the Linndrum has an inbuilt stereo mixer for all instruments, so this way you can even mix and pan all instruments on the Linndrum without the need for a large mixing board.

The Linndrum I bought doesn't have MIDI. This is not a problem at all since it can be easily synced externally via its clock input. There IS one catch to external clocking, though: Linndrum wants a clock signal that has the format 48PPQ, meaining 48 analog pulses per quarter note. Most available MIDI to clock converters offer a maximum resolution of 24PPQ (the same as DIN Sync and MIDI clock), so if you feed your Linndrum a 24PPQ clock it will run at half speed. If you can live with this, and it is certainly possible to work this way, fine. I found a solution (thanks to Martin Sternrekorder for pointing me at this): My Kenton Pro Solo MK3 has a MIDI Clock to 48PPQ conversion option. It works very reliably!

This way, clocking the Linndrum externally, I started using the Linndrum's internal sequencer to drive this wonderful classical drummachine. Programming patterns and fills, chaining them up using the song mode. This is the real oldschool way, the way the Linndrum is supposed to work! And the timing and punch of the Linndrum when sequenced internally is simply impeccable. It's just fat as hell!

The controls. Oldschool, baby!

It does have a couple of quirks though. First of all, the Linndrum is notorious for its underpowered power supply. My My Linndrum vibrates audibly when it's powered on, I suppose it's the transformer which is vibrating heavily.
Next, the song mode takes some time getting used to. Say, you want to edit position 7 in your song and replace it with a different pattern. To accomplish this, you need to go to position 6 and THEN enter the pattern number you want AFTER position 6, thus changing position 7. A very weird concept. Also, when syncing the Linndrum externally (i.e. slaved to an external master clock), each time you stop your master clock and the Linndrum stops, you have to manually reset the Linndrum by pressing Play/Start twice so it will start from the beginning of the current pattern when you restart your master clock from the beginning of a bar. The logic behind this is that in the early 80s when the Linndrum was designed, it was supposed to be slaved to a tape machine. And of course,  if I stop my tape machine and then press play again I want my Linndrum to continue from the same position. But today, with your DAW acting as master clock in most cases, it's pretty annoying to have to reset the Linndrum every time you reset the master. Well, I guess I will have to live with it. These nitpicks aside, using the Linndrum is a breeze. I only had to to look up the manual a couple of times in the very beginning. Later on, everything was pretty hands-on and self-explanatory. 

So, why would anybody want a sample-based drummachine that costs 1-2 grand with a potential risk of failure (It's over 30 years old,after all), when all of this can be had "in the box" or with a cheap 90s hardware sampler? Well, my answer is this: first of all, the sound. The Linndrum sounds very crisp. Its snaredrum, toms and congas can be tuned individually using their own tune knob. If you wanted to faithfully sample the Linndrum, you would have to painstakingly sample each tunable sound with lots of different tuning settings. And the hihat is a special case. The hihat sample is based on a loop that cycles endlessly within the Linndrum. When you trigger the hihat, what the Linndrum does is actually open an analog envelope-modulated VCA (nerd detail: the VCA is located on a Curtis CEM3360 chip) to gate the infinitely-looping hihat sample. So, everytime the hihat gets triggered, it sounds slightly different. Also, the hihat has a decay parameter (controlling the VCA envelope), so this is difficult to emulate correctly in a sampler as well.

Also, the internal sequencer is a huge plus on the original Linndrum. Hell, the whole ergonomy is awesome. Large buttons, volume faders, single outputs, ease of use... And most of all: It's beautiful to look at and is loads of fun to use!

To sum it up: If you love the Linndrum's sound, if you don't mind fiddling around with analog sync, an internal sequencer and dealing with an ancient operating system, if you're not afraid of buying vintage hardware. And if you love working with old instruments in the oldschool way, using a piece of music history: Look for a Linndrum and buy it by all means!

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