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Roger Linn, inventor of the LM-1 drum machine, talks Prince and "When Doves Cry"

Prince gazes out from his motorcycle to "When Doves Cry" in 'Purple Rain'
Prince gazes out from his motorcycle to "When Doves Cry" in 'Purple Rain'Warner Bros. via YouTube
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by Cecilia Johnson

March 01, 2017

Prince wouldn't be Prince without his sly sense of humor. He wouldn't be Prince without his passion for old-school funk; his glorious purple garb; those wailing, impossible-to-recreate guitar solos. But he also wouldn't be Prince without the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer.

More casual fans might not know, but Prince built many of his most famous beats on the LM-1 Drum Computer, including those heard in "1999," "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," and his earth-shattering album Purple Rain. When he recorded "When Doves Cry" on March 1, 1984, he dropped a LM-1 beat into the opening guitar solo and let it loop for the rest of the six-minute song. That syncopated "knocking," also heard throughout "The Beautiful Ones," soon became one of his calling cards.

In this episode of The Current's Prince Remembered podcast (download it from iTunes here), LM-1 inventor Roger Linn explains why he's a Prince fan, how Prince got that signature "knocking" noise, and why he stuck with the LM-1 for so long.

Full transcript:

Welcome to Prince Remembered. I'm Cecilia Johnson, a writer over at the Local Current blog, and I'm on the phone today with Roger Linn, drum machine pioneer and founder of Roger Linn Design. How are you today?

I'm well.

I asked you to talk with me today because your LM-1 Drum Computer, in addition to being a signature instrument of '80s music in general, was a key element of Prince's early work. I'm thinking about the drums on the Time's "777-9311" and the knocking during the beginning of "When Doves Cry." How do you think Prince's use of your drum machine influenced popular music?

It was a very big deal. First of all, it was an absolute godsend for me. I had made this new product, and people liked it, but it was his prominent use of it on his hit recordings that was a tremendous help to me. The exposure of the LM-1 Drum Computer to other people. Because I didn't know, at the time, that it would be something people used to produce recording demos or small-time, and he had the vision to see it as a new sound. A new essential element in creating his record. So it was very nice for me.

I was going to ask: the LM-1 was released under the name "LM-1 Drum Computer." Do you prefer the term "drum machine" or "drum computer" when people are talking about it?

The general product category of instruments is drum machine. I just called that particular model drum computer because it made sense at the time. When it was released, which was around 1979, it was a time when people were putting little chip computers into musical instruments and using that as a way to expand their capabilities.

Are you a Prince fan, by the way?

Oh, certainly. Mostly back then. But he's always been very creative, and combined a number of musical styles, so he was able to reach a very wide audience. Most importantly, he had ideas consistently and over time.

I think that's what makes someone a real artist: the frequency and quantity of good ideas. You know, ideas are not that hard to come by. But good ideas are. There are lots of bad ideas out there. But I think it's the frequency and longevity of good ideas in any musical person or any participant in any art form that makes them a true artist. Their ability to see things that other people don't see. And he, certainly, was very good about that.

Do you have any examples in mind?

Just his use of the drum machine. Before that time, you have to understand that there were drum machines. They were simple little things that you could put in home organs and such. They had very [inaudible] sounds and fixed beats that weren't very creative.

He saw this machine that I had -- it had sampled sounds -- and also, you could program your own beats. Further, you could alter the sound of the drum. They sounded unusual, interesting, and different. For example, you talked about the knocking sound. Well, that was merely a recording of what's called a cross stick snare drum, which is a snare drum stick where you hold the tip onto the drum head, and you slap the stick against the rim of the drum. He just used that normal sound, but he decided to tune it down about an octave or more to get what you refer as the "knocking" sound.

He did the same thing with the tambourine. He turned it into this loose jangling thing that didn't sound like a tambourine at all. These became characteristic sounds on his record, so then, of course, a lot of folks stole them.

I was reading from The Guardian that he sometimes ran the sounds from his LM-1 through his Boss guitar pedals. How do you feel about the way that he customized the sounds that you provided in that way?

Yeah, I wouldn't doubt it. I think he was able to hear what the correct sound should be in his head. The one that was interesting and complemented his music well. First of all, he had one foot in the beat-oriented music world, but he had the other foot in the guitar world. The rock world. So he was able to take elements in the guitar world, like guitar processing pedals, and use them to process drums.

A lot of people would say, "Oh, that's not something you should do. That's not something they were made for." But I think he was able to take things and see value in them that other people didn't see.

Do you think that Prince's use of the LM-1 gave it a cool factor?

Oh, most certainly so. That reflected, from my experience, in more popularity. The LM-1 Drum Computer and then the drum machines that followed. So it was very, very nice.

After hearing feedback and hearing your instrument in even more popular music, what did you want to change for your next model, the Linn Drum?

Actually, the changes that I made were more to try and bring the price down, because when I first released the LM-1, it cost $5,000. That was very expensive, particularly in 1979. Someone like Prince could afford it, but not too many others. So I tried to address that by reducing the cost in Linn Drum, the second product. But that was more from the price of some of those computer components coming down than it was in cheapening things. In fact, I added things to it. The second one, the Linn Drum, had more memory; it had cymbals, which the original machine did not, and a few other additions.

But Prince stuck to the original one. He had a special relationship with that one. And he continued to use it for making records. In fact, I remember reading an interview in one of the music magazines with him in -- I think it was the '90s, or it could've been the early 2000s. It showed a picture from his Paisley Park studio, in Minneapolis, of his original LM-1 Drum Computer, and it had a lamp on it. It was like a shrine.

Do you know why he liked it so much? Did you ever find out?

No, I've never met the man. I just think maybe there was a magic in that one that he saw -- that he didn't see, perhaps, in the other ones. I mean, one of the things I did take -- out one of the things that was very expensive was the independent tuning of all the drums, using the digital circuitry of the time. So I took out the tuning of most of the drums in the second model, and that precluded him from doing all those low tunings, like the knocking sound you described. So that may have been a reason.

Do you have a favorite beat that he made using the LM-1?

Well, there were so many. "When Doves Cry" was very nice. It started out with the LM-1, playing the beat on that, and how he had a guitar processor called a flanger, altering the sound of the drum machine. So it would sort of sweep up and down in tone. The record being so stark and so sparse of instruments, it was pretty much just him singing and the drum machine. And then, occasionally, his guitar would come, and there was some other instruments, but there wasn't so much more.

"1999" was a big favorite. So many of them, you know.

Well, in addition to his other musical talents -- you touched on this, talking about he was super into guitar -- Prince was an incredible drummer behind the kit. Do you think that influenced the way that he used your machine?

I suppose it did. I think a lot of people who used and still use my drum machines who aren't drummers, and don't think in terms of rhythmic parts, tend to sometimes play as a guitarist, for example, would, who sits behind a drum set that he doesn't know how to play. He doesn't necessarily know how to create those parts, or he creates too many fills, or he doesn't play the right groove with the beat. So I think [Prince's] knowledge of that, being a multi-instrumentalist, was probably very helpful in his ability to create beats and parts that were more appropriate to the song.

And I think, once again, he is a guy who saw music from an overview. Although his main instrument was guitar, I don't think of him as a guitar player. I think of him more, well, in the sense that people now call themselves "producer." They think of themselves more of the creator of the entire recording and whatever is needed to produce that. They tend to think in all the parts, as opposed to someone who only thinks in terms of guitar parts.

You know, he was the writer, and as the writer, you tend to think in that way, anyway. But as the writer, many people don't have the skills in the individual instruments. So. He was able to put it all together, and I suspect that, were he alive today, [and] if he were asked this question, he would probably think of himself more as just a general creator of the music, as opposed to necessarily a guitar player.

I would agree with that; I think that's really good insight. Do you know when or how Prince bought his LM-1s? I read on a Prince fan forum that he had two of them, actually. I'm not sure if that's true, but.

Well, I suspect he did. I don't know, because I don't think he bought them directly from me at the company, so he may have bought it from a dealer. At the time, my company was pretty chaotic. I was around 24 and 25, and maybe he had bought it from a salesperson from the company -- I'm not sure. Hard to say, actually. I think he probably bought it from the dealer. Or else I would've heard about it from the people at the company.

I'd imagine. Well, you said you'd never met Prince. Have you been to First Avenue or Paisley Park or Minnesota?

I think I've been to Minnesota many years ago, when I was a touring guitarist, but other than that, I don't think I've been. Actually, let's see. If anything, it would've been sometime in the '80s, so a long time ago.

Just to wrap it up, like you were saying, the LM-1 Drum Computer still is in Paisley Park. I got to take a tour there just a couple of months ago, and the tour guides talk about the knocking noise at the beginning of "When Doves Cry," so tour guides are briefly explaining the ways that Prince used it every day. How do you feel about your instrument being so closely tied to Prince's legacy?

I think it's wonderful. He was such a great proponent. I only wish I had been able to meet him while he was still alive. I tried a couple of times; I'd contacted him through one of his roadies, and then once, I think it was through his manager. But I never got a reply. So, he must have been busy with something at the time.

But you know, I've seen him on an interview on the Charlie Rose show, and I thought he was very interesting. The way he thought. A very calm guy, too. Seemed to think and speak very cohesively, so I'm sure he would've been a very interesting fellow to engage in conversation.

It's such a shame, because my understanding, from having read the article about his passing, is that he got some bad drugs or something like that. It's one of those chance things where it wasn't that he'd burned himself out or anything. He had a very unfortunate accident and coincidence of events, and it's sad when that happens. You want everyone to be able to live a long and full life. But then again -- what's the expression? "The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long."

He was a playful person. I actually never got to meet him in person, but I got to watch him perform a couple of times. And I've heard so many stories at this point. He was super well-spoken, and of course, an incredible musician; also, I just enjoyed the sense of humor that he had. Teasing the crowd and things. Actually, I thought of that when I was looking at your machines, the Linnstrument and the AdrenaLinn. I thought Prince would get a kick out of those puns.

In one of those communications, I tried to give him an AdrenaLinn pedal. 'Cause as a guitar player, I think he'd appreciate it. Never heard back.

Bummer. Well, anything I forgot to ask about or you wanted to highlight or wrap up with?

The only thing I would mention is that I do regret that he was not able to ever play with my current instrument, called Linnstrument. Because he was about adding expression to music. I think he would have valued that.

One of the problems that happens in music now is that everyone's playing music with on/off switches. A standard electronic keyboard is basically a bunch of on/off switches. I think as a result, there's some missing expressiveness that one found in guitar or in earlier forms of music -- violin, cello, saxophone, or instruments like that. [Prince] was very expressive in guitar and in his singing, of course. I think that's such a wonderful element. I do lament the fact that ever since pop records have been produced entirely electronically, there are no more instrumental solos. I would like to see that again, and I think he would've been able to use Linnstrument in combination with synthesis to use his vision to be able to create new kinds of electronic synthesis instrumental solos on his records that I think would open up a whole new generation of synthesis musicians. There are few people with that vision, and it's sad that he's gone. He never had a chance to do that.