Wurlitzer Sideman - Don't go "Pfff!". That's it's job!

In 1959, if you wanted to rock your living room, a Wurlitzer organ was pretty much The Shit. Three hundred pounds. The size of a freezer. It was the progenitor of the modern synthesizer, and if you had one of these, your dad was either a surgeon or a Wurlitzer rep, and you could throw away your TV set. However, despite the various warbles and honks your organ could produce, it couldn't do drums...yet. So, Wurlitzer developed the Wurlitzer Sideman - arguably the world's first drum machine.

All I remember from the seventies was this same technology already incorporated into the chassis of an organ. Apparently, it wouldn't fit at first. The Sideman was 26x26x12 inches: the size of an end table. Since it was the size of furniture, it was built like furniture, too.

So, what did you get for your $365 ($2700 in today's money)? Well, you got pretty much the only game in town. There were other companies trying to make a drum machine, but they were based on tape loops or photoelectric cells and were unreliable. The Sideman worked on a rotating wheel that triggered various contacts as it turned, making the percussion sounds. Tempo was adjusted by changing the speed of the wheel. Here's a YouTube video where you can see how it worked and how it sounded. Here's another.

The sound of the Sideman is completely cool. You know these drum sounds already. They're part of the standard repertoire of almost any drum machine or rhythm software you can buy. They won't fool anyone into thinking they're real drums, but they've been grandfathered into our musical subconscious as part of our common history. The cymbals go "PFFF". The tom toms go "DUPPA DUPPA DUP". The bass drum goes "DOOK".

Here's a very detailed article on the history of the Sideman.

Like any useful technology, when it first appeared, the Sideman was enormous, clunky, and insanely expensive, making it fun to laugh at. However, the fact that you can still hear the Sideman in your iTunes library 40 years later means that it has the last laugh.


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