A reason to regret the demise of radio

November 24, 2009

I never thought I would lament the end of radio.

In the pre-Internet age, commercial radio, TV news and the front page of newspapers, all provided a shared experience to their community (not, mind you, that this was an unmitigated good). Unlike the other two media, though, radio also reached back in time, since it didn’t just present the music of the day. I grew up with a good independent radio station, and as a result, I had a de facto education in alternative music from the rise of punk onwards, which was augmented by listening to this show every week. That kind of historical context can be lost if you’ve gotten all of your music online.

I thought about radio on the weekend when this question came up: “What is the most influential modern instrument?” (post-electric guitar, not post-sousaphone). My immediate response, “The drum machine,” was met with incomprehension. While you could argue whether this is the right answer (and please do, in the comments), you have to have some knowledge of the antecedents of today’s music in order to answer the question.  I’m not sure how widespread that will be from now on.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shoo some kids off my lawn.

Exhibit A: New Order – Blue Monday (12″)


  1. Hell yeah! The drum machine! Undoubtedly.

  2. I agree too – drum machine made the 80’s and really shaped everything going forward because of it.

  3. The drum machine is a pretty good argument. But I think the most important instrument of the modern era isn’t actually an instrument at all, at least not in the traditional sense. I would argue that the sampler, and specifically the sampler/sequencer combo, is the most important instrument in the post-guitar era.

    The first samplers sort of sucked, nobody is questioning that. However, once they were mated to a sequencer a’la the early AKAI’s, things got awesome. Instead of needing an extremely expensive recording and playback lab for doing experimental work, one could now take any number of sounds and start messing around with their order, timing and duration. Also, in a pre-midi world, it helped to have something that could save and replay your precious bass and drum lines before they flash out of your machine’s RAM. Ask early acid house or techno producers about the “joy” of trying to duplicate a pattern on a TB-303 without any savable parameters.

    I think it is also important to note the effect these machines had on everyday musicians. No more did you need a Kraftwerk budget to make experimental sounds. Simply head down to your music shop, grab a sampler for a thousand bucks or so (still a lot, I do concede) and start screwing around. Early electronic dance music, both in the hip-hop, techno and crossover (electro, chicago house, etc) fields benefited immensely from this technology; not to mention the beginnings of industrial rock and EBM.

    So yes, even though I do love my drum machines, I think they are actually part of a larger picture that all revolves around the ability to manipulate sound on a level once reserved only for laboratories and the rich. The democratization of electronic music was a driving force in determining the next big shift in music after we all got over just how novel these newfangled electric guitars are.

  4. Hmmm…I think you made a compelling point about the sequencer/sampler combo. At the original conversation, we kind of jokingly talked about the laptop as being the most important modern instrument, but then we kind of fall down the rabbit hole as to what actually counts as an ‘instrument.’

    You could make a pretty good case that the most important development is precisely this blurring of boundaries between creating music and (for lack of a better word) processing music.

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