A Drum Machine

One day I was at Cintioli’s Music Center on Oxford Circle. I went in and started lookin’ at the guitars hangin overhead. I wasn’t gonna buy one. I was quite happy with my black and white Squier Strat and my Peavey Classic amplifier. They had a lot of cool guitars there. They had a lot of jive guitars too. There were a few Carvins and Hamers and funky heavy metal guitars with like, cracks and lightning airbrushed on them, I think there was a Philadelphia Flyers guitar in there around that time for a few years hangin’ up. It had a head stock shaped like the angle of a hockey stick and the body was the Flyer wing. It was fuckin’ hideous. I drifted back to the counter where they kept all of the pedals. I had become fascinated with them. I loved plugging in a new pedal and hearing its effect on the guitar’s sound.

A month earlier, I got my hands on a cheap chorus pedal at Zern’s. Zern’s was an indoor flea market type of place out in the boonies near Camp Laughing Waters, a Girl Scout camp that my family would sometimes vacation at with a bunch of their friends and their friends’ kids. One night during our annual summer stay, my step mom drove me and Christian Rock over and cut us loose for a bit. It was the type of place that sold lots of Chinese stars (shuriken), switchblade knives and stilettos, and Kill Em All, Let God Sort Em Out T shirts. I think there may have been a mediocre record store in there somewhere. The 2 big stops for Christian and I were the vintage/military surplus store and the guitar/music shop. The military surplus store was super cool. It had helmets, and bayonets and gas masks, and ammo boxes and field mess kits and other types of camping supplies, but the really fun part of the place were the rows and rows of musty smelling clothing. Trench coats, and peacoats, and camouflage army coats, and funky purple French army pants and shit like that. He got a dark green trench coat, and I got a dark blue navy lookin dress jacket with corporal stripes on it for dirt cheap and immediately put them on. We looked like new wave dickheads out there in the sticks. Like somewhere between The Sex Pistols and Sgt Pepper. Then we went to the pathetic record store and got some band buttons to pin on our new gear. Then we stopped at the cured meat stand and got landjaegers, which are little cured pork sausages made by hand by the Pennsylvania Dutch people. Landjaegers are what Slim Jims have been trying to be their whole life.

Finally, we made our way to the painfully small musical instrument store. It was so beat. They had a bunch of really crummy acoustic guitars, a lightly used clarinet (yuck), and maybe one or 2 really crappy no name electric guitars. I knew the place would be awful, I’d been there once or twice before, but I was amazed at just how bad it was. I started to feel bad for anybody who was relying on this place to get their rock needs met, and I had a moment of deep gratitude as I realized how lucky I really was, to live just a few blocks from a kick ass store like Cintioli’s.

Just as I was ready to turn around and start to walk away, My eye caught three small boxes sitting under the glass counter. They were pedals. I hadn’t expected that. As I looked closer, I saw that they were some cheap plastic off-brand pedals called Rocktek. One of them was a Chorus pedal. It was $35. I only had $25. I asked the guy if he’d take $25. He said he could do $30. I asked Chris if I could borrow $5. He said yep. I said, “I’ll take it.” He said, “Don’t you want to try it? You can’t return it.” I asked if it was used. He told me it was brand new. I told him I was good to go. I was super psyched. I had never seen a chorus pedal for cheaper than $65 anywhere before. I was mildly worried that it would sound like hell when I got home, but it didn’t. It was awesome. One of my favorite guitarists, Andy Summers from the Police, used a chorus pedal and it gave his guitar a swirly depth and crystal clean shimmer. And now I could shimmer too.

So now, here I was, at the rear, middle counter at Cintioli’s, lookin at their pedals, hoping to spot a deal, maybe a used delay, or something else that would make my guitar sound freaky without breaking the bank. Nothin really grabbed me. I felt like Uncle Owen at the Jawa flea market lookin at all the beat up garbage they had for sale. Then, I noticed off to the side, a white rectangular box with a bunch of gray buttons on it. It said Roland Rhythm Composer TR 505. I thought to myself, “Is that a drum machine?” I really didn’t know. The gray buttons had drum names, but there were also other, MIDI sounding things on there too. I had heard about MIDI from my old friend Billy Hoover and I had also seen an episode of a British TV show called Rock School that had a whole episode on MIDI. I found it fascinating, but I was hesitant to start messing with that kind of gear because it was so complex. Rhythm Composer sounded like a machine that might do some “sequencing”, which was way out of my comfort zone and seemed really nerdy. The last thing I wanted to do was “program” anything.

I bit the bullet and asked the dude behind the counter, a curt, bearded dude named Vinny, “Is that a drum machine?” “Yeah!” He shouted back at me. “You wanna check it out?!” “Uh…yeah…I do.” He grabbed it out of the glass display really quickly and brought it over to a mixing board that was set up near some guitar amps. He plugged it into the wall, and plugged it into the mixer. He moved with alarming speed as he turned it on, and hit start. A stiff, awkward rock beat with horrific sounding cymbals boomed out of speakers as big as me. “Woah!”, Vinny yelled and dropped the fader down with lightning speed. “Easy! With that!”, crusty old Benny Cintioli hollered from the front of the store. “You blow them speakers, you’re gonna pay for them!” “Sorry Benny!, Vinny yelled back. “You really gotta be careful with that.” Vinny told me, quietly, as the stilted phony beat continued. “What are ya gonna be playin this through? You have a P.A. system?” “Uh..I don’t know….How are you supposed to do it?” “You should have a P.A. This one’s nice. It’s only $1200.” I turned a little green. I had never seen $1200 at one time in my whole life. “Can I just plug it into an amp?” “Yeah, but ya gotta be careful. It’s real easy to blow the speakers with these things. You know how to program it?” He asked me. “No, can you show me?”, I asked. “Sure!”

It’s so funny, I spent years being afraid of these music store dudes and lately, it seemed like all they wanted to do was play with music gear and show me how to do the same. Vinny hit some buttons and got a little click sound goin’. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick, it went. He turned the tempo knob and the beat slowed down a bit. The display told me how many beats per minute it was. Vinny started to hit the gray pad buttons like he was playing the kick and snare drums with his fingers. After a few measures, he stopped, but the beat he played on. then he hit the hi hat buttons in an awkward random pattern, but it somehow all lined up and sounded cool. He hit another button and the original metronome sound went away. He then played a little fill on the Congo buttons and now it all felt a little Lionel Richie. “And then if you don’t like something, you can just hold the “clear” button and whatever you want to erase and it goes away.” He kept the machine going and added hand claps and a ride cymbal. It sound cool. He added a crash cymbal and it sounded like garbage. The crash cymbal was the sound I heard on the first beat that came out when he first turned the thing on. It sounded fake and wimpy and was sort of cut off at the end. I mean the whole machine sounded fake, but the crash cymbal just didn’t sound good to me. “Ya got it?” He asked. “Yeah I think so.” Vinny disappeared and left me to play with the thing myself. I hit stop and his beat stopped. I hit the individual drum buttons and dug the way it felt when the kick and snare issued from the massive P.A. system. It was at a reasonable volume, but it still sounded really cool and full bodied. I repeated the steps he’d showed me and made my own beat. I fucked with the tempo, I pushed all of the buttons, I probably spent a half hour there messin’ with it.

I asked how much it was. Vinny said it was $65.

I Said, “I’ll take it.”

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