Analogue Dreams: 1959′s Wurlitzer Sideman Rhythm Machine

Analogue Dreams: 1959′s Wurlitzer Sideman Rhythm Machine

15 June, 2008

Here comes a rather detailed essay about the amazing Wurlitzer Sideman Rhythm Box.
This purely mechanical device was one of the very first rhythm machines ever, it was manufactured between 1959 and 1964.
I wrote this article about a year ago and thought it might be worth sharing.

The Invention & Impact of the Wurlitzer Sideman Model 5000 Rhythm Machine

I. Background

1. The Wurlitzer Company

The roots of the Wurlitzer Company go back to 1659. From this time the Wurlitzer family ran a small business in Saxony, Germany, trading in music instruments of all kinds. In 1853 Rudolph Wurlitzer decided to move to the USA where he set up a branch of the company and quickly established himself in the market,1 most notably by inventing the world’s first coin-operated piano roll player device, the Tonophon2 in 1892. Soon after the company rapidly expanded and began manufacturing mighty theatre organs3 for silent movie theatres.
Painting of the front entrance of the Wurlitzer Factory in North Tonawanda, NY
Activities such as sponsoring the 1927 USA tour of Russian electronic music pioneer Lev Sergeivitch Termen, also known as Leon Theremin (the inventor of the world’s first electronic instrument – the theremin), helped to increase the progressive cutting edge reputation of the company.4
In the following years several more groundbreaking devices were invented. In 1933, for instance, they invented the famous and successful first coin-operated phonograph: The Jukebox.

2. Wurlitzer and the Home Organ Market

Around 1940 the Wurlitzer Organ Company started to focus on the popular home organ market in parallel to automated music players. Wurlitzer successfully managed to transfer its expertise of theatre style pipe organs to the consumer market. Due to a combination of clever marketing strategies, brave managerial decisions and innovative product designs it was only a matter of years before the company achieved a leading position within the home organ field.
A look inside the Wurlitzer theatre organ factory in North Tonawanda, 1932

3. The Predecessors of the Sideman

The History of using electronics and synthesis to create drum sounds goes back as far as the 1930s. Before the Wurlitzer Sideman rhythm machine was created in 1959 however, there were only two other electronic rhythm devices.
a.) Henry Cowell’s Rhythmicon
The first one of these was the Rhythmicon, also known as the Polytrhythmophone. This first ever electronic rhythm machine was invented in 1930 but only produced as a prototype (see figure). While the sounds of this device came from heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators, the complicated polyrhythm patterns were generated by a complex technique using photoelectric cells. The concept was developed by American music theorist and Avantgarde composer Henry Cowell, who got technical support from Russian electronic music pioneer Leon Theremin (see page 1). 5
Henry Cowell and a prototype of the Rhythmicon, 1930
“My part in its invention was to invent the idea that such a rhythmic instrument was a necessity to further rhythmic development, which has reached a limit more or less, in performance by hand, an needed the application of mechanical aid. The which the instrument was to accomplish and what rhythms it should do and the pitch it should have and the relation between the pitch and rhythms are my ideas. I also conceived that the principle of broken up light playing on a photoelectric cell would be the best means of making it practical.
With this idea I went to Theremin who did the rest – he invented the method by which the light would be cut, did the electrical calculations and built the instrument.”6
b.) Harry C. Chamberlin’s Model 100
The second precursor of the Wurlitzer Sideman was the Chamberlin Model 100, invented by visionary American technician and organ player Harry C. Chamberlin in 1949.
Harry C. Chamberlin
The Model 100 was built like a combo that stood right next to the pianist or organ player. Therefore it had all of its controls on the upper site of the cabinet. Just like the Wurlitzer Sideman about ten years later this earlier rhythm machine was already targeting the home organ market. Comparing the look and design of both machines now, it seems quite likely that the Wurlitzer Company used Chamberlin’s Model 100 as a reference.
Instead of using tube technology for the sound generation like Cowell and Thermen did before (see page 2), the Chamberlin Model 100 was based on a novel tape looping technique. Chamberlin’s concept featured 14 ¼” tapes with pre-recorded natural rhythms which were played on a real drum kit. 7
Original details from Harry C. Chamberlin’s first US Patent, dealing with “Magnetic Tape Sound Reproducing Musical Instruments”, 1953
But due to a lack of public interest, Harry C. Chamberlin only produced about 10 of these machines. Every instrument was manufactured between 1948 and 1949 by Chamberlin himself in his home garage in Upland, California.
Chamberlin’s Company Logo, 1949
Following the Model 100 Chamberlin continued to perfect upon this very first version of sampling technique (see drawing) and often invented new instruments, mainly organs. 8
In 1962 the Bradley brothers from the UK adapted Harry Chamberlin’s technique and successfully launched the Mellotron Keyboard. 9

II. The Wurlitzer Sideman

1. The Invention of the Sideman

a.) General Facts

The Sideman (see figure 7) was an electronic music instrument, invented by the North American/German jukebox and organ manufacturer Wurlitzer in 1959. The Sideman became a huge success and was mass produced until the end of 1964.
The rhythm generator of the Wurlitzer Sideman featured a motor driven wheel that would operate electrical contact points. These contact points in turn triggered 12 different preset rhythms, all consisting of a selection of 10 drum sounds. All of the drum sounds generated by valve technology.
While certain parts of this machine (sound generation, control unit and wooden cabinet) were manufactured in the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, USA (see figure 1), other elements (such as mains supply circuit and the valve amplifier for signal processing) were built in Hüllhorst, Germany.10
b.) The Concept of the Sideman
In 1958 the Wurlitzer Company had the idea of inventing a machine that would give organ players much more freedom by allowing them independence from accompanying musicians.
Similar to Chamberlin the main drive for Wurlitzer was to come up with an electronic alternative to the (in terms of mobility and sound levels) probably most problematic instrument of all – the drums. 11
Instead of choosing Harry C. Chamberlin’s only partly reliable tape loop technology (see Chamberlin 100, chapter 1, page 5) or Cowell’s rather complicated and therefore expensive photoelectric cell mechanism (see Rhythmicon, chapter 1, page) Wurlitzer kept things simple and decided to generate its rhythm patterns purely mechanically by using a rotating disc.
Indeed it was this simple but groundbreaking technique that made the Wurlitzer Sideman so easy to handle, reliable, affordable and therefore successful. This machine suddenly offered whole new possibilities to a wide range of musicians and thereby totally hit the zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Hal Davis, Record Producer and former President of the Pittsburgh Musical Society, 1949 – 1963
“I had one of these modern wonders of rhythm back in the early sixties. The day I got it I was playing around with it at home trying to see how it would go with the organ. That evening, on the job at the restaurant/lounge where I was playing with my dance combo, I was informed that my cocktail drummer couldn’t get there that evening. On the first break we had I hopped in my car and drove furiously home, about seven miles, and grabbed the Wurlitzer Sideman and hauled it back to the club.
After plugging it in, I was trying out some of the rhythms before getting ready to resume playing our next set. The others of the group were busy watching while I tried to set it up.
Suddenly, I looked up and saw three couples on the dance floor dancing to the rhythm of the Sideman all by itself” 12
c.) The Origin of the Name “Sideman”
The name of this machine had its roots within the jazz scene, where there was a long tradition of introducing guest musicians to play alongside the main act. The term “Sideman” was used to refer to an already established and successful musician who was asked to input his own style into a new project.
The name Sideman was appropriate to Wurlitzer’s machine because it was originally created as a rhythm device to accompany organ players who would set it up right next to their instrument.
d.) Marketing of the Sideman
From the outset Wurlitzer knew that its invention would polarise the public. Back then most people, especially musicians, were still quite conservative and therefore sceptical about novel and almost futuristic instruments such as the Sideman. Wurlitzer simply decided to challenge these reservations with humour: when the Sideman came out in 1959 it was simply introduced as “the uncanny new rhythm instrument”13
Wurlitzer home organ Advertisement from 1958
Furthermore price politics also played an important role at that time already: Since there was no competitor to the Sideman the company’s marketing agents decided to keep the price as high as possible.
By 1960 there were three different sideman models on the market, differing in the quality and style of their wooden cabinets. While the noble walnut and cherry models were available for $ 375, the price of the mahogany version was $ 365 only.14
The strategy worked: somehow it seemed that the Wurlitzer Company had managed to bridge a gap in the market. Quickly the machines raised a lot of interest and reactions (see page 15). Despite the relatively high price they even sold very well.15 From now on every pianist or organ player could be his own band.
Shortly after this Wurlitzer introduced an optional matching Sideman Cabinet on the market which featured a rotary speaker.

2. Design and Functions of the Sideman

a.) The Wooden Cabinet
From the outside the Sideman looked like a piece of well designed furniture.
Top view on the wooden casing of the Wurlitzer Sideman rhythm machine
External measurements were massive: 66 x 29 x 63 cm. The discreet but precious looking wood cabinet was about 2 cm thick (see figure 10) and featured beige-coloured fabric, covering the front for air circulation and the speaker hole on the side.
The thick outer casing made the box very hard-wearing and stabile.16 The cabinet almost had the feel of a flight case and its compact size made this instrument a very reliable companion for touring.
“In 1976 I had just opened up my first official shop for organ repairs. I had been repairing electronic stuff including organs for over 11 years at the time, and was 24 years old in 1976.
One day a guy brought in a Sideman for repair. I had never seen one, but had
heard about all the furore at the Musicians Union these and other drum machines.
The owner played mostly Western (read “Cowboy”) music as a single. He drank more whiskey than anyone I had ever met before or since – all day every day. He was, however, a peach of a guy and had lots of playing jobs. When he brought in the Sideman he said, “The go**am Johnny Cash Rhythm don’t work!”
Curious, I took the cover off. It had been through WW4 or something, but it sort of looked like a pinball machine stepper motor and I figured I could fix it. Four hours later it was working like new. The drive wheel was completely worn out so I rubber cemented a thick, wide rubber band on it so it would drive. I also told him to find a new drink holder, as the Sideman didn’t like Whiskey & Coke.
Amazingly enough this repair worked for 12 years. We cleaned it again and replaced a tube and it worked for him ’till he died in 1997″ 17
b.) The Control Panel
Control panel of a Wurlitzer Sideman
The gold coloured control unit (see figure 11) was placed in a recess on top of the machine, measuring about 20 x 20 cm. The most characteristic element on the panel was the white slider knob placed perpendicularly in the middle of the panel.18 This slider was used as a TEMPO control which (when brought all the way up to zero) also had the function of a MAIN switch.
Left from the slider there was a BPM scale with values, going from 34 to 150. The whole design of this control unit was kept very stylish, similar to the design of most of the Wurlitzer organs from that period. At the right side of the slider there were 2 vertical rows of 5 white, round pushbuttons (see figure 11). Operating those allowed the Sideman user to trigger each of its drum sounds manually. The 10 drum sounds that could be played with those buttons are listed in figure 12.
List of all 10 Drum Sounds of the Wurlitzer Sideman
In the upper left corner there was a visual tempo indicator unit which consisted of two small impulse lamps. As soon as the machine was turned on both of them start blinking synchronous to the speed adjusted via the large TEMPO slider, located in the middle of the panel. While one lamp only lighted up every first beat, the other one did so at every quarter beat.
Underneath this visual metronome section there was a VOLUME control pot and a switch selector to choose between RHYTHM START and RHYTHM STOP. Additionally the machine also had a START/STOP footswitch, which could be found to one side at the bottom of the cabinet. Furthermore the control panel on top of the Sideman had a large, round and rather hard-steering19 rotary SELECT dial to choose between the 12 preset rhythms (see figure 13).
List of all 12 Drum Rhythm Presets of the Wurlitzer Sideman
For one of those patterns, namely the FOX TROT rhythm there also was a very rudimentary editing function available: it was controlled by a simple VARI switch which gave the user the possibility of changing the standard bass drum figure – played every first beat – to a lush sounding and in today’s speech a rather “dancy” four to the floor beat. Furthermore there were two 5 step pots to adjust different variations of the TEMPLE BLOCK sound and the CYMBAL, but both only for the FOX TROTT rhythm. By selecting the OFF position these sounds could also be muted.
3. Construction and Technique of the Sideman
A detailed look at the inside of this machine was possible by taking off the heavy wood casing.
a.) Rhythm and Sound Generation
The centre core of the Sideman was an electric motor, similar to those used for record players. The motor powered a rubber band, attached to a metal wheel. The position of the rubber band on the metal wheel again could be varied by making use of the large TEMPO slider on the panel. This simple construction enabled a continuously adjustable change of motor speed.
The metal wheel itself had an arm with 8 spring contacts that rotated over a Pertinax plastic disc containing circles of soldered contact points.
Inside view of the rhythm generation unit and speaker front of the Sideman after lifting the wooden cabinet
Every time one of those springs made contact with one of the soldered points a drum sound was triggered. This meant that all of the rhythms resulted from the arrangement of the soldered contacts on the mounting plate. So theoretically one could have change the preset patterns of the Sideman by just using a soldering gun.20
The sound generation was based on a for that time very common valve technology, consisting of a filtering and shaping circuit. Transistor technique was already around at that time too, but not really popular yet.21
Looking from the side one can see that for every of the 10 sounds there was one tube unit in this machine.
Wurlitzer Sideman Model 5000 rhythm machine from 1959, view from the side
b.) Speakers and Amplification
Another attribute that added to the characteristic sound of a Wurlitzer Sideman was the curious adjustment of the built in speakers. Right underneath the disc with the soldered drum patterns, there was an active 12″ bass/mid speaker mounted on to the base plate (see figures 14 and 15). This Speaker was manufactured by the Swedish noble brand Sinus. Coaxially mounted onto the bass cone there was a tweeter. Both of the speakers emitted sound sideways and were meant as main speakers. Additionally, right under the control panel there was another speaker, an almost hidden tweeter for monitor purposes.
For sound processing the Sideman came with a built in 15 watt valve amplification unit.
A look at the glowing tubes of the built in 15 watt valve amplifier of the Wurlitzer Sideman
Alternatively to this the machine also had an audio output connection: It came as a mini jack socket, which was located at the bottom of the control panel (see figure 11)

c.) The Sounds and Rhythms

Due to the special combination of techniques the Sideman has a bunch of very characteristic sounds. Most of them still sound surprisingly fresh and have an almost organic feel to it.
While the bass drum sound was quite deep and round (especially when played over the massive built in 12″ speaker), percussion sounds like TOM TOM or TEMPLE BLOCK sounded rather snappy and crisp. The sounds MARACAS, BRUSH and CYMBAL sounded quite similar to each other, more like filter variations.22
From today’s point of view it seems quite unusual that there was no dedicated snare sound available on the Sideman.
The preset rhythms mirrored contemporary styles from the 1950s/1960s era and were mainly influenced by Latin American rhythms such as SAMBA and RHUMBA. Most of the patterns may sound in today’s ears slightly basic but therefore kind of charming.

III. The Impact of the Sideman

1. Public Reactions on the Sideman

The reactions the invention of the Sideman caused were varied and immense. There are reports saying that the American Association of Musicians was deeply worried23 that this machine would instantly kill the necessity for drummers and would therefore lead to a massive loss of jobs in the music scene (see page 7). It is even said that certain authorities tried to put pressure on Wurlitzer to make them stop or at least slow down the production of the Sideman.
Bearing in mind the success of drum machines, especially during the 80s the Association’s fears from 1959 seem appropriate. Nevertheless it was this kind of conservative thinking that slowed down the rhythm machine’s development, especially since the invention of the Rhythmicon in 1930 (see page 5).

2. The “Aftermath”

a.) Tadashi Osanai and Tsutomu Katoh
Korg Co-Founder Tsutomu Katoh
As already mentioned in the Introduction, the Sideman made a big worldwide impact and was a huge inspiration for many musicians. In particular the purchase of one Sideman in Japan had huge positive consequences for the development of future rhythm machines:
Tadashi Osanai was a Japanese accordion player who did solo performances in Tokyo, accompanied solely by his precious Sideman. One night in 1962 Osanai spoke to club owner Tsutomu Katoh about this new machine, mentioning it cud do with some improvements. 24
Katoh was interested and gave Osanai financial support to build his own copy of the Wurlitzer Sideman. Soon the two of them founded the Keio Electronic Laboratories and came up with the legendary Donca Matic rhythm machine. 25
Donca Matic Rhythm Machine by Keio Electronic Laboratries
In 1975 (after inventing the Keio Organ) the Keio Electronic Laboratories Company decided to change its name to the now famous KORG, resulting from a combination of the two words Keio + ORGan.26
b.) Ikutaro Kakehashi
Contemporaneously with the establishment of Keio Electronic Laboratories Ikutaro Kakehashi was also inspired by the Wurlitzer Sideman. 27
He also had some good ideas how to extend the possibilities of such a machine and started creating the first of a whole range of rhythm instruments under the name of Ace Electronics, such as the today legendary Rhythm Ace series.
Circa 1971 Kakehashi changed the name of his company to the now very well known brand Roland.
Kakehashi was also one of the first persons to replace all electro-mechanical parts and sound generation circuits in these kinds of instruments with the up and coming transistor technology.28 One of the precursors of the use of transistor technology was his TR-33 machine from 1972. 29
Roland TR-33, Rhythm machine based upon transistor technique, 1972

c.) Further Developments

From circa 1970 on, most organs got their own built in rhythm sections. By this time however, rhythm machine products were also interesting for organ players. Since the invention of the Wurlitzer Sideman in 1959 much had changed – as well as technologically as musically. Because of these changes rhythm machines had become increasingly more fashionable and established throughout the years.
The rhythm machine – by now called rhythm box – became a commercially successful and sincerely accepted crossover product. All kinds of musicians suddenly started using it and experimenting with it, bringing electronically generated drum sounds in to all kinds of new musical areas.

IV. Conclusion

The impact of the Sideman was huge. Some of today’s most innovative music instrument companies have been inspired by this machine’s simple concept – a concept driven by the desire for independent composition and performance.
The Sideman’s appeal is its unique combination of techniques. By lifting the top of the cabinet of this machine during playback one can actually see how the sounds are produced. In my opinion the physical rotary motion principle of this machine represents a very interesting approach to the creation of electronic music.
The whole combination of mechanical movement, supported by mechanical chains and electromagnetic induction for sound generation adds a very physical, almost human feel to the Sideman. In particular, the very slight tempo fluctuations, caused by the vertical position of the arm with the spring contacts unintentionally adds to this effect.
All of these factors lead to the fact that the Sideman even today still is desired but apparently rare object. Every now and then there is usually only one on Ebay and it sells for about $ 600.
Also the fact that the German company ltmLAB released a VSTi version of it earlier this year shows that the Sideman still seems to fit into the Zeitgeist, even today.