The BOSS DR-55 Dr. Rhythm Drum Machine

A quick look back at the tiny drum box's influence on Juan Atkins, Thomas Dolby, Depeche Mode, and New Order.

I recently did some article-related research about Roland amps, drum machines, bass synthesizers, and other equipment from the company’s vast product line. Roland’s history is fascinating because people often think of their most iconic gear like the TR-808, but even their less discussed products have compelling backstories.

Take the BOSS (a division of Roland) DR-55 Dr. Rhythm for example. I had no idea how prevalent this modest little drum box was in electronic, synth pop, techno, new wave, and other genres of music music during the early-‘80s.

Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins captured the influence and importance of the drum machine beautifully in a 2012 MusicRadar interview with Chris Barker. To him, it seemed to symbolize a dramatic shift in creative possibility.

“It was the most quantum innovation that ever happened. If I had to pick one machine, that would be it. Being able to program a drum machine was a huge thing."

The Dr. Rhythm was also part of his production arsenal when he co-produced the Cybotron’s 1983 classic “Clear,” which was famously sampled 22 years later on Missy Elliott’s Ciara and Fatman Scoop-assisted hit “Lose Control.”

Like many BOSS and Roland instruments, artists in a wide range of genres found use for the DR-55. It was the first drum machine Depeche Mode used in their live shows. New Order also featured the percussion sounds prominently on “Truth” from 1981 debut LP Movement.

Of all the DR-55 drum discoveries I’ve made in recent weeks, I think Thomas Dolby’s “Therapy/Growth” might be my favorite. Originally a b-side to the second single from his 1982 debut The Golden Age of Wireless, the demo version was included in later reissues of the record. I personally think the remastered demo of “Therapy/Growth” kind of steals the show.

Something about the minimalism of the song struck me when I first heard it and the DR-55 is a critical piece of the beautifully sparse instrumentation. I definitely had a lump in my throat when I first listened to this and I may have shed a tear.

Much as I love the Dr. Rhythm sections, I especially like the breakdown around the 2:45 mark when the drums drop out and finger snaps pair beautifully with the lyrics below. I’ve probably listened to this song 100 times over the past month and I’m really curious who Dolby had in mind when he penned these words.

And I ain't gonna spend my time with you
If time is so important
And I ain't gonna worry over you
Lend any resistance
To the game you play
You won't find me bending over
To justify existence
By working on a weakness
And I don't want to know the secrets of the universe

Though the DR-55 was quickly eclipsed by superior drum machine technology, there’s something about the sounds from the Dr. Rhythm that still sound excellent today. It may not be as widely documented and discussed as other BOSS/Roland gear, but a deeper exploration of the machine’s place in music history is necessary if Juan Atkins once called it “the most quantum innovation that ever happened.”

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