I've always been fascinated by music.
I can remember listening to tapes on my father's mono Ferrograph 2N reel-to-reel tape recorder when I was six or so. He used to record a bizarre selection of music from classical concerts to humourous pieces by The Goons or Victor Borge. Luckily, I had some hip relatives, too: my cousin Janet and her friends would discuss the latest releases by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and listen to Radio Caroline in her car, and my cousin Peter was the first person I know to own a Pink Floyd LP.
When I was twelve my father finally upgraded his 1960s valve setup and bought a turntable - a Thorens TD160 hooked up to a Salora Hi Fi Stereo 3000 amp - and I finally had a reason to start buying LP's of my own (although being allowed to listen to them on his system often involved protracted negotiations as I wasn't allowed to touch it). Eventually I got a record player of my own and I haven't stopped listening to music since. What was the first album I bought? It was Emerson Lake and Palmer's "Pictures at an Exhibition", which I bought at W H Smith's in Stafford. "Tubular Bells" followed shortly afterward - but as I was living in the Midlands and it was the 1970s, most of the albums I bought featured rock music in one form or another. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Yes and Pink Floyd were the bands at the top of the "albums to buy" list that I updated in my notebook with an obsessive level of regularity. Prog rock has always been my first choice of genre for listening (and, these days, for playing). The blend of complexity, technical competence and big production values pushes all my muso buttons.
In case you're wondering: yes, I still have all my vinyl LPs, and I still listen to them. I now have a Pro-Ject P2 turntable that cost more than my first three systems combined, but it was worth every penny. The process of putting a disc on the platter and brushing the dust off it is a ritual I will never tire of. It helps focus your attention on the music to come in a way that the trivial act of slotting a CD in a drive can never equal. Physically, the LP is such a glorious object. There's enough room on the sleeve to get a proper impression of the artwork rather than squinting at some tiny reproduction, and the gatefold sleeves for some double or treble albums have the size and heft befitting such extravagant musical endeavours. Hawkwind's albums were particularly impressive when unfolded, for instance. Albums used to be pieces of art, and I bought them to treasure and cherish rather than as items to be consumed. CDs just aren't the same and as for downloads? Don't get me started.
Having said all that, I remember being astonished by the absence of surface noise and the huge increase in dynamic range when I first listened to a CD. It was a recording of an album I thought I knew, by Peter Gabriel. Even though it was back at the beginning of the 1980s, I can still remember my single-word reaction when it started to play:
I started saving up and bought my first CD player back in 1982 or thereabouts. It was several months before I could afford to buy a disc to play in it; CDs back then were far more expensive than they are now. The asking price was somewhere around £15 and it didn't drop for years. No wonder the 1980s were such a time of excesses in the music industry, because they must have been raking in the money. As I'd only been working for a couple of years I didn't have a lot of spare cash to spend back then and the high price meant that buying a CD was a pretty major deal. The process involved research. I stuck to vinyl apart from albums I judged as being "worth buying on CD", a decision based on a bewildering and convoluted array of arcane criteria that I'd come up with which depended not only upon who the artist was and how familiar I was with their work, what sort of musical instruments were being played (and how loudly) but also on the technology used to record - and even mix - the album. The first two CDs I bought were "The Turn of a Friendly Card" by the Alan Parsons Project and "The Golden Age of Wireless" by Thomas Dolby. Most record shops didn't sell CDs at first; I remember spending many lunchtimes in the record shop in Cheapside (which I think was called Harlequin Records) over the road from where I worked in London, as they had one of the largest selections I knew about. Their stock probably ran to five or six hundred different titles, which sounds a paltry amount in these days of online retailers; back then, it was the sonic equivalent of Aladdin's cave. I spent a fair amount of money in there in the 1980s before I moved to Milton Keynes. There, the main music retailer was Sam Goody's, whose prices severely curtailed my buying habits.
As their prices came down, though, CDs gradually became my de facto medium for buying music but it took another seven or eight years for my vinyl habit to die off. Since then I've built up a fairly large collection of CDs. After buying a CD player that could deal with them I even bought a few SACDs and DVD-A discs, which are fascinating to listen to. The highest-end recording I own is a Blu-Ray version of Rush's Moving Pictures and once again I found myself listening to an album I thought I knew on a new format and being prompted to utter that same, ingle-word response.
As things stand, I still buy my music on CDs. I'm not a fan of digital file compression when it comes to music, and I find low bitrate mp3 files painful to listen to (particularly if cymbals are involved - ugh. nasty) so I don't really do the downloads thing unless I can get a CD of the same album at the same time, or unless there is absolutely no other way of getting the particular piece of music I'm looking for.
I wouldn't class myself as an audio geek - I don't have the income to support that and I only refresh my audio system about once every twenty years. But I do have a 7.1 surround system that I put together about fifteen years ago. I like hearing music that's as clear as I can get it, and I spent a long time going round different shops listening to a variety of systems. In the end about half my planned budget went on the speakers: a pair of B&W DM 602 series 2s for the left and right channels, 601s for the surround channels, a CC6 for the centre and a Paradigm PDR10 for the sub. The resulting sound is so good that unless something unexpected happens to them, I don't think I will ever need to upgrade them.
As I said at the start, I was never allowed to go to gigs as a kid. All my schoolmates were off seeing Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen and the like in the heydays of the 1970s, and I didn't. I've been trying to catch up ever since. My only concession to my increasing maturity is that I wear earplugs these days. I started doing this after catching Motörhead's Bomber Tour at London's Hammersmith Odeon. My ears rang for nearly a week afterwards, and I decided that subjecting myself to sound pressure levels that high on a regular basis probably wasn't a good idea. As a result my hearing is still okay, although it would probably be better if I'd started using ear protection earlier. Look after your hearing, kids. You only get one pair of ears. I still go to gigs, because there are few finer things in life than watching a good band totally nailing it on stage. My blog will usually have a report when I've been to a particularly memorable gig. In 2013 I saw live performances by Rush, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Steve Vai, Radical Face, Salem, Jaguar, Dream Overkill, the Duckworth Lewis Method, the Michael Schenker Group, and a number of local bands. In 2014 I saw artists ranging from masters of psychedelic groove The Ozric Tentacles to Philip Glass, by way of The Aristocrats, The Crimson ProjeKCt, Matmos, and Witchfynde. 2015 saw me catching bands like the Devin Townsend Project, King Crimson, Salem, Avenger, Kaine, Bigfoot, Brocken Spectre, Periphery and Norway's black metal / jazz crossover specialists, Shining. So far in 2016 I've seen a bewildering array of artists ranging from J-Pop / Metal crossover superstars Babymetal to The Ozric Tentacles, and from NWOBHM stalwarts such as Salem, Witchfynde, and Diamond Head to the slick fusion stylings of Project RnL, by way of an acoustic set from Anneke van Giersbergen.
And I enjoyed each gig immensely.
I learnt piano when I was at school, but your parents' upright piano is no substitute for a rack of Moog synthesisers when you're thirteen and dreaming of being the next Rick Wakeman.
Now I have a couple of Moogs of my own, as well as a Korg M3, a ridiculous number of Rolands and an ARP Odyssey (as played by Ultravox's Billy Currie and as mocked by Douglas Adams). I'd have to say that I'm probably most proficient as a keyboard player, and at most of the gigs I've played I've been behind a rack of synths. The largest venue I've played? Probably Hemel Hempstead Pavilion in front of a couple of hundred people. Here I am at The Square in Harlow in 1987. That's me on the left in the er, very red trousers. Hey, it was the 80's, Ok?
I may be a keyboard player at heart, but somewhere along the way I also developed an addiction to playing the guitar. Electric guitar. Loudly. With distortion. I used to read guitar magazines avidly. I upgraded to a full locking tremelo system. I bought a flanger. I bought a chorus. I bought an Electro-Harmonix "Big Muff pi" (stop sniggering) and pedals by MXR and others. I developed a bit of an effects habit, if the truth be told. Eventually I ended up with a Zoom 4040 which gave me pretty much everything I needed in one unit. I still have it - it's only recently been replaced by a Zoom G3. Okay, I still have all those other pedals too, but that's the way I roll.
After seeing people like Robert Fripp or Steve Vai in concert I realised I was never going to achieve stardom as the best guitarist on the planet, but I would still occasionally plug in to the Marshall stack and wail away. It's a profoundly satisfying way to unwind, and the Fender Telecaster has to be one of the most seductive pieces of engineering created by humanity. There's nothing wrong with the shape of the Tele's big brother, either. The first electric guitar I ever bought was a Japanese copy of a Stratocaster, and I've still got it. It's been heavily modified over the years, but the last time I restrung it I realised how worn out it is. The bridge saddles in the locking tremelo have grooves worn into them and the frets are very noticeably notched. Thirty-plus years of playing will do that to a guitar...
It was time to look for a replacement. I've tried loads out in shops over the years, but just couldn't find one that appealed to me (at a price I could afford, anyhow). But that's all changed. Back in April 2014 I walked into one of the local guitar shops looking for a Strat-shaped guitar to replace my faithful old Aria; this might not have the Fender logo on its headstock either, but its heritage is clear...
When I tried the Jackson out in the shop I realised that amplifiers have come a long way since Marshall made my JCM-800. That Blackstar is solid state and I can pick it up with one hand, but it has an amazing set of effects built into it and the sounds I can get out of it are mouthwateringly good. I bought it on the spot. Unlike my Marshall stack, it comes with a DI output that can also be used with headphones, and it sounds amazing even when all you're moving is electrons.
The Jackson is so good that I really didn't expect to be buying another guitar for another couple of years at the very least, but when I walked into Intersound Guitars in Dursley a couple of months later to buy a guitar strap and some fresh picks, Denver pointed out that they were selling a rather nice second-hand Squier Custom II Telecaster and like an idiot, I asked if I could have a go on it.
It's got p-90 single coil pickups designed by Seymour Duncan and a tone that's as creamy as the colour of that body. It also has a C-profile neck, like the Telecaster that I played in Vancouver a couple of years ago that I got on so well with. And it's hardly been played. I used it a fair bit for recording during 50/90 over the summer, and I really like the contrast in sound between it and my older Tele, which has a much sharper, more aggressive sound.
As well as the guitar, I also play bass, as well as the Chapman Stick. As I'm a Stick player, extra strings don't intimidate me, and I have been fascinated by the possibilities that extended range instruments offer for years. Over the past few years I've been getting more into music by musicians who use them, particularly metal bands like Meshuggah and Animals As Leaders. A few friends play them, too - so I've been able to see at first hand what can be done. Inevitably, I started thinking about adding an extended range instrument to my musical arsenal and in November 2014 I bought an early Christmas present to myself. Somewhat predictably I took the completely over-the-top option and went for an Ibanez RG9-BK, which has nine strings tuned from low to high as C# F# B E A D G B E.
It took a while to get to grips with it - the extra strings meant that my fingers didn't always end up on the strings I thought they were heading for, but now I've got used to it, the thing is a monster. Through the Blackstar with distortion it could give Godzilla a run for his money. Clean, it lets me do all sorts of crazy things - I frequently spend several hours building up loops and overdubs with a Jam Man XT pedal that take me in all sorts of unexpected and interesting directions. Sadly, the rest of the guitar community didn't respond to it as enthusiastically as I did and Ibanez's nine string range has since been discontinued.
The thing with guitars is that it becomes very difficult to stick to just one or two. It may have taken me thirty years to get round to it, but I've finally started to explore the world of guitar synthesis...
The Godin has an active piezoelectric pickup in the bridge with a 3-band eq to provide a very convincing acoustic guitar sound. It also functions very well as a traditional electric with a nifty combination of humbuckers and single coil pickups. But the piezo pickup is also connected to a 13-pin jack socket, and that means I can plug it into my Roland GR-55 guitar synthesizer. With all outputs engaged and fed into my pedals, I have the potential to generate three separate treated signals in stereo as well as a mono feed of the dry guitar tone and a mono feed of the COSM output from the guitar synth. After hooking the GR-55 up to the studio computer and installing the free patch editor GR Floorboard, I have acquired a massive library of patches for it that enable me to instantly switch to alternative tunings like DADGAD or open C (one of my user presets is now a patch that is very appropriately titled Devin Townsend) as well as a collection of tones designed to sound like famous albums (one patch called Shine On You Crazy Diamond sounds uncannily like the original). Quite frankly, things are getting silly.
It is very odd playing a note on a guitar and hearing it coming out of the studio speakers sounding like a grand piano or a banjo. But for me the best thing that the GR-55 does is that it emulates Roland's legendary GR-300 guitar synthesizer that was released way back in 1981. I regret not buying one at the time almost as much as I regret never getting a Yamaha DX-7. The GR-300's distinctive fizzy tone is all over several of my favourite albums and being able to play a guitar and hear exactly the same tone coming out of my speakers is a delight.
All these guitar purchases have had a great effect on my playing. For a start, I've been playing more regularly than at any time since the early 1980s, so I've got calluses on the ends of all the fingers of my left hand once again. Secondly, I know my way around the fretboard a little better. This happened more out of necessity than anything else; after playing the nine string, a standard six-string neck now feels tiny and I've had to develop the muscle memory for playing on necks of different widths. And after buying the Godin, which has 10s on it rather than my regular 9's, not only have my calluses become even thicker, my fingers have become stronger. I've also had to clean up my playing style to help with synth tracking, which is no bad thing. All this means, quite simply, that I have rediscovered my love of playing the guitar all over again.
Over the last five years - since I really started taking songwriting seriously - I've noticed a dramatic change in my musical abilities. Now I can - just occasionally - sound as if I might know a little about what I'm doing.
When I was still at school, I bought myself a Decca Legato mono cassette recorder. I loved the thing. Not only did I use it to tape songs I liked off the radio, but I also used it to record versions of the Goon Show that I'd reenact from the scripts with my friends. All we had was the cheapest microphone imaginable and a few pots and pans for the sound effects, but it was enough gear to let us have serious amounts of fun. I recently caught up with an old mate from those days (hi Paul) and those early recording sessions were one of the first things he mentioned!
When I started playing in bands in the 80s I'd bring along a small Philips ghetto blaster; it had a built in stereo microphone but it was only good for live recordings. When friends started buying four-track portastudios and writing their own songs, I helped out - usually by playing keyboards - and as a result I got bitten by the recording bug in a big way. Eventually I got a cheap four-track of my own, a secondhand little Fostex X-15 which I used for all sorts of things including recording incidental music for video clips in projects at work. It wasn't the most sophisticated of units and the results didn't have much in the way of a wide frequency response, but it did me proud for over a decade.
However, the thing about the home studio habit is that you always have plans to do something on a grander scale. That's always been the case with me. When I moved in to the house I'm in at the moment, I made sure that I was able to put a room aside for music stuff. A few years ago I took the plunge and upgraded my setup with a Korg D3200. It's pretty much my dream machine, as it gives me an amazing thirty two tracks to play with. It's capable of recording up to 16 channels simultaneously; it has a sophisticated drum machine with several different drum kits that's easier to program than the old Yamaha drum machine I've had since the 90s, and there's a built-in set of effects that makes much of my older gear look prehistoric. I've been very impressed by how easy it is to use, and it's transformed the quality of my recordings.
In 2015 I did Berklee's free online course An Introduction to Music Production and it really helped me a lot. I'd recommend it to anyone who records their own music. I've really noticed an improvement in the results I've got out of my gear since.
With the recording side of things sorted, I went on to upgrade the rest of my studio gear and I have at last got a proper pair of near field monitors to listen to my stuff through; it's a very different approach to using headphones and it's really pushed me to make a more of an effort when I master tracks. I went for a pair of KRK Rokit 5's - they're small enough to fit in the very limited space I have available, but they pack an impressive wallop. After some initial teething troubles (one of them developed an intermittent buzz and had to go back to the manufacturer) they've bedded in very nicely and mixing with them has made another huge difference to my sound.
I've also moved on from the tinny little microphone that came with the Decca. The instructor on the Berklee course said very early on that if you want to improve the results you're getting from your home studio setup, the single most effective thing you can do was to "get yourself a large-diaphragm condenser mic." So I did. And after working with a Shure SM58 for vocals for years, I suddenly found my vocals sounded far better than before (although I now have to consider noise from outside getting in to a take - something you'd never have to worry about with an SM58...) I also discovered that acoustic guitar sounds much, much better through a condenser mic than it does through one of my SM57s.
I still use dynamic mics; bass guitar and Stick are still chiefly recorded on an SM57 pointing at my bass amp, as you can see below. For about 20 years I recorded my electric guitar parts DI'd in to the portastudio, but if I'm honest with myself, I was never happy with the results. Everything always sounded tinny and thin. I went through a phase of playing through the Marshall 100 watt stack with an SM57 pointed at one of the cabs and that got sound that was much closer to what I wanted, but it's not really practical to do. Eventually I switched to emulation. I have a couple of Blackstar amps (the ID:15 TVP in the photo of the Jackson above as well as an ID:Core Stereo 10) that both have stereo DI outputs. They both do a great job of sounding like a huge amp in a live room. I recently bought a Zoom G3 effects box for live work that, while it's kinda noisy in certain circumstances, delivers an amazing tone in the studio. It has a library of different amp models to choose from and the tone that some of them produce is lovely.
I still use my old pedals as well, though; after the latest pedal reshuffle and guitar synth acquisition I tend to play everything through an eight channel mixer directly in to my studio monitors. The amount of cabling leading to various stomp boxes and A/B switches is getting a little out of hand...
The result of all this spaghetti is a huge sonic palette that ranges from the incredibly subtle to the completely apocalyptic. Here are two examples, both recorded for February Album Writing Month in 2016. More on FAWM in a moment.
Ibanez RG9-BK (nine string)
Jackson "Adrian Smith" signature SDX
Godin xtSA Special Edition
Squier Custom II Telecaster
Customised Aria Pro II "Stagecaster"
Hohner steel string Spanish guitar
Selmer nylon string acoustic guitar
Jaydee Roadie II Supernatural
Customised Ibanez Blazer fretless
Korg M3 Expanded (with Radias expansion)
Roland Juno 106
Roland Juno 60
The weirder side:
Moog Etherwave Theremin
Chapman Stick (10-string ironwood)
Roland GR-55 Guitar Synth
Marshall 100W JCM-800 head with traditional stack
(two 4x12 1982-model cabs, all ex Thin Lizzy)
Blackstar ID:15TVP 15W 1x10 combo
Blackstar ID:Core Stereo 10 2x5W combo
H||H VS Musician 100W 2x12 combo
Phil Jones Bass Briefcase Ultimate 150W 2x5 bass combo
And (of course):
Shure SM58 (vocals)
Shure SM57 (amps, instruments)
Røde NT1A (everything)
Ableton Live 9
It's all very well noodling around in the back room making stuff for your own pleasure; it's something else entirely when you let those results out in public. 2011 was the first year I successfully completed February Album Writing Month, or FAWM - a challenge involving writing 14 songs in 28 days. Part of that challenge involves publishing what I've done for people to comment on, and once I'd overcome my initial fears it turned out to be great fun. Let's face it - the only way I'm going to get better at songwriting is by actually writing songs and seeing how people react to them.
Taking part in FAWM has benefited my musical endeavours in loads of ways. For a start, I've made some great new friends. Taking part was also what pushed me into updating my keyboard setup (as if I needed an excuse). After years of prevaricating (otherwise known as "research") I finally took the plunge and bought myself my dream machine - a Korg M3 Expanded music workstation. Since it arrived I've spent much of my spare time learning what I can do with it, although I've really only scratched the surface. It's a massively powerful synthesiser - even more so since I bought the EXB-256 memory upgrade and the EXB-Radias synthesiser expansion boards for it. It's a multiple channel MIDI sequencer; it's also a hugely capable sampler. It's given me access to believable piano and Fender Rhodes sounds for the first time since I started recording my own music and for me that alone made it worth the money. The brass and woodwind sounds are amazingly realistic and the string samples are mouthwateringly good. The M3 comes with a velocity sensitive, properly weighted 88 key piano keyboard with aftertouch, so it feels like I'm playing a "proper" musical instrument. The result? Since I started using the Korg I've fallen in love with playing keyboards all over again and I feel like I've made tremendous progress in developing my abilities as a musician. If nothing else, the sounds I'm recording these days have experienced a quantum leap in authenticity.
Since I started doing FAWM I have really pushed myself in terms of singing. I have never been comfortable doing vocals, and to be honest that's still the case (it probably always will be). Although I would never consider myself as a vocalist, I have ended up surprising myself from time to time when I've played back what I recorded. I might not be much better than I used to be, but I can sing something these days without being quite so embarrassed. Switching to a large-diaphragm condenser mic (a Røde NT1-A) for recording vocals has helped me immensely, as I can now hear more detail in what my voice is doing as I record. With Live, I can edit most errors out of the mix by building a comp track from multiple takes, but if things really go pear-shaped, I resort to Celemony's Melodyne software and bash things back into order. I was surprised when I started using it to discover that it can be incredibly subtle. Much to my relief, it didn't turn me into Cher.
I now produce stuff all year rather than just during FAWM. Suitably enthused by the fact that I wrote over twenty songs in February 2013 (I overachieved quite a bit) I signed up for FAWM's big brother 50/90 for the first time - where the idea is to write 50 songs in the 90 days between July the 4th and October the 1st. I managed it on my first attempt, and by the first of October that year I'd written and recorded nearly ninety tracks. That's quite a leap from the times not so long ago when I'd be doing well to record three songs in twelve months.
If you want to give my stuff a listen, you'll find a bunch of tracks on my Soundcloud page but I've had enough of Soundcloud's complete inability to control scam artists and spam, so in the coming months I will be moving my stuff off their platform and focusing instead on providing more polished material on my Bandcamp page.
In recent years, I've gone way beyond just letting people listen to the music I write and record. I've released several albums that people went out and bought - and believe me, it still feels weird writing that. Even better, if you click on the covers below, you can stream or download them from my Bandcamp pages.
My latest album, The Blackest of Dogs has just been released. This album contains the most deeply personal and emotional music I've ever recorded, and I've been doing this sort of thing for more than three decades. The "Black Dog" of the title is an expression used by people from Dr Samuel Johnson to Sir Winston Churchill to refer to their bouts of depression. It's a disease with which I'm very familiar.
The songs on the album were recorded between July 2015 and March 2016 as I made my way out of the deepest and longest bout of depression I've ever experienced. Writing and performing them was an attempt to understand what had happened to me, to identify the sorts of things that would make the condition worse and, more importantly, the things I could do to help make things better. It was an intense journey of self discovery.
People who have listened to the album are responding really well to it, which is very gratifying.
In complete contrast to the prog rock of my latest work, back in 2014 I released an album of ambient music intended as the soundtrack to an imaginary journey through The Kuiper Belt, called Beyond Neptune.
The album took just under eighteen months to complete, so I'm breaking with the grand rock tradition and getting faster at making albums rather than slowing down. I'm such a rebel.
My studio - which is a ridiculously grandiose name for a bunch of largely second-hand equipment crammed under the bed in the back bedroom - looks like this...
Although the D3200 is so good I can basically play something into it, check the mix and burn it to a CD without using any other gear at all, you can probably tell by the photo above that I've started down the long and addictive path of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) noodling. When I started out this consisted of me tweaking stuff I'd already laid down, and for that I used Flavio Antonioli's n-Track software. If you're looking for a beginner's setup that will tick all the boxes, I highly recommend it. It includes a cracking drum sequencer that I've used on tracks which people thought used real drums. It's ridiculously cheap to register and it provides a solid, useable DAW platform. There's an iPad version, too.
The thing is, there's always another bit of gear to catch your eye, and after seeing YouTube videos of what can be done with Ableton and the Novation Launchpad, I succumbed to an attack of Gear Acquisition Syndrome and bought myself a Novation Launchpad and Live 8. Suddenly, my production capabilities went through the roof. It's hard to describe just how much of an impact that software has had on my musical adventures, but it's now at the heart of the music I create. When Live 9 was announced, I ordered the upgrade as soon as I could and I downloaded it on the day it was released.
And as Live 9 integrates with Ableton's spiffy controller the Push, well, I just had to get one of those as well, didn't I? It's the thing with the pretty coloured buttons (a major selling point, IMO) in the last photo above. I'm still learning how to integrate it into my workflow and the software upgrades mean it keeps on being able to do even more stuff (so I have even more to learn about!) but as far as I'm concerned it's a whole new way to have musical fun. I particularly like its controls for the Session view as a way of controlling loops to develop the basic structure of a piece before rendering it out to WAV and adding the finishing touches with the D3200.
For the first twenty-something years of my recording career I didn't spend very much time creating drum tracks for my songs. Short of going out and buying a drum kit of my own (which was, and still is a complete non-starter), I didn't really have any choice. The first drum machine I got was a Movement Sequence Memory Rhythm - one of many Boss DR-55 clones that came on to the market in the 1980s. It really wasn't very good. In fact it was so bad I don't think I ever recorded an entire song with it. It now languishes in a box somewhere at the back of the studio. From there I moved on to a Yamaha RX21; at the time I thought it was a huge improvement, and I actually used it quite a bit, although listening to the samples recently it sounds pretty dreadful by modern standards. Again, this now languishes in its original box in a corner of the studio.
When I moved to DAWs I'd put together a few songs in n-Track using the software's integrated drum programmer, which was pretty cool. The Korg M3's KARMA function does a pretty decent job if you include a drum track (although it has a few timing niggles), and I could get a good enough result with it that in most cases I would just use that. But then I bought a piece of equipment that came with a CD that had a trial version of Toontrack's EZDrummer software. I tried it, and liked both the workflow (as a VST plugin) and the end results, so I started to use it. After a while, I upgraded to the full version, and used it a bit more. And then quite a lot more. In fairly short order my workflow changed completely and I was using EZDrummer to govern the tempo of songs rather than use the M3's KARMA. Before long everything I wrote was started off with a drum pattern from EZDrummer. I'd produce a "draft" drum track in Ableton, send it across to a stereo pair on the D3200 (usually tracks 15 and 16), and record everything else against that drum track. That meant that when everything I'd done got imported back into Ableton, it was in time and therefore far easier to edit - want to swap verse 2 for verse 3? Not a problem. Cut down the guitar solo to 8 bars rather than 16? Done. Once I'm happy with the song structure, I fine tune the drum track with fills and breaks that better meets the temperament of the song, and I'm good to go. I reckon my tracks sound much better using this way of working, and when Mel and I collaborated on In Shadows, our James Bond Theme for FAWM 2014, the fact that she'd restructured the song didn't faze me at all. I just cut and pasted the different sections into their new running order and it took about quarter of an hour to get everything sorted. If I'd been working the old way, it would have taken me days to do that.
Each year I buy a number of the EZX expansion packs to expand the sonic capabilities of my rhythm section. When EZDrummer 2 was released in 2014, I'd already ordered the upgrade and downloaded it immediately. For the price, I don't think anything else comes close but if you're on a budget and you run a Mac, you might want to look at Hydrogen, which is free.