The Groovebox evolved from the drum machine when designers began to combine synthesis, sampling and sophisticated sequencing into a single hardware box, enabling the programming of not just simple drum patterns, but complete backing tracks without the use of a computer. In the multitrack recording studio, laying down the backing tracks of a bands drummer and bassist has always been considered the first stage of constructing a song, before the other instruments and vocals were overdubbed.
But in the late 70s and early 80s, the drum machine - especially in dance music styles - was increasingly being used to provide the rhythm tracks in place of a real drummer, in the same way that synthesizers like the Minimoog were being used for bass lines. As a result, more electronic sounding backing tracks were being created. This trend continued, and in 1988 the legendary Roger Linn designed Akai MPC60 was released, which allowed samples of basic bass instrument parts to be combined with drums, thus enabling the creation of entire electronic backing tracks from just one machine. Although not used in all styles of music, the MPCs ability to quickly sample original drum sounds in the form of loops did make it particularly popular with hip hop and electronic dance artists.
The term Groovebox was not introduced until 1997 when Roland released their MC-303. This used the classic drum machine pattern and song format, but importantly added an arpeggiator and also a phrase sequencer, so that synthesizer ostinatos could be triggered from key pads on the fly and layered over the rhythm structure. Additionally, realtime changes to the sounds could be made using dedicated filter and envelope knobs. All of these new elements were a response to a resurgence of interest in analogue synthesizers and early step sequencers/arpeggiators from dance music artists such as The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Orbital, who all the unique sound that they produced. The downside of secondhand analogue synthesizers though was that they were expensive to maintain, time-consuming to tune, and physically huge! The MC-303 emulated the analogue sound and made it much easier to produce, and so was a convenient alternative for anyone seeking to produce music in this style. The Groovebox was born!
As other manufacturers such as Yamaha and Korg released their own versions, more and more features were added, both to try to out-do their competitors, and as a response to new areas of production like remixing, and the phenomenon of the creative DJ, all of which ultimately gave rise to the sophisticated models on offer today.