A Different Drum
M.P.C. Percussion Roundup
The MPC percussion system: DSM1/2; DSM 8 Auto Tom; DSM 32 x 4 drum synth; Programmers Rhythm Sequencer.
All the brouhaha surrounding Simmons over the years has distracted attention from the work of another British company who've been producing hittable gadgets for just as long.
MPC is the name; they may have first come to your attention with a finger-playable drum machine 'The Kit'. Next notable achievement was the Music Percussion Computer, one of the first pre-MIDI couplings of musical electronics to home micros (in this case, the ZX81); and a more recent success was that boon to home recordists, the Sync Track.
Meantime, the early promise of the Music Percussion Computer has developed into a comprehensive modular percussion system, featuring two kinds of drum pads, three kinds of Drum Synthesiser Module ('DSM's'); and, the wheel having turned full circle, another link to home-micro's, in the form of the Programmers Rhythm Sequencer.
With the aid of MPC's top designer, Clive Button, we checked out the various DSM's currently available, and the Programmers.
The set-up on the ES&CM tape consisted of a DSM1 with the power supply (sufficient for powering up to five additional modules), the dual DSM2, a DSM 8 Auto Tom, and two DSM32 x 4's, the company's latest brainchild. The whole lot was mounted in a standard 19" rack, and flightcased. (MPC can supply custom cases).
The Programmer 8 was linked to a Commodore 64, though interfaces to Spectrum's and ZX81's are also available.
The 'standard' DSM is available as a two channel unit (DSM2), or a single unit with power supply (DSM1) - £174.95 and £119.95 (inc. vat) respectively. Each DSM channel has eight control knobs: Input Sensitivity, Decay, Bend, Pitch, Mix, Noise, and the all-important Click (a dynamically-variable burst of noise at the start of a sound, giving it that electronic percussion 'edge').
A toggle switch configures the unit for either Bass/Tom-type sounds, or Snares. A large illuminated power rocker switch at the far left of the unit, supplemented by pairs of small Trigger and Supply L.E.D.s at the bottom of the front panel rounds it all off.
Rear panel connections on offer are: Pad input (accepts signals from stage pads, MPC's own 'bug' for acoustic drum triggering, and even from audio sources, if the sound is short.) Trigger input - accepts signals from sequencers, MPC's trigger box, or any other +5 volt pulse; Accent Input and Adjust pot; Output, and Master Output which controls the output of all modules connected to the Master unit. Dual DSM's also have a power socket, taking the Master, or the separately-available DSM power supply (rrp £17.95) as their source. Both Accent and Power sockets are chainable, with their functions controlled from a single (Master) DSM.
Connection is via jack sockets except for Power/Accent, both of which are derived from the same 5-pin Din connector. As might be guessed from the specs these units are capable of producing the usual electronic percussion textures, from effects to quite passable snare and tom voices. No modulation, though, so no metal clangs, and overall, the sounds, remain a little 'tuned' and electronic for my taste.
The same might be said of the DSM8 Auto-Tom, except that it has one big advantage - listen to the opening fill on our demo, and you'll see what I mean. As well as the same sound generation circuitry as the DSM1/2, the 8 features something which Simmons, on their rival unit the SDS1, have termed a 'run generator'. Essentially, this means an entire fill of up to sixteen pitch changes in ascending, descending or combined order can be triggered from a single pad or other input - giving you a mega-tom sound from a single unit. And since Toms are the sounds the DSM circuitry is best suited to producing, any weakness in fidelity overall is minimised, (though you could still have a run of sixteen pitched snares if you wanted).
A fair amount of run flexibility is on hand, from the following controls, all situated on the left hand of the unit: The Beats/Step switch pre-sets the number of beats between pitch changes (1, 2, 3 or 4). No. of Steps sets (surprise, surprise!) the number of pitch changes required (1-8, or 16) Mode determines the pattern on offer - five are possible, ranging from ascending to the set pitch, then resetting to the lowest; increasing and decreasing pitch from the home setting up to the number of steps selected... and so on. In a word, you've got variety.
Auto Reset On/Off selects the facility which resets the module to its starting point if not hit for 3 seconds. Finally, the Pitch step allows the interval between pitches to be set.
Rear panel connections are as for the DSM1/2, with the addition of Hold and Reset footswitch jack sockets, for Holding the current pitch or resetting to the beginning of a sequence.
Careful use of the controls, in conjunction with the Programmer 8, make the DSM 8 a powerful 'automatic' unit, but despite its footswitch options, relying on just this to provide your tom sound for live playing would require very careful planning.
Finally, the best unit in the DSM range, the DSM 32 x 4 128 Memory Programmable Module. (£299.95) The right hand controls on the restyled, 'hi-tech' unit are more or less identical to those on other DSM's, but don't be fooled - to accomodate the impressive memory functions of this unit, the circuitry has been completely redesigned. Sound generation is now digitally-controlled, and modulation has been added. The result - far crisper, cutting percussion sounds, and thanks to modulation, sophisticated F.M. metal textures. The sound capability is vast, ranging from convincing acoustic and electronic drums through crystal clear bells and effects sounds, to the most outlandish Doctor Who atmospherics.
And this power is supplemented by the '32's memory capacity. 128 separate sounds (and it can come up with at least 100 really different ones) can be stored in the machine's battery-backed RAM, arranged in 4 separate Memories of 4 Banks of 8 locations. (4 x 4 x 8 = 128): any location can be identified by a three-character code, i.e. 1A5, 4D3. Step through Memories, Banks and Locations via the momentary-make front-panel pushbuttons, or the corresponding rear panel footswitches. Current position is displayed by LEDs for each of the Memories, Banks and Locations.
Hit Manual to activate front-panel sound controls, Store to put the resulting din in the currently displayed location. Easy! As before, the footswitch functions are chainable, allowing you to step Memories, Banks and Locations individually or collectively, from a single controlling footswitch, pad, or trigger. Use this 'live' and a typical five-drum kit would come dear (£1500!) but it's as a 'drum expander' that the DSM 32 really come into its own, since the controlling unit (in our case, the Programmer 8) can advance the memories at every beat.
Assuming that you don't want more than two sounds at any one time a pair of '32's are capable of simulating a whole kit, and then some.
This unit, as a powerful (if pricey) supplement to existing acoustic or electronic kits, or to drum machines, will sell and sell. One gripe, though - there's no off-board storage. So don't overwrite your favourite sounds.
And what took care of all this little lot for our tape demo?
Answer: The Programmer Eight Rhythm Sequencer, (rrp £214.95, Commodore EPROM version, £194.95; ZX81/Spectrum Software version.) We used the Eprom version, with the software resident in the interface, and available immediately on the power up. The tape version takes six minutes to load! The Programmer 8 hardware, a small black rectangular box, has 8 'Input Switches' for real-time triggering of connected units, or entry into the program, 7 output pots, (varies a trigger output from 0-5 volts) and an Accent pot. Holding its associated switch down (or triggering it from within a program) delivers a pulse determined by the Accent pot - giving two levels of output from the first seven channels. A direct Din connection is provided, for connection to a Simmons SDS8.
The program itself, controlled from a Master Directory page allows the creation of up to 52 bars, arrangeable into 25 sequences which in turn may be combined to form 25 separate songs. Bars may be as short as 2 beats, or, as a linked pair, as big as 48 beats; Tempo ranges from 30 to 300 BPM. Bar, Sequence and Song pages all feature a Dr. Graphic-like grid representation of the current bar, together with sequence or song information, and a summary of current functions.
Bars are written in pairs of any length up to 48 divisions, which may be linked into one large bar for odd time signatures. Accents can be manually played, or automatically set on the downbeat, and a metronome output derived from channel 6, "Hi-Hat Closed". A neat little option, 'Configuration', allows each of the eight channels to be renamed from the computer keyboard and saved along with their associated programs; and a choice of Mode 1 (Roland style) or Mode 2 (1 pulse per beat) sync outputs are available from the din socket.
Beats (indicated by *) may be placed, in step time, on the bar grid via cursor controls and Q/W (Plot/Unplot - a hangover from the ZX81 Music Percussion Computer origin of the software), or played in real time on the Programmer 8's switches (NOT from external pads, unfortunately). In real time ('Hand Entry'), a green band scans through the bar as you play.
Unfortunately, there's no distinctive beat at the start of the bar, so unless you're actually looking at the TV, you might have problems, (though you could always Accent beat 1 for recording the pattern, and remove it after.) Bars may be copied, inserted, deleted, played individually, and arranged into 25 songs. In each case, on screen information tells you precisely where you are in the Sequence and Song, the current bar is displayed, and manipulation of data throughout is user friendly and error-trapped.
Gripes - The fifty-two bars are represented by two alphabets, the second, coloured green, obtained by shifting the appropriate letter, is hard to discern, even in colour, and likely to lead to confusion if you're writing long arrangements. It also seem wasteful to use one channel of the eight available for a metronome - why not just bung in a piezo bleeper? Finally - no dump to disk. A pity.
Overall, the flexibility of this unit (it can trigger drum units, sequencers, arpeggiators, or even a light show!) together with the general level of user friendliness make it worth looking at if you've already got a micro. So - a complete electronic percussion system, encompassing just about every control medium, and a wide range of synthetic voices, available in flexible, compact packages - not bad.
Prices of the modules seem pitched a little high (especially if the rumoured new products from Simmons are as good - and as cheap - as they seem) but the Programmer 8 is unique, and the DSM 32 x 4, powerful. A good team to have on your side.
MPC: (Contact Details).
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Review by Tony Reed