A Runway Success
Is what Roland's TR707 digital drum machine is set to become. Great sounds, great facilities... and a great price.
Tony Reed takes Roland's new rhythm composer on its maiden flight.
It looked big — real big. If the rumours buzzing around on the grapevine were anything to go by, Roland were gearing up for another big hit — this time, a digital drum machine to rival Yamaha's top-flight RX11, but at the price of their RX15.
After a short wait in the factory's reception, I was ushered into a quiet room packed with enough technology to land someone on Mars. And there, sitting unobtrusively on a small table at the back of the room, was the cause of all the fuss ...the TR707 Rhythm Composer, a 15-voice, MIDI-equipped Digital Drum machine for £499. While Curtis did his recording thing, I sized up the beast.
Certain comparisons with the dearer of the two Yamaha machines were immediately obvious; finished in off-white with orange and grey lettering, the plastic-cased unit measures 382(W) x 73(H) x 245(D) mm — roughly the same size as its rivals, and weighing in at a featherweight 1.5kg including batteries (courtesy of the separate 12v mains adaptor). Like them, it has a raked front panel, hard plastic buttons, and like the RX11, sports a memory expansion slot, as well as separate outs. There is an indefinable sense of 'cut-price' about the unit's looks (it lacks the stylistic link with the DX synths that the RX's have, for one thing) but was this going to be reflected elsewhere? The top half features (Reading from left to right): The Memory Cartridge slot; The Graphic Display Window (of which more later), and a bank of volume sliders; (Accent, Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Low Tom, Mid Tom, Hi Tom, Rim shot/Cow Bell, Hand Clap/Tambourine, Open/Closed Hi-hat, Ride Cymbal, Crash Cymbal and Main Volume).
The next row down offers a large tablet button for Stop/Continue, a series of dual function buttons grouped under the headings of Pattern, Play, and Pattern Group (A to D), and Enter button (Doubling-tripling? — as cartridge and accent control) and a large rotary Tempo knob.
Below that, another Tablet-button, Start, and a measure chart, as featured on the 808 and 909, with a row of four L.E.D.'s inset on the left of the chart.
Finally, the bottom row features the all-important Shift button, and a row of 16 Instrument buttons, which double as pattern entry controls.
Features (R to L) Master Out (L,R/Mono), Separate outs for all the voices, MIDI In/Out, Tape Dump In/Out (Doubles as Tape Sync), Trigger Out (from the Rimshot), Start/Stop footswitch jack in, and Roland Sync In/Out.
Two bass drums are on offer, each available separately from its own Instrument button (unlike the RX machines, where you have to pre-select which sound you want... ok for step-time, but a little tricky for real time use.) One is a good, meaty 'acoustic' sound, Two offers a slightly harder electronic sound, for you hip-hoppers out there... a policy reflected in the choice of snare samples, with One featuring a mellow sound complete with snare-wire rattle, whilst Two has a distinctly sharper, clicky attack.
The three toms on offer sound very realistic indeed — a casual run along the instrument buttons produced a drum kit—falling down a flight of stairs effect that, an observer remarked, sounded "just like Carmine Appice."
Rimshot is woody and to the point, Cowbell apparently recorded with a little room ambience, which adds to its 'feel', but the pitch is still a little too 'musical' for my tastes.
Sensibly, Handclap appears to be synthesised — probably from the TR808 — whilst tambourine suffers a little from offering only one 'chink' of sound, though intelligent use of accent can simulate the 'chink-baff' of the real thing.
Hi-hat offers two identical 'closed' buttons, and one 'open', facilitating real-time programming of tricky patterns. Closed is nicely clicky, and Open sharp and cutting.
Both cymbals, Ride and Crash, are generously long (in excess of 1.5 seconds) and though the cut-off point is obvious with the sound heard in isolation, you won't notice it in the mix. Crash is deep and 'Rude', and Ride is sticky; just as they should be.
Snare 2, and the toms can also benefit from a 'Flam' effect, selectable over a range of four 'spreads'. This feature can really spice up fills, and is one I have only previously encountered on Korg's KPR 77 (with a fixed spread). A variable accent completes the range of voice functions.
Programming is, as with any machine of this complexity, easy once you know how. Step and Real time programming, or a mixture of the two are permitted, and unusual time signatures (5/4, 9/12) can easily be obtained using the Last Step function. Resolutions of up to demi semiquavers are possible, with two measures strung together in 4/4 and a 'swing' feel can be injected via the Shuffle function. (Sharing the Flam button, the degree of swing is similarly adjustable over four ranges). Individual tempos can be assigned to each drum pattern, permitting tempo changes during the course of a song.
Patterns can be entered into four groups of sixteen memories (Up to 998 measures), and can be played back directly individually or in 'Blocks' (looping sequentially through any number of adjacent memories i.e. 1 through 5, 7 through 9, and so on.)
Extensive editing functions make song creating straightforward... nice to see useful touches like a Copy Bar function, making it much easier to re-work or develop a one-off pattern idea.
Up to four complete rhythm tracks can be stored in the machine's internal memory, with a further eight immediately available from the optional cartridge, using the Roland standard M-64 C cartridge, found on the 909 (programs are unfortunately not interchangeable between the two machines). Unlimited off-board storage capacity is available via the cassette dump option.
The big, BIG plus in working with this machine, however, is its Graphic Display Window. Developed from the budget Dr. 110 Dr. Graphic display, the window is a large L.C.D. display inset on the top half of the machine's front panel. The bulk of the display is occupied by a sixteen by ten matrix, which enables cross-referencing between the instruments (listed down the side) and the step number (along the top). A beat is indicated by a black dot at the relevant point. Being able to see the relationship between all the instruments at any time, in either step or realtime mode makes programming the proverbial doddle.
Below the main display is a Tempo readout (in bpms), Track, and Mode indicators. Refer to these together with the panel indicators, and you are left in no doubt about the present state of play on the TR 707.
In addition to the internal tempo control, the TR 707 can act either as a master or slave unit clocked by a MIDI signal, the Roland sync signal, or by a tape sync signal. (The TR707 outputs a tape sync pulse from the relevant mini-jack at the rear of the unit, in the same way as the TR909), but Roland are set to release the Octopad, a MIDI-assignable eight-pad drum controller, which could go a long way to redressing the balance between humans and machines when it comes to digital drums.
In many ways, the TR707 supplants the 909, although this will continue in production for those of you who prefer being able to tune the toms, and so on.
There are a few features missing from the TR707 that I would like to have seen... programmable dynamics, as featured on the RX machines, would have been greatly appreciated, a second trigger out, to supplement the rimshot trigger... (to some extent compensated for by the comprehensive MIDI specification) but, when you consider what you are getting for your money, there is nothing to touch it for value. Expect to see a price war breaking out in the Digital Drum ranks soon.
Review by Tony Reed