Akai's latest drum machine attempts to combine the best of programmable and preset rhythm units. Simon Trask assesses this marketing strategy while listening to some dope drum sounds.
Is it preset? Is it programmable? In fact, Akai's new budget drum machine is both - does it combine the best of both worlds?
THROUGH THE UNDOUBTED success of their samplers, Akai have probably done more than any other instrument manufacturer to turn the drum machine into an endangered species. The combination of MIDI sequencer and sampler has become an increasingly common substitute for a drum machine, for those who can afford it. There are significant advantages to creating rhythm parts in a MIDI sequencer as opposed to a drum machine, and significant advantages to being able to draw on your own library of sampled drum sounds as opposed to a collection of sounds provided for you by a manufacturer.
Not that Akai have ignored the drum machine. With the MPC60 they effectively brought the sequencer and the sampler to the beatbox, while the XE8 drum expander dropped onboard sequencing altogether. One thing these instruments have in common is sonic expandability - the MPC60 because it can sample, the XE8 because it can avail itself of a dedicated sample-card library. In contrast, Akai's first drum machine of the non-sampling kind, the XR10, has to rely solely on its 65 internal 16-bit PCM drum and percussion samples, known as Preset Sounds. That's a fairly healthy number to start with, and in practice you can extract a greater diversity of sounds by tuning, reversing and pitch-sweeping these samples. Akai's drum machine also has 32 User Sound locations which can be used as copy locations when you want to create more than one version of a Preset Sound. The Preset Sounds themselves are consistently impressive, and offer a good deal of variety in the kit and Latin percussion departments - though not much of anything else.
The XR10 also has presets of another kind, namely preset rhythms. Akai have elected to make their budget drum machine both a preset and a programmable instrument, with 50 preset rhythm types and 99 programmable patterns. Including preset rhythms on a programmable drum machine isn't unheard of, but Akai have taken the preset ethos a step further on the XR10 by providing variation, fill-in, intro, break and ending rhythms for each of the 50 Presets and allowing you to select them from front-panel instrument pads. So does the XR10 signal a new direction for the drum machine?
OPERATIONALLY THE XR10 is centred around a 2 x 16-character LCD of the non-backlit variety (shame) together with a numeric keypad, yes/no buttons and left, down, up and right arrow buttons of the squidgy rubber variety. The Mode pad in the lower half of the front panel cycles you around the XR10's four modes - Pattern, Song, Sound and Utility - while the Edit pad takes you in and out of the edit pages in Song and Pattern modes. In practice, there are many irritating aspects of the XR10's user interface, but whoever decided that the XR10 should default to Preset pattern 01 every time you enter Pattern mode or return to the pattern play level from the edit level, should definitely be shot. Similarly, having to enter a pattern length and a time signature every time you record a new pattern becomes very laborious (why not allow user defaults?). Still, that's enough on this subject.
The 24 rubber pads spread across the lower part of the XR10's front panel include 15 non-dynamic pads for triggering the Sounds - an already healthy number which is effectively expanded to 150 by the inclusion of ten Pad Banks, or "drumkits", the first five of which have fixed Sound-to-pad assignments. Successive presses of the dedicated Pad Bank button cycle you around these ten Pad Banks in Pattern Play, Pattern Record and Song Play modes. Patterns can include Sounds from any of the Pad Banks, giving you a wide range of sounds to draw on within each pattern. For each pad hit, the XR10 records the pad and the Bank it's in. Sound parameters are associated with the Sound rather than the pad, so editing a Sound will affect all the patterns in which it occurs, both Preset and User. The aforementioned User Sound locations can be very useful here, as they allow you to create several versions of a Sound which can then be assigned to different instrument pads.
The XR10's rear panel offers MIDI In and Out connections, a stereo headphones output, Start/Stop and Fill-in footswitch inputs, L/Mono and R/Stereo audio outs, a separate Effect audio out and an Effect Send Level knob. Akai's drum machine doesn't have any individual outs as such, but you can use the Effect output as an individual out if you patch it into a channel on your mixing desk, then remove a Sound from the XR10's stereo outs and route it to the Effect out instead. However, it's principally intended to be used to provide an effects mix of the XR10's Sounds, with the output from the Effect socket being routed to the input of a reverb or multi-fx processor and then on to an effect return on your desk. Each XR10 Sound can be assigned separate Sound Volume and Effect Volume amounts (0-31) which control the level of the Sound at the stereo and Effect outs respectively - so, for instance, to output a Sound only from the Effect output you zero its Sound volume.
THE XR10 PROVIDES you with ten kicks, ten snares, two rimshots, three hi-hats (closed, mid and open), 12 toms (4 x low, mid and high), two crash cymbals, one ride cymbal, one choke cymbal, handclaps, finger click, four congas, vibraslap, two guiros, cabasa, tambourine, orchestral hit, triangle low and high, cowbell, claves, whistle, squeak low and high, timbales low and high, agogo low and high, and chop (a slapped bass).
Each Preset Sound has 12 parameters: Sound Volume (0-31), Sound Tuning (+25/-26 in 100-cent steps), Fine Tune (+7/-8 in 6.25-cent steps), Pan (31 positions), Effect Send Volume (0-31), DCA Decay (0-31), DCA Hold (0-31), Sweep Decay (0-63), Sweep Depth (0-31), Sweep Polarity (down/up or up/down), Reverse (forward or reverse play), and Velocity Feel (on/off).
Tuning the Sounds down introduces a certain amount of aliasing and noise; personally I think that just makes the Sounds more interesting, but if you're of the opinion that cleanliness is next to Godliness, then you won't agree. DCA Decay can be used to shorten the decay time of a Sound, which can be useful when its length isn't quite right either for the rhythm it's being used in or for the sound that results from editing with the tune and sweep parameters. These latter parameters allow you to come up with many variations on the source Sounds, so that in practice the XR10 is a good deal more "open-ended" sonically than its lack of a PCM ROM sample card slot might otherwise suggest. The Velocity Feel parameter effectively changes the perceived "hardness" of a Sound when you're triggering it from an XR10 instrument pad, because, with the parameter turned on, the Sound's attack becomes less percussive at lower velocities - and the pads seem to operate at a fixed mid velocity value, producing a consistent difference which can in some cases be quite, urn, striking.
In trying to find a description of the XR10's overall sound, I keep coming back to "gritty and razor-sharp'; the more usual "punchy and tight" are also appropriate. All the samples have plenty of presence and dynamism - you couldn't accuse the XR10 of sounding wimpy, by any stretch of the imagination. Overall it has a very contemporary sound, which means that it doesn't go out of its way to sound like either real drums or a real drummer.
ALL TOO OFTEN the inclusion of preset patterns on a drum machine means a reduction in the number of programmable patterns. Here the XR10 scores by offering a very creditable 99 of the programmable kind. Of course, whether or not you can actually record that many patterns depends on the amount of memory available and on how minimal or otherwise your patterns are - unless the drum machine adopts a fixed-memory approach to recording (which the XR10 doesn't).
The number of bars per pattern also comes into the equation. The XR10 allows you to record patterns consisting of up to four bars, with time signatures per pattern ranging from 1-4/4 to 1-16/16 (but nothing longer than 4/4, so no patterns in 7/4 or 13/8 - no 'Take Five'). The manual gives no indication of the XR10's note storage capacity, but after indulging in some pattern-copying to fill up the memory I'd estimate it at just short of 4800 notes, which means you're unlikely to be able to record 99 four-bar patterns unless you're into very sparse rhythms.
Now, what if I said to you that you could run out of memory while recording a pattern even if you had plenty of memory left? Well, with the XR10 it's strange but true. This apparent paradox is explained by the fact that Akai's drum machine limits you to 300 notes per pattern - which seems like a lot until you actually reach that limit, as happened to me while I was innocently recording a four-bar pattern. It turns out that the XR10 counts up the notes as it plays through a pattern, including any notes which are being recorded at the time, and when it reaches the 300 mark not only does it refuse to play any more notes but it also wipes out any notes which exist from that point on in the pattern. So it was that I found the second half of the fourth bar of my pattern had disappeared before I could say "Akai". Fortunately, it wasn't as terrible as it could have been, because I'd just previously copied the pattern and was recording into the copy. There's a moral there somewhere.
The XR10's maximum record resolution is 96ppqn. In real-time record you can set the metronome click rate (from quarter to 16th notes or off) and the record quantisation (from quarter to 48th notes or off - maximum resolution); these values can be changed at any time, so you're not limited to one quantisation value per pattern, and you can switch off the metronome after you've put down a beat. Incidentally, the metronome on the XR10 also outputs the metronome beat as a MIDI note (fixed as note 24) on its transmit channel.
The XR10 loops continuously in real-time record mode in familiar fashion, allowing you to overdub new parts on each pass. Erasing instruments is accomplished in a similarly traditional manner, by holding down the Erase pad together with the appropriate instrument pad (one at a time); if you only want to erase a specific beat or series of beats, you only hold down the instrument pad during those beats. When the pattern is Stopped you can use the Erase pad to erase the entire pattern, but not, unlike on some drum machines, an individual instrument part. Talking of erasing things, if you play a ninth note on a beat in real-time record (that is exceed the XR10's eight-note polyphony) the drum machine simply erases the earliest note you played on that beat.
Accents can be recorded per note in the usual drum machine fashion (by holding down the Accent pad when you play the relevant note). Meanwhile, if you hold down the Timing Correct pad and an instrument pad you can record a series of notes at a fixed quantisation (anything from 8th to 96th notes). Rhythms can be recorded into the XR10's User pattern memory using an external MIDI instrument like an Octopad, and the good news here is that dynamics are recorded - though they appear to be quantised to one of 15 levels, in accordance with the way that dynamics are entered in step-time. Also, in order to erase a part recorded in this way, the relevant Sound has to be assigned to one of the XR10's instrument pads first.
In step-time record you tap the relevant instrument pad(s) at each step (1/384th note). Notes are assigned a default velocity value by the XR10, but you can change that value by holding down the Accent pad and tapping one of the 15 instrument pads (each pad plays the currently-selected instrument at a different velocity strength). The left and right arrow buttons move through the pattern one step at a time, the Yes/No button fast-scrolls through the pattern, while the Timing Correct pad advances through the pattern by whatever Timing Correct interval you've specified. Additionally, if you've set Auto Scan to on, the XR10 automatically stops at the next (or previous) note when you're fast-scrolling. The drum machine always plays the Sounds programmed on each step, so with the various scrolling options available to you, it's easy to listen to a pattern in more-or-less real time while you're in step-time mode. I found the XR10's step-time recording easy to get along with, though I wouldn't have minded also having a graphic notation display of individual instrument/pad rhythms, more for transcription than for recording purposes.
"In trying to find a description of the XR10's overall sound, I keep coming back to 'gritty and razor-sharp', though 'punchy and tight' are also appropriate."
Pattern Record mode also allows you to select Copy and Delete options. For Copy you first call up the destination pattern, then select the Copy function (the XR10 only allows you to do this if the destination pattern is empty, which means that you can't overwrite an existing pattern by mistake), and then specify the source pattern. Delete gets rid of the notes and resets the pattern length and time signature parameters (Erase, as mentioned above, just gets rid of the notes); you get a Yes/No choice before the XR10 proceeds with the dastardly deed.
Each User pattern can be assigned its own tempo (40-296bpm). In fact, every time you exit Pattern Record mode you first have to either set a new tempo or agree the currently-set one. Now, as long as you Stop the drum machine between selecting different patterns the new tempo will be selected, but when you change patterns while the drum machine is playing in Pattern Play or Song Play modes the tempo isn't updated. This does rather lessen the usefulness of having pattern-specific tempi - particularly as the XR10 allows you to give each of its Songs an initial tempo but has no facility for introducing tempo changes during a Song. Of course, if you're slaving the drum machine off a sequencer then this doesn't matter, and having to go through the tempo page each time you exit Pattern Record becomes even more irksome. Roll on the customisable instrument which allows musicians to configure the LCD pages in a way which suits them.
Akai's drum machine can hold up to 20 Songs in memory at any one time. Each Song can have a maximum of 99 steps or 999 bars, with each step consisting of one Preset or one User pattern. As well as being able to repeat each individual step up to seven times, you can bracket any individual step or series of steps and repeat the step(s) within the brackets up to three times; in fact, you can nest up to three levels of brackets, each of which can be repeated up to three times. All this can go on within one Song step if you want, but the idea is more that you can repeat sections within sections within sections of a Song - providing you can keep track of what you're doing. Actually, it's not as complicated as it might seem at first - which is probably a good thing, because if you make a mistake with your bracketing there's no way you can get out of Song mode (short of switching the machine off) until you fix it. A more informative error message than "Oops!" (the XR10's one and only error message, in fact) wouldn't have gone amiss.
The XR10's MIDI settings are handled in its Utility mode. You can set separate MIDI transmit (1-16) and receive channels (1-16 or omni), and define separate Sound-to-note maps for MIDI note transmission and reception. As with playing the XR10 from its own pads, you can only play more than one version of a Preset Sound if you've made User Sound copies of it.
With the "XR10 Sound" parameter set to off, any Sounds which are assigned to the MIDI transmit map will be muted during pattern and song play and pattern write, but their MIDI note numbers will be transmitted. If you select Sounds which you don't want to use internally, you can incorporate external percussion sounds or a bassline, for instance, into an XR10 pattern. The time between MIDI note on and note off transmission is quite short, so you might find that you need to tailor the amplitude envelope(s) of any external synth sound(s) that you want to play in this way. This parameter also comes in useful if you want to replace one of the XR10's Sounds with an external sound.
The XR10 has no provision for either card or cassette storage of its data, but you do get the option of bulk transfer via MIDI SysEx - though, as usual with Akai, the manual is short on SysEx data details (all it provides are Akai's ID number and the XR10's ID number).
MIDI synchronisation on the XR10 is neither comprehensive nor straightforward. I couldn't get the drum machine to sync to an external MIDI device as either master or slave in Pattern mode, despite the manual's intimation that this should be possible in Pattern Write mode when the drum machine's "MIDI clock" parameter is on. In Song Play mode, with MIDI clock turned off, the XR10 can act as a MIDI synchronisation source but can't be slaved, while with MIDI clock turned on it will slave to MIDI sync but can't act as a source (in fact, you can't Start a song at all from the drum machine itself). And on the subject of synchronisation, I should point out that the XR10 doesn't send or respond to MIDI Song Position Pointer in any mode, so when you're using it in conjunction with a sequencer it can't follow the sequencer from anywhere but the beginning of a song.
THE NINE RHYTHMS of the current Preset (you get three variations and three fill-ins in addition to the intro, break and end rhythms) can be selected directly from front-panel pads when the XR10 is in Play mode. The intro, break and end rhythms can be selected by tapping the Intro/End and Break/Continue pads, while instrument pads 10-15 become selector pads for the three variations and three fill-ins.
The conventional practice would be to switch between different patterns within the currently-selected Preset, but why stop there? With some nifty fingerwork on the numeric keypad and the rhythm selector pads you can combine rhythms from different Presets while the XR10 is running in Play mode, so that, for instance, you could experiment with dropping a fill-in or a break from a salsa rhythm into a variation from an electro rhythm. With a spot of practice it's easy to mix 'n' match variations and fill-ins or breaks from different Presets. Experimentation is the name of the game - not to mention fun.
The 50 rhythm Presets, which are listed across the XR10's front panel for ready selection, include the Latin rhythm staples of the preset machine - samba, mambo, cha cha, beguine, bossa nova, rhumba and salsa. But, along with these and the likes of waltz, country, march, twist, reggae and jazz rhythms and five rock rhythms, Akai have included a number of rhythms labelled dance, funk, electro, disco and beatbox. It's nice to see that they're acknowledging the existence of such rhythms, but you won't find any classic beats among them, nor any which are particularly riveting, except perhaps for one or two of the dance and electro rhythms. I also have to wonder if whoever programmed the disco rhythms has ever heard any disco music.
The intro, break, fill-in and end rhythms are each one bar long. The variations, which are the main rhythms, are each two bars long, but you can get the XR10 to play either the first or the second bar by holding down the Timing Correct pad and tapping the relevant Variation pad (first bar) or Fill-in pad (second bar). Whereas the variations always start playing from the beginning of a bar, you can drop in a fill-in or break rhythm from any crotchet in the bar. The break rhythm carries on playing until you next tap the Break/Continue pad, and then at the beginning of the next bar the XR10 reverts to the variation it was playing before it went to the break (you can't go from a fill-in to a break, or vice versa).
The XR10 allows a very ready interaction between Preset and User rhythms in both Pattern and Song modes, but sadly this doesn't extend to being able to select User rhythms from the front-panel pads as you can Preset rhythms. Expanding the spontaneity of the preset ethos into the programmable world wouldn't go amiss - and selecting rhythms by tapping a pad certainly offers a more spontaneous alternative to the usual practice of entering pattern numbers via a numeric keypad. While we're on the subject of spontaneity, I'm going to spontaneously suggest that it's about time we had an alternative method of constructing song chains to the usual one of manually entering a series of pattern numbers in an LCD screen. I'd like to see manufacturers give their drum machines the ability to automatically compile a song chain from pattern selections made in real-time in Play mode. What's more, you should be able to do this while the machine is synced to MIDI clocks or MTC, so that you can create the song chain as you listen to, and perhaps record, other parts in the track. End of message.
THE XR10 ISN'T the best thought-out or the best specified drum machine in the world, but it does sound rather good, with a real meaty, beaty, big and bouncy sound. Basically it's more appealing sonically than it is operationally, but then people hear the sounds, not the operation. I'm not sure about the inclusion of preset rhythms - whenever a drum machine adopts this approach, I always end up wishing I had more programmable memory in their place. I might have been more convinced if Akai had sought a more wholehearted, and more innovative, integration of the preset and the programmable - like being able to select User patterns from front-panel pads. But if the XR10 encourages erstwhile preset drum machine owners to begin programming their own rhythms, who am I to argue?
The XR10 is a big improvement on Akai's XE8 drum expander, has its own distinct character, and overall is a welcome addition at the budget end of the market. Will it end up being overshadowed by Cheetah's MD16 drum machine, which is more sophisticated and yet significantly cheaper? Hopefully we'll be able to find out soon.
Price £369 including VAT.
Review by Simon Trask
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