Beat On The Cheap
A beat on the cheap?
A host of inexpensive drum machines put through their paces by the ES&CM review team
The day of the cheap drum machine may have been and gone with the early John Foxx singles, but as we all know, these things go in cycles, and there are certain timeless qualities (such as compositional help and rehearsal backing) which all the machines investigated here still have. Thousand-pound digital machines may be all the rage, but to come down to earth a little we thought we'd have a look at some of the unsung heroes of the synthesizer/home recording field. Surprisingly, some of the cheapest machines worked out as best value-for-money and some of the more expensive ones displayed strange omissions or design quirks. Quite apart from the standard 'drum box' there are several designs — the Synsonics from Mattel and The Kit from MPC for instance — which need careful consideration and which may solve any problems you're experiencing with live percussion, portability or sound quality. Having lived with the machines on the following pages and put them through all manner of effects, mixers and tape recorders, it should be possible to give an idea of what the maximum potential of each machine could be and what you'll be offered as soon as you open the box. The common factor about all the units here is that they're available for under £200, and in some cases for well under £100.
Almost suspiciously similar in layout to the old Boss Dr Rhythm, the DRM-1 is a good solid machine providing compositional ability and fill-ins but no 'chain- ing'. There are several good points in fact which make it worth consideration, and these include not one but two outputs to sequencers without which a modern drum machine is hardly complete.
The unit is finished in sturdy black aluminium, takes four 1½V batteries and has 10 main controls. These are rotaries for Power/Volume, Tone and Tempo, an 8-way rotary switch for Pattern Select, Start and Stop buttons, and slider switches for Write/Play mode, sound selection, Variation and Fill-In. Eight patterns are available, the first six being 16-step (for 4/4 music) and the last two being 12-step (for 3/4 or 6/8). Each pattern has two variations, A and B, which can be programmed completely differently with the Variation slider switch deciding whether A or B plays. The last two positions on this slider are AB — which causes the two variations to alternate — and Fill-In, which brings in the Fill-In slider switch to play pattern B only every 4th, 8th or 16th bar.
Programming is fairly simple. In Write mode the Start/Stop switches become Beat and Rest; the four sounds with spaces are tapped in individually with an LED lighting as each instrument is finished. The sounds themselves are fairly ordinary — a short thump for bass drum, a higher thump with a little white noise for snare, a short chiff of white noise with a very faint metallic feel for High Hat (closed only) and a longer burst at higher frequencies for cymbal. No tom-toms, clap or percussion instruments, and no way to alter the sound or mix of the instruments except for the fact that the Tone control cuts out some of the white noise element.
Sockets along the left hand side of the machine are Footswitch Stop/Start (optional), audio output (jack), SQ (low level clock pulse suitable for Roland type sequencers), Clock (a higher level pulse suitable for Spider and other sequencers or for laying down a tape click) and 6V DC In. Despite this plethora of interfacing the DRM-1 is probably better for rehearsing and composing than for recording, as even expensive ADT or chorus effects can't add much to its basic sound. Every indication is that it would be reliable and fast to use however, and the fill-ins and sequencer outputs at least put in the running for consideration.
Big brother to the old established Soundmaster SR-88, the Stix is a precisely thought-out machine which avoids almost all the setbacks seen in the other models in its price range. In fact it includes some very good ideas and would be a useful machine for live or studio work by virtue of its multiple outputs and triggers.
The basic specification is similar to that of the Kay machine. There are eight patterns with A and B variations which can be set to alternate or to switch to the B pattern every 4th, 8th or 16th bar. The first six pairs of patterns have 16 steps and the last two have twelve steps, with programming being through the Start/Stop switches when in Write mode. There are seven instrumental sounds, Bass Drum, Low Tom, High Tom, Snare Drum, Closed High Hat, Open High Hat and Cymbal, with a programmable Accent on any beat. This makes all the sounds on that beat louder for dynamic emphasis and a little more realism.
The sounds themselves are reasonable, with metallic edges to the snare and cymbals and a decently thumpy bass drum. What takes the Stix out of the class of similarly priced machines is that all the instruments are individually mixable using sliders at the top of the panel. Not only this, but there are separate outputs (jack sockets) on the rear panel for the individual sounds which subtract from the main mix output, allowing every sound to be equalised or treated with sound effects individually. This makes it possible to compensate for any inadequacies seen or imagined in the sounds, for instance to boost the bass on the bass drum or to add some phasing to the cymbals without affecting anything else. Even without using the individual outputs the facility of mixing the sounds is very useful and can give even more variation to a 'performance' than the fill-in and other functions.
Other wonderful points about the Stix. It's possible to clear a memory instantaneously rather than having to tap blanks into every beat of every sound, with the addition of an innocuous-looking Clear switch. Do not lean on this two beats before the end of a programme you've spent half an hour composing. The Tempo control is unusually large and has 20 divisions, which go some way towards giving a reasonable index to remember speed settings. The side panel has a socket for DC adaptor but the back panel has another five sockets — Audio, Footswitch Stop/Start (optional), SQ, Trigger Out and Trigger In. The handbook even tells you what levels these give (gasp!) with an 8-10ms, 5V positive pulse from the Trigger o/p on every beat and the same from SQ on every Accent. Trigger In requires a similar pulse and makes this one of the very few inexpensive machines which could be driven from a sequencer. If you're not completely taken by the sounds even after equalisation, the individual audio outputs should make it possible to drive any number of external sound-creating modules, of which there are an increasing number such as handclaps and syndrums. The Stix uses four penlite batteries and it's even easy to get the battery cover off. At this price, what more could you want?
A cheaper and less versatile version of the Stix, the SR-88 has nevertheless given sterling service to many and when decently equalised can sound quite chunky. Spec is virtually identical to that of the Kay machine or indeed the old Dr Rhythm, and the difference between this and the Stix is that it has only four sounds and no individual outputs or Trigger In.
The four sounds, Bass, Snare, High Hat and Cymbal are not too bad though, faint metallic tinges where needed and effective in fills. The two sequencer outputs are still there together with footswitch stop/start, so if you're on a budget the SR-88 may be the ideal solution.
A bit of a novelty and as far as we know unique on the UK market. The LP-88 is vaguely similar to the SR-88 in size and layout but doesn't use a similar programming system and has strictly Latin percussion sounds — Bass, Low Conga, High Conga, Bongo, Claves and Maracas. This is how it works; each sound has six fixed patterns on a rotary switch, with the exception of the last two mentioned which have three fixed patterns on a slider. Every sound also has a silent position. The only other controls are Power/Volume, Tempo and Start/Stop, which can be activated with an optional footswitch. When the unit is playing a very large variety of patterns can be produced simply by varying the combinations of positions of the four rotaries and two sliders, with the handbook showing exact settings for well-known patterns such as Rhumba, Beguine and Samba. The sounds are pretty accurate, in fact better than the imitative sounds on many other machines. The clave is particularly woody and the congas and bongos are tuned to sensible levels.
Logically enough the LP-88 has a Trigger In which allows it to be slaved to either of the other two Soundmaster machines or indeed to all manner of sequencers and other devices. It's a pity it doesn't offer Clock Out as well, but perhaps it's unlikely to be used by itself with more complex electronics such as sequencers. There's no denying it does its job and does it well.
The Clef is unusual in that it is available in both kit and ready-made form, and for the advanced constructor offers several possibilities for modification. It offers twelve sounds and twelve patterns with the usual A or B variations and alternation on every 4th or 8th bar. The patterns can have 12, 16, 24 or 32 beats so in the AxB mode a 64-beat pattern can be created.
An Instrumentation switch selects Stick, Brush or Latin American-type percussion, and the total sounds are Bass Drum, Low Tom, High Tom, Snare, Rim Shot, Long Cymbal, Short Cymbal, Conga, Low Bongo, High Bongo, Claves and Brush (snare). In addition there's an Accent which does not have variable level. The Clef's sounds are just about average in terms of those machines examined here — the snare is quite powerful, the bass a little weak, the rim-shot and Latin American sounds realistic and the cymbals disappointing in their lack of a metallic edge. The Tone control cuts out most of the white noise element of sounds. Other controls are Tempo and Volume/Power. Programming is by the familiar method of using the Start/Stop switches as Beat and Rest controls in the Write mode on each instrument — one disadvantage is that it's impossible to clear an entire memory in one go, but one feature not seen on other machines is that the cymbal (high hat) can be switched from Continuous to Programme to Off at any time while playing, which provides a little extra variation.
Early models of the Clef suffered a little from the lack of interfacing possibilities, but after the introduction of the BandBox accompaniment machine a seven-pin DIN interfacing socket was added. This gives Clock Out (5V 20ms, suitable for most sequencers), Footswitch Play, Footswitch Rest, 5V Trigger from Long Cymbal, Spare Audio Out and 5V Enable Out which is continuous in Play mode. This could operate Roland equipment such as the Bassline sequencer except that the Clef gives one pulse per quarter note rather than the six pulses required by Roland gear.
At the same time that this modification was introduced a set of tuning holes was bored through the bottom panel to give access to the presets on the circuit board. Five presets adjust the output levels of the High Bongo, Claves, Toms and Bass, while another five give control over the Resonance of the same sounds. It's also possible to alter the balance of white noise and the tuned element in the Snare sound to adjust the white noise level overall and to alter the accent level.
It's relatively easy in fact to add as many Clock outputs as desired and to take a trigger off any instrument. This would make the Clef highly versatile for anybody into sequencer music as it would be possible to drive all sorts of devices at different speeds and timings; this sort of modification would be easy enough for anybody who had built the Clef in the first place, although the manufacturers warn that it isn't a project for beginners, as there's a lot of close-packed circuitry involved.
The Drumatix is the most versatile, well-known and expensive of all the machines examined here, and looks set for a rosy future despite some new introductions from the Roland camp. Its individual mixing of sounds and comprehensive pattern chaining set it aside from all the other drum machines under £200, and the unique composing method used makes the whole machine more accessible than one using more conventional systems.
The 606 has a bank of sixteen silver buttons coupled with LEDs which represent the number of beats in a bar. The Last Step control can re-programme this to produce a 2 or 4 or 11 beat bar for peculiar time signatures — in fact any beat length you want. A Scale slider defines the number of steps assigned to each quarter note beat, in other words the basic speed of the patterns.
In Pattern Write mode the LEDs cycle through at a speed set by the Tempo control and each instrument is programmed in individually simply by pushing down the switch for every beat where it is desired to occur. As this is done the LED for that beat lights up, giving a unique visual indication as to the composition of the rhythm. The instruments available are Accent, Bass Drum, Snare, Low and High Toms, Cymbal, Open and Closed High-Hat, and after programming all of these are individually mixable using small rotaries on the top of the panel.
In the Play mode the sixteen switches act as memories and each has two variations (Pattern Group I & II) which are completely independent. When a new rhythm is selected the previous one cycles to the end before changing over, and this applies even when more complex patterns are played. The sixteen switches are arranged in fours and within these groups any two, three or all four rhythms can be made to follow each other simply by holding them down simultaneously. These patterns will complete even if the next selection is a single pattern in the same or another group.
The 8-way switch which selects which instrument is programmed doubles in Play mode as a track selector, so the total number of rhythms available is 256. The 606s 'extended mode' is Track Compose, when the number of repetitions of individual rhythms can be pre-programmed. Eight Track positions give a maximum of seven compositions of 64 bars each and one of 256 bars, and these can be combined to give a selection of compositions of up to 256 bars.
Several Editing modes are available and it's also possible to tap in beats in real time for correction to pulse time. Patterns can be cleared instantaneously and the Toms used to programme trigger outputs from two mini-jacks on the rear panel. If this is done the Toms can be faded out of the audio output.
The Drumatix sounds are better than average but not quite as powerful as those on the TR-808. The Bass Drum is a little weak but the Snare is good, the cymbals are reasonably metallic and the Toms are passable.
The 606 is generously provided with interfacing sockets but some of these are pretty non-standard. The programmable triggers on the Toms have been mentioned, and in addition the back panel has Audio, Headphone and DC sockets, optional Footswitch Run/Stop socket and the peculiar Roland DIN Sync socket. This is a five pin DIN with an In or Out mode, giving or accepting 6 5V pulses for every quarter note and also having Earth and a 9V enable pin. The other two pins are only used for setting up at the factory.
The 606 does everything you could ask for in an inexpensive machine even if it does have some quirks. Despite the forthcoming Dr Rhythm Graphic and the TR-909 it will remain in production, and a Clap and Syndrum module have been introduced for use in conjunction with the Trigger Outs. Apparently it's simple to modify the unit for separate audio outputs, which would give the potential of improving the sounds even further.
A sure-fire contender for the muso who wants to get into portable pad bashing as well as automatic rhythm playing, the Synsonics boasts cymbal/hi hat, bass drum, snare and two tom toms, of which one is tuneable. It has three outputs, one stereo headphone output and two phonos — left and right, the second tom tom and cymbal/hi hat coming from the right output and the snare and first tom on the left. This feature makes the Synsonics very handy, as you can divert the outputs into (for example) different channels of a mixer and then gate off the sounds using a parametric or a graphic Eq so that a full stereo image can be had from just these two phono outputs.
The sounds that this unit produce aren't everybody's cup of tea, sounding less like a genuine acoustic drum kit than some kind of baby Simmons Kit — the snare is a short splash of white noise and quite useful: having the first tom tuneable is also a good idea, with a huge range of 5 octaves. Both toms are the classic 'syndrum' sounding effects with a small drop in pitch as the sound decays. The cymbal sounds like someone chucking a trayful of Waterford crystal through a plate glass bus shelter; in its normal mode it's a very long white noise splash. When the accent button is depressed the cymbal is cut off in its prime and becomes a short burst of pink noise (hi hat impersonation). The non programmable bass drum which will be heard on every beat if required has a sound which is far too short and 'clicky' to be useful for any great length of time.
The Synsonics can be played in three ways, purely manually (with sticks), using repeat pushbuttons, or by programming a memory. It has three 16 beat memories which you programme via the pads or the 'roll' buttons, which when pressed give a selection of 2, 4 or 8 hits per beat.
You can record the accents separately and also layer passages on top of one another until your drumsticks crack or the batteries run down. The bass drum is never recorded but it comes in handy as a metronome; you can switch it off in record and playback modes, using one of the toms tuned low as a bass drum if you prefer.
If you want to spend a few hours tinkering with the insides of the Synsonics it becomes possible to trigger the sounds externally and maybe even find a clock pulse for sequencers. The design team doubtless spent hours scratching their heads designing the present arrangement on the unit, which is to keep pushing the fast and slow tempo buttons in time to an 'outside' source so that gradually it works out for itself a rough approximation of tempo.
Ironically, Mattel have fitted a five pin DIN socket to the Synsonics ready for a new pedal which will control accent and bass drum. If they had shown this kind of design sense towards other areas such as sounds and synchronization, with room for future expansion, they could have no doubt wiped the floor with the opposition both in the musical toy and semipro music fields.
Two final points to note — the fastest tempo is not very fast, and when recording you'll find it's hissy and it hums. But if you like the sounds, and you don't buy it for its memory capabilities alone, then it's great value for money.
As part of the Personal Studio System this is a relatively new introduction and a peculiar one in many ways, it's very inexpensive but largely preset, and while the sounds are good there are several facilities sadly lacking.
There are twelve preset patterns selected by six pushbuttons and a seventh bank selector. The patterns are Disco/16 Beat, Jazz Rock/Samba, Slow Rock/Mambo, Swing/Rhumba, Waltz/Bossa Nova and March/Tango. Patterns can be combined for much greater variation although this is a fairly hit and miss affair. Three buttons to the right of the pattern selectors give normal play, 4 bar or 8 bar variations, some of the variations being better than others in terms of composition. The Slow Rock variation for instance is almost indetectable, while the Mambo and others are quite clever.
The sounds are very good for such an inexpensive machine, and the Tom Tom tuning, Bass Drum volume and Cymbal volume can be individually adjusted. The bass drum is quite powerful and realistic, the snare has a definite metallic sound over the skin and noise elements and the cymbal is realistic — provided it's meant to be an 8" splash rather than a 22" crash cymbal. The toms are very ordinary however, simply a short oscillator tone, and come into the Rhumba and other rhythms sounding more like a pair of congas. Their tuning can only be adjusted from high to much too high, but in contrast the volume control over the bass drum and cymbal is really useful.
The final rotary controls are Tempo and Power/Volume, with the Start/Stop control being one of six pads about an inch across at the front of the machine. It's mounted over a microswitch but operates quite readily, whereas the other five pads are mounted over pickups and are intended to operate the individual sounds — from left to right, bass drum, snare, high tom, low tom, and cymbal, which operates only as a "Crash" in this mode as opposed to open and closed High Hat as heard in the automatic patterns.
The possibilities of these little pads are a bit obscure — they're too fragile to be hit with drumsticks and too close-packed to be played very quickly by hand. Their main use is possibly to play a little intro before switching on the automatic patterns. The bass drum can be played with an optional footswitch and the microsocket for this is the only other feature apart from audio output and power adaptor sockets. In other words, no sequencer outputs, which drastically limits the use of the machine in synthesizer-based music. But then, Yamaha don't make a sequencer, so why would you possibly want a sequencer output?
The Kit differs from all the other machines reviewed here in that it's intended to be played, not automatically, but manually, and not with sticks like the Synsonics but by hand. In fact the packaging contains several dire warnings about what will happen in very short order if you start laying into your Kit with a pair of Phil Collins Extra Heavies! To be accurate there is one automatic feature on The Kit, the hi-hat, which can play 36 patterns of Open/Closed sounds including 4/4, 3/4 and Disco patterns and 8 or 16 beats to a bar. The hi-hat can then be used as a metronome for live playing of the other sounds.
The physical layout is that of a miniaturised drum kit with a snare on the left, two toms at the top, a hi-hat (two pads for open and closed versions) and a crash/ride cymbal to the right. Lastly there's a bass drum pad to the right, but as it may be a little unfamiliar in this position for experienced drummers there's an option of a footswitch to activate it, which also contains a start/stop switch for the auto hi-hat.
Each sound has an individual output level control feeding into the main mix, and also an individual sound output on the back panel which subtracts the sound from the main mix if used. This means that the individual sounds can be equalised and panned on an external mixer. In addition the tone of the cymbal can be equalised onboard to alter the effect from crash to ride. The final features are a socket for external 9V power, the auto hi-hat tempo rotary and two back panel mini-sockets to give triggers from the two toms. This seems a pretty odd choice because a trigger from the auto hi-hat would have given The Kit the potential of connection to a sequencer. As it is the trigger outputs are only useful for connecting up the external modules which we'll discuss shortly.
A note on power supply — The Kit works for up to 50 hours from a 9V battery and power is automatically On when the Mix Out socket is used. If the individual sound outputs are being used instead a plug in the Mix Out socket will serve to bring the power on.
The sounds of The Kit are pretty mixed. The snare is excellent, crisp and thumpy, while the bass drum is reasonable but benefits from a bit of added definition on a mixer. The toms are very ordinary, almost simple oscillator tones, while the cymbals are much more complex, with several oscillators and ring modulators in use to produce a lively, metallic sound. The crash cymbal obviously isn't a huge sound but at least it sounds like some kind of metal object being struck, which is more than you could say for most of the machines here. It's important to note that the cymbals are controlled by switches, little yellow plastic discs (formerly gold metal plates) over a microswitch, whereas the drums are touch-sensitive rubber pads mounted over piezo pickups. Therefore a playing technique has to be developed which involves hitting the right instrument in exactly the right way, which the useful handbook tries to describe.
The Kit in use can be very authentic-sounding but its ultimate application depends on developing some convincing playing technique. For experienced drummers this will be no problem, but for others it'll take a bit of time and in an age of automation the whole concept seems a little unusual. The imposing Music Percussion Computer (originally the Kit II) is more comprehensible, with options of automatic or manual playing or computer control from a ZX-81, but of course that's much more expensive. The Kit itself remains unique, perhaps a solution in search of a problem, but an interesting proposition nevertheless.
Apart from the bass drum/hi-hat footswitch and a devastatingly useful four-output 9V power supply there are three other accessories for The Kit, which can also be used separately. These are The Clap, The Tymp and The Synkit, each bearing one pad and a handful of controls together with audio out, trigger in and 9V power sockets.
The Clap, probably the most unfortunately named musical instrument since the mediaeval Racket, has controls for Decay (length), Mix between clap sound and pure white noise, and Spread, which increases the spacing between the three distinct bursts which make up the clap sound. A little reverb is almost indispensable and there is only really one position giving a lifelike sound, but the overall effect is reasonable, although for some reason quite different from what you'd hear on a TR-808 clap for instance.
The Tymp is again unique, and consists of a carefully designed tuned element together with a burst of white noise which can be mixed in as desired. What's really needed, and is missing, is a way to alter the tuning with a pedal as you would on a real tympani, but despite this the unit's worth having if you've ever envied the sound of an orchestral percussion section.
The Synkit is a bit of a disappointment, promising the sounds of a Simmons kit in these tuned-in times and delivering only the same old disco drum. The four controls for volume, pitch, decay length and sweep can only deliver a variety of thumps and pings and nothing really powerful. The complete MPC set of Kit, Tymp, Clap and Synkit looks pretty impressive and the add-ons can be used with other equipment (for instance to add a Clap to the Roland Drumatix), but as previously mentioned a bit of application is needed to get the best from them. Let your fingers do the drumming!
Once again, Roland has attacked the budget end of the drum machine market. The latest entry is the sequel to the original Dr Rhythm DR-55 — the first affordable programmable drum machine. Briefly, for the uninitiated, DR-55 has four sounds — bass snare rimshot and hi-hat — together with variable accent and overall tone. There are eight patterns with A and B versions which can be made to alternate while the hi-hat plays 8, 12 or 16 beats per bar.
The sounds are more practical than imitative, though considerable improvement is obtained by using some equalisation. The bass drum can be made quite 'thumpy' and some of the metallic element on the snare can be filtered. Most 'nasties' on the snare can be removed and the hi-hat is also reasonably metallic with careful filtering. However, by far the worst sound is the rimshot, and there's little hope for improvement using external means. However, for the price the DR-55 still represents value for money.
The new boy — the DR-110 — is an altogether different kettle of fish. All the old sounds are still there except the rim shot, which has been replaced by a remarkably good hand clap. There's also a crash/ride cymbal, each different sound being triggered by a single button.
Overall, though, the DR-110 is pretty good with a special mention warranted by the hand clap. At the recommended price it's going to sell thousands and if it gets discounted, then the sky's the limit.
Two main facts have emerged during the testing of these units. The first is that you can do a lot with a basic sound given the facilities to modify it. The second is that you can do very little with a modern synth/sequencer set up if your drum machine has no clock outputs. Another factor that plays a part in any selection is what you are going to use the machine for. On the sound mixing side the best for the job are the Stix programma, The Kit and the Drumatix. The last of these also appears in the list for best at sequencing along with all of the Soundmaster machines, the DR-55, and the Kay. Finally, the best sounds for the money come from The Kit, Soundmaster and DR-110, though the Synsonics does make a pretty mean Simmons sound — happy drumming!
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