Boss DR550 MkII
Two years after the launch of the original Boss DR550 drum machine, a mere £26 extra buys you a DR550 MKII with almost twice the number of sounds. Derek Johnson approves.
I was going to start this review with some pithy remark regarding the recent upsurge in the popularity of drum machines but, thinking about it, I realised that they never really disappeared at all. Still, I think it's true to say that of late there has been a lot more activity at the budget end of the drum machine market, which has seen something of a renaissance. For whatever reason, there is now a significant number of machines on the market offering plenty of 16-bit sounds and retailing at below or around the £300 mark. The machine under review here, the Boss DR550 MkII, will set you back only £225.
As the name implies, the new machine is a close relative of the DR550 of a couple of years back. The MkII status is warranted by one upgrade in particular: the sonic arsenal has been increased from 48 sounds on the original to 91. Apart from these new sounds we're in familiar territory: the MkII offers 64 preset patterns, 64 user patterns, and eight songs (of 160 bars each), one of which is given over to the onboard demo. Drum sounds are 16-bit samples, selected from Roland's existing range of machines, and they are played via 12 rubber pads (which are unfortunately not velocity sensitive). These pads can be arranged into four pad banks (A to D), making a total of 48 sounds available at any one time. Sounds, once assigned, can be panned, assigned a level, decay characteristic, tone colour, and accent — but there is no tuning.
The rest of the front panel is given over to 16 small grey buttons and Start and Stop/Continue buttons; the pads themselves also double up as function keys. The white lettering (grey lettering for shifted functions), a large rotary volume control, and an informative LCD make up the rest. This display is similar to that found on older Roland drum machines, although it's a lot simpler.
Connections are also simple: left and right audio outputs, a stereo headphone socket, a tape save/load jack, a MIDI In socket, a PSU jack and power switch.
The sounds themselves include 11 kicks, 18 snares, two side sticks, five each of low, mid, and high toms, three closed, one pedal and three open hi-hats, and four cymbals. The remaining 34 sounds include a cowbell, loads of latin sounds, claps, scratches, and so on. The main kit sounds are also varied, with TR909 and TR808 sounds mixed with traditional, ambient, and electronic versions. The accent facility (programmable for each beat) can be tailored for each sound, and cymbals are pleasingly long for such an inexpensive machine. They fade a little faster than more expensive units, but there is no digital noise on the fade.
With only a MIDI In, it doesn't take a young Einstein to ascertain that the 550's MIDI implementation is going to be basic. The DR550 can be sync'd and triggered over MIDI (where sounds magically become velocity sensitive), but that's it. Obviously, you can assign MIDI note numbers to sounds, but only sounds that are already assigned to drum pads, so you only have access to 48 sounds when the DR550 is used as an expander.
Getting into the DR550 MkII is easy enough, even for beginners. You may have to take a couple of trial runs at some functions before you figure out the dual functions of a few of the keys, but the display is helpful and the legend on the front panel is self-explanatory. The manual is actually a big help, and is well laid out and logical.
To record a pattern, press Shift + pad 6 (Pattern Edit). You are now in Step Time record mode. Press Play, and you are in Real Time Record mode. So far so good. Each pattern can be a maximum of 16 steps long. Depending on how you've set up the scale and pattern length parameters, those 16 steps can be eighth triplets, 16ths, 16th triplets or 32nd notes. If you want really unusual time signatures, and 4/4 bars containing 32nd note rolls, you'll have to make them up from two patterns.
In Real Time record, just play the pattern over and over until you've played all the drums you want: you can change pad banks during recording. Step Time is a little more tricky, but keep your wits about you. The pattern part of the display (which consists of 16 squares) shows the rhythm of the current pad, chosen by pressing Voice and the relevant pad. The increment and decrement buttons are used to move through the steps within the bar. Hit the drum you want to hear at the step you want to hear it, then press Inc/Dec to get you to the next step. You can press play at any time to hear your work, but hitting pads will result in a recording, since you're still in Pattern Edit. You can erase unwanted events in real time, but it is easier in step time. Move the cursor to the unwanted event, and press delete followed by the corresponding pad. Entire patterns can be wiped as well.
You can create complicated patterns on the DR550 MkII, but you'll need to do a little forward planning, as on earlier Roland machines such as the TR808, 909, and 707. Luckily, if you change your mind, during Song record or whatever, inserting new patterns is easy.
"The sounds are excellent, and for its price, size, and accessibility, I can't fault the Boss DR550 MkII."
One problem that crops up with odd pattern lengths is the intractability of the click: it doggedly insists on beating quarter notes and hiccuping if there's an eighth note too few. First thing to do, if you need to record in real time, is set up your own metronome, using a hi-hat, side stick, or similar sound.
To create a song, press Shift and Song Edit (pad 2). While still holding Shift, choose the number of the song you wish to work on — the display will be flashing. Patterns are entered by choosing patterns from bank A (user patterns) or B (preset patterns), and pressing Acc/Enter. Shift and Bank toggle between the two banks, and you choose the number you want from the numeric keypad. To hear your song, press Shift and Song Play (pad 1), and then press Play.
Songs can be set to play sequentially, repeated, or allowed to just stop. Each song can have its own Initial Tempo, though this is not the case with patterns. If you wanted any accellerandos or rallentandos, then you'd either have to do them manually, or use up the eight songs (set at different tempos, playing sequentially) to do it crudely. This would also entail taking a data recorder on the road if you were gigging, since you would have to keep loading new songs during a set. However, using a sequencer would avoid all of this hassle.
Although I would have liked to see more in a new version of the DR550, nearly doubling the sound capacity for a little more than the same money still makes for an attractive instrument. The sounds are excellent, and for its price, size, and accessibility, I can't fault the MkII. However, there were a couple of niggles with the original which I would have hoped to see rectified on any new version.
First of all, who saves to tape these days? People didn't when the original was released a couple of years ago, and they certainly don't now. Some method of storing the memory via MIDI System Exclusive would have been an obvious addition. Point two: could the sounds, good as they are, have been made tunable? Point three: the DR5S0 MkII won't respond to Song Position Pointers, so that even if you do sync the machine up to a larger system, it won't start in the middle of songs, as you may occasionally want to.
But let's not get too heavy: as budget drum machines go, you'd have to go a long way to better the DR550 MkII. For a start, it's truly portable, running on six AA batteries as well as an external 9V power supply. The sounds are great — and you get all the classic sounds from the exclusive, expensive TR808 and TR909, thrown in by the company that brought them to you in the first place.
In conclusion, while it seems odd for nothing else to have been changed apart from the extra sounds, the DR550 MkII is still a valid contemporary beat box — those 91 sounds are really quite excellent. And considering that the original 550 had a list price of £199 back in early 1990, almost doubling the sounds and adding only £26 to the price tag is a bit of a giveaway. The only people who might complain are owners of the original DR550, but they've had the benefit of two years of great sounds, albeit only 48 of them. (I say "only 48" — we were happy to get eight sounds on budget drum machines only three or four years ago.) If you absolutely need more, then check out Boss' own DR660, but for basic, clean percussion in a friendly, inexpensive (and cute) package, look no further than the DR550 MkII.
Boss DR5S0 MkII £225 inc VAT.
Roland UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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