Building up the Beat
On Technic's hybrid Preset/Programmable digital drum machine the SY-DP50.
Is it a Preset? Is it a Programmable? No, it's Technics' new digital drum machine, which offers a new twist on old ideas.
Technics have recently been following a policy of taking parts from their impressive multikeyboard range and developing them as musical instruments in their own right. First evidence of this was their excellent Digital piano, the Digital 10, and this has now been followed by the SY-DP50 (catchy name, huh?), a digital drum machine derived from the rhythm section on the topflight P.C.M. multikeyboard, the SXG7, and retailing at £679 inc VAT.
A couple of days ago, I dropped into Technic's Leytonstone dealership, Freedmans, to get the measure of the beast.
Talking of measurements, the SY-DP50 is BIG: 47.2 x 11.6 x 29cm (WxHxD), its steel case and heavy-duty plastic fascia helping it weigh in at a correspondingly impressive 4.6Kg. This is not a machine you can casually perch on top of your keyboard stack. (With this in mind, Technics offer an optional stand.) Visually, its black finish, wedge profile and fluorescent legends give it a hi-tech look. First impressions suggest Yamaha's RX drum machines, though Technics have opted for chunky plastic buttons standing proud of the fascia, in contrast to the current 'unbroken expanse of flatness' look.
Control layout falls into a number of separate, logical areas. Immediately beneath the Technics logo are two rows of blue instrument buttons, 20 in all, identified both by a white legend on the button, and a pictorial representation on the fascia. Many of the buttons have multiple functions, clearly marked where appropriate.
Voices are available on Power up, so I began by trying them out. On offer are; Four Toms, ranging in pitch from about 8" to 18", Hi-Hat Closed, Accented [>] and Open; Ride/Accent; Crash; Tambourine/Accent; Bass drum/Accent, Snare/Accent; Rim; Claps; and Hi and Lo Conga, all panned across the stereo field.
Tom 1 was a little too ringy and tuned for my taste, but 2 and 3 were very realistic, a meaty power-tom sound, and 4 blew me away — a thunderous, subsonic booof! pitched almost low enough to double as a second Bass drum.
Only two toms can sound at any one time, but since that's any two, I don't think there's any sneaky sample-sharing going on. Hi-Hat performed well, a raspy, Sound-Edge tone, and revealed that Accent is not simply a volume-boost, but a separate sample, a subtle difference, but worth it. Accent can sound with Hi-hat closed or open, but (sensibly) they can't sound together. Ride I found realistic, but a little soft and short - Accent helped; whilst Crash was excellent, a good length, with a natural-sounding decay, easily the equal of Roland's TR707 equivalent. Bass, was a bit woolly - hard and clicky, but without the necessary punch. Accent saved the day again. Snare was sharp, un-effected and dry, as was Rim. Claps suffered from the curious malaise of Digital technology in sounding too real. And after the excitement of Korg's attacking Congas on the DDM220, Technic's reply was bound to be something of a disappointment; they sounded muted, and in the case of Lo Conga, suffered from quantisation-error hiss. On balance: some good sounds, but a few which betrayed their organ origins; adequate enough in the mix, they seemed in isolation to lack the aggression of the competition.
Continuing our exploration of the Control Panel, we find beneath the voice buttons the red Record and orange Sequencer selectors, together with associated function controls, and beneath them, the twelve Preset rhythm select buttons, offering a maximum of 23 separate rhythms... Yes, you heard me right — Presets!
The bottom row offers Power On-off, Tone, another two pairs of multi-function controls, a double-size Start/Stop button, 3 Tempo set buttons, and two horizontal sliders for Tempo and Volume control. A cartridge slot (with associated function button) and a large L.E.D. 'Music Display' completes the picture.
The rear panel, emblazoned with the Technics logo, offers (L to R) MIDI Thru, Out and In Dins, Foot controller Din in, Start/Stop jack in, a Low/High output selector switch, L and R line out jacks, and a stereo jack out for phones. A voltage selector window and sockets for an optional music stand (!!) rounds it all off.
Operation of the '50 can be achieved in one of three ways; Pattern Play (Preset), Composer (Programmed) and Sequencer (The arrangement of the first two in any combination into one song of up to 98 steps.)
Pattern Play, a feature not found on the majority of modern drum machines, again betrays the '50's multikeyboard parentage and offers us the simplest way into the machine. All of the standard Knocker-box patterns are here — Waltz, Swing, Disco — as well as some oddities — Guaracha and Baion, for example. Selection couldn't be easier — Press a button, and its LED will light, confirming your choice. (Press two adjacent buttons to select the third 'lower-case' rhythm.) Hit Start-Stop — and you're away. Current Tempo can be read from the Musical Display window, and coarse adjustment achieved using the Tempo slide (58 to 302) Press Tempo Set/Fine, and the slider gives 10% variation either way from the current figure — a Data entry technique familiar to Yamaha users. Two settings can be stored, by selecting the appropriate value, Record and Tempo Set I or II. Pressing Record again completes the procedure.
The stored settings can then be called manually, simply by pressing the appropriate button at any point, or called from within a sequence. Once your pattern is up and running, you can switch to another at any point (The current one playing to it's end before beginning the next) or vary the present pattern in a number of ways: Tone ('Mellow') effectively mutes the output of the more dynamic instruments in a pattern, resulting in a 'home-organ' effect. Arrange Percussion adds additional percussion voices into the pattern; I is the simplest, II adds a bass element (a Congo for example) and III (I + II) adds a treble voice, Tambourine perhaps. The precise addition depends on the pattern selected. Press Fill in and Intro I or 11 before play, and you get an appropriate 4—beat lead in, I or II during play gets you a 1-measure fill; together, and the machine solos until you hit them both again.
These improvisations are random, so a repetitious pattern isn't a problem, though its occasional un-musicality might be, on extended thrashes. As before, these options can be called manually or in a sequence. External control of Arrange Percussion and Solo/Fill is available via the optional footswitch.
Overall the patterns are modern in feel, and utilise some interesting additional voices not available from the voice buttons — one produces a sort of honking noise which I have never heard on a record before, let alone a machine!
Moving on to the Composer section, we have two options; Compositions from the ground up, using the voice buttons in real or step time, or a sort of halfway house; each voice has four selectable 'building block' patterns built into it, selected via the Step switch and the four Tom/Multifunction buttons. (The pattern for each button is listed in the manual.) Having set up bar beat and resolution, (the machine defaults to 16th note, 1 bar measures, but 2 bar, 32nd note options can be selected) you begin by selecting Record, and Clearing one of the four composer memories. To use the 'building-blocks' hold down the Step button, and the instrument button you want to start with — say Bass. Pressing one of the Tom buttons will now enter the relevant Bass drum pattern into the memory you've selected, (i.e. I for a simple 4/4 beat.) Repeat the procedure for each new instrument you want in the pattern. If there isn't an 'off-the-peg' part-pattern you want, enter your own in step time simply by selecting the appropriate voice, and then pressing the relevant numbered voice buttons which correspond to the beat you want. (i.e., if you wanted Snare on beat 2 of a 4/4 pattern, you'd select Snare, and then press 2, the Hi-hat accent button.) Combining the four time signatures with the 2nd Bar, and Triplet options allows a wide range of timings to be achieved.
Recording in Real Time is simply a matter of setting resolution, bar length etcetera, pressing Start/Stop, and playing in time to the metronome. Clear can be used to remove individual errors, whole instruments, or the entire piece, and your playing is auto corrected to the nearest 16th or 32nd note. Once all seven Composer memories (Max. capacity; 14 bars of 32nd notes) are full, you might wish to arrange a song.
This is done by entering Sequence mode (Record and Sequence), and pressing an awful lot of buttons. By now the conventions for this kind of thing are quite well established — select a rhythm, Preset or Composed, any variations, solos, tempo changes etcetera, the number of times it should play, rests... and on to the next bar! The Music Display window keeps you informed, and up to 98 bars can be stored - exceed that, and a buzzer lets you know you booboo-ed. Various standard options are on hand to make the process easier (No. of repeats, Continuous play or one shot,) and you can move back or forward through the sequence to an error and correct it. Complete songs can be dumped to optional 2 or 4 song plug-in cartridge (Costing a frightening £39.99 for a 2 song and £89.99 for a four song cartridge).
In addition to a standard MIDI Spec (including Omni mode), the SY-DP50 offers a rather interesting performance-orientated gimmick. If you put the machine in Solo mode whilst playing through a MIDI'd synth, a fairly straight variation of the current pattern is played until a note is sustained, or the keys released — the pattern will then 'come up' and solo until you start playing again — a feature which could lead to much more dynamic interaction between performer and machine than is usually the case.
A lot of thought has gone into making this machine an accessible, live performance tool, as the extensive foot control options, the 'performance response', and its sturdy construction indicate. The voices are adequate, if not startling, and there must be room on the market for a 'switch on and play' machine offering professional quality sounds to people with no great interest in drum programming. However, it's limited (1-song!) capacity, restrictive resolutions, criminal lack of a tape dump and ludicrously overpriced memory packs, at a time when Digital Drum prices are tumbling, will give it a rough ride in the market place.