Cheap and Tasty
Programmable Rhythm SR99
The EDC SR99 beat box
Sean Rothman tunes in to the latest budget rhythm box from Soundmaster
When Roland launched the Boss 55 Dr Rhythm back in 1979 they could hardly have expected it's impact. A simple rhythm box with four very basic voicings, the unit had twelve 16 step and four 12 step memories. At it's initial RRP of just under £100 it was a bargain and created a whole new market which of course attracted a host of imitations, not all of them inferior. Foremost of these was the Soundmaster SR88 which was also made in Japan but produced superior sounds whilst actually being slightly cheaper.
The brand name 'Soundmaster' is no more it would seem, although the company are still surviving only now they go under the catchy moniker of Electro Dynamics Corporation. The Programmable Rhythm SR99 shares an almost identical metal case with it's obsolete stablemate, the SR88, but has far greater capabilities. The unit is finished in all over black with dayglo orange, green and silver graphics which makes it look quite hi-tech and contemporary.
The sounds are the same as those found on the '88 — you can't expect a great deal from a beatbox in this price range and the '99 is no exception to this rule. The snare is very modern sounding, more like a clap than anything approaching a real drum. The bass shifts air but is too highly pitched to pin down a bass line. Hi-hat is the usual metallic sound — nothing like a real hi-hat but certainly usable. Cymbals are always the most difficult sound to synthesize (or sample) but the '99's is particularly poor, being merely a burst of white noise.
Programming is very easy and identical to the MFB 512/Dr 55/SR88. Patterns can obviously only be entered in step time, the 'start' and 'stop' buttons becoming 'beat' and 'space' respectively, when pattern write mode is engaged.
There are two rhythm modes. Version one has eight programmable channels, each of which has two bars, A and B. Each bar can be 8, 12, 16 or 48 steps in duration. Version two is totally independent from V1 and it contains three banks. Bank 1 contains factory presets encoded in ROM but is also user programmable. The manual is not clear on this point but as far as I could ascertain, Banks 2 and 3 are user programmable only. These facilities offer a total of 24 different rhythm patterns. A word of warning — according to the eight page owner's manual 'It is very important that the power switch is turned off when the version selector is used.' Mysterious — if there's any one out there who owns a SR99 and didn't do this, write and tell us what happened. Presumably the ROM is affected but I didn't try it to find out.
A fill-in can be programmed into bar B and this will play after 3, 7, 11 or 15 bars of bar A depending on the location of the fill-in selector. A rather nice array of orange, red and green LED's tells you whether you are in bar A, bar B or downbeat playback and these lights also serve a useful purpose when programming, informing you when you are starting and when you have finished programming your pattern. Like the Boss Dr 110, the eight programs can be chained, giving you up to 256 bars of continuous rhythm. This should be sufficient memory to store a complete song and at the SR99's price, this feature is incredible.
One unique feature of the SR99 is the ability to set the step selector separately for each individual sound. This means you could program, say, a bass and snare drum pattern with the step selector on 8 and then have 48 steps of hi-hat going berserk over the top! I think a lot of people are going to be interested in this machine for just this feature.
I have just bought a MFB digital machine but I still use my venerable Dr Rhythm as a master clock (as does Klaus Schulze!) and with the SR99's superior programming facilities it would be even better. For me, one of the annoying features of the Dr 110 is the omission of the clock out. The '99 retains both the '88's SQ and clock out, which is very useful.
The SQ is programmed in the cymbal mode (so the cymbal does have a use after all!), the cymbal being switched to the SQ output automatically when a 3.5 minijack is inserted. The clock out is the standard one pulse per step and the output voltage 5v 8mS which means it is able to drive most types of (non-MIDI) synthesizers.
The SR-99 serves as an excellent introduction to programming, is perfectly adequate for home demos and can still be a viable part of a serious electronic music studio long after you eventually upgrade.