D is for Drum
Digital Drum focus
Chris Everard dives in at the deep end to dissect some digital drum designs - decidedly devious, eh?
You probably never noticed, but nearly all the digital drum machines currently on the market are called something that starts with the letter 'D'. And what better reason for putting them together and compiling a comparative review. Which, despite an attack of acute alliteration aversion, is what we've done... now read on.
Soon to be distributed in the UK by Washburn is the new range of digital drum equipment from Dynacord. This is the company's first venture into the world of electronic percussion and when they unveiled their wares at the Frankfurt music show recently they took most of the industry by surprise.
The main new product will be the Dynacord digital drum kit which consists of an eight channel brain and matching pads. The pads themselves are pentagonal in shape — rather reminiscent of Simmons pads. They use tri-lock style stands and the overall construction looks very good indeed. The brain is strangely called the Percutor. It contains real drum sounds on 28pin chips which are interchangeable. Dynacord already have alternative chips available, these include 18 real drum sounds, nine cymbals, seven electronic sounds, plus 12 other assorted percussion effects. The Percutor can also be triggered from microphones and other trigger sources such as drum machines.
The Percutor will be interfaceable with Dynacord's 16tk digital sequencer, the Big Brain, which is capable of storing up to 50 songs or 32 sequences of 200 bars of 16 beats.
The Percutor and Big Brain package will offer quite powerful songwriting and performing facilities to the modern musician. Also, being an expandable system, obsolescence is one of the last things you'll have to worry about. Rumours say that the UK price will be about £1,200-£1,600 but only time will tell.
Other percussion products launched at Frankfurt from Dynacord included their 'ready to play' Digital hit modules. These look like FX pedals and can be linked to external pads. Each module has a drum sound stored on one chip, which on the UK models will undoubtedly be interchangeable with the same chips that the Percutor will accept.
The most important new product in this amazing launch was the Boomer or Boome digital sound sampling module — the pronunciation depends on who you wish to believe... Germans or British! This little unit will allow you to sample your favourite drum sounds and then link it up to a pad. The sound sampling time is very short, but you don't have to stop at putting just drums into the chip — how about a short scream or someone saying a word? This little module will open up a whole new world to drummers and percussion players alike. No RRPs have been mentioned so far — not in English, anyhow! Washburn hope to have all this new gear out by sometime in the Spring. How these new pieces of equipment will effect the rest of the electronic kits is hard to tell. Certainly I can't see the Simmons range being toppled very easily. One of the main drawbacks with the design approach Dynacord have taken, is that if a drummer wants to have more sounds on his kit, he has to have more pads as each module gives you access to only one sound which, as far as I know, cannot be edited in any way — it all depends what's on the chip contained in that particular module.
The E-mu Systems' Drumulator wa some of the first digital drum machines to smash the £1,000 barrier though it only just made it, with an RRP of £995. Also, this unit was perhaps the first digital to be widely available throughout the country. Being first doesn't always mean a product will be best of course, and the Drumulator missed out on some industry developments which have revolutionised the business — one of which being MIDI. Because things progress so quickly and new ways are adopted so readily in the electronic music field, certain products which lack important, recent features are usually shunned and die a thousand deaths. Luckily, this fate hasn't befallen the Drumulator, as it possesses other features that the market desires in its own particular price range. Having said this though, I sincerely believe that if the Drumulator had been released later than it was and still didn't have a MIDI port, this — coupled with the fact that it didn't have a very large song memory to begin with — would have undoubtedly stopped the unit from doing anything in this country at all.
However, now that there has been a chip update to increase its memory and new sound chips have been devised, the Drumulator will live quite happily next to the MIDI equipped machines that followed not far behind. The machine employs a form of DACS (digital access control system), and many of the buttons have dual function capability, some with four commands.
It has an LED display and a multi function slider. Only four drum sounds can be programmed at any one time, which is fine for 99% of most applications — but the odd 1%, like Samba beats and Beguine rhythms require command of about seven or so different drum timbres all at once, to get the right flow and feel. Anyhow, once you've partly written the rhythm, going as far as you can using the first four drum sounds (bass, snare and open and closed hi hat seem to be the best four to start with), you then re-assign a different sound to each button until the rhythm is complete. The Drumulator has exceedingly good editing facilities which make adjustments to patterns after they've been written very easy. For people who haven't got the knack of putting the information in just right, there's an auto correct facility which moves 'hits' that are between beats to the nearest one. This operation usually kills all intentional off-beats stone dead — either that or 'correcting' what 'human' feel there is.
The sounds on the Drumulator are very good, especially the snare and toms. There are basically 12 separate sounds which can be accented to give different timbres. Memory allocation, is 64K, and this is about average. Tempo is variable from 40 to 240 beats per minute.
Although, as I mentioned earlier, the Drumulator doesn't include MIDI in its spec sheet, other backpanel ports have been provided, including several phono sockets which, for the home recordist and the professional recording engineer is Heaven and Hell respectively! One of these phonos is a clock/cas out port, which will drive most popular sequencers (1 volt/oct.) at six beats per quarter note. However, the Drumulator doesn't provide the 10 volt level which certain sequencers (the Roland TB303, for example) need to tell them when to stop/start and reset. Most arpeggiators are no problem though, and the hefty manual gives pages of advice on various interfacing. The Drumulator can also sync to its own pulse code off tape which is essential for studio recording nowadays.
The Drumulator is a good machine, which can be relied upon to come up with good sounds and to behave itself on stage too. If it had MIDI and tuning flexibility, it would be a great machine. Emulator II? Drumulator II too, please!
Like the Drumulator, the Oberheim DX has the curse of being thrust upon the professional recording/performing market without MIDI and with a price tag of just under a thousand quid. Still, I won't beat about the shrub — let's get straight on with it.
First of all, the Oberheim DX has a tuning facility for each of its six channels, which increases the number of sounds you can produce with the unit considerably, for instance, a deeply pitched crash and tom struck together will do a very good impersonation of a large Chinese gong. The same applies to open hi hats, which when detuned can pass for a second or third cymbal, albeit rather strange. The bass, snare and cymbal channels each contain three variations on the same sound — soft, medium and loud (volume). The remaining channels are; toms hi, medium and low, hi hat closed, open and accent and finally, the last channel is called perc and has two different shakers and claps. This last channel represents one of my biggest grumbles about the DX — who needs two different kinds of shaker for Christ's sake? A cowbell would be much more useful.
The DX has a 64K memory and the samples are very good. I couldn't work out whether all the toms had been tuned and committed to memory from the same sample, I would say that with only 64K to muck around with, the three variations are taken from just the one sample, though of course, I could be mistaken. The DX uses real time programming and there's a built-in metronome awaiting for you.
Each of the instrument channels has a volume slider, which you can use to fade-in and fade-out certain instruments — this has several advantages when recording and doing live work. I must point out that the DX's tuning ability isn't assigned, or for that matter, assignable to separate instruments within a channel — the pot on the back panel to each channel tunes all the samples contained therein — annoying eh?
Control layout is very good and the design features the same graphics as the rest of the Oberheim range. Internal and external construction is nice and solid, with those inevitable 'real simulated wood' cheek panels. Each group channel has got its own output, which isn't the way it should be, but at least the sounds — except on channel 6 — are in the same tone field, even though getting a decent Eq on a hi and low tom through the same input channel on a mixer isn't easy at all — time for the old graphic!
The DX can do any time signature, including swing for which it has a function dedicated button. All program information and editing is done via the ten digit numerical keypad to the right of the front panel. You can keep tabs on what's going on inside by calling up information to be displayed in the LED display.
Like the Drumulator, the DX has accuracy settings which 'move' beats which are slightly out to the nearest one. The DX has eight programmable accuracy settings which can be individually selected between programming different voices. For example, if you want a bass drum on every beat, then you'd record it using a very low correction setting, making sure it doesn't get 'moved' — however, a hi hat pattern using triplets will require you to use probably the highest setting so that it is positioned correctly on top of the previously recorded pattern. The DX has a 'quantize' control which handles this. The Oberheim DX offers good quality sounds and reasonable versatility in a well constructed box. For me, the toms and the bass were the best samples, though they all deserved an award for crispness. Taking into account that it can sync to its own tape pulse, the DX is a unit which I would highly recommend you try out before spending any cash.
The Dr Bohm digital drum machine is certainly a strange kettle of fish. It's the only digital drum machine that I know of which contains preprogrammed rhythms — it has 36 of them, and each rhythm has its own fill. They take on the usual form of manufacturers' design, very much in the 'cha cha cha' and 'tango', 'foxtrot' ilk, which obviously makes the Dr Bohm a contender for the upper end of the home organist market where units sell for two and three thousand pounds a piece, although this isn't directly related in the Dr Bohm's price tag. It has two — price tags that is! RRP of £963 factory assembled and just £699 for the kit.
I've been told that the machine shouldn't take more than 20 hours to build and most of this looks as if it would be spent positioning and fine-point soldering ICs to the current-boards. I definitely wouldn't recommend that a novice or someone without a lot of soldering experience tackle the job of constructing the Dr Bohm — not because of the complexity involved, but the amount of money!
Each of the 36 preset rhythms and fills can be edited by using the individual instrument volumes, also each fill can be made to last for two bars. Once you're happy with the style of rhythm that you've created, you can store it in one of the memories. The Dr Bohm can also be programmed from scratch like any other programmable drum machine.
The control layout is a bit confusing, with lots of buttons having dual function capability, though this is very common on drum machines now. The Dr Bohm isn't particularly pretty — the Hunchback of Notyerdrum! They've opted to use a few different styled buttons and rotary knobs that don't 'go' together. Still, looks aren't everything and it's the sound capabilities which are the most important feature of any digital drum machine.
In all, there are 44 instrument sounds at your fingertips, this — by anyone's standards — is a lot, and will undoubtedly be the biggest attraction to potential buyers. Although there has been a lot of doubling — or even tripling up on certain sounds there is still a large selection of completely different sounds available, including tambourine, maracas, bongos, clave, cowbell, congas and even a woodblock — which is a very useful sound to have indeed. Overall, the sounds that the Dr Bohm produced were very good, with the toms being very pleasant and the snare having just the right qualities. None of the sounds were deplorable and — used in the right context — all had a good cutting quality, without sounding 'disjointed' in relation to one another.
You can program 36 different rhythms yourself, each with its own fill, drum break and two or four bar solos. These are stored under the names of the eighteen dual function preset rhythm buttons. Rhythms that you make up yourself can be up to 32 bars in length with a maximum of 64 beats per bar. You can program the digital drums in real time or in step time, which is a very good design feature. When programming in real time you select the time signature — you have the choice of 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 12/8, 5/4 and 7/4 — set the metronome going (which is the clave) and 'play' the instrument buttons. Editing programs on the Dr Bohm is quite straightforward — but like all things in this field, it takes a little time to get used to the editing procedures. The standard Dr Bohm possess just a left and right output, and one for headphone monitoring too, but for another £9 you can have eight extra outs put onto the back panel. I'd strongly recommend doing this if you wish to use this machine for any serious recording. A tape interface in a five pin din configuration to allow tape-sync and memory dump is also available priced at £51.
You wouldn't think Hammond were the kind of people who make a habit of releasing something aimed at the semi-pro/pro end of the market would you? Well, they have, only thing is, it's not a semi-pro or pro price tag — just £699 inc VAT.
The Hammond DPM-48 is a handsome beast with an impressive list of specs to match. It has all the usual features that you find on a digital drum machine, such as LED display, numerical key pad and 'tap' buttons for each instrument — and the layout and design are superb. It claims to have 22 separately recorded drum sounds and with 84K of memory — which is on average, at least 20K above the rest of the competition — who's arguing?
Without boring you to tears going through the sounds one by one, I'll give you a guided tour of this particular department. You've got four differently pitched toms although you can only play two at a time due to the time sharing principle. These sounds seem to suffer from slight quantisation noise, but it's nothing that can't be got rid of in the mix. There are three variations of bass drum available, three snares (all good), hi-hat closed, hi- hat open and accent, a very strange clap, two cabasas, rim shot and a couple of agogos (yes — agogos!). As I said, the toms are quite dirty in comparison to the rest of the sounds which are very crisp and 'edgy'. I wouldn't class any of the sounds as unusable — and I think at this price the selection is amazing.
Programming can be done in real time or in a step mode, which is very handy. Editing too is also very easy and quick to do. Having a colour coded display of buttons is extremely helpful when you're getting to know the machine. It has the usual programming form of turning patterns in chains to form songs. You can store up to 48 patterns with 32 events in each one. You can program any time signature you want and there's a button which divides beat into either a 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6, 1/8, 1/12, 1/16, 1/24 and 1/32 — demi-semi quaver. You can also determine on what step you wish a measure to end. To make things easier, it has a built-in metronome. You've also got a main tempo knob with fine tune beside it — very good.
The DPM-48 doesn't have cassette dump facilities but you can put all the information stored in the machine onto an ultra reliable RAM-pack.
However, this can only store 2K and therefore the DPM-48 will only give you access to three songs at a time, so having a library of RAM-packs is essential, though you need to turn the machine off when changing and this could be a headache on stage.
The Hammond has grouped outputs for voices — eight of them — and at this price, I'm not complaining! It also has the din sync in/out sockets that Roland and Korg have used in the past. There is a 12 pin 'D' type connector as a trigger input — does the MXR have these too? You can also have footswitch control of the run/stop button and also a rhythm break footswitch can be attached to back panel for 'lengthening' songs — rather like the Drumulator. Each sub group out has its own volume slider and there are also mono, stereo and headphone sockets.
I cannot be certain whether or not the 22 sounds are all definitely separate samples but in any event, the DPM-48 delivers the goods all the way. A larger memory update would be nice to see in the future, for machine and RAM-pack alike! At this sort of price, I have no grumbles and it certainly is great value for money — well done Hammond!
The Drumtraks is one of the newest MIDI equipped digital machines on the market. It should cost around £950 inc VAT and is being promoted by SCI along with the MIDI Six-Trak polyphonic keyboard. The control layout is very good, and has the same styling as the rest of the Sequential Circuits products, ie the Prophet 5, 10 and 600. The controls are made up of 15 assigned to each of the 13 sounds and two for run/stop and accent respectively. It has four rotary knobs and seven smaller scale push buttons. In the centre of the front panel you have the numerical key pad and LED display.
The Drumtraks has 13 sounds and in comparison with other units on the market in this price range, it doesn't initially look like value for money. However, the Drumtraks has a programmable tuning facility which will enable the user to program different pitches of the same sample within the same pattern — the toms for instance are tuneable over 15 increments (as are the rest of the voices) so you can incorporate a fill in a pattern using just one of the tom buttons that will sound like someone hitting 15 toms in series! This feature is incredibly useful and gives the unit a big advantage over the rest of the competition. The individual volume of each sample is also programmable, which gives you the ability to program echo effects using gradually fading increments in volume as the sample repeatedly appears. There is also an independent accent control for each voice which adds further to the 'feels' which can be created on this machine.
The Drumtraks uses the now very common digital access control system (DACS) — or at least a form of it. Each drum sound is edited by depressing the instrument button and rotating the required knob — the LED display gives you all the information you need to make the right adjustments. Programmed volume and tuning changes take up space in the memory, so to stop you from running out of space while putting your masterpiece together, the red LED display shows a percentage of what memory you have left. The overall memory capacity is 3289 notes. You can program up to 100 measures, in any time signature, and then compose 100 songs using any combination of measures. The Drumtraks has a back up memory system, which uses a battery that they claim has a ten year life.
The sounds are good, with the toms and the claps being very lifelike indeed. If you detune the claps you get what some people call 'gorilla' claps, which are commonly used in discos. Although there are two tom buttons, there is in fact only one tom sample inside the Drumtraks. This means they both have the same tuning ranges, which is a bit silly really. The toms are the CS head type, Afro sound, which seems to be the most widely used tom sound nowadays. The tambourine is very weak — but then again, it is a very fair representation of the Salvation Army's favourite instrument. I like the Phil Spector tambourine sound — full of guts! The sounds that the Drumtraks can produce are clean and extremely useful — I'd say that they were better on average than the Oberheim DX.
Interfacing the Drumtraks using the MIDI is very easy. One way to speed up the real time programming of the Drumtraks is to link it to a velocity sensitive keyboard such as the Prophet T8 or Roland's new MKB1000. This means that you're able to control the tuning and amplitude of every beat quickly and easily, without having to stop and re-tune instruments in the record mode to get variations. Of course, soon there will be pad controllers for MIDI equipped machines. One of the other silly things on the Drumtraks is that it has grouped outputs, similar to the DX from Oberheim. On the back panel you have just six separate jack outputs for the sounds. Channel one is the bass drum, Ch. 2 = snare and rim shot, Ch. 3 = the two toms, Ch. 4 = crash and ride cymbals, Ch. 5 = open and closed hi hat and finally, Ch. 6 is for tambourine, cabasa, cowbell and aforementioned claps. It can conveniently sync to its own tape click and also has an audio out jack.
The biggest advantage with the Drumtraks is that it will take Linn chips — so you can swap sounds at will. I'm going to buy one!
Gear in this article:
Feature by Chris Everard