Electronic Percussion System
Marketed in the US as E-Drums, these Swedish-built percussion units combine high quality digital samples with immense constructional sturdiness. Dan Goldstein again.
They're DDrums in Europe and E-Drums in the States, but either way, these digitally-sampled percussion modules sound pretty impressive. Dan Goldstein
There can be no denying that digital technology is about to have a drastic effect on the way modern drummers play and sound - if it hasn't done so already. Digital drums enable the advantages of analogue electronic percussion - instantly-repeatable, easily-recorded sounds at a fraction of an acoustic drum kit's setting-up time - to be enjoyed without making analogue's sonic sacrifices. In other words, with digital, you can sound how you like, where you like, when you like. Or so the theory goes.
The DDrum originates in Sweden, of all places, where engineer Hans Nordelius has been busy getting the best out of standard, commercially-available EPROMs and where they are manufactured by one Greg Fitzpatrick. In the meantime, the Swedes have entered into an agreement with E-mu Systems in the States, whereby the latter company has the sole rights to manufacture and distribute Nordelius' design and market it as the E-Drum. However, since no E-Drums will be appearing in the UK, it's probably safe to confine our attention to the Scandinavian variant.
Each DDrum unit is sold with one sound EPROM of the buyer's choice, of which there are some 39 from which to choose - but more about those later. Each unit has a series of front panel controls, these being concealed under a metal lip at the bottom of each pad out of harm's way, though fortunately the corresponding legend for each control is screen-printed on a flat surface at the top of the pad.
The controls are pitch (continuously variable over one octave), sensitivity (just about anything from finger to stick response), pitch sensitivity (whereby pitch can be made to lift depending on how hard the pad is struck), decay (continuously variable from 50mS to the maximum length available on the cartridge being used), and active bass and treble EQ controls. In addition, two pushbuttons take care of sound selection, as some DDrum EPROMs have two or four sounds, depending on the amount of memory space taken up by each sample.
The back panel contains DC mains connections (several DDrum modules may be powered from one mains source by daisy-chaining units together in series), external trigger and CV inputs, the audio out connector, and the all-important cartridge bus connector. Now, I must say the DDrum solution to the problem of how to protect sound chips from the ravages of being transferred from storage to triggering module and back again is just about the most elegant I've seen. Each EPROM is encased in a light, black-painted plastic cartridge box - small enough to be carried around by the dozen yet strong enough to withstand all but the worst rigours of life on the road/in the studio. What's more, changing cartridges takes all of about five seconds, I should think, which is pretty quick by anyone's standards.
DDrum cartridges come in three guises: 'B' cartridges, which use 16K EPROMs, 'C' cartridges (32K) and 'D' cartridges (64K), though none of the last-mentioned variety are yet in production. 'B' cartridges are used for the vast majority of samples in the DDrum library, the only exceptions being the orchestral tymp and large gong sounds, which are on Cs.
The 'B' EPROMs give a maximum sample length of 0.6 seconds - not quite long enough to capture the last decaying nuance of sound generated by some percussion instruments (most notably cymbals), but on the other hand, judicious use of the decay control can bring any side-effects down to manageable proportions.
One of the most attractive aspects of the DDrum system is the sheer variety of percussion samples on offer. At the time of writing, these include no fewer than eight different toms, a similar number of cymbals, five snares (with rimshot being an alternative sample on two of them - a nice, logical touch), and a selection of more off-the-wall sounds such as elephant bells, pistol shots and even a bass tone from a Yamaha grand piano.
"The range of available samples includes a selection of off-the-wall sounds such as elephant bells, pistol shots, and even a bass tone from a Yamaha grand piano."
And according to Mark Hickling, DDrums' European marketing manager, the company's engineers are at this very moment working on more samples to expand the range even further. These will include plenty of Latin and ethnic percussion voices, as well as some 'industrial' (for want of a better word) samples such as hammers hitting garbage containers and so-called 'mystery sounds'. The percussionist's mind boggles.
As far as sound quality goes, I can only report that - the odd slight decay time problem excepted - the DDrum samples are some of the best I've yet heard. As I mentioned in last month's Trade Show report, some of the drum voices were recorded with the aid of digital reverberation equipment, which certainly adds a feeling of space to, say, Simmons toms, but even samples that were recorded dry have an uncannily realistic quality about them: all in all, they turn the DDrums into highly desirable units.
The standard bass drum cartridge contains four different (and all highly usable) samples, from a Ludwig 22" acoustic kickdrum to a sampled Linn voice - essentially a sample of a sample, but it sounds great! A conventional-looking bass drum pad, complete with stand and suitable pedal, is available as an option. Meanwhile, some of the less commonly-used percussion voices (the ethnic samples, for instance) look set to add spice to many a drummer's sonic vocabulary, and although the looping techniques employed to obtain the gong sample's seven-second decay time are audibly apparent, many people will still consider its use preferable to carrying around a 16' diameter version of the real thing.
Cost of one DDrum unit in the UK is expected to be in the region of £295, including a 'B' cartridge of your choice, a mounting bracket, and full instructions, while additional 'B' cartridges will be about £59 each, 'C' variants £145. Now whichever way you look at them, those prices are not cheap, but although the cost of one unit is certainly a little on the excessive side, the EPROMs aren't too bad considering the drastic fluctuations in chip supply rates that most of 1984 has witnessed.
In addition to the extensive and expanding range of factory-sampled voices, the Swedes are also in the process of offering a custom recording service that'll enable owners to have a recording of their own percussion sound sampled onto EPROM for about £60, though DDrums are reserving the right to reject users' own samples on sound quality grounds. An exchange service is also in operation whereby if a DDrum owner gets bored with a particular sample, he/she can send it back to Sweden and get a new one put in its place for something like £15, which can't be bad.
Although a complete 'kit' comprising six or more DDrum modules may be beyond the financial reach of many people (though they'll doubtless be of interest to studios and the like), it shouldn't be too long before a number of drummers start adding the odd module or two to complement their existing set-up, especially as changing sounds in a live situation is so straightforward.
In that context, the DDrums are both a revolution and a revelation. Roll on those mystery sounds.
Review by Dan Goldstein
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