Mammoth Electro Fest: Simmons' contender, the UP5, Yamaha's RX15 drum machine, new Digisound chips for the Drumulator, Quicksilva's Drumkit program for the BBC micro...
An electronic drum round-up looking at Ultimate Percussion's UP 5-kit, Yamaha's RX15 drum machine, Digisound's new Drumulator sound chips and Quicksilva's Drum Kit program for the BBC micro.
A couple of months ago, if your booze-befuddled brains can remember that far back, we took a look at M&A's electronic drum kit, the K2.
A couple of days ago, I ventured out into deepest Essex (and I do mean deepest... I fully expected a pony and trap to meet me at the station. The Transit which arrived was something of a disappointment), to check on latest developments with the K2, and to look up an exciting new product, the UP5 electronic drum kit.
The first important change is that M&A is no longer M&A! The mixers which established the company will continue to be made and serviced under the M&A masthead, but all future electronic percussion (including the restyled K2, the K2 X), will be products of Ultimate Percussion... hence, the UP5.
The K2, retailing at £799 for the most popular 7-drum set up, will remain Ultimate's main contender at the heavyweight end of the electronic percussion market, offering eight entirely independent and variable channels, which can be triggered either from the machine's accompanying pads, or from a wide range of external triggers (courtesy of an extremely broad-ranging trigger sensitivity control).
The restyled version, the K2 X, will offer the improved drum pads featured on the UP5, and a rationalised circuit board, its specifications in all other respects remaining as before. An eight-channel 'brain' must be purchased, but the number of accompanying pads is optional.
The UP5 kit I tried looked very smart, finished in black with chrome fittings, and the 'UP' logo screened in white on each of the familiar truncated-triangle pads, though the usual range of colours will be available on production models. The hardware employed for the UP5 is identical to that used for the K2 — custom Premier double tom stands, offering more solidity than you are ever likely to need, though you can opt for other brands of stand if you wish. Any capable of taking L-rods will do.
The four small pads mount on two of these stands, whilst the bass-pad is free-standing, anchored securely by twin struts that locate in the sides of the pad, together with spurs on the bass-pedal mounting plate. This arrangement showed itself capable of taking quite a kicking without resorting to running away.
The pads themselves are one of the big plus features of both the UP5 and the K2 X. The tom-stand L-rods enter into the side of the pad, and are secured by tightening a conventional drum bolt let into the top surface of the pad. (Its recessed 1 cm diameter is located at the edge of the pad, and does not interfere with playing in any way).
This arrangement permits easy adjustment of the pad from the top, and has the additional aesthetic advantage of keeping the underside of the pads free of nutboxes and the like.
Each pad features a rigid chrome rim, which, whilst not offering a rimshot sound of its own (though it is being looked into) offers at least psychological satisfaction during play. Perhaps miking the rims is the answer...
The big breakthrough is the playing surface itself. A slightly curved, flexible, thick rubber pad conceals UP's revolutionary 'floating' transducer, enabling the pad to imitate very closely the movement of a real drum head. Even the new Simmons rubber pads have their transducers mounted on inflexible plywood, making playing wearing after a time, but the UP5 avoids this problem altogether. Tension is not adjustable (as it is on Tama's new Techstar kit), but the 'bounce' is set at an acceptable level, making fast controlled rolls possible, and switching from the UP5 to acoustic drums much easier than has been the case in the past with electronic kits. One slight criticism is that the black rubber playing surface has a tendency to 'grip' the sticks on drags, making you work a bit harder, but it's something you get used to. The leads to each pad are lockable XLR's to jacks (control unit end) which locate at the side of each pad, well out of harm's way.
The pads of course, are only the front for the set-up... the Brain stays in the background... and in this case, Mr Big is deceptively small. The control module for the entire five-pad set-up is contained in a slim metal case measuring 4.5 x 8 x 45cms (H x B x L), finished in black with a two-tone green fascia... and the dimensions of a typical digital delay.
Controls are slightly on the understated side too; a simple level pot for each instrument, a master output level pot and mono/stereo selector button, a chunky on/off switch, and the mysteriously-labelled 'P.P.S.' section, consisting of a group of three buttons, labelled Decay, Noise and Pitch, all mounted on the front of the unit. The rear offers even less to look at — jack in sockets for each pad, a single jack out (Mono or stereo, headphone or amp compatible) and a fuse. That's your lot!
The basic sound of the kit (i.e. without the P.P.S. section) bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain hexagonal competitor. The by-now familiar deep, bludgeoning snare and penetrating toms came across very well through the Roland 40w Keyboard Cube amp, though the pitch of the bass drum was giving the speaker cone a hard time — adequate amplification is a must for doing justice to the powerful sounds of electronic percussion.
The P.P.S. section offers a limited degree of control over the basic preset sound. Each push-button can either be on or off, and may be combined with either of the other buttons, giving a total of eight combinations.
Decay cuts the (quite long) sound of the basic preset back to a very short, 'acoustic' length, allowing the UP5 to do a passable imitation of a real kit. Snare sounds particularly effective on this setting.
Noise adds noise to the toms (Snare always has it) making them more weighty and electronic.
Pitch raises the pitch of the initial drum note, allowing the sound to fall from there to the regular pitch — when used in conjunction with the usual decay and noise-supplemented toms, the effect is a very heavy, 'power-tom' feel.
As I said, any or all of these effects can be used at once, offering the player a limited but useful range of quickly selected sounds, as you can hear on the tape. It would have been nice if the P.P.S. section had been provided with L.E.D.'s, though, so that in a gig situation you could tell at a glance what the status of the system was.
The big plus of this system, however, lies not in its (admittedly excellent) sounds, but in its dynamic response. Unlike Simmons drums, which allow you to play up to a certain volume plateau and no more, the UP5 has a huge dynamic range, allowing you to build in volume from a quiet patering to a normal level, and still leave plenty of headroom for emphasis.
Coupled with the good pad response, and a triggering sensitivity capable of detecting even the last bounce of a buzz roll stroke, this makes the UP5 a far more playable proposition than most of its competition — as early customer Bogdon Viczung, Adam Ant's drummer, and a former Simmons man, has been discovering...
Some features aren't there that I would like to have seen — a separate snare out, for example — but the people at UP make the fair point that if you want more control, and more facilities, then the (more expensive) K2X is available.
The philosophy behind this unit was to provide drummers with a basic, no-nonsense kit capable of delivering a 'classic' electronic-sound, at relatively low cost. I think they have succeeded... If you want that sound, this is the best, and cheapest full kit which offers it.
The complete kit of control module, five pads, stands and leads is available at an RRP of £555, and should be in your shops now.
Further information can be obtained from Ultimate Percussion, (Contact Details)
The Drumulator has been around for almost two years now, and in that time it has established itself as one of the leading digital drum machines. With its recommended retail price only a fraction below £1,000 (and often selling for under £800), it has recently come upon strong competition from Sequential Circuits' Drumtracks and Yamaha's RX11. Both of these units also have digitally sampled sounds, the Drumtracks' sounds being tuneable and most of the RX11's sounds having several pitches from which to choose.
Yet over its brief history, the Drumulator has accumulated several optional modifications and accessories ranging from 'live' trigger pads and a Simmons interface to a MIDI retrofit and these DIGIdrum sound chips. (The only major update to the Drumulator's software has been a modification to its memory to hold 64 rather than eight songs as well as a memory protect function).
DIGIdrums are a Southern California-based company who produce these alternative sound chips for the Drumulator. At the time of writing, there were eight different sets of alternative sounds from which to choose. Labelled from N101 to N108, these are Electronic kits 1 and 2, Latin and African percussion, Rock drums, Analogue drums, Jazz drums and sound effects. These sounds sell for £225.00 the set, and to answer your next question — no, you cannot buy or replace the individual sounds, except for the crash cymbal which is available for £69.00 and can only replace the ride cymbal.
Each chip in the Drumulator contains the same amount of memory space as the next, however a crash cymbal needs (forgive the unintentional pun) more of a chip's memory capacity if it is to be of any decent length, and a clave or cowbell needs very little memory to store the full duration of the sound. Therefore, the Drumulator chips are allocated in such a way that the shorter sounds (such as clave and cowbell) share chips, and the longer sounds (crash or ride cymbals) have an entire chip to themselves. This is the main reason behind the 'why and wherefore' of complete sets of sounds having to be changed, rather than one at a time; the other reason being that there are certain sounds (the snare for example) whose samples actually overlap from one chip to another!
Changing chips in the Drumulator should only take a few minutes — the actual procedure is to remove the eight screws located around the base, lift away the base, remove the original sound chips (labelled A, B, C, D & P), install the new chips (labelled A101, B101 etc), and replace the base and eight screws.
Some of these sets of sounds have samples that use more memory space than the originals, in which case two or more sound buttons are assigned to the same sound. An advantage of this is that it will then be possible to program four different levels or more for the one sound which is occupying several sound buttons.
The beauty of this magazine being accompanied by a cassette is that I no longer have to labour to describe the sounds in words — have a listen to the tape yourselves and then decide whether you think the Drumulator is still a machine to be reckoned with. I certainly think it is.
A digital drum machine introduced at this stage of the game — after Hammond's economical DPM 48 (£699) and Syco's MFB512 (£350) — needs to be pretty damn good to avoid charges of being "too little, too late". Do Yamaha's two new machines — the RX15 reviewed here and the larger RX11 — pass this test? Well, perhaps surprisingly, the answer could well be yes, despite the fact that both machines use PCM sampling rather than the digital recording featured on the Drumulator, MXR, LinnDrum and top-selling Drumtrax.
The keynote of the RX machines is economy, hence the simpler PCM system and the fact that it's impossible to tune the drum sounds on the RX15.
The RX15 has 15 drum sounds controlled by 12 front panel push buttons. These are Rimshot, Toms 1-3, Hi-Hat Open and Closed, Ride Cymbal, Shaker/Cowbell, Clap, Crash Cymbal, Bass Drum and Snare Drum, with Hi-Hat Closing and a higher-tuned Snare hidden away. The pattern selector buttons have double or triple functions, with a single Incrementor slider making parameter changes as on the DX synths — if anything the control system seems unnecessarily complex, with the handbook being unfortunately formal and impenetrable. Still, the machine is exceedingly versatile and it's better to explain everything in detail than to leave the customer in the dark.
Basically there are three methods of pattern entry; Real Time, Step Time and Keyboard. Keyboard is a variation of Real Time which allows you to use the dynamics of a DX7's keyboard (for instance) to enter drum levels at the same time as drum beats rather than afterwards. A selection of keys towards the bottom of the DX keyboard control the drum sounds, and conversely you can feed the RX into the synth to make it act as a limited polysequencer. Step Time is the method more familiar to users of less expensive drum machines, but in the Yamaha's case the degree of resolution in either mode — up to 1/192 beats — is quite outstanding.
The RX15 has a slightly limited memory — 100 patterns but only 10 Song chains of 255 steps each — but all the usual editing facilities to copy and rearrange sections of songs are there. It's possible to alter the accuracy of a pattern to give a "human feel" or "Swing" as Yamaha refer to it, with all the resolution changes being made with two pink buttons marked +1 and -1 (No and Yes) as on the DX7. A 16-character LCD display every bit as obscure as that on the DX7 gives information on pattern or song number, tempo and other status information, with a changing display of pattern number when a song is running.
Back panel sockets are Left and Right Output, Headphones, Cassette In/Out, Footswitch Stop/Start and MIDI In/Out. The lack of individual outputs for the sounds is a disappointment corrected on the RX11, but it's difficult to see how a professional studio is going to use the RX15 without being able to Eq sounds individually. Because you can change the stereo pan position of every sound it's possible to isolate just one for special treatment, but then all the others would appear together at the other output — a peculiar decision even in the name of economy. It may well be possible to add your own individual outputs, but of course you'd be voiding your guarantee.
Another minor point is that the mains lead is fixed and the review model needed an adaptor of the kind used for electric shavers before it could be plugged in — unless you want to cut the welded two-pin plug supplied, off. Still, the DX7's mains lead is similarly fixed, which has always seemed odd for such a professional instrument.
The RX didn't seem particularly easy to operate at first, particularly since the handbook gives useful advice like "select the sound with Sound Select". What do you do with Sound Select? Shift it, use Function on it, or Inst Level, or the cryptically marked "Inst" button which has two other markings ("7" and "1/48" if you must know) as well? Still, prolonged exposure made everything easier, together with the spur of the amazing drum solo programmed at the factory. This makes full use of the RX's facilities, with very fast rolls in high resolution time, swelling dynamics, fast changes of instrumentation and stunningly life-like human touches.
The sounds themselves, apart from their lack of tuning variability, are very pleasing. The Toms are full but not overbearing, the Bass Drum is short and to the point, the cymbals are slightly truncated but don't cut out too suddenly - cerainly not to the extent where it would be noticeable in a pattern. The Clap is pretty standard (and doesn't sound any more or less like a sample of a real handclap than any other machine's), the Snare is very lifelike and the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the Ride Cymbal, which has plenty of stick noise for devastating realism. However, you're going to have to show some imagination on the mixing desk to avoid becoming over-familiar with these basic sounds — touches of reverb and effects will help a lot.
There are a few added facilities which will be appreciated, such as separate Start and Stop/Continue buttons instead of a simple Start/Stop, and of course the inclusion of MIDI is a massive bonus. On the other hand, there are some very annoying omissions — separate audio outputs being the most obvious, but a DIN sync socket for non-MIDI gear would also have been appreciated. Tape dump and sync facilities are pretty standard, with the bonus on the larger RX11 model only of RAM cartridge operation to load alternative sounds.
The best thing about the RX15 is its price — around £450 with any luck, which will knock much of the digital competition on the head. Inevitably the two Yamaha models are going to be massive sellers, and with their sleek black styling and relative versatility they're certain to turn up in many pro and semi-pro studios over the next few months, availability permitting. Yamaha deserve credit for successfully breaking into a market which had seemed swamped, and will certainly be able to sell more of these machines than Yamaha Japan will ever be able to deliver.
The BBC B's sound chip may not be as advanced as the Commodore 64's SID device, but it is certainly powerful enough to make it worthwhile exploring as a musical synthesiser.
Software company Quicksilva has already produced the Music Processor Program which we looked at in a previous issue. The latest product is Drum Kit, which turns your Beeb into a drum machine with some synthesis features.
The tape-based program offers four voices, each with programmable pitch, envelope and volume, plus accent. Sixteen beats can be handled at a time, but using a sensible "paging" system, up to 4,000 beats can be programmed.
The composition screen is well thought out, with five rows of 16 "switches", one for each instrument (snare, bass, electro, sticks), plus accent. Using the cursor keys an arrow-shaped indicator can be moved around these "switches", and pressing the RETURN key at the appropriate point activates a drum beat. Pressing it again switches the beat off. It's just like programming any conventional drum machine such as the TR-606, but you have a constant visual display of what's been programmed.
Additionally, should you want to enter beats in real time, pressing "T" gets you into Tap mode, where a note will be programmed for each beat in which you hit the T when the moving Conductor indicator is in place.
Incidentally, you'll certainly need a colour monitor, since "switches" change colour to indicate their status.
You can move on to another "page" of 16 beats by pressing the space bar, and the display tells you which page you are on and how many pages there are in your composition.
Programming the number of pages is done through the Values menu, which is entered by pressing ESCAPE. Here the tempo, number of bars, number of beats to the bar, and Start Bar can be determined, again by a very simple use of the cursor keys.
The VOLUME menu allows each instrument to have its volume set from 0-15. The page also gives access to the Envelope editor, which is one of Drum-Kit's major strengths.
The Envelope section allows the ADSR, start frequency, and various pitch values to be programmed for each sound. The basic sounds are very much what you'd expect from the Beeb — a reasonable white noise snare, synthi bass, a BADOOOO! electro-drum sound, and a VL-tone type Stick. All in all they're not going to be much of a substitute for a real drum machine, but with judicious use of the Envelope settings you can get some reasonable noises which could be acceptable in some circumstances.
Rhythms can be saved and reloaded, and very complex compositions built up using a Start Bar facility.
Overall DrumKit is a program which all musical Beeb owners will want to have. Although the capabilities of the Beeb's sound chip are limited, adding a line output and using judicious amounts of reverb or phasing could work wonders. Though it probably wouldn't be possible to sync the Drum Kit tempo to any other machine, it's nice to know that having shelled out £400 for the Beeb it can now earn its keep in the musician's household in yet another way.
Gear in this article:
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