Drum Machine Survey
A subjective and selective round-up of drum machines, old and new, by Mark Jenkins.
Mark Jenkins surveys the drum machine market, from old favourites to exciting newcomers...
Any survey which doesn't claim to be comprehensive has to be, to some extent, subjective; and this one is no different. We don't claim to have covered every drum machine past and present here, since there have probably been at least a hundred models available over the years.
But some of the older machines - such as the Roland TR808, ever-ready standby of the soul and electro crews - do stick in the memory, whereas some from the more recent past - such as the Linn 9000 and Sequential Drumtraks - have to be mentioned despite the fact that they are, sometimes surprisingly, discontinued.
So what we present here is a round-up of the machines we think you ought to know about. All of them have their good points, some have their weak points, but most of them are likely to turn up in the studio armoury of one band or another.
We've arranged the machines in price bands, but some may have secondhand 'target' prices if the machine has been discontinued. Some of the newer units mentioned haven't been reviewed in detail by anyone in the UK yet, so prices may be subject to confirmation. Prices and main features are summarised in the table at the end.
The good old Drumatix-battery-powered, reasonable sounds (apart from the toms maybe), easy to programme patterns but a little harder to chain songs. Very educational thanks to the one-button-per-beat programming method, and still widely used for basic song demos. A multiple output modification is available from various independent companies.
The CR78 was the first semi-programmable drum machine and served well on John Foxx's Metamatic album. The CR68 and CR70 models were preset but shared interesting features such as the 'metal beat' accompaniment; sync facilities limited, but Phil Collins has been known to use a CR machine too.
A drum sample convertor cartridge with composer software for the Commodore 64 micro, and an outstanding bargain for those who already own the micro, although the single output limits its studio use.
Sometimes marketed under the Stix or EDC brand names, these two models are simple analogue-sound machines with useful clock outputs for driving older synths and sequencers. The larger ST-305 model had separate outputs, the SR-88 a programming method identical to that of the very first Boss Dr Rhythm.
The updated Dr Rhythm had manually playable analogue sounds with a good clap, an LCD display showing one sound at a time, a combination of preset and programmable patterns, and a very limited sync function consisting of a pulse output from the Accent setting. Still handy for quick demos though.
By far the most compact digital drum machines yet marketed, the DR220 models resemble nothing more than a foot ruler with a built-in calculator! Their sounds belie their diminutive size though - the acoustic drums of the A model are powerful enough, but the E model's electro voices are particularly impressive. A little short on sync facilities, but otherwise excellent value for money, each machine has 11 sounds, an LCD display, battery power, 32 preset and 32 programmable patterns and 8 songs.
One of the success stories of 1986, and more of a cut-down TR707 than a built-up Dr Rhythm. A large number of sounds combining the best of standard and Latin elements, LCD programming, advanced MIDI and much more.
Various independent companies are fitting separate outputs, which help to make the TR505 astonishingly powerful in the studio.
The first drum machine to introduce budget user-sampling with an impressive specification and enormously simple operation. One user memory, which can be divided into four short sections, dump to tape for both samples and patterns, separate outputs and mixing sliders, and decent factory sounds. A winner.
The first drum machine to use outboard memory (in the form of a ZX81 micro), the MPC was bulky (due to its large built-in playing pads) and disappointed by having analogue sounds. Useful in its way though, and father of the MPC SyncTrack which allows DIN Sync machines to lock to tape.
The paperback-sized RX21 and its Latin percussion mate lack tuning facilities, but can be played 'live' from programming pads, have MIDI and a good LCD display, and combine preset and programmable patterns in an intelligent way. Very easy to use, very high sound quality, very compact.
A brave attempt to enter the digital drum machine market, but one foiled by the lack of MIDI, small memory (only four songs, and those had to be kept on an external cartridge) and non-appearance of alternative sounds and a promised drum pad interface. Lots of good onboard sounds though, and available secondhand at bargain prices.
Roland's TR707 and Latin companion the 727, completed the job begun by the TR909 by having completely digital sounds together with a comprehensive display, individual outputs and level controls, MIDI with dynamic response, cartridge loading, 'live' playing pads, auto-correct, flam and shuffle. The Latin sounds are impressive, particularly the congas, and it's just a pity the sounds can't be individually tuned or swapped. Great favourite though.
An all-time classic which was about to be left behind by advancing technology until electro music rejuvenated its popularity. Although the weak synthetic bass and toms can be frustrating, the clap sound is much-copied and the TR808 can still be heard clacking away on scores of hit albums and singles. Separate outputs and lots of trigger options help.
The TR909 didn't live up to the reputation of the TR808 despite having an LCD display and digital cymbals. It was fairly rapidly replaced by the superior TR707, but could still come in handy today.
The cheapest digital drum machines of their time, the DDM110 and Latin version lack MIDI and have Korg 48ppqn sync, but are otherwise good value at present secondhand prices. Their sounds are rather clipped and benefit from reverb - some companies can add separate outputs which make this easier.
Another parson's nose on the scale of the Roland TR909, the KPR was ahead of its time and again suffered from a lack of digital sounds. Several good ideas including auto-flam, duplicated buttons for programming rolls, and stereo panned sounds, but again in need of some help from reverb to thicken sounds.
Uses sounds from the DDM110 (bass, snare, tom, hi-hat, cymbal and clap), eight song capacity with backing chords, arpeggios and bass line, a maximum song length of 1280 bars, and pre-programmed patterns from disco to heavy metal. Not many of them in studios nowadays though, since they were mainly intended for the cabaret circuit.
Once the cheapest digital drum machine about, housed in a plastic DIY-type box covered with toggle switches, featuring what sounded like Drumulator samples and a TR808 clap. Difficult step-time only programming and binary selection, but had separate outputs and a surprisingly powerful sound.
Unreviewed at the time of writing, the Siel drum machines sold through Chase are partly preset. There are several interesting facilities though - built-in gating, front panel touch trigger, interlinkable stereo outputs, multiple audio outputs, trigger outputs and spike suppression to avoid accidental triggering. Worth checking out.
Features include touch-sensitive pads, 24 tunable voices, 100 songs, 100 patterns, 10 chains, plus left/right pannable outputs as well as eight separate audio outputs and an advanced MIDI specification. Extensive sync facilities and additional RAM cartridge storage all make the R100 definitely one to lookout for in 1987.
One of the success stories of 1986, the DDD-1 offers touch-sensitive pads, optional user-sampling, ROM card alternative sounds and RAM card memory dump as well as tape and MIDI dump. Separate outputs as well as programmable stereo outputs, powerful sounds with programmable tuning, decay and volume, advanced MIDI specification, two user sample locations, Poly mode for overlapping sounds, auto-roll, flam and much more combine to create a powerful machine which is not too difficult to use. The main problem is that samples are only held in memory for about ten days; but all those separate outputs and sound editing capabilities make for some fearsome possibilities in the studio.
Elka have three new drum machines in the Drumstar range, which are partly preset. Unreviewed as yet, they promise a good compromise between simplicity and power.
Very much the professional user's drum machine, the RX11 offers multiple outputs, pattern dump to RAM cartridge, 22 sounds, a more comprehensive LCD display than the RX15, and so on. Sounds can be tuned and programmed in real or step-time, but as with all the RX machines you can't change sounds. A little time spent on the mixing desk with the separate outputs should give more variation.
PCM-based, the DP50 offers 25 sounds, of which only half can be used to compose your own patterns. The other half are more exotic Latin percussion sounds which only play in the preset patterns, of which there are astounding numbers, since the DP50 is mainly intended for the home organ market. There are no complex song composition facilities (seven 'files' of up to 32 measures long are available), but there are four preset patterns for every instrument which you can use and build upon if you like them. Sound quality is very high but the MIDI facilities are limited and the introductory price was quite high.
Again, aimed at the organ market, a sophisticated sampled drum machine sometimes available in kit form and used by German synth bands such as Tangerine Dream and You. 24 sounds and a selection of pre-programmed patterns, but difficult to use and lacking in interfacing capabilities.
Overall the best value drum machine the world has ever seen to date, and an enormously versatile studio instrument. Every sound can have its own pitch and level on every beat, so 32-tom rolls are easy and the crash cymbal can become a gong or a dinner tray with equal ease. Sound chips can be changed for any one of a vast selection available through various sources, and six audio outputs make EQ easy.
The slight limitations are that you can't pan the toms apart (unless you load an alternative tom sound into one of the percussion slots) and reports have been heard of memory being quickly eaten up when programming complex tuned patterns from a MIDI synth (possible only with updated software - a memory expansion is available from the USA).
But swing mode, auto-correct, programmable tempo and tempo change, pattern and song editing, tape dump and advanced MIDI, combine to make the Drumtraks an all-time classic which should be snapped up at all costs if you're lucky enough to be offered one secondhand.
A precursor of the Drumtraks but with several limitations - good digital sounds but non-tunable individually, although you can raise and lower the pitch of the whole kit slightly. Alternative sound chips are scarce, and the inability to step from one pattern to the next without stopping during composition is annoying.
No MIDI, but tape dump and a separate metronome output, so secondhand models could be a bargain.
Monsters with a built-in monitor screen, the Movement drum machines were favourites with Eurythmics and The Thompson Twins and combined digital with analogue sounds. Not easy to use though, constantly being updated and apparently unreliable - but they could double as word-processors!
Surprisingly discontinued, but with an advanced specification including eight sounds with sets of seven more on ROM, each sound with programmable level, tuning and pan on every beat.
Other features include programmable tempo and tempo changes, reversed sounds, full step-time or real-time composition and editing, built-in flanging, full MIDI control of pitch, volume and forward/reverse mode from a synth keyboard, programmable footswitch control, sub-song composition for jamming, programmable random improvisation patterns, full tape dump and sync, and soon.
Simple stereo outputs and the sound cartridges are expensive, but a superb machine for demos.
Now ageing a little but with MIDI available, highly popular in the US with lots of alternative sounds, but a little limited without programmable tuning and so on. Various versions still doing the rounds with different song capacities and software updates, MIDI and DIN sync options, and some very powerful facilities such as live 'jamming', advanced editing, auto-correct and so on.
For around £1000 the new RSF from France offers 14 user-sampling locations, 14 built-in drum sounds and a very advanced MIDI spec. We haven't looked in detail at one yet but we've heard one and it sounds awesome! A great contender for '87.
A slightly cut-down version of Oberheim's DMX which ends up providing better value for money. Fewer sounds, but versatile and fat sounding, with a good selection of three snares, three cymbals, three bass drums and so on. The Stretch adds four more banks of sounds to the DX and gives it MIDI and increased synchronisation capabilities, which could make all the difference.
The original sampled drum machine and as such a collector's item. Its sounds are a little cliched now but new chips take care of that, while in the US the JL Cooper MIDI update brings the Linn into line with more modern machines.
Initial limitations included simple left or right selection of panning, no tempo display in Run mode, no adjustment for accent level, and limited memory. But software and hardware updates including a 2.5 times memory expansion did away with many of these problems before the LM-1 was superceded by the LinnDrum.
Basics such as auto-correct and real-time programming with a metronome all started with this machine though, and you'd still expect to pay a high price for a secondhand LM-1.
Intended to combine the best of an electronic kit, a drum machine and a SMPTE unit, the Inpulse was a long time coming and slightly missed the boat. Its eight large pads can access either standard sounds or user-sampled sounds loaded from tape, each with control of pitch, decay up to 14 seconds and level. The left-hand panel deals with output panning, the centre section deals with programming, recording and loading data. The Inpulse has SMPTE synchronisation for professional film and TV work and sound quality is very high, so you might find a bargain price on it these days. Bill Nelson swears by his.
Always a little expensive in the UK, the DMX has massive memory capability, comprehensive editing, versatile combinations of step and real-time recording with auto-correct, multiple outputs and very high quality sounds which can be changed by adding new chips to the circuit cards. Pre-MIDI though, and so losing out a little to the MIDI opposition despite its versatile LED display. Favourite of Police's Stewart Copeland and ideally matched to the DSX Sequencer.
The successor to the LM-1, now discontinued due to the demise of Linn but still well supported. A little on the expensive side, but benefitting from several updates including step time compositional software. A vast library of alternative chips available, and facilities include dump to cassette, auto-correct, tape sync, clock in and out, stereo panning of sounds and individual tuning (non-programmable). Basic sound quality is very high and like the LM-1 you'd expect to pay a high price for a secondhand model.
Again discontinued, and rather more than a drum machine since it also featured a 32-channel SMPTE-reading MIDI sequencer. The 13 drum sounds are operated from velocity and pressure-sensitive rubber pads, and the 9000 had full MIDI, programmable triggers, tape sync and tape/disk dump of both sounds and sequences, realtime recording (step-time as well on the final version), optional user-sampling, programmable drum repeats and much more.
However, the 9000 was the machine that finished off Linn as a company - it was so riddled with bugs that users are now keeping in touch with each other as much out of anxiety as chumminess. A great machine if you can keep it working.
One of the most popular pro machines at the moment, particularly in the US, the SP-12 can use eight user samples totalling five seconds of recording time, plus 24 factory sounds which are exceedingly bright and life-like. It uses velocity-sensitive programming pads plus multiple function sliders which can mix the sounds, or set alternative tunings or alternative levels for one sound.
Full MIDI, sound and pattern dump to disk or tape, real-time and step-time recording, auto-correction and editing are featured, and the helpful LCD display acts as a bar graph for tunings, as a sampling input level meter, and much more. The original basic SP-12 offered 5,000 beats recording and 1.6 seconds of user-sampling, while the now more common Turbo version offers 15,000 notes and 5 seconds of sampling.
Like the Linn 9000, much more than a drum machine, featuring as it does user-sampling, compatibility with Prophet 2000 samples, a 50,000 note 8-track MIDI sequencer and much more.
12-bit sampling up to 41.667kHz, eight-voice playback with up to 32 samples in memory at any one time, stereo outputs plus eight individual outputs, dynamic filters, 3.5 inch disk drive, velocity and pressure-sensitive programming pads, four programmable kits, pitch-bend envelope and the SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) port for hard disk storage, combine to make a superb-sounding machine.
|Tron Digidrum III||7D||50(1)||1(1)||1||TM||65|
Feature by Mark Jenkins
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