Drumatix Goes Digital
Roland find another home for some 707/727 drum voices, and come up with a digital successor to the Drumatix. Trevor Gilchrist waxes lyrical on the best budget drum machine yet.
The TR505 digital drum machine is the modern-day successor to the analogue Roland Drumatix. It looks smart, it sounds great, and it's almost mind-manglingly cheap.
Many UK musicians, a large proportion of them E&MM readers, are probably still smarting from their first encounter with the machine the Roland TR505 is intended to replace. I speak of the TR606 Drumatix, which, to many, still represents their first and only foray into The Wonderful World of Programmable Drum Machines.
For the broad-minded and the optimistic, the 606 marked the spot from which whole new territories of creativity could be explored and exploited. The voices it offered, though bland and annoying by today's standards, sounded novel and were refreshingly easy to manipulate. The 606 was also extraordinarily cheap, and it was some time before it could be prised from its enviable market position of 'just-what-every-musician-has-been-waiting-for'.
For many other people, the little silver box was sufficiently off-putting to turn them against electronic percussion as a whole (and especially 'budget' machines), so that rather than opening up new creative pastures, the 606's shortcomings simply encouraged musicians to ignore the progress that's been made since.
But here we are, it's 1986 and if you didn't already know it, 'budget drum machines' have come on a little in the last four years...
Just as the 606 was intended as a budget alternative to the TR808 and 909 machines, so the 505 fills the same gap below the 707. (Yes, I know it's confusing, but hang in there, it's worth it.) With a price-tag of £225, there's little to suggest otherwise, but Messrs Roland have not been content simply to unbolt a few 707 features and stick the result in a different box; the unit itself, though similar in appearance to its predecessors, has in fact been extensively redesigned, front and rear, outside and in.
The front panel retains a liquid crystal display as its primary means of communicating with the user, but it's of a different nature to that on the 707. Gone is the 16 x 10 matrix display, to be replaced by a single-line Rhythm Pattern Chart and a Selected Instrument Display, which between them provide all the necessary information about which voice has been programmed and where. The only difference I can see between this one-instrument-at-a-time system and the 707's matrix, is that rather than being able to see a whole pattern at a glance, you have to see it at several glances. Other than that, no problems.
Room is still made available on the display for Track, Measure, Pattern and (inevitably) MIDI information, so 'comprehensive' is a description that fits and fits well.
The 505's 16 digitally-encoded voices are accessed via 16 main keys, and represent a commendable effort to make potential buyers realise they're not simply being fobbed-off with a toy 707. High and low congas, a timbale and two cowbells are brought in to supplement the expected 'kit' sounds, and their inclusion (no doubt inspired by the popularity of dedicated Latin Percussion machines) is a wise move: using the 505, it quickly becomes apparent that uninspiring or predictable 'kit' patterns can easily be brought to life by a little Latin.
Switching from what's been added to what's been taken away... the 505's voices have lost the individual level sliders of the 707, and more crucially for studio purposes, the separate audio outputs. If you want to treat individual 505 sounds with different effects whilst recording, you'll have to open the box and try to install output jacks of your own - invalidating Roland's warranty in the process.
No tuning facility is provided, either, so you're stuck with the 'hi' and 'lo' settings provided by Roland, where they're provided at all. But in view of the fact that no budget machine offers a comparable facility, I don't think there can be any complaints there.
More irritating is the abandonment of RAM cartridge storage - such a welcome inclusion on the 707/727. Cassette dumping takes its place, but this isn't such a bitter pill to swallow when you consider that saving the entire contents of the 505's memory takes only 42 seconds - not bad for a cassette-based system, and certainly not as bad as the 40 minutes A N Other magazine reckoned it took. For anyone working at or near the 'pro' end of the industry, it's still a fair while, especially when there's little prospect of reliability at the end of it. But in the altogether less hurried atmosphere of the home studio, achieving the performance you want is almost invariably a matter of patience, so maybe most users won't mind too much.
All in all, the TR505's back panel is sparsely populated, and disappointingly so. There's no means of syncing the machine to external instruments other than via MIDI, which means even if you're using older Roland gear with standard Sync 24 connectors, you still have to buy an interface unit to get the system moving. There are no external triggering facilities, either, and even the Drumatix had those.
"Display: The only difference I can see between the 505's system and the 707's matrix, is that rather than seeing a whole pattern at a glance, you have to see it at several glances."
However, those MIDI sockets (In and Out but no Thru) conceal a set of facilities more comprehensive than even those on the 707. For example, you can assign each drum voice its own MIDI channel number, and select the specific keyboard note used to trigger each voice over MIDI. And going back to the syncing angle, the 505 transmits and receives Song Select, MIDI sync codes, and MIDI song position pointers.
No real surprises on the programming front, with the writing process taking place on four levels: steps, measures, patterns and tracks. A measure is made up of 16 steps (as displayed on the LCD Rhythm Pattern Chart), patterns are constructed from a series of measures, and can then be chained together to form whole tracks.
Unlike any Roland drum machine since the old CR series, the TR505 is actually a preset/programmable hybrid. No fewer than 48 preset rhythm patterns are available to the user, and these occupy pattern groups A, B and C, with remaining groups D, E and F left free for your own rhythm compositions.
I think it's fair to say that preset rhythms (Samba, March, Disco and the like) do different things for different people, but if nothing else, they do make excellent building-blocks for individual compositional adventures - particularly useful on an instrument like the 505, which will doubtless find its way into the hands of many musicians for whom rhythm programming is an entirely new discipline.
Programming can be undertaken in either real-time or step-time (like all other Roland boxes since the Year Dot, the 505 calls the former 'tap-time') and whilst real-time obviously has the advantage that all the 505's voices can be programmed simultaneously (in step-time you have to hold down the Instrument key and press the relevant voice selector each time you want to program a different drum), neither mode poses any real problems, especially if you've used a TR series machine before.
One thing programming does reveal is that the 505 isn't quite as well equipped, voice-wise, as its front panel appears to indicate. Of the 16 sounds resident in the machine, only eight can be programmed to sound on the same beat - basically because only one tom sample, for instance, is responsible for all three differently-pitched versions.
Programming variety has also suffered a little next to the dearer Roland units. Neither the flam nor the shuffle program options appears on the new machine, and their departure limits the user's ability to inject that elusive quality known as 'human feel' into a pattern.
All but three of the keys on the unit's front panel are multi-functional, though none has more than two tasks to perform. The 505 sticks with the Shift key system, as pioneered on the TR808 and carried through the range to the present. This inevitably results in a lot of tedious key-pressing, though it must be stressed that, what with multifunction switches becoming almost as common in the kitchen and on wristwatches as they are in the studio, few people would find the 505's difficult to understand or use.
As on the 707, ten voice selector switches double as numeric keys used to specify such things as measure number and MIDI channel number, while the remainder are used for Insert, Delete and Copy functions (they see copious use during the chaining process), and the customary tape dump functions of Save, Verify and Load.
The review model tended to drift away from the tempi I'd programmed by about 1% either way. This may well have been a fault of the particular machine I was using (and in any case, it never constituted a great problem), but it did rather make me wonder whether a coarse and fine tempo control might have come in handy.
"Sounds: The bass drum is short and to the point: it has a satisfying punchiness and richness that should rarely have to be rescued by lashings of EQ."
Just as the TR808 brought Roland into the programmable analogue drum-machine stakes with a vengeance, the 606 broke all known price barriers, and the TR707 pushed the company right to the forefront of the affordable digital drum market, so the TR505 should have a sizeable impact in the world of budget sampled drums.
Why? Because all 16 voices supplied are of first-rate quality, and quickly prove themselves to be extremely usable.
The bass drum is short and to the point: it has a satisfying punchiness and richness that should rarely have to be rescued by lashings of EQ. The snare drum (and remember, there's only one), is a fine choice, crisp but nicely rounded and full-sounding. The three toms sound a little on the 'electronic' side (rare evidence of the 505's 25kHz sampling rate), but they're still impressive and, of course, light years ahead of what the 606 had to offer in the same department.
Onto the timbale, and my only major reservation about the voices. What the Hell is the use of only one timbale? The sample provided slots nicely into the 'superb' category when it comes to sound quality, but surely two timbales would be more useful than a pair of cowbells?
Both conga samples are marvellous (yes, I'm running out of superlatives here), and though they suffer, as most of the voices do, from a markedly abrupt cut-off when listened to in isolation, as part of a mix they really excel themselves.
The same can be said for the cowbells, rimshot and handclap, which are about as good as you could expect to hear anywhere, unless you took the dramatic step of sampling your own equivalents into a suitable machine.
Which leaves us with the hi-hat and two cymbals (crash and ride). Well, what can I say? The hi-hat is lively, pleasant, functional and very, very convincing. A little intelligent use of accent programming and it's as good a hi-hat as you'll ever need. Simple as that.
One thing you could never accuse Roland of doing is failing to think before they release a new product. Other, lesser companies may have been tempted to simply scale-down a best-seller and leave it at that. But whilst the 707 is undeniably the father of the 505, the newer machine gives a fine account of itself in most important areas, and even surpasses its parent in a few areas such as variety of percussion voices and MIDI implementation.
Come to think of it, even if the TR505 sold at £100 more than it actually does, it would still be difficult to fault seriously.
Price RRP £225 including VAT
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Review by Trevor Gilchrist
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