Do you realise that by the end of the year a small, un-named studio in the middle of America will have been used by hundreds of bands to produce hit singles and albums?
Nobody knows it, but in a few months that establishment may be the most heard, most popular studio in the world. Because it was there that the tapes for the Drumulator were recorded, later to be converted to silicon chips and appear as the newest "real sound" drum machine.
Roger Linn started the digital drum craze with a device that took his surname. Most rhythm boxes use analogue electronics to create their sounds, almost like raw, mini synthesisers for the snare, hi-hat, etc. Linn recorded real acoustic drums into chip memory, then arranged for them to be "replayed" in time to create a drum pattern.
The Drumulator is a natural step from the same firm that makes the Emulator keyboard — a digital synthesiser also based on the chip recording process.
It's housed in a grey metal case about a foot square, three or four inches high with a front that slopes towards. Nearly all the sounds have their own individual output for separate EQ on a studio desk. The Drumulator has 12 — bass drum, snare, handclap, hi-mid-low tom toms, open-closed hi-hats, ride cymbal, clave, cowbell and rim shot.
In all it can store 36 drum patterns, and arrange them in eight songs. The Linn has a similar process, but calls them segments and chains, though the immediate difference to register with the grey matter is that the Linn is electronically bigger. It has extra sounds, especially percussion such as shakers and a larger memory.
And to save on switches the Drumulator has plenty of double, even treble functions where the same buttons pressed in different orders will produce different results.
Along the bottom of the Drumulator are four black, square buttons about one inch square. These are the pads, if you like, and each one can be assigned a drum sound from the collection of 12. Again the Linn is more generous and gives each drum its own pad.
In the simplest form each pattern is split into four bars of four. The machine has its own electronic metronome and essentially you set the record mode, then hit the appropriate pads at the proper time, playing them all at once as you would a normal kit, or overlaying them a sound at a time.
Browned off with 4/4?
Then change the measure length; one of the many pieces of information displayed in a two-figure LED readout in the top left-hand corner. One button will call up the bottom value which you might want to change to 8, another reveals the top which for argument we'll put at 7. There you go, a bar of 7/8 and the alterations are made by buttons moving the value forward or backward one step at a time.
Without expression, drum patterns sound dull and mechanical. Like most rhythm machines the Drumulator has an accent control. It's used by, for example, putting a bass drum sound on two of the black pads. On one of them you press the accent switch and the LED display lights showing a figure between 0 and 5 and which can be altered by a slider to the left of the controls. Set the value — in practice two or three is more than strong enough — then each time that pad is hit, the bass drum will be stressed.
It's possible to do the same with the overall level of each drum. This time the display will show a figure between 0 and 15 and a choice of 10 or 11 will allow room for the accents.
Similarly a pattern, or several within a song, can be programmed with individual tempos, either slowing down or speeding up from the rest of the arrangement as the mood of the track dictates. And the Drumulator has time correction — a facility which allows for human error or "feel" as we call it down the pub.
Once your patterns are completed, a song is constructed by telling the Drumulator what you want it to play, a pattern at a time. It's possible to edit in new patterns anywhere within the song, or indeed knock one or more out and close up the gap they've left... but it's a time consuming process.
One of the major sound differences between the Drumulator and the Linn exists within the tom-toms, and it's really a matter of approach. The Linn has a digital recording of one tom which can be tuned to produce three. The Drumulator has a trio of tom recordings, though they are immovable in pitch. The Linn can be tuned for effects, but if you want rolls round the kit then the last tom has to be cut off before the next can emerge, so the natural resonance is lost. The Drumulator preserves that ring. For example you could hit the floor tom and the high tom at the same moment and hear both. The Linn would only give you one.
And of course sound is the most important factor. After all, what's the point of investing in digital storage techniques if the end result is reminiscent of an aged Heinz tin?
In one way the Linn scores extensively here because its sounds can be changed. The snare chip or any other can be swapped for one of your choice and Linn have a small library of options on the market. That can't be done on the Drumulator as the chips are interlocked.
Still, the factory sounds are great. It's a tight, hard bass drum, crisper than Linns I've heard, though not shifting as much air, and the snare is aggressive with less polished production than its rival. It loses on the handclaps which are not so authentic, but the ride is nicely judged and it might just pass as a crash if used in the right manner.
Though not as sophisticated as its opposition, the Drumulator is a lot of a device for the money, and puts "real" drum machines within the reach of many more studios and even some individuals. I wouldn't be risking too much if I bet it was likely to become one of the success stories of'83. £985