Dynamic Digital Drums
Korg's latest (and some might say greatest) drum machine takes a heavy pounding from Mark Jenkins. But does it survive the assault? Read on to find out...
Korg's latest (and greatest?) machine takes a heavy pounding from Mark Jenkins. But does it survive the assault? Read on...
It's difficult to see where the rather exciting development of digital drum machines is going to end, what with Casio's RZ-1 introducing user-sampling for a few hundred pounds, Roland's DR-220 fitting PCM sounds into the smallest of pockets, and Korg's DDD-1 offering all it does - dynamic response, updatable sounds and optional user-sampling - for around the £1000 mark.
The DDD-1 is in the latest Korg tradition of compact, versatile units which differ in many respects from the drum machines we've come to expect of Roland, Yamaha and Sequential. Sometimes the individuality of Korg equipment has been its undoing - the earlier KPR-77 drum machine, for instance, introduced many impressive features such as auto flam, but ultimately failed due to its insistence on the 48-pulse synchronisation system and relatively high price.
Korg's closest living relative to the new DDD-1 is the SQD-1 sequencer, which has also been unjustly neglected to some extent. Although several studios and individual users swear by it, and the built-in Quick Disk drive pattern storage is brilliant, the SQD-1 suffers from its 2-track system of operation and relative complexity in programming. So does the DDD-1 share the faults of earlier Korg equipment, or will it set new standards?
The first point to take in is that the user-sampling option isn't with us yet - at the time of writing it's a couple of months in the future and is expected to add £199 to the price of the machine. The rear panel slot is there waiting for it however, although the software needed isn't present, or at least isn't accessible without the sampling card in place.
The DDD-1 as it stands offers 18 built-in sounds accessed from 14 grey front panel pads (alternative 'heavy' open and closed hi-hats, 'hard' bass and gated snare are 'hidden away' in the software). There are white pads for Roll and Flam, blue ones for the Start and Stop/Reset, a red one for Record/Enter, and a white one for Tap Tempo. There are a 10-key pad, cursor and +1/-1 buttons below a 16-character LCD, and a matrix of 6 general areas of operation multiplied by 8 function buttons.
The machine veritably bristles with sockets and connections; on the rear panel are jacks for headphones, left/mono and right outputs, 6 individual outputs, tape in/out and metronome out mini-jacks, sample out and trigger out jacks, audio input, tap tempo and start/stopfootswitch sockets, MIDI In and Out, plus dip switches to select tape in/out high or low, trigger out positive/negative and memory protect. Enough?
On the front edge you'll find a socket for a RAM pattern memory card and four slots (under a hinged perspex cover) which accept the ROM sound cards. Other features include a data entry slider, overall volume control, audio input level control with red 'peak' LED, plus a green trigger LED.
Anyone spot what's missing? Give that man a cigar. Firstly, there's no dedicated tempo control. You have to set the data entry slider to control this function when it isn't doing something else, which isn't always convenient as you can imagine. Secondly, there's nowhere to store samples once you've got your optional sampling board up and running.
Samples remain in memory for ten days only and are then lost forever, which seems a ludicrous state of affairs since Casio found it so inexpensive to save samples to tape on their RZ-1. Collecting sounds on quarter-inch tape or PCM video tape doesn't have quite the same glamour as collecting boxes of floppy disks - but you can buy a Korg SQD-1 sequencer and use its Quick Disk drive to store DDD-1 patterns apparently.
The DDD-1 has many functions which aren't immediately obvious but which make it highly attractive. For instance, each sound can be assigned to any of the 6 multiple outputs or panned anywhere between the left and right stereo outputs, and it's equally possible (as on the E-mu SP-12) to set several pads to play one sound - but at different pitches - in order to enter melodic lines. This will be more handy when the bass guitar and orchestral crash ROM cards eventually turn up.
On to some basic specifications then. The DDD-1 records 100 patterns (of up to 249 notes or 99 measures) and 10 songs of 255 parts (a part can be a pattern or a whole song). It generously offers realtime or step-time recording methods with dynamically responsive programming pads, and has full MIDI features including MIDI song pointer recognition.
To play a pattern, you hit button 1 (in the Pattern Play/Record section) and f1 (that's Pattern Select) on the front panel matrix. Then you punch two numbers on the keypad, and press Start. If you want to change the tempo, you hit f7 in the same section and use the data entry slider to vary tempo from 40 to 250 bpm; or hit the Tap Tempo button twice at the rate you require, and the DDD-1 will calculate your tempo (a la Bokse US-8 synchroniser) and set off at this new speed.
To play a demo song, you just select button 3 (Song Play/Edit) and f1 (Song Select) - punching any keypad number higher than 10 subsequently has no effect. Korg's demo patterns and songs make good use of tuned sounds, very fast rolls, and the wonderful Poly mode which allows you to play a sound several times over itself. As on Sequential's Tom drum machine, this can produce pseudo-flanging effects, but more beneficial it allows every sound to decay fully even if the same sound is struck again before the first finishes. This prevents the abrupt cut-off of sounds you experience with Yamaha's RX machines, for example. If you like that effect, then Mono mode on the DDD-1 will give you it.
So how can you yourself match the standard of the demo patterns? In fact, programming is straightforward. You choose a pattern with buttons 1/f1 (Pattern Select), hit f8 (Erase), then tap each instrument pad in turn which prompts the display query "Erase Instrument Yes/No?". You acknowledge for each pad, then goto f2 to set the time signature. Once the bar length is keyed in you use the cursor keys to underline the beat value in the display then type that in.
For specifying bars, you use f3 typing that number in as well, and f4 for the note resolution - from 1/4 to 1/32 triplet or High (1/96). Then comes f5 for the roll and flam settings, which we'll return to later, f6 for Seq Parameters (ditto) and f7 for tempo. That done, you just hit Record/Enter and Start and the metronome sounds, indicating that you're in real-time recording mode.
All that probably sounds complex, but there are useful default values, so if you want to record one bar of 4/4 with 1/4 resolution and 1/16 beat flams, you only need to wipe a pattern and press Record/Start. You can play or programme flams (fast double-strikes) on any instrument, and play or programme rolls while running. Rolls take place at the speed indicated by the resolution parameter - 1/16 or 1/8 for instance - and it's just a pity that the programming pads aren't pressure as well as velocity sensitive, as on the Linn 9000, so you could make your rolls gradually increase in volume.
Pushing Record/Enter and Stop/Reset places you into step record mode where you can tap in one instrument one beat at a time, using the +1 key for spaces. You can erase a single beat or even a short passage containing any instrument in real-time while it plays back.
The next aspect you'll want to record is the Sequence Parameter setting for your drum sounds; 6 Seq Parameters can be stored, which cover tuning, decay, and dynamics. Each instrument can be tuned from 0-127 using Total Tune in the Instrument Setting section (button 4 and f3), and this corresponds to an overall adjustable one octave pitch range (half octave up/down). Similarly decay can be set from 1-15 and output level from 0-15, although this also depends on how hard you tap the programming pads.
Output Assign for each instrument is from 1-16, L3, L2, L1, C, R1, R2 or R3 - in other words, from any of the 6 separate outputs or at any point in the stereo field between the Left and Right outputs. Inst Assign sets each pad to play any instrument chosen from Internal 1-18, ROM 1-48 or Sample 1-2, with the sounds identified by the prefixes I, C or S. Any tuning, decay and dynamic can be assigned here, so you could create a whole rack of tuned toms on the top row of pads and store this as one of the 6 available Seq Parameters.
Touch sensitivity is also variable from 0 (full sensitivity) to 9 (full volume all the time), and Decay from 0 to 15, so you can shorten any sound at will. Swing, Copy, Append and Available Memory allow you to edit patterns, with the Swing introducing variations from 50%-88% in playback timing for a pattern.
Create, Repeat, Tempo Change, Insert, Delete, Tempo and Clear allow you to edit whole songs, which are defined simply by typing in the appropriate pattern numbers followed by Enter, and using Repeat for repeated passages and inserting tempo changes where desired.
Moving on to the System Setting section, this offers the functions Metronome, Trigger Assign, Clock, MIDI Receive and Transmit (Omni or Poly mode with variable key assignment) and Sampling Set - the latter being inoperative at present. Metronome can be switched on or off and set from 1/4 notes to 1/32nd note triplets; Trigger Assign can be in or out from any pad and to any sound (so you can trigger the DDD-1 sounds from external pads or tape pulses); Clock can be internal, MIDI or tape-sync; whilst MIDI note Transmit and Receive can either be on or off (16 channels).
The sixth and final section, Data Transfer, has only three functions: RAM card, Tape and MIDI - although there's also a valuable ROM card check function. The thin RAM cards have a data protect switch and also store an 8-letter name for the data, whilst the cassette tape save and load routines are pretty conventional.
The MIDI dump routine is used for saving to disk on Korg's SQD-1 sequencer or to a computer with appropriate System Exclusive-saving software.
The DDD-1's sampling system offers one or two memories which cannot be played back simultaneously. These can be assigned to any pad and used in any pattern. Sampling is via the rear panel input which has a 'peak' input LED. The routine given in the handbook looks fairly simple, with auto or manual triggering available, although you won't obtain full instructions until you buy the sampling board: available in two months (?).
Time for some comments on the DDD-1's preset sounds. There's a hard, thumpy bass drum and a much softer, 'wetter' one; a clear, crisp snare and a very modern-sounding gated reverb snare - just the business. High and low pitched hi-hats (open/closed); 3 pretty standard toms, a decent ride cymbal - complete with stick noise - and a good crash cymbal round off the drum presets. Additional sounds include rather boring (hand)claps, a reasonable tambourine, rimshot, nicely pitched cowbell, and cabasa - which makes the right noise so who's complaining?
It's a pity that the Korg DDD-1's sampling is so limited, because in many ways it's a very powerful machine. Obviously the operational styling is based on that of their SQD-1 sequencer, and the matrix system is confusing initially. However, it is possible to find your way around the matrix very quickly after a little experience, the only problem being that there are some facilities (such as Instrument Assign) which can't be changed without stopping the machine and starting it again. The most annoying example of this being the tempo setting; if you start a pattern while in Instrument Assign mode, there's no way you can get out of it to change tempo, bar bringing everything to a halt.
That's more than a minor quibble too - it's a major oversight - since it prevents a manual tempo change, which is often the easiest way of producing a realistic rallentando (gradual tempo decrease) effect on any drum machine. Surely this could have been put right for the few pounds it would have cost to add a dedicated tempo control?
Of course, the whole approach to the DDD-1 will change once it becomes a user-sampling device, and it will also change to some extent when the promised tuned percussion sounds (and bass guitars, orchestra crashes etc) become available on ROM cards. When that happens we'll no doubt hear even more impressive DDD-1 demos, with melodic riffs, percussion and special effects mixed in a manner reminiscent of E-mu's (more expensive) SP-12.
Being able to flick between 6 different sequence configurations of tuning, dynamics and decay is certainly useful on a drum machine, although it's a great pity that Korg negate matters by limiting you to just one set-up of your choice for the duration of a song. Odd... But the flexibility of output selection, pad assignment and external response control are all unmatched in instruments of this price.
Overall I was favourably disposed towards the Korg DDD-1, and would welcome a lengthier opportunity to do some serious recording with it (the sound quality's certainly professional enough). The handbook is pretty horrible though - apart from being riddled with mis-spellings, it adapts a system of introducing each subject in very general terms, then going over them again in great detail. This sounds logical, but can result in the reader finding both sections incomprehensible. Never mind - a few hours is enough to come to terms with the DDD-1, which is sure to find great favour amongst any programmer who demands a human feel from his drum machine.
MRP£799.00 inc VAT.
Review by Mark Jenkins
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