RSF DD30 Drum Machine
From France comes a digital drum machine with more facilities per pound than any of the Japanese competition. Jean-Paul Verpeaux likes what he hears in this exclusive review.
Could the rest of the world learn from a new range of digital drum machines just unveiled by French innovators RSF? After playing with their DD30, we think so.
Like so many modern musical instruments, the RSF DD30 drum machine is a black box. So is its smaller brother, the DD14. In fact, while most other hi-tech manufacturers have only recently started putting their electronics in sleek, inoffensive-looking cases, the small French company responsible for this new range of drum machines have been packaging their designs in unobtrusive boxes for some years. For RSF, internal flexibility has always been more important than external flash.
The happy result of this policy is that their instruments have always looked trim and business-like, even if the quietness of their appearance has often belied the complexity that's lain within. The Kobol series of analogue synth expanders — the instruments which made the company's name and which, incidentally, found enthusiastic users among members of the Depeche Mode/Vince Clarke school of plink, plink, fizz synth programming — looked dull and uninspiring, but their internal configuration was a work of genius: every variable parameter could be regulated by an external control voltage. In other words, the Kobols offered the versatility of a telephone-exchange modular synth system in a compact, rack-mount format, long before microprocessor control enabled synth designers to implement parameter patching in software.
RSF's drum machines aren't quite as revolutionary in concept. But they do offer something genuinely different in a market sector where new products are becoming increasingly predictable, and, unusually for European instruments, their wide range of facilities carries no price penalty whatsoever by comparison with Oriental opposition.
They're still deceptively innocuous to look at, though. At first glance, the DD30 looks as though it offers a selection of seven drum sounds. That doesn't seem like very many in 1986, so you look a little closer and realise that there are actually 14 voices listed on the front panel in two rows. But no, that still doesn't tell you anything like the full story: the DD30 offers a grand total of 28 drum voices, far more than any competing machine. And for once, that number doesn't include huge ranges of identical voices, tuned in 11 different ways to form 11 different sounds. As well as the usual bass, snare and hi-hat samples (a couple of each for variety's sake), the RSF presents you with all manner of Latin-ish goodies like agogos, shakers, handclaps, and finger-clicks (the French call them 'snaps'), plus a quartet of electronic tom-tom sounds in addition to four acoustic ones. If this machine was a Yamaha, it would have '28 Interesting and Usable Drum Voices' emblazened across its front panel.
There are other, even less immediately obvious, refinements that set the DD30 apart from the crowd. Crucial among these is a facility for programming volume and accent levels individually for each instrument and for each pattern. And when it comes to programming notes, the RSF has a recording resolution unsurpassed by anything from Roland, Yamaha and the rest, as we'll see later.
But back to those sounds. We now know that there are 28 of them, and a quick shufty across the DD30's derriere reveals that these emerge from the machine either in the form of a preset stereo mix, or individually through 10 shared output channels. They can also be triggered remotely in a variety of ways.
Inevitably, there are some restrictions. There's the usual conflict of interest between snare drum and rimshot (the two can't be sounded on the same beat), and open and closed hi-hats (ditto). Both these feats are impossible for a live drummer to achieve, but that doesn't make their omission musically justifiable; drum machines are supposed to reduce live limitations, not pander to them.
A few of the more obscure percussion voices suffer from a similar limitation in that they can't be used together within the same pattern, but if this is the sort of compromise designers need to introduce in order to keep prices down, I don't think we should worry ourselves too much.
In any event, these programming considerations pale into insignificance alongside the sound quality of the voices themselves. In the DD30's case, the sounds are of a uniformly high standard. That makes a refreshing change from machines that offer a selection of sparklingly lifelike voices, spoiled by the presence of two or three below-par ones. The factors responsible for the RSF's good turnout are primarily its 12-bit sampling resolution, and the care with which the sounds have been digitally recorded. Each voice is as free from noise as any I have heard in this price bracket.
None of this sound quality would be much use if you couldn't program the DD30's voices into patterns easily and flexibly. Fortunately, you can.
The machine's onboard memory can hold a maximum of 100 patterns, each of which can be any length between 1 and 99 quarter-note beats. Well, that's not quite true. If none of your patterns is longer than a bar or two, you'll fit 100 of them into the machine's memory with ease; but if a decent percentage is especially long, you'll have to put up with storing fewer of them. The moral? Construct your songs out of shorter patterns.
In addition to the storage space for user-programmed patterns, the RSF has enough memory to store no fewer than 30 factory-preset sequences, permanently in non-erasable ROM. But these aren't just useless demo programs: you can edit them yourself (changing a couple of beats or altering the thing out of all recognition) and store the results in the section of the machine's memory you can get to.
You can also incorporate both preset and user-programmed patterns into songs. The maximum number of these you can store permanently (ie. even during power-down) is 30 — but again, you'll only be able to dump this number if all your songs are of a reasonable length.
But of critical usefulness in the way the RSF puts songs together is the fact that, even when they've been assembled into songs, your patterns retain the instrument bank, volume and accent levels, and even the tempo you've programmed for them. In song mode, adjusting the tempo control results in all the patterns within your current song changing proportionally. If nothing else, this facility means the RSF is alone among competing units in being relatively easy to use in live performance — no more scrambling around in the dark between songs, desperately trying to adjust the tempo before the rest of the band launch into the next number.
The DD30 excels itself in its programming facilities, too. For whereas so many of its competitors divide each beat into 24 pulses (enabling you to program at a decent, but not incredible, level of resolution), the RSF splits each quarter-note into 96. So, should the situation demand it, you can write notes as short as 1/64 note triplets. More conventional values are also possible, of course.
"Programming - Even when they've been assembled into songs, your patterns retain the instrument bank, volume and accent levels, and tempo you've programmed."
Yet despite its fearful resolution, the DD30 is not a difficult beast to program. You can write patterns in either real or step time, or a combination of both. In real time, programming can be accomplished either voice-by-voice or by using several instruments at a time, whichever is appropriate. Note entry is made easier by a metronome and a display of current beat number, but in most respects, the RSF isn't the most visually helpful of drum machines. Not for the French the sophistication of extended LCD help messages or programming grids: just a couple of seven-segment alphanumerics, a sprinkling of flashing LEDs, and that's yer lot.
More helpful is the DD30's auto-correction facility, which has user-programmable resolution for each individual instrument — wonderful if your realtime writing is a bit sloppy but you want some percussion instruments to stay that way.
In step-time mode, the display indicates first the beat number, then your quarter-note location (between 0 and 96). Each note entry is confirmed by a beep from within the machine's innards, so in spite of the RSF's lack of a grid display, you're unlikely ever to be left wondering whether or not you've programmed something on the intended beat.
Auto-correction isn't, of course, a viable option in step-time mode, but there is a 'swing' function, common to both modes of recording, that's useful for spicing up rhythm patterns by introducing slight timing variations.
When it comes to editing facilities, you could be forgiven for thinking the DD30's designers have left nothing out. All of them are usable regardless of how you've programmed your patterns, and a wide range of options (concealed beneath a plethora of shift-function controls or 'Page 2', as RSF would call it) enable you to insert and delete instruments either at a single stroke or beat by beat. It's with the editing controls that you set values for parameters such as tempo, pattern length, instrument bank, instrument levels, and so on, and song composition is aided by the usual pattern-copying functions.
The DD30 talks to the outside world through a variety of different interfaces. There's MIDI In and Out, with which you can synchronise the machine to other MIDI-language speakers using the MIDI clock (over which the RSF can act as either master or slave), and play all 28 percussion voices dynamically from an appropriately-specified keyboard.
Then there are four trigger inputs (five if you use the Click In as well), which can be linked to pads or strong audio signals — and again, these inputs can be used to access any of the 28 internal voices, depending on how you program the machine before you make your connections.
A tape interface allows you to link the DD30 to an ordinary cassette machine and save your favourite patterns for posterity, a process that takes between two and three minutes. Sadly, this is the extent of the RSF's external storage facilities: you won't find the luxury (or speed, or convenience) of plug-in RAM cartridges or MIDI dumping software unless you feel like writing some of your own.
But the cassette sockets also act as the gateway to a sync-to-tape facility, something that will be welcomed with open arms by studio users of every description. In fact, running the DD30 from a click-track on tape is just one of the syncing possibilities open to you if you're thinking of using the machine together with any others. The second is the MIDI clock mentioned above, while the others revolve around pre-MIDI syncing standards. An internal clock, running at 96 pulses per quarter note, allows the RSF to act as master over a number of other instruments using the same resolution, while an external one-switchable to a clock rate of 24, 48, or 96ppqn) gives other machines the power to tell the RSF what to do.
What all this adds up to is a digital drum machine whose design is far from revolutionary, but which has a conspicuously better range of drum sounds, and the facilities to make them usable, than anything else in the sub-£1000 price sector. Its smaller stablemate, the DD14, sacrifices some of the more wayward percussion voices but little in the way of programming features. And there's also a flagship model, complete with user-sampling, waiting in the wings for release early in '86.
The sad part of this story, though, is that RSF don't presently have a UK distributor, as Syco have now stopped dealing with them. That's a shame, because it means this country's musicians — and the people who sell them their gear — may not get the chance to look at some of the best machines currently being made. It's to be hoped that this situation is only a temporary one, but in the meantime, RSF are selling DD drum machines direct from the address at the end of this feature.
Alternatively, you could check out a local music shop while the rest of the party goes scouring the shelves of a Calais hypermarket for cheap bottles of Chateau Plonk.
Prices DD14, F3800 (approx £400); DD30, F4940 (approx £500)
More from RSF-Aria, (Contact Details).
Review by Jean-Paul Verpeaux
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