Syco MFB Digital Drum Machine
The Syco MFB512 machine
Chris Everard samples a major breakthrough in the evolution of the drum machine
As you will already known by now, a bitter war is ensuing amongst large and small manufacturers all over the World in the field of digital drum machines. The digital drum special focus I wrote in the May edition exemplified the situation as it showed that people like Dr. Bohm, Dynacord and even Hammond are getting their eyes blacked.
Allen & Heath Brennel have just announced the Inpulse One, which includes pads built-in that you hit, and looks set to actually create a new market for people who require machines that have all the facilities of a real drum kit contained within one portable unit.
Apart from the conflict created by various facilities on digital drum machines, one always has to look at how competitive they are price wise. The aforementioned Hammond machine offers 22 digital samples for under £700 inc. VAT, and as it stands has got to be the best value 'straight forward' machine on the market. However, it's important to put all of this in perspective, because digital drum machines aren't that difficult to design or manufacture and a lot of emphasis has been put on the type or quality of samples stored, and more often than not, numbers of samples are also taken into account by manufacturers and retailers when they are asked to justify the retail price of most machines.
Looked upon rationally, if a manufacturer books up a studio for a day to record some drum sounds onto digital tape ready for mass encoding onto chips, he might as well record 20 odd sounds, as opposed to just the usual selection — the daily rate at the studio will stay the same. Similarly, the same sort of thing applies to components — if you or I were to purchase a sound storing chip, it might well cost around £4, if you're a manufacturer buying in enormous quantities the quality is only marginally reflected in the wholesale price — probably a fraction of a penny difference between high capacity, good quality chips and low capacity, average quality IC's. And so, all the way down the production line, several major factors govern the price of digital drum machines. A machine like the Hammond with plenty of samples, is a good straight-forward drum machine and can be manufactured for well under £100, and so, should rightly retail for around the £425 mark, including VAT. However, until now, a sort of universal price freeze has been imposed and its been left up to people like Hammond and Dr. Bohm (both organ manufacturers with long standing reputations) to try and smash this cartel situation.
Well now, there's a stronger light at the end of the tunnel, in the shape of the Syco MFB 512 digital drum machine. It retails at just under £350 inc. VAT, and the 512 is truly the major breakthrough in trying to put professional sounds into the hands of we lesser mortals.
Syco Systems in Conduit Place, London are importing it from a small German company called MFB. I'm not going to dwell on the subject of programming, as its identical to programming a Soundmaster SR88 or Boss Dr. Rhythm — if you have no idea how this sort of programming is carried out, I can assure you that you'll get the hang of it within no time (and no, its not realtime!) However, you do have to put in your pattern or memory locations using toggle switches in binary but this isn't as hard as it sounds, once you've had the unit for an hour or two, like the method of programming, it becomes second nature.
A short run down of the features you have at your disposal reveals 128 programmable patterns each with a definable length (up to 16 steps per measure), 8 programmable songs made up of up to 256 patterns each, 8 digital samples, foot-switch control of start and definable fill-in pattern, mono or stereo jack outputs, individual voice outputs and what seems to be 1-volt per octave trigger in and out (normal ¼" jacks).
"the 512 is truly the major breakthrough in trying to put professional sounds into the hands of we lesser mortals."
Before I go through some of the other features, I'll get straight to the meat of the matter, the sounds.
The toms are good, they sound right but are not the sort to set the world on fire, although with some judicial EQ they can be made to sound very penetrating. You are given three options — high, medium and low, which are all attained from one original sample. You can't have more than one tom sounding simultaneously, which because of this 'sharing' method is quite understandable. Some people have criticised these toms for not having 'skin' qualities or being 'rugged' or 'full-blooded' and while I would tend to agree with these statements when confronted with the toms through the mono or stereo jack outs if one goes to the trouble of delving deeper and utilising the separate drum outputs they improve considerably.
The handclap is a particular favourite of mine, reminiscent of the 808 and 909 handclaps — could they be sampled? I warn you now that this handclap isn't realistic, it is a 'stylised' handclap, which has a smooth, clear cut edge and a good amount of body. The hi-hat (open or closed) is straight to the point with no ringing or bell-like overtones, it's very useable and is of good quality — rather like a 'sound edge' hi-hat. The cymbal is slightly fast and is quite a reasonable crash/ride compromise. It seems that this is a looped sample — the original encoding being a fraction of the resulting sound, nevertheless, another pleasing sound, which blends well in a mix.
Finally, we come to the bass and snare which are usually the 'make or break' factors in all digital machines. I think both of these are full length samples and no looping has been employed — after all, these sounds are naturally short anyway. The bass drum is exemplary — modern and cracky with a nice feeling of depth and power. It's far from sounding wooly or muggy and stands out as being the best bass drum sample I've heard so far.
Likewise, the snare is extremely good, rich in character and full of bite, capable of blending and cutting in mixes at the same time. These two samples show that price really has very little to do with quality in sampling and encoding.
This machine isn't without its quirks, and I dare say that some of you will rather pay a couple of hundred quid more for a robust casing, ordinary controls and program selection functions, but its obvious that the Syco has been built with sounds rather than looks as its main priority.
The separate drum outputs are via two din sockets on the back panel and therefore present a bit of a headache, as you will have to go out and buy 2 din to phono (or if you're lucky, jack) leads, preferably colour coded to stop any undue confusion when linking up to a mixer. Caution will have to be taken when matching up pin numbers too, the manual has a diagram with each pin numbered and you'll have to match that plan up to the wiring configuration on your leads. However it may be possible to internally disconnect those separate outs from the din sockets and drill holes for 3.5 mini jacks along one side of the machine. This would leave the din sockets on the back panel ready for a Roland din syncro board to be fitted — or maybe even a MIDI out board! This all depends on space internally, and with the MFB already holding over 50 ICs inside its grey plastic confines, any retro-fitting will have to depend on the size of the intended new circuitry.
A feature which makes me stand back on one leg in amazement is the fact that you can tune the overall sound of the MFB using a small pot on the back panel (a small screwdriver will be needed). The range isn't extremely large, but it's big enough to make quite a difference to all of the samples. At this price it's truly amazing to see this on this unit — the £1000 Drumulator is incapable of such things.
It all makes you wonder whether you're getting value for money in these larger and more expensive machines — another piece of evidence, that goes to prove facilities and price are not as directly linked as some people would like you to believe!
Review by Chris Everard