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Roland Electronic Drums

Paul White picks up his sticks and puts Roland’s electronic kit through its paces. Can it hold its head up against some stiff competition?

Finally, Roland take the plunge into the electronic drum market, with an all-digital, MIDI-compatible kit you can buy in stages. But is it a case of too much, too little, too late?

Time, experience and a lot of all-expenses-paid curries have taught me at least one thing: if there's a marketable innovation in the hi-tech music field, it's never more than a matter of months before Roland start marketing a version of their own.

And the electronic drum market is the exception that proves the rule. For while Simmons and their imitators have been selling electro kits successfully for more than three years now, Roland have sat and waited, analysing the status quo and refining their designs. The result, just finding its way into UK shops as you read this, is the DDR30 and its associated pads; on the face of it, a pretty serious entry into the electronic percussion stakes.

The Roland version certainly looks the part, with pads that are both strikingly designed and well built, areas where many of the kit's would-be competitors fail. Like most electronic drum kits, the hardware is divided into two distinct areas: the parts you hit and the parts you twiddle. Let's start with the hitting bit first.

All the drum pads are identical in size and shape, with the exception of the bass drum, which is larger than the rest. It seems drummers like to retain some link with their acoustic ancestry, and having something to hide their legs behind presumably helps with their insecurity problems. And the increased size does make the bass assembly a more stable structure - it certainly seems solid enough.

Rare among electro-drum systems is the way the Roland is available in completely modular form. That means you can either buy a full six-piece kit, or build things up a pad at a time as and when finances allow. Thus we find both types of pads, the standard PD10 and the PD20 bass pad, plus the stands, all available separately from your friendly High Street music store.

As for that truncated triangle shape, it works well both practically as well as aesthetically, as it's comparatively easy to fit a number of tom-tom pads into a confined space.

The drums are available in any colour as long as it's silver. The back of the pads is moulded from a perspex-like material, with the silver coating actually applied to the inside so that the finish is good and glossy.

The head is quite an interesting structure, as it seems to comprise a plastic skin stretched over a tough, slightly padded backing. This is clearly a different approach to pad design than that currently adopted by most British electro-pad manufacturers, who all tend to use rubber for the playing surface. For all that, it does feel very much like the real thing, being both resilient and responsive.

The system's modular nature means that any suitable stands may be used with it. Fixing to the pads is via the now fairly standard right-angled splined brackets. The stands supplied by Roland are in fact made by Tama (themselves recent entrants into the electro-percussion world), and seem very solid. You'll need three for a six-piece kit, two for each pair of toms and an individual snare stand. Leads can be of either the jack-to-jack or XLR-to-jack variety, there being sockets for both types provided on each pad.

The sound-generating side of the Roland system is contained neatly within a 2U-high rack-mountable box, to which each of the six drum pads is connected. There are individual outputs for all six voices, though as an alternative there's a composite output, available in either mono or stereo with the instruments panned across the field.

In keeping with Roland's policy of sticking MIDI on everything they make, there's the full complement of MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets. And in line with current trends in keyboard design, the 32 kit memories are arranged in banks; in this case four banks with eight sounds per bank. You alter parameter values using a single continuous controller, after selecting the particular parameter via the relevant pushbutton on the front panel's Edit section.

Sounds themselves are created in two stages. The first of these is to edit and store up to eight variations of the basic sounds for each of the six drums in the kit. Then, you assemble these sounds in any combination to create a 'kit'; the system can store up to 32 of these. Extra storage of all parameters and sounds is available via external memory cartridges, which you insert into a slot on the DDR30's front panel.

"Design - The shape works practically as well as aesthetically — it's easy to fit a lot of tom-tom pads into a small space."

The cartridges have two separate memory 'areas', each of which is capable of storing the entire contents of the system's onboard memory. So with the DDR30 plus one memory cartridge, you have the storage capacity for 92 separate drum 'kits'. Now, with six drums per kit, you're not going to get 564 totally unique and individual drum sounds. Still, the arrangement makes the change from one kit with, say, heavily damped tom-toms, to another with more open toms, a matter of pressing a single button.

The Roland comes loaded up with a selection of preset voices, so you can try it out right away, exploring its full potential as you become more familiar with its operation.

Sound-generation is all done digitally, with the basis of each drum sound being a choice of four digitally-stored voices that can be further modified by the user. The four sounds range from conventional to anything but, yet they all possess that peculiarly digital authenticity analogue circuits have so much trouble capturing.

Once you've decided on the basic sound you want, you can tailor it in a number of ways. The most obvious of these is to change pitch, but there's much more to it than that, as a grand total of 16 parameters (arranged in four groups) lurks within the DDR30, just itching to be edited.

The first group allows you to select which of the four voices you want, how loud it should be, and how long it takes to decay. Additionally, there's an 'Attack' component to the sound, which incorporates Level & Decay controls and functions dynamically — so the harder you hit, the more Attack you get.

Group 2 is concerned with controlling the overall pitch of the sound, and also allows you to add pitchbend. The effects created by this section are also dynamic, and are shaped by two controls labelled Bend Decay and Dynamic Sensitivity.

Group 3 is the EQ section, and consists of programmable bass and treble controls, both of which offer cut or boost of the relevant band of frequencies.

Last and possibly least, Group 4 controls the Gate function. There are two gate effects (designated, with sparkling originality, Gate 1 and Gate 2), the first coming into effect only when the drum is played hard, the second being independent of playing intensity. Gate 1 has Level, Time and Release controls, which make it suitable for creating that oh-so-fashionable gated reverb sound, or at least a fair imitation of it. Gate 2 has only Level and Decay Rate controls, so it's more useful for cleaning up the end of a sound, or creating one that suddenly 'gates off' after the main Decay level causes the sound to fall below a certain setting.

How does the Roland sound? Well, that depends pretty much on whether you choose the more conventional voices to work from, or those of a more esoteric nature, the origin of which we can only guess. Luckily, careful use of the Attack control means all the sounds can be made nicely percussive, and useful within a drumming context.

"Sounds - It's the sort of system you think you've exhausted after two weeks, only to discover new sounds months later."

But as with all systems that rely on single, multi-functional controls which prevent you varying more than one parameter at a time, achieving the precise sound you're looking for can be a very long-winded process. You can't hear the results of any interplay between two or more variables, so the only way you can judge their effect is by switching repeatedly from one to the other, adjusting each a little at a time.

That said, the Roland system of providing a basic sound that can be used as it stands or edited using the parameter controls, does make the whole thing much easier to cope with. You're never left feeling in the middle of nowhere. All the basic voices are pretty good in themselves, and they also provide excellent starting points for your own creations.

It's the sort of system you think you've exhausted within the first couple of weeks, only to find yourself still discovering new sounds months later.

Being able to adjust EQ levels for each voice not only adds to the variety of onboard sounds, but also means that you can get away with an amplifier not over-endowed with preamp controls.

Simple alterations in pitch are all you need to take the snare sound from a deep, slack drum to a tight, jazzy one. Meanwhile, the Decay control proves an excellent method of simulating damping. Being variable over quite a considerable range, it also enables you to generate dramatically long snare and tom-tom sounds.

The gating section takes a little getting used to, as you need to get the gate to close before the end of the voice sample if you don't want to hear the less-than-artistic sound of the drum 'cutting off'. This doesn't take too much practice, though, and you have the option of using the cut-off as part of an off-the-wall voice. You can even get a fair 'gated' reverb effect using this facility, though as with all electro-kits, a bit of external reverb improves the sound of the Roland no end.

Yet in spite of all this, the kit doesn't have quite the same flair as the Simmons SDS9, its most obvious rival. Both kits are MIDI-equipped, both are in the same market area (though the Roland is some £300 more expensive), and both are superbly built.

But the Simmons scores in incorporating more than one method of sound-generation — albeit spread unevenly across its drum voices. Even though the Roland has a fair bash at typical analogue sounds, its all-digital synth section means it's the more modern voices that stand out as being noteworthy.

On the credit side, you can buy the Roland kit one step at a time, thus keeping both bank manager and band manager happy at the same time. And however far you look, you couldn't buy a better-looking set of pads.

Prices DDR30 control unit £999; PD10 standard drum pads £85 each; PD20 bass drum pad £175. All prices include VAT.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Dec 1985

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler

Gear in this article:

Drums (Electronic) > Roland > DDR-30

Review by Paul White

Previous article in this issue:

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