Hits From The Stick
Dynacord Rhythm Stick
A guitar for drummers, a percussion controller for keyboardists, or a drum-kit for guitar players? The Rhythm Stick could be all of these things, as Nigel Lord discovers.
Dynacord's Rhythm Stick is a new form of MIDI controller. As well as letting drummers control percussion voices at the front of the stage, it opens up a host of new control possibilities for all musicians. Will it catch on?
On your marks (defences up, mind closing rapidly), get set (hackles assuming fully vertical aspect - all external stimuli cut), go (prepare to succumb to full-blown wave of Luddite passion):
AGUITARFORDRUMMERS. There. Said it.
Yes, it's technology time again. Get that mind open, put those pre-conceptions back in moth-balls and give me a few minutes of your time.
There must be quite a number of drummers out there who've longed to lay down the sticks and strut their stuff (funky or otherwise) up at the front of the stage.
Now it seems those awfully nice Dynacord people have decided it's anchors-away time for drummers, and given them their very own axe to grind. At last, skin-bashers can cut in on a slice of the action upstage, worry about whether the hair gel will hold, and discuss the angle of the dangle along with the rest of them.
To be fair, what Dynacord have in mind for the Rhythm Stick (if their publicity blurb is anything to go by) is that it'll become 'the percussion instrument for the guitarist or the guitar for percussionists or the percussion instrument for the keyboard specialist or just about anyone...' I think it's called keeping your options open.
Whatever happens, it'll certainly be interesting to see just what percentage of guitarists or keyboard players will risk a role change on stage, using the Rhythm Stick to move over to provide the rhythm for a band, or just to play arpeggiated melodies in a different way.
But I'm leaping ahead. The Rhythm Stick comes in two different versions, and that difference can be summed up in one word - MIDI.
The non-MIDI version can be considered simply as an alternative means of triggering the voices of an electronic kit. Instead of whacking the hell out of a set of pads, you simply sling the Rhythm Stick round your neck and slap out a rhythm (bass-guitar style) with the thumb and fingers of your right hand - the left hand being used to select the voices (eight in all) of the drum voices you wish to play.
All triggering information from the Rhythm Stick is dynamic, so provided it's connected to a dynamically sensitive controller - such as Dynacord's own Percuter S and ADD One - it's capable of reproducing all the expression in your playing. At the same time, your overall playing level - sensitivity if you like - can be determined by the Volume control down in the bottom corner of the body, while the only other intrusion into the sleek black exterior of the non-MIDI Stick is a Power On LED indicator situated immediately above this control.
The Rhythm Stick communicates with its chosen control unit via a good length of multicore cable, with a power supply connected 'in line' between the two. On the MIDI version, the requisite five-pin DIN socket is also situated on the power supply, a separate MIDI lead being run to the instrument(s) of your choice.
"Background: It'll be interesting to see how many guitarists or keyboard players risk a role change on stage, using the Rhythm Stick to provide the rhythm for a band."
This brings me neatly round to the Rhythm Stick Version 2, and the facilities opened up by MIDI. Aside from increasing the range of connection possibilities to include synths, expanders, drum machines and indeed the whole gamut of instruments and processors currently sporting a MIDI tag, the MIDI Rhythm Stick is set apart from the non-MIDI variant in two fundamental areas.
First, it allows you to program various trigger selector/voice combinations, and recall these by punching them in on two of the four extra buttons found on the MIDI Stick. Alternatively, you can choose any of the presets pre-programmed by Dynacord to match the unit for use with such instruments as the Yamaha RX15, the Roland DDR30, 707 and 727, the Sequential Drumtraks and the Linn 9000.
Second, it is possible, by switching from 'Guitar Feel' to 'Drum Feel' modes, to generate triggering pulses on the selector pad without having to hit either of the slap sensors. In fact, as many as four pulses may be generated in this way (for each of your four available fingers) and these, in addition to the two generated on the slap sensors, turn the Stick into a far more complex beast, rhythmically speaking.
The two Modes I've just mentioned are in fact only the first of a total of nine available, and selected by the remaining pair of buttons. As with the programming buttons, these are accompanied by a numeric LED readout so you always know where you are - even on stage.
Running through the Modes is perhaps the best way of introducing the range of facilities offered by the MIDI Stick. So, Mode 3 allows you to 'lock' selector 5 in order to hold a constant voice throughout a rhythm. In other words, every time you hit one of the slap sensors or any of the selector pads, it triggers selector 5. If the selector happens to be connected to a hi-hat, for example, it allows you to keep a constant series of beats going, no matter what other instruments you're triggering.
Mode 4 (not to be confused with MIDI's Mono Mode) is used to assign notes via MIDI on user programs 1-16, and it's this mode which is selected prior to programming your own voice/selector pad combinations.
Mode 5 selects the MIDI channel down which the Rhythm Stick sends its information, and thus which sound-generator is accessed. But only one MIDI channel can be set for each program, and the value can't be stored along with the rest of that program's information. So effectively, you're prevented from making proper use of any multi-timbral synths or samplers, or from connecting any two or more MIDI sound-generators together in order to assign different voices to each of the trigger selectors. This is a pity, especially as it would have taken only minimal changes in the software to correct the omission.
"Facilities: All triggering information from the Rhythm Stick is dynamic, so provided it's connected to a dynamically sensitive controller, it can reproduce the expression in your playing."
In the absence of such changes, you're limited to triggering different notes of the same sound when using a synth connected to the Rhythm Stick. The only way of triggering different voices on each selector is by connection to drum machines, for example, which actually assign a different MIDI note number to each voice.
Mode 6 makes it possible to adjust the intensity of the trigger pulses when switched to Drum Feel (Mode 2), and thus match trigger levels to your playing style.
Mode 7 displays the MIDI velocity value and thus the intensity of the pulses from the slap sensors, while Mode 8 is used to call up and display the MIDI note settings for all the factory programs.
Finally, Mode 0, like Mode 3, locks on trigger selector 5, though this time it takes effect only in Mode 1 (Guitar Feel).
The position of the Mode and Program buttons, along with their associated LEDs, makes them clearly visible and easy to use - even while playing. However, before I go any further down that particular road, I'd better make a confession.
All references to playing the Rhythm Stick do not, alas, come directly from me. You see, I have a little problem (I have a big problem too, but this is neither the time or the place), in that I'm left-handed. As you probably know, most guitar-shaped objects are made for right-handed players, and the Rhythm Stick is no exception.
This needn't present difficulties for all left-handed people: if you're starting from scratch, it shouldn't take you any longer to master the instrument in the right-handed position. My problem is that I've already been known to knock out a toon or two on the ol' guitar now and then, and have thus already formed a left-handed habit, so to speak. Consequently, any comments regarding the physical layout and playing position of the Rhythm Stick have been drawn from those of the dozen or so people who inhabit the office at Music Maker Publications.
"MIDI: Only one MIDI channel can be set for each program, so you're prevented from making proper use of any multi-timbral synths because you're limited to triggering different notes of the same sound."
Most of these right-handed worthies seemed generally impressed with the ease of playing, and notwithstanding the rather bizarre idea of carrying the equivalent of a set of drums round the neck, with the naturalness of the concept as a whole.
Criticisms voiced concerned the eight selector triggers, which, had they been positioned closer to the body of the instrument, would have been easier to reach with the left hand (ie. with less wrist-twisting). It was also decided that a third slap sensor, provided for the soft part of the hand where the base of the thumb joins the wrist, would have allowed far more complex rhythmic patterns to be built up.
But the main problem people experienced while playing the Stick was caused by what appeared to be the sluggish response of the selectors in Drum Feel mode, where the selectors themselves are used to trigger the sounds. This could be overcome with the right playing technique - 'leading' slightly with the left hand - and maybe this is how the instrument is intended to be played. But the first time anybody picks up the Rhythm Stick, it's inevitably this particular idiosyncracy which causes the most problems.
But the overall playing impressions were very favourable - as the difficulty I had retrieving the damn thing was testament to. Connecting the Stick to a Yamaha DX7 had a number of people hammering out rhythms that could have been played on the keyboard itself, but somehow wouldn't have been. This was especially true in the context of the percussion voices (tuned and otherwise) at which the DX excels, though it was interesting to note that, as a general rule, people experience fewer problems adjusting to the Rhythm Stick while playing drum patterns, than they do bashing out synth melodies.
It was while the Rhythm Stick was being used in this way that it struck me just how odd the whole concept really is. You're stood there, playing an instrument shaped like a guitar controlling a keyboard that's producing the sound of a drum. Much has been written, in these pages and in others, on the blurring of distinctions between instruments that new technology is causing, but I honestly can't think of a better example than that.
The pose value of this instrument almost goes without saying. I can see it fitting in well with the stage image of a number of different band styles, from heavy metal to heavy funk. That said, the Rhythm Stick may become the sort of instrument that's used mainly by name acts who've already made the big time, and even then only for one or two numbers in a set. That would be a shame, because this is, without any doubt, a serious instrument with a lot to offer.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Rhythm Stick forces the user to approach the creation of rhythm tracks in a totally different way, and that can only be for the good.
Prices MIDI version £499, non-MIDI version £399; both RRPs including VAT
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Review by Nigel Lord
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