Kawai R100 Drum Machine
Kawai are quickly making a name for themselves in the hi-tech field thanks to good value products like the R100. Ian Waugh files his report.
For once, Ian Waugh enjoys programming his drum tracks, thanks to this well-conceived newcomer to the drum machine market.
What do people actually do with their drum machines? More to the point, how do they use them?
Think about it. To many, a drum machine is simply more convenient than a drummer. It's smaller for starters, doesn't drink as much (or cadge fags, throw up in the back of the van on the way home - add all the other drummer jokes you can think of!), it's ultimately more accurate and, in the long term, less expensive.
Great! Now if your drum machine only has a fixed number of drum sounds you may be excused for treating it like a pushbutton drummer. How did Bert play this song? Oh yes... one bar intro, 15 bars verse, one bar fill, 15 bars chorus, etc, etc. Yawn, yawn! Very imaginative!
Well, every drum machine worth its digital salt can do that. The fact is, we've passed the stage when all we require of a drum machine is to keep a song together with a simple rhythm played on a set of tin cans and empty cartons.
At least technology has passed that stage, not all users have. That's why you can usually tell the difference between a very good drummer (or sometimes a very bad one) and a drum machine: it's to do with 'feel' and the subtle differences which are apparent when drums are hit in different places. Most drum machines sound the same wherever you hit them unless they have velocity-sensitive buttons, and even they tend not to alter the tone of the drum sound.
So what, you may be thinking, has this to do with Kawai's new R-100? Well, if you only want a basic rhythm track to hold a piece together and to replace Bert's drumblings, you can probably pick up a secondhand Drumatix or Dr. Rhythm for £50 to £80 which will do the job quite nicely, thank you. If, on the other hand, you groan every time you hear another 'click-track' drum track and you're enough of a musician to realise that a drum machine is a musical instrument with an enormous range of possibilities, then read on.
The R-100 has been designed to help you explore and exploit the real potential of (sampled) drum sounds. So, rather than merely list all its features (see tables for a summary) along with a few reviewer-type comments, we'll see how it can be used to produce original, creative and personalised drum tracks. After all, there's no way I can squeeze the contents of an 86-page owner's manual into three pages! We'll split the analysis into four areas: the sounds, programming, and sync and output facilities.
The first things to check out are the drum sounds themselves. These were recorded in a 12-bit PCM format with a sample rate of 32kHz, so you would expect them to be good - and, generally, they are. There are 24 basic sounds (see table) which have been recorded up-front, but with a certain amount of natural ambience (room sound) which stops them from sounding dry. All instantly usable, in other words, without having to run them through reverb or delay lines, meaning you can record them direct from the machine. There are eight individual outputs, however, as well as stereo and mono sockets so you can add effects to taste if you wish.
All digital samples are prone to an effect called 'quantisation', which shows itself in the form of noise and a deterioration of the sound. It is a result of trying to convert an analogue sound into a series of numbers and, generally, the more numbers you have (in this case, the more 'bits' you have) the better the sound quality.
The R-100's 12-bit sampling should produce fairly clean results, but some of the samples on the review model were a little more noisy than I would have expected and the sound of one or two seemed to 'break up' at the end. This was especially noticeable on Bass Drum 2 and Snare Drum 2, which were recorded with gated reverb - superb sounds otherwise by the way. It was also more evident if the sounds were played softly (more of that in a moment).
Lengthy conversations with Kawai revealed that no-one else had commented on this but they also seemed to indicate that I did not have a dodgy machine. You never can tell, though, can you? Pressure of the magazine deadline (etc) prevented me from obtaining another machine so I would recommend you listen to the sounds before digging out your flexible friend.
Having said all that, the quantisation noise, such as it was, would generally be lost in a mix but certain sounds were not up to CD standard, as the manual claims.
Let's stay with the sounds. The 24 drums are arranged into eight banks of three and each bank has its own touch-sensitive pad. Sounds in the same bank cannot be played at the same time and if one sound in a bank follows another very quickly (eg. a Clave following a Ride Cymbal), the first sound will be truncated. This still means you can play eight different drums on the same beat - if you ever work out a suitable pattern for them all, that is.
The drum pads are touch-sensitive so the harder you hit 'em, the louder the drum sounds. This can take a little practice to get used to but it is really a rather excellent way to programme dynamics into a pattern. You can keep on recording until you get the dynamics exactly as you want them, but it's worth remembering that a misplaced accent here and there can contribute to a human feel.
The sensitivity of the pads can be adjusted, too, so your taps can produce dynamics ranging from 'ppp' to 'fff' or it can be switched out altogether. The sensitivity is adjustable for each instrument, not just each pad, and the maximum output level of each drum can be individually set from 0 to 15 - they can similarly be panned across the stereo output through 15 degrees.
One of the most fascinating and useful features of the R-100 is the ability to tune each instrument separately. This ranges over approximately 16 semitones and the built-in Kawai demo program includes a rather brilliant drum pattern which plays a riff on tuned claves. The nice part about the tuning system is the fact that when an instrument is entered into a step, it is entered at its current pitch. You can then change the pitch and enter it on another step.
"What use is only one timbale?" I heard one person cry (not in relation to the R-100 I hasten to add). Well, the R-100 gives you 384 (24 x 16) different drum sounds and pitches, adequate scope for producing your own individual kits and probably 380 more sounds than Bert the drummer ever managed to get out of his! This feature is incredibly powerful and should not be underestimated.
Tuning and pan, incidentally, can be edited for each note in a sequence and stored with the real-time or step-time commands.
With all these sounds at your disposal, how do you go about programming a drum track?
Well, as with most drum machines, the R-100 uses a series of units which build one upon the other. The smallest is the pattern which can be up to 99 bars long. The song links up to 999 patterns together and the chain links up to 999 songs.
A pattern can have from 1 to 99 beats per bar with a beat value of 4, 8 or 16 (why no 2, I wonder?). For real-time recording you can set a metronome to tick at from 1/4 to 1/32 and with the error-correct function active (to keep your notes on the beats), from 1/4 to 1/192. As on Roland's old TR808, the pattern you are busy writing will play and repeat until you stop it, allowing you to add any drum at any pitch and level etc, until you're thoroughly satisfied with the result. For the tricky bits, you need step-time input. This takes no metronome or error-correct value but has a bar-correct function which cuts short any note values that would otherwise sustain across the bar. The pattern must be run through at least once (it keeps repeating, too) for each drum you wish to add. In this mode, the pads take on note and rest values which are used to build up the pattern.
The parameter display is a backlit LCD 16x2 characters in size. There are no problems in showing song and pattern information but, unfortunately, there is not room to show individual steps and patterns and which drums occur on which beats. For step-time entry of notes, I must confess a preference for Roland's LCD display. Although I can read music, it's so very much easier to get your drums on the right steps and to visualise the overall pattern when you can see the whole sequence laid out in front of you.
Step-time input on the R-100 assumes that you know what crotchets and quavers are. I'm not complaining but, if 'dots' aren't your strong point, you may have problems. Not only that but, if you lose your place (have I entered two semiquaver rests or just the one?) and guess wrongly, you have to enter that instrument again as there is nothing to indicate which step you are on.
The instruments still respond to the touch-sensitive pads in step-time programming mode and you can enter flams, as well, which is very nice. A complete recording would probably be constructed with a combination of both real-time (as you play) and step-time (beat-by-beat) methods.
Just in case you made a mistake whilst programming or decide a part is not quite right, what can you do about it? The answer is lots!
The Reframe command lets you error-correct a previously recorded sequence, either for all the drums or for individual ones. The Swing command introduces a shuffle feeling to a pattern and, again, this can be applied to all or individual instruments. With a little effort you can produce a really sloppy performance - isn't technology wonderful?
There is also a useful recorder-like Punch-in/out command which allows you to change a part midway through a long pattern (they can be up to 99 bars long, remember). To help on the arrangement front, Exchange lets you swap the contents of two patterns easily and Copy lets you copy and join (append) patterns.
Songs and chains are very similar: a song is a collection of patterns and a chain is a collection of songs. As they are so similar, the following comments refer to the construction of both.
Once you've put a song or chain together there are lots of editing facilities available. You can change pattern numbers within a song and song numbers within a chain, insert and delete patterns and songs, and you can even adjust the volume level between individual sections. More than that, you can alter the tempo between patterns and songs and slow things down or speed them up by up to 99 beats per minute.
Repeat and Jump commands are provided which let you skip over certain sections and implement the repeat bars, D.S. and Coda signs used in music. You can use up to 10 of each per song or chain. There is also a Copy function available similar to that used in pattern construction, and the ability to name songs and chains is extremely useful.
Finally, you can edit a song or chain with the Overdub command. This effectively makes use of a different track and lets you record an instrument alongside a song or chain.
The flexibility offered by these editing functions is enormous and it's unlikely you will find yourself thinking "Why can't I do such and such?" - as you most probably can! But if you have editing facilities coming out of your ears, fear not. They are there to be used if required, they aren't compulsory. There will be certain circumstances which will favour the use of one method rather than another.
On now to the outputs and syncing facilities, which are an increasingly important part of modern instrument design. The R-100 definitely has more than its fair share.
The Assign command lets you direct each drum to the individual rear panel (mono) output sockets, the stereo outputs, or both. Whilst the Trigger Out command lets you select an instrument to provide a trigger signal (seems only fair).
For synchronisation purposes you can choose to have the R-100 driven from the internal clock or any one of four external sources: MIDI, tape, DIN or clock. Using the internal clock, the R-100 will direct signals to the other outputs. Selecting an external source allows the R-100 to be controlled by the selected source (eg. a MIDI sequencer).
It can lay down a tape sync track and play back in time with it. Although the manual suggests it may take some trial and error to get the level right, it worked perfectly and first time with my humble cassette recorder. You can also introduce an offset which adjusts the playback timing relative to the external clock by +/- nine 1/24ths of a note.
Then there's MIDI. You can set the In and Out channel numbers and switch from Omni to Mono modes. There are five other MIDI-related commands which can be switched on or off: key information, velocity, volume (receive only), program number, and key number.
The key number assignments are particularly interesting. Not only can you assign each instrument to a different key number (0 to 127), but you can assign separate numbers to different combinations of 'tune' and 'pan' for the same instrument. This would enable you, for example, to programme a track on a MIDI sequencer with the necessary data to play back a complete drum track; or to assign the most used combinations of drums and pitches to a keyboard and use that to programme the R-100.
The System Exclusive command can be used to control most of the R-100's features. The manual rather unhelpfully, and perhaps rather optimistically, suggests it could be used to control another R-100; but that aside, it can be used to access some truly powerful facilities. These include the all-important song position pointers, realtime tuning, key assignment, velocity control, pan and sensitivity levels. The trouble is, the manual has nothing to say about these at all and you have to wade through the, admittedly comprehensive, MIDI data sheets at the back. This is precisely the area where most users need help and guidance and its omission lets down an otherwise excellent manual.
Finally, you can save and load the contents of the R-100's memory to cassette or RAM cartridge. Cartridge transfer is instantaneous and cassette operations take around 90 seconds, which is a lot faster than most drum machines.
In practice I found the R-100 very easy to use. I wrote a complete drum track quite quickly using a combination of real- and step-time programming and even included some tuned percussion riffs.
The mammoth manual may look off-putting but it is necessary in order to describe all the features. It is as concise as it can be, well-written, and it contains many practical examples. Control is so logical, though, that you'll probably only have to refer to the manual occasionally. Very 'user-friendly' as they say in Japan.
Parameters are adjusted from a numeric keypad or incremented and decremented with the [>] and [<] buttons. Wrap-around on certain parameters would have been preferable and key repeat at certain times would have helped when programming. It's hardly a critical factor, though.
I'd half expected the ability to load in new drum samples as that is the way the drum machine market seems to be heading, but perhaps that's just a bit too much to ask at this price (£645).
Overall, the R-100 is a powerful, easy-to-use drum machine whose facilities should be appreciated by drum machine veterans and newcomers to the art alike. It gives you every aid and incentive to use it creatively and, hopefully, it will help put an end to mediocre drum tracks. The comprehensive range of outputs, MIDI and sync facilities should find it a welcome home in any studio environment. It has certainly been designed with an eye to the pro end of the market - but without a pro price tag to match.
MRP: £645 inc VAT.
Contact: Kawai UK Limited, (Contact Details).