Programmable Digital Drum Machine
Few companies make synthesiser debuts as good as the Kawai K3. Now the same company has introduced its first digital beatbox; Simon Trask finds out if they've maintained the standard.
From one of the largest musical instrument makers of all comes the R100, a well-specified machine in a competitive market. Is it individual enough to succeed?
THE R100'S VOICES (or "instruments" as Kawai call them) have all been sampled in 12-bit PCM format at a sample rate of 32kHz. For your money you get three bass and three snare drums; hi, mid and lo toms (separate samples, unlike on some drum machines where they are the same sample tuned to different pitches); open and closed hi-hats; one china, two ride and two crash cymbals; and cowbell, claps, agogo, shaker, tambourine, conga, timbale and claves. A sensible collection, and the good news is that you can add further sets of sounds - but more on that later.
The Instant Appeal award goes to bass drum and snare drum 2. These have both been given the gated cavern treatment - in other words, they're massive. Bass and snare 1 make a good representation of "standard" acoustic kit sounds; snare 3 is in fact a rimshot, while bass drum 3 is the one weak sound in this particular area of the kit. The remaining sounds are bright and clear, though you won't find the longer sounds decaying for their full duration - a fact which suggests sampling memory has been kept at a premium. Most of the R100's sounds have been recorded dry, presumably so that you can take full advantage of the machine's individual outputs during recording - this tends to lend them an upfront, immediate character.
When the voices of a drum machine are tunable, as these are, it becomes difficult (and to a certain extent, meaningless) to talk about a single set of sounds - percussive sounds often take on a completely new character when retuned. In fact, tuning can be used to good advantage on the R100, so if you're keen to experiment with the sounds that make up your rhythm parts, you'll get on fine with this machine. It's possible to get some metallic, contemporary sounds in this way - and once you start making use of the variety of sounds you can get from a tunable machine you'll wonder how you got by without them.
KAWAI HAVE GIVEN their drum machine 100 patterns, 100 songs and 10 chains. Each pattern can be anything from 1-99 bars long, while a song can link together up to 999 patterns, and a chain can link together up to 999 songs. Large numbers indeed, but at least you shouldn't feel constrained.
This three-tiered organisation of pattern/song/chain deserves some further mention. Kawai's labelling suggests one obvious way of using it, but equally, you could use the song level as a means of grouping patterns into song sections, with a chain then becoming a song.
Useful features for organising your rhythm parts in memory are pattern, song and chain copy and pattern exchange. Pattern copy allows you to copy up to two patterns into a single new pattern. On the face of it a simple feature, but in practice tremendously useful, as it allows you to start off with relatively short rhythmic phrases (four bars, say) for some instruments and then add much longer phrases (perhaps eight or 16 bars) on other instruments. If you find yourself running short of patterns, you can always combine two or more patterns that you know you want to use together (though you can't do the opposite and split patterns up).
But it's worth bearing in mind that the R100's memory isn't unlimited (3700 notes, apparently), and depending on the length of your patterns and how busy they are, you're more likely to run out of memory before you run out of patterns.
Pattern recording can of course be in real or step time. Kawai have provided just about all you're likely to need in the way of time signatures: each pattern can be from 1-99/4, 1-99/8 or 1-99/16. Quantisation for real-time recording can be set between 1/4 and 1/192nd note, including triplet values like 1/24. The R100 has an inbuilt metronome, with level adjustable from a dedicated front-panel knob, which is transmitted over the stereo and headphone outputs; this can be set from 1/4 to 1/32nd note resolution.
The R100's 24 sounds are organised in three groups of eight (clearly labelled in rows on the machine's front panel), with one group at a time being accessible from the eight pads. A button to the left of the pads allows you to cycle through the three groups at any time while you're in pattern mode, with small red LEDs indicating the currently-selected group. What this means in effect is that all 24 sounds are equally accessible from the pads during pattern recording and playback.
"Most of the sounds have been recorded dry so you can take advantage of individual outputs during recording - this lends them an upfront, immediate character."
Each of the 24 instruments has four parameters which are accessed on the front panel from the Multi button. These are: level, sensitivity, tune and pan. The latter two can be defined for each note in a pattern, in both real and step time recording. All four can be set on a scale of plus or minus eight.
The R100's two-line LED display is put to good use, providing bar-meter displays for each of the current eight voices; values are adjusted up and down with the eight Command Select keys positioned above the instrument pads. Involved though all this may appear on the printed page, Kawai's system is actually incredibly interactive - so much so that you can almost alter values in real-time.
Erasing notes follows the time-honoured practice of pressing an Erase button together with the appropriate instrument pad at the appropriate time while you're in realtime record. Other options allow you to erase whole instrument parts from a pattern, and to erase entire patterns. You can also go the whole hog if you want to start with a clean slate, by erasing the entire memory (a procedure which, rather fortunately, necessitates pressing quite a few buttons).
Step-time recording allows you to select a single instrument at a time, with the eight instrument pads then being used for inputting note and rest durations for that instrument (1/4-1/16th values, straight and triplets). The pads remain touch-sensitive, so step-time notes are recorded complete with dynamics.
There's also a flam feature: hold down the appropriate button while striking one of the pads, and you end up with two notes in the time of one, with the second note slightly louder. If you take some care in getting the dynamics right, this can be a very effective feature.
Kawai have provided a bar punch-in/out feature at the pattern level for real-time editing. This comes in handy when you want to edit patterns longer than four bars. You predefine both the punch-in and punch-out points and a play start point (so you can have a lead-in to the section you want to edit). Unfortunately, the R100 doesn't cycle around a punch-in/out section; when it reaches the punch-out point, it returns to the very beginning of the pattern. To get round this you have to press the stop/continue pad, which takes the R100 back to the punch-in point.
The R100 includes two further pattern editing features: reframe and swing. The former allows you to change the quantisation on an existing pattern or on an individual instrument in a pattern, while the latter allows you to introduce a "shuffle" feeling by introducing delays on the even notes in a pattern (again, this can be applied to all instruments or individual instruments).
Master tempo is variable from 40-250bpm in single-bpm steps. The value is reset to 120bpm each time the drum machine is switched on - something that can soon become annoying.
Song and chain creation and editing on the R100 allow you to insert and delete steps and to introduce both tempo and level changes between patterns (in songs) and between songs (in chains).
Undoubtedly useful, but there's something awry with the tempo changes. For a start, all changes are specified as +/- values relative to the master tempo. Then there are more difficulties owing to the fact that the current song tempo becomes the new master tempo - surely an error. Basically, this makes life difficult where it needn't be.
"Memory isn't unlimited, and depending on the length of your patterns and how busy they are, you're more likely to run out of memory before you run out of patterns."
More encouraging are the repeat and jump commands, which give you greater control over your song and chain sequences. You can use up to 10 repeats and jumps in each song or chain, and each one can repeat once, 99 times, or anything in between.
While repeat allows you to repeat any section of a song or chain, jump allows you to jump backwards or forwards to any position in a song or chain (in both cases to pattern or song resolution respectively). The purpose of these commands is to allow you to introduce the sort of repeat, dal segno and coda structures that are found in music without having to program them out in a linear fashion. It's a nice idea, even if too much jumping about can tie you up in knots, if you see what I mean.
Ever keen to provide the user with programming flexibility, Kawai have come up with a rather interesting feature which they've labelled overdub. This allows you to record a single instrument part (which can be any one of the 24 instruments) in real-time over a song or chain, complete with dynamics. All eight pads play the same instrument, but usefully, the tune and pan values assigned to each pad are recorded as part of the overdub.
The intention behind this feature is obviously to free you from the constraints of pattern-based recording, allowing you to record the sort of spontaneous extended percussion workout that the pattern-based approach of drum machines tends to preclude, while still building up the underlying rhythm using that very approach.
You'll need to make sure that you've finalised the relevant song or chain, as any changes in order will erase the overdub part. And, as the manual honestly points out, overdubbing uses twice as much memory as ordinary recording. It's worth bearing in mind, also, that the R100's pattern copy facility, coupled with a maximum 99-bar pattern length, can allow you to achieve a similar sort of thing with more instruments and less memory.
AS MENTIONED EARLIER, the R100 has eight individual audio outputs as well as stereo outputs. Each instrument can be assigned to either stereo or individual out, or to both. Assignment of instruments to individual outputs is preset: the first sounds in each group of eight are sent through output 1, the second sounds through output 2, and so on. This means that each voice channel shares three instruments, only one of which can be played at a time. A new instrument replaces or cuts short any instrument in that group which is already sounding - a feature which can sometimes be put to good use.
While Kawai have obviously attempted to group mutually exclusive instruments together (three bass drums on voice channel 1, three snares on voice channel 2, for instance) it's clearly impossible to do this for all 24 instruments - which can sometimes prove irritating.
Keeping to the R100's rear panel, there's a start/stop jack which allows you to control both recording and playback from a footswitch, while the enigmatically-named HH jack allows you to switch rapidly between open and closed hi-hat while playing the instruments of either group 1 or group 2 - something you can't achieve from the R100's front panel alone. Also to be found on the rear panel are a metronome out jack and a trigger out jack, the latter allowing you to trigger an external source in the rhythm of any of the 24 instruments.
Kawai have put plenty of thought into the R100's MIDI implementation, most notably on the input side of things. For example, you can take full advantage of the machine's tuning facilities because in addition to being able to assign any one of the 24 instruments to any note within the MIDI range, you can also assign a tune and a pan value to each note. This is particularly useful when you want to play several tunings of an instrument within a single pattern - it certainly beats cycling round a pattern and dropping in retuned notes each time.
Further good news is that you can record patterns into the R100 from a MIDI source (which could be a set of MIDI'd pads or a MIDI keyboard - preferably velocity-sensitive), taking advantage of all the above-mentioned features.
"You can assign a tune and a pan value to each note, which is useful when you want to play several tunings of an instrument within a single pattern."
While all MIDI input is limited to a single MIDI channel, for MIDI output each instrument can be individually assigned to any one MIDI channel (1-16). However, each instrument can only be assigned to a single key number, so there's no way of indicating tune and pan values. In addition to key information, the R100 can also send and receive velocity and program-number data and receive volume data.
In addition to its usual bulk data transfer function, the R100's System Exclusive section allows you to remotely edit instrument level, sensitivity, tune and pan, and to change MIDI In key number assignments. An American software house called CompuMates are offering an R100 editing package for the Atari ST which takes advantage of these options, and which boasts some exciting-looking colour graphics. But there's no UK distributor yet.
MIDI synchronisation (the machine has MIDI In, Out and Thru) provides for the usual start/stop/continue commands, while MIDI song pointer information can be received but not sent. The R100 also features DIN sync, clock sync and tape sync in/out. Clock in can be set to a 24, 48 or 96 timebase, but its usefulness is limited by the fact that clock and tape in share the same socket.
Kawai have also given the R100 a timing adjust feature, which allows you to adjust the drum machine's timing relative to an external device (MIDI, DIN, tape or clock), in 24th-note steps on a scale of +/-9.
THE ONLY MAJOR disappointment on the R100 concerns the expandability of its sound library. Not that Kawai aren't making further sounds available (they are), but you have to open up the R100 and slot in a new 24-instrument ROM to get them. While this shouldn't be too tricky (ROMs are inserted into a ZIF socket), the chief disappointment lies with the fact that you either have one set of sounds or another. This compares unfavourably with Korg's DDD1 or Yamaha's RX5, which seem to have sonic expandability as one of their priorities.
Still, variety is the spice of life, and a list of sounds for Kawai's first addition to their ROM library (which unfortunately wasn't available in time for this review) reveals that the R100 will be able to branch out into the realms of "non-percussion" sounds such as bass guitars and orchestral and brass hits, alongside the more familiar array of electronic and acoustic kit sounds. It's just a pity you won't be able to use them in conjunction with the sounds already in the machine.
Without question, though, the R100 is one of the most sophisticated drum machines currently available. It's cheaper than the RX5, yet incorporates several of the features of that "state-of-the-art" machine, plus a few more.
Well-designed and flexible, the R100 is also accessible enough to be genuinely interactive with the people using it. And it has a sonic character all its own.
Prices £595; RAM cartridge £45; ROM chips £50 approx; all including VAT
More from Kawai UK, (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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