Kawai R50 Drum Machine
In some ways this budget-priced drum machine from Kawai is a major improvement over its big brother, the R100, not least in its use of 8-note polyphonic sounds and its built-in digital effects. Ian Gilby was more than a little impressed. Find out why...
At first sight, the Kawai R-50 looks to be a low cost, cut down version of the R-100 machine we reviewed back in June. But looks can be, and very often are, deceptive in this business and a month spent playing with this unassuming box of tricks has left Ian Gilby in no doubt that the R-50 is one of the best value-for-money drum machines around.
For £325 you'd expect Kawai's 'budget' drum machine to offer fewer sounds than its £645 stablemate. On the contrary, it offers the same 24 drum and latin percussion voices as the R-100. These are all 12-bit PCM samples recorded at a respectable sampling frequency of 32kHz, which gives most sounds a bright and punchy feel.
As a useful starting point for non-programmers, the R-50's memory comes with a generous helping of 50 preset rhythm patterns with further room to store 50 of your own creations. Patterns can be created in step or real-time modes and then combined in a versatile manner to create a song, whose total length is limited to 255 bars. Up to 10 such songs can be held in memory. Most of the preset rhythms offer single bar example patterns in 4/4 time, although a user pattern can be any length up to 99 bars. The presets are mainly rock-based with a few disco rhythms, waltzes, sambas, bossa nova and a march thrown in for good measure, but they in no way paint a complete picture of the R-50's rhythmic abilities.
To keep the price down the R-50 has had to forego the benefits of the R-100's cartridge storage facility, so Tape In/Out mini-jack sockets are provided on the rear panel for saving/loading all memory contents to/from an external cassette recorder. The R-50's memory is non-volatile and battery-backed so you won't lose data if the power goes off. Talking of which, the machine is mains-powered via a 12 volt AC adaptor (included) but, unlike the Roland TR505, battery power is not an option.
What sets the R-50 apart from other drum machines (including the more expensive R-100) is the fact that it is eight-note polyphonic. What am I on about? Well, conventional drum machines can only sound the same drum voice one note at a time and so each newly-played note cuts off the natural decay of the previous one. Because percussive sounds are of such short duration, however, you don't really notice this abrupt cut-off, except on the lengthier sounds like cymbals, but it is partly this unnatural effect which is responsible for giving electronic drum rhythms their characteristic 'machine-like' feel. However, polyphony allows the R-50 to sound up to eight voices simultaneously, making it possible for a cymbal sound (say) to continue ringing even when it has been re-triggered.
Until you hear it at work, you won't believe how much realism this feature alone can inject into even the most robotic of rhythms and fans of splashy repeated cymbal figures will positively love it. No doubt every drum machine will be polyphonic in future once other manufacturer's catch on - I hear Roger Linn has incorporated the same idea into Akai's new sampling drum machine.
The polyphony element gives the R-50 an even more significant edge over its competitors when used in conjunction with its flexible tuning facility. Every one of its 24 drum sounds can be individually tuned across a 16 semitone range (+7/—8) to create, in effect, a different instrument which can be played at the same time as the original. In fact, if you choose to play no other drums on a particular beat you can have one clave sound, for instance, tuned to eight different pitches, all sounding on the very same beat! Applying this technique to the crash cymbal produced a fantastically rich, gong-like timbre.
What this means, then, is that you are not stuck with the same limited 'kit' of drum sounds as on many budget machines. In effect, you can choose to use any of the 24 instruments tuned to any pitch within their respective 16 semitone range, giving you a grand choice of 384 different instruments (24x16). Few drum machines allow you the flexibility of having the same instrument tuned differently within the same pattern, let alone the same bar - the R-50 lets you use a different tuning on every beat, if you so wish. A superb facility, I think you'll agree.
The R-50 comes with four preset pad set-ups and eight user-definable ones which are selected by pressing the Pad pushbutton and stepping through the 12 set-ups, labelled Preset 1-4 and User 1-8, using the < and > cursor keys on the right. These pad set-ups are best thought of as 'drum kits'.
There are 10 rectangular pads (two more than on the R-100) arranged in two rows of five on the front panel, which are used to input the drum beats when composing patterns in real-time; they also input beats and rests when programming in step-time mode. Any drum can be assigned to any single pad or combination of pads, to facilitate easy programming, and each pad can be assigned its own volume level, tuning (see above), pan position, accent level, delay, gate and flange setting. The pads themselves are not velocity-sensitive (you don't really expect it in this price range, do you?), although the R-50 accepts velocity data over MIDI. (More about this later.) Whilst programming patterns, you can change pad set-ups to access any drum sound you have previously assigned to a pad, without stopping the rhythm. Also, the pads remain active at all times so you can add live accompaniment (with a different kit of drums even) over any replayed pattern or song. One of the most welcome features of the R-50 is this facility to alter virtually any parameter in real-time as the rhythms play. Since all tuning, level, pan and effect parameters are stored as part of the programmed pattern, with a little bit of forethought, imagination and adjustment of settings, you can quickly and easily modify the drum sounds you intend to play live over your pre-programmed patterns and add considerable spice and subtlety to your rhythm parts, whilst recording them in stereo on a multitrack tape machine perhaps or even direct to the stereo master for first generation sound quality.
Composing a pattern in real-time is an easy procedure with the R-50. You are provided with default settings for all the necessary parameters - time signature, tempo, beat value, error-correct value, number of bars, etc - and if they are suitable, you only need select the user pattern you wish to compose (00-49) and press the Real-Time Rec button below the LCD display. If the chosen pattern is empty, you will hear a metronome ticking away with the red Tempo LED flashing on the downbeat. The pattern loops continuously and by tapping the pads you can build up your rhythm, one or more parts at a time.
At any point, you can selectively erase a whole drum part from the pattern or just one incidence of it, by holding down both the Erase button and the pad assigned to the unwanted drum sound for the duration of the whole pattern or just while the erroneous drum part occurs. When attempting to remove one or two drum beats in this manner, particularly from a complex pattern, it's a good idea to slow down the tempo. This can be done whilst the pattern plays by pressing Tempo and decrementing the tempo value shown in the display using the cursor keys. Alternatively, you can press Tempo and then tap the Enter button several times, whereupon the R-50 ingeniously calculates your newly-tapped tempo and re-adjusts the speed automatically. (You can use a footswitch to input the tempo instead, if you wish - ideal for a drummer.) To exit record mode you just press Stop, then press the adjacent Call Pattern button and press Start to hear your newly-created rhythm replayed. After playback, if you wish to change or add more drums to the pattern, you simply reselect Real-Time Rec (the display now reads REAL: DUB PTN instead of REAL: NEW PTN, because you are effectively attempting an overdub), and you proceed as already outlined.
To give a sense of dynamics, accented notes may be inserted at any time for each individual drum if need be, simply by holding down the Accent button whilst tapping the desired drum pad. As each drum pad has its own variable Accent level (from 0-15), you can programme the degree of accent to suit each percussion sound individually and even set the Accent level to be lower than the original. What's more, if you don't like a particular setting you are free to go back and change it until you are. This is true of most parameters.
Kawai have included some nifty real-time programming aids on the R-50. For instance, holding down the Enter button and the bass drum pad for the last half of a bar will cause the bass drum to be recorded on every error-corrected beat in that half of the bar. Error-correction is Kawai's term for note quantisation. What it means is that if you choose an error-correct value of 1/16 (the default) when recording, the bar will be divided into 16 beats and regardless of where exactly in the bar you strike a given drum pad, that drum will be automatically 'pulled' onto the nearest 16th note beat. The R-50 offers a quantisation range from 1/4 (quarter-note) to 1/96 including triplet variations.
On many drum machines, once you have chosen the quantisation resolution for a specific pattern you are lumbered with it. You have to re-record the whole pattern if you suddenly change your mind and want to add a very tricky 32nd note hi-hat part to a pattern that has already been quantised (error-corrected) to 16th notes. That's not the case with this machine. The R-50 lets you change quantisation values for each pad - you can even combine different resolutions within the same pattern! This is a positive boon which every old hand at drum programming will fully appreciate.
Another helpful feature is the programmable beat value for the internal metronome (1/4 to 1/32), which is independent of the quantisation value and can thus be set to sound on every 32nd note, say, even though beat quantisation may be set to 1/96. This makes writing complex patterns in real-time a piece of cake and reduces the need to resort to step-time note input for the 'difficult bits'. How come? Well, say you have a standard 4/4 bass and snare pattern quantised rigidly to eighth-notes and you wish to add a fast open/closed hi-hat part on every 16th note. Instead of having the metronome ticking away unhelpfully on every quarter-note, as on some drum machines, you simply reset both the quantisation and metronome resolution to 1/16, slow down the tempo if need be, and use the metronome as a very accurate guide whilst tapping the open and closed hi-hat pads in time with the 16th note metronome beat. The quantisation ensures that your part will come out sounding the business! Incidentally, the metronome playback level is fully adjustable and can even be turned off.
If you want to do a version of Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, for example, it's no problem because the R-50 is flexible enough to allow you to set up the necessary 7/4 time signature. In fact, the time signature can have any number of beats from 1-99 with a choice of three beat values: 4, 8 or 16.
In contrast to real-time entry, the R-50's step-time programming method is not as easy to come to terms with. Let me explain why.
Pressing the Step Rec button accesses step-time record mode and allows you to define the number of bars your pattern will contain and its time signature, before proceeding to enter beats and rests one-by-one to form your pattern. Directly above the R-50's LCD readout, Kawai have printed the musical symbols for quarter, 8th, 16th and 32nd notes and rests. To input beats, you use the < > cursor keys to select the appropriate musical value in the LCD for the beat/rest you are about to enter, then press the drum pad you wish to sound on that beat. (See diagram.) You can freely mix beat/rest values within the pattern, the problem is you either have to write it down or keep a mental count of where you are and which value you are using with which drum. Really, the R-50 could do with something akin to Roland's matrix display (used on the TR505) to give you a visual indication of the pattern's development when step-time programming. Still, the versatile realtime programming facilities already mentioned mean that you need never use step-time input methods at all.
Once you have written several patterns (either by real-time or step-time methods), you will probably want to chain them together to form a complete song. To help you achieve this, Kawai have included handy Insert, Delete, Copy and Multiply functions which let you arrange patterns in any order you like. (The clear and informative LCD readout helps enormously here.) You can specify a certain number of pattern repeats (up to 99) using Multiply, whilst Copy lets you copy pattern X to pattern Y or, alternatively, merge any two patterns into one new, combined pattern - this speeds up the song creation process considerably. There's also a facility to link up to 10 different songs together in any order to enable you to automate your set when playing live.
Few budget-priced drum machines offer the luxury of separate voice outputs, which enable individual drum sounds to be processed through external effects or routed to separate mixer channels for EQ and panning. Kawai have met some of the needs of the user by offering programmable level and panning of individual drum voices across the stereo output, so you don't have to use up valuable mixer channels to perform the same task. In addition, they have fitted one individual output jack on the rear panel to which any single drum (and its tuned variants) can be assigned. Granted this is a compromise, but it's better than nothing.
Kawai have also provided the R-50 with three built-in digital effects - gate, delay and flange - each with a choice of three fixed settings as well as off. These work better on some sounds than others, obviously, but are definitely a good idea and fun to use. The flange effects are especially effective on cymbals, whilst the three delays create more of a thickening or 'double-tracked' effect depending on whether you choose to have the delayed drum sound louder than, quieter than or equal to the original signal. The three gate options give you correspondingly shorter gate times but their decay times were all too fast for my liking, and introduced some distortion. It is possible to have gate, flange and delay effects operating simultaneously on each drum pad, with different settings programmed for every drum sound. You'd need a heck of a lot of outboard effects units to produce the same result.
Kawai's R-50 has a remarkably comprehensive MIDI implementation and almost becomes a totally different machine when used within a MIDI environment.
The unit operates in MIDI modes 1 and 3 (Omni On/Poly and Omni Off/ Poly) and both recognises and transmits program change, song position pointer, song select, real-time clock, start/stop, and note on information, including velocity. It can send and receive on different MIDI channels (1-16) and from the MIDI Out sub-menu of options you can set independent MIDI channels for each drum; in other words the R-50 will work in Mono mode.
You don't have to programme rhythm patterns from the R-50's front panel pads, of course. You can just as easily connect a velocity-sensitive keyboard to MIDI In and use that to input rhythms, with the added advantage of having keyboard velocity create your drum dynamics.
The R-50 can be usefully employed either as a 'master' timekeeping device or as a 'slave', depending on whether its MIDI Sync parameter has been set to internal or external clock. Once set to receive an external clock source, the drum machine can be driven ('clocked') by an external MIDI device such as a sequencer. For the majority of the review period, I drove the R-50 from Voyetra Technologies's excellent Sequencer Plus III program running on my Amstrad PC1512 computer.
When configured this way, you are essentially using the drum machine only for its sounds, you are not using its internal memory. Thus, you can compose your rhythm patterns on one or more sequencer tracks then trigger the R-50's drum sounds via MIDI. I find it a much more preferable way to work because you can utilise your sequencer's full range of note editing facilities and can even view the rhythm patterns on the computer screen. If your sequencing software permits, you can compose patterns with any time signature and as many bars as you like - you don't need to worry about surpassing the R-50's memory capacity. What's more, you can either record your newly-created sequencer drum track into the R-50's internal memory or it can be stored along with your music tracks on floppy disk - no need to bother with tedious tape dumps (or expensive RAM cartridges if using another drum machine)!
By tuning drum sounds to different pitches on several pads, you can assign each one a unique MIDI note number (0-127) of your choice. This can be done for up to 128 different drum sounds (the R-50 gives you 384 permutations of tuned instruments, remember, so there are plenty to choose from). Thus, by playing middle C on a connected MIDI keyboard or sequencer, you could trigger whatever drum sound (or sounds) you had set that note to correspond to. This opens up tremendous possibilities for creating complex, improvised rhythms - you just set the R-50 to receive on all MIDI channels (Omni On) then send it the note data from one or more of your sequencer's music tracks and, bingo! you've got instant drums all perfectly in time with your music. If necessary, you can even do a bit of editing on the sequencer and re-mapping of note numbers to produce a highly polished rhythm part.
One final point, which beautifully highlights what can be achieved when the R-50 is driven by a MIDI sequencer package: Sequencer Plus III contains a wonderful facility whereby you can programme an automatic crescendo/diminuendo to occur gradually over a given timespan with a specified level change. When applied to the R-50's snare drum on a suitably programmed pattern, this little technique produced the most convincing snare roll I've ever witnessed from a drum machine. Glorious!
I'm afraid this review just doesn't do justice to the R-50. There simply isn't space to tell you how you can assign control functions (such as Start/Stop, Pattern increment, Pattern repeat, etc) to two footswitch sockets or use them to trigger any two drum pads (for live fill-ins, etc); or to explain the intricacies of the eight programmable MIDI triggers; or the fact that you can define a different set of MIDI note numbers for MIDI In and MIDI Out as well as choose to filter out certain MIDI controller information; the list goes on and on...
There is one major feature that Kawai's R-50 does not have, however, and that's sync-to-tape. For many people, a drum machine with a tape sync facility is the cheapest way of synchronising their sequenced tracks to their multitrack tape recorder. The drum machine becomes the master clock and sends the sequencer its timing information, which in turn triggers the sounds within the drum machine. But if your sequencer can sync to tape directly (Sequencer Plus III can, for instance), then you can use your sequencer as the master clock to drive your drum machine. The lack of a sync-to-tape option on the drum machine is therefore unimportant.
You've probably guessed by now that I was very impressed with the R-50 drum machine. Thanks to some very thoughtful features, programming patterns in real-time is a quick and easy process. So easy, in fact, that there really is no need to use step-time note entry (just as well, because it's slightly confusing).
The programmable tuning, pan, level, accent level, and built-in digital effects enable you to drastically modify the existing 24 onboard sampled sounds. If they don't suffice, then for an additional £53 (inc VAT) you can purchase Kawai's new sound chip and ZIF adaptor, which lets you switch the internal sound chips easily to access a different set of voices. The new plug-in chip contains traditional orchestral stabs and a selection of popped and plucked bass guitar samples, amongst other sounds.
MIDI fans could easily gorge themselves to death on the possibilities allowed by the R-50's tremendously versatile MIDI implementation. The machine is a delight to use in a MIDI set-up, especially when controlled and programmed from a software sequencer package. Why waste money on a more expensive machine if all you need are good sounds and extensive facilities to control them? The Kawai R-50 gives you both.
Price : £325 inc VAT. Extra sound chip/ZIF adaptor: £53 inc VAT.
Distributed by Kawai (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).