Digital Drum Machine
Following hard on the heels of the R100, this junior beat box from Kawai threatens to outshine its big brother, as Simon Trask finds out.
Traditionally a budget instrument meant either inferior sound quality, slimmed-down facilities or both. With their new drum machine, Kawai have proved it doesn't have to be that way.
DEEP IN THE vaults of R&D departments all over the world new instruments are constantly being conceived and designed. Some of them are entirely new and demand a corresponding approach. Many more are intended to bring upmarket facilities into a downmarket price bracket.
When one of the latter instruments is being planned, it is traditionally the hardware that suffers in the name of economy. Many of the costing decisions revolve around numbers of components, what those components are, and how much it will cost to "tool up" for the production line. When it comes to software, however, there is no ready correlation between price and sophistication. After all, how do you relate the cost of a ROM chip to the sophistication of the software that is encoded in it? And what's more, once the software routines are written for one product it becomes easier to add further routines (and further sophistication) to another product which uses essentially the same design. Thus Kawai's R50, whilst being around half the price of the R100 (reviewed in MT May '87), is in a number of ways a significantly more sophisticated instrument to its big brother.
The most obvious compromises in the R50 are to be found by looking at the machine. It's half the size of the R100, has a less well-equipped front panel, uses flimsy rubber buttons and foregoes the luxury of a backlit LCD. Personally I can live with these physical limitations, for far more important are the quality and range of sounds the machine provides and the sophistication of its programming system.
A more significant area of compromise can be found on the R50's rear panel. Here the R100's eight individual audio outs (both the 100 and the 50 are eight-voice machines) have been replaced by a single individual out to which any one of the R50's 24 sounds can be assigned - in which case it is automatically removed from the stereo pair retained from the R100. This does at least allow you to send out the bass or snare, say, for separate processing, while the remainder of the kit appears as a composite stereo mix.
On the plus side, Kawai have given their new drum machine ten pads - two more than the R100 and, although the R50's pads aren't touch-sensitive, the instrument is capable of receiving touch-sensitivity via MIDI. The R50 loses nothing to the R100 in the sound department. Not only does it use the same 24-sound ROM chip, which means you're getting a healthy variety of 12-bit 32kHz drum and percussion sounds, but you can slot in new chips just as you can on Kawai's earlier machine. (More accurately, you can only swap between two sound chips, as these are all that Kawai currently have available.)
The chip that comes with the machine offers a healthy selection of standard kit and latin percussion sounds: three kick and snare drums; hi, mid and lo toms; open and closed hi-hats; a selection of crash cymbals; cowbell; claps; agogo; shaker; tambourine; conga; timbale and claves. The sounds have all been recorded dry and are bright and clear, yet also possess a tight, compressed quality. If you prefer, call them "modern".
The R50's expandability is a definite plus point, even if it does mean opening up the machine and slotting in a new chip - a bit low-tech in these days of plug-in cartridges. However, Kawai do provide a ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket, which you can get your local music shop to fit for you. Once this is in place, removing and inserting chips becomes a much easier business (though with the review model a certain amount of fiddling was still involved as pins and socket weren't perfectly aligned).
Kawai have sensibly ensured that their new sound chip (which will of course work in both the R50 and the R100) provides a healthy variety of basic kit sounds. They've concentrated on providing some solid acoustic and electronic kick and snare drums and toms and spiced things up with orchestral and brass strikes, mellow and funk bass guitars and tympani and finger-clicks instead of the latin percussion sounds that are to be found on the standard chip. Atomic, room and acoustic kick and snare drums all pack a hefty punch, while the funk bass is so upfront it almost slaps you in the face. Get the picture?
One of the neatest features of the R100 is its voice handling. Each voice may be tuned over a +/-8 range (16 semitones in the case of pitched sounds) and have its level, accent and pan values set independently. Not only does the R50 retain all these features, it adds digital effects in the form of gate, short delay and flanging. Although there isn't much room for nuance (you can choose from three progressively more severe settings in each case), these effects do greatly enhance the quality and the range of sounds that can be obtained.
The R50's lower price becomes more apparent in event storage and in the number of available patterns and songs. It has approximately half the storage capacity of the R100, and though it still has 100 patterns, only 50 of these are programmable. The reduction in memory capacity means that you'd be unlikely to fill 100 patterns even if you had them, especially if you're recording multi-bar patterns.
"Kawai's R50, whilst being around half the price of the R100, is in a number of ways a significantly more sophisticated instrument to its big brother."
The remaining 50 patterns are presets in ROM, and most of them are rather uninspiring by contemporary standards. Still, you can use them as the basis for more detailed patterns, in which case the R50 automatically stores the results in a spare RAM pattern location.
The R50's ability to accept alternative sound ROMs inevitably means that its preset patterns take on a rather different slant - with variable success. But Kawai have put a lot of thought into the organisation of sounds on their second ROM, trying to parallel the sounds in each ROM where possible (so that, for instance, bass and snare drums occupy the same positions in each ROM). Swapping sound ROMs can have a quite beneficial side effect too - a few of the patterns I'd recorded using the standard ROM took on a whole new lease of life when I swapped in the alternative ROM. There's inspiration in there somewhere.
Real-time recording on the R50 holds no surprises. You set up a pattern length (1-99 bars), time signature (1-99/4, 8 or 16), quantisation value (from quarter notes to 96th notes, including triplets) together with a metronome beat rate (quarter notes to 32nd notes, including triplets) and a tempo value (40-250BPM). Then you're ready to record. Unfortunately you have to leap straight in, as there's no count-in period. This isn't so bad with a short pattern, where you can use the first pass through as a count-in, but for more lengthy patterns a count-in would have been helpful. And given that you can record long patterns it would also have been helpful to be able to start and stop record at any position within a pattern; as it is, you have to start from the beginning each time.
Step-time recording is a fairly straightforward affair. You select from nine note and rest duration values (which can be straight or triplet) as you go along, and tap the relevant pad to enter the sound you want. Pressing the Enter key advances the pattern one step at a time, if you don't want to enter a note, or if you want to reach a particular position in the pattern. When the pattern end is reached, the R50 automatically loops around to the beginning. Notes may be deleted in step-time by selecting a rest value and tapping the relevant pad at the relevant position.
Kawai's programming system is uncomplicated, uncluttered, and easy to use within short patterns. Steptime and real-time methods of recording can be combined within a single pattern, so if there's one tricky part that you can't quite get right in real time you can input it in step time.
As on the R100 you can copy two patterns into a single new pattern. This means that you can start off recording short patterns, build them up into a longer pattern, and then extemporise over the top in a more spontaneous and extended fashion. Very useful.
Of less use is the after-the-event "swing" function. Swing allows you to delay the timing of offbeat 8th or 16th notes by a fixed amount, either for individual parts or for a whole pattern. The idea is to give a pattern a more "human" feel by placing sounds slightly behind the beat but its implementation is so mechanical that it has the opposite effect. Surely the best way to get a human feel is to set the minimum quantisation value possible (96th notes in this case) and record with feeling, rather than trying to build the feeling in after the event (no pun intended).
The R50 allows you to construct ten songs, and provides the usual Insert and Delete features plus the more unusual Multiply, which is a quick and memory-efficient way of setting up a repeat-until-fade section at the end of a song. Unlike the R100, however, Kawai's new baby doesn't allow you to set up tempo changes within a song. But what you can do is specify a tempo for each song (on the R100 you could only specify tempo at the chain level).
"Step-time and real-time methods of recording can be combined within a single pattern, so if there's one tricky part that you can't quite get right in real time you can input it in step time."
The R50's ten songs can be chained together by specifying, at the end of each song, which one should come next. This simple approach has its limitations but could be useful for automating the running order of a set.
Undoubtedly the most significant addition to the R50 in programming terms is its use of 12 "kits" (four preset, eight programmable). Each kit is an arrangement of sounds on the R50's pads. The programmable kits allow you to create customised arrangements of these sounds, while the preset kits concentrate on presenting unaltered versions of the 24 sounds in various combinations.
To call a kit onto the pads, you simply press the Pad button and use the +/- cursor keys to select the one you want. This done, pressing Pad again will return you to the previous mode. Pad mode allows you to edit sounds, select a different kit or even create a new kit while a pattern is running. In Record mode this has the added advantage of allowing you to experiment with sounds without actually recording anything. Pad mode also comes in useful for quickly rehearsing a part while you're recording, as it effectively allows you to drop in and out of record mode at any point in a pattern.
The R50's kit-style organisation allows you to take full advantage of its array of sounds, as it makes multiple edited versions of the same sound simultaneously available. For instance, you can set several different tunings of pitched sounds, which makes recording of pitched parts a doddle (on the R100 you have to either use an external MIDI controller or drop in different pitches at each pass of the record loop).
Yet another possibility on the R50 is to spread the same sound over several pads, changing just the volume level in each case so that you can create some form of pseudo touch-sensitivity from the drum machine's resolutely non-dynamic pads.
In fact the possibilities are so numerous that I soon found myself wishing I had more kits at my disposal. I guess it's just not possible to get enough of a good thing...
Kawai have also allowed you to play each drum sound either polyphonically or monophonically. This polyphonic playing even allows you to use several edited versions of the same drum sample; not only can this be very useful when you're using pitched sounds, but it opens up a new degree of sonic variety by allowing you to combine two or more versions of the same sound. And that's what Kawai's new drum machine is all about: being as experimental as you can be with the sounds at your disposal.
In addition to its 24 programmable sounds, the R50 has eight "triggers" which may be assigned to any of the drum machine's pads and recorded into a pattern in the same way as the sounds. Each trigger can be assigned its own MIDI note number (0-127), MIDI channel (1-16) and note length (semibreve to 32nd note) so that you can incorporate a much broader range of sounds into your rhythm patterns by triggering slaved MIDI instruments. You may, for instance, want to add more percussion parts from another drum machine or a sampler, or equally, you could incorporate a bass line into your patterns (but remember that you're limited to a maximum of eight notes). Unfortunately, you can't make use of the triggers if you're recording into the R50 from external pads or a keyboard.
"The R50's kit-style organisation allows you to take full advantage of its array of sounds, as it makes multiple edited versions of the same sound simultaneously available."
A quick way of changing both the volume and panning of sounds is to use the onboard mixer. This is accessed from a dedicated button and is best thought of as a 24-channel mixer with a volume fader and pan knob for each channel. It's best used with care, though, as it affects sounds globally - for instance, if you are using several tunings of a sound they will all be panned alike.
The R50 has provision for two footswitches, each of which can be programmed for one of a variety of functions. You can use them to trigger one of the ten sounds in the current kit, step upwards through the kits, start/stop the machine, step upwards through the patterns or open the closed hi-hat and close the open hi-hat. One other function allows the current pattern within a song to be repeated until you release the footswitch, though I couldn't get this to work on the review model.
The R50's thorough MIDI implementation follows in the tradition of its predecessor. On the MIDI In side of things you can allocate an R50 sound (complete with the seven parameters which define it) to each of the 128 MIDI notes. Thus you can play any of the R50's sounds from a set of MIDI pads or a MIDI keyboard - and, as with the R100, you can record patterns into the R50 in this way. You can also turn on and off key information, velocity, volume, program changes and start or stop the machine.
Moving on to MIDI output, you can assign each of the R50's 24 sounds to a single MIDI note, and assign all sounds to a single channel (poly) or each sound to its own channel (mono). Transmission of instrument notes, trigger notes, velocity, program changes and start/stop codes can be turned on/off.
When it comes to keeping a permanent record of your efforts, the R50 provides two options: cassette and MIDI data dumps. Cassette uses the standard save/verify/load commands, with each operation taking one minute to transfer the complete RAM memory of the R50.
Needless to say, MIDI System Exclusive is a far more comfortable option if you have the requisite software and hardware at the other end of the MIDI cable. For a start, transfer time is reduced to a mere 4-5 seconds. Swapping pattern and song data in and out of the R50 becomes a trivial task. MIDI transfer also offers the possibility of using sophisticated librarian and editing software (if you have a general-purpose computer as opposed to a dedicated MIDI storage device). The R50's ability to selectively filter out MIDI reception of mixer, pattern & song, in key number, out key number, pad and trigger-note data means that, for instance, you could load in a new set of pad and in/out key number assignments whenever you swap in a different sound ROM, or effectively have 20 pad assignments for a single set of pattern and song data. Just about the only thing that's missing from this idyllic (if ungainly) list is individual pattern and song data. Only the software is missing, so maybe someone somewhere...
Despite being a budget machine, the R50 is actually one of the more sophisticated drum machines on the market. Kawai have also managed to come up with a programming system that is both easy to understand and remarkably quick to use. Like its elder brother, the R50 is a very interactive instrument which could just as easily be used live as in a programming suite (shame about the gloomy LCD, though).
Obviously, the R50 doesn't offer the sonic open-endedness of sampling drum machines. But the range of sounds that Kawai have provided, coupled with the ways that you can twist and turn them, means that you can coax a quite wide sonic vocabulary from the instrument.
Above all, the R50 is a drum machine designed for musicians who like to be experimental with their sounds and rhythms. It's also incredible value for money.
Price R50 £325; CP2 sound chip £53; both including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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