Digital Drum Machine
Expandability comes to drum machines, with an affordable unit that offers four ROM expansion slots, plus the added bonus of onboard user sampling. Trevor Gilchrist checks it out.
It had to arrive sooner or later: an affordable drum machine that offers the potential for hassle-free memory expansion and - in the near future - user sampling of percussion sounds.
QUESTION: WHAT'S WRONG with drum machines? Answer: Not much. Except that, at the moment at least, they offer very little in the way of a future. Aside from the advent of MIDI, most machines put you in a kind of dead end: you spend your money, you set your limits - unless, of course, you can afford something E-mu SP12-ish (which, in its own ways of cost and complexity, can establish equally stifling restrictions).
The main problems lie in the areas of memory and flexibility. While the new Korg DDD1 does little about the actual quantity of memory, it does store a greater variety of things than most - a topic we'll come back to in a little while.
First, let's face a fact: drum machines are now becoming as viable a means of generating rhythm as any other. But the art of maintaining an audience's interest in an "artificially" produced beat still lies in the skill and feel of the programmer. At least, that's where it lies when the machine is capable of doing justice to the inspiration behind a song. Sadly, most "affordable" drum machines are just not up to it, and push out a strange compromise between the initial idea and a machine's vague interpretation of same.
Thankfully, the Korg refuses to compromise in almost all respects. The name DDD1 actually stands for Dynamic Digital Drums. And in the interest of convenience - and because it's arguably the most important new inclusion on an affordable drum machine since the power supply - we'll start with the dynamics.
What are dynamics? Well, you are dynamic. The harder someone hits you, the louder you'll scream. In the same way (though with appreciably less discomfort), the keypads of the DDD1 have a dynamic range which allows the programmer to "play" the machine more like a kit during recording. The harder you strike the key, the louder that particular instrument is recorded in the final pattern. Snare, cymbal and hi-hat parts, in particular, benefit from this more realistic recording method. The life that drum machines have lacked in the past is immediately apparent in finished recordings.
The Korg's dynamics are flexible, allowing a choice of five different dynamic envelopes to be selected. This determines how the level of volume changes with the strength of key touch. Selecting them couldn't really be easier, the system being the same as for selection of each of the DDD1's other functions, which I'll be covering in more detail later on.
Suffice to say, though, that this dynamic element works well, providing ample opportunity for expression - previously a rather neglected area in this branch of technology - and a whole new perspective on the art of programming. The process is more immediate and less laboured, which means the resulting patterns are truer to the original inspiration.
OK, so SP12s, AHB Inpulses and Linns have all featured dynamics in the past. But they've also all featured high price-tags, and the Korg is really the first decently affordable machine to provide such a feature.
But not content with this dynamic improvement Korg have provided a fistful of other functions on the DDD1 that make up a very flexible percussion system indeed.
To begin with, the front edge of the machine has four ports to take ROM memory cards. Not much thicker than credit cards, each one of these carries a selection of voices that can be assigned to the keypads on the face of the machine.
The basic keypads - minus the cards - each represent a "standard" kit or percussion sound, 14 in all, and have each been allocated a letter between A and N. These basic 14 sounds act as the building blocks for your programming, and there's really nothing especially striking about the bass-drum, snare, hi-hat, tom arrangement except, of course, for the dynamics. Insert a ROM card into port No. 1 and the voices it carries can be freely assigned to any of the 14 keys.
There's more. Not only can you have up to four of these cards to choose between when assigning voices to pads, you're also presented with an extremely effective voice-tuning facility, control over voice decay, and the ability to assign the same voice to every one of the 14 pads at different tunings for, say, melodic tom patterns or huge percussion ensemble effects.
In addition to this, the maximum output level of each instrument can be altered, as can the touch-sensitivity of each individual pad.
THIS FAR, at least, Korg seem to have got their act together. The DDD1 gives programmers the opportunity to start off by writing a far more realistic-sounding pattern using the machine's dynamics, and then to chop and change the voices that feature in that pattern as the urge takes them.
For example, let's assume you've written a basic bass-drum, snare and hi-hat pattern. You don't like the sound of the bass-drum so you alter its tuning and decay. The tuning covers a useful 127-steps-to-the-octave range, but you're still not happy, so you insert one of the ROM cards and step through the choice of (say) Fusion, Electronic or Rock bass-drums, altering the tuning as you go, until the sound is right.
You can now do the same for the snare and hi-hat parts until the whole thing is as you like it. If you don't like the way the emphasis falls on certain snare beats, you can simply erase the offending notes and re-record using different dynamics.
Dipping into the pool of Korg voices, you can then proceed to add percussion parts, china cymbals, splash cymbals, special effects (gunshots, breaking glass, cash registers and so on), until you reach either the threshold of 249 notes per pattern, or 12 instruments occurring on a single beat, or until your brain explodes.
And there's more. Reach further into your pocket and Korg will sell you a 12-bit sampling board which fits inside the machine and allows 3.2 seconds of sampling time to be added to your armoury. Though 3.2 secs doesn't at first sound like a very long time (and I didn't have a board to try out), it should prove a more than interesting addition to an already vastly competent machine - even if (as it appears at the time of writing) there's no means of dumping your samples to an external medium such as RAM card or tape.
But there's still more. One of the real pains about using drum machines (and this applies to units spanning the entire price range) is the way it inevitably involves hordes of multi-function buttons. Getting into the process of recording can often be a real chore. On the DDD1, such buttons are, thankfully, not so inevitable.
Instead, there's a clear, simple matrix chart on the front panel which lists all the machine's available parameters and functions. The chart is divided logically into six modes, and each mode is further sub-divided into eight functions or control parameters.
Accessing these is simplicity itself. You just use the Mode Select key along the bottom of the chart to enter the mode you want (Pattern Record, Pattern Edit, Instrument Setting, whatever), followed by the relevant function key along the side to select the parameter.
Having accessed the parameter to be altered, whether it be tempo change, instrument decay or whatever, a data slider - or the + 1/yes, -1/no increment keys - are used to adjust that parameter's particular values. The machine's bright blue, 36-character LCD conveys (almost) all the information you're ever going to need, and is quite a friendly little soul with plenty of "OK!"s and "ARE YOU SURE?"s to guide the forgetful and the insecure.
Additionally, there's a lot on the DDD1 that hardly needs mentioning, simply because it corresponds closely with what everyone has come to expect of drum machines. Old friends such as real-time and step-time recording options, a wide range of available time-signatures, Tap Tempo facility, Swing and Resolution (quantisation) parameters, Erase, Copy, Append and linking functions... all of these are fairly straightforward, and have been included by Mr and Mrs Korg on their new baby.
As far as memory goes, the machine will hold up to 100 patterns (from 00 to 99), the length of each being variable between 1 and 99 measures (or bars). The maximum number of notes that can be written in any one pattern is 249, so those with a complex bent (or a bent complex) should be well catered-for.
Ten songs can be stored internally, with each accepting up to 255 parts. Now a "part" in the case of the DDD1, can mean a single pattern or a whole song (one of the other nine). So Song 2 might be made up of Song 6, Song 7, and Song 1, plus 252 further complete patterns. Nice one.
Alternatively, the DDD1's entire memory can be transferred onto a RAM card (there's another port for this on the front edge of the machine) or onto tape.
MIDI ON the DDD1 fulfils three separate functions: synchronisation of patterns, dynamic triggering of individual sounds, and control of tuning and decay.
The DDD1 transmits and recognises the MIDI clock, plus the associated Start, Stop and Continue commands. So it can be used as either a master or slave device in conjunction with MIDI sequencers and/or other drum machines.
It also implements MIDI song pointers, so with the help of other machines which have this facility, you can start synchronised playback from any point in the song. This means you don't actually need to put your drum part onto multitrack tape in the studio; by keeping it in sync via a SMPTE/MIDI convener (like the Roland SBX80 or Fostex 4030) you can rewind and start the tape from any point, and the DDD1 will know where you are and start with the right pattern for that point in the track.
Individual sounds on the DDD1 can be triggered via MIDI, with dynamics being transmitted as MIDI velocity codes. So you can use a MIDI keyboard to program drum patterns or even sequence a keyboard dynamically from the DDD1. The actual note assignments can be set for each sound across the MIDI note range 25-71 (C#0 to B3 on most keyboards) and reception and transmission of these notes can be disabled - vital if you're using MIDI just for synchronisation.
The rest of the MIDI note range is used to control tuning and decay of sounds. Values below note number 24 control the decay, with maximum decay on note 0 and the shortest on 24. Not that many keyboards actually go this low, but several of today's sequencers can specify notes in this range, so you're able to use this facility for step-time programming.
MIDI note numbers 71-96 are used to control tuning. This is the same range used by Sequential, so it should be possible for the two companies' machines to communicate tuning changes as well as trigger each other's sounds.
Both the decay and tuning levels apply only to sounds (ie. assigned note numbers) being held in the middle range (25-71) when the tuning or decay notes are sent or received.
All in all, the MIDI on the DDD1 mirrors the programming flexibility of the rest of the machine, making itself useful in several different areas. But I'd like to have seen the ability to put different sounds on different MIDI channels to give a bit of extra flexibility with simultaneous multiple tunings and decays, even though this is something most programmers would miss.
Can the DDD1 possibly have anything else to offer? Well, when the machine is in Assign mode, a further three options are available to determine how you want your chosen voices to sound.
"Poly" allows each instrument to sound out to the full - layering up to 12 complete sounds on top of each other for any given beat. "Mono" mode does the opposite, cutting off any previous sound the moment a new key is tapped. Lastly, an "Exclusive" status can be assigned to selected instruments that should not be sounded at the same time, such as open hi-hat and closed hi-hat, or mute and slap conga sounds when using ROM cards.
THE THINGS that really make this machine special are its dynamics and its superb flexibility. The sounds themselves are all digital samples, and range from the ridiculously enjoyable - all of the cymbals, most of the bass-drums, snares, toms and special effects - to the ridiculously unconvincing, like the bongos and a few of the simpler hand-held percussion instruments like, of all things, the tambourine.
Tuning saves most of the lesser sounds, but you have to remember that I only had access to five memory cards, which represents only a small part of Korg's ROM library (there are about 30 altogether).
Put everything together in a pattern and the resulting sound is very impressive. Most of the instruments are sharp and strong, becoming more so once you've got accustomed to playing the dynamic pads, and with programmable Roll and Flam controls, the flexibility of the DDD1 sound is more than remarkable.
An inadequate interfacing section could have let the whole show down, of course. But Korg have thought of that, too, so in addition to the MIDI implementation mentioned above, you've got eight separate (and assignable) audio outs, an audio in, trigger out, and so on.
Flexibility is the word, logic was undoubtedly the guideline, and a very impressive drum machine is the result. The DDD1 won't harm the lowest end of the drum machine market, but it should certainly pose a serious threat to just about everything else around...
Price £799 including VAT
Review by Trevor Gilchrist