Programmable Drum Machine
The world's cheapest programmable digital drum machine looks on paper to be a fine companion for Korg's similarly-priced Latin percussion machine. Paul White checks out the reality.
Companion to the Super Percussion model reviewed in October, Korg's Super Drums unit offers digital drum sounds for the price of an analogue machine.
As a logical and cost-effective follow-on from the DDM220 Super Percussion unit (reviewed in E&MM October), the 110 is virtually identical in all respects except for instrument voicing. For whereas the 220 majored on Latin percussion sounds, the second of Korg's budget rhythm boxes contains conventional kit voices. And as with the 220, all the Super Drums' sounds are PCM-encoded recordings of real drums.
There are nine sounds in all, and the machine can store up to six separate user-programmed songs comprising a maximum of 390 bars: all this information can be dumped to cassette for future use or further editing.
Furthermore, output is stereo so that each drum is panned to an appropriate point within the stereo image, but there are no level controls for individual voices (apart from a drum-cymbal balance control) and no separate channel outputs to allow level setting to be carried out externally, which is a shame.
Little larger than a box of chocolates, the DDM110 weighs a mere 800 grams, and will operate either from batteries or from the mains adaptor supplied. Dual (coarse and fine) tempo controls allow for accurate adjustment of speed, and there are three level controls for master volume, cymbal/hi-hat content (already mentioned) and metronome, this being a series of clicks generated in Program mode as a timing guide.
A record enable/disable slide-switch should help to reduce the risk of your precious drum patterns being erased accidentally, and programming is easily accomplished using the row of 15 pushbuttons that lies along the lower section of the unit, most of these having more than one function.
Stereo and headphone outputs are on the machine's right-hand edge along with a socket for remote start/stop switching: all these are on quarter-inch jacks, as is the trigger output, which supplies an S-trigger pulse whenever a handclap is programmed, the clap sound being muted once a plug has been inserted into the socket. The other end of the box houses the 9V DC input, the power switch (not marvellously convenient, this, though it does reduce the chances of the 110 being switched off inadvertently), cassette machine connections, and the Sync socket. This five-pin DIN connector is similarly configured to - and compatible with - the (ahem) Roland system, and is therefore switchable between Sync In and Out functions. In practice, this means that the Super Drums can be synchronised to other drum machines, used in conjunction with a device such as the MPC Sync Track to lay down (and retrigger from) a click-track on tape, and - using Korg's own KMS30 MIDI Synchroniser - linked to MIDI-equipped hardware.
Finally, a panel at the bottom of the attractive plastic case allows access to the six AA-type batteries which not only run the machine but also maintain the contents of the memory when the unit is powered down.
The 30 pattern memories can be programmed in step or real time, Patterns 1 to 16 comprising up to 32 steps and 17 to 32 comprising up to 16. As previously intimated, six songs totalling a maximum of 390 bars may be stored, and a repeat sign facility assists the user in making the most of this capacity. Naturally, full editing facilities are included and the numeric display contains all user-relevant information, nine different forms of data being displayed, depending on which mode has been selected.
"Analogue clap sounds are now so good that sampled 'real' handclaps sound like a pale imitation of the real thing. Isn't fashion wonderful?"
All programming details are dealt with adequately in the comprehensive 54-page user manual, which for obvious reasons I'm not going to reproduce here, but anyone familiar with at least one other programmable drum machine should find little difficulty acclimatising themselves with the 110's operational characteristics.
Basically, all you do is enter the patterns required (in step or real time) and chain them together to form songs, interspersing a repeat at one point during the song. If you make a mistake, the Korg's editing system allows you to locate the fault and correct it by inserting and deleting bars. Should you decide to blow the entire memory on one song, this can be of up to 385 bars in length but, as Trish McGrath pointed out in her review of the Super Percussion model, any pattern formed by chaining two bars together is counted on the display as one bar, so it's vital to keep a clear head when editing.
There are two further points - one good, one bad. The good news is that three modes of resolution - 1/16, 1/16 triplet and 1/32, may be selected for each bar during programming, but the bad news is that once an accent has been programmed, it affects all voices programmed on that beat: there's no way of accenting voices individually.
So, the price is right, the packaging is neat, and the operation isn't too mind-taxing, but what does the DDM110 actually sound like? Well, the fact that the voices are digitally-stored real drum sounds doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a Linn-beater. It doesn't even guarantee a better sonic performance than comparably-priced analogue units. In fact, the voices on the Super Drums vary dramatically, so I'll deal with each one in turn.
Bass drum has a nice solid kick, though it lacks the percussive 'slap' provided by more expensive machines, or indeed the E&MM Syndrom. Still, it's a welcome change from analogue endeavours (generally weak in nature) and should be usable in a number of different situations. I was a bit disappointed with the snare: it sounds as if the technology is doing its best to make something out of a poor sample - badly tuned and lacking in punch or bite. I know the 110 is cheap, but surely Korg could at least have used a decent sample? The rimshot actually sounds more like a wood block, but is realistic and usable nonetheless. The machine imposes the same playing restriction as a real drum kit in that the snare and rimshot cannot be sounded together, which should help you retain some element of authenticity in your drum patterns. The toms (high and low) are reasonably authentic, but the 110's relative lack of memory has meant that the samples are a bit on the short side (the sounds just stop, instead of decaying as they should) and they also contain a fair degree of digital noise. Added to a complete mix with a little reverb, both toms should sound OK, but if your intended applications are more demanding... The hi-hats (open and closed) are very good indeed: I'm impressed! Again, you can't play open and closed voices on the same beat, but then you shouldn't want to, should you? The cymbal sound is interesting since the pitch sweeps down every time the voice is generated, presumably to extend the duration of the sample. Mind you, that doesn't prevent it from sounding quite realistic and I rather liked it. Handclaps, on the other hand, are a bit of a problem, since analogue clap sounds are now so good that they've gained mass acceptance and sampled 'real' handclaps sound like a pale imitation of the real thing. Isn't fashion wonderful?
Subjectively, the Super Drums unit does not have the attack and vitality of its Latin percussion counterpart (though whether that's partly due to the lack of competition faced by the latter, I'm not sure), but it's still streets ahead of a comparably-priced analogue machine. It's a well-behaved, stylish product that packs more features into its little box than you could reasonably hope for at this price.
The Sync Out facility should prove a great help to many users, and the fact that it's compatible with both analogue Roland and (using Korg's KMS30) MIDI standards is a triumph for interfacing common sense. As mentioned above, the trigger output is to Korg's own S-trigger standard, and while this may prove useful for triggering the arpeggiator on a Polysix or similar, Roland synth owners will need to build a converter consisting of one transistor, three resistors and a battery in order to get everything running smoothly. Anyone requiring details of this modification should send their request on a stamped addressed fiver to me, and they will receive a signed copy of the circuit diagram by return of post (actually, it's published elsewhere this issue in 'Everything but the Kitchen... ' so no spin-offs for you, Mr White - Ed).
To be quite honest, I'm not entirely sure how Korg are going to put everything into this box, sell it for £229 and still make a profit. But then again, I'm not complaining.
Further information from Rose-Morris, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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