It says something about the multitudinous talents of Korg's latest drum machine that the instruction manual should run to 184 pages. Mind you, it is in four languages.
Did you know that the German for "flam" was "Doppleschlag"?
You did? Oh.
Early prototypes of the KPR-77 were being shown at American trade fairs almost a year ago, but the world of rhythm boxes gallops on apace so they've doubtless tinkered with the insides since then.
It's housed in a tidy, dark-grey plastic case that eschews the usual traffic junction of LEDs in favour of a comprehensive liquid crystal display panel in the top left corner. There such words as "Group", "Chain", "Bar No" appear, plus a set of flashing markers to indicate which beats have been programmed.
The battery-powered KPR can store 48 patterns, each 32 beats long, that's double the length of Roland's standard measure, though I have to say that I find Roland's string of LEDs immediately easier to understand than the Korg's markers. Still, a few hours experience with the Korg would familiarise your grey cells.
Patterns can be chained together to form rhythm arrangements for complete songs and the KPR-77 can recall six of these. Usually they are 256 measures long, but two chains can be linked for a 512 measure number. That's not the end of the story, however, because you can define certain sections within a chain and ask the Korg to repeat that chunk up to eight times, or indeed repeat the entire chain indefinitely having previously instructed the memory to return to a particular point and lop off the intro.
So it would have to be either a very weird or very long number that couldn't be handled. Makes you wonder which band's going to be first to include a drum machine solo in their stage act.
There are eight sounds — bass drum, snare, high and low toms, cymbals, open and closed hi-hat, and handclaps — though in practice you're limited to either the cymbals or the claps in any one pattern.
Korg have exerted some brain power on voicing the KPR. The drums don't have the authenticity of the digitally recorded Drumulator, of course, but they're certainly a cut above average, and an advance over what's been on the market for the last year. The snare is thick and solid, the toms have a decay that drops in pitch and the bass drum shifts a fair amount of air, though I would have liked a touch more bite to it.
It's a shame Korg haven't provided a separate output for the bass drum as there's a lot that individual EQ-ing can do on this score.
Some machines go for separate outs for every drum, but Korg have plumped for one mixed socket, one outlet for the snare and handclaps, plus a stereo send that provides an aural "view" of the average kit — hi-hat on one side, high and low toms left and right, bass in the centre, snare and handclaps gathered around it. It's a convincing pan and an excellent idea.
Obviously these sounds can be programmed into patterns, but they can also be played live, by tapping half inch square keys in the bottom lift-hand quarter of the front panel. Each drum has two so you can cope with tom rolls or speedy hi-hat work. And there's a pre-programmed Doppleschlag... now we'll find those who've been reading from the start... or "flam" as we say in England that produces a double hit on the high and low toms for only one press of the keys.
Each sound has its own slider for volume between the tempo and volume controls and there's a programmable accent. With a machine this versatile, I'm surprised Korg didn't include a tempo readout on the LCD to help match rhythms, but perhaps there was simply no room on the already packed display.
The Korg offers two ways of programming — real and step time. For the former you hit the orange start button, then tap any or all of the keys while listening to the built-in metronome. Like the Drumulator, there's an auto correction facility, which for example in 4/4 could make every strike precisely on beat, or in another setting allow half a beat leeway.
The highest resolution is 32nd triplets, same as the Drumulator, but it's all swings and roundabouts as the amount of material you can cram into a measure falls as the resolution rises.
Step time uses the flashing markers. Say for a 32 beat pattern, all 32 markers light and you work your way through either, writing in a drum sound by hitting one of its keys, or a silence by hitting a button marked step up. You have to do this a drum at a time.
Chains are arranged by selecting the first pattern and pressing chain write, the second pattern, then chain write, and so on. The drum keys double as the pattern buttons and the 48 strong memory is divided into three banks. The routing of the microprocessor means you can only construct chains from rhythms within one of the banks at a time.
As more measures are written into the chain, a counter on the LCD reads off the bar numbers. Later editing can be done by pressing the step up or step down buttons — same as the Drumulator — or dialling in the number of the bar you're after which is an advantage of the slower Emu-systems, ah, system. Hmm.
The Korg contains a cassette dump facility — and there are all the usual start/stop footswitch sockets, headphone outs and so forth. There is a Din socket for synchronizing the drum machine with outside synths and sequencers, but there's no sign of it being a Midi output — the unified connection rapidly being adopted by the synth fraternity.
To be fair to Korg, the KPR prototypes were around long before the Midi was settled. Perhaps later models will contain it.
But the burning question is how does the KPR-77 compare with its obvious rival, the Roland TR808? Comparisons are odious, but soundwise I think the Korg has the edge. Playing-wise it gets there too, mainly because of the real time programming and the drum keys and it's cheaper. But I still find the Roland easier and faster to write on, and perhaps more likely to come up with an accidental rhythm that does the job. £499