Digital Drum Machine and Keyboard Recorder
The people who introduced the world to the concept of digital drums have now applied their expertise to MIDI keyboard recording. Paul Wiffen gives his verdict.
When the LM1 made its appearance at the beginning of the decade, it heralded a revolution in the recording and performance of rock percussion. Now Linn have expanded the digital drum concept to control MIDI keyboards as well.
The brochure for the Linn 9000 has the following quote from Roger Linn himself splashed across its front page: "The Linn 9000 is a dream I've had for a long time. It answers nearly all of the requests I've received from top recording artists over the years. To a far greater degree than has existed before, it allows the non-technical artist to quickly and accurately realize the music which exists in his mind". Disregarding the Californian quasi-philosophy (the product of too much sunshine, surfing and mind-expanding medication), that's still a pretty far-reaching claim. Another piece of information we should probably impart at this point is that the UK price of the Linn 9000 is £4500 plus VAT. So Roger's dream is not cheap. Does it represent value for money?
The first thing that strikes you is that the 9000 is a sizeable bit of kit, measuring 2' wide by 1' deep and over six inches high. It's also incredibly heavy at nearly 30lbs, due largely to its diecast metal case. This should make the machine extremely roadworthy, but it also means you can't pop it under your arm (or in your handbag - Production Ed) as you would an RX11 or a Drumtraks.
Quite apart from the fact that the new Linn's projected hardware updates (see later) are going to have to go somewhere, another reason for its size is that it offers something larger than the standard 1" square drum voice selectors featured on most machines. Here we have significantly larger pads that should give you a considerably more than evens chance of hitting the right sound at the right point in your pattern. One unexpected feature is that the pads are contoured, but whilst this does throw up some interesting possibilities (like arranging groups of drum voices slightly angled towards each other for ease of playing), the actual implementation doesn't seem to be terribly logical. For instance, the machine's four Toms are positioned in a sensible circular pattern, but the pads themselves are angled outwards rather than towards each other. Daft, I'd have said.
However, the best thing about the pads is not their size or their inclination but the fact that they're both velocity and pressure sensitive. Now, there are probably more than a few drummers for whom these terms will be entirely new, but they're positively old hat to the keyboard player, so I won't embark on a 500-word lecture on what they mean. What's interesting in this case is the way they're applied to drum programming, as we'll see.
Because the pads are big enough for the user to have a fair go at, you can use the 9000's velocity-sensitivity to capture the instantaneous dynamics of live programming. So if your table-tapping is fairly accurate, then the programming style offered by the Linn is ideal. Auto-correction is available to eighth, 16th and 32nd note values and their triplet equivalents. Personally, I often tend to need quarter-note resolution when I've had a late night - it comes in useful for easy programming of ride cymbals and metronomes.
But there's a much more serious omission than that. Linn have followed the practice of almost every American manufacturer in offering no way to program in step time and no way to visualise the way programmed patterns appear musically: even the Roland TR707 offers both these facilities, and at an RRP of just £499 inclusive of VAT. It's all very well if you are a star American jazz-rock player with an impeccable sense of rhythm, but what about the poor guy who can't actually play the music which exists in his mind?
Well, to be fair, there is talk of a software update that'll have provision for step-time programming, but I can't really see how the 16 x 2 character LCD is going to give a decent graphic representation of the music, no matter how many updates there are.
Mind you, there is one feature of the 9000 that I believe is totally unique: the way in which it allows you to apply pressure to the pads in conjunction with a Repeat button. This is how it works. You set the auto-correct to the time value you want, the repeats to play, for example, eight triplets, and then whenever you hold down the pad that relates to the sound you want (it works best with hi-hat) the machine automatically puts that sound on every eighth triplet. But the really great thing is that the level at which the voice is recorded varies depending on how hard you push the pad. The extra realism of hi-hat and ride cymbal parts this method imparts really has to be heard to be believed, and that's not all: holding down Repeat and moving quickly across the Toms results in great blistering tom fills a là Simon Phillips. Yes folks, you too can be a world-acclaimed session drummer at the touch of a button (or two). More than any other, feature, this is the one that substantiates Roger Linn's claims. It's quick, accurate and very impressive.
But this is not the end of the authentic hi-hat story. In a second pass (that is, once the actual strikes have been recorded) you can add a separate decay either from a slider on the left-hand end of the panel or, for people who like to do things properly, from a footpedal plugged into one of the external footswitch sockets. The machine is intelligent enough to record a separate decay amount for each strike of the hi-hat, though this is in direct contrast to its lack of an up-to-date approach to tuning.
Not strictly true, that. There is a static tuning facility on the new Linn, but it's accessed by the volume sliders when the Tune Drums button is pressed, which means that when you go back to live volume mixing, the knobs are in the wrong position. So, although you can set up one tuning level for each drum in each pattern, when you merge two patterns together (to make a song), the second one inevitably defaults to the tuning setting of the first pattern. This is pretty appalling for a machine in this category, especially at a time when an SCI Drumtraks (RRP £999) allows you to set a different tuning level for each drum strike, and many others allow different tunings within each pattern.
If something like decay amount can be programmed for each note, then so can tuning: after all, it's merely a case of the unit memorising a change in the readout speed of the sample. But as things stand, the Linn 9000 can't do it, so let's hope the situation is speedily rectified by the first of the promised software updates.
Let's get back to good points. The Shuffle feature (we tend to call it Swing on this side of the Atlantic) is included in the 9000's Auto-Correct section, and if you've selected either eighth-note or sixteenth-note correction, you can choose to swing either the quavers or the semi-quavers. Which brings me to the point that Swing (or Shuffle) is probably one of the most misunderstood musical terms, probably because it comes from an area which is stronger on 'feel' than theory. But that doesn't prevent the 9000 from having the ability to swing at either the quaver or the semi-quaver level, which I think I'm right in saying is a world first. The amount is variable between 0 and 5 (which represents a range of between 50% and 70%), or a variation between two equal halves and a situation where the first half of the beat lasts twice as long as the second. This dual level of swing will be a great boon to jazz musicians, but most rock players won't even understand it, let alone use it.
"A useful crossover from drum programming is the Work Loop, a bar or set of bars that goes round and round until you're happy with what you've recorded."
If it's taken me longer than it should have to get onto the subject of what the Linn 9000 actually sounds like, the reason is that it's the first drum machine designed to make the changing of sounds a safer bet than pulling chips out and replacing them with new ones. On the Linn, this process will be accomplished by loading sounds from cassette or floppy disk, or by sampling sounds directly (when the update becomes available).
In the meantime, those that are shelling out their five grand's worth will have to live with the 13 sounds provided. The promotional literature would have you believe this figure was 18, but the fact of the matter is that there's only one Tom sample, only one Ride sample and only one Crash sample: the extra pads for these sounds simply let you set up different tunings. Anyway, in the words of Ian Carmichael, the basic sounds are really jolly good. They've been recorded fairly straight, which is probably a good move as most studio engineers and producers prefer drum samples to be as dry as possible so that they can then be treated at will according to the musical context.
Specifically, the Bass Drum is good and meaty (though personally I'd have liked a little more click), the Snare is good and crisp (if a little anonymous), the Tom sample is simply excellent, and so are the Crash and Ride Cymbals. The same is true of the less commonly-used sounds - Congas, Claps, Cabasa and Tambourine.
There's a separate output for each panel-mounted drum pad in addition to a main stereo output, each drum has volume and pan position sliders, and there are even a couple of auxiliary inputs. This arrangement means the 9000 can be used equally well in both studio (where each drum is treated separately) and home (where all that's needed is a general impression of dynamics and stereo positioning) situations, though it must be said that the features themselves are scarcely revolutionary.
There are also two programmable trigger outs (to drive old-style sequencers or a sampling unit, say) and the built-in metronome click can also be taken out of a separate output socket. The cassette interface gives you a choice of line or mic level for the output, since signal level compatibility is one of the major headaches of dumping data to cassette. A welcome feature, that.
The remaining rear panel connections are three five-pin DIN sockets for MIDI In, Out and Thru. But they're not there to allow MIDI control of the Linn's drum sounds, at least not for the time being. Instead, they act as the means by which the 9000's built-in digital sequencer communicates with the outside world.
It's the advent of MIDI that's allowed Linn's engineers to expand their conception of a drum machine to encompass a digital sequencer, though until the step-time programming becomes available, 'keyboard recorder' is probably the more accurate description. For the time being, this side of the machine works in a fairly simplistic fashion not all that far removed from that of a multitrack (the Linn has no fewer than 32 of them) tape recorder.
You connect a suitably-equipped synth to MIDI In, set the Linn to Record, and play a series of notes to the drum part or the metronome click, which can be programmed to give anything from quarter-notes to 32nd triplets. These notes are then recorded with or without auto-correction, depending on your wishes.
What's really interesting is the way in which the 9000's percussion-oriented technology has given its keyboard recorder a couple of unusual - though highly useful - musical functions. For the first time, a Swing/Shuffle feature is available on a sequencer (long overdue, this), and another useful crossover from the drum programming ethos is the Work Loop (as Linn call it), a bar or set of bars that goes round and round until you're happy with what you've recorded. This gives you the chance to add in a few notes on each pass, something not previously available to keyboard players.
"When the SMPTE is ready, it'll be possible to match speed to Frames per Beat, and both European and American frame conventions will be catered for."
MIDI signals can also be transposed and given program changes by the 9000, but most significantly, the new Linn is intelligent enough to change the MIDI channels of incoming data not just for replay, but for instant retransmission from the MIDI Out socket. This feature is known as MIDI Echo (the Yamaha QX7 calls it Echo Back), and makes overdubbing a lot of synth and expander tracks a very swift and trouble-free exercise - assuming you've got the playing ability. Once you've set each synth to separate channels (given that the manufacturers have seen fit to implement Poly mode and Channel Select), you can designate a master keyboard from which to play, yet still hear the part played (in both Record and Playback) on the synth and sound you want to use. The only possible hitch is that if there's no local Control Off on your master, you may have to resort to turning the volume down whilst recording.
Another welcome consequence of all this is that you can hear your parts auto-corrected as you play them. This is a little weird at first, and can end up bringing on sloppiness as all your recordings come out so well (back to practising on the dummy keyboard, I'm afraid). However, you'll still need a certain amount of technical skill to get demi-semi-quaver triplets right (even with the auto-correct on), so non-technical artists will have to wait for the step-time software before their Linn 9000s will give them the sort of instant response to creativity the company are boasting of.
Tempo can be input as a number in Beats per Minute (with up to 0.1 resolution) or tapped in as crotchets on a button, to obtain either Record or Playback speeds. It's also possible to link sequences of different speeds together within songs, and future software will also allow speeding up and slowing down (accelerando and decelerando for the classical buffs out there) less instantaneously. When the SMPTE is ready, it will also be possible to match speed to Frames per Beat (up to 1/8 frame resolution), and we're told that both European (24/25-frame) and American (30-frame) conventions will be catered for. The standard sync code used by the 9000 is preset to 48 pulses per quarter note, and this can be output to and input from tape directly. Presumably, the standard sync sockets will also send and receive the SMPTE code when this update is available, to allow sequences to be dropped in halfway through without running sync from the beginning of the track in question.
Apart from the various software updates I've already touched upon, there are several hardware updates said to be on the way. First, it'll eventually be possible to expand the existing 64K memory - which currently allows over 7000 MIDI notes and 24,000 drum notes to be stored - with 64K or 128K static RAM cards up to a total of 256K. Arithmetic was never a Wiffen strong point, but I reckon that should at least quadruple the amount of music the 9000 will hold before dumps become necessary.
Second, a 3,5" disk drive (they were all over February's Frankfurt show) will be available to ease the storage of both sequences and sounds, and this option will be a highly desirable addition to the third update, an audio input card that'll facilitate user-sampling and customising of sounds. This is the big one, chaps, and it'll be interesting to see who gets it on the market first, because E-mu's Drumulator II will have it fitted as standard when it becomes available in June.
A SMPTE reader/generator card will be available for studios equipped with the latest recording hardware, while those who want to play Linn's drum sounds from external triggers (eg. pads or sequencers) will soon be able to add one or two trigger cards, each with six assignable triggers.
While the 9000 in its present form introduces a number of welcome programming facilities to contemporary music's vocabulary, they don't offer enough in themselves to justify its dollar-inflated price tag.
Its basic concept is elegant enough: what could be better than a machine that alleviates all that tedious syncing between drum machines and sequencers by putting the two together in the one box? Only problem is, the 9000 has too many operational omissions to make it every man's answer to electronic music recording. The lack of a step-time programming facility has to be the biggest failing, but as I've already discussed, there are a whole load of smaller shortfalls that really shouldn't exist on a machine that costs so much and comes from such a prestigious design and manufacturing stable.
I'm willing to concede that most of the problems I've mentioned will be cured as and when the promised updates become available, but bear in mind that even if the software additions are free to existing owners, the hardware ain't gonna be.
As it stands at the moment, the Linn 9000 is a dinosaur that'll need every update it can gets its hands on if it's not to become extinct.
Further information from Linn's exclusive UK distributors, Syco Systems, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Wiffen
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