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MFB Digital Drum Machine

An RRP of under £300 makes this German-built unit the cheapest source of sampled rhythm patterns on the market. Review by Paul White.

Syco Systems' German-built 512 looks on paper to be a major breakthrough in electronic rhythm machines — a fully-programmable device with digitally-sampled drum sounds for only £299. Paul White finds out if the reality fulfils the promises made by the MFB's paper specification.

The first thing you notice when you encounter the 512 for the first time is its small physical size: 19½ x 13½ x 7cm equals easily the smallest unit on the market with these sorts of facilities. Its overall appearance is somewhat uninspiring - it reminded me more of an electronics magazine project than a modern musical instrument - but as in so many other walks of life, drum machine appearances can be very deceptive.

Although tiny, the machine's plastic casing houses no fewer than 53 microchips, eight transistors and 21 diodes, though needless to say, internal packaging is more than a little on the tight side in order to accommodate all this technology.

The unit's nine different sampled sounds are all stored on one EPROM, which means, sadly, that individual voices cannot be altered by swapping chips as they can on the Linn or Drumulator models, for example. It is possible, however, that replacement EPROMs may become available in the foreseeable future.

Power is provided by means of an external 12V power supply which plugs directly into the AC mains and delivers 120ma.

Sockets are provided on the rear panel for the connection of footswitches for remote starting and stopping of the chosen rhythm pattern, and for selecting fill-ins. The panel also houses the trigger in and out jacks and the main outputs (mono or stereo), as well as DIN sockets that enable the individual voices to be processed separately: alternatively, a master tune control that affects all voices simultaneously is also provided.

Front Panel

This is where we find the programming controls, the tempo control and the all-important start button. Because the MFB is so small, these can be more than a mite fiddly to use - programming generally involves picking the unit up in one hand and operating the controls with the other.

Pattern control switches F to A select the memory bank to be played or programmed, and these operate according to the binary system, which may be a little confusing for some users. To make things even more obscure, binary zero is equivalent to bank one, while binary one stands for bank two (are you following this?).

In conjunction with the measure switch, 64 different rhythms and 64 different fill-in patterns may be assigned to the memory banks. These may be combined into up to eight chains, the total storage capacity being 2048 measures. The record switch is a three-position toggle and is used either for programming rhythm patterns, ordering chains or playback, depending on its position.

The multifunction switch has five different functions, these being Play, Chain Select, Instrument Select, Accent, and Reset or Erase. Meanwhile, the measure switch decides whether a rhythm or fill-in pattern is to be programmed and, during playback, is used to select playback of rhythm pattern only, alternating rhythm and fill-in, or playback of three rhythm patterns followed by one fill-in. If you're programming chains, this switch determines whether a rhythm fill-in or pattern will be entered.

The voices available on the MFB are bass drum, snare, three toms, handclaps, cymbal, and open and closed hi-hats. A pair of pushbuttons (one black, the other red) are used to enter instruments, accents and rests in the record mode: the red switch programs voices and the black selects rests.

I feel an in-depth description of the MFB's programming procedure would be a little pointless in this context, since it would probably entail reproducing most of the owner's manual, a copy of which is, of course, enclosed with each example of the machine.

Suffice it to say then that the programming technique employed is a bit like that used by the original Boss DR55 Dr Rhythm: my overall impression is that to get the best out of this machine, you need to be able to think logically and to write down all the steps in order to avoid interminable programming confusion.

One of the main areas of compromise inherent in the MFB's design lies in the voice generation circuitry, where all the tom sounds have been derived from one sample. This means in practice that two toms cannot be played simultaneously, though whether or not this is as big a disadvantage as it sounds will depend to a large extent on the individual user's applications. What is potentially more serious is that the hi-hats and the cymbal operate in much the same manner, so that the decay of the cymbal is cut short by a hi-hat on the next beat, for example.


The MFB comes supplied with a useful set of rhythm patterns, an onboard Nicad battery being employed to keep the contents of the memory intact when the unit is powered down. Up to 16 beats per measure are available, although measures may be doubled up to facilitate programming of more complex rhythms, and unusual time signatures may be readily programmed.

So far so good, then.

On the debit side, the multifunction control panel (a necessary compromise in view of the MFB's record-breaking price) is far from being completely user-friendly, while it is also a little unfortunate that voices cannot be triggered externally from pads.

As with so many things, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. The single EPROM means that, for the time being anyway, you're pretty much stuck with the factory voices, but it must be said that most of these are of an extremely high standard at any price, let alone the budget category in which the MFB finds itself.

Will anybody buy it?

Well, my guess is that an awful lot of people will be prepared to live with the machine's ergonomic shortcomings for the sake of the sheer quality of the percussion sounds on offer - they really do make the MFB one of the drum machine bargins of the year.

The MFB 512 carries an RRP of £299, and further information should be obtainable from the importers, Syco Systems, at (Contact Details).

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Jen Musipack 1.0

Next article in this issue

Siel MIDI Expander

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jun 1984

Gear in this article:

Drum Machine > MFB > 512

Gear Tags:

Analog Drums

Review by Paul White

Previous article in this issue:

> Jen Musipack 1.0

Next article in this issue:

> Siel MIDI Expander

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