MXR 185 Drum Computer
As the prices of digitally-sampled drum machines begin to plummet, they become an even more attractive proposition to the musician in the street. I would hazard a guess that the majority of previous such devices are currently occupying space in recording studios, video and film production suites, as well as the home studios of songwriters and famous musicians. These are generally the only people able to afford the asking price of a Linn or Movement. The appearance of the Drumulator has encouraged manufacturers to produce drum machines with a wider market appeal and a suitably lower selling price. It therefore comes as no surprise to find the MXR Drum Computer also being launched into this sector. At around £1500 it falls right in the centre of the price range of available sampled drum machines. Let's then look at what it offers.
The unit is superbly presented in a greyish-brown coloured case with wooden end cheeks. Measuring 17½"(W) x 10½"(D) x 3¼"(H) and weighing in at around 12lbs, it is a sturdy, yet portable unit that would fit snuggly into a 19" rack with a couple of flanges attached to the end cheeks.
The machine is fully programmable and features 12 real drum sounds, digitally recorded and stored in memory (PROMs). The front panel is divided neatly into four sections. The top half contains fourteen sliders, eleven of which control the relative levels of their respective sounds in the overall stereo mix available at the main left and right output sockets on the rear panel. One slider governs the volume of the built-in click track which acts as a metronome aid when composing rhythms. The remaining two sliders are labelled Tempo and Pitch and tempo can be adjusted from 40 to 250 beats per minute which is quite a usable speed range. Pitch allows for a degree of drum tuning but unfortunately acts on the overall pitch of every single sound. Moving this control whilst a rhythm is running is similar in effect to the varispeed on a tape recorder. Pitch information is not stored in memory, however, which would have been a useful bonus.
The right hand panel contains the twelve, larger square-shaped buttons which are used to enter the drum voice beats - one button per voice. These are arranged in three rows of four buttons as follows: (top row) Tom 1, Tom 2, Crash, Claps; (middle row) Hi-hat open, Snare, Tom 3, Block; (bottom row) Hi-hat Closed, Kick (Bass drum), Rim Shot and Bell. The positioning of these buttons means that they can easily be played by hand, using each of your five fingers to hit a different drum.
The left hand panel has four fair-sized, seven segment LED displays that indicate the Step Number and Song/Pattern Number, as well as giving essential visual feedback on every record and playback mode of operation. Below these is a ten-digit keypad for entry of all number information.
The remaining fourteen pushbuttons deal with the selection of various control parameters, some of which serve dual functions. 'Tempo' gives a digital readout of the beats per minute set by the tempo slider control. 'Shift' is used to give a human feel to the rhythm by randomly retarding or advancing the drum beats. There are four levels of shift available (0,1,2,3) which can be programmed according to your needs. Level 3 gives quite a margin of error introducing a fairly authentic jazz-type 'swing'.
'Accuracy' can only be pressed when the machine is in its Pattern mode. If so, one of seven possible accuracy levels will be displayed in the LED display, ready to be modified by pressing specific buttons on the keypad. ¼ note triplets through to 1/32 note triplets can all be recorded.
The 'Length' control determines the number of beats in each pattern. A maximum of 99 beats is possible for every single pattern. When in Song mode the Length button also indicates on the readout exactly how much unallocated memory space remains in which to write more patterns or songs. In this way, you can avoid erasing memory patterns when full capacity has been reached.
The next two buttons each have an associated status indicator and select either 'Pattern' or 'Song' modes. The memory space on the MXR 185 allows up to 100 patterns to be programmed and stored, then combined into 'songs', with the maximum capability of songs being 100. This is certainly adequate for a whole evening's worth of rhythm backings and should satisfy the needs of the most ardent jazz-rockers (for it is these people that often like to have their drummer playing completely different rhythms in every bar!).
The 'Insert' and 'Delete' buttons are used to edit patterns from songs when composing long chains of drum sequences, and it is here that 'Copy' helps, as this function allows the user to copy any pattern into another memory location at the push of a button, rather than having to re-programme a whole pattern unnecessarily. It is also used to double the length of an existing pattern thus providing a quick way of achieving an even number of pattern repeats. Also when composing sequences or songs, the 'Step Forward', 'Step Backward' buttons can be used to step through patterns quickly. 'Erase' and 'Record' buttons complete this group of controls. However, pressing 'Tape' converts the two 'Step' buttons and 'Erase' to their 'To Tape', 'From Tape' and 'Verify' functions, which enable the data in memory to be read out and dumped onto tape (allowing a library of rhythms to be created) or stored rhythms to be loaded into the machine and checked, before the memory contents are wiped.
An Accent button lets you emphasise individual beats and works separately on each voice. However, the accent level is not adjustable, being preset internally for each voice as with the MPC 1 drum computer.
Recording a rhythm pattern on the MXR 185 is simplicity itself - the controls are quick to master and logically laid out. Basically, to create a pattern what you do is enter Pattern mode, select a pattern number from 00 to 99. Pressing down the Length button, you can enter the required number of beats for your bar, then selecting Record and Run together causes the click track metronome beat to sound (if the slider is up), at the tempo set by the slider.
As an aid to programming, the metronome click sounds louder on the first (down) beat of the pattern, and the LED display and Record indicator all blink. All you have to do then is press the necessary drum voice buttons whenever you want a drum to sound and they will be recorded. The pattern cycles round continuously also, to help you get a feel for the rhythm.
If you make a mistake, by setting the pattern length to 00 the whole pattern is erased, but if you only wish to rectify a specific misoccurrence of a particular drum, you can do so by holding down Erase and pushing the relevant drum button in time with the mistake and it will be erased at the end of the pattern. Easy, simple and very quick to operate; a necessary requirement when 'time is money'.
Using different length patterns means you can obtain different time signatures in conjunction with the Accuracy control, and Tempo slider. Once several patterns have been created you can begin to construct whole songs by entering the Song mode, choosing a song number and selecting 'Record'. Simply key in the pattern numbers you require in the correct order, each time depressing the 'Insert' button. Editing your songs is similar in procedure, except that 'Delete' is used along with the 'Forward' and 'Backward' controls to step through the selected order of rhythm patterns sequentially.
You can have great fun once a song/pattern is recorded by changing the levels on the drums. Cutting one drum out of the mix can drastically alter the whole feel of the rhythm, for example. It's a good machine to use if you prefer to leave your rhythm creations to chance, rather than sit down and draw out mathematical charts of exactly where each beat should occur for maximum effect.
The individual ¼" jack sockets on the rear panel give access to each voice but only at a preset volume level. Also, when in use, these sockets do not cut out the drum sound from the main mix (as with the TR808); this can only be achieved by turning off the slider level control. For recording or PA benefits, there is a main left and right output. This gives a pre-panned stereo image of all the drums when both sockets are in use, or a mono output mix when either is used alone, thus providing an ideal mix to feed direct onto your multitrack tape when making song demos.
The click-track is available at the To Tape socket in the form of trigger pulses (24 per crotchet), which can be recorded and used to synchronise several drum computers, or sequencers - a vital requirement for anybody considering its use in a jingle/film music context. The unit can also be driven externally using the From Tape socket on the rear panel.
The final rear panel features are the rather unusual 15 pin sockets. There are two of these, labelled 'External Voice' and 'Trigger Inputs', and the latter allows a computer with 5 volt TTL outputs to trigger the voices, whilst the first connector is designed for future expansion of the machine - most likely it'll link up to external drum pads for conventional 'playing' of the drum sounds.
Talking about sounds, how good are those on this MXR unit? The answer is, 'very good'. All twelve voices have a particularly 'modern' feel to them. The three toms, for example, sound distinctly African, having a very fast decay and harsh attack. Very similar in fact to the Peter Gabriel-influenced drum sound that is currently 'in vogue'. The snare is my favourite, being sharp with a nice ring to it, whilst the clap is a distinct let down. With no built-in ambience it sounds extremely lacklustre on its own but blends well with the kick (bass) drum and hi-hats. Open and closed hi-hats actually have separate programming facilities but share a common output socket and slider, which is not a problem at all.
The block, cowbell and rim shot are equally as good, but the crash cymbal, albeit realistic (naturally), has a sudden cutoff as the sample length is marginally too short. This is only really heard when the crash is used at the end of a measure, say, and allowed to decay, but a dash of reverb helps smooth the sound over.
Internal layout of the device is once again exemplary; neat wiring with perfectly soldered voice and processor control boards. The processor circuitry is based upon the ubiquitous Z80 chip, and 52K of memory space (in the form of programmable read-only memories; PROMs) contains the drum voice samples. Interestingly enough 24K of that is used to obtain the crash cymbal sound alone! The signal-to-noise ratio of the unit is only about 48dB, being an 8-bit machine and the system voices are multiplexed through an average quality DAC (DAC0800), which generally accounts for the odd few sizzling and gurgling noises emanating from the computer when in Stop mode.
A good machine with a good range of sounds. The vast memory capability should please virtually everybody, and the ease of operation certainly will. The 'Pitch' control is the biggest criticism of the unit, if it were programmable it would be of use but the current design modifies the pitch range of every drum simultaneously, so it's only real use is in tuning your 'kit' to a specific musical range perhaps to suit a particular song key.
The MXR 185 Drum Computer is amongst the easiest of the digitally-sampled drum machines to programme and the use of separate PROMs does mean that voices can be modified and your own samples installed (theoretically), which puts it one above the Drumulator. The price is a little high I feel, but discounting should help bring down the price to a more realistic level, where it shall be able to compete with the cheaper digital units. All that can be said now is 'when are Roland going to bring out one of these?'
The recommended retail price (including VAT) of the MXR 185 is £1550.77. It is available through Atlantex Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Gilby