Oberheim vs Drumulator
John Webb compares and contrasts two digital drum machines — Mark Jenkins does the interfacing
Back in the heyday of jazz clubs, rooms would echo after hours to the sound of two drummers battling against each other on the bandstand (and I don't mean with swords and shields!). Today there are different battles going on in the world of percussion; the traditional acoustic drum kit against the likes of the Simmons electronic kit, and drummers against the digital drum computer. Here we compare the Oberheim DX and the Drumulator, two of an ever growing number of drum computers on the market, in a drum battle of a different kind.
Both computers are reasonably compact and lightweight and therefore easy to transport. They have strong, well made and attractive casings. The Drumulator is the smaller of the two, and, despite having fewer control buttons than the DX, appears to have a more cluttered control panel.
The Drumulator has four drum buttons, labelled A to D, 23 smaller function buttons (eight of which perform four functions!), two pot controls, one slider, an LED and a Start/Stop button. At first glance, the Drumulator controls appear confusing, but all is revealed once the rather thick instruction manual is opened. The layout of the controls on the DX is less confusing; there are 18 drum buttons, eight sliders, 23 function buttons, one LED and a Start/Stop button. Although you might think that the Drumulator has only four drum sounds and the DX has 18, things are not as simple as that, as you will find out.
Both machines have various sockets on the back panel, including one to allow a cassette recorder to be connected and several to allow the individual drum voices to be connected to an external mixer. The DX also has drum tuning knobs, the use of which will be mentioned later.
As the main use of digital drum computers is recording drum tracks when a drummer is unavailable or not considered necessary for the beat required, the designers of the Drumulator have decided that programming four drum sounds at any one time will suffice. Each of the four drum buttons is programmed by the user to provide one of 12 percussive noises and, with the possibility of accented sounds also available, there are 24 sounds to play with! It is easy to programme these four buttons; you just hold one of the programming buttons and tap the desired drum sound in.
The second row of function keys includes one button to select either 'percussion' or 'drum' sounds, and six buttons, each of which has two sounds assigned to it. The sounds available are: (classed as percussion) clave, cowbell, handclaps, hi-hat open, hi-hat closed, ride cymbal and (classed as drum) bass, snare, rimshot, high, mid and low tom-toms. Simply hold down button A, for example, tap the bass drum function key and button A becomes the bass drum. B, C and D can be assigned in a similar fashion, giving the first four sounds for the backing track. The relative volume of the sounds can be varied by using the slider control in conjunction with the 'level' function button to set the sound volume level to a numeric value somewhere between zero and 15. Similarly, the accented version of that sound can be set up to increase its volume by desired amount, again on a scale of zero to 15. Therefore it is posible to have button A as bass drum and button B as louder bass drum! Once these four sounds are finished with, the buttons are re-programmed with four other sounds and so on, up to a maximum of 24 different sounds.
The DX's designers have gone for a simpler array of controls; the 18 drum buttons give the following range of sounds — snare, bass (each with three preset volumes and tones), hi-hat normal and acted, hi-hat open, tom-tom set at three different pitches, cymbal with three volumes, two shakers and handclaps. The sounds are grouped by threes in the obvious manner and each group has its own slider volume control, allowing variation in volume levels at any time. The choice of order of drums is somewhat strange — from left to right we have snare, hi-hat, tom-toms, cymbal, percussion. A reversal of the bass and snare positions would put them in their more natural positions. The sounds are all immediately available to hear and record, the snare, bass and cymbal can be accented easily and the groups of three can be faded in and out at will using the top panel sliders.
To record a sound the same basic steps are taken whichever machine is being used. The length, tempo and time signature of the segment or part to be recorded are selected. Any length between one and 99 and almost any time signature can be punched in; the DX has a slightly larger range of possible tempi (30-250 as opposed to the Drumulator's 40-240 beats per minute). The metronome can be programmed to provide the number of beats per segment required. The machine is then set in record mode by pressing record and start, and with the metronome keeping time the drum sound required is recorded by tapping its button in the right places. Both machines make allowances for a person with a suspect sense of time by allowing variable degrees of accuracy in the playing! The Drumulator has 'auto-correct' and the DX has 'quantize', so if no triplets are needed, for instance, the accuracy setting can be low and any taps slightly out of time will be 'moved' to the nearest available beat. The DX has eight possible accuracy settings and the Drumulator six. It is possible to change the accuracy settings between recording one sound and the next; for example, suppose you want hi-hat on every beat of the bar and a bass snare pattern that involves triplets, then the hi-hat can be recorded on a very 'low' setting to ensure it is rightly positioned but the snare and bass need to be on a reasonably high setting so they don't get 'moved'!
Having recorded a sound and found it is not wanted, the same easy procedure to remove it is followed on either machine. In record mode, the erase button and the unwanted drum button are pressed together.
Once a basic rhythm, using bass, snare and hi-hat, say, is recorded and more complex or interesting sounds are wanted, the differences between the two machines are made apparent. At first the DX appears to have the edge, because all its sounds are available at the same time and can be faded in and out at will. Certainly it is easy on the DX to try different things, take them out with the slider control and then erase them if the mix was better without them. However, the limitations of this design are soon evident — since the sounds are grouped in threes, it may still be necessary to erase sound by sound to get rid of something not liked; exactly the process used to change a pattern on the Drumulator. After the initial lack of familiarity with the Drumulator controls has been overcome, the user can get the most out of the Drumulator's wider range of sounds. If a little time is taken reading the manual and experimenting with the level and accent controls, more interesting patterns can be obtained using the Drumulator — the accent control makes it possible to vary the relative tom-tom and percussion levels, which cannot be done on the DX.
On average, the quality of sounds on the Drumulator is better than on the DX, whose snare and tom-tom sounds are particularly weak in comparison with the Drumulator equivalents. Also the usefulness of two shakers (on the DX) is questionable. However, there are pitch controls on the back of the DX which allow the user to vary the pitch of each group of three sounds — and some of the more extreme settings give very interesting sounds, which are not available on the Drumulator.
The remaining functions can be performed as easily on one machine as on the other. Segments can be put together into songs, can be shortened, lengthened, copied and so on. The DX can store a greater number of segments and songs than the Drumulator, which can only store 36 segments and eight songs. Both machines can display the amount of memory remaining and have facilities to dump the memory onto cassette tape if desired.
Since the majority of digital drum users will also be into sequencers and synths it's important to be able to link up the machines to other electronic instruments. As usual in these matters there's no standard to apply until MIDI becomes common on drum machines. Luckily some systems are becoming more common than others, and both the Drumulator and DX have provision for external outputs.
The Drumulator uses phono sockets, one of which is marked 'Clock/Cass. Out', and provides a click suitable for driving most sequencers and arpeggiators including the Roland Bassline (fast becoming standard issue for everything from disco to pure synthesizer music). As well as requiring a certain pulse level the Bassline needs a certain number of beats per step, which is not one (much too obvious) but six. This adds up to 24 beats per 'Whole Note', which is what the Drumulator puts out as standard. You simply need to plug in a Bassline and go, but note that the Drumulator like the DX fails to provide the 10 volt level which tells the Bassline to stop/start and reset. This means you need to build a little interface box containing a nine volt battery and reset switch, and while you're about it there are a couple of other modifications which could be made to make the Bassline more versatile in live performance. Arpeggiators like those on the Jupiter 8 and Juno 60 are no problem though, and the respective handbooks give information for connection to everything from the alpha Syntauri to the PAIA Master Synchroniser; in many cases it's necessary to re-programme the machines to give a different number of pulses per beat, but this is generally not too difficult.
Both machines can synchronise to a click laid down on tape simultaneously with a previous rhythm, so it's possible to overdub drum parts to add new percussion sounds or to double existing ones for a thicker texture. Of course, the two machines use different codes to do this and so the DX can't be run off a Drumulator click and vice versa. Still, that's business!
So we have two similarly priced drum computers, aimed at the same market. Understanding how to use the DX takes less time — its function buttons perform at most two functions, and the layout of buttons is very good, apart from the bass and snare. Its main advantage over the Drumulator is the 'live' slide control for each group of three voices. However, the actual drum sounds of the DX are disappointing and it lacks the flexibility of the Drumulator. The Drumulator controls appear confusing and take a while to get used to, but there is a greater range of sounds available if some effort is put into the recording process.
In the next few months some new additions are expected for the Drumulator which may help it to pull ahead of the opposition. These include interchangeable chips for new sounds, a custom programming service and a set of pads for live playing and programming.
E-mu Systems Drumulator — shop price around £985.
Contact Gigsounds, (Contact Details) or Syco Systems, (Contact Details).
Oberheim DX — shop price around £995.
Contact The London Rock Shop, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!