LET'S FACE FACTS. The BBC Micro is an excellent computer, but suffers from a dearth of musical add-ons. Whereas umpteen MIDI interfaces, samplers and goodness knows what are available for the Commodore 64, the poor Beeb is rather badly done by.
Rice Computer Electronics have thoughtfully stepped in with a drum unit for the good old Beeb, compatible with the Model B and the Master. It's similar to C64 drum software in that it uses a D/A converter to play back sounds whose digital make-up resides inside the computer. The manual says the voices are "computer-generated digital drum sounds" and digital and analogue methods were used in their creation. The result of all this scientific endeavour is the production of sounds with very low background noise - good for recording.
The Rice drum machine was released several months ago and the software has recently been updated. The current disk includes both versions, and as version 1 can do a couple of things version 2 can't, we'll start with that.
First off, the program is a cinch to use. If you've ever dabbled with a programmable drum machine, programming the Rice Drums will be like falling off a cabasa. It works thus: you program a number of rhythm patterns then chain them together to form a complete drum track.
The pattern screen presents you with a grid listing the drums down the left and the pattern steps along the top. There are eight drum sounds: bass, snare, two toms, metronome (clave), cowbell and open and closed hi-hats. What do they sound like? Well, they're pretty good. In fact, they're a pretty marvellous 45 quid's worth. You can switch the bass drum sound between a standard thump and a modern click, use normal or electronic toms, and switch between normal and bright hi-hats.
Drums are inserted with the function keys and can be entered in real and step time. During step-time entry, the rhythm keeps playing so you can hear your pattern build up.
Now for some figures. Up to 64 patterns can be programmed, each containing up to 16 steps. A maximum of 80 patterns can be linked together to form a track, and the program will store up to 12 tracks. Tempo can be varied from 1 to 80.
There are lots
of nice editing facilities. You can flip from pattern to pattern forwards and backwards. You can also move to another pattern number but retain the same setting, so it's easy to build up a set of slightly different patterns and relocate existing ones.
Other aids include being able to clear the entire pattern, erase a single line of drums, and fill the hi-hat. Keys 1-8 produce various reference grids along the top of the screen to help you see where the beats are.
There is a cute echo facility which adds a reverb effect to the drums to beef 'em up a bit. It works, too.
Patterns and tracks can be saved to disk, although they are all saved with the name Data suffixed by a number from 1 to 8, which is not very informative. It also restricts the number of files you can save to a disk to eight, which is wasteful.
Finally, as an optional extra, you can have a trigger output fitted which will control the likes of a Roland SH101 synth.
The updated software has several new features. The tempo can be varied from 1 to 255 and a pattern can contain up to 32 steps, but the trade-off is a reduction in the total number of patterns to 32. Yes, the memory limitations of the Beeb are showing - though perhaps some clever coding could solve the problem. The echo has gone (big "ah!") along with the bright hi-hats. And for some reason, when you enter step-time mode the pattern stops playing, so you have to flick to real-time to hear the pattern. A nuisance.
On the plus side, there is an auto bass-drum insertion every four, six or eight steps, and a quick way of setting the trigger pulses and tempo, too.
Although the program is easy to use, a few more instructions wouldn't have gone amiss. The key repeat has been disabled, too, which I generally found annoying. I hate jabbing at things, especially keys.
Did I like it? Well, although the software could be tidied up just a little and a few more drum sounds to choose from would be nice, let's put it like this: if I wanted a drum machine and had less than £100 to play with, I'd buy this - and get change, too.
Rice are currently adding a sequencer and bass-guitar synthesiser to the system, and the drum library is being expanded to include audio recordings as well as computer-generated ones. That lot will set you back around £85.
Nice one, Rice.
Price Rice Drums cassette - £45; disk - £47.50; trigger interface - £12.50.
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