Roland TR808, TR606, Dr Rhythm.
If any single company has popularised/dignified the drum machine, then Roland is that chap... When most of us herberts were still dismissing rhythm boxes as clacking metronomes strapped on to the old man's family organ, Roland were exploring just what could be done.
They dabbled with the idea of pre-set rhythms, rapidly moved into programming where you could devise and store your own patterns, then took that to its logical conclusion of being able to memorise arrangements of patterns, enough to accompany a complete song.
Let's look at the three most popular Roland drum machines, starting with the most expensive. First the TR808, adored by studios because it has separate outputs for each of the drum sounds plus a general mixed socket.
The layout of the 808 is necessarily busy. There's a lot to do, and operation sequences are mapped out by lines on a clear plastic overlay. The knobs are colour coded for their tasks — one button has to cope with three jobs at various points in the process.
First the drums, 17 in all if you count the accent. The others are bass drum, snare, low, mid and high congas and tom-toms, claves, rim shot maraccas, handclap, cymbal, cowbell, open hihat, closed hihat. The congas and tom-toms are shared; you can either have a low conga or a low tomtom, selected by a switch. That goes for the mid and high options, the claves/rim shot and maraccas/handclap combinations. That may sound a cheat, but in practice there are more than enough drums to build up a complex sequence.
The bass drum has a control for decay which pans from a noteless thud to a ringing boom, and another for tone that helps add a percussive click. Snare likewise has tone but is a useless "ping" without the rattle of the snares introduced by another control marked "snappy".
The rest of the sounds are workable, though obviously lack the authenticity of far more expensive machines like the Linn which digitally record real drums. I've also heard it said that the 808 sounds great at volume, but loses its impact at lower playback.
Mind you the open and closed hi-hats are great for stressing a pattern — the 808 was one of the first "funky" drum boxes — and the handclaps with their built-in reverb still trample over a lot of the opposition.
The programming is controlled by a row of 16 pushbuttons with integral LEDs along the bottom of the front panel. They also double as the pattern selectors — the first for rhythm one, the second rhythm two and so on. Each pattern is split into 16 beats, and there are two ways of feeding in information. Writing a rhythm involves selecting a position, and wiping its memory clean with the clear button in the top left-hand corner. It's now a blank page.
A rotary knob chooses the drum sound and it seems easiest to start with the bass drum. Pressing the start button causes all the LEDs to light in sequence — they flash from pushbutton 1 to pushbutton 16, then repeat.
If you want a bass drum on the first beat, press pushbutton 1 while the sequence is going, its light will then stay on all the time and the bass will bomp out once at every repeat. Any of the other 15 positions can be programmed in the same way, or taken out by pressing the buttons again.
Or if you prefer to do it by "feel" then hit the "tap" button in the right-hand corner, just as if you were tapping the rhythm with your hand. Once you've finished with the bass move onto the next drum and repeat the process.
You can write track arrangements by switching the 808 to the proper mode then pressing the pattern buttons in the order you want them played. It has space for 12 arrangements — 11 of them 64 bars long and the 12th is 256. Strangely there's no programmable stop function; when it's reached the end of the track the 808 goes back to the beginning and starts again.
Also newer rival machines like Korg KPR77 provide a cassette dump to store tracks and when the 808 was brought out, this wasn't included.
The TR606 which followed was cheaper, had fewer drum sounds, but kept nearly all the programming tracks. It even introduced a few of its own, such as chaining where the machine would run through four adjacent patterns, repeating the sequence as if it was one big 64-beat rhythm.
And there was the DS/DC function which could take one chunk of a track arrangement, such as the verse, and treat it as a single pattern to be repeated or dropped in wherever necessary, saving on memory space.
Roland also upgraded the editing system, allowing you to call up particular bars within a track immediately and make changes, instead of having to step all the way through the entire sequence to reach the right point.
Like the 808, it's capable of playing in funny times — theoretically from 1/8 to 16/8 — and can double or halve the tempo for any individual pattern within an arrangement.
I missed the 808's handclap sound (apparently it's very expensive to produce) and there are no congas, claves, maraccas or the like, but the silver finished, battery-operated 606 has become one of the standards for four track home recordists. It's an impressive bargain, even against its big brother, but doesn't have as powerful a sound.
And finally there's the Dr Rhythm which was around before both TRs and is still on sale today for under £80. There are no track writing facilities, it has only four programmable features — bass drum, snare, rim shot and accent — and the method of writing patterns is more long-winded and less friendly. Two buttons step through each beat of the pattern; one can write a silence, the other can write a "hit" for whichever of the sounds you've chosen.
It can remember 16 patterns of 16 beats duration, plus eight of 12 beats for 3/4 waltz rhythms. The hi-hat is pre-set at 8, 12 or 16 beats per bar. Without doubt, this machine has been outclassed by its brothers. Everybody now expects to hear an "intelligent" drum machine that can change its mind during a song. But the Dr Rhythm still stays a convenient and portable writing tool.
Alternatively, you could build a slightly more sophisticated version with one of the Amdek series — Roland's d-i-y range of electronics kits. And at the far end they have a computer system that displays the pattern, sound and programming information on a monitor.
It may be that Roland will introduce an even cheaper machine that provides some arranging facilities at a Dr Rhythm-type price. Or they could pursue the Linn idea of "real" drum sounds captured on a chip.
It's known that they are experimenting with such technology in the realm of keyboards. But somehow I don't think they'll be going back to hollow log with a piece of cow stretched over it.
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