Roland R-8 MKII
Human Rhythm Composer
Nicholas Rowland examines the successor to Roland’s classic R-8 drum machine and asks: is there life in the old beatbox yet?
The R-8 MkII - it's only human, after all...
Considering Roland have consistently lead the field in beat box innovation, one can't help feeling - at least initially - that their latest release is something of an anticlimax. Instead of a bold rolling back of rhythmic frontiers, we have a MkII version of the R-8 Human Rhythm Composer, seemingly offering very little advance on a design that is now four years old.
So, apart from the addition of the MkII label on the front panel, what's the difference? Answer: extra sounds, more pattern memories and some tidying up/away of some programming features. But there's nothing so radically different here that MkI owners will end up cursing themselves for rushing in four years too early.
So what's going on? Is this a calculated move to create the impression of movement in an otherwise stagnant market? Is it a sign that the Roland R&D department has finally run out of steam (or at least run out of ideas for new model numbers)? Or can we put it down to the fact that the original formula was so damn near perfect, that come new model time, Roland discovered there was really very little room for improvement?
Personally, I'd go for this last argument. As a fairly regular user of an original R-8 over the past three years, I can testify to a machine which knocks the socks off the competition in terms of creating rhythms with soul. The reason for this lies in that word 'human'; the R-8 was the first drum machine which allowed you to convincingly mimic the natural foibles of real live drummers and percussionists. I'm not talking about the light bulb jokes or the congenital inability to remain silent during rehearsals. I'm referring to those nuances and inflections which you get when real people play real instruments - the 'happy accidents' which give live rhythms a totally different character to drum machine samples triggered by computers.
In short the R-8 is probably more human than most drummers. It combines sounds of superb realism, and parameters (such as the one appropriately named Nuance) which enables you to subtly alter their character within the context of a rhythm. Then there are the Feel patches - an intelligent way of imposing both regular and irregular accents on top of rhythms as well as underpinning the beat with what might best be described as human pulse.
On top of all this you have grown-up drum machine features such as velocity sensitive programming pads, separate outs, built-in sync facility, expandability via ROM and RAM cards, plus extensive MIDI features. Truly, the R-8 is a drum machine for connoisseurs - as indeed is the R-8 MkII, even though it is no longer so far ahead of the competition as the original version was. And among that competition one now has to number the rhythm pages of many software based sequencers, plus sampled rhythm loops - both of which can now offer similar levels of 'rhythmic humanising'.
In addition to the preset sounds (see boxout), you can also create 26 custom sounds using the extensive list of programmable parameters, including Pitch (covering a useful +/- 4 octaves), decay and the aforementioned Nuance, (which simulates the different timbres you get when you strike acoustic instruments in different places.) Apart from global editing of each sound, the R-8 allows you to dynamically change the main sound parameters as you record rhythms. You can also achieve this via MIDI using the R-8's performance functions which allows you to assign sound parameters (pitch, volume, nuance etc.) to MIDI controllers data.
All these humanising functions (and this is only a brief summary) are easy to program. Less so are the Feel Patches which can be assigned to patterns to change further the inflections you might already have built into them. It's impossible to explain how the system works without adding a few more pages to this review, but I can assure you the system does work. However, there's a steep learning curve involved (ye gods! you might even have to read the manual). And I suppose there's a certain irony in the fact that getting a machine to mimic the spontaneity (not to mention the wit and enthusiasm) of real drummers, should involve much sweating over programming buttons.
But enough of humans. What of the rhythm composer bit? Briefly: 32 preset rhythm patterns, 200 user-programmed ones and 10 song memories. Max pattern length is 99 bars; available time signatures range from the sublime to the ridiculous; quantise can go as low as 1/96 with further adjustment of notes possible to resolutions of 1/384.
Programming in real and step time (or combinations of both) is straightforward enough, particularly as the LCD display includes a version of the time-honoured Roland programming matrix - though it's (still) a shame that only four instruments are shown at any one time. At any point you can temporarily step aside to select and edit new sounds.
Complex, but ultimately a rewarding experience, it's fair to say that the R-8 gives you virtually everything you could want from a standalone drum machine - possibly too much for many people. For that reason, I can understand Roland's decision to go for what amounts to a minor upgrade rather than a new model. Add more features and you'd lose any semblance of user-friendliness.
The question is, what happens when it's time to upgrade the MkII? Will the MkIII be so human it chokes on its own vomit? Or one that stops half-way through a song to discuss how Steve Gadd might have programmed it?
Review by Nicholas Rowland
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