Human Rhythm Composer
Nigel Lord ruminates over the future of the drum machine as he checks out the budget version of Roland's flagship R8 Human Rhythm Composer. To be human or not to be human, that is the question.
Roland have given their R8 Human Rhythm Composer a cheaper relative in the R5; they may have created a classic drum machine in the process.
THERE WAS A time - must have been somewhere between '81 and '83 - when everything clicked. Just for a brief period, dancing to a machine seemed like a great idea to everyone. The public got what the public wanted, and the little black boxes ticked (...and fizzed and rumbled).
Then it all became confused. Drummers re-emerged and, lessons learnt, struggled to produce more by playing less - steady grooves through clenched teeth. The machines, gradually losing popularity whilst increasing their sales, now came armed with the sound of real drums (samples, presumably, of real drummers) and programming systems capable of real expression - in real time. Everywhere the call was for programmers who could inject an element of "feel" into their rhythms - and for drummers who could lock into the relentless pulse of the click track.
Then someone (somewhere in New York) remembered the days when machines were machines - and hey, "...a lot of those Kraftwerk tracks really were seminal, you know?". So began the quest for the remnants of that former age - and the search for jack to 5-pin DIN leads to connect them up with (sic).
And then? Well, then came Human Rhythm Composers...
ROLAND'S UNDOUBTED COUP in releasing the R8 Human Rhythm Composer on an unsuspecting world, earlier this year, really cannot have escaped the attention of anyone with an interest in music technology or indeed, Music Technology. I'm sure friend Trask's missive on the subject back in the February issue will have whetted a few appetites, but a quick listen to the onboard demo track should clinch it for those unmoved by the power of the pen. By anyone's standards, the R8 is an astonishing instrument.
So what have we here? Well, all wrapped up in a small, unassuming package is a machine which effectively robs the sorely-tempted punter of his "can't quite afford it" excuse for not splashing out on the R8. Whilst undeniably slotting into the "little brother" category (and given Roland's Human prefix, this seems entirely appropriate), the R5 appears to have been blessed with the majority of those features which made the R8 such a monster. In fact, considering the price difference is likely to be around £200, I found the limited number of omissions quite remarkable - even more so when I discovered there are actually a couple of programming features on the R5 which are not included in the R8's design. More on this later.
Given the extensive areas of overlap in the design of the two machines and the comprehensive appraisal MT has already given the R8, it seems a little pointless to provide a blow by blow account of each of the R5's functions. Instead, let's outline the principal differences between the two instruments (further information can be found in MT February '89).
FINISHED IN THE same matt (and I do mean matt) grey livery as the earlier machine, the R5's external appearance, though neat and quite business-like, belies the considerable programming power and vast sonic range within. In fact, despite its rather compact size it sports only three fewer front-panel buttons than the R8, and though equipped with a considerably smaller LCD, makes up for this with the inclusion of a Condition key which changes the data appearing in the display according to the current mode.
Rear panel differences reveal the absence of the RAM/ROM card external storage/expansion system, but there is limited compensation for this in the form of a cassette-based storage and retrieval facility linked to the Tape Sync phono sockets. Also missing is the Value jack, LCD Contrast control and four of the eight individual outs present on the R8.
A reduction in onboard memory results in a decreased Song capacity from ten to six, but Pattern storage remains the same at 32 preset and 100 user, and so too does the number of Feel patches at eight. One of the less acceptable disparities, I feel, is the quantisation limit of 1/96th notes applied to both step- and real-time programming modes. The R8, you may remember, is capable of resolving to 1/384th notes in real time (which to all intents and purposes can be regarded as quantise "off"). And though it's fair to say that even at 1/96th note resolution, the R5 represents a considerable improvement over many other machines, it does seem an odd restriction to impose on an instrument specifically designed to be responsive to the human element in programming.
A further restriction, though not nearly so important, is in the raising of the lower tempo limit to 40bpm. This compares with a 20bpm limit on the R8 - a feature which has doubtless made it a popular choice for composers of funeral marches.
The Users function - the rather elegant system on the R8 which allows you to store a sequence of up to ten button pushes and recall them at the touch of a single button - isn't implemented on the R5, and neither is Macro Note, which provides the same facility for sequences of up to 16 notes. Similarly absent are the Time Calculate/Display/Set functions for determining song length, the Micro/Macro Timing shift facility, and the utility for naming Patterns and Copy Instruments.
Other points worthy of note include the Step Time recording method which is a little more involved on the R5, and the fact that control of MIDI performance parameters is restricted to Modulation.
OF COURSE, THE problem with setting the R5 up against its elder brother in this way, is that we inevitably end up talking in very negative terms - listing all the things it cannot do or doesn't have - and this really does the instrument a great disservice. As the more astute amongst you may have noticed, most of the "missing" features don't actually compromise the R5's performance in anyway, they simply make programming that bit less easy. In most respects you can get as much out of the R5 as you can the R8 - it just takes a little longer.
Certainly, all the feel and nuance parameters have survived the transition, and so too has the vast sonic array, which, like the R8, comprises 68 internal sounds and 26 Copy instruments. There are, however, some voice changes - 20 of them to be precise - and in many ways they contribute to the very distinctive sound the R5 has as an instrument. By name, they are: Electronic Kick, Jazz Snare, Rimshot 3, Electronic Snare, Brush Hit Stroke, Brush Roll Snare, Electronic Toms 1-3, Jazz Toms 1-3, FX Tom, Timbale, Bongo, Surdo, Blast, Finger Bass, Slap Bass and Acoustic Bass. By nature, they can provide a more jazzy/electronic/latin flavour to your rhythm, or, in the case of the bass instruments, turn the R5 into a complete rhythm section.
In fact, such is the effectiveness of the melodic voices within a properly constructed rhythm, I find it hard to imagine why they were not included among the internal voices on the R8 (presumably, they are available on external ROM cards). It may be that in the absence of a ROM expansion facility, the designers of the R5 felt it needed to be a more self-contained machine. But whatever the reason, the R5 scores highly in this respect - all the more so when you get to work with the human feel parameters which can be applied just as effectively to melodic voices as to the percussive instruments.
Certainly, it is this facet of the machine's performance which is most convincingly demonstrated by the onboard demo track. Very much in the jazz/fusion vein (the kind so often heard drifting from "soundproof" booths at music fairs), it is almost guaranteed to produce a sharp intake of breath and an involuntary glance round the back to check that nothing has inadvertently connected itself to the MIDI Out socket and just happens to be playing along in perfect sync. In short: the kind of demo which sells this kind of instrument.
I mentioned earlier that there were a couple of minor areas in which the R5 could be said to eclipse its elder brother, and indeed this is the case. Index Searching is a facility provided on the R5 to pin-point a particular instrument within a pattern and play it using the Select key. And in a similar area: whereas on the R8, only keypads can be used to select an instrument unless you happen to be in Instrument Assign mode, the R5 allows you to both select and sound an instrument in any of 12 different pages using the Shift and Select keys. OK, not exactly earth-shattering features, either one of them, but they do help make programming that bit easier, and on a machine of this complexity, that's got to be welcome.
IT SEEMS TO me that to date, the efforts of manufacturers to "humanise" the drum machine have been somewhat misdirected. To understand why, I think we have to examine those elements within a rhythm which we instinctively recognise as human. Contrary to popular belief, syncopation, shuffles, grace notes and snare strokes which lag or lead the beat are not the stuff of human feel. Most machines with a reasonably sophisticated programming system and high enough resolution are capable of accomodating this kind of rhythmic "distortion". What really distinguishes the human hand is a fundamental inability to play with any degree of consistency - either in terms of timing or dynamics.
Just how inconsistent human rhythm actually is, is seldom appreciated until we confront the absolute regularity of the machine and realise how unnatural it feels. But of course, imposing the virtually random elements which characterise human performance onto the unvarying pulse of the drum machine is no easy task, and clearly, it has taken a manufacturer of Roland's stature to even address the problem.
So have they succeeded? Well the R5 certainly provides us with the means of introducing these elements into a rhythm. Unfortunately, we are forced to do this in a somewhat calculated way, and in this respect I find myself in agreement with the closing comments in the R8 review. It is possible to program a considerable degree of feel into these machines, but you're going to have to get to know them inside out if that feel is to be recognised as human. Myself, I can't help feeling there is a basic paradox involved in the premeditated insertion of random elements into a rhythm. But anyway...
IN THE 18 months or so since I last had to sit down and familiarise myself with the intricacies of a drum machine, I've been using a Pro24-based system almost exclusively for writing and recording. And as much as I've cursed its needlessly complex architecture and quite dismal instruction manual, I have to say I have grown frighteningly dependent on its ability to visually reveal (as well as play) every nuance of a musical performance. In comparison (and despite Roland's seemingly unique ability to squeeze huge amounts of information into a small LCD display), data programmed into the R5 often seemed inaccessible and demanded far more of the programmer's ability to visualise what was going on. This of course is compounded by the sheer volume of information that a machine like this has to relay through its LCD - we are not dealing with standard beat box technology here.
And there's the rub... though destined to be regarded as a beat box in the eyes of the public, the R5, on examination, actually invites comparison with much more complex computer-based composition systems. Such is the potential of this machine (and the R8), you wonder if Roland aren't effectively shooting themselves in the foot by releasing them onto the market. It seems to me the average user will be quick to realise that there's essentially no difference between this kind of machine and sequencer or computer-based composition systems, except that in most cases the latter are far easier to use, much more flexible - and likely to make the R5 seem rather inaccessible and unwieldly.
But what of the machine's sonic capabilities? Well again, though the percussive voices are uniformly quite excellent, it is the bass and other melodic instruments which really lift the R5 onto a higher plane (the demo track alone is proof of this). But once the percussive/rhythmic/melodic barriers begin to be eroded away (a process in which the R8 and R5 will clearly play a part), will it not be realised that this more, shall we say, "holistic" approach to composition can be better realised on broad-based systems, leaving the humble drum machine to fill the seat in the handful of bands still brave enough to tread the boards sans drummer? I have to say, I can see the R5 being very much the victim of its own success.
IT WOULD BE churlish to take any credit away from Roland. After getting to know the R5 for the best part of a fortnight, I can only conclude that putting this kind of machine onto the market at this kind of price is an act of public philanthropy on their part. Quite seriously, they could have added another hundred pounds to the price of the R5 and still sold all they could make. I have to stand by my earlier comments, in that I firmly believe this will be among the last generation of drum machines (at least in the form we have come to know and love/hate them). But it represents a significant achievement for all that. Certainly, I can see it being the kind of machine people will be desperate to get their hands on in 1995, or whenever nostalgia for good old 1989 becomes fashionable. We're talking investment opportunities here.
Price Expected to be under £500