Roland R8 Rhythm Composer
Paul Ireson beats a path to the door of Roland's new flagship drumbox and finds a groovy kind of love.
Paul Ireson beats a path to the door of Roland's new flagship drumbox and finds a groovy kind of love.
Roland have a reputation for doing whatever they do rather well, but especially so when it comes to drum machines. The TR606 was the first decent drumbox within the reach of most musicians, and at one point it seemed that 'Drumatix' was in danger of becoming a generic term for drum machine. Since then, other units such as the TR808 and TR707 have proved immensely popular, and the TR505 changed our ideas of what to expect from a budget drum machine: in short, Roland have a history of producing classic drum machines. But for a while now they've had no real competition for Yamaha's upmarket machines, a situation that has changed with the release of a new flagship, the R8.
Whilst being recognisably from a great stable, the R8 also turns out to be a new direction for Roland in some respects. Its status as a top-of-the-range machine is confirmed by the sheer number of sounds (68 internal, plus 26 on each optional ROM card, and room for 26 Copy sounds internally), the 16-bit/44.1kHz sampling of all sounds, the huge range of facilities, and the solid construction of the unit. And the new direction?
The first thing that Roland have obviously rethought is the appearance of their machines - beige is out, black and grey are in this season. The dark grey finish of the R8 has an extraordinary velvet feel to it - it's almost worth having one just to run your fingers over its skin every now and then! Top marks for style, but deduct a few for practicality, as some of the front panel printing is in a shade of brown that is rather hard to read against the grey of the instrument case, especially in subdued lighting. Come to think of it, the finish of the R8 is actually the second thing you notice is different to predecessors like the TR808/707: before you see the R8 you have to take it out of the box, and it's at this point that you realise how heavy the machine is. Let's just say that it inspires confidence.
Internally, the new features of the R8 revolve around allowing the user to inject more feel and expression into drum parts, hence the Human Rhythm Composer title. This is an area in which drum machines are often criticised ("it sounds robotic and boring"), so it makes a lot of sense to develop ways of improving matters. Especially at a time when more and more people are using their beatbox as a sound module only, triggering the drum sounds from an external sequencer. Unless a drum machine can offer some unique and valuable rhythm programming features, for many people it will be nothing more than a source of drum sounds.
In keeping with the stylish, sexy finish of the case, all the buttons on the front panel are black plastic and ever so slightly rounded off. There are 16 large drum pads (velocity and pressure sensitive), and next to these are four apparently identical buttons, which turn out to be Start/Stop, Roll, Flam and Shift buttons. The drum pads also double as function buttons, selecting options such as Pattern Copy, Song Chain etc, when pressed at the same time as the Shift button. The lower left-hand part of the front panel is taken up by numerous other small buttons, for mode selection (Pattern, Song, MIDI), cursor shift, page selection, parameter change, etc. It must be said that, yet again, aesthetics has triumphed over practicality: beautiful though the 56 black buttons are, it would be very useful to have some of the more important or 'dangerous' buttons (Start/Stop, Enter, Exit) in a different and distinctive colour.
While we're talking of impractical aspects of the R8, a quick mention must be made of the external power supply. Neither the supply itself nor the plug that connects it to the R8 are of a standard type, so should you lose the supply or damage the plug, a replacement can presumably only come from Roland. Having said that, the mini Euro-style plug is well designed, compact, and it looks like it should be far more reliable than those horrid fiddly little jack connectors that stick out of the back of so many drum machines and effects units these days.
One major reason for the popularity of Roland's previous drum machines was their ease of use, helped in no small part by the inclusion on the LCD display of a grid for showing the placement of beats in a pattern. The R8 sensibly continues this tradition, with a large and informative LCD display that incorporates a 4x 16 grid. The grid is obviously not large enough to keep track of everything in a pattern that could employ 120 drum sounds and be up to 99 bars in length... but I'm getting ahead of myself, and any graphic display is better than none at all - competitors take note.
In other respects, the operation of the R8 is straightforward and easy to follow, though the very number and complexity of some of the machine's features does require a certain amount of mode selection and scrolling through pages on the display. Two slider controls are provided, one for overall volume and one for data entry. Alternative methods of data entry are the incremental buttons and the numeric keypad, which allows values to be entered direct.
The rear panel features the usual proliferation of holes of one kind or another: the standard three MIDI sockets; stereo headphones, stereo left and right and eight multi audio outputs; tape sync in and out; slots for one ROM and one RAM card; jacks for Start/Stop and Volume footpedals (the latter actually for data entry rather than volume control); and an LCD contrast control.
The R8 has 68 preset 16-bit drum samples ('Instruments') stored in its internal memory, and a further 26 can be added with an optional ROM card. The preset drum sounds cover a lot of ground, and cover it well: a good range of bass and snare drums, three sets of four toms, masses of Latin and ethnic percussion, and some lovely cymbals. All are beautifully clear, and together make up as good a set of drum sounds as I've heard anywhere. However, you're not just limited to these preset sounds, which may not quite suit your requirements. Suppose the snare is just a little too heavy, or the decay on the hi-hats too long for the track you're working on? No problem: the R8 provides several sound parameters for altering the sounds, and which also provide a means of introducing more expression into the playing of the Instruments.
You can individually specify Pitch, Decay, Nuance, Pan, Output Assign, Mode, Sensitivity, and Level for each of the 68 Instrument sounds. Pitch variation is over a range of four octaves up or down, in 10 cent (0.1 semitone) steps, although the range is limited to less than this for certain sounds. Decay turns out to be a little more complex than it sounds, as all but a few Instrument samples are split into two components, each of which has an independent decay time. For most sounds, these two components are simply the high and low frequency parts of the sample, though for the hi-hat and ride cymbals the sounds of hitting the cymbal at the centre and rim are chosen.
The Nuance parameter changes the overall blend of the two components: with most sounds this produces a change in tone from deep and full to tinnier, more hollow; in the case of the cymbals it allows you to simulate the effect of striking the cymbal at different points. Ingenious.
Output Assign is straightforward enough, allowing each sound to be sent to one of seven fixed pan positions, or to any of the eight multi-outputs. The pan position of up to four Instruments can be graphically represented on the LCD display. Assign controls how Instrument sounds are played when several are triggered simultaneously or very close together. Any Instrument in Poly Assign mode will enjoy its full decay, even if the same or other sounds are triggered during the decay period. Mono Assign effectively makes a sound monophonic, cutting the decay short if that sound is triggered again. The third mode is Exc(lusive): eight Exc numbers are available, and when several Instruments are assigned to the same number, only one can sound at any one time. The obvious use of this is to maintain 'realistic' voicing of percussion sounds that could not be played at the same time, such as open and closed hi-hats, or muted and normal congas.
Given that a rest sound is provided, the Exclusive mode also allows sounds to be cut short - to simulate the effect of 'choking' a cymbal, for instance. The last sound parameter is Sense, which specifies how the Instrument volume varies with the dynamics of drum pad playing. 26 memory locations are available for Copy voices, allowing you to store several variations (possibly rather extreme ones) of sounds. Both internal and card sounds can be used to create Copy Instruments. Note, however, that the Copy Instruments actually store only other sets of voice parameters, not the basic drum sample, so it is not possible to copy a few sounds from one card and store them, then replace this card with another containing different drum sounds, and use some of these as well. The 26 Copy Instruments takes the maximum total number of drum sounds on the R8 up to 120, if a ROM card is inserted as well - not bad at all.
The range of variation possible with the sound parameters is sufficient to take the user well beyond the realms of merely tweaking sounds, allowing the creation of sounds that are quite new. For example, one of the Copy Instruments called 'Pipe 1', a slightly breathy panpipe type sound, actually turns out to be based on the carnival whistle sample, tuned down a couple of octaves. 'Gunshot' is similarly based on the TR808 Clap sample.
In order to play all these Instruments, they must be assigned to the 16 pads in some way. Although there are only 16 drum pads on the front panel, the provision of the Pad Bank arrangement effectively expands this to 80. There are five Pad Banks, A to E, each of which is a map of how the 16 drum pads are assigned to Instruments. Depending on which one is currently selected, the top left-hand pad could in fact be either pad A1, B1, C1, D1 or E1. The LCD display keeps you updated on which Pad Bank is currently active, and one of the buttons is dedicated to scrolling through the Banks.
Sound parameters can also be varied when Instruments are assigned to pads. Each pad has Pitch, Decay, Nuance and Pan parameters which, except in the case of Pan, operate 'on top of' the parameters set for the Instrument: so if a pad's Pitch parameter is set to - 600, and the Instrument's Pitch parameter is set to -1200 (cents, ie. -1 octave), then the Instrument sound on that pad will be shifted down by -1800 cents. The pad Pan parameter takes precedence [that's enough aliteration -Ed.] over the sound position, as set by the Instrument output assignment.
Putting all this together, it's possible to set up huge sets of toms, by assigning the same or similar tom samples to, say, 10 different pads, and tuning each one to a different pitch with the pad Pitch parameters. Similarly, it is at this point that it is possible to introduce more expression into the playing of Instruments: the same Instrument can be assigned to different pads each with different Nuance settings, so as to have several slightly different versions of the sound on hand, enabling subtle variations to be introduced into the playing of a snare part, say.
This idea is taken to a logical conclusion with the Multi Assign function, which assigns the same Instrument to all 16 drum pads, and then allows you to either set Pitch, Decay and Nuance parameters separately for each pad or use preset alignments of these parameters. This arrangement is independent of the five Pad Banks: it could be regarded as a sort of sixth bank, though a very specialised one. The preset alignments that you can impose on the pad parameters will probably satisfy most users most of the time: the Pitch map gives a chromatic scale of whatever Instrument you've selected; the Nuance alignment gives the full range of parameter variation over the 16 pads, and the Decay alignment provides a wide, but not complete, spread of values.
I've already mentioned the R8's generally straightforward operation and user-friendly display, two important factors that make the R8 a rewarding and easy machine to use despite its complexity. These are important features, though hardly innovative. However, Roland have also included some more original ideas about how to make programming and use of the machine easier.
For example, two pattern programming aids are the Roll and Flam functions. A button for each is positioned to the left of the drum pads, and tapping or holding down a drum pad when either function button is held will produce the chosen effect. Roll produces repeats of the Instrument assigned to any held drum pad, at a roll rate set independently of the current quantise level. The velocity of the notes can be varied by changing finger pressure on the pressure-sensitive drum pads: this proved to be a great short-cut when programming hi-hat parts. I often find it hard to accurately change playing pressure when hammering away at a tiny drum pad with two index fingers, but varying the pressure applied to a constantly held button allowed more accurate changes in dynamics. The feature is also a great help in programming tom and snare rolls (not surprisingly) and, at higher resolutions, for entering percussion fills of various kinds.
Flam allows a double strike to be entered: the relative strengths of the two strikes (Ratio), and the time gap between them (Interval) can both be specified, and flams can be entered in step-time recording as well as real-time. The flam Interval value can be as great as 1/8th of a second, or small enough to produce a flange effect. Because the flam is recorded as a specific event rather than as two separate strikes (hence the ability to enter a Flam in step time), the Interval and Ratio parameters for Flam are set for each pattern individually, so that changing the parameters for one pattern will not affect a flam recorded in another. Neat. Unlike the Roll function, the timing of flams is completely independent of tempo.
One clever idea from the world of computer software that has been implemented on the Roland R8 is that of the macro, which allows the user to record a whole series of consecutive keystrokes, and then recall them through the macro function. The practical use of this is that if there is any procedure that you carry out regularly which requires the same sequence of more than a couple of keys to be pressed, you can save time and effort by recording the sequence of keystrokes into a macro, and using the macro function rather than entering the whole key sequence each time.
To confuse matters slightly, the macro function is actually called Function on the R8, but there is a slightly different feature called Macro as well. Function records up to 10 sequences of keystrokes, like a computer macro, and Macro records mini drum patterns of a kind, again up to 10 of them. A Macro Note consists of a 16-beat rhythm: no Instrument is specified, only the placement of notes within the rhythm. When the Function is used, the pre-programmed rhythm can be played on any Instrument by just hitting the appropriate pad. The timing of the beats is determined by the current quantise rate.
If there is a particular rhythm or sequence of beats that you use very often, this function could conceivably be a good short-cut in rhythm programming. Although I didn't use it in quite such an intentional way, I did find it entertaining to set up very simple Macro Notes, and then programme a pattern by using the Macro Notes on different Instruments at different quantise rates, with no clear idea of the kind of rhythm I was trying to create. Whilst many of the results of this process were unusable [you mean they sounded naff? - Ed.], it also produced some rather interesting patterns, with the minimum of effort.
The basic pattern programming arrangement of the R8 is pretty much as found on Roland's previous drum machines. Notes can be entered into a pattern in real-time or step-time, or a combination of both. Up to 100 patterns can be created, each up to 99 bars in length (although in practice, one or two complex patterns of anything like this length would eat up most of the internal memory capacity), and there are a further 32 non-erasable patterns burned into ROM chips somewhere in the depths of the R8's circuitry. Any of these patterns can then be chained together into songs, each up to 999 patterns in length, and 10 complete songs can be stored in the internal memory. A further 100 patterns and 10 songs can be stored on an optional RAM card.
Real-time recording is easiest, and the way I tend to work most on drum machines, so let's start there. No dedicated Record button is provided: instead you select Play, Real or Step-Time record for a pattern, and the Start/Stop button will then function either as a play or record start button, as appropriate. A metronome beep is provided during real-time recording, at any rate between 1/4 and 1/32 notes, and as with all drum sounds, its audio output may set to a specified position in the stereo picture or assigned to one of the eight multi-outs. The quantise rate can be from 1/4 to 1/96th notes, and can be changed during recording at the touch of a button - very useful.
All pad parameters are recorded in the pattern, allowing a good degree of expression and detail to be programmed into drum parts - provided the pads are suitably configured, of course.
Setting up the ride cymbal in Multi Assign mode, with different Nuance values on each pad, proved very rewarding, allowing far more realism in the programming of the Instrument part. Because this information is now recorded, the pad configuration can be altered without affecting the recorded effects. Changing the Instrument sound parameters, however, will. The same technique for introducing more expression into parts can be used with all but a few Instruments, though the effects of the Nuance parameter are more noticeable with some Instruments than with others.
Real-time editing of patterns goes further than simply allowing you to erase particular drum strikes, and enables you to change values for all the parameters recorded in the sequence. This is achieved by entering real-time edit mode and selecting a parameter, holding down the pad to which the Instrument you wish to modify is assigned, and entering new parameter values with the data entry slider. It's actually very similar to real-time erase, though a little more complex. Besides the Velocity, Pitch, Decay, Nuance and Pan parameters which can be recorded from pad settings, a new parameter called Micro Timing becomes available when you edit a sequence.
Micro Timing is introduced because although the resolution of the R8 is 1/96th notes when recording, on playback this is increased to 1/384th notes. The Micro Timing function therefore allows whole Instruments or individual notes to be shifted about in time increments smaller than the recording resolution of the R8. But is such resolution really necessary?
It seems fairly common knowledge now that small shifts in the timing of notes, particularly in a rhythm part, can radically change how the listener perceives the 'feel' of a piece. Put a snare drum slightly ahead of the beat and the music will sound a little more urgent; place it a little behind, and you have a more laid back, lazy feel. To translate this into figures, at 120 bpm, a 1/96th note lasts about 20 milliseconds, and a 1/384th note about 5 milliseconds. The human ear begins to notice the effect of moving notes when the shift is between 5 and 10ms: so, this high resolution looks like a good move if you really want to get into the groove.
So what about Step-time recording? This follows Roland's time-honoured method - select Step Time mode, choose an Instrument by hitting the appropriate pad, press Start and you're away. Step-time writing is always in 1/16th (Normal entry) or 1/12th notes (Triplet entry). As the pattern repeats, the 16 drum pads are used to write or remove notes to/from beats 1-16 (or 1-12, for triplets) of the pattern. If no note is present, hitting pad 10 will enter a note on the 10th beat, and a second strike will erase it. The velocity sensitivity of the pads still operates in step-time recording - this almost ensures that parts entered in step-time will not be totally 'flat', unless you edit them to even out the dynamics later.
Note placement is shown graphically on the LCD display, a great aid to programming. Up to four Instruments can be shown simultaneously: the first is always the Instrument currently selected for step-time programming, and the remaining three can be specified separately. As each pattern may contain more than 16 beats, it is possible to scroll through a pattern in blocks of 16 with the cursor buttons. It is also possible to write in step time at a higher resolution of 1/96th notes, by entering Scope mode. Editing of patterns can be carried out in step time: as the cursor is moved from beat to beat in the display, the Velocity, Pitch, Decay, Nuance, Pan and Micro Timing parameters can be changed for each note of each Instrument. This can be carried out at 1/16th or 1/96th note resolution.
By way of editing patterns on a larger scale, patterns can be joined to one another, merged together (ie. overlaid, rather than being joined end-to-end), and combined into songs. One R8 feature that struck me as being a particularly intelligent inclusion is the Reframe facility. This simply allows you to move the start of a pattern to anywhere within it, so that if you lost track of where beat 1 was when programming a pattern, and wrote the whole thing starting somewhere in the middle, Reframe will put things straight. The start can be moved to anywhere in the pattern, with 1/96th of beat accuracy. I never actually used this function, except to ensure that it did work, but it's always good to see features that really reflect how people use equipment: because of the cyclical nature of real-time recording on a drum machine, it is very easy to lose track of where you are.
When combining patterns into songs, patterns are chained together and repeats can be inserted. Tempo and overall volume changes can also be entered in songs, as can eight letter labels to identify points in the song. A facility is also available to search for and jump to these labels. Another useful little feature is Time Calc, which calculates the length of a song, saving you the bother of getting your stopwatch out to check the length of a piece. Conversely, Time Set allows you to enter the length of time that you would like the song to be, and will then set the correct tempo (allowing for tempo changes) to fit the song into that time - a real boon for jingle writers.
In a sense I've left the best part of the R8 until last - namely the groove/feel feature. The producer who told a band that "there's no feel button in here" obviously didn't have an R8, because it does in fact have a button very clearly marked 'Feel', and it works!
The way the facility operates is that there are eight Feel patches which can be assigned to patterns on playback, and which impose regular and/or random variations in the Velocity, Pitch, Nuance and Decay parameters of the different Instruments, on top of whatever parameters are recorded in the pattern being played.
The regular variations are imposed by a user-programmable repeating pattern of accents. Grooves, which can contain from one to eight beats at intervals of 1/4 to 1/32nd notes. Each parameter - Velocity, Pitch, Nuance and Decay - has its own programmable groove within a patch: although the resolution and number of beats must be the same for each Groove, the pattern of accents can be different. For each parameter, a random variation can also be imposed, as well as or instead of the Groove pattern. The random effect is variable both in its depth and randomness. Eight Instruments can be assigned to be affected by the feel patch, and for each parameter the systematic and random variation to each Instrument can be switched on or off.
Follow all that? The practical upshot of this is that it is possible to impose a user-programmed groove, in the sense of a regular pattern of changes in tone, volume, decay and pitch of selected Instruments, on an otherwise flat pattern. The random variations add further interest and humanity, by producing subtle changes that mimic the way in which a real drummer cannot help producing slightly different drum sounds all the time, because the drum strikes will not all be quite the same strength or at precisely the same position on a drum head - no matter how hard the drummer tries.
Minor quibbles are that it would be nice to have more than eight Feel patches available, and also some other way of programming the Groove pattern - perhaps in real time? As it is, you have to enter values at each Groove beat, which is a rather odd way of programming a function that is so good at imposing feel on a track - and it is very good at it. As the function only works on playback, there is no way to record the effects of a Feel patch on a pattern, though provided you don't ever need to use more than eight of the patches this won't be a problem.
Still on the subject of feel, but on a more mundane level, a Swing facility is also provided. This delays the placement of certain beats in a pattern, often producing a jazzy, swing feel from otherwise flat 4/4 rhythms. There's not much to say about it, apart from the fact that it works.
In these days of MIDI and powerful sequencers, many people actually use drum machines simply as sound expanders, triggering the drum sounds with an external sequencer. Whilst many aspects of the R8's operation are obviously oriented towards the user who will not be doing this - remember the words 'Rhythm Composer' in 'R8 Human Rhythm Composer' - it still has some important elements of its feel features to offer those who will be using the machine as a sound module only. In addition to responding as any normal drum machine would to external control - assigning one Instrument per note on a single MIDI channel, and recognising velocity - up to nine of the Instruments can respond to MIDI Control Change data (Modulation and general purpose Controllers 1-8) allowing control of Pitch, Decay, Nuance and Pan sound parameters. So, even if you choose not to use the R8's internal rhythm composing facilities, it still allows a good degree of human expression to be programmed into drum parts.
This touches on a rather interesting point - just how many people use their drum machines as sound modules as described above, and how many use the rhythm composing facilities? If you have a decent sequencer it makes a lot of sense to use your drum machine purely as a sound module, otherwise you effectively have two sequencers - this makes any re-arranging of a song twice as much work as it need be. On the other hand, quite a few people probably run their sequencer slaved to the drum machine's MIDI clock, for the simple reason that their drum machine has a tape sync function and their sequencer doesn't, and they want to be able to synchronise their sequenced music with taped material.
All of you who've skipped straight to this paragraph to avoid reading a long review, shame on you - go back and start again. There's really too much to an instrument like the R8 to do it justice in a couple of summary paragraphs, but here goes anyway...
The R8 is not perfect, but most criticisms are either fairly trivial (all black buttons and hard to read lettering), or points about very good ideas that could be better implemented (more Feel patches). However, where it counts the R8 scores highly. The sounds are excellent, and the parameters available for modifying sounds go far beyond what is needed for a little tweaking, allowing both radical changes to be made to sounds whilst opening the door to a whole new world of expression in drum programming.
For those people looking to use the unit as a sound expander only, it may seem that they are paying for a lot of facilities they'll never use, but the R8 still offers some unique means of putting more expression into drum patterns. In short, as Roland's new flagship drum machine, it offers everything you'd expect to find on a top class drumbox, and more. Beat that!
£665 inc VAT.
Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson