Human Rhythm Composer
Since the days of the TR808, Roland have set standards for many other drum machines; now they're concentrating on the human angle. Simon Trask tests the "Human Rhythm Composer".
While Roland's TR808 and TR909 drum machines are still much loved for their electronic feel the company's latest drum machine emphasises the human touch.
HOW TIMES CHANGE. When Roland brought out their TR808 drum machine they proudly labelled it 'Computer Controlled', celebrating rather than denying the machine's electronic nature. Yet from the time of the TR707 and its TR727 Latin companion the company have set about discarding this electronic nature in search of "authenticity".
Only a decade ago the drum machine was defining its own unique form, yet today it is being challenged by a number of developments. MIDI sequencers are taking on more and more drum machine-style programming facilities as musicians create their rhythm patterns in the sequencer rather than on the drum machine. And people have come to expect an extremely broad range of sounds with their rhythms, challenging the previously closed sonic nature of the drum machine. On the face of it, all you need is a combination of sequencer and sampler and you can do away with the drum machine altogether (after all, a drum machine is only a specialised case of these components in combination).
While companies such as Korg and Akai have responded both with rack-mount drum expanders and sampling drum machines, Roland appear to have steered a more conservative middle-ground with the R8, sticking to the more familiar conception of a drum machine.
But take a look at the new label and think again. From "Computer Controlled" to "Human Rhythm Composer" is no small step.
THE SEARCH FOR an ever greater degree of realism in drum machines (the "human touch") takes two complementary forms: sound and feel. The first has to do with the realism of the drum samples - how much does a sample sound like "the real thing"? Essentially this depends on how well the sounds are recorded in the first place, and the fidelity of the actual sampling. Nowadays everyone is coming to expect 16-bit, 44.1 kHz quality, and this is precisely what the R8 delivers, with clean, dynamic samples which demonstrate a degree of sonic accuracy still all too rare in digital drum machines. The closest comparison I can think of is to Alesis' HR16, though I'd say that the R8 is more effective across the entire spectrum of its sounds. The R8 has the potential to draw on a much larger range of sounds via plug-in ROM cards; unfortunately, none were available for review at the time of writing.
But if the R8's samples represent a step on from Roland's previous drum machines (and they most definitely do), the other aspect of realism, feel, represents more of a quantum leap. Roland have reasoned that what separates human feel from mechanical feel are all the spontaneous inflections which appear in a human musician's performance, such as inflections of tone, of dynamics, and of timing. It is precisely these inflections which Roland have sought to introduce into the R8's patterns through what they call, logically enough, "feel" parameters. Now read on...
AS YOU'LL HAVE noticed from the header picture, Roland have gone in for a complete restyle on the R8. No more a TR in name, no more a TR in appearance. The new style offers sombre grey and black colouring, a chic slimline wedge shape and low-profile front-panel controls. Weighing in at just under 7lbs, the R8 is reasonably portable (though not helped by the bulky external power supply). Yet the construction seems fairly solid, if not of tank-like proportions.
Amazingly, the otherwise fairly generous 4X40-character LCD window is not backlit. And I thought the days of eyestrain were over. The window provides current programming and status information in its left half, while the right half is given over to the sort of matrix pattern display which goes all the way back to the Boss Dr Rhythm. Up to four instruments can be displayed at a time.
To the left of the window are value and volume sliders, while occupying the left-hand half of the panel are a large number of buttons which include a numeric keypad and groups governing mode, edit, user-function, cursor and parameter selection. The more you become familiar with the R8, the more you realise how well Roland have organised the drum machine's programming structure, and in particular the interaction of these buttons. A particularly useful feature which I hope we'll see more of is the User Function. This allows you to create operational "shortcuts" by programming up to eight sequences of button-presses which can then be activated by selecting the function number - replacing, say, 12 button-presses with just one.
The left-most column of black pads are for Start/stop/continue, Roll, Flam and Shift/erase functions. The 16 velocity-sensitive instrument pads are a sensible size (just under 1" X 1") and firm to the touch without being unpleasantly hard - perhaps because they also happen to be pressure-sensitive, a feature which comes into its own with the R8's roll and flam options.
The rear panel provides MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets together with stereo audio outs (L/mono and R), eight individual audio outs ("oh joy!", I hear you exclaim) and a headphone output. Also present are FSK tape sync in/out sockets, start/stop footswitch and value pedal sockets, a RAM card slot for data storage, and the aforementioned ROM card slot for accessing further samples.
THE R8'S SAMPLES are known as Instruments. There are 68 Internal Instruments, 26 Copy Instruments and 26 External (ROM card-based) Instruments.
"After the competent but somewhat unadventurous TR626 it was clear that Roland would have to come up with something new - they've succeeded admirably."
The 68 Internal Instruments provide samples of nine bass drums, 14 snares, 13 toms, three hi-hats, several crash and ride cymbals, the 808's handclap, a Japanese taiko drum and 13 Latin percussion sounds including conga, cowbell, agogo, whistle and clave. Roland have also provided some more unusual effect-type sounds such as 'Surf and 'Wheel1', together with reversed snare, tom and cymbal. Some sounds are close-miked, others are recorded with large room ambience.
The first thing to say about these samples is that they are astonishingly realistic - you really do feel as if not even the slightest sonic detail has been lost in the translation from acoustic origin to electronic recreation. The second thing is that this is a uniformly excellent collection of sounds - there's not one weak sound among them. If this sounds like high praise, it's meant to be.
Each Instrument has associated Pitch, Decay and Nuance parameters governing how it sounds. All the samples are equally impressive throughout their transposition range, with no aliasing or digital noise apparent.
The first two parameters are fairly self-explanatory (pitch can be varied +/- four octaves in four-cent steps), but the third deserves some explanation as its a key feature of the R8. Most of the drum machine's Internal Instruments can respond to Nuance. Basically, Nuance refers to how or where an instrument is hit. Selecting a Nuance value (0-15) allows you to get subtle and even not-so-subtle variations of sound out of an Instrument. By programming changes of Nuance into the R8's patterns for individual Instruments you can simulate (or even exaggerate) the fact that we don't hit acoustic instruments in exactly the same way or the same place each time. For example, higher Nuance values for the hi-hat and ride cymbals represent the cymbal being struck closer to its bell, while changing the Nuance value of the octave agogo very realistically recreates the instrument being struck on different areas of its surface.
Additionally, all Instruments whose sound can be varied by nuance can also have two decay settings programmed - one for lower and one for higher nuance values.
Other parameters allow you to select the Instrument's velocity response curve (1-8), output assignment (one of seven stereo pan positions or one of the eight separate outputs) and voicing (mono, poly or exclusive). Exclusive voicing is a particularly neat feature. Once upon a time drum machines used to have drumkit limitations built into them in the hope that this would help them sound more like the real thing (such as not having an open and closed hi-hat sounding together). The R8 allows you to use any combination of its Instruments, but by assigning certain Instruments (eg open and closed hi-hats) to the same Exclusive number (1-8) you ensure that they don't play together. Only now the combinations are up to you.
The 26 Copy Instruments allow you to make "copies" of selected Internal instruments and assign different parameter values to them, while the External Instruments of course have their own parameter-value assignments.
TO USE ANY of the 120 possible Instruments you must first assign them to the drum machine's 16 pads (one Instrument per pad). The R8 allows you to define five "drumkits" of 16 pad assignments each, giving you a total of 80 Instruments at a time to draw on. You can switch between the Pad Banks (as they're known in R8-speak) during Play and Record, which provides you with a pretty extensive "composite drumkit" for each pattern (how many drummers do you know who have an 80-piece kit?).
But the R8 doesn't just allow you to define the above-mentioned parameters for each Instrument (nothing so simple on this machine). Each pad in each "kit" can be given +/- "offsets" for Pitch, Decay, Nuance and Pan parameters. When an Instrument is assigned to a pad, these values are added to or subtracted from the "absolute" parameter values accordingly, creating a pad-specific variation on the Instrument. The new values are recorded as part of a pattern, so by assigning an Instrument to multiple pads (or successively changing the offset values on a single pad) you can introduce all manner of variations into a single Instrument. A special case of this is Multi assign: pressing the Multi button assigns a previously-selected Instrument to all 16 pads (this is independent of the Pad Banks). You can then record using 16 variations of the same Instrument (a helpful Align function sets up a useful spread of values for any combination of Pitch, Decay and Nuance - Pitch Align creates semitone intervals (useful for, say, playing a tune on the agogos).
THE R8 HAS 100 programmable and 32 preset Patterns. The latter can be copied into the programmable pattern memory if you want to edit them or add feel parameters (the idea being that the presets demonstrate rhythm programming prior to the R8).
"Even if you program patterns into a MIDI sequencer, you can use the R8's thwack-friendly pads as opposed to the less natural MIDI keyboard method."
Each programmable Pattern can be up to 99 bars long, with a global time signature per Pattern of anything from 1-8/4 to 1-64/32. Quantisation (which is record only) can be anything from 1/4 to 1/96th notes, though using micro-shifting you can position notes to 1/384th resolution. This can be done per note in step-time, but there are also macro-shift (1/96th note) and micro-shift (1/384th note) facilities which allow you to "globally" slide the rhythms of individual Instruments within a Pattern to and fro in time.
Of course you may not be able to record 100 Patterns, certainly not if you take advantage of the possible 99-bar length. It all depends how you decide to use the R8.
Real-time recording is in the familiar loop-in-overdub style. Record quantisation can be changed at any stage of recording, while the five Pad Banks can be stepped through as you record, allowing equal access to 80 Instruments. Selecting Edit Performance while in real-time record temporarily takes you out of record, allowing you to edit the pad parameters (Pitch, Decay, Nuance and Pan) while the Pattern is playing. Exiting from Edit Performance takes you straight back into record.
Pitch, Nuance, Decay and Pan along with velocity and micro-timing values can be programmed dynamically in real time as Sequence parameters. You just select which parameter you want to program and use the data slider, +/- keys or footpedal input to control the parameter during record or play. You select the Instrument to be edited in this way by pressing the appropriate Instrument pad, which means that you can jump from one Instrument to another.
Step-time recording provides three increasingly fine levels: Basic, Normal and Scope. As its name suggests, Basic is the simplest level. Here you can select an Instrument, set the desired pattern playing, and record the rhythm to 1/16th-note resolution by hitting pads 1-16 (velocity is recorded with each note). To erase a note, hit the relevant pad again. Record resolution can be 1/16th-note or 1/12th-note (triplet).
This method of recording is similar to that which Roland originally used on the TR808 - only in this case you have to Stop the pattern playing each time you want to select a new Instrument.
The only problem with this method of step-time entry is that the R8 loops around the entire Pattern, even though you only record into the selected bar; with, say, an eight-bar pattern this can get a bit tedious. What a shame Roland haven't included a facility for looping around any section of a Pattern (this applies to real-time recording as well).
If your bar length is greater than 4/4 you have to use Normal step-edit mode. This mode also allows you to step-program the above-mentioned Sequence parameters for each Instrument in a Pattern. However, again the maximum resolution is only a 16th note. Notes and sequence parameters can be step-programmed to 1/96-note resolution by selecting Scope mode (as in microscope). In all these step modes, notes can only be entered while a Pattern is playing, while associated Sequence parameters are edited per "active" step in the LCD window. It's a pretty comprehensive editing system which allows you to program all the feel parameters at a very precise level.
Other useful programmable features are Roll, Flam and Macros (the latter are programmable "single-line" rhythms of up to 16 beats, with velocity per beat). These are all programmable effects which can be triggered off any pad during play or record. Macros are triggered by single pad-hits (but not via MIDI), while Roll and Flam can be held for any duration, and with variable volume level, courtesy of the pressure sensitivity of the pads.
"Each of eight Instruments per patch can be inflected by any combination of programmable Velocity, Pitch, Decay and Nuance +/— offset values."
Also included on the R8 are Pattern editing features such as Instrument Change (allowing you to replace one Instrument with another in an already-recorded Pattern), Pattern Append, Pattern Extract (allowing you to extract a single Instrument part from a Pattern into a fresh Pattern), Pattern Merge, Pattern Reframe (a sort of global time-shift) and Pattern Copy (sections of a Pattern as well as the entire Pattern).
FEEL PATCHES AREN'T the only way of introducing "feel" into your Patterns, but they are possibly the most flexible and spontaneous. Unlike the other methods described above, they "impose" inflections in real time on any combination of up to eight Instruments. There are eight Feel patches, and each Pattern can have one such patch assigned to it (though obviously if none of the patch's eight Instruments are included in a Pattern, the feel will be zilch).
There are two aspects to a Feel patch: Groove and Random. The first applies parameter variations according to specific "sequences", while the latter introduces random variations according to Probability and Depth settings. Each of the eight selected Instruments per patch can be inflected by any combination of programmable Velocity, Pitch, Decay and Nuance +/- offset values.
The Groove Type refers to the number of steps which can be inflected (1-8), while the Groove Step refers to the resolution of the steps (1/4 to 1/32). For instance, Type 8 and Step 8 would provide eight inflections on consecutive eighth notes. But the actual "pattern" of inflections for each of Velocity, Pitch, Decay and Nuance for each Instrument is determined by whether or not you program offset values for each step.
Now, if all this sounds complicated it's because it is - to begin with, at least. Like anything, once it clicks you can zip around making all sorts of changes at the speed of light (well, almost). You can start to feel that you're running the machine rather than the machine's running you.
NOW WHERE WOULD a drum machine be without a song? Or in the case of the R8, ten Songs. In familiar fashion you can chain the R8's 100 Patterns together using up to 999 steps (Parts) per Song. You can of course insert and delete Song steps, and also copy any range of Song steps to any position in the Song (making it easier to create, say, verse/chorus song structures). In addition, any range of Parts can be placed between repeat signs (with up to 99 repeats - enough for anyone), and one set of repeat marks can have up to eight others used within it.
Songs can be chained together by assigning each of the relevant Songs a follow-on Song number. Each Song can be given its own initial tempo and volume level, while tempo and level changes (up to +/-99 and +/-32 respectively) can be inserted between any pair of Parts. It's worth bearing in mind that this isn't as flexible as many a MIDI sequencer with a tempo track is nowadays (C-Lab's Creator/Notator and Steinberg's Pro24 III to name but two). If you needed more frequent tempo changes than per Pattern (perhaps just subtle adjustments), you could always split a longer Pattern into shorter Patterns, but it seems a rather laborious method. Slave the R8 off a sequencer with a tempo track and you'll have much more powerful tempo control.
Familiar functions include Song Copy, Clear and Name (eight characters maximum). More unusually, you can insert labels (again, up to eight characters) at any position within a Song, and subsequently step-search through the Song, label by label, until you find the one you want. An obvious use for this feature would be to label the verses and choruses of a Song. Incidentally, all of the insert features take up Song Parts - but with 999 Parts per Song, who's complaining?
Roland haven't finished there, however. Also included are three time functions: Calculate, Display and Set. The first of these calculates the duration of an entire Song, or of the Song up to a specified bar (the Song must have an initial tempo defined), while the second provides an elapsed-time display as a Song is playing, and the third will actually calculate an initial tempo to allow the Song to be played within a specified time (as long as it doesn't exceed the R8's 20-250bpm range).
ROLAND CERTAINLY HAVEN'T skimped on the R8's MIDI features. First of all, there's the familiar MIDI sync ability: when set to MIDI sync, the R8 responds to the usual array of MIDI clock, Start/Stop/Continue and song position pointer commands (it sends all these when set to internal sync). Song position pointer works in Pattern as well as Song mode (remember, a Pattern can be up to 99 bars long - which could be a complete Song).
"If the R8's samples represent a step on from Roland's previous drum machines, the other aspect of realism, feel represents more of a quantum leap."
While all Instruments (Internal, Copy and External) are played via MIDI on a single Instrument receive channel (1-16), you can also set four Performance Section receive channels (more on these later). In contrast, each Instrument can transmit on its own MIDI channel (1-16), which allows you to independently address up to 16 external instruments from the R8.
Although onboard the R8 you organise its Instruments into six Pad Banks, via MIDI, all the drum machine's Instruments are equally accessible. This is because each Instrument can be mapped to a MIDI note (0-127). These note assignments are the same for MIDI receive and transmit, which means that patterns played from the R8 into a MIDI sequencer will automatically play back on the correct Instruments (so even if you program patterns into a MIDI sequencer, you can use the R8's thwack-friendly pads as opposed to the less-natural MIDI keyboard method).
If you do prefer to use a MIDI sequencer for recording your rhythm patterns, what really matters is: can you still use all the R8's "feel" features? Well, one aspect of "feel" will probably be just as available to you, if not more so: the positioning of notes in time. Nowadays, many sequencers have a time-shifting facility, though typically it's per track rather than per note (you'd need to put different Instruments on different tracks), while the graphic matrix note-displays which are increasingly common on computer-based sequencing packages make step-time entry and editing a much easier task than it is on the R8 (though many sequencers don't have the R8's micro-shift resolution of a 1/384th note).
But what about all the other "feel" features - the Pitch, Decay, Nuance and Pan parameters which, onboard the R8, can be programmed in real- and step-time for each individual note, or introduced more spontaneously via the Feel patches? Roland do provide a means of recording selected "feel" data into a MIDI sequencer as part of a pattern for subsequent playback. Basically, this involves the R8 translating the data into nine MIDI controllers (modulation and eight unassigned controllers) which are transmitted and received via MIDI. Each MIDI controller can be assigned one Instrument and one of the above parameters, so controller one could transmit pitch data for 'Fat-S1' (fatsnare).
This means that sequencing the R8 via MIDI provides only a small part of the "feel" power available to you if you employ the drum machine's onboard sequencing. On top of this, the MIDI controller approach is either faulty or not as straightforward as it seems, as the Decay settings weren't preserved properly.
But if MIDI sequencing isn't going to provide the same sophistication as R8 sequencing, there is a halfway-house option. The R8 allows you to call up any of its 100 Patterns via MIDI using MIDI patch changes. Also, courtesy of MIDI System Exclusive you can transmit and receive all Pattern and Song data, individual Patterns, and (as a single Setup) what appears to be every other programmable feature of the drum machine - in other words, the complete data and state of the R8.
Now, instead of programming songs on the R8 you could insert patch changes in a spare track of your MIDI sequencer which would call up the drum machine's patterns. In this way you keep all those "feel" parameters within the R8, the sequence of R8 Patterns is automatically tied in with the song structure in your MIDI sequencer, and you can transfer all your R8 Patterns via SysEx to the sequencer for storage to disk (which you would probably want to do anyway, because it's cheaper than using RAM cards) as part of your sequencer's songfile. This approach also allows you to take advantage of any tempo track your MIDI sequencer might have, as tempo flexibility is an important aspect of feel which the R8 itself doesn't deal with adequately.
The above-mentioned four Performance Sections offer another variation on recording into the R8 via MIDI. For each Section you can control the Pitch, Decay, Nuance or Pan of an Instrument from a MIDI keyboard while controlling Decay, Nuance or Pan from the modulation wheel or any one of eight unassigned controllers. The values generated can be recorded into the R8's Patterns (but the usual loop-in-overdub recording doesn't function). Up to all four Performance Sections can be assigned to the same MIDI channel, leading to all sorts of interesting possibilities (such as Pitch and Decay being controlled from the keyboard while the modulation wheel controls pan position).
AFTER THE COMPETENT but somewhat unadventurous TR626 it was clear that Roland would have to come up with something new if they were to maintain their proud tradition of innovation. With the R8 they have succeeded admirably.
From the sheer quality of its sounds and the sophistication of its programming features it's clear that the company have put a great deal of care and thought into their new drum machine. The R8 has real depth as a musical instrument. Unfortunately it's not easy to explore that depth, which leaves me wondering if the R8 will be fully appreciated by the potential buyer. As usual The Roland Manual doesn't help you as much as it should, but the new Index of Terminology is a Godsend (Dear Roland, please make this a standard feature of future manuals).
There's a certain irony in the fact that what is a spontaneous aspect of performance, namely "human feel", is decidedly non-spontaneous on the R8 - at least until you become thoroughly conversant with its workings, which as I've said is no easy task. However, it's worth pointing out that you can use the R8 in an attempt to simulate human feel or you can use it to create altogether more outlandish, experimental combinations of sound and rhythm - a dual use which will no become a strong point in its favour.
Roland haven't let us down. The R8 increases the vocabulary of the digital drum machine. From A-Z and beyond.
Price £665 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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