Total Percussion Sound Module
From the R8 Human Rhythm Composer comes the Total Percussion Sound Module "humanising' without a sequencer? Simon Trask investigates Roland's latest beat box and a selection of sound cards.
Is there a future for the dedicated beatbox in a world of increasingly affordable yet increasingly sophisticated sequencers and samplers? Roland hedge their bets with a rack-mount version of their flagship drum machine.
ONE OF THE first instruments I reviewed on joining this magazine in 1985 was Korg's MR16 MIDI Rhythm Unit. I can remember being a bit perplexed by it at the time. Here was a non rack-mounting MIDI expander which brought the sounds of Korg's (non-MIDI) DDM110 and DDM220 drum machines under one roof, but left their pattern- and song-recording facilities out in the cold. Its individual front-panel level and stereo pan controls and - for those with enough inputs on their mixing desk - individual audio outs were a welcome bonus, however.
The concept was clear enough: a MIDI sequencer could be substituted for the onboard sequencing of a drum machine. The MR16 could be set to receive on any one MIDI channel, and each of its sounds could be triggered by a (pre-assigned) MIDI note number as indicated on a front-panel keyboard diagram. You could play it from a MIDI keyboard or from an electronic drum-kit equipped with pad-to-MIDI conversion. In fact, the idea of the dedicated drum expander sans sequencing really began with the electronic drumkit.
By placing a MIDI sequencer in between controller and expander, the MR16 could be incorporated into the wonderful world of MIDI-based recording. But in those days MIDI sequencers were limited on memory, limited on tracks, and not well suited to drum machine-style rhythm recording. Surely it was better to save on memory and save on tracks by programming your rhythm patterns into a drum machine. Was there, then, a place for the MR16?
The review's last sentence was "Whether it's setting out to do a particularly useful job... is something only time will tell". Well, time has shown that the MR16 was ahead of its time. With the advent of 16-bit computers (and in Europe the Atari ST in particular), computer-based MIDI sequencers have gained substantially more tracks and substantially more memory, and have increasingly adopted features tailored for drum machine-style recording. Owners of powerful MIDI sequencing programs like Cubase and Notator will be able to think of countless other advantages to be had from using today's sophisticated sequencing software for rhythm programming. And, of course, nowadays the more adventurously inclined can investigate the possibilities of alternative MIDI software such as algorithmic composition programs.
The past five years have also seen the advent of affordable sampling and the rise and rise in importance of rhythm in popular music. Nowadays samplers are frequently pressed into service as dedicated drum expanders, and the drum machine's hegemony has been challenged by the combination of MIDI sequencer and (rack-mount) sampler. Today a drum machine can no longer be a static entity, a mere electronic recreation of a drummer's drumkit, but something altogether more fluid and versatile.
Roland have taken on that challenge with their R8 flagship drum machine (reviewed MT, February '89) and its cheaper relative, the R5 (reviewed MT, July '89). But while both machines can be played (and synced) via MIDI, they are still primarily self-contained entities. What many of today's musicians with their sophisticated computer-based MIDI sequencing setups want are the sounds without the pattern- and song-recording facilities, which are redundant as far as they are concerned.
In recognition of this fact, Roland have come up with the 1U-high, 19-inch R8M, essentially a rack-mount version of the R8, stripped of the pattern- and song-recording facilities. Perhaps it's surprising that they haven't come up with a dedicated drum expander before, but there again the R8 is really the first Roland drum machine to offer the sort of sonic flexibility and versatility which is required to compete with rack-mount samplers. Other manufacturers haven't exactly been enthusiastic where dedicated drum expanders are concerned. Korg followed the MR16 with the 1U, 19-inch DRM1 Digital Rhythm Module (reviewed MT. February '88), which was to the company's DDD1 and DDD5 drum machines what the R8M is to the R8 and R5 now, while more recently Akai have produced the 1U, 19-inch XE8 MIDI Drum Expander (reviewed MT, April '89). In the context of the electronic drum kit, Roland produced their first dedicated drum expander back in 1985 with the DDR30 Digital Drums (reviewed E&MM, December '85), a unit which was both MIDI-compatible and, with the addition of PD10 and PD20 drum pads, the "brain" of an electronic kit.
Today, the drumkit metaphor is still a useful one, if only to show how far the dedicated drum expander has come in the past five years.
THERE ARE PROBABLY three things that will strike you about the R8M when you look at the picture accompanying this review: it has a backlit LCD, it has three PCM ROM sample card slots, and it doesn't have many buttons. At least two of those observations will make R8 and R5 owners sad, as neither drum machine has a backlit LCD and the R8 has one PCM card slot while the R5 has none. Turning to the R8M's rear panel, alongside the MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets and the L/Mono and R stereo audio outs are six polyphonic individual outs, a number which sits midway between the R8's eight and the R5's four.
Pricewise the R8M also sits between the two drum machines, though it's nearer to the R8 than the R5.
Roland U110 PCM Sound Module owners will no doubt notice that the front panels of the U110 and the R8 look exactly the same, and in fact operationally both instruments are exactly the same, with the same six buttons: Note #/Jump (the U110 substitutes Part for Note #), Edit/Exit, Cursor Left and Cursor Right, and Value Up and Value Down/Enter. The R8M's parameters are structured in a clear hierarchical fashion, and you use the Enter and Exit buttons to respectively drop through and climb back up through a maximum of four Edit levels, while the Cursor buttons allow you to select different Edit options at each level and then move through the screens of each option, and the Value buttons allow you to edit the parameter values. You can also select up to four LCD screens to Jump to using the Note #/Jump button, and return to the Play mode screen at any time by holding down both the Note #/Jump and Edit/Exit buttons. Once you've familiarised yourself with these buttons and with the location of each parameter within the programming structure, it's surprising just how fast editing on the R8M can be.
Like the R8 and R5, the R8M comes with 68 internal 16-bit 44.1kHz drum and percussion sounds which are known as Instruments. In fact, these are the same sounds that are in the R8 - which means that many but not all are the same as those in the R5. One thing the R8, R5 and R8M have in common is that "sound" 68 is silence (or silent): and if you're wondering what good a silent sound is to you, all will become clear later on.
Roland currently have nine PCM ROM sample cards available for the R8 and R8M. With 26 Instruments on each card, that's a total library of 301 sounds including the onboard samples (302 if you include the silence). With its three PCM sample card slots, the R8M can provide you with a selection of 145 sounds at any one time.
"The R8M is well thought out, easy to use, sonically versatile both in its range of sounds and in the ways you can alter those sounds."
The R8M's fourth front-panel slot is for RAM data cards. Now, if there's no onboard memory for patterns and songs, why the need for such a card? The answer is that, whereas on the R8 and R5 you can create a single MIDI 'drumkit', or arrangement of Instruments across the MIDI note range, on the R8M you can create up to 32 of them. As on the R8 and R5, the "drumkit" is known as the Instrument section, and this section is complemented by four Performance sections which each consist of a single Instrument spread across the keyboard. On the R8M these five sections (each of which can be assigned its own MIDI receive channel) are collectively known as a Patch, and as I've just intimated there are 32 of them in internal memory. A further 32 can be stored per RAM card, and used without you having to load them into the internal memory first. A quick spot of arithmetic will tell you that this gives you a maximum simultaneous choice of 64 Patches - though you can only use one Patch at a time. Patches (including those on card) can be called up from the front panel or via MIDI patch change commands received on a user-specifiable Control channel (1-16), the latter option making it easy to automate kit changes between or even during songs. You can create your own patch change map within the R8M which allows you to call up Patches and Feel Patches separately or together and in any order.
Although the R8M drops the "Human Rhythm Composer" tag of the R8 and R5, the "feel" elements of the two drum machines (basically the Feel Patches and Control Changes), have successfully migrated to the expander; in fact, the R8M doubles the number of Feel Patches: 16 to the eight on the R8 and R5. Both Feel Patches and Control Changes are concerned with creating real-time changes in Instrument pitch, decay and nuance - in other words, with trying to get away from regularity of sound. As with the R8 and R5, what makes this aspect of the R8M so interesting is that you can either be subtle or extreme with it - try for a more "acoustic" sound or, instead, revel in the machine's electronic nature.
Of course, inflections in the sound of an instrument represent only part of a definition of feel. Variations in timing and dynamics need to be added, and in practice all these elements work together. The R8M's Instruments are velocity responsive, and MIDI velocity is one possible control source for introducing Instrument pitch, decay and nuance inflections. As for timing, the more sophisticated MIDI sequencers with their dynamic tempo tracks, their high timing resolutions, their Grooves and their 1001 varieties of quantisation are well up to handling this aspect of feel - far more so, in fact, than the onboard sequencing options of the R8 and R5.
The R8M has various ways of helping you to organise your Patches and Feel Patches. For instance, you can copy the parameter settings for individual Note numbers from any internal or card Patch to any Note number in the temporary (edit) area, and also exchange Note-number parameters between internal/card and temporary memories. Patches and Feel Patches can be copied and exchanged complete, and individual Performance sections from any internal or card Patch can be copied into the temporary area.
Patches, Feel Patches and Setup data can be bulk transferred between the R8M and a RAM card, while MIDI SysEx allows you to transfer internal and card Patch and Feel Patch data in bulk or as individual patches.
The R8M also allows you to define global on/off settings for MIDI SysEx, Volume, Pitchbend, Panpot (MIDI controller 10), Hold (MIDI controller 64) and Note Off velocity.
The R8M's Stack mode achieves the same result as the more familiar MIDI Overflow mode, in that it allows you to build up a "composite" instrument out of multiple R8Ms (in this case up to eight of them, giving 96-note polyphony!). But where MIDI Overflow requires you to chain instruments together, Stack mode allows you to hook up multiple R8Ms to a MIDI Thru box without any chaining.
The R8M's manual deserves a positive mention: it's thorough, clearly written and clearly laid out, and the inclusion of an Index by Function and an Index by Term allows you to locate information on any aspect of the R8M very quickly.
THE R8M'S INSTRUMENT section spans MIDI notes 21-108. You define your MIDI "drumkit" by assigning one internal or one card Instrument to each note - so you can have up to 88 Instruments per R8M kit. When you select a card Instrument, you specify not only the Instrument but the card number; this has the advantage that you never have to remember which card goes in which slot, because it doesn't matter - each time a PCM card is inserted, the R8M reads its number and from then on automatically addresses the relevant slot. The card number parameter allows for 30 cards, so there's plenty of scope for additions to the existing library. If you need a quick memory jog as to which card(s), if any, should be inserted for a particular Patch, in Play mode you can use the Cursor Right button to scroll to a screen which tells you. Another screen in Play mode, incidentally, tells you at a glance which MIDI channels the five sections of the current Patch are assigned to.
Pitch (±4 octaves in 10cent steps), decay (0-127), nuance (0-15), output assign (one of seven stereo pan positions or one of the six individual outs), volume level (0-15), assign type (poly, mono, exclusive 1-8), velocity curve (1-8) and MIDI Note Off receive (on/off) parameters are all programmable per note, which means that an Instrument is affected by the parameter values of the note(s) it's assigned to. With the exception of MIDI note off receive, all these parameters can also be found on the R8 and R5.
The effect of nuance depends on the Instrument: in the case of cymbals, different nuance values generate the effect of striking the cymbal in different places (from the edge to the bell), while for other Instruments the low-frequency component of the sound increases as you increase the nuance value. However, nuance doesn't apply to all Instruments. Where an Instrument does allow you to set nuance, you can also set separate decay times for low and high frequencies or for cymbal edge and cymbal bell strikes.
If you want one Instrument to cut out when you play another, all you have to do is assign them to the same Exclusive number (1-8). The obvious example here is open and closed hi-hats, but, where that sort of "restriction" used to be built into drum machines, it's now up to you what and how many Instruments cut one another off - which is the way it should be.
"You can give the R8M's 808 bass drum sample a longer decay than the original sound, which allows you to get more of a bass boom out of it."
An alternative way of cutting an Instrument short is to enable its response to MIDI Note Offs. Then when a note off code is received for the relevant note number, the Instrument will be muted. If your MIDI keyboard can transmit release velocity, and you've enabled response to it (a global parameter), you can control the rate of amplitude decay after the note off is received by the R8M. Obviously, note offs and release velocity won't have much effect on very short percussive sounds, nor will you be able to get much mileage out of them if you're thwacking drum pads. However, they're a further option for dynamic control of R8M Instruments if you're playing the expander from a keyboard or tinkering with MIDI data in a sequencer.
The R8M's approach to creating "drumkits" means that it's easy to visualise the layout, or spread, of your kits. You can select the Instrument assign screen or one of the parameter screens and then scroll through the MIDI note range using the expander's Cursor buttons, or select notes directly by playing them on your MIDI controller.
In contrast, the approach which Roland adopted on the R8 and R5 - where a MIDI note and the associated parameters detailed earlier are programmed per Instrument - is far less immediate and far more confusing. However, this approach does make it easy to layer Instruments via MIDI (just assign the relevant Instruments to the same MIDI note). The R8M's approach, on the other hand, means that a special Layer function is required. When switched on (per Patch), this function layers the Instruments assigned to MIDI notes 77-108 onto notes 29-60, which in turn removes them from the 77-108 range (giving you a still very reasonable 56-note/Instrument range). For programming convenience, when Layer is on you can program two Instruments per note in the range 29-60; switch Layer off and the layered Instruments are transferred back up to notes 77-108.
The four Performance sections (mentioned earlier) provide an easy means of playing selected Instruments over a wide note range, complete with pitch, decay and nuance changes (making them well suited to playing pitched instruments such as bass, vibes and marimba). As each Performance section's MIDI channel can be independently assigned, you can layer any combination(s) of these sections. The R8M introduces a programmable note range for each Performance section, allowing you to zone them, either on different MIDI channels or the same channel.
The Instrument assigned to each Performance section can have its own parameter settings. In addition, volume level, pitchbend range, MIDI modulation controller destination (off, decay or nuance), key follow reference note and key follow amounts for pitch, decay, nuance and panpot can all be Performance section-specific.
AS MENTIONED EARLIER, on the R8M you program pitch, decay and nuance values for each MIDI note within a Patch, whereas on the R8 and R5 you program these parameters for each Instrument. The two drum machines both have 16 pads, which can effectively be expanded to 80 pads by stepping through five Pad Banks A-E. Each pad in each Pad Bank can be assigned offset values for the above parameters, which means that if you assign the same Instrument to more than one pad you can give it different values.
To incorporate pitch, decay and nuance inflections into rhythms recorded into an external MIDI sequencer, you simply assign the same Instrument to two or more MIDI notes and give each note different pitch, decay and nuance values. Then when you record a rhythm you vary the notes that you play for the relevant Instrument(s). If you want to achieve the same result via MIDI on the R8 and R5. you have to copy an Instrument to one or more of 26 Copy Instruments, and then assign a different MIDI note number and different pitch, decay and nuance values to each Copy Instrument. The R8M has no need of Copy Instruments, so you won't find any included on it.
Where spreading the same Instrument across several MIDI note numbers allows you to work with a fixed number of pitch, decay and nuance inflections, the aforementioned Feel Patches and Control Changes provide far more varied dynamic variation. You assign one of the 16 internal or 16 card Feel Patches to a Patch, whereas the Control Changes are programmable parameters within each Patch.
Control Changes can work on up to nine Instruments, each of which can have its pitch, decay, nuance or stereo pan position modified dynamically. If you select the same Instrument more than once you can modify more than one parameter - but at the expense of the number of Instruments that can be modified. As you might imagine, Control Changes allows up to nine MIDI controllers to be used as the modulation sources. These are preset as modulation (controller No. 1) and controllers 16-19 and 80-83. Obviously, if your keyboard can't generate these controller codes then the most you can do is insert them into your sequencer track(s), though if your sequencer is able to convert MIDI data in real-time (convert MIDI modulation or pitchbend into any controller code) then you've got no problems. The advantage of this approach when working with a MIDI sequencer is obviously that you can record controller data on a separate track from the note data and re-record it or edit it at any time - in some cases (re)draw it onscreen.
The Feel Patches, on the other hand, allow you to use MIDI velocity, a user-programmable series of 'looping" real-time value offsets, or R8M-generated random value changes (with a programmable depth parameter) as the modulation source for each of up to eight Instruments, governing pitch, nuance, decay or velocity. Again, you can use different mod sources for different Instruments or for different parameters of the same Instrument.
For MIDI velocity you can set a central reference velocity, at which the Instrument will be played with its programmed value, and a velocity sensitivity amount and polarity (reversing the polarity when pitch is the parameter, for instance, means that harder key strikes generate lower pitches).
The "looping" parameter value offsets are referred to as Groove, and can only be used when the R8M is receiving MIDI clocks. This is because its series of up to 16 ± value offsets for the selected parameter have to lock up to MIDI sync in order to function, though its actual rate is determined by its Groove step setting (from 1/4 to 1/32nd notes including triplets). The overall amount of effect is determined by a Groove Depth parameter (1-8). Groove allows you to, for instance, cycle around a fixed pattern of nuance changes on a ride cymbal part.
"Roland's drum expander scores over the R5 and R8 with its provision of multiple MIDI-selectable "drumkits" and complement of three PCM card slots."
THESE DAYS MUSICIANS expect - or at the very least prefer - any new drum machine to be backed up by a sample card library. While the R8 arrived sans cards, the R8M is in the fortunate position of being able to draw on the nine sample cards (234 samples) which Roland have brought out since the R8's release. These are: Dry, Electronic, Power Drums USA, Contemporary Percussion, Ethnic Percussion, Mallet, Jazz, Jazz Brush and Sound Effects. Each card includes a demo sequence of its sounds which can be played by selecting first Util and then ROM Play in the R8M's Edit mode: the Value buttons Start and Stop the sequence. The R8M's internal sounds have their own permanently-stored sequence which can be activated in the same way.
The R8M comes with a healthy variety of kick, snare, tom tom, cymbal and Latin percussion sounds, but if you want even more variety then the Dry and Power Drums USA cards are well worth checking out for kicks, snares and toms, and the Contemporary Percussion card for Latin percussion.
The Electronic card includes samples of every sound off Roland's TR808 drum machine (except for the handclap, which is included in the R8M's internal sounds). The bass drum sample has been taken with the Tone control knob turned up, so you get that percussive "blip" on the attack. On an A/B comparison with the real thing, the samples held up well, though for some reason the snare and open hi-hat samples don't exactly match any setting on the 808. Incidentally, you can give the R8M's 808 bass drum sample a longer decay than is possible with the original sound, which allows you to get more of a bass boom out of it. Other sounds on this card include electronic kicks, snares, cymbals and toms together with the likes of 'Rap Noise' (noise yes, rap no), 'High Q', 'Wood Box' and 'Synthesiser Bass'. Now when are Roland going to get around to those 909 samples?
The Ethnic Percussion card provides samples of Eastern and African drum and percussion instruments, with the likes of 'Tabla Na', 'Tabla Tun', 'Tabla Te' and 'Baya Ge' from north India, 'Khole Na' and 'Madal Din' from Bengal, 'Rama Cymbal' from Tibet, 'Moroccan Bendir', 'Djembe Centre', 'Djembe Rim', 'Talking Drum' and 'Talking Drum Bend Up' from West Africa, 'Thai Gong' and, as you might expect from a Japanese company, a number of Japanese drum and percussion instruments: 'Tsuzumi High' and 'Low', 'Ohkawa', 'Matsuridaiko', 'Matsuridaiko Rim', 'Shimedaiko', 'Atarigane' and 'Hyoushigi'. You can also find the deep, resonant Japanese Taiko drum included in the R8M's internal sounds.
As you might expect, the Mallet card provides marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspeil samples (variously providing two or three samples of each at different octaves) but also the likes of 'Barafon' 1 and 2, 'Tubular Bells' 1 and 2, 'Wind Bells', 'Finger Cymbals', 'Angklung' (apparently a bamboo instrument from the Philippines) and four Indonesian gamelan samples: 'Gender', 'Saron', 'Bonang' and 'Kenong'.
Contemporary Percussion, as I mentioned earlier, allows you to expand your Latin vocabulary with the likes of low and high timbale, open and muted pandeiro, low and high bongos, open and muted surdo, open and muted cuica, maracas and long and short guilo. Now you can try out those Latin rhythms in MT's On the Beat series. Other sounds include concert bass drum, timpani, bell tree, kalimba (African thumb piano), log drum and steel drum.
Apart from the rather cliched ride cymbal, drum machines have never offered much in the way of sounds suitable for jazz-style drumming. Now Roland have rectified the situation with the Jazz and Jazz Brush cards. Thus you get 'Beater', 'Full Low', Loose', 'Thin' and 'Full Bright' kicks, seven snares including 'High Tune' 1 and 2, 'High Tune Rimshot', 'Mid Range' and 'Cram Mute', several open and ringing toms, and a couple of crash cymbals plus 'Ride Cymbal With Rivet' and Ride Bell Cymbal With Rivet'. Jazz Brush provides brush swished, slapped and rolled snares, toms, hi-hats and ride and crash cymbals along with 'Deep', 'Resonant', 'Sharp' and 'Attack' kicks. Nuance can be applied to the majority of the sounds, and works well for delicate shadings in the jazzy context. The Jazz card also includes a fretless bass and the Jazz Brush an acoustic bass, which can be assigned to Performance sections for pitched use alongside their kits.
Finally, there's the Sound Effects card, which gives you lots of percussive sounds like 'Enormous' and 'Car Doors' (slamming), 'Cannon', 'Gunshot', 'Glass Crash', 'Smash', 'Slap!', 'Wow', 'Foot Step', 'Punch' (perfect for those old kung fu movies), 'Finger Snap', 'Drill', 'Spray' and, for all you swashbucklers out there, the clashing swords of 'Katana'!
The clarity and detail of all the sounds, internal and card, is very impressive, preserving all those subtle nuances (and I'm not talking about the parameter here) which bring acoustic sounds to life, giving them immediacy and vitality and allowing them to "breathe".
THE R8M HAS a lot going for it. Well thought out, easy to use, sonically versatile both in its range of sounds and in the ways you can alter those sounds, and blessed with a readily comprehensible and easily editable MIDI access, the R8M is a pleasure to work with. Roland have done more than just rack-mount the R8 and strip out all its sequencing: the expander has been optimised for MIDI performance whereas the R8 and R5 are optimised for "self-contained" performance. So if you prefer to record all your rhythm parts into a MIDI sequencer rather than a drum machine, your choice is clear - not that the R8M has much competition in the dedicated drum expander stakes. However, it's worth pointing out that the degree of "feel" control provided by expander and drum machine via MIDI, and in comparison to the drum machines' onboard feel control, is essentially the same.
Roland's drum expander does score over the two drum machines with its provision of multiple MIDI-selectable "drumkits" and complement of three PCM card slots, which give it the edge in terms of sonic versatility (with three slots you can combine sounds off two or more cards - Jazz with Jazz Brush, for instance, or Mallet with Contemporary and Ethnic percussion - which is something you can't do on the R8.)
The R8M plus PCM cards provides you with a large, varied and expandable palette of high-quality drum and percussion sounds made readily and simultaneously available in a versatile fashion, and allows you to use these sounds in a uniquely flexible way. I would say that justifies it a place alongside the digital sampler in many a MIDI studio, where they can live in happy co-existence.
Price R8M. £599; PCM sample cards, £45 each. RAM data cards, £95 each; prices including VAT.