Roland TR 505 Rhythm Composer
The widest variety of sampled voices for the least money vet — Tony Reed tries out Roland's latest MIDI drum box
That Roland's a smart boy, you know. Just when it looked like Yamaha had stolen the low end of the drum machine market with their RX21 and 21L machines, he comes back with a little goodie which packs most of the important bits of both machines in a single unit – at the price of a single RX.
The goodie in question is the TR505, a small wedge-shaped piece of cream and grey hi-tech. Its kinship to the TR707 is reflected in a reassuringly familiar front panel layout, and in the presence of the ubiquitous LCD graphic display window at the top right of the unit. But that kinship isn't as close as you might at first think. Read on...
The LCD window is your key to mastery of the beast. Everything – Scale, Pattern, Track, Tempo, the lot – is now displayed on the one screen. It's all very clear, but unlike the 707, the 505 can't display the positions of all the instruments in a pattern simultaneously. You have to settle for selecting them one at a time. Pity, that.
Fortunately for those familiar with Roland machines, function buttons and operation follow the familiar format. Immediately beneath the LCD, and running from left to right across the unit, we have the small white function keys. The first four, in conjunction with the voice and all-important Shift buttons, allow you to clear a whole track, pattern, or just one instrument line from that pattern, in step or real time; to set the 'Scale' of each pattern, to designate the Last Step of a pattern, for odd time signatures, to turn the Metronome (Rim shot) on or off, to select individual instruments for editing, or, in Track Write mode, to skip to measures forward or back of your present position. Next to these, the mode button toggles between the five available modes: Track and Pattern Play, or, shifted, between Track Write, Step and Tap (realtime) Write.
Next to this is the Tempo button (range 28-248) which in Track Write can display current Measure. Shifted, this innocuous little button also turns into a mare's nest of MIDI – which I'll get back to later.
The adjacent three buttons select, in Track mode, the Track (song) number to be played (up to six Tracks of a maximum 423 bars can be held in the machine) or in Pattern mode, which of the six pattern groups is currently selected. The 505 can store 48 user-programmed patterns, in groups D, E, and F, and has a further 49 preset rhythms permanently stored in groups A, B, and C. Since you can't get at these (try to, and the machine automatically flips to the User location sharing the same button), you'll be delighted to know that they are all useable, covering Rock, Disco, Reggae, and Latin styles without being too embarrassing. In fact some of them are rather clever. These patterns can be chained into your own tracks, or copied across into a user location and modified.
The final pair of buttons are used in MIDI and they also set the Level of each instrument: or to put it another way, although the 505 lacks the 707's separate outs, you can still muck around with volumes: each instrument voice, and Accent, has no less than six possible volume settings (including 0 – silence). Used properly, these can inject a lot of feel into a track, and the provision of muting a voice completely would allow those with access to a multitrack machine to Eq and effect each voice in a pattern separately, simply by muting all the others in turn. Better still, you can select an instrument, and change its level with the pattern running; great for getting a better 'feel' for how it's going to work.
Beneath the self-explanatory Tempo and Volume pots are 20 large grey buttons, doubling up the 707's single strip into two rows: at the extreme left, we have the familiar Start/Stop, and Shift, followed by the bank of 16 voice buttons, and bookended by the Level/Manual Play select and Accent/Enter buttons. Incidentally, Manual Play'll let you play the 505 'live' over the top of a pattern, with full MIDI transmission of live and pattern voices – something you can't do on the 707.
As usual on Roland machines, the voice buttons are also, according to the currently selected mode, responsible for selecting which patterns are to be played, tape dumping, inserting, deleting or copying patterns, and for programming in step time. Good to see that Block Write and Play has been retained from 707. By pressing a first and last Voice button when entering pattern write (say, 2 and 7) the machine will cycle through all patterns from 2 to 7 as you write, and again when you play back – enabling a more natural approach to programming than rigidly composed chains of single bars. (Though you can do it that way too, if you want.)
Yes, yes, old chap, I hear you cry. All this is very well, but what does it actually sound like? Briefly – very good. You've got 16 voices to play with, covering Rock and the essential Latin instruments: Bass, Snare, Low, Mid and Hi Toms, Rim, Closed and Open Hi-Hats, Low and Hi conga,Timbale, Low and Hi cowbell, Handclap, Crash and Ride Cymbals, all sampled at a respectable 25kHz, and probably taken from the 707 and 727. In comparison with the Casio RZ1 (reviewed last month) they have a depth and edge I find appealing – perhaps the difference between the Casio's 'live', and the Roland's 'studio' sound. Toms in particular are great – dark, and with just the right amount of head ring. Bass is very clicky, hard and 'modern' sounding. Snare to suit. No complaints about the Rim or Hi Hats. The Crash cymbal is generously long, and goes gracefully, with none of the over-gated abruptness you find on some machines. Ride is a bit tinny in isolation, but sits well in a pattern. Surprisingly for the people who defined the clap on the 808, this version is a letdown. In contrast to the ride, it sounds great in isolation, but wimpy in the mix. A suitable case for (separate) treatment? Both Congas and Cowbells are excellent – plenty of slap, plenty of sparkle. Timbale is cutting enough, but the only voice marred by noise – a faint but perceptible 'nngh!' ends its every beat.
From left to right: R/Mono and L jack outs, Phones out, Start/ Stop footswitch jack, tape dump In/Out mini jack, MIDI In and Out, DC 9v adaptor in (the 505 can also run off six Penlight batteries, which double for off-line memory backup), on/off switch. Pity there's no tape sync or Roland sync...
The MIDI facilities go a long way towards making up for the 505's hardware limitations, and in fact is more sophisticated than the 707 implementation. Like that machine, the 505 can transmit and receive Note on/off information, is velocity sensitive over MIDI, and includes Song Position Pointer info for SMPTE-style syncing to 'smart' sequencers. The 505 defaults to Omni on, receive and transmit on MIDI channel 10, with a standard note-number assignment for each voice. BUT – it can be set to receive on any channel, and both individual note-number and channel transmit information for each voice can be changed (ie MIDI Mono mode.) In practice, this means you could have the Congas and cowbells triggering a four-note riff on one synth, bass and snare triggering sampled replacement sounds off another, and still have 10 MIDI triggers left to play with. Not bad.
Gone is the 707's full graphic display, and some of its hardware flexibility (cartridge dump, separate outs, flexible sync options.) Gone, too, some of the programming subtleties (Flam and Shuffle). Roland clearly intend that the 707 should remain the first choice for pro users of their gear. For everyone else, though, there is now a single machine equipped with high quality sampled Rock and Latin sounds; with accessible and familiar format; a generous MIDI spec; and with a sensational price.
I know it's a bit of a cliche, but it's true: I'm going to buy one.
Review by Tony Reed
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