Roland's early, digital, PCM drum machines did not take my ears prisoners. I thought the TR707 was thin on sound and short on memory, but the TR505 is different. Light, small and battery powered, it's a real challenge to Yamaha's RX21, boasting good quality, all purpose sounds and a generous selection of comfortably long samples. The now familiar Roland LCD readout makes programming easy to carry out and simple to correct when one beat of the last 1002 appears to be misbehaving. Each pattern is split into 16 steps within a grid and as drum sounds are called up they identify themselves in the display, then drop black dots into the grid to show which beats they fall on. Dead simple.
Below the screen is a row of 11 small, mushroom coloured buttons, which fulfil various essential functions - clearing the patterns, swapping between write and play, choosing the pattern groups, and so on. Two knobs handle tempo and volume, then we're onto the 16 darker grey pads of the drum sounds themselves. These are straightforward, hard-topped, plastic switches rather than the rubber, shock absorbing tablets found on some drum machines. They clack slightly as they make contact, but work fine. Another two of these to the left will start your patterns running, or swap you to the secondary functions most of the buttons have, and the last pair to the right control level and accent.
Programming is real time (tap the drum pad you want in time with the on-board metronome) or step-time (use drum pads 1 to 16 in their secondary function to enter or delete a 'strike' on the beat you want). You can swap from one to the other so a pattern written 'real' can be corrected 'step' if it's easier to work out. (It invariably is.)
The memory is divided into six banks, each with 16 patterns (that's 96 abacus tweakers) and these can be arranged into six tracks for your immensely brilliant songs. Before you do any pattern writing yourself, take time out to listen closely to the tracks Roland have loaded at the factory, especially the timbale break in track one - great lessons in dragging the most out of the facilities. Much of the human-ness (humanity?) revolves around the level and accent programming. Every sound can be set at one of six levels in the mix (0-5), and although you can't program different levels for each pattern, you can add an accent on a particular beat again from 0-5, and that allows a healthy degree of expression for a machine of this price.
Insert, delete, multiple times and edit, yes you may do all these things stepping backwards and forward through the track programming, with a digital readout of the tempo so you can match whacky feels at a later date.
Finally the sounds. Actually no, first the things at the back - most importantly, the MIDI in out for sync to sequencers and the like, and the start/stop footswitch, one of the points it scores over the RX21.
And now the sounds. Solid bass drum, thick rather than cracking snare, but with a crisp rim shot to help, plus three ambient toms (only one at a time - the number of readout channels for the PCM information is restricted). Unusual to see a machine this price with a handy selection of latin percussion as well - the high and low conga, high and low cowbell, and fine timbale all help open your patterns and add variety.
Ride and crash cymbals don't linger on into the distance, but they're easily long enough to bridge gaps between beats. The ride is particularly sweet, a more attractive time keeper than the open and closed hi-hats, but again only one of each pair at a time. A weakness? Some way of tuning the sounds for a few low effects would be good but ambitious at this amount of dosh.
Fine price, good sounds and plenty of them, easy to program and comprehend, versatile, expressive. A winner.