Isn't science wonderful? I mean, years ago drummers could walk around, go to the bar, throw drumsticks at you, tell bad jokes, even undertake the odd spot of drumming, using such items as arms, legs, hands and feet in the process. Roland's 606 drummer comes in a slim plastic box about 12in long, 6in wide and 2in deep — it doesn't answer back, and if you get bored with it you can turn it off.
This is Roland's third major step in their advancing 'computer controlled' drum machine march: first came the simple and cheap DR55 Doctor Rhythm programmable rhythm machine, launched at the NAMM Anaheim trade show in January 1980, and probably familiar to the majority of you (probably owned by the majority of you). Then, earlier this year, came the mighty TR808 Rhythm Composer, a much more refined, top-of-the-range piece of technology with a price getting on for the £700 mark and a specification to match. It's from this machine that the new object we're looking at here, the so-called 'Drumatix' (groan) TR606, is derived. The 606 enables the lucky operator to memorise 32 different drum patterns made up of seven drum/percussion constituent sounds, with four rhythmic divisions to choose from, and then the opportunity to link these patterns together to make whole drum compositions, or 'tracks' as the 606 calls them, of up to 256 bars. Good news, too, is the retail price of £199 (including VAT) for the 606, despite the bootleggers' efforts to push it up.
You can control the output level of five of the drum/percussion sounds (four of the sounds are squeezed into two), adjust the tempo of the pattern or track and its overall volume, and there is a helpful smattering of interface connections, including a socket for the (optional) Run/Stop pedal, a sync (input or output) socket, trigger outs from two sources, a headphone jack, and an output jack. There's also a 9V external power socket, although the 606 runs happily off four 1.5V Type C batteries which also retain memories when the unit is switched off.
Having managed to get a lot of things into a relatively small package, Roland have had to allocate several functions each to some of the controls, so that they operate different things when the machine is in different modes. This can be a little daunting at first; indeed, it takes a practised dexterity to be able to hit the right combination of buttons for the required result. But once over the initial techno-shock, things settle down to a satisfying percussive norm. Initial confusion arose for me from the lower section of the unit's face, which has the memory-location/rhythm-programming switches and their associated LEDs — 16 of them — along with the scale function display and switches, plus the relevant controls to memorise and run patterns and tracks, most of which have multiple functions. But even this becomes quite logical and clear as you progress with the 606. The functions of the Drumatix can be divided into four: writing patterns; playing and 'chaining' patterns; writing tracks (i.e. combining patterns); and playing and 'chaining' tracks.
To write a pattern into the 606, the machine is switched on with the combined on-off/volume rotary, and headphones or an external amp are plugged into the relevant socket. The Mode selector is rotated to Pattern Write. To give yourself a workable sound (which can, of course, be altered later to exact requirements) you should set the Tempo rotary and the five drum/percussion mix rotaries and the Accent rotary to their centre positions — you'll then get average speed and average level of any sounds you may write. For the present, the Pattern Group switch is kept on I, with an LED to tell you so, but you can store a different pattern in II giving two patterns each for the 16 displayed locations.
Now you have to decide into which of these 16 locations you'll be writing. Assuming it's location 1 to start with, press the selector switch for 1 and its LED will start to flash. Keep the selector switch pressed and press the Clear/Reset button, and this location's memory will be cleared ready to take the new pattern you're about to write. If you now touch the Run/Stop button, the 16 LEDs will light up one after the other, in order, giving the effect of an LED 'scan' running repeatedly across the display face. The Tempo rotary regulates the speed of this scan.
At this point you have to choose which Scale Function, or rhythmic division, you'll need. There are four choices which, using the linking facility, let you play virtually any time signature: Scale 1 gives four steps per bar; Scale 2 eight steps per bar; Scale 3 three steps per bar; and Scale 4 six steps per bar. So you set the four-position switch to your chosen scale, and press the Scale Function button to let the memory know what you're up to. Holding this button down will give you an LED indication of your chosen Scale. Now you set the number of steps you need in your pattern by pressing the Scale Function button and the selector switch for the last step needed — if you want, say, a 12-step pattern, press down the Scale Function button and selector switch 12. You'll notice that the LED scan then returns to step one after reaching step 12.
You're now ready to write the seven drum/percussion sounds, which are selected individually by the Track/Instrument rotary. It's logical to start with bass drum — so turn the rotary to BD/2 (it's BD, for bass drum, that you're using — another multi-purpose switch). Pressing selector switches will cause the drum sound to occur at that step — if you press selector switch three, for example, the LED above will stay lit and a bass drum sound occurs there each time the scan passes. You can correct entries by pressing the selector switch again, when the LED will go out and the sound is cancelled at that step. An alternative to pressing selector switches to write sounds is to use the Tap button, using it almost as a drum by 'beating' on it the rhythm you want.
When you're satisfied with the bass drum rhythm, move on to snare drum (SD), then low tom tom (LT), high tom tom (HT), cymbal (CY), open hi-hat (OH) and closed hi-hat (CH), or any other order you may prefer. After you've written all these sounds in, which you'll hear gradually being layered over one another to build up your drum pattern, you can add accents (AC) with the last position on the Track/Instrument rotary. When the pattern's complete, press the Run/Stop button which will bring it to a halt. The pattern at location one is thus safely tucked away in the memory, and you can now continue to write patterns into other locations.
Why are there so many pattern locations, you ask? Well, the whole point of the 606 is its ability to use the patterns linked together, forming complex rhythm compositions to fire your music and making the machine a composing tool rather than merely a rhythm box. If you turn the Mode rotary to Pattern Play, you can hear individual patterns by pressing a selector switch for a location, and hitting Run/Stop. Again, the Tempo rotary regulates the pattern's speed, and the individual mix rotaries let you alter the levels of the drum/percussion sounds within the pattern.
The 16 locations are divided into four groups of four (1-4, 5-8, 9-12 and 13-16), so that you can 'chain' patterns within the groups. If you press selector switches one and three simultaneously, for example, LED one will flash and LEDs two and three will stay lit. Pressing Run/Stop will give you pattern one, followed by pattern two, then pattern three, back to pattern one, and soon until you hit Run/Stop again. If you hit the Tap button while you're running one of these chains, you'll jump automatically to the beginning of the next pattern in the chain. This chaining arrangement is thus of obvious use when building up drum compositions of a reasonably basic kind.
More adventurous is the machine's ability to write and play 'tracks', as mentioned earlier. Having written patterns into the locations with a track composition in mind, the user can place these patterns into the 606's track memory in any order and with various repeat and return options for standard verse/chorus pieces or, ideally, for more complex musical needs. A track is composed by setting the Mode rotary to Track Write and the Track/Instrument rotary to the required track — there are eight tracks available, seven of 64 bars each and one of 256 bars. Up to four of the 64-bar tracks can be chained together to realise 256-bar compositions. The Clear/Reset button sets the first bar of the track — the patterns are put into the Track memory with a combination of the selector switches and the Tap button — and the Clear/Reset button marks the last bar of the track. You can check through the composed track bar by bar by pressing the Tap button, which will light the LEDs in memorised order, one by one for each pattern. You can also locate any bar, by number, by punching its number into the selectors — handy for editing or checking.
So, from this necessarily brief outline of the 606's facilities, one major fact should be emerging: to get the best from this lovely new machine, you really have to use the old, old method of pen and paper to write down rhythms. To get the most from it you'll have to commit thoughts to paper at an early stage, otherwise you'll get into an awful mess. Whether you go the whole hog and use proper drum notation or your own code is up to you. But write you must.
My only real criticism of the 606 is a personal one — I didn't like the cymbal and open hi-hat impersonations at all, and kept their 'chinging' sound down low with the mix rotaries when playing back patterns and tracks. But the 606 is a tool which will aid the creative musician in many a task, and I must say it is excellent value and a remarkable machine.
Review by Tony Bacon
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