The TR505 was a runaway success at the budget end of the market, but it lacked one important ingredient - separate voice outputs. The TR626 rectifies the matter whilst offering even more features - 30 PCM drum/percussion sounds, 8-note polyphony, sync-to-tape, and MIDI control of nearly all its parameters. Mark Badger investigates.
Is it just a TR505 with separate outputs or is there more to Roland's latest budget drum machine? Mark Badger certainly thinks so.
The introduction of the first drum machine represented a significant milestone in modern music. In one fell swoop we were engaged in sequencing multitimbral sounds over a period of time and utilising the powerful rhythmic forces invoked by an accurate beat and reliable repetition (usually!). At the time, it was vogue to question whether these machines would replace the human drummer, for it seemed that the march of progress would eventually cause the manufacturers of such devices to cram all the facilities necessary for this feat into their ubiquitous little boxes. Over the ensuing years, we have discovered that this sort of thinking is both naive and premature. Naive, in that the incredible variety of rhythmic tools available to a human drummer of even modest ability, far outstrip the number of parameters an operator can sensibly manipulate from the front panel of a reasonably sized box. Premature, in that the state of the electronic arts will not allow such an interface to be developed at reasonable cost, yet.
Instead of attempting to emulate the actions of a drummer these machines have taken off on a tangent, carving out a niche for themselves as instruments in their own right. The classic example of this gradual establishment must be Roland's TR808. The fact that the sound library for the Fairlight Series III includes samples of the TR808 kit serves to illustrate just how much people are willing to pay for that characteristic sound. In addition to the attractions of the sounds, the sequencing side of things really opened people's eyes to the power of machine-assisted composition. The now common approach of linking drum patterns together to form songs both simplified and organised the job of creating a hit song, partly from the sheer speed at which work could proceed.
Roland have been continuing to develop excellent rhythm machines - after the TR808 came the short-lived TR909 (last of the analogue machines). The successors to these arrived in the form of the famous 'Boeing models', the TR707 and TR727, and later the physically diminutive but acoustically aggressive TR505. These later machines all use PCM samples as sound sources for their drum kits and the same methods of creating patterns and songs.
As is the way with modern electronic devices, as time goes by the manufacturers seem to be able to squeeze more and more facilities into smaller packages. At this summer's British Music Fair, Roland launched the TR626, the latest in their now established line of 'rhythm composers' and subject of this review.
There are a couple of different aspects to consider when trying to assess the performance of a drum machine: the quality and quantity of the sounds in its 'kit'; the ease, facility, and capacity of its composition and editing operations; and the way in which the machine presents itself physically and electronically.
Briefly then, the TR626 comes with 30 preset PCM drum samples, 48 preset rhythm patterns, 48 memory locations for storing your own patterns, and 6 song/track memories for storing chains of these patterns. It is 8-note polyphonic, uses a familiar pattern composition and editing system which has had its rough edges smoothed out over quite a few years of development, and has 8 separate voice outputs in addition to an overall stereo pair (Left and Right/Mono) and stereo headphone socket. There are sync-to-tape and memory tape dump facilities, plus MIDI In and Out sockets.
The essential human interface is provided by a large(ish) LCD display (about 45x75mm), 16 drum'pads', 15 function buttons, and a pair of rotary knobs which control the tempo and main output volume. Most of the buttons perform a couple of different jobs, depending on which of the program modes you are in and whether or not you have pressed the SHIFT button, and they are all appropriately labelled in either light or dark grey. There are five available program modes: Track Play, Pattern Play, Track Write, plus two types of Pattern Write (Step and Tap).
Things may sound a little confusing at this point, but they aren't. As I said, the programming method of this machine has been developed in the light of previous product failings. The TR626 utilises its high definition LCD display to good effect by displaying any programming details which are not made obvious by the buttons you are pushing. Even so, Roland's drum machines have always presented a fairly short learning curve to people who are new to the idea of being able to string patterns of drum sounds together abstractly. This must be one of the reasons for their popularity, the ease with which the uninitiated can produce an exciting beat.
Before we explore how you can write a pattern or song using the TR626, let's have a listen to the sounds you get after you've plugged it into the 9 volt power supply (or filled it with six AA batteries - this is a truly portable machine), connected it to your system, and switched it on.
The TR626 is always in Track Play mode when you power it up, ready to play the track you were working on when you last switched off. You start and stop it playing by pressing the appropriately labelled START/STOP button, whereupon a little LED starts flashing to the beat and a rhythm starts issuing forth from your speakers. As per most drum machines, you can play along with the rhythm patterns at anytime in Track Play mode by tapping any of the 16 drum pad buttons, the sounds available being indicated above each button. As you will have guessed, because there are nearly twice as many sounds as there are buttons to play them, most buttons can be toggled to access two sounds.
Briefly, the TR626 supplies you with two Kick and three Snare drums, six Toms, a Rimshot, Closed and Open Hi-Hat, Crash, China, Cup, and Ride Cymbals, a Cowbell, Tambourine and Handclap, two Agogos, three Congas, two Timbales, a Shaker, and a Clave. This is certainly a large enough kit to satisfy the aspiring Billy Cobham's amongst you and perfectly adequate for most types of rhythmic accompaniment. However, there is one drawback (common to most budget drum machines), in that some of the variations of a particular drum will not sound together; in particular the two kick drums and two of the three snares. The hi-hats too are 'mutually exclusive', though here it ends up being an acoustic boon as the closed hi-hat cuts off the sound of the open one, producing a passable imitation of the real life effect. All the envelopes for these sounds, incidentally, are re-started if they are sounded before their last strike has decayed.
By and large, the TR626 sounds are all 'crispy' drum samples (with the exception of an awful handclap) that, with the right amount of ambience and careful pattern programming, are realistic enough to pass as drums when mixed with the rest of a band and some vocals. Yet at the same time, they can be made to shout with the aggressive punch that we've come to expect from a drum machine. Definitely something to get hippies hopping, especially when the separate outputs are utilised to produce differing degrees of gated reverb on the various drum parts.
I mentioned earlier that the TR626 is an 8-note polyphonic machine (like the Kawai R50). This means that you won't be able to play all 30 percussion sounds simultaneously on the same beat, only a maximum of eight, which isn't that much of a restriction. After all, how many arms does your average drummer have?! But what does present an unfortunate obstacle is that the sounds are fixed to particular outputs. This means that you can never simultaneously sound two (or more) of those timbres which are preassigned to the same voice output - there is no dynamic voice assignment in other words. There is also no way of programming your way around this inflexibility (surprising as virtually everything else on the TR626 can be adjusted!). Oh well, it's still an improvement on the TR505 and at least you can programme the level appearing at the separate outputs for each sound, though only from a range of five volume levels.
The sounds appear at line level from each individual voice output and are not affected by changes in the master volume control setting. Inserting a jack plug into any of the eight sockets automatically removes that particular drum from the main stereo (or mono) mix - a sensible arrangement.
In addition to isolating each sound from the mix, they can all be individually tuned up or down seven semitones, a very useful feature for perfecting the way in which elements of your drum kit 'blend' with the overall sound mix. These tunings are memorised separately, one for each of the 96 patterns. As with most of the TR626's operations, this tuning procedure is pretty easily accomplished once you've got the hand of Roland's way of presenting options. In detail, you press and hold SHIFT, press PITCH, then select the relevant drum pad and adjust the tuning value up or down to suit. Easy, isn't it?
Having dealt with the sorts of data we'll be manipulating, we can now turn to examine the facilities available on the TR626 for writing drum patterns.
Before delving into the nitty gritty, I want to outline a little of the theory behind how you create rhythm patterns with a Roland drum machine.
You are provided with four basic types of, totally quantised, empty patterns. Of these, two are triplet patterns and two are 'square' patterns, the second of the pair providing double the note resolution and half the number of beats per bar. Any of these pattern types can play a sound 16 times, with one or two 'down' beats. You select the format you require and then fill the empty 'slots' with your drums, either in real time or step time (by which I mean playing along with the TR626 by hitting various drum pads or entering the beats to be played step-by-step).
A quick bit of calculation shows that, in the Pattern Write default mode of 4/4, the note resolution or 'quantisation' is 16th notes. Now, in the Write modes, the drum pad buttons toggle between sounding the kit and calling up pattern memories and each of the 16 buttons represents a single pattern unit (there are three selectable banks, or groups of patterns, giving you the 48 pattern memories). In order to use quicker note values than 16ths and unusual bar lengths, you can connect these patterns in 'blocks', just as long as they are adjacent (there is a button dedicated to telling the TR626 where you've decided to end a pattern). You can programme accents, which raise the level of sounds falling on that part of the beat to a given degree, and also provided are Shuffle and Flam options to introduce a little, or a lot, of swing into things.
Having written some patterns which relate to the various parts of your song, you can then string them together in Track Write mode. The six available tracks can total up to 999 patterns in all and here the operations of the TR626 lose a little of their transparency. This is partly because Roland have provided fairly comprehensive Copy, Insert, and Delete features and partly because you have to remember to press 'secondary' buttons like SHIFT and ENTER. Having selected which of the tracks you intend to write, you then select and 'Enter' the patterns which you want played, in the order of their appearance. Sections can be copied from one part of the song to another, and any song can use any of the 48 patterns, though unfortunately not two or more at once. Another minor drawback lies in the fact that there is no provision for storing any tempos or tempo changes in a Track memory.
One of the things you soon learn about drum machines is whether they have a sync-to-tape facility. Most drum machines are purchased to compliment other equipment and will almost certainly be used with a view to utilising their compositional power in conjunction with some sort of recording device. For this sort of job, proper synchronisation is a necessity, allowing you to record your drum parts direct on to your master tape, if you so wish.
The TR626 is equipped with both sync-to-tape and MIDI sync (more on the fairly impressive MIDI capabilities in a moment). In addition to these means of clocking the tempo to an external source, you can send both MIDI clock and 5V trigger pulses from a separate socket on the back panel. This is a pretty extensive array of timing references for interfacing your work with the outside world, certainly enough to ensure that you can at least 'start from the top' each time.
Rounding off the TR626's interface with the rest of your equipment is a MIDI implementation with a lot of potential. Not only can any one sound be assigned to transmit or receive any MIDI note-on event (within the range of MIDI note numbers 20-99) but also to transmit that note event on any of the 16 MIDI channels (though the receiving channel is set 'globally' for all the sounds). This allows you to control other MIDI devices from your drum patterns, a possibility limited only by the MIDI abilities of that other equipment and whether you want to also hear the drum sound you are playing in order to send that note event. The drawback being that the sound generation is directly linked to the MIDI information generator.
The TR626 will also respond to, and send, MIDI song pointers, MIDI clock, and Stop, Start and Continue messages. Though not as extensive as those of a dedicated MIDI sequencer, these facilities open up many applications and would also serve as an excellent introduction to MIDI sequencing on a basic level.
In case you feel that the onboard memory capacity of the TR626 is insufficient for your needs, and feel that saving the memory contents to tape is a little too tedious a task, Roland have provided the facility for you to utilise one of their new 'credit card' RAM packs (as first seen on the D-50). This fits neatly into a recessed slot on the rear of the unit and trebles the pattern and song storage capabilities. Thus you can have 18 songs, and the manual implies that these can use any of the 144 available patterns, to create songs of up to 2997 bars in length (enough for a whole performance!).
You might have noticed that I have not mentioned the preset rhythms which occupy half of the available pattern memories. This is because I find the notion of this kind of ROM memory abhorrent. It's not even as if the beats are anything to get excited by. For the most part, they are very conservative renditions of static and tedious rhythms, the sort of beats you'd find on a home organ, and to my mind a total waste of good memory space. I can think of many good reasons for having the machine come out of the box filled with standard drum parts, but none for having those patterns a permanent feature of the available facilities! I don't like being negative, especially about an otherwise superb gizmo, but I really feel that the designers have goofed here.
It's been a long time since I wrote any songs on a drum machine - I made the change to a computer-based MIDI sequencing system some time ago and have tended to look upon drum machines as 'expanders' ever since. I don't think that there can be any argument that the editing facilities provided by a graphic screen display, a full typewriter keyboard, and a mouse (see 'Of Men and Mice' article in the August '87 issue) offer a greater degree of ease and power than is currently possible to manipulate intelligently with a device using a limited 'human interface' like a drum machine. On the other hand, I haven't had as much fun in ages. Playing with the TR626 got me leaping about, cranking up the volume, and getting down!
I'd highly recommend this drum machine to anyone: it is extremely competent as a basic 'drummer', helping organise your work and supplying you with an extensive range of rhythmic tools for your exploitations. It also shows promise as a MIDI events controller - certainly using it to sequence bass riffs presents only minor obstacles (like how to make the sounds which are 'playing' the bass disappear from the mix - easy, just plug a jack into the relevant separate output!). Even as just an expander (where else can you find 30 high quality, tunable, MIDI note assignable, PCM samples for this kind of money?) the TR626 presents a very attractive proposition.
It may not have 96 ppqn timing resolution (though you can arrange that sort of accuracy if you really feel it necessary, by using 'blocks' and cranking up the tempo), or 16-bit samples, but it goes! It goes well and it goes now, not next month, or next year when your mate has finally figured out how that fancy machine works! It's in a shop nearby right now, and unless you want to part with £350 I suggest you keep away.
Price £350 inc VAT.
Contact Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).