Sequential Circuits Drumtraks
To kick off this month's mammoth electronic drum supplement, Ultravox percussionist Warren Cann takes a look at the Drumtraks, SCI's new £950 digital drum machine, and discovers some features that set it well apart from the crowd.
My initial reaction to Sequential Circuits' new digital drum-machine (their first) was quite a neutral one but, as I spent time with it, that first impression was replaced by real interest. The Drumtraks' dimensions are approximately 21½" x 9½" x 4", and yes, it's yet another drum-machine that can't be separated from its coffee-table end-pieces and rack-mounted. Given that manufacturers are continuing to make things a 'tidy' size, you'd think they'd have considered this possibility, but alas...
Before I plugged the Drumtraks in, or even leafed through the owner's manual, a brief first glance at the control layout told me I would be doing a lot of button-pushing to switch from mode to mode, and so it proved. All of the machine's major functions are accessed by pressing one of two 'select' buttons, so, for example, to go from Record to Erase or from Insert to Delete, etc. you keep pressing one of the two switches until the desired red LED is illuminated. On reflection, I have to admit that this method is at least a legible one, and so long as you remember where to look it's pretty easy to know where you are at any given time. Granted, having to keep chasing LEDs up and down their columns does tend to disturb one's train of thought when programming, but to be fair, SCI have laid things out in as unconfusing a fashion as possible for such a complex multi-mode arrangement.
Most of these are fairly straightforward. You've got Master Volume, Click/Metronome Volume, and Tempo controls, plus individual voice selectors, a run/stop switch and the above-mentioned LED panels to indicate which pattern or song you're using, what tempo you're running at, and so on.
There are 13 percussion voices: bass drum, snare, snare rim, toms 1 and 2, crash and ride cymbal, open and closed hi-hat, handclaps, tambourine, cowbell, and cabasa. Each voice has a 'tap' button so that all the sounds can be played 'live' or in the record mode.
There's a 10-key numeric keypad in the centre of the control panel, with increment/decrement switches either side of the zero key. These perform a variety of functions, the simplest of which is manually stepping patterns along in consecutive order with just one stab of the finger, every time you want to go from, say, pattern 88 to pattern 89.
The mono output can also drive stereo headphones directly, giving a mono signal from each side of the cans. There are also six audio channel outputs plus a metronome output, and these are shared by the percussion voices as follows: Channel 1 - bass drum; Channel 2 - snare and snare rim; Channel 3 - toms 1 and 2; Channel 4 - crash and ride cymbal; Channel 5 - open and closed hi-hat; and Channel 6 - claps, tambourine, cowbell and cabasa. This makes most of the voices reasonably accessible. It's not an ideal arrangement, obviously, but it's still as good as you'll get without paying upwards of £2000. It's possible to dump patterns and programs onto tape and sync to tape and/or sequencer.
So far, then, pretty much what you'd expect from a digital drum-machine retailing at just under £1000, but the best is yet to come. What sets the Drumtraks so firmly apart from its competitors is the fact that you can program tempos and tempo changes, levels of individual voices (in both live and record modes), and each instrument's pitch. Now I've got your attention!
No fader arrangement for levels is necessary because all the individual levels are programmable in steps from 00 to 15, this being displayed on one of the LED panels. Tempo is preset at 100 BPM at power-on but can be varied between 40 and 250 BPM. 'Pattern' tempo is not programmable but 'song' tempo is, and tempo changes relative to the start of the song can also be stored in memory.
Tuning is programmed in a similar fashion: the LED panel displays a pitch number from 00 to 15 and that value remains constant throughout all patterns and songs for that instrument unless you specifically change it.
The overall memory capacity is 3289 notes, while volume and tuning changes take up additional space in the memory, so to make sure you don't run out while programming, remaining memory space is represented as a percentage display on one of the LED panels. Each drum pattern can be up to 100 measures long and can be programmed in any time signature (for those who have their own weird and wonderful methods of programming, I suppose). Patterns can be chained together into songs of up to 100 steps each, while the Drumtraks' memory is retained when the mains is turned off via a back-up battery with 'a ten-year life'.
The machine has two forms of interface system built in to it. First, a selectable 24, 48, or 96 pulse-per-quarter clock input and a 24-pulse output are provided for use with older sequencers, rhythm units and sync-to-tape. Second, there's a MIDI interface that lets you use the Drumtraks in conjunction with any other similarly-equipped computer-controlled synth or sequencer. I had the Drumtraks operating happily with Sequential Circuits' new Six-Trak polyphonic sequencer/synthesiser (reviewed elsewhere this issue) and also the same company's Prophet T8. This allowed me to use the latter's velocity-sensitive keyboard to control the drum-machine's percussive voices, so that the harder the keyboard was struck, the louder the drums appeared. Programming levels for each individual instrument can be a bit laborious via the drum-machine alone, and real-time recording of the instrument dynamics via the keyboard not only makes things faster but also enabled me to attempt things I wouldn't normally have the patience and/or skill to try and do 'dry'.
I took the Drumtraks into Mayfair Studios, Primrose Hill, to test the quality of the digital chip recordings through big control room monitors. After all, all the programming versatility in the world doesn't count for much if the basic sounds themselves are pretty ropey. I've got no complaints, though. Everything on the Drumtraks sounded very, very good: I know sounds are always a matter of taste of course, but I thought almost all the sounds were fine. The bass drum, in particular, impressed me because it had plenty of both bottom and top: you can't very well increase the bass with external EQ if there's no bass there to begin with. The snare is also solid and very workable, and in fact I achieved a usable sound for just about every percussion voice with the help of the Drumtraks' tuning facility and some fiddling on the desk EQ. The only small area of complaint is the tom-toms. Having only two tom-tom tap-keys isn't a disadvantage in itself because the tuning can be adjusted onboard to give effectively 32 different tom sounds, but almost all of these lacked attack, which tended to make them appear a little weak by comparison with the other voices. On the other hand, almost everything else sounded exactly like what a cabasa, clap, tambourine, or whatever should sound like, while the cymbals sounded even better than those on the LinnDrum, the Drumtraks' extra ROM capacity for this sound allowing a little more decay.
This leads us on to a rather interesting discovery. After lifting the lid off the unit (this is thoughtfully restrained in the 'up' position by a swing-arm arrangement which prevents it from swinging all the way back and crashing against the jack-sockets on the rear panel, unlike another rhythm-machine I can think of) and conferring with Ultravox's resident boffin, I discovered that the single-chip voices from the LinnDrum will slide straight in to the Drumtraks - a bit like lowering a 427 cu. in. V8 into a family car. I had a lot of fun.
The bane of the reviewer's schedule is that, almost invariably, he's asked to look at something while there are still very few examples around, with the manufacturer and/or distributor trying to get them (or even, in this case, 'it') to as many different people as possible over a short space of time. With the Drumtraks, I didn't get as long a test of it as I would have liked, so perhaps there are some quirks and booby-traps about it that I didn't have time to discover, but I certainly liked the machine while it was around.
Due to their higher production volumes and a policy of holding back on product release to see what the other manufacturers had up their sleeves, Sequential Circuits have been able to offer a superb item at a very good price indeed. I think the Drumtraks has a substantial future with musicians and recommend it. I bought one.
Review by Warren Cann
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