The Beat Box
Alesis D4 16-Bit Stereo Drum Module
Alesis' new D4 offers 500 16-bit drum sounds, external audio triggering and extreme ease of use — what's not to like? Julian Colbeck investigates.
Before you even switch the D4 on, it has a lot going for it. It has the Alesis name, just a few short years old but already one synonymous with excellent value for money and clean-cut design. It has the 'cred' value of being a drum sound module, a 1991 trend if ever there was one. And, with its 12 built-in audio triggers and chock-full of 16-bit stereo samples, the D4 must have the prospect of being, in this mass sequencing (so who needs a drum machine), pad-conscious society, quite the ultimate drum box.
There again, you could look at it another way, and say 'why on earth should I want to fork out £399 for a load of drum samples when I have, and can continue to 'acquire' for almost nothing, a thousand and one drum samples for my S900/950/1000/770/750... (delete as applicable). This is a powerful argument if you are a sampling person with any skill at all. Fortunately for Alesis, sampling — even sampling drum sounds, which hardly stretches either operator or machine — still frightens many people to death. Or to something like the D4.
For those who cannot wade through a whole review, let me offer a thumbnail sketch: the D4 is a rackmount 1U repository of 500 high quality drum and percussion sounds that can be triggered over MIDI or from audio (via pads, off tape...). Editing is minimal. First impressions are that the D4 is a sweetheart to use, and luckily these first impressions are right.
On the clean and clear front panel there are eight dedicated buttons whose functions hardly need explanation beyond mention of their names: Voice; Tune; Mix; Output; Drum Set; Ext Trigger; Group; MIDI. There's also a large, free-flowing, rubber-clad incremental dial looking like a giant Liquorice Allsort and, as on most Alesis products, a small orange screen. At the back are a mass of jack sockets: 12 for audio triggers; four for the two pairs of outputs; a dual function footswitch jack; plus MIDI In and Out/Thru, and an AC power socket. Yes, like all other Alesis products, you have a separate power adapter.
You hook up, you switch on, it works. Why isn't everything like this? Although the D4 is simply a large treasure chest of drum and percussion sounds, it does make a stab at organising them for you. Out of the box, so to speak, there are 21 Drum Sets — primed, mapped, and ready for action under titles of varying usefulness such as 'Standard Stuff', 'Articulation', 'Classic Hex', 'The Ballad Set', 'House Scratch', 'Dry Acoustic' etc. Most have kick and snare sounds starting at MIDI note number 36 (the bottom C on most 5-octave keyboards), moving through toms, cymbals, percussion, and finally effects at the top.
Sounds are mapped singly; in other words there are no multiple notes for any instrument, a method used to good effects by some, notably Ensoniq, so that you play trills and fills more easily, and although there is some variation in relative volumes, most hover at around 85-90 (out of 99). Before dealing with the individual sounds, and editing parameters, how useful are these pre-determined 'kits', and what do they sound like?
Personally, I started off enthusiastically admiring the beefiness of the American toms, the range of the snares, the side hits, the blend of classic drums with occasional pieces of weirdness. I certainly admired - and admire - the response to velocity by which many of the drums spring to life through another sample coming into play on high velocity. But then I began to get a little bored. If there are not many duplications in these kits then it certainly sounds as if there are. Yes, there goes the five notes of bells, the toms again, the blips and clicks and pops.
Kits of distinction include the 'Dry Acoustic' - useful through being precisely that, and not awash with effects and reverbs -'Techno Logic', which is quite the opposite (ie. heavily processed) and 'New World Percussion', which features some pleasant talking drums and assorted tuned percussion. Having ploughed through all 21 kits I emerged with the feeling that good though they were, I had heard most of the sounds before. I also emerged feeling I needed a long, brisk walk before I subjected myself to any more.
But ear-weariness in listening to the drum sets is something of a red herring, since you are neither sentenced to those particular sets (they can be edited), nor to those exact sounds. The fact remains, however, that although they are intended as a good starting off point, they will remain unchanged on a frightening proportion of units sold.
The basic D4 currency is a Voice. As the manual (succinct, and mercifully free from what generally passes for humour in the average American manual) puts it, a Voice is what the D4 plays on receiving a MIDI or acoustic trigger. A Voice is simply a sample, plus its tuning, volume, pan and output assignments. The D4's 500 Voices are grouped into various banks: kicks ('bass drums', if you've not yet adopted this Americanism), snares, cymbals, toms, percussion, and effects. Moving around the banks and voices within banks could hardly be easier. The screen, though small, displays all the information you need, and courtesy of the cursor buttons and incremental wheel a child of three could figure it out (my two-year old almost made it). On display is the current MIDI note number and name, the Bank, the Voice number and name, and you cursor your way from one to the other, making any alterations as you go with the incremental dial.
You can hear what's on display either via your MIDI setup or audio triggers (just play a note), or by thumping the rectangular rubber pad on the control panel. I say "thumping" with good reason. Although impressively velocity sensitive and all that, this pad - as I've found with most Alesis pads to be honest - is not the easiest to play. Even at full punch most voices seemed to sound at no more than half volume. The trick, no doubt, is to hit the pad fairly and squarely in the middle, from an angle of about...
This aberration is all the more surprising since Alesis offers 'Note Chase', the most wonderfully interactive screen system whereby the screen alters, instantly, to display whatever note is currently being triggered. In other words, you'd have to be crazy to wrestle with any pad, no matter how good, when confronted by such a brilliant and informative alternative using a connected keyboard or drum pad.
The bank of kick drums contains an astonishing 99 sounds - I think you have to wonder whether you ever needed 99 kick drums. In fact, you have to ask whether you could ever differentiate between 99 kick drums. Well, here's your chance to find out. Unless you're absurdly picky, or are hellbent on a genuine 808 kick and find that the D4's 'Rumble' is not completely satisfactory, most will find a kick drum to suit. Drums come dry, with reverb, in stereo (and marked thus on an accompanying card), they come acoustic, electronic, tight, floppy, flanged, etc.
Complaints? I've had a few, as they say. First, it would be more useful, not to say revealing, to have had better descriptions on the accompanying sound chart. If you are going to the trouble and expense of producing the item in the first place, why not list drums as 'dry 22" Slingerland, medium hit', or some such, rather than using names like 'Big Foot', 'Mstr Mash', and 'Reggae', which are pretty limited descriptions, frankly.
"Here's your chance to see whether you can actually differentiate between 99 kick drums. Unless you're absurdly picky, or are hellbent on a genuine 808 kick and find that the D4's 'Rumble' is not completely satisfactory, most will find a kick drum to suit."
Part of the reason, I suspect, is that there are not so much an inordinate number of different drum samples on board so much as an inordinate number of treatments and variations upon them. Though you will find most all types of commonly heard bass drum I think that Alesis had the opportunity to be a little more adventurous here: balloon pops, concert bass drums, explosions, whale blowing... all sounds that should be relatively easy (for a company like Alesis) to acquire, and ones that would have made the D4 much more interesting.
The next bank contains 99 snares (not for the fainthearted, the D4!), comprising a good selection of the world's classic snare sounds: big, small, fat, thin, crashy, side stick, brushes, dry, cavernous, gated etc. Again, you'd be hard pushed not to find a sound to suit, but on a module that set itself up as - and solely as - a box of drum sounds, you could be forgiven for 'complaining' that although it is good to have a snare + tambourine sample, where is the crashing snare plus a million tambourines a la Phil Spector? Or the full range of Simmons, Claptrap, Synare and other classic electros?
The basic sound quality is faultless though. Leaving aside the question of whether one really needs 16-bit stereo samples for most drums, the sound are generally punchy, crisp and clear.
You may be relieved to hear - I was - that there are only 55 cymbals. Under this banner come all manner of hi-hats, in all sizes, types, and degrees of openness, ride cymbals (belled, and edged), and crash cymbals. My feelings about safeness continue to apply: no gongs, no insects (seriously: crickets were put to great use as hi-hats on Robin Lumley's Natural Sounds album); nothing to take the breath away.
The cymbal samples are generally of a sensible length. By that I mean that an 18" crash will last a good few seconds here, which though shorter that real life, does not seem an unnaturally short cutoff.
There are 92 tom samples, ranging from most sizes of acoustic, both dry and in varying degrees of wetness, in most types, ie. ringing, dampened, hard-struck, soft, along with occasional effected types, eg. phased. But where are the rototoms, or the 808 toms? At least Simmons get a look in this time, albeit under the rather coy name of 'Hex'. Is it actually illegal to name a sample after what it is?
On to the percussion bank, comprising some 76 sounds that cover what has to be a fairly standard range of percussion instruments, from drum types like timbales, congas, bongos and talking drums, to cowbells that cover every eventuality and more (Med Cow, Low Cow, Heifer, Guernsey...), to blocks of every size and shape, to bells, shakers and beady things.
At the risk of repeating myself, the range is full, extremely well recorded, but not exactly innovative ( dark and hard tambourines, but no 'swung' sample to go along with the 'hit' samples), nor terribly exciting.
'Exciting' just has to be in the effects bank, right? Hmmm, well there are some really good sounds in here, that's true. I love the door slam - a real belter, and something for which I've been looking for ages - and with plenty of things breaking, and scratching, popping, and whistling, there are no real complaints.
Of all the things you can do with this battalion of things bashed, re-tuning is the most drastic. Each sound can be moved up a maximum of three semitones or down a maximum of four. Sounds can be panned through a 7-stage stereo image (three left, three right, plus centre), and you have a choice of main outputs or auxiliary outputs. Judicious use of the pan parameters can thus produce a maximum of four separate outs at a time. A more likely scenario, as Alesis suggest, would be a pair of submixes, one for drums, the other for percussion.
Possibly the only panel button you couldn't guess from its title is Group, a word that can mean anything to anyone. On the D4, Group concerns a sound's mode of triggering. A sound assigned to Multi goes through its entire decay every time you play it. This is particularly well suited to cymbals, for example. On the other hand a sound assigned to Single will mute its own decay when it is re-triggered. Two further separate groups, 1 and 2, are used for cutting off a Voice that continues to sound within the assigned group, hi-hats open and closed being the obvious example.
This level of control can hardly be called intimidating. But is it enough? Ultimately I think it is. The nature of drum and percussion sounds being short, immediate, almost throwaway, most people find that if they don't like what they hear they simply move on to find a sound they do like. Painstaking editing and adjustment is seldom the order of the day. Depending upon your circumstances, you could use the D4 just as a drum sound library and not worry about the Drum Sets, or you can build up your own Drum Sets by modifying those already in existence.
"The best aspect of the D4 is that undertaking any form of editing or writing is totally simple. The advantage of this cannot be overstated. It will save you hours. It will save you countless headaches. Ultimately it must save you money."
The best aspect of the D4 is, however, that no matter how you choose to work, undertaking any form of editing or writing is totally simple. The advantage of this cannot be overstated. It will save you hours. It will save you countless headaches. Ultimately it must save you money.
With Note Chase in tow (I'd never turn it off), you simply hit a note, see what's currently assigned to it, change it or modify it, then hit another note, and repeat the procedure until you have the setup you want. If you don't want to save what you've edited, fine. You are always working in the edit buffer, modifying whatever Drum Set you last selected, so any changes you make are not irrevocable. If, subsequently, you want to store your edits then you must overwrite one of the 21 drum sets. Best, as always, to offload the existing bunch on to disk somewhere, just in case you suddenly find yourself pining for 'Ambient Rock' one day (though I doubt you will).
The MIDI button reveals data five pages deep - quite the most complex aspect of the D4 to date, but still very straightforward. First up is something called Root Note, which concerns the span of a Drum Set. Drum Sets can only use 61 notes in total, but although they default to using MIDI notes 36 to, oh, work it out for yourself, the whole lot can be shifted up or down to span any 61 notes within the 128 notes allowed by the MIDI spec. The Root Note can be set independently for all Drum Sets.
The D4 can function in Omni and Poly modes, and you can set whether the Out/Thru port is, well, an Out or a Thru. This last feature is useful because the D4 converts signal received at the trigger Ins to MIDI. Thus, a drum pad, for example, could trigger a D4 sound and continue on its way to trigger another module, this time via MIDI (see Steal The Feel on p82 for a not-so-obvious use for such a facility).
Obviously mindful of the fact that the D4 will have considerable gig appeal with its pad trigger facility, Alesis have made sure you can map incoming program change messages to any Drum Sets, and you can also choose between using the 1-128 or 0-127 program numbering conventions, to ensure full compatibility with other manufacturers' equipment and to avoid confusion.
Still in MIDI mode, the D4 can be programmed to respond to a number of incoming controllers, including data slider, volume, data increment/decrement, non-registered parameter MSB 0-127 and LSB 0-127, Reset All Controllers, and pitch bend.
So far, examination of the D4 has been from a 'keyboard' perspective, your humble scribe being a keyboard player rather than an engineer or a drummer. There is an engineer angle however, and the D4 clearly has plenty of drummer appeal. To find out why we simply have to look round the back at those 12 trigger inputs. The D4 can be triggered in a number of ways, and one of the more interesting is via drum sounds off tape. Granted, you would need to send the D4 separate instruments (or gate out unwanted ones and use several passes), but this built-in facility should be noted by re-mix engineers, and indeed all who like to re-hash existing material.
The Ext Trig button deals with what is to be triggered and how. Page one concerns which incoming trigger is used (1-12, of course), the type of triggering, and the note number to be triggered. The first and last are self-explanatory. Trigger 'type', a global parameter, concerns the solving of triggering problems by addressing such problems as recovery time, noise floor and suppression.
Some 25 trigger types are provided, to suit certain specific forms of triggering - both physical types such as piezo transducers on acoustic drums, and situations (there are types to compensate for 'ambient noise and vibration' etc.) Given that Alesis have implemented this trouble-shooting section, it's unlikely that you'll encounter any insurmountable problems when using external triggering. During the tests I carried out using pads and older drum machines, all I ever had to do was adjust the trigger gain (variable from 0-99) to ensure reliable performance.
Drummers, who should by now be straining at the leash to plug in their drum pads, PZMs etc., will also be intrigued to learn of the D4's footswitch mode, whereby the seemingly innocent Drum Set advance footswitch can be re-programmed to perform as a hi-hat pedal. "This is a feature for hardcore drummers," says the manual, adding that "this is a little complicated, but hang on in there." I count too many drummers among my close friends to comment any further on these rather curious statements, but setting up this feature - basically so that the pedal triggers a note number assigned to a hi-hat sound - is hardly of hair-tearing-out complexity.
Setting up a set of drums/pads may take a little time as you'll have to find trigger type(s) to suit all the pads — but from then on it is just a matter of matching trigger inputs to note numbers and setting the gain. A rather neat facility is the provision of an 'Unassigned' trigger type — this allows you to use a transducer not to trigger a note but to keep an eye on noise and vibration on, say, a drum stand which carries some pads. If a high level of vibration is present the D4 will ignore soft signals from the pads, assuming that they are due to the ambient vibration; if there is very little vibration, then the pads will trigger more easily.
The D4's strong suit is definitely its ease of operation. Whether my personal reservations about the range and type of sound on board will be dealt with by subsequent versions of the D4 is another matter. This is a beautifully responsive instrument, and one to which, in the inevitable heat of the studio moment when all around you is MIDI mayhem and madness, you might become extremely attached and grateful.
£399 inc VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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