Ian Gilby looks at how you can programme that 'human feel' into your drum patterns or sequences using another clever device from the Bokse company - the MIDI Humaniser.
Adding that 'human feel' to your drum and sequencer programs is made considerably easier with the launch of the Bokse MH-2 MIDI Humaniser. Ian Gilby discovers its novel applications.
Listening to the majority of readers' demo tapes we receive here at our offices, most are characterised by the mechanical nature of their rhythm track, regardless of whether it suits the mood of the song - a definite symptom of employing drum machines. What everyone tends to assume is that any musician, given a drum machine, is also automatically invested with the creative skills of our old friend the drummer. Not so, for the drummer's art is in the 'feel' he adds to the rhythm; he is not merely a timekeeper, replaceable by a machine. A good drummer makes mistakes, deliberately, by lagging behind or advancing the beat where appropriate and in context with the music. An understanding of how to instigate such errors on a drum machine is vital for successful rhythm programming. And that's exactly where the problem lies: all drum machines by their very nature are super accurate timekeepers. Realising that strict tempo isn't what's always wanted, manufacturers offer various crude means of randomly offsetting the programmed beats (relative to the internal clock pulses) to recreate that human 'feel' or 'swing'. But this approach can only go so far before you end up devoting ridiculous amounts of time minutely refining rhythm patterns until they sound 'wrong' ie. natural!
It's this very dilemma that the Bokse MH-2 MIDI Humaniser has been designed to solve. By the way, don't let the reference to MIDI put you off if your drum machine or sequencer is non-MIDI compatible, for it's precisely at you that the unit is aimed too. Confused? Then please read on...
In essence, the Bokse Humaniser is designed to allow tempo-based devices such as drum machines and sequencers to follow the timing of human beings rather than vice-versa ie. WE control the machines, which is how it should be! This operation opens up a treasure trove of useful applications for the Humaniser, such as:
1 Overdubbing sequencers/drum machines to recordings that have no existing click-track, sync code or SMPTE available to read.
2 Real-time tempo control of drum machines from drum pads, miked-up bass drum etc for live performance.
3 Salvaging and/or replacing recorded drum tracks using the Humaniser's audio input by reading a tempo-related audio track and generating a guide click-track for subsequent re-recording on to tape. The click output follows every nuance of the audio input precisely and so allows for accurate syncing of additional instruments 'after the event'.
4 By reading any trigger pulse (eg. the trigger out from a TR606/TR808), the Humaniser can provide two synchronised MIDI outputs for precise control of MIDI sequencers or drum units, two Roland DIN Sync outs, a click output and two 24 pulses/quarter note jack outputs - with all seven running simultaneously! Usefully, the MIDI outputs transmit 'continue' messages if interrupted or halted which tell whatever device is being driven to proceed from the next programmed measure as opposed to the start of the pattern.
That should give you a basic idea of the operational area of the Bokse Humaniser but a quick run through its controls will help identify even more possible applications.
The device is based upon an advanced version of the Tap/Cue function found on Bokse's first ever product, the US-8 Universal Synchroniser (reviewed in our November issue). To recap, it calculates the output tempo at which it will drive connected machines by averaging the time between four 'cue' beats you tap into the unit. It then starts automatically at the precise time it would have (theoretically) received the fifth beat.
The same principle is employed to prime the Humaniser with your desired tempo using the rather neat circular 'Tap' acoustic transducer pad found on the 1U high front panel (or the plug-in pad or an input from a microphone). However, from now on things differ in that the Humaniser will only run at the allotted tempo upon receipt of the fifth beat. Once running, it will immediately begin to correct its output tempo to match the tap, pulse or audio trigger inputs it continues to receive.
The accuracy with which it can follow sudden changes of tempo is determined by the setting of the front panel 'Input Rate' knob which is similar, in effect, to the quantisation feature found on drum machines. It offers quarter- (4), eigth- (8) or sixteenth-note (16) accuracy and in practice, I found it desirable to leave the unit set on '16' as this tracked the tap inputs best and resulted in the most faithful tempo match.
The really clever aspect of the Humaniser's design is that all three means of available input (tap, pulse and audio trigger) are active simultaneously. If it's not immediately obvious to you why this is beneficial, let me explain.
What it means, is that you can use a recorded drum track feeding into the audio input jack and have that controlling the tempo of your LinnDrum, RX11 or whatever, but still override it at desired points in the track and use the tap facility to add a quick triplet here and there (on fills perhaps?). That feature alone makes the Humaniser worth its weight in gold for live performance and I can see a drummer like Warren Cann of Ultravox who might wish to increase the tempo, say, of a pre-programmed Linn pattern midway through a live set, using one of these to take advantage of crowd excitement. It comes back to what I was saying earlier about adding 'feel' to drum programs.
Whilst using the unit, I discovered how the Humaniser can present inexperienced drum machine programmers with a (unique?) way of quickly composing very realistic drum patterns. What you do is pick your favourite drum track off a record, record it on tape then feed it into the Humaniser's audio input socket. Use the 'Level' control on the front panel, which functions like the threshold control on a noise gate, to set the Humaniser to trigger accurately from the drum beat. You then programme the bass drum, say, of your drum machine to sound on every beat in the bar and use the Clock, Sync or MIDI output (whichever is suitable) to drive the drum machine causing the bass drum to sound only in time with your record's rhythm track. All you need do then is to keep playing the record whilst programming the relevant extra drum sounds by manually writing them in to the pattern and building the track up drum by drum.
When complete, you have a pretty convincing duplicate of your favourite rhythm neatly programmed into your drum machine. Remember, however, that unless you also recorded the click output on tape to re-sync the drum machine to when you had finished, then merely playing your program back will not give you the exact same tempo timing variations as the original drum track on the record. If you did record the click-track, feeding it back into the Humaniser's pulse input (far left of front panel) will recreate the original tempo over and over. This may sound a long-winded operation, but you get used to it quickly and its merit is the fact that you can develop some superbly realistic-sounding rhythms - especially if you utilise sampled drums.
This is a marvellous device that keeps highlighting new applications for itself the more times you use it. Used in the manner described, it is a wonderful means of aiding drum program composition and I would like to see these design elements incorporated in every drum machine made, though that would mean this Bokse product probably wouldn't exist!
I'm sure there are those who will consider the Humaniser purely on the strength of its interfacing facilities and the fact that it can add a new lease of life to a pre-MIDI product like the original Linn drum machine which you can pick up secondhand for a song these days and whose drum sounds have yet to be surpassed.
If you are strapped for cash, then steer well clear of the Bokse Humaniser. Don't, whatever you do, try one for yourself because as soon as you do, you'll wonder how the hell you ever managed without one! Its effect can be likened to that of an aural exciter: subtle, yet effective.
The Bokse MH-2 MIDI Humaniser retails for £369 inc VAT and is distributed in the UK by (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Gilby