Tron Digidrum 3
Son of Digidrum 2, begat by Digidrum 1: is Digidrum 3 — the new software for the Commodore 64 — a suitable successor? Ian Waugh investigates Tron's latest offspring.
Birds love drummers — so drummers keep telling me. Had I known that at the age of eight, I'd probably have forsaken my piano for a couple of twigs and a tin can. (Come to think of it, at the age of eight, for that very reason, I was probably glad I couldn't play the drums. Don't times change??) But, girls (as I prefer to call them, because I'm not really an MCP) or not, I think most musicians have a hankering to bash away at a drumkit. Some like the sense of power it gives them, some like to get involved in the rhythm; others just like to make an almighty noise — and some of our aspirations, at least, were realised with the advent of the drum machine. Drummer or not, everyone could play them. We stood up to applaud the Linndrum and sat down to drool over its price, but now, thanks to sampling and computer technology, real drums are creeping closer to our wallets every day. The Digidrum is one such marvel: so let's see what it does.
The Digidrum is real drums; or at least, sampled drum sounds. The package consists of a little black box which plugs in into the Commodore 64's User Port. The box is a Digital/Analogue converter, and is equipped with a jack socket for audio out, and a phono socket for trigger out, which produces one pulse per step. This will help synchronise other instruments to the Digidrum; but bear in mind that the output won't suit every instrument. With everything plugged in and the disc booted (a cassette version is also available), you are presented with a menu screen offering the following options: 1 — Program Rhythm Patterns; 2 — Compose Songs; 3 — Display Directory; 4 — Load Patterns & Songs; 5 — Save Patterns & Songs; 6 — Load Sounds; 7 — Save Sounds: E— Erase All Patterns & Songs; T — Set Tempo; and ! — Load Sound Editor. When the disc is booted, it automatically loads in a standard set of drum sounds and eight songs. This takes a little while, and a quick-loader is supplied which loads the programme without any sounds or songs.
A complete drum track, or song, is built up by chaining together several patterns. The Pattern screen displays 38 steps from left to right, and you move from step to step with the left/right cursor key. Eight drums are available, and they are inserted into a step by pressing one of the following keys: C (crash cymbal); O (open hi- hat); H (closed hi-hat); D (small tom); S (snare); G (grand tom); F (floor tom) or B (bass drum). The drums are represented on screen by strange Commodore graphics characters — ones you suspected might exist, but were never able to discover. It may all seem a bit odd at first, but it soon becomes second nature, and the mnemonics are listed down the right of the screen to help. The cursor can be made to move automatically to the next step, editing is simple, and patterns are easy to programme.
A step can hold up to three drum sounds, although some are mutually exclusive, such as the cymbal sets and tom sets. The programme will not let you enter impossible combinations. The drums sound as you enter them, although you can mute them if you wish, and pressing f7 will play through the complete pattern. Up to 51 patterns can be stored in memory at once, and each can be up to 38 steps long; so there's plenty of scope for odd rhythms and time signatures. The demo songs include 12/8, Blues, Samba, Reggae, Bounce, Latin and 9/4 rhythms. I tried entering the drum rhythm to Ravel's Bolero (for review purposes only, honest!), and got both bars into a single pattern. It seems innocuous enough, but some drum machines can't handle it so easily.
There may be times when you wish for more than 38 steps per pattern. For example, in 4/4 time, if you want to play 4 semiquavers on one beat and triplets on another, each beat would require at least 12 steps and a bar would need 48 steps — too long for a single pattern. Splitting a bar over more than one pattern is messy. You can programme around this, of course (i.e., don't do it!), but 90% of contemporary drum playing will fit in quite nicely.
Once you've bashed out a few bongo-rattling patterns, it's on to the Song screen to string 'em together. A song can hold up to 100 steps, and each step consists of a pattern played a certain number of times. For example, to play pattern 6 eight times you would enter 6,8 and move on to the next step. Easy as pie. The tempo is adjustable over a very wide range, from the sequestive to the 'my wrists don't 'arf ache'.
The Step, Pattern and Song techniques used to programme the Digidrum are similar to those of most drum machines, and will be familiar to anyone who has ever used one — although when it comes down to ease of use, the Digidrum knocks spots off the others. In fairness, it may not have as many editing facilities as some, but if the proof of a drum machine is in its performance, it gives a very good account of itself. Up to 10 songs can be stored in memory at any one time, and a new pattern and song set can be loaded in around ten seconds; quite fast enough for a live gig. The fact that songs and patterns can be easily and quickly saved to disc means you don't have to faff around with cassette tape for storage (sorry, cassette users!). Some drum machines don't even have a save facility, which tends to hamper creativity: who wants to write new riffs if you can't save the old ones first?
On now to the sounds. The standard drum set which loads with the programme is pretty good. I could nit-pick, but Tron are way ahead of reviewers on that score (more in a mo — see next paragraph), and in any case, no two people, musicians, drummers or percussion buffs; will agree on the perfect drum sound. Suffice it to say that the sounds compare very well with, and in some cases surpass, the cheaper dedicated drum machines around at the moment.
Okay, so perhaps one or two sounds strike you as being a bit wet, you fussy little audiophile, you. How many times have you listened to a drum machine and wished you could change a sound here and there? Even if you haven't, you must have wished you could play a set of Latin sounds without forking out for another machine. The brilliance of the Digidrum is that new sounds can be loaded in and played at the nominal expense of a new software disc.
The main disc contains Glass, Latin and Syn drum sounds. Soundset V1 contains full sets of Cowbells, Toms and Tims, Pitchbend Toms, and Hihats and Cymbals. Disc V2 contains a second set of Standard sounds, a second Latin set. Crow (don't know what they are, but they're amazing) and a Bass line. Disc V3 contains full sets of Hihats, Pitchbend Toms, and Funny Effects. Each disc also contains a number of individual sounds which you can load into a single drum slot. In this way, you can put together customised drum kits to suit all types of music; so if a particular cymbal sound doesn't quite knock your socks off, you can replace it with one that does. That I like! Particularly noteworthy are the Rattlesnake, Pauk, Cabassa and Hey!! (the exclamation marks are part of the name — you've really got to hear this one!). Each disc contains around 40 samples and costs £17.99. That's about 45p per drum! A cassette of V2 and V3 costs £29.99. Those with sharp ears may sense that some the sounds seem to carry a little background noise with them, but this usually gets lost in the general melee.
Owners of Digidrum 2 can update their software for £17.99 (£14.99 on cassette) and a strong incentive to do so is the inclusion of the new Sound Editor. One of the main criticisms of the Digidrum 2 software was the lack of any editing control over the sounds. The Sound Editor is called from the menu, and lets you swap sounds, copy them and mix them — try playing a cowbell, cymbal and pauk at the same time! You can also alter their envelope and volume, and the programme gives you a graphic display of the envelope and tells you the clipping rate of the sound. This is the icing on the cake, and adds a bit more control to an already flexible system. A few more written instructions are required in this department, however; but I gather they are on their way.
More goodies to further support the Digidrum are under development. MIDI software is planned, to allow direct playing of the Digidrum from a MIDI keyboard or drum system. A contact trigger system will allow you to play each drum from a separate trigger, and plans are afoot to make sampler hardware and software interactive with the Digidrum. Syndromic Music, distributors of the system in the UK, have just opened a new showroom where you can go to see and hear the Digidrum in action. If you can't make it to London, then an audio cassette is available for £2.99, refundable with an order. It's worth listening to, even if you don't buy a machine.
You must have guessed by now that the Digidrum is a rather super piece of musical equipment. For live use, for a small recording studio or for home recording, the Digidrum is superb. There are over 60 different sounds currently available for it, so no one need ever know that all your drum tracks were done with the same machine. Clever, eh?
It may lack individual outputs and some of the sync outputs offered by other drum machines, and it may also lack a few of the programming niceties, but for the range of sounds it produces, ease of use, storage, and just good old down-to-earth value for money, it's hard to beat. Ha! Beat! Geddit?
RRP £79.99 inc. VAT, Post and Packing
More details from Syndromic Music, (Contact Details).
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Review by Ian Waugh
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