Intriguing cries of "hit me" from the recording studio have been traced to Yamaha's new DD11 percussion controller. Simon Trask asks, can it be beaten?
Whether you're searching for a budget MIDI drum expander or a cheap alternative to an Octapad, the latest addition to Yamaha's range of preset drum machines could well be your bag of maracas.
WITH THEIR EMPHASIS on attracting the casual punter off the street, portable keyboards have always been strong on simplicity, immediacy and fun. There's nothing more simple, immediate and fun than hitting drum pads, so it's no surprise that pads have cropped up on some portable keyboards (Yamaha's PSS790 being the latest example). But could you imagine a manufacturer putting drum pads on a synthesiser? No, that would be considered frivolous.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that it should be left to Yamaha's Portable Keyboards division to make the logical connection between drum machines and the instant gratification provided by hitting drum pads. The company's Digital Drumbanks range of preset drum machines not only includes built-in pads from which you can trigger the onboard PCM drum samples, they even come with a free pair of drumsticks so you can get thwacking straight away.
But it's another kind of connection which makes the latest addition to the DD range particularly interesting to MT readers: MIDI. With the inclusion of MIDI In and MIDI Out sockets on its rear panel, the DD11 becomes both a MIDI percussion controller and a MIDI drum expander, with its eight velocity-sensitive drum pads able to trigger sounds from other instruments via MIDI note numbers, and its 35 PCM drum samples themselves triggerable as a preset MIDI "drumkit" on channel 16. As such it's a significant step up from Yamaha's previous MIDI-compatible DD machine, the DD5 (reviewed MT July '89), and knocks Roland's PAD5 for six (see review in MT October '89). However, unfortunately it doesn't rectify one of the DD5's shortcomings, namely the absence of MIDI sync capability - a strange omission for a MIDI drum machine, even a preset one.
Other features offered by the DD11 include 100 preset rhythms with optional auto-accompaniments, three chord-memories, 11 instrumental sounds which can be played multitimbrally via MIDI, built-in speakers, an auxiliary/headphone mono audio output, and footswitch triggering of drum sounds. The DD11 can be powered by an external PSU (not included with the instrument) or batteries.
Some of the above features may not be to your taste, but when you consider that it will set you back a modest £150, the DD11 appears good value for money simply as a MIDI percussion controller.
THE DD11's 35 drum samples provide a standard range of drum and percussion sounds, including three bass and three snare drums, several toms, open and closed hi-hats, crash cymbal, ride cymbal edge and bell, congas, bongos, timbales, agogos, cowbell, clap and cabasa. We're not talking 16-bit clarity and dynamism here - graininess and a certain amount of noise, yes. What's more, all the samples have been trimmed as much as they can be without losing their character, which does tend to impart a hard, electronic quality to them. All in all, they remind me of drum machines a few years back, perhaps with better top-end detail - some of the cymbals are quite decent. Also, you can't transpose or do anything else to the samples to change them.
The 11 instrumental samples, all of which could charitably be described as tacky, are synthbrass, acoustic piano, electric piano, vibes, marimba, steel drum, double bass, timpani, muted guitar, electric bass and orchestral hit. As with the drum samples, they've all been kept as short as possible. They're also fairly noisy - as is the audio output itself.
Each instrumental sound can be called up on any MIDI channel from 1-15 by sending the DD11 the appropriate MIDI patch change. The choice of patch changes - 0, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 14, 66, 70, 79 and 90 - seems rather bizarre, but somehow in keeping with the general quirkiness of the machine. Perhaps it corresponds to some profound mathematical series which reveals the secret structure of the universe. Or perhaps not.
To deselect all DD11 sounds from a particular MIDI channel, send the instrument any patch change other than the ones listed above. Channel 16 is a special case, though: the DD11's preset "drumkit", containing all 35 of its drum samples, is always assigned to this channel. Additionally you can assign the "drumkit" to any other MIDI channel by sending patch-change 99 to the DD11 on the relevant channel(s).
The DD11's pads are quite sizeable (all 3.5" in diameter), but their sensitivity drops off noticeably as you move away from the centre of the pad. In fact, the only place you'll generate maximum velocity (internally and via MIDI) is at the centre. Although you can play them with your fingers, it's hard going, and the sticks which you get with the DD11 are your best bet. There's a modest amount of bounce in the pads, but not exactly what you'd call a natural response.
You can play the pads while the preset rhythms and accompaniments are playing and while the DD11's 'drumkit' and instrumental sounds are being played from an external MIDI source.
THE DD11 HAS 12 (0-11) kit memories governing the assignment of its sounds to the eight pads and the right footswitch, but only kit 11 is user-programmable. You have to be careful here, because if you make any change to a preset kit, all its pad assignments are automatically copied into the programmable kit.
Kits 0-4 are preset arrangements of the drum sounds, while kits 5-9 spread the vibes, marimba, steel drum, timpani and orchestral hit sounds respectively across all eight pads in a rising pitch sequence C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The user-programmable kit, on the other hand, allows you to mix drum and instrumental sounds.
The pads and the right footswitch can be assigned to transmit on any one MIDI channel (1-16). The right footswitch allows you to trigger a DD11 drum sound with your foot while playing one of the drum or instrumental kits with the drumsticks. In the case of an instrumental kit, to play back the footswitch drum sound from a sequencer you'll need to be able to isolate its MIDI note and rechannelise it away from the MIDI channel of the instrumental sound (most straightforwardly to channel 16, the DD11's dedicated "drumkit" channel). The left footswitch must have some function, but I wasn't able to discover what it was (the review model was provided sans manual).
Kit 10 is an oddity, in that instead of triggering drum or instrumental sounds it triggers the currently-selected preset rhythm and its auto-accompaniment, with the choice of pad determining the transposition of the accompaniment parts. This kit uses the same pitch assignments as the instrumental kits, but with the difference that the sequence drops a minor seventh from F to G and then climbs back up to the initial C (so two pads duplicate one another). These transpositions simply shift the chord type of the currently-selected accompaniment style up and down, so that in most instances a transposition is in effect a key change rather than a different step within a single key.
The note data of the DD11's preset rhythms is always transmitted on MIDI channel 16, while the note data of the accompaniment parts is transmitted on channels 13-15 (melody on 13, chords on 14, bass on 15). When you're using kit 10, the accompaniment note data is transmitted via MIDI according to the selected transposition, which can give rise to some interesting clashes if the preset rhythm triggers an external pitched sound as opposed to drum sounds. It's just a shame that, if you want to record the results into a MIDI sequencer, you're going to run into syncing problems. There again, if you're going to be experimental, why bother about things like synchronisation?
The MIDI note numbers transmitted by the pads in the instrumental kits conform to the internal C-C pitch sequence, with the octave varying from kit to kit according to the octave of the internal sound. On the other hand, each pad within each drum kit transmits the note number of its assigned drum sound, which is the same as the drum sound's receive note number in the preset "drumkit" on MIDI channel 16. The advantage of this approach is that you can record your own rhythms into a MIDI sequencer using the DD11's pads and then have them automatically play back correctly on the 11's "drumkit". The shortcoming is that the MIDI notes which don't have drum sounds assigned to them in the "drumkit" aren't available for MIDI transmission, which could be a major pain if you're playing pitch sequences on an external instrument from the DD11's pads. The 11's instrumental kits are also limited, in this case to the notes of the C major scale.
THESE DAYS, MANUFACTURERS are making serious efforts to discard the "Latin Pops" image of preset machines by providing a wider selection of rhythms and trying to be a little more up-to-date. Thus on the DD11 familiar rhythms such as the bossa nova, the cha-cha-cha and the habanera are augmented by the lambada, cumbia, mapeye, orisa and guaracha, while pop rock, rock'n'roll, speed metal, soul, funk and r'n'b rhythms rub shoulders with dixieland and big band jazz, rap, fusion salsa, reggae, ska and Euro beat. Perhaps inevitably, the DD11's drum samples work better for some rhythms than they do for others, while the regularity of the rhythms (they're all either one or two bars long) instantly introduces an element of artificiality - though you can break up the monotony with liberal application of the fill-in. The DD11 has five Rhythm Control buttons: Start/Stop, Fill-in 1, Fill-in 2, Intro/Ending and Synchro Break (when the latter is enabled, hitting a pad causes the rhythm and its accompaniment to cut out for four beats, so you can drop in your own fill-ins or solos). Any one of these functions can be assigned to the right footswitch for hands-free operation.
To bring in the instrumental accompaniment parts you select one of the three chord memories from the front panel. These are programmable, allowing you to create your own chord sequences - after a fashion. Selecting record mode calls kit 10 onto the pads, allowing you to select chord transpositions by hitting the pads as the rhythm and accompaniment play. Up to 100 steps can be programmed per memory, with each step consisting of a transposition amount and the duration of the transposition in beats. You're limited to the root notes assigned to the eight pads, and to a single chord type (though the type varies from accompaniment to accompaniment). Not exactly sophisticated stuff.
THE DD11 MAY be a cheap alternative to a Roland Octapad, but it's not an Octapad on the cheap. Roland's popular MIDI percussion controller in its various guises (Pad8, Pad 80 and now SPD8) offers greater ruggedness, superior pad responsiveness and more sophisticated MIDI control options. If these features are a priority for you, it's worth bearing in mind that you should be able to pick up a second-hand Pad8 Octapad for around the same price as the DD11.
But to criticise the DD11 for not being an Octapad is to miss the point. As a "domestic" unit, the 11's priorities are cost-consciousness and the earlier-mentioned simplicity and immediacy, so inevitably there are going to be compromises in such areas as ruggedness, programming flexibility and sound quality. But as long as you don't want to use the DD11 for gigging, heavy-duty studio work or heavy-metal drumming, it should stand the strain of some musicianly S&M, while the aforementioned mixture of tackiness and noise which characterises the DD11's sounds - especially the instrumental ones - will no doubt appeal to some people. However, amidst these "acceptable" compromises is one lamentable shortcoming: the DD11's inability to transmit or receive MIDI sync.
Nonetheless, if you want a cheap instrument which can function as a MIDI percussion controller, a MIDI drum expander and a (albeit very limited) MIDI multitimbral instrument expander, with a healthy selection of preset rhythms and accompaniments thrown in for good measure, and if you fancy the idea of a quirky and somewhat less than state-of-the-art instrument which you can mess around with, then the DD11 could be your surprise investment of the year.
Price £149.95 including VAT
More from Yamaha-Kemble Music (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!