Yamaha's DTS70 drum trigger-to-MIDI convertor promises ease of use and high performance. Warren Cann puts it to the test.
It seems strange to think that not so very long ago there was a very real fear amongst drummers that their acoustic kits were about to be universally scrapped in favour of all-electronic replacements. In retrospect, naturally, we see that their apprehension and panic was ill founded. Today acoustic drums and percussion live happily alongside their electronic counterparts, and devices like Yamaha's DTS70 make possible this symbiosis. This is a very powerful trigger-to-MIDI system which is designed to be the control centre for any set-up involving the playing of samples via an acoustic drum kit, pads, pick-ups, or (even) off-tape.
The front panel of the DTS70 brain, a rackmount unit, conveys its information via a fairly standard LCD, and a red 2-digit LED provides a more visible confirmation of, for example, Performance (patch) numbers. Moving from left to right we have: the mains on/off switch (on the front, where it should be on all rackable gear); four grouped buttons for Mode selection; an Edit/Compare button; the Data Entry increment/decrement buttons; and the all-important Cursor keys (left/right and page up/down). Finally, there's a pair of MIDI sockets, In and Out, which are conveniently included in addition to the MIDI ports at the rear of the unit; when the In is used, the rear panel's MIDI In is disabled, but the front panel Out operates in tandem with the rear MIDI Out 1 (of two).
The rear panel of the DTS70 is busier. There are 12 standard 1/4" jack sockets which are the analogue inputs for your trigger pickups. Below these are a further 12 jack sockets which are the direct analogue outputs from the DTS70, for triggering older equipment such as non-MIDI drum machines or analogue drum modules like the Simmons SDS5 series. Above each input is a small 3-position level selector trim switch enabling you to chose between attenuation of 0db, 15db, or 30db. There is a pair of footswitch inputs (not polarity sensitive, so any on/off switch should work) allowing you to change the selected Performance, the selected input for editing, or the step number in a Chain. A Bypass socket lets you use a footswitch to temporarily disable the MIDI outputs (toggle between 'all off' and 'all on').
The rear panel also sports four MIDI sockets: In; Thru; Out 1 & 2. MIDI In allows any external MIDI device to send program changes to the DTS70, and incoming data can be merged with the DTS70's own MIDI messages and sent out via one of the MIDI Out ports. It's also passed, unchanged, to the MIDI Thru, as normal. The provision of two independent MIDI Outs means that you can send up to 32 channels of MIDI information simultaneously.
Yamaha have designed their own trigger pickup, the DT10, which sells for about £18 each. They are not supplied with the unit, which I find odd as they are such an integral part of the system; when you pay £569 it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that you should be given six pickups with which to get started.
Each DT10 is a small, round, flat-sided, non-user serviceable (ie. you can't take it apart) plastic blob about the size of a penny. A thin cable, guarded by a strain relief, emanates from the pickup and terminates in a female 1/4" jack socket, thus enabling you to use standard cables to get the signal from kit to DTS70. Those who hate female jack sockets for their infernal propensity for making dodgy connections can breathe easy: it doesn't seem to be a problem with the Yamaha gear. You attach the pickup to the skin of the drum, near the rim, with double-sided sticky tape. For extra security you could also add a swatch of sticky cloth tape (Yamaha are quite insistent on cloth — apparently duct tape contains metal which can interfere with correct triggering). You need not, of course, restrict yourself to attaching the trigger to a drum. If you've ever wanted to MIDI up the coffee table and bang hell out of that, then now's your chance; a drum rim, a cymbal stand, a guitar body (solid)... Use your imagination.
The pick-ups themselves are robust and happily withstand the odd direct hit. However, if you use very heavy sticks, play very hard, and position the triggers such that you constantly hit them, then don't be too surprised if they give up — be reasonable! They track accurately, reliably, and with sensitivity, but Yamaha tell me that the DT10s are not covered by a warrantee; this therefore puts them in the category of 'consumables'. While £18 a throw isn't bad, it could be a poke in the eye if it happens too often. It's up to you.
This box is so packed with goodies it's difficult to know where to start. While you can manually fine tune the input signals, the automatic Trigger Learn facility lets the DTS70 analyze the signal characteristics of each input as produced with your playing, and then sets optimum values for the parameters in Edit mode which control how the incoming signals are treated. A MIDI Learn mode provides a shortcut for assigning MIDI note numbers and channels to trigger inputs; rather than manually entering each note number and channel for each sound you wish to trigger, this mode lets you hit a drum (or pad), then hit the pad on your drum machine which corresponds to the sound you want to trigger (the drum machine's MIDI Out must be connected to the DTS70's MIDI In to use this facility — this thing's good, but it's not psychic). The incoming MIDI note and channel is read by the DTS70 and automatically assigned to the selected input. You don't have to restrict yourself to drum machines of course — if it's a sound in your sampler, or in a tone module, just configure things so that you can trigger from a keyboard the sound to be assigned to a pad/drum, and ensure that the DTS70 can also listen into the MIDI data.
You can store up to 48 Performance setups, which can be individually named; the Edit/Compare button lets you check if a newly edited Performance set-up is better than a previous version. You can create and store up to 32 Chains, each of which can consist of 32 steps, each step being a Performance. Thus, you can step through different 'kits' in any order you choose.
There are seven different velocity curves, and you can select curves for each pad individually; you can also determine sensitivity (Level) and dynamic range (Velocity) for the pads. In this way you can tailor the pads' dynamics perfectly to your playing style. It's worth noting that the Level settings can be read in dBs, and the gate times read in fractions of a second, which, as Yamaha say, are "numbers that relate to the real world". I agree. I get annoyed with nebulous percentages that equate to an elusive source. "OK," I think, "87% of what?"
"Yamaha seem to have done everything they can to make the DTS70 as painless to set up and use as possible. MIDI response is fast, too."
As it happens, the DTS70 does also give you an input strength display expressed as a percentage, but this is a bonus as it enables you to gauge whether your gain setting and the attenuation switch are correctly set. Also, the outgoing MIDI Gate time can be edited; while this will be irrelevant to drum machines, synthesizers and samplers are a different matter, and you might want to play sounds other than percussion. Handy.
Two Rejection parameters, Self and Other, also enable you to ensure accurate triggering. They are preset to 'normal', optimum values but you can make adjustments to help avoid false and unwanted double triggering. Self lets the DTS70 ignore spurious vibrations, perhaps from stage rumble, and Other lets you assign a rejection percentage to each input which, according to the amount set, ignores combined signals from the other DTS70 inputs; that way you can avoid the problem of a bass drum that triggers when you hit the snare. A Wait parameter also helps track your playing, preventing pads re-triggering for a certain time after each 'real' trigger — the parameter is automatically adjusted during the Autoset procedure but, again, slight adjustments 'to taste' may be required.
In Multi Mode you can transmit more than one MIDI note from each trigger, so you can stack sounds up two, three, or four notes at a time. You can switch between assigned notes with velocity, or crossfade rather than switch, or even have successive hits cycle through the sounds you have stacked.
Other neat tricks: you can use a pad plugged in to the Footswitch INC/+1 and DEC/-1 inputs on the back to cycle through the DTS70 parameter values, particularly handy for stepping through Chains. If you attach a pickup to a cymbal stand, or any other conveniently located piece of hardware, a quick flick of a stick can advance you one step in your Chain to another Performance. Use a pair of pickups and you can totally change the kits you're playing with minimal hassle, instantly stepping up and down throughout the Chain.
With the two automatic modes, Trigger Learn and MIDI Learn, Yamaha seem to have done everything they can to make the DTS70 as painless to set up and use as possible. MIDI response is fast, too. They quote a time of 2.4 milliseconds for a hit to be read and processed — not exactly what you'd call lazy.
When an acoustic kit is fitted with the DT10 pick-ups, and is firing the crisp samples available in today's crop of drum machines/expanders... well, the first time you sit down to play can be quite an enlightening experience. For drummers who wish to augment the capabilities of their acoustic kit but who have no wish to use plastic pads, this is the obvious solution. Those well versed in MIDI percussion are no doubt already rapt with attention. If you are in the market for a trigger-to-MIDI convertor (plus) and haven't already checked out one of these, then I strongly advise you to do so. It's the business.
Yamaha DTS70 £569 inc VAT.
Yamaha DT10 pickups £18 each.
Yamaha-Kemble UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Warren Cann
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