Rhythm Sound Module
Anyone who thinks cheap samplers have made dedicated drum modules redundant is risking a good kicking from this new baby from Yamaha...
Last year Yamaha surprised a lot of people with the RY30, an impressive drum machine which in one fell swoop put the company at the forefront of beatbox development. The more recent RY10 budget machine has shown that the RY30 was no fluke. So are Yamaha on a roll when it comes to matters rhythmic?
Well, the company currently appear to be out to conquer the MIDI drum module market with the RM50 - and when you start using it you certainly get the impression that they mean business. The RM50 packs quite a punch, both in terms of its sound quality and its complement of features.
MIDI channels 1-16 can each be assigned a rhythm kit or a pitched voice, or else turned off. To pitch any drum or percussion sound across the keyboard you simply assign it to a pitched-voice channel. The module also provides a small number of bass sounds for you to use as pitched voices in conjunction with your rhythms. It comes programmed with 64 preset rhythm kits covering a variety of musical styles (see sidebar), and you can also program 64 kits of your own, and store one or two sets of 64 kits to a RAM data card (MCD-32 or MCD-64 respectively).
As on the RY30, Kits are made up of Voices which, in turn, consist of one or two samples. Notes up to and including A#2 (note 58) can have two Voices assigned to them, while those above A#2 are limited to one.
The RM50 has 133 samples permanently stored in ROM, and can draw on up to 64 more in RAM if an SYEMB06 Memory Expansion card is installed. Included as standard in the module's onboard sample ROM are 15 bass drums, 27 snares, eight hi-hats, seven cymbals, nine toms, 21 percussion samples, six ambience samples, separate bass drum attack and body samples, 32 sound effects including Pot Tap, Factory, Shakey and BuzzStix, and six waveforms. Essentially, Yamaha have taken the RY30's ROM samples, made a few additions to several of the categories (a couple of jazz kick drums and snares, for instance), significantly increased the number of special effect sounds, and omitted reversed versions of the samples (instead, you can select either forward or reverse direction for each Element).
The RM50's Voice architecture is an expanded version of the RY30's. In essence, two Elements to which you assign samples can each be given level, pan, pitch and decay values and routed through their own resonant filters. These provide a choice of LPF12, LPF24, HPF12 and HPF24 filter types together with a simple rate/level envelope, and on from there via a pitch EG before being routed to stereo or individual outs. The RM50 adds to this structure an LFO, an amplitude EG (which replaces the RY30's decay parameter), and a delay section for each Element.
The LFO can be set to modulate amplitude, pitch or filter settings, using either a triangle, saw up, saw down, square, sine or sample/hold waveform, with both speed and initial delay programmable. The ADR envelope includes a parameter which languishes under the intriguing name of 'punch'. As you might expect on a drum module, it affects the attack transient of a sound - specifically, how long the sound's amplitude is held at the attack level before progressing to the decay stage. In practice, the sonic differences are fairly subtle, and generally entail more 'snappiness' being imparted to a sound.
The delay section is a far more upfront addition. For each Element you can set a number of repetitions (Off, 1-7), whether the trigger note will be played or not, the delay time between repeats (1-128 in 10msec steps), and independent level and pitch offsets (so that repeats can fade in or out and rise or fall in pitch).
The RM50 lets you assign one of 12 velocity response curves to each Element. If you don't want an Element to be velocity-responsive you can assign it a constant curve, while velocity crossfades between Elements can be created using a combination of positive and negative curves. Further control over velocity responsiveness is available via the Element Sensitivity LCD page, which lets you define the velocity sensitivity of Element level, pitch, EG, filter cutoff and LFO modulation parameters.
The RM50's Voice Output page lets you assign a Voice to the stereo output jacks or to one of the six individual outs located on the module's rear panel. You can also set whether the Voice will be played monophonically or polyphonically, and whether or not it exists in an Exclusive relationship with other Voices - for instance, whether or not you want open and closed hi-hat Voices to cut one another off.
If you select Mono/Alt or Poly/Alt for a Voice, the RM50 will play the Voice's two Elements alternately rather than in unison. For instance, you could alternate two slightly different versions of the same snare sound in a snare roll, or alternate between open and muted bongos or long and short guiros.
All in all, the RM50's Voice parameters provide plenty of scope for inventive sound programming. Not surprisingly, then, Yamaha have gone to town on the Voices: in addition to 500 preset Voices you get 500 Voice Variations and 128 fully editable user Voices - 1128 Voices in all. To this impressive number can be added a further 500 Variations and 128 user Voices stored on a RAM data card which plugs into a slot on the RM50's front panel.
The RM50's preset Voices are grouped into six banks: bass drum (102 Voices), snare drum (108), toms (107), cymbals (67), percussion (65) and sound effects (51). Voices are further grouped within each bank into categories such as dry, reverbed, jazz, gated, analogue and electronic. The RM50 doesn't have built-in effects processing - its reverbed sounds are created by layering instrument and ambience samples.
The 500 Voice Variations are copies of the preset Voices which can be edited in a limited fashion. Two Voice Edit screens called Easy Edit 1 and Easy Edit 2 let you set a Variation's overall volume level and alter the programmed values for balance, panning, pitch, decay and filter cutoff by selecting positive or negative offset values. Try to edit any other Voice parameter and a message pops up in the LCD telling you that you 'Can't edit this data!'. To edit a Variation in more detail, you have to copy it into a spare user Voice location first.
Like Roland's old R8M drum module, the RM50 provides three Waveform card slots and a data card slot on its front panel. The Waveform slots can accept cards originally developed for the RY30 and the SY77 and SY55 synths, giving the new module a library to draw on from the outset.
Its ability to read the SY cards gives it a range of pitched instrumental sounds to draw on for the pitched voice channels mentioned earlier - though in truth this is a rather expensive option. RY30 card compatibility is definitely good news, however, because Yamaha have built up an impressive sample card library for their drum machine since its introduction last year. Dance musicians should check out the excellent House & Rap and Dance & Soul cards, while musicians more interested in using 'real' drum and percussion sounds will perhaps find Artist Series cards from such drummers as Dave Weckl, Matt Sorum and Peter Erskine more to their taste. The RM50 can play the demo rhythm tracks provided on the RY30 cards, but not the individual patterns.
While we're looking at the RM50's front panel, it's worth noting that the 2 x 24-character backlit LCD is easy to read, and that front-panel operation of the module via 12 buttons is a little fiddly at first but easy to follow with a little practice. Ten of these buttons can also be used to trigger Macros, ie. 'automated' sequences of front-panel button presses designed to take you virtually instantly to a particular page or parameter. The RM50 comes preprogrammed with 10 Macros - for instance, the Cursor button takes you straight to the Click page and turns the metronome click on - but you can replace these with your own preferred Macros if you want.
In addition to the individual outs mentioned earlier and the inevitable stereo outs and MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, the RM50's rear panel contains six trigger inputs designed to accept signals from drum pads and pickups and, of course, from tape. Every rhythm kit contains a set of six trigger-to-note assignments, while the MIDI channel assignment for each trigger is defined globally. Other trigger parameters provided are input gain, scan speed, self reject, noise reject, crosstalk reject, gate time, and velocity level and curve - parameters which give you just the sort of fine-tuning control you need in order to tailor trigger response to different input signals or different playing techniques.
The RM50 impresses in a number of respects, not least in the clarity and dynamism of its overall sound, which has a very contemporary sharpness and punch to it. This is one instrument which isn't shy about making its sonic presence felt. Bottom-end sounds have plenty of body to them whilst at the high-end there's plenty of detail and sparkle.
In the sheer number and variety of drum and percussion sounds it makes available - and in the sonic open-endedness provided by its synthesis section - the RM50 mounts a spirited defense against the onslaught of the digital sampler. Its three sample card slots and the existing RY30 sample library are further points in its favour.
But what really takes the wind out of the digital sampler's sails is the RM's battery-backed RAM option, the SYEMB06 memory board. Providing you have the means to get samples into this RAM via MIDI, the RM becomes just as flexible as a sampler for rhythm work. If you don't own a sampler, a Peavey SX sampling unit together with generic sample editing software such as Alchemy (Mac) or Avalon (ST) would make an effective sampling and editing front end for the RM50.
If you do already own a sampler, you could always dedicate the RM50's sample RAM to drum and percussion sounds and therefore leave more of your sampler's memory and polyphony free for other sounds. Bearing in mind the notorious slowness of sample transfer via MIDI, a SCSI option for the RM wouldn't have gone amiss. But then, you could also start wishing for an onboard disk drive, and all of a sudden you're talking about a bigger and more expensive instrument.
The RM50 continues Yamaha's ascendancy in the world of boxes which go crash, bang, wallop. It also shows that the MIDI drum module is alive and kicking, with plenty to offer today's rhythm-obsessed musician.
Price: RM50 £599, SYEMB06 Expansion Memory Board £130; both prices include VAT
More from: Yamaha-Kemble Music (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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