The giant Nippon Gakki company have just released the very cheapest drum-machine; it's designed to sit comfortably at the bottom end of the market. They now make RX-11, RX-15 and RX-21 all with basically the same intrinsic, digitally sampled drum sounds, but with different control functions. (For example, the '21', like the '15' has only a stereo output, but you get what you pay for in drum machines. Yamaha intend you to adjust the volumes between the instruments very carefully, so it can be very convincing.)
This machine has nine different voices, and 40 different pre-set patterns which are held in ROM. These can form the basis of your songs as they are, or you can alter them as much as you like and enter them into RAM (without destroying them). They'll now play in the normal way. Yamaha also thoughtfully provide several 'tacets' to spice up your patterns as well as 56 user programmable memories. RX-21 has a capacity for 100 patterns and, as with most state of the art drum machines, to avoid running short of memory you may always dump to cassette and load the digital info back in again when you need to. As you are no doubt aware, you need to join several patterns together to construct a whole song. RX-21 has this facility, of course, and will hold up to four songs with a maximum of 512 parts each.
The machine itself is wedge shaped and measures 13½" x 8" x 2" at its thickest. It's a plain, hi-tech sort of design with functional, though not over-large, rubber press buttons. To the very left of the top face is the LCD window which, as per usual, shows all the information you need to program in real or step time, and also to build patterns. Many of the functions are accomplished by pressing buttons more than once, but we'll get to this later.
All the voice buttons are set along the bottom of the machine in two rows of seven. The first two are coloured blue and show Tempo in BPMs and Level for each voice. (Both of these functions may be adjusted with the No and Yes buttons. One adds numbers while the other subtracts). Next to these we have our Accent button coloured green; when this is pressed whilst programming a volume increase will result for the voice in question. Next we have snare drum, then toms 1, 2, and 3, then bass drum, hi-hat open, hi hat closed, cymbal and finally claps. The last two buttons operate start and stop/continue. Above these are set a dozen smaller rubber buttons. These relate directly to Pattern recording, Play and Beat (ie Quantise). Next to these we find Real Time Write and Step Time Write, then Song Play and Write, then Clear and Repeat, then Cassette and Insert and finally MIDI and Delete. To the right of these are the keypad numbers in a row from 0 to 9 and then we have those Increase and Decrease buttons and that's it. Because there's only the Stereo outputs (left and right), there's not an awful lot going on round the back. There's an On/Off switch, a DC9V-12V socket for the power pack (which is supplied), a headphone socket and three DIN sockets. One for Cassette In and Out and the others for MIDI.
Yamaha's brochure informs us as to which actual instruments were sampled for RX-21's voices. The snare is designated 'medium tuned' and sounds to me like a wood-shell. Tom 1 is a 10" diameter power tom and tom 2 is a 12" one. Tom is a 14" floor tom. The bass drum is simply described as 'bass drum' and sounds reasonably small to me. I was impressed with the cymbals; they did sound pretty real. Open hi hat could also be used as a shorter crash too, and closed hi hat was pretty realistic too. I think that for my taste the claps could be a little more sibilant — there seems to be a lot of middle in their sound. My only criticism of the tom sounds is that they could be a little rounder; a little more ambience would help them.
I mentioned before the pre-set patterns. A book is supplied with the unit and it shows them notated. It also tells you exactly what they could be used for. For example: "Pattern No. 52 is a Rock Shuffle. HH closed plays all 12 beats and the claps double the first two snare drum beats then omit the third snare beat, giving a surging flow to this otherwise simple pattern. Carefully placed accents add a great deal of liveliness." I have to say, it's a very useful little book and should be a boon to the guy buying his first drum machine. (I'm sure that Yamaha won't mind me saying that this RX-21 is aimed squarely at him or her).
FOR: The price; portability; ease of operation
AGAINST: Flat tom sounds; no individual outputs
I sat with the machine for an hour or so and worked out how to programme it without a handbook. Therefore, anybody should be able to do it with the owner's manual. It certainly is not an overly complicated machine to use, and should prove to be ideal for people who intend to use it with a Portastudio or the like.