Programmable Digital Drum Machine
Is it worth spending nearly a grand on a non-sampling digital beat-box in 1987? Trevor Gilchrist, after testing the RX5, comes to the inevitable conclusion that it is.
The next generation of drum machines is upon us, with the RX5 as the likely standard bearer. Is it worth the cost of a good sampling keyboard?
POWER ON? GOOD. Jeeez! That's impressive, look at all those little lights... Now then, what happens when I press Start? Nothing. Great. Ah, headphones, that's better. And again...
No, that can't be right, that's not a drum machine. Better just check I've plugged into the right socket... Yep, the tape deck's not on, the sequencer's not even plugged in, so it must be the RX5 making all the noise. But hang on a minute. Orchestral stabs? Slap bass? Tuned marimbas? Gongs? Vocal samples? What the hell's going on here?
Wait a minute, wait a minute. Turn the bloody thing off and let's have a look at the manual... Hmmmm. No, that's right, 24 internal voices; another 28 on this natty little cartridge ROM, and yeah, vocals, electric bass, tympani, orchestra...
Ah, but what about the "proper" sounds, eh? Where's me snare and me toms, and what about the bass drum? Didn't think of that, did they? Er, wait a second... Yes, it seems they did. Three bass drums, three snares, eight toms, four types of cymbals... Okay, okay, I get the idea. Now it's your turn.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Yamaha RX5. And, in case you hadn't already guessed, we're talking power, flexibility, incredibly high-quality sounds and yes, just about everything that Yamaha never managed to include on their previous machines - the RX11, RX15, RX21 and RX21L.
Let me just say, right at the very beginning, that I found this machine lacking in only two relatively insignificant areas. This is state-of-the-art equipment. It is the argument for drum machines, as opposed to any other method of creating rhythm you can think of.
The RX5 was launched upon an almost totally unsuspecting world at the Winter NAMM show in Los Angeles last January. A couple of weeks after that, some fairly unsuspecting members of Her Majesty's music press got a preview of it during a champagne reception at a hotel near Heathrow Airport. And a short while after that, the world, his wife, and their albino rabbit saw it at the Frankfurt Musikmesse.
It's destined to hit the shops at around the £999 mark, so Yamaha are obviously directing the RX5 at a serious and committed sector of the buying public, and it would be worth keeping that in mind while reading what follows. This machine is a lot of fun, but it's anything but a toy.
Now, £999 is big bucks, but as I shall attempt to illustrate, the RX5 is in every way worthy of such a sterling sum. For starters, it offers the user an enormous array of voices - all the expected, standard kit sounds; a full percussion section; a tuned percussion, Clavinet and electric bass department; and an ambitious (if a little cliched) selection of special effects, like gunshots, crashing glass and vocal "Ooos", "Waos" and "Heys".
Now, before you start complaining that I've dragged you away from the 3.15 at Kempton Park to read about another stupid, gimmick-ridden beat box, just take into consideration the fact that any of these voices can be tuned, in tenths of a semitone, over a +24 to -36 full semitone range; that their envelope structure (attack, decay, and so on) can be edited in six stages to a ridiculously useful degree; that each voice can be subjected to pitch-bend over a selected range and rate, and then programmed to an individual volume level over a 31-step range (pause for breath... thank you); that any individual voice can be assigned to the top row of 12 pads on the front panel at 12 different tunings, thus turning the RX5 into a programmable sequencer; and that any of the voices can be played or programmed in reverse, at the touch of a button.
There are two ways you could sum up the RX5 in terms of the sounds it provides. First, you could say that "Yamaha have provided an incredible amount of choice and flexibility on the RX5". Or second, you could say that "the RX5 is an absolute monster". Either way, you'd be wandering pretty close to the truth.
LET'S START WITH the standard drum voices. Like the rest, these are all 12-bit samples which, if you're not familiar with sampling terminology, means that they're very, very good indeed. Not perfect, but far superior in terms of definition, accuracy and simple credibility to the eight-bit sound sources of the 5's predecessors, the RX11 and the RX15.
To say that this machine offers a choice of three snares is true enough, but then the presence of those powerful voice-editing facilities means that such a statement really only tells a fraction of the whole story.
Altering the attack, decay, gate time, tuning, pitch, and relative volume of each voice is so easy (once you're familiar with the machine's layout), that the three basic snare sounds constitute mere starting points for straightforward and individual experimentation. And (perhaps more importantly), at no point is the user barred from exploiting this facet of the machine's capabilities for want of previous experience in digital synthesis. The manual is written in plain English and makes good sense - but more on that later.
You'll have perhaps realised by now the potential the new RX offers for personalising sounds within your programmed rhythm patterns. And of course, the same flexibility applies to the three bass drum samples, the two rimshots, the eight toms and the hi-hats. Marrying together the whole lot is where your "to-be-acquired" skills come into play - and remember, we've not touched on the machine's percussion section yet.
Patience... Let's do the cymbals first. Again, we're given four, very impressive samples to explore - China, Crash, Cup (or bell) and Edge (normally just known as the ride). Gone are the days of cymbals that stop dead just as they're getting interesting. Gone are the feeble, noisy, tinny excuses that normally pass as crashes and rides. Thanks to that most wonderful of voice-editing facilities, the loop, which takes hold of the tail end of a sample and repeats it at a steadily decreasing level to give a full, authentic-sounding decay, we can enter a whole new realm of convincing cymbal voices. Thus the already splendid china becomes a delicate splash or a rich, deep gong; rides go from dark and heavy to bright and lively at the push of a couple of buttons, and if you use a crash to end a pattern; it will die away just as if you'd hit the real thing.
It's plain to see, or rather hear, that Yamaha's engineers have been doing their Latin homework as well. The RX21L machine was a cracker in its own right, but the RX5's percussion section represents a significant improvement. The sounds are better and more flexible; the clarity and realism have been improved, and basically, with high muted conga, high open conga, low conga, bongo hi, bongo lo, agogo hi, agogo lo, whistle, cuica, cowbell, tambourine, shaker, timbale hi, timbale lo, marimba and claps, you're going to find its flexibility very hard to fault.
Remember, we're talking about tunable, bendable, reversible and assignable voices here. With the aid of tuning, the congas alone can become the most disturbingly deep log drums, tambouras - or whatever the hell takes your fancy...
Enough. I've made my point. Let's have a look at how the machine works.
YAMAHA ARE AS notorious as anybody for heaping more than one function onto any single button or keypad on their instruments. Sometimes it's justified - like the provision of the alphabet for song naming, which is something used so little that it doesn't warrant its own set of 26 keys - but sometimes it's not.
Their philosophy with the RX5, because there are so many functions, is obviously to rationalise the whole process. This has been necessary because where a machine like the RX21L has some 24 different functions, the RX5 has about a hundred; and flexibility aside, this is bound to cause problems. This is how Yamaha have coped...
The most important button on the whole machine is called Job. Functions are grouped together under headings such as Edit Voice, Edit Song and Key Assign, each of which can be accessed via their respective pads on the front control panel. There are eight banks altogether, all with fairly self-explanatory titles and all containing between one and ten functions. Having called up the desired bank (and they're all listed on the front panel), your access point to the various commands that each contains is this Job button.
For instance, let's say you want to alter the tuning of a marimba. You summon up the Edit Voice bank, press Job 01, and then the marimba key to call up that particular voice, followed by Job 02 to access the pitch-change facility. LEDs along the main information panel remind you of which mode you're currently working in, while the back-lit, 32-character LCD keeps you informed of everything else.
It's all very straightforward, it's just that there's quite a lot of it - though after a few days' intensive use, you may well be able to put the 60-page manual back in the box for good. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that getting to know this machine is quite a pleasurable experience, simply because you're dealing with logic and common sense all the time.
It goes without saying that the RX5 offers all the usual step-time and real-time writing facilities. In Pattern mode we've got quantisation (auto-correct) down to 1/48, or off altogether; a variable Swing function from 54% up to 71%, and the usual Erase, Copy and Append commands for linking bits together. In Song mode too, all the expected chaining features appear, but Yamaha have been far from content to leave it at that. The RX5 is not merely a standard drum machine with a few clever voices tagged on for effect; its writing facilities and memory capacity are both utterly vast.
The 100 available pattern locations can be stretched to a length of 99 bars each, which is pretty good in itself. But once written, as many as five parameters relating to individual notes can be edited. Switching to Song mode, these 100 patterns can be linked together to assemble up to 20 songs - each comprising (deep breath) 999 parts. Each song can be given its own name of up to eight letters, and an initial tempo which can then be programmed to increase gradually (accelerando), or decrease gradually (ritardando) over a variable range and duration as many times as you wish throughout the song. And the same is true of the volume of particular sections, which may be programmed to add subtler dynamics to various passages, or to create fade-ins and fade-outs for songs - though it's worth remembering that unlike the Korg DDD1, for example, the RX5 doesn't possess touch-sensitive programming pads on its front panel.
Locating those particular sections has been made easy too, with the provision of a Search Mark facility which allows you to insert named locator marks within a song that can be called up for the start of editing or playback.
Song chaining on the RX5 is ridiculously simple - with the provision of enough memory to make and name three chains, each containing some 90-odd steps. But - wait for it - a song containing 999 parts constitutes one step in one chain. Making a total of 269,730 parts in three chains.
Just think about that for a moment. It means you could program in a few empty bars between each of your songs, turn the machine on at the start of a gig, and not have to touch it until the end - and you'd still probably have left much of the memory unused.
Want to know how much you have used? Call up the Utility mode, press job 02, and the display tells you the percentage of memory left in a particular song. Simple, isn't it?
NOW, I'M NOT going to wallow too much in the nitty-gritty of this facet of the RX5, because that's what manuals are for, and I wouldn't want to put Yamaha's technical authors out of a job. On top of that, there's so much to the MIDI side of the new RX, there just isn't enough room to get it all in - so a brief outline must suffice.
There are ten functions (or "Jobs") within the MIDI mode, plus MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets on the back panel. The RX5's MIDI facilities allow its voices to be triggered from an external keyboard or sequencer (or from a drum pad-to-MIDI converter, of course); external keyboards and sequencers to be run from the RX5; and individual voices to be assigned to the keys of a keyboard, providing immediate access to the full pitch range of the voice, and enabling full programming of dynamics.
Access to the Receive, Transmit, Note Number Assign and EG Velocity facilities is again effected through the Job button, and is as straightforward as everything else - if you knows yer MIDI.
In Sync mode, Yamaha have provided the poor, by-now-befuddled user with a further four options: Internal Sync, which allows the RX5 to be controlled by its own internal clock (this is the mode used for all normal playback and real time write functions); MIDI Sync, by which the machine can be started, controlled and stopped by another MIDI device; Tape Sync, which links it to a synchronisation signal recorded onto tape; and External Sync, which ties the machine to another, non-MIDI device that puts out a gate-type clock or trigger signal.
Before we get back to the fun side of things, we've got to find room to say that all your pattern data can be saved to, or loaded from, either a separate RAM cartridge or a standard cassette. You can also save 12 edited versions of drum voices to RAM, and have access to them (for insertion into patterns) at the same time as the 24 built-in voices and 28 ROM voices - making 64 sounds simultaneously available. That done, we can indulge a little further in the delights the machine has to offer...
SO YOU'VE SPENT your thousand pounds. You've managed to get the RX5 home on the bus without dropping it, and now it's sitting next to the four-track in your bedroom.
You're committed. You've got to spend time getting to know the machine. There's a lot to learn, a number of previously forgivable preconceptions about drum machines to dispel, and a whole new approach towards creative programming to adopt. If you're willing to expand your thinking, the RX5 will reward you and reward you well. The sounds that it makes available are nothing short of stunning, while its programming power and flexibility put it streets ahead of the opposition.
On the fun side, the three vocal samples "Hey", "Wao" and "Ooo" are a barrel of laughs, injecting the enthusiasm of some strapping, beat-crazed hip-hopper into the final mix. Reverse the voices, and the "Hey" becomes a "Yeh?"; tune them down and you've got a long, agonising groan - a bit like an audience at a Little and Large recording.
If you want to add a bassline to your rhythm patterns, this machine makes it possible. Using the Key Assign mode, you simply allocate the voice Electric Bass Low to the first row of 12 instrument keys on the front panel (over a range of 12 full tones, or 12 semitones, or 12 tenths of semitones), and just play the bassline you want in Real Time Write over the pattern. Alternatively, the unique capability (mentioned above) of the RX5 to stretch an entire sound's pitch across a five-octave keyboard makes for an even broader range of melodic options.
Want to add a Clavinet melody? Go back to Key Assign, substitute the Clavinet voice for the bass, put the machine back into Real Time Write, and away you go. You could also add a couple of orchestral stabs (via the same process) to spice things up even more. You've already got a stirring Latin percussion section driving away in the background, replete with resonant log drums, deep-tuned marimbas and exuberant cries of delight... So all that remains is to spill out a stereo mix via the two main outs, or to assign all the 24 voices to the 12 separate outs along the back panel if you're engaged in multitrack recording.
After a couple of hours you're making music. After a couple of days you're ready to set the world on fire. Like I said before, this machine is the argument for drum machines, and I don't see it being long before we see extra voice cartridges from Yamaha that will establish the RX5 system as the studio digital drum box.
I mentioned there were two areas in which the RX5 fell short. First, there's no facility for creating your own samples. (The official reason for this is that Yamaha's engineers do not believe sampling to be a particularly worthwhile technique; the unofficial reason is that Yamaha's engineers are still putting the finishing touches to a sampling add-on.) Second, English law prevents marriage to a drum machine - whether you're a man or a woman. If you feel you can live with both of these limitations, go down to the nearest Yamaha stockist, and ask them to play "Demonstration Song 02". And make sure there's a chair nearby; you'll need to sit down for a while afterwards.
Review by Trevor Gilchrist
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