Digital Rhythm Programmer
Two years on from their impressive, RX5 drum machine, Yamaha have slimmed down their flagship to give us an affordable 16-bit beat box. Chris Many reckons it could be a hit.
Yamaha wish to announce an addition to their RX family of drum machines; RX8 takes after his older brother, RX5, but has his own character and costs less.
IF YOU'RE GOING to introduce a drum machine into today's marketplace, it had better have 16-bit samples, a relatively low price tag and a few tricky features to separate it from the competition. That's undoubtedly what Yamaha had in their corporate mind when they planned their new RX8. Offering many of the capabilities found in the company's RX5 (reviewed MT, April 87), their newest drum machine takes a stab at the low end of the market.
Let's get one thing clear from the outset: most drum machines have a unique sound - would you confuse a TR808 with a Kawai R50? So it is with the RX8; it's undoubtedly a Yamaha drum machine. The toms have that recognisable "chunk" at the top end, the hi-hats sound a bit tinny, and so on. The quality of the sounds has been improved since the RX5 due to the 16-bit resolution, but don't expect to hear massive differences. I didn't. To my ears, the RX8 combines 16-bit clarity with a good part of the drum sound of earlier Yamaha drum machines. So if familiar with the sound of an RX11 or RX15, you'll have a good idea of what the RX8 sounds like.
THE RX8 COMES loaded with 43 voices: five kicks, five snares plus a rimshot, eight toms (four acoustic and four electronic), open and closed hi-hats, ride cymbal (cup and edge), claps, tambourine, shaker, congas (high muted, high open and low), bongos (high and low), timbales (high and low), agogo (high and low), cuica and whistle. In addition to these percussion voices, several tuned instruments are included: bass guitar (pull and thumb slap), marimba and orchestral hit.
The unit itself is simply laid out, with 16 rounded rectangular pads used for programming patterns. The drum sounds are assigned to 12 of these pads, two are used for accent and pitch or for panning adjustments, and the last two are used as Start and Stop/Continue buttons. Above the pads are 26 additional thin rectangular buttons that are used by themselves or i nvarious combinations to access the features of the RX8. A small LCD is placed above these buttons in the top centre of the machine, along with two partly ~ recessed knobs to the left. These control Volume and Tempo respectively. The back of the unit has 1/4" jacks for headphones, stereo (or mono) audio output plus two individual audio output lads. MIDI In and Out (no Thru), a socket for the eternal DC 12V-15V power supply, and interfaces for both cassette and cartridge storage.
The buttons have a rubbery spring to them so you can tap out your rhythms without getting sore fingers. However you don't have to worry much about playing the pads with different velocities as there is no provision for velocity sensing on the keypads except in the most rudimentary way. This is one of the major drawbacks with the RX8 as far as I'm concerned, and it alone prevents the machine from sounding like anything but just that - a drum machine.
The one concession made on the RX8 towards achieving variety in its output is the Accent button, which basically allows you to increase the velocity of a note when you press it as you program. Adoption of this method of programming guarantees patterns with few dynamics. All in all, it's a rather primitive approach to rhythm programming for 1989. (A comparable unit, the Alesis HR16, has fully velocity-sensitive pads). More encouragingly, if you use an external controller with the RX8 MIDI drum pads, or a suitable MIDI keyboard it will record incoming note velocity data, so there is a way to generate dynamic patterns.
YAMAHA'S NEW DRUM machine includes all of the basic features you'd expect a drum machine to have. Programming Patterns and chaining them together into Songs, step editing and quantisation are all to be found somewhere in its spec. Rather than cover each individual feature, I'll try to concentrate on the things that set the RX8 apart from other rhythm programmers, or at least those that are outside the standard list of beat box functions.
First off, I'll give the machine credit for ease of use, l worked just about everything out without recourse to the manual, simply by pressing buttons and following the structured menu paths in the display that are associated with each function. The manual itself is easy to read and has an improved TQ (translation quotient). Given the complexity and sheer number of facilities that can be found on drum machines these days, it's reassuring to be able to pick up a unit and, with no prior experience of it, program a complete track with a minimum of hassle.
Once you've learned your way around the RX8, there are a number of simple short cuts you can use. These are invoked by pressing the "Job" button and another key in combination. This prevents anyone familiar with the unit from having to constantly search up and down menus (annoying when you become expert at operating a machine) and directly access the desired function or feature with a few button strokes. Result: it doesn't take long to become a competent programmer of this machine.
There's a choice between polyphonic and mono playback of notes. This comes in handy when you want snare or cymbal rolls and you don't want the voice cutting off every time you re-strike the note. In poly mode, it will continue to ring out even while you're triggering the same sound.
Simple effects can be programmed through the use of an Effects/Detune button. Essentially, when you press this button while playing a voice, a second, detuned voice is triggered along with it to produce a flanging effect. The amount of detuning is adjustable to suit your taste or intentions.
Even there are only 12 pads available for programming, you can reassign voices and add different sounds into Patterns as you go. Although it may not be practical to have 43 voices included in in one Pattern, it is certainly possible if that's what you want to do. You don't have to exit from Record mode to reconfigure voices, either. Just keep the Pattern going and press the requisite buttons, change voice assignments and program them in. One other feature unique to the RX8 (at this price level, anyway) is a "reverse" function. By pressing the appropriate button at the same time as a sound button, the sample is reversed, making it easy to create backward cymbal effects or, by combining the effect with a normal sample and timing it a little later, an interesting snare.
MIDI assignment of notes is functionally implemented, allowing each voice to be accessed via MIDI. If you're going play the machine from an external controller, be it a keyboard or a sequencer, just assign each voice to the desired MIDI note (it doesn't have to be assigned to one of the 12 keypads on the RX8, thus giving you access to all 43 sounds from one external controller).
Multiple quantisation values are allowed within a Pattern as well. You can record your basic kick-n-snare pattern in eighths, say, and then change the quantisation value to program a ride cymbal with a triplet feel without changing the placement of the kick and snare. Unfortunately, the machine's maximum resolution is a paltry 1/48th note, not really enough for subtle timing variations.
A feature included on a few machines, and nicely implemented on the RX8 is the "Multi" button. This takes one sound and spreads it out over all 12 pads, varying the pitch on each one. This allows you to program a simple bassline, or a variety of percussion tones. As long as you're in Multi mode, the entire pad layout responds to pitch, overriding any other sounds you might originally have set up. As soon as you exit from this mode, everything returns to normal. You can also set the pitch range over -12 to +12 semitones (the pitch range is limited to one octave up or down from the original pitch).
Moving on to that cartridge port on the RX8's rear panel, don't get too excited it's not for additional 16 bit drum samples. But it is a convenient method for storing your drum machine Songs and Patterns. The RAM cards store up to 32K, and partition things off in banks of four. This is plenty of room for four complete memory dumps. You also have the option of traditional cassette storage for the same information, and if you have a sequencer that receives and transmits bulk data, you can store your Pattern, Song and voice information via System Exclusive.
There are three sync modes: internal, MIDI and FSK. All work equally well in terms of what they do, and the RX8 does respond to MIDI Song Position Pointer.
Stereo panning is fairly comprehensive, with the RX8 permitting you to assign any sound to one of 15 different positions in the stereo field. Plus, there are two additional audio outputs to which you can route specific sounds, making it simple to process a single voice independently of the rest of the mix. You can also determine whether or not these sounds appear in the stereo field as well.
YAMAHA HAVE DONE a good job of translating their RX5 into a more affordable home studio unit. Its strong points include an easy to learn user interface, a variety of high-quality 16-bit sounds, a cartridge port for storing Songs, Patterns and voice assignments (especially handy for live gigs) and it has a few special effects thrown in for good measure. Programming is very straightforward, although features that allow tracks to be "humanised", or offset during playback to adjust the feel of a pattern aren't on the list of features. The machine's one big drawback, the lack of dynamic programming from its playing pads, can be overcome if you want to program from an external, velocity-sensitive keyboard or other MIDI controller.
I can't fault the sound of the RX8, but due to the lack of dynamics, you're likely to wind up with drum tracks that sound like they've come out of a drum machine - not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but it's something to take into account.
So, if you like the sound that Yamaha's drum machines make, can live within the framework of an easy-to use rhythm programmer, and don't quite have the budget for a more expensive drum machine, check out the RX8.
Price £399 including VAT
Review by Chris Many
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