As the drum machine goes from strength to strength, Yamaha give it a new dimension by adding a synth-style "bend" wheel. Simon Trask wonders if the beatbox will ever be the same again.
RX becomes RY: Yamaha look to the future with a fresh new design and a fresh new sound. But, in an ever more crowded beatbox market, will the RY30 be trampled underfoot?
IT MAY SEEM strange, given the current glut of sub-£500 drum machines on the market, but a while back the beatbox looked like becoming an endangered species. On one hand it was being squeezed by a combination of MIDI sequencers, sampling technology and the workstation synth's drumkit section, on the other hand manufacturers seemed to be doing little to take account of these new realities in their beatbox designs. The drum machine was becoming not only inflexible but boring. Could it be that it was about to become redundant as well?
Roland were one company whose drum machines had been getting progressively less adventurous and less interesting. Machines like the TR505 and TR626 may have been affordable, but they weren't going to win any awards for either originality or flexibility. It seemed like the once-mighty TR-series was in danger of fizzling out - and fizzle out it did. To be replaced by the new-look R-series.
Roland's introduction of the R8 Human Rhythm Composer back in 1989 did a lot to perk up the drum-machine market. The R8 tackled the beatbox's shortcomings with flair and imagination. Sixteen-bit sounds sampled at 44.1kHz provided musicians with the sort of sonic quality they were coming to expect, while a healthy number of internal samples coupled with the machine's ability to play further samples off plug-in ROM cards went some way towards providing them with the sonic versatility offered by a sampler, as did the provision of eight individual outs. At the same time, the R8's 16 velocity-sensitive playing pads and five Pad Banks ("drum kits"), together with the fact that any number of samples could be used within each Pattern, allowed this sonic variety to be taken full advantage of in an accessible way.
But above all it was features like the timbral inflections of the Nuance parameter, real-time recording of pitch, decay and nuance settings for each R8 Instrument, and the timing inflections of the Feel Patches which turned the humble drum machine into the Human Rhythm Composer and captured people's imagination in the process.
At the same time as Roland launched the R8, Yamaha brought out the RX8, the latest in a long line of RX drum machines stretching back to the RX11. The RX8 had 16-bit clarity in common with the R8, but that was about all. The fact that it sold well probably had more to do with the lack of competition in its budget price range than anything else. A rather uninspired machine, like Roland's TR626 it had that end-of-line feel to it, and while it may have been good for Yamaha's bank balance, it didn't do a lot for their prestige. But where drum machines are concerned, Yamaha have traditionally played second fiddle (second bass drum, perhaps) to Roland.
Two years on, and that might be about to change. Yamaha are back with a new drum machine, and it's no RX. In fact, it's an RY. It looks good, sounds good and takes on board the R8's innovations and then some. So if the RX8 was Yamaha's TR626, is the RY30 their R8?
THE FIRST OF a new range deserves a new look, and that's what Yamaha have given the RY30. You could call it smart, neat, sober and functional; you could call it nondescript. Greyer than John Major, it doesn't exactly exude charisma, though unlike Roland's R5 and R8 there is a touch of colour where it matters most: the instrument's 2 x 24-character backlit LCD.
The RY30's front-panel organisation is clear, if a little cluttered. The basic operational principle on the RY is that you select its various modes from various dedicated buttons, then use the Page ± buttons to scroll through the various software pages, the inc/dec and cursor left/right buttons to move around and edit parameters within each page, and the Enter and Exit buttons to carry you up and down through any hierarchical levels.
Yamaha have provided the RY30 with a Macro function which allows you to program up to ten sequences of button-presses which can each then be actioned from a couple of button-presses. Macros are best used as a kind of Jump function to take you straight to the more remote software pages.
On the drum machine's rear panel can be found the power on/off switch, a DC 15V power input (an AC adaptor is supplied with the machine), a stereo headphones output, L/Mono and R outputs, two polyphonic individual outs, a footswitch input (for starting and stopping Pattern and Song record and playback), MIDI In and Out sockets, a card slot for plugging in an RY30 Rhythm Sound Card, and a cassette in/out socket (for cassette storage of RY30 data). These connections are labelled along the rear edge of the RY30's front panel, a helpful feature which manufacturers don't provide often enough on their instruments.
THE RAW SOUND material of the RY30 is provided by 90 AWM2 samples, known as Waves. These are divided into eight categories: Kicks (12), Snares (19), Hi-Hats (8), Cymbals (5), Toms (8), Latin Percussion (20), Effects (12) and Synthesised Waveforms (6). In addition to these, there are a further 84 Waves which are reversed versions of all the above Waves except, of course, the synth waveforms, while when the planned RY30 Rhythm Sound Cards arrive (possibly by the time you read this) you'll be able to read a further 32 Waves off card.
Yamaha have pulled out all the stops on sound quality: we're talking 16-bit 48kHz samples and 22-bit D/A conversion. The resulting sound is clear, full, dynamic and punchy, and a definite improvement on the RX machines. There's plenty of oomph where it's needed from the kicks, snares and toms. Yamaha have clearly appreciated the importance of giving a modern drum machine a good variety of kicks and snares, and have provided a good variety of dry, gated, processed and reverbed samples. At the same time, the RY has a sparkling, clear, well-detailed top end which helps to give the percussion and cymbal samples the presence they need.
You can do more with the RY30's samples than just play them straight, however. The drum machine allows you to assign any one or two of its Waves to a Voice, give each Wave its own level, pitch, pan and decay settings and optionally route it through a digital filter (SY55 type, apparently). You can choose one of four filter types (low-pass 12dB and 24dB and high-pass 12dB and 24dB), and select a cutoff point, a resonance amount (on the low-pass filters) and filter EG initial level and rate per Wave.
Other Voice parameters allow you to set a pitch EG initial rate and level (+), define pitch, filter and amplitude sensitivity to velocity (for the pads), assign the Voice to the stereo outs and/or one of the individual outs, set a volume level for it, select poly or mono performance, and optionally assign the Voice to one of seven Alternate groups (so that it can cut short, or be cut short by, another Voice assigned to the same group).
You can program up to 96 internal Voices, while a further 32 can be read off an RY30 Rhythm Sound Card. So far, eight Rhythm Sound Cards have been announced. They've been divided into two categories: Standard Rhythm (Percussion, New Percussion, Dance & Soul, House & Rap) and Artist Rhythm (Dave Weckl, Matt Sorum, Tommy Aldridge, Peter Erskine). As you might guess, these are respectively of British and American origin.
Each Card contains 100 Patterns, 32 Voices and up to 32 Waves. The Dance & Soul and House & Rap cards both have 32 Waves. These two cards have been put together by Japanese programmer Gota in conjunction with Yamaha's London R&D Centre. As some of you might be aware, Gota was in the early Japanese hip hop group Melon, became part of Major Force, and now works in the UK with the likes of Soul II Soul, Bomb the Bass and Massive Attack. A number of the samples on the two dance cards are from his sample collection, and as such have been "road-tested" on commercial productions. Having heard both these cards at the R&D Centre, I reckon they'll be an essential follow-on purchase for any RY30 owner who's into the sounds and rhythms of modern dance music.
The RY30 also has the ability to read samples on SY/TG77 and SY/TG55 cards, which provides the option of access to instrumental sounds other than drums and percussion. For instance, the Syn Wave 1 card, which I tried out with the RY30, includes pan pipe, synth brass, strings, steel guitar and orchestral hit. Bringing these sounds into the RY30's rhythmic context and editing them with the Voice parameters gives you a fair amount of extra sonic variety. But considering these cards are each sold with an accompanying Voice data card (which the RY30 can't use) for around £80-100, they're not exactly good value for money unless you also happen to own an SY or a TG. Yamaha would be better advised to bring out dedicated RY30 cards which include a range of instrumental samples together with Voices and Patterns which the drum machine could use.
"The resulting sound is clear, full, dynamic and punchy, and a definite improvement on the RX machines."
THE RY30 COMES programmed with 100 ROM preset Patterns (100-199) covering a range of styles, including a number of modern dance rhythms. The presets are worth checking out because they do a good job of illustrating the quality of the RY30's samples, the variety of samples in the machine and how well the samples work in various rhythmic contexts - and because they include some very tasty rhythms. Each style has been given Verse, Fill and Chorus Patterns, designed to be used in the appropriate places in a song. Programming of the ROM Patterns was shared 50/50 between the UK and the US, with the UK apparently providing the dancefloor rhythms.
One hundred RAM Patterns (0-99) are available for you to program your own rhythms. The maximum length of a Pattern is four bars, though if you choose a time signature of 8/4 you can effectively get that limit up to eight 4/4 bars. Time signatures can range from 1/4-8/4, 1/8-16/8 or 1/16-32/16, giving you a lot of scope for weird time signatures if that's your thing.
Quantisation on record can range from eighth notes to 96th notes, including triplets, and can be changed at any time during recording. A 96th note, which is equivalent to MIDI clock resolution, is the RY30's highest resolution (effectively, no quantisation).
Both real-time and step-time recording methods are available on the RY30. Real-time recording is the usual loop-in-overdub style, allowing pad hits to be added on each pass through the Pattern. Pad hits can be deleted by holding down the Clear button together with the relevant pad(s) at the relevant point(s). Real-time edits of Voice pitch, decay, pan, filter cutoff and Wave balance parameters can also be recorded into a Pattern, but we'll deal with these in more detail in the next section.
The RY30 allows any number and combination of Voices to be used within each Pattern. So that you can draw readily on the large number of Voices available on the RY, it implements the now familiar concept of "virtual drumkits", here called Pad Banks as on Roland's R-series. RY30 Pad Banks 0-15 each allow you to create a set of 12 Voice-to-pad assignments. Bank 16, on the other hand, allows you to pitch one Voice over all 12 pads, covering an octave in semitone steps - useful for playing basslines, for instance. The RY30 comes with 12 kits ready-programmed into Pad Banks 0-11 so that you don't have to start from scratch. These are Dry, Room and Power Kits, Process 1 & 2, Analogue Kit, Percussion 1 & 2, Other Bass Drums, Other Snare Drums, All Cymbals and SFX. You get the idea. Banks 12-15 can be programmed internally or can have card Banks loaded into them.
Whenever you select a Pad Bank, its Voice(s) are called onto the 12 physical playing pads. When the RY30 records pad hits into a Pattern, it also records which Voice(s) were used with them, so calling a different set of Voices onto the pads doesn't affect what has already been recorded. This means you can call any of the Pad Banks onto the physical pads and use any of their Voices within a single Pattern. And once you've recorded a pitched part using one Voice assigned to Bank 16, you can assign a different Voice to the Bank and record another pitched part.
The RY30 allows you to make the most of this flexibility by letting you select Pad Bank mode, call up a new Bank and even edit a Bank's Voice-to-pad assignments while a Pattern is running in Play or Record mode. In fact, pressing the Pad Bank button automatically drops you out of Record, while pressing the Exit button drops you back in again - very useful if you want to check that a pad has the Voice assigned to it that you think it has, or if you want to quickly try out a part before recording it.
Once you've selected Pad Bank mode you can go on to select Voice Edit mode and edit any of the Voices; as you can do this while a Pattern is playing, you can edit a Voice within the context of a particular rhythm.
You select step-time record mode by hitting Record and then setting the Rec Type parameter in the LCD page to Step. Pressing Start then calls up a page which displays the name of the currently-selected Voice on its upper line and the current bar/beat/clock position, together with a graphic representation of the Voice's rhythm for all or part of the Pattern, on its lower line. Dashes indicate empty Pattern steps, "blobs" indicate pad hits for the selected Voice. Tapping a pad calls its Voice's rhythm onto the display and enters a pad hit at the current position - or, to avoid entering a hit, you can hold down the Space/Instrument Change button, then tap the pad.
The RY30 automatically advances to the next quantised position following a pad hit; you can also move in either direction through the Pattern by using the cursor left/right buttons. As in real-time recording, you can change the quantisation value at any time. To delete a pad hit, you hold down the Clear button then hit the relevant pad.
The RY30 plays all recorded pad hits as you step through a Pattern. However, for an even clearer picture of how your Pattern is shaping up, if you press the Start button you can hear your Pattern played back in real time without having to leave step-time mode. It's a nice touch, but it would have been even nicer if the RY30 had allowed you to carry on recording in step time while listening to the Pattern playing; as it is, you have to Stop the Pattern in order to resume step-time recording. Still, all in all, step-time recording is well implemented and easy to use.
As well as being able to Clear single or all Patterns, you can Copy a Pattern, Append two Patterns (so long as they have the same time signature and the result doesn't exceed four bars in length), Divide a Pattern into two shorter Patterns, and Merge two Patterns of the same length and time signature.
Other Pattern functions allow you to copy a part/Voice from one Pattern to another, delete a particular part/Voice from a Pattern, select a new Voice for an already-recorded part, copy real-time Voice parameter edits from one Voice to another in the same or another Pattern (providing both Voices play the same rhythm), and modify the parameter edits for a particular Voice by a ratio and/or ± offset.
Taken together, these functions give you a welcome degree of working flexibility. For instance, if you come up with a great-sounding conga part in an otherwise mundane Pattern, you can readily extract it and use it as the basis of a new Pattern. Then you could try merging it with that bass, snare and hi-hat Pattern you think it might work with, and if you then get an idea that the conga part might sound better on the bongos, changing the Voice(s) is easy enough.
So there's plenty of flexibility, but what about restrictions? Although the RY30 is a fairly unrestricting 15-voice polyphonic, it's limited to playing a maximum of eight Voices simultaneously, even if there's still polyphony to go round (there only wouldn't be if all the active Voices were using two Waves). Still, you can put together some pretty dense, busy Patterns with eight Voices.
"The RY30 will read samples off SY77/SY55 cards, providing the option of access to instrumental sounds."
Talking of busy Patterns, just such a four-bar Pattern which I put together used up 5% of the RY30's Pattern memory. On the other hand, about 50 "regular" Patterns, most of them one 4/4 bar in length, used up around 50% of the memory. Dumping Pattern memory data in and out of the RY30 via MIDI SysEx is a trivial task, so you needn't feel too constricted if you have, say, an Alesis DataDisk for storage.
What really is very irritating is that the RY30 places a limit on how much data you can record within a Pattern. When you're really getting into recording a Pattern and then all of a sudden the drum machine grinds to a halt, the message "!Too Large Pattern!" flashes up in its LCD window and you then find that the last part you were recording in fact wasn't recorded at all... well, it's enough to make even a Care Bear get annoyed.
This happened to me when I was recording another four-bar Pattern, this time not unduly dense or busy but using continuous pitch and pan edits on one Voice and continuous pitch edits on another. In fact, it's worth bearing in mind as you read the next section that going heavy on the parameter edits eats into the Pattern memory.
NOW WE COME to the rather interesting front-panel control wheel. This is where the RY30 really comes into its own, for the wheel allows you to record pitch, decay, pan, filter and Wave balance settings for any and every Voice in a Pattern in both real-time and step-time modes. The five-position slider next to the wheel allows you to switch instantly from one parameter to another, so that one second you can be varying the filter cutoff point for a Voice and the next second panning it around the stereo spectrum.
This concept of real-time control over multiple parameters is one of several ideas which originated from the depths of Yamaha's London R&D Centre. In fact, UK and European input played no small part in making the RY30 the striking machine that it is today. Credit where credit's due.
The parameter control wheel is centre-sprung, like a pitchbend wheel, so moving it sets higher or lower values relative to a "centre" value. Helpfully, you can set independently for each parameter the depth of effect that the wheel has (x1, x2 or x4).
There are two ways to "wheel in" parameter changes in real time. One is to move the wheel as you record the Pattern, in which case any Voices you play from the pads will be affected by the wheel if it's in a non-centred position immediately before you play them. It seems that the RY30 doesn't record continuous wheel movements, only the wheel position immediately prior to each pad hit - a neat way of economising on memory.
The other method is to select Param as your realtime record type, in which case parameter changes can be "overdubbed" in real-time onto any recorded Voice part. This method allows you to concentrate on getting the rhythm right in Record mode, and the parameter edits right in Param mode. On each pass through the Pattern, new wheel positions "overwrite" previous ones, so any edits you don't like can easily be changed. Also, holding down the Clear button in Param mode while the Pattern is running resets the selected parameter to its centre value - a neat way of "deleting" parameter edits for a Voice.
If you set the real-time record mode to Move you can use the wheel to change the position of recorded pad hits within a Pattern as it plays. The way it works is this: any upward movement of the wheel shifts a pad hit forward (earlier) by 1/24th of a quarter note on each pass through the Pattern, any downward movement shifts it back (later) by 1/24th. You hear the result on the next pass through the Pattern. As with Param mode, wheel movements affect only the selected Voice.
Moving pad hits on the RY30 in this way isn't necessarily about being subtle. After all, Move a hit six times and you've moved it by a 16th note. The smallest movement allowed by the RY30 produces clearly-felt sensations of push or drag. Applied in the right places, these sensations can add considerable verve and bounce to a rhythm, not to mention funkiness. You can also produce some very strange rhythmic sensations by Moving pad hits around in less subtle and less calculated ways.
Individual pad hits can be moved if you move the wheel only briefly, just before the hit occurs; to move a series of pad hits, you keep the wheel pushed forward or pulled back while these hits play. Obviously you can move a pad hit back to its original position by Moving it in the opposite direction - and so you needn't be afraid of experimenting with wilder changes, because you can always tone them down if things are getting a bit out of hand. All in all, Move is simple, intuitive and fun to play with.
THE RY30 ALLOWS you to program up to 20 Songs, each of which can consist of up to 999 Parts if you should feel so inclined. Two ROM Songs are also included for demo purposes.
To create a Song you press Record and then Play, as you would for Pattern Record. The RY30 then starts playing back whatever Pattern is selected for step one; tap in a different Pattern number and it will play that Pattern instead on the next pass. Once you have the right Pattern, pressing the Enter button takes you to the next Song step. If you want the same Pattern again, you can immediately press Enter again and the Pattern is automatically stored for the second step; if you want a different Pattern, select it and then press Enter. You just carry on with this procedure until you have your completed Song.
Being able to hear the Patterns as you put your Song together not only allows you to make sure you select the right Pattern for each step, it also gives you a better feel for how the Song is shaping up. However, it falls short of being real-time Song recording as provided on Alesis' SR16 drum machine.
Song Record mode only allows you to enter Pattern numbers. Song Edit mode, on the other hand, allows you to insert Begin Repeat and End Repeat marks, relative tempo changes and relative velocity changes at any positions in the Song.
"The control wheel allows you to record pitch, decay, pan, filter and Wave balance settings for every Voice in a Pattern."
End Repeat marks allow you to specify a number of repeats and a Pattern to be substituted on the last step of the last repeat - so that, for instance, a fill can be "dropped in" on the last repeat to take you into the next segment of the Song. A nice idea.
The RY30 allows you to program an initial tempo for each Song. Any ±tempo changes you program into a Song are relative to its initial tempo. As a tempo change requires a Song step of its own, it effectively comes "in between" Patterns. However, the RY30 also allows you to specify a number of beats over which the change should take place, making gradual tempo changes possible. Overall increases or decreases in velocity (relative to the programmed values) can also be programmed to occur over a number of beats.
EACH ONE OF the RY30's 96 internal and 32 card Voices can be assigned any MIDI note from the full 0-127 MIDI note range, in what Yamaha call a Voice Note Assign Table. The same MIDI note can be assigned to any number of Voices, so incoming MIDI notes can trigger layered Voices while different Voices can trigger the same pitch or the same sample out via MIDI.
You can program up to four Assign Tables, but use only one of them at a time. The selected Table is used by the RY30 for both MIDI transmission and reception. The drum machine is able to transmit and receive on up to all 16 MIDI channels at once, making it a very flexible machine for use in conjunction with other MIDI instruments.
For MIDI transmission purposes you can give each Voice its own MIDI channel (1-16), allowing the RY30 to trigger more than one MIDI instrument and/or more than one Part on a MIDI multitimbral instrument. Alternatively, another parameter allows you to select a single MIDI transmit channel to be used by all the Voices; unfortunately, selecting a new master channel causes the RY30 to junk all those individual Voice/channel assignments which you've painstakingly programmed. Surely being able to switch between master and individual transmission would have been a better idea.
MIDI reception operates in a different way, in that each MIDI channel can be set to Off, Voice, Pitch or Pattern. Setting a channel to Off means, of course, that the RY30 won't respond on that channel. If you set a channel to Voice, the currently-selected Voice Note Assign Table is assigned to that channel and incoming MIDI notes trigger the RY30's Voices accordingly. Notes received on a channel set to Pitch, on the other hand, play a single RY30 Voice at different pitches; you can assign any one of the RY30's internal or card Voices to each of the 16 MIDI channels for this purpose.
The RY30's Patterns can be recorded in real time using an external MIDI source as well as or in place of the drum machine's own pads. The RY records from all MIDI channels which are set to either Voice or Pitch, so, for instance, basslines can be recorded from a MIDI keyboard while rhythms can be recorded from a MIDI percussion controller.
Setting a channel to Pattern allows the RY30's Patterns to be selected remotely using either MIDI notes or MIDI patch changes received on that channel. For maximum flexibility, each MIDI note can be mapped to any one programmable or preset RY30 Pattern in a Pattern Note Assign Table.
Patterns can be selected while the drum machine is Stopped or while it's Playing - in the latter case, a Pattern plays to its end before moving to the next-selected Pattern. This gives you the option to program your rhythm patterns into the RY30 but program their playback order into a MIDI sequencer rather than an RY30 Song chain.
Pattern selection via MIDI also opens up the possibility of triggering RY30 Patterns live from, say, a Roland SPD8 in a live performance situation. You could use pads 1-8 within an SPD8 Patch to play drum sounds, and the alternative pad set (9-16) to select RY30 Patterns via MIDI note numbers. Given this sort of live-use potential that manufacturers are now building into their drum machines, perhaps they should consider allowing each Pattern to be programmed with its own tempo. Incidentally, the RY30 can of course be MIDI-synced as either master or slave, and responds to but doesn't transmit MIDI Song Position Pointer.
So that you don't have to forgo real-time control over Voice pitch, decay, pan, filter and balance if you decide to record your rhythm patterns into a MIDI sequencer rather than the RY30, Yamaha have hooked these parameters up with MIDI controllers. With its Utility-mode Option parameter set to "on", the RY30 both transmits and responds to the relevant data: pitchbend for pitch, controller 17 for decay, controller 10 for pan, controller 16 for filter cutoff, and controller 8 for balance.
But how can two or more Voices receiving on the same MIDI channel each have their own parameter settings? Yamaha have been ingenious here: each pitchbend or controller data value received is only applied to the first note/Voice which follows it in the MIDI datastream.
Finally on the MIDI front, if you baulk at the thought of cassette data saves, you'll be glad to know that the RY30 can send and receive bulk dumps (all Voice, Pattern, Song and Setup data) and individual Voice dumps via MIDI SysEx. A bulk dump when the RY30's Pattern memory is full takes just over 15 seconds.
IN ANSWER TO the question which started us off on this review, yes, the RY30 is Yamaha's R8. It's also their answer to the R8, and a very convincing answer it is, too. The RY30 sounds great, it's well thought out, well structured, well designed, and in some ways it's quite innovative. If you've never really been keen on Yamaha's RX drum machines, don't let that put you off investigating the RY30 - it's a different breed altogether. Consider it seriously alongside Cheetah's MD16, Roland's R5 - even the mighty R8 itself.
Price £459 including VAT
More from Yamaha-Kemble Music (UK) Ltd. (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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