Drum machines used to be like the old seat belt commercial - clunk, click, and not much of a trip. But for Nicholas Rowland, Yamaha's new RY20 is the standard bearer for a new generation of beatboxes...
Compared to the Yamaha machines I cut my programming teeth on a few years back, the specification of the RY20 verges on the awesome. Under the bonnet you'll find no fewer than 300 AWM drum, percussion, special FX and melodic bass sounds - all of them superb quality and fully editable to boot.
Up to 60 sounds are accessible per pattern, and you can programme in basslines courtesy of a separate 'bass bank' offering a range of five octaves. Also on board is a high quality digital effects processor, with six programmable reverbs and four delays.
The RY20 also comes armed with 50 superb preset patterns, and room for up to 50 user-programmed patterns. 50 'combination' patterns (of which more anon) and 50 songs. Oh, and don't forget the advanced groove and swing functions, the option of track-based pattern recording, and the comprehensive MIDI spec too.
All this is tucked away inside a unit which is compact and bijou without taking the Japanese love of miniaturisation to ridiculous extremes. One distinguishing feature of the RY20's logically laid-out front panel is an ingenious combination jog/shuttle wheel which facilitates speedy accessing and editing of parameters. The RY20 also finds room for a generous-sized LCD display, although on power-up this sadly proves not to be backlit.
Juice comes courtesy of a 12V PSU and Yamaha connector, which plugs in alongside the other essential connections: quarter inch jack sockets for the left/mono and right outputs, a mini stereo jack socket for headphones, and MIDI In and Out.
The quickest way to get a feel for the RY20's capabilities is to chug your way through the preset patterns. Yamaha's programmers certainly have their finger on the pulse here, with a range of instantly useable rhythms which cover the usual range of rock, latin, jazz and dance styles. Each pattern consists of six sections - two main patterns, two fills, an intro and an ending - the different bits being accessed via the bottom row of drum pads. Useful for those on-the-hoof extended club mixes are the four track select keys, which enable you individually to mute the bass drum, snare, hi-hat and 'others' (that is any other sounds in a particular pattern) at the touch of a button.
These keys also allow you to quickly build up new patterns, by copying different tracks from both preset and user patterns (say, the bass part from a heavy rock pattern and the percussion parts from a samba) and then pasting them together as a combination pattern.
Running through the preset patterns also allows you to audition many of the 300 sounds, by means of the 20 preprogrammed kits which have been set up to give you a selection of multi-purpose drum sounds. While each kit comprises five banks of 12 sounds, you can only access one bank at a time from the velocity-sensitive pads on the front panel. Via MIDI, all 60 sounds are available when triggering the RY20 from a keyboard or sequencer.
The choice of sounds is almost overwhelming. Among the kit-orientated samples, you'll find 57 bass drum sounds, 95 snare/rimshots, 19 hi-hats, 30 cymbals and 30 toms. Each category has an eclectic mixture of acoustic, electro, analogue and special FX samples. In the bass and snare departments you'll also find some rather interesting variants created from vocal grunts, coughs and the like.
Accompanying the kit sounds are a handsome array of latin, handheld percussion and orchestral sounds, plus various 'special effects'. This last lot ranges from well-worn cliches like record scratches and gunshots, to intriguing novelties like the roar of a lion - great for the budding ambient artist. Right at the bottom of the list you'll find eight melodic bass samples, including plucked, picked and acoustic versions, along with a couple of passable analogue-style synth sounds.
Once assigned to one of the 60 pad positions in a kit, sounds can be individually edited. The main parameters here include volume, pan position, pitch (+ or - 2 octaves in 10 percent steps) and decay. You can also control how much the volume, pitch and decays of sounds change in relation to the force with which you tap the button (or MIDI velocity, if you're hooked up to a keyboard or sequencer.) Some of the RY20 sounds are actually made up of two samples (a main snare sound and a rimshot, for example) and you can determine how much of the second sound is heard as the pads are hit harder.
The bass bank works in a slightly different way. Here, the same sample is spread across the pads, with each one playing it at a different pitch across the range C-B. While the arrangement is designed for programming basslines, you can in fact assign any sample to the bass bank, which can make for some interesting results. Melodic gunshots or tuned monsters, anyone?
Once you've produced a custom set of sounds, you can save them in one of the 20 user kit locations. The RY20 can then be set so that the appropriate combination of sounds is called up along with a specific pattern. A reverb or delay setting can also be saved along with each kit. There are two halls, two rooms and two plate reverbs, all with programmable decay times. All four stereo delays give you control over number of repeats and delay times. And in two of the four, delay times are automatically linked to tempos.
Individually programmable send levels mean you can determine how much effect is applied to each individual sound, while a global return setting determines the overall FX level. The quality of all the effects is extremely good.
Like all well-behaved drum machines the RY20 records in real and step time or a combination of both. Each pattern can consist of six sections (intro, ending, main A and B and two fills) with a maximum number of 16 bars per section. The RY20 copes admirably with both common and oddball time signatures, at tempos of 40-250 bpm. Quantization ranges between eighth notes to 32nd note triplets, or can be turned off altogether for the truly freestyle effect.
The only problem I encountered was that the velocity sensitive pads needed a fair old prodding to make the drums sound loud enough. While you can adjust the sensitivity, even the 'Easy' setting just wasn't easy enough for my soon-sore pinkies.
Like most electronic instruments these days, one has to accept the inevitable tedium of multi-function programming systems. While the RY20 is better than most, switching between drum tracks and the melodic bass part seems to involve at least two button pushes more than it should.
If you think your programming efforts lack soul, it's time to turn to the swing and groove parameters. Swing gives patterns a looser feel by slightly delaying the even-numbered eighth or 16th notes - the amount of delay determined as a value between 51-99 per cent.
Groove purports to add human feel by introducing subtle changes in velocity, timing or quantization into a pattern. There are 14 basic groove settings, each of which does quite different (and sometimes quite extraordinary) things to your rhythms. For example, if there is a snare on even numbered notes. Snap Even introduces a repeat slap-echo style snare beat, while also shifting forward any note on an even numbered beat. Implementing 'Heavy 2nd' increases the velocity of all notes that fall on the beat, and decreases the velocity of all other notes, also delaying the second beat of each measure. Others enhance jazz style patterns by accenting triplets played on hi-hats and ride cymbals.
Assembling patterns into songs is pretty straightforward, particularly as the RY20 offers a real-time song record mode. Sadly though, you can't record any mutes made using the four track buttons. More serious still is the fact that the RY20 won't record tempo changes as part of the song either. So you can forget the automatic rallentandos, missus. There is room for 50 songs providing the memory doesn't run out first.
In terms of MIDI the RY20 generally does all that's expected. You can program it remotely, with access to the drum and bass parts on separate MIDI channels. The RY20 conforms to GM in terms of MIDI mapping, with the capability of defining up to three other note tables. The RY20 sends and receives MIDI volume and expression data, program changes (for remote selection of kits/patches) and when it comes to MIDI data dumps, it can both dump and be dumped upon. Syncing to external sequencers is a cinch, with send and receive of song position pointers.
Being the kind of chap who, for the past two years, has been creating rhythm tracks using computer sequencers, multitimbral modules and sampled drum loops, I must say I'd virtually begun to regard the dedicated drum machines as being simply too, well, too dedicated for their own good. However, after a fortnight with the RY20, my enthusiasm for the stand-alone beat box has been considerably rekindled.
In short, this is an excellent machine, particularly on account of its first rate sounds (and so many too) and general all-round user-friendliness.
Price inc VAT: £399
More from: Yamaha-Kemble (UK), (Contact Details).
Review by Nicholas Rowland
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