Clavia Ddrum 2
Digital Drum Kit
First there were Ddrums... Nicholas "animal" Howland returns to his skin-bashing roots to test a Swedish electronic kit that aims to replace its acoustic relative.
The latest Ddrum kit claims to be the best electronic imitation of an acoustic drum kit the world has yet seen. Does double D really work wonders?
THEY'RE BLACK AND white with red go-faster stripes, they're built in Sweden and they're designed by the intelligent, to be driven by drummies.
That last word gives you a clue: no, not the latest model to smash its way out of the Volvo factory, but an electronic percussion system from Clavia Digital Musical Instruments AB, better known as the Ddrum 2.
The original Ddrum system was launched a couple of years ago to universal acclaim. At a time when some drum kits still went "pew, pew" and had all the response of a wet fish slapped on cardboard, here was one which sounded and played almost like the real thing. Amazing. Unfortunately, in this country the rumours were the nearest most people ever got to the actual product, since the Ddrums were not only prohibitively expensive, they were extremely difficult to track down.
Having just given a whole crateload over to their current British distributor, Evenlode Soundworks (those nice Steinberg people), Clavia are in the process of launching their number twos, albeit to a world where musicians have considerably higher expectations of electronic percussion. Pad design has improved tremendously across the board; high-quality digital samples are now the norm rather than the exception. Most significantly, the best of current percussion technology offers the same limitless sound creation possibilities which keyboard players have long taken for granted. The Simmons SDX (reviewed MT, April '88) for example, is not far short of a Fairlight triggered by pads.
If RRP's are the determining factor, then the Ddrum 2 system files under "state-of-tne-art" (read, "you and I can't afford it"). But unlike financially comparable systems like the Dynacord ADD-One or the Akai S900, this is one unit which prides itself on not offering boundless creative possibilities - on not giving the player control over every single function and parameter. Hence, since life is short and drummers are often shorter, the heart of the system is the preset sample, which users can manipulate to a certain degree, but not so much that they work up the sweat they should be saving for the live performance.
In other words, the Ddrum 2 is to the SDX, as digital pianos are to synthesisers. While the sound architecture is no less complex, it's dedicated to doing one job very well, rather than a lot of jobs fairly well. "Swedish engineering and smart software matched in simplicity - the ultimate sophistication" runs Evenlode's current advertisement. It's good, but not that good.
What the Ddrum lacks in technical versatility though, it more than makes up for in sheer playability. Quite frankly, this is the nearest that anybody's got to being allowed to add the sentence "the definitive replacement for the acoustic kit" to their advertising campaign. Just play the kits for a while and you'll see what I mean.
Let's talk sordid facts and filthy lucre. The basic Ddrum 2 outfit consists of an eight-channel control unit, one kick, one snare and three tom pads, plus all necessary cables. This will set you back a cool £3215 (including VAT) though you'll have to dig a little deeper to buy some stands. The other thing to remember is that even for this price you'll only get access to 25 sounds, 18 of which are held in the brain's internal memory, the other seven stored on a plugin ROM cartridge. Extra ROM cartridges, containing anywhere between two and 12 sounds (depending on length) are available for £79 a throw, so collect all 11 available so far, and you'll have spent a further £869.
The prices of extra pads and the remote selector (which allows you to change kits at the drop of a stick) quoted below will no doubt provoke a sharp intake of breath. Let me assure you, all the hardware - the pads, brain box, even the cartridge boxes - is of fantastically sturdy construction. If punishing world tours are your bread and butter, they should easily stand up to the gentle touch of Attila the Roadie. However, the opening pages of the manual warn you never to use the electronics or the pads at sub-zero temperatures, so if village halls rather than mega-stadiums are your usual gigs, be warned.
Since the Ddrum 2 is no snip, prospective purchasers are really going to be interested in just how well it does beat ye goode olde acoustick drummes at their own game. I stress again that Ddrums are as damn near perfect as you can get, but with this much money involved, no one would be stupid enough to take my word for it without trying them out for him/herself (would you?).
ANY INPUT CHANNEL can have any voice assigned to it, chosen from either of the two internal banks or from any or all of the six cartridges plugged into the slots on the left hand side of the brain's front panel. These voices can then be edited and the results stored as kits in any one of 64 memory locations. Should you need more than this, RAM cartridges or "Kit Pacs" are available, which plug into the cartridge slots too.
The 18 internal sounds are all conventional kit samples and feature four snares, four kicks, six toms, rimshot, tambourine, cowbell and claps. A list in the manual gives precise details of the original source (14"X6½" solid maple wood snare, 22"X16" jazzkick "tuned up", and so on). One cartridge is included with the module, labelled Assorted Percussion 1, and contains a small bell, a 26" tympani, low and high timbales, low and high open congas and conga slap. The sounds, not the actual instruments, you understand.
The other Sound Pacs range from ethnic percussion and cymbals to overtly electronic voices from the TR808 and Simmons SDS5. Most choice is given in the standard kit department with no less than four cartridges devoted to variations on the "snare, kick, toms" theme.
Being rather perverse, I personally preferred the more off-the-wall collections to be found under Metal and Ethnic. Here one could wallow in the delights of 'Large Aga gastube being hit by sledgehammer' or thrill to the merry donk of Tunisian clay drums.
Whatever their original source, all the samples are superbly recorded, two of the best undoubtedly being 'Large Churchbell' and '36" Tamtam', both 15 seconds long and both text-book examples of the devilish art of looping.
Play around with the samples and you realise that the Clavia boffins certainly know their swedes. There are a whole variety of different techniques to edit, process, then store each sample, in order to achieve maximum realism. For example, with the bell and gong just mentioned, it's obvious that the sample start time varies according to dynamic, since the harder you hit it the more attack you get. Many of the snare sounds, too, though they might appear straightforward enough, actually prove to be complex multisamples, which again change very subtly across the dynamic range.
The spec sheet reveals that there are two separate sound generators per channel - in other words, that for each sound two voices are triggered alternately so samples don't cut each other off (the dreaded "machine gun" effect.) But on the longer sounds you can hear how this is also related to dynamics. For example, when you trigger a loud gong or cymbal sound, then play a series of softer strokes, the softer ones do cut each other off while the louder note continues to play over the top. Clever stuff indeed.
ENTERING EDIT MODE is a simple matter of hitting the Edit button situated in the programming area of the front panel, selecting a channel, selecting the appropriate parameter and dialling up a value on the large two-character LED display using the control knob. Like every other aspect of this instrument, the editing system has been extremely well thought out with lots of small LEDs to light your programming path.
Decay, Pitch, Amount and Time of Pitchbend, Bass, Treble, Pan and Level are the eight basic parameters. Note that these are programmable for each channel rather than each sound. In other words, whichever sound you assign to a channel, those values will apply. There are no default values associated with each sound. Also every value can be stored as part of each kit combination.
"Sensitivity is much in evidence when Ddrums are used as a Trigger-to-MIDI converter, making it the ideal in MIDI sequencing setups."
Sounds are given two-digit reference numbers. The first number tells you whether the sound is internal or cartridge, (numbers 7 and 8 are internal, while 1-6 refer to each of the cartridge slots). The second (either a number or a letter, depending on how many sounds are stored on the cartridge) represents the sound itself. The Ddrum 2 can automatically tell how many cartridges are plugged in and how many sounds each has and so will only display the numbers of sounds actually available, which makes things easier. However, it's not quite clever enough to tell one cartridge from another, so if the cartridges are swapped round, the programmed reference number might end up recalling a completely different sound or no sound at all. What should have been a mega Chinese gong and churchbell kit, could actually turn out to be two agogos and half a maraca. Just so you don't get mixed up, there's a little box on each Sound Pac so you can write slot numbers down.
Decay can be programmed in steps from 0-31, while pitch is adjustable in steps from 0-96. In the latter case each step represents an eighth of a semitone. (The original recorded pitch of any sound is quoted as "somewhere around 64".) Hence you have a whole octave to play with, which is generally fine if you want to keep the timbre within "realistic" limits. However, if, like me, you enjoy creating more outrageous effects by horribly distorting samples, then you might be a little disappointed.
In the same way, the available pitch-bend settings keep things within the bounds of credulity. Samples can be bent up or down by up to seven "steps", which in this case seems to work out at two-and-a-half tones. In either case, the sound will start out at the higher or lower pitch and then drop or rise to the pitch value as set by the Pitch parameter. Importantly, you're not allowed to go above or below the one octave limit, so samples tuned very high or low can't always have pitch-bend applied.
Pitch-bend is affected by dynamics. In layman's terms: the harder you hit it, the more bent it becomes - this also applies when a channel is triggered over MIDI. One of the Pitchbend Time settings allows you to expand on this further by making the overall pitch of the drum rise or fall according to dynamics. Again, this can be accessed over MIDI, though as before, the amount is still subject to the one octave limit set by the Pitch parameter.
Sounds can be considerably modified by the "tone controls", very active bass and treble filters. Turning up the treble proves particularly useful on bass drum and low tom sounds to simulate the click of the beater or stick against the head.
The Pan function allows each channel to be placed in the stereo field - seven "steps" to either side - and is used in conjunction with the Left and Right outputs on the rear panel. Even if you're using the eight individual outs, this facility proves useful for setting up a separate stereo monitor mix, or even two slightly different mono mixes. Incidentally there's also a Line In socket on the back panel, which could prove useful for adding a click track or a sequencer pattern to the drummer's own studio or stage monitor setup.
The stereo capability of the Ddrum 2 really comes into its own when used in conjunction with a function called Link which allows you to simultaneously trigger sounds from any one of the other seven channels whenever the current one is hit. It can be simply used to double up on sounds, particularly in situations where you'd need to grow another pair of hands or feet; sounds with very fast attacks, with ones with a slow decay to create a much more gut-wrenching effect. Or you can get more creative by, say, assigning the same sound to both "slave" and "master", panning them hard left and right and detuning one against the other in the best tradition of analogue synths.
Since any channel can be both a slave and a master at the same time, you can quickly set up some very interesting networks of interdependent sounds. The manual even recommends slaving a quiet, trebly snare to all the other channels to simulate the snare rattle you get on an acoustic kit. I'll leave you to consider the ironies of this for yourself.
Link is certainly one of the most exciting program functions. It would be even more fun if you could assign more than one slave to a channel. Or indeed if the Ddrum 2 was a 16- rather than an 8-channel unit. But I'll save those gripes for my conclusion. In the meantime let's plug in some MIDI leads.
THE DDRUM 2 has MIDI In and Out, but no Thru. Each channel can receive and send on a separate MIDI channel, and this is programmable for the unit as a whole. However, the MIDI note number for each channel is programmable for each kit, as are program change numbers sent or recognised. Also programmable for each channel in every kit is the Local On/Off function, which when using the Ddrum 2 as a Trigger-to-MIDI converter allows you to select which of its own sounds are to be used in conjunction. When using the module in this way, you can program the Gate Time of each channel to precisely match the sound source you're triggering.
As you've probably gathered by now, the Ddrum responds in much the same way over MIDI as it does when triggered from pads. That sensitivity is also much in evidence when the Ddrums are used as a Trigger-to-MIDI converter, thereby making it the ideal quasi-drum machine in MIDI sequencing setups.
Its application in a recording environment is further extended by a function called Trigger Threshold, which allows you to match the inputs to triggers other than pads, the most obvious use here being to trigger from tape and thereby replace old sounds with new. Even here, the Ddrum 2 manages to retain all the dynamics. I even tried triggering it with a recording of an acoustic snare roll and got an extremely passable result.
THERE'S NO DOUBT that the Ddrum 2 is a first-rate piece of kit which lives up to all the claims made for it. It sounds good, it plays like an acoustic drum kit, it's easy to use and it's as versatile as it needs to be within its self-imposed brief. I'm sure many drummers will love it. I'm sure many others will see it as a complete waste of time and money. How it fits into your setup depends on your approach to music making and your sympathy for drummers (or, if you're like me, past experience of being one).
Personally, I don't like the idea of paying a fortune for a closed-ended system. Only eight channels? No pitch-bend over MIDI? No tuned percussion as yet available? No possibility of user-sampling those favourite James Brown riffs?
Clavia are the only electronic drum manufacturers who seem to have tapped in to the true mentality of drummers (nay, musicians). The majority don't want an intense relationship with their data entry slider, they just want an instrument which will make them sound good.
If this is your aim (and you're filthy rich) then the Ddrum 2 is for you. As I say, designed by the intelligent to be driven by drummies.
Prices Ddrum 2 5-piece kit £3215; Ddrum 2 brain £2295: Snare pad £235; Tom pad £180; Kick pad £280; 1Mbit Sound Pac £79; Remote Kit Selector £319.
Review by Nicholas Rowland
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