Boss DR660 Drum Machine
The DR660 is the latest and most heavyweight of Boss's classy budget drum machines. Derek Johnson prepares to be impressed.
I should imagine that the Dr. Rhythm name means a lot to quite a few of us. During the dim and distant days when hardware was rather more expensive than it is now — and if you think it's dear now, just check out some 10 or 15-year old price lists — the Boss name stood for affordable percussive accessibility. The sounds may not have been up to Linn and Drumtraks standards, but they went 'boom' and served the demo mongers amongst us well.
And still the name lives on. The DR550 Dr. Rhythm has been kicking around for a couple of years — a recent facelift has added a MkII to its name (see SOS August) — and the latest addition to the stable is the DR660.
In appearance, the DR660 is much like other drum machines you may have known, especially the budget ones. In particular has the look of a mutated DR550 MkII, in that it's grown a few pads, transport controls and buttons as well as a large and useful tempo/data knob. Functionally and features-wise, it's very much more than a DR550 MkII, and has all the little extras that one would have wished to appear on that machine.
The latest Doctor has a number of new features internally too, which are all the more welcome given its price range. If you think of features in terms of secret weapons, then the new Dr Rhythm is a veritable Nude Bomb. First of all amongst the many excellent features are tunable bass sounds (only two unfortunately — slap bass and synth bass); secondly, reverb and chorus effects have been provided; and thirdly, the 16 pads are velocity and aftertouch sensitive. With automatic roll and flam options, this latter feature means that crescendos and decrescendos can easily be added to rolls within patterns. The more standard operating features have been implemented in a thoughtful manner too; there's a large informative display, and in addition to the stereo outputs there are two individual outs (though there is one sad compromise here, in that using the individual outs disables the effects).
As with the DR550 MkII, the drum samples in the DR660 are sourced from Roland's enormous collection of sounds for its more grown-up drum machines, such as the R8. The 660 ups the sound arsenal to 255 samples in all (the 550 MkII offers 91 sounds), featuring standard kits, plus TR909, TR808 and CR78 vintage beatbox sounds, effects (gun shot, breaking glass, and so on), reverse samples, and a wide range of latin percussion. All sounds can be altered in pitch (two octaves up or down), panning, 'character', decay, and in various other ways. It's the real thing, all right.
There are seven preset drum kits and 32 further user-programmable kits; a kit contains 55 drum sounds, although only 32 are available on the machine at one time. The DR660 allows 16 pads to play 32 sounds by using two Pad Banks per kit. Sounds 1-16 are played by Pad Bank A and 17-32 by Pad Bank B. The two banks can even be layered if you like (bear in mind the 12-voice polyphony, though), and the two banks can be velocity switched — two different types of snare could trigger depending on how hard you hit the pad, for example. The remaining sounds assigned to a kit (33-55) are addressable over MIDI. The MIDI connections also allow the DR660 to be played by external devices and to save its memory via System Exclusive.
Seasoned programmers will know that there are two ways of recording patterns: step time and real time. Both record options are available on the DR660, though they need a little preparation. You can choose a pattern length of up to 80 quarter notes, a quantisation level between a half note and a 32nd note, including triplets (the quantise value can be changed at any time, or turned off), a kit to go with the pattern, and you can give the pattern a 7-character name. Be sensible — give every thing you program some kind of name.
The way in which pattern lengths are decided can occasionally be a little restricting, since you have to specify a pattern's length in quarter-note beats rather than giving it a proper time signature. If you want to work with a time signature such as 7/8, your basic bar will have to be compound — ie. a piece in 7/8 will have to be made up of patterns containing seven quarter notes (which is 14 eighth-notes — or two bars of 7/8). While the downbeat will not be consistent, the metronome can be set to tick on the eighth note (as well as quarter note, quarter note triplet, eighth note triplet or 16th-note), so recording in real time need not present any difficulties. Problems like this do occasionally present themselves but, unlike a truly budget machine such as the DR550 MkII, the DR660 allows you to get round them fairly easily.
Real-time recording is conventional, and involves looping around a pattern and hitting the pads to add new parts. You can erase bum notes by pressing the Delete button and the offending pad on the offending beat. Whole patterns can be erased by pressing Delete when a pattern isn't playing. Step time recording, on the other hand, is a bit strange. Rather than the familiar grid that we find on Roland's more up-market machines (and even on the DR550), a micro-composer type event list is what's on offer. This doesn't appear to be as immediate as simple grids, though it works well enough. Using the Backward and Forward buttons, you advance through the list, adding notes at the nearest quantise level; velocity levels can also be added in this way. Given a little acclimatisation time, there's really not much chance of putting a note wrong, but if you're used to inputting patterns with the more friendly grid method, you might find this a bit tedious.
As with Real Time record, before starting to program, you press Record, set up a pattern and choose a kit, then press Play. Scroll through the event list and add (or erase) an event. Each event consists of a beat number and a clock number. For example, the number 124 in the display means that you are looking at the 24th clock of the first beat, or the second eighth note in the bar. There are 96 clocks per beat, but the numbers you'll become most familiar with are 0, 24, 48 and 72 for each of the 16th note divisions of the beat. Triplet rhythms will also be possible, since 96 can be divided equally by both four and three. The three eighth-note triplets on a quarter-note beat would represented by clocks 0, 32 and 64.
Interestingly, rolls and flams can be entered in step time in just the same manner as in real time — by pressing a pad while holding the roll or flam button down. Velocity is also recorded, as is aftertouch info in the case of rolls.
Up to 150 patterns can be recorded by the user; in addition, there are 100 preset patterns for your delight and education, should you need them. These are not eraseable. I would have liked them to be over-writeable, with the option of recalling them later — this would have given the user the full 250 patterns — but I can't complain. Since the memory contents can be saved over MIDI to an external device at any time, 150 patterns should be enough for most purposes. The 250 patterns (including the 100 presets) can be chained to make up a Song; there are 100 songs on board (plus one demo), and a song can be made up of up to 250 steps, each of which is a pattern.
A song is made by again going into Record, this time in Song Mode. Patterns can be entered on the fly in real time, or chained in steps; they can also be inserted or deleted at any time afterwards. The only facility missing here is the option to set repeats for individual song steps, which would have made more of the 250 song step limit, and is a bit of a silly omission, in my opinion. As it is, if you want to repeat a verse pattern, say, three times, you have to insert the pattern three times manually, rather than simply specifying the bar location and how many times it should repeat — you'll get used to it, and it doesn't take long, but is that the point in this day and age? If patterns within a song use different kits, these different kits will be selected with the relevant pattern, although you can turn this facility off should you require just one kit for the whole song.
One useful facility is the Song Chain function, whereby up to 100 (!) Songs can be set to play consecutively — a useful function for gigging musicians. One last point: all this talk of 150 user patterns with 80 beats each and 100 songs each with 250 steps and so on are all dependent on the memory available. Only the very simplest of drum programming will actually allow you to go to the limit of these numbers. To check the memory contents (not quoted in the manual), I filled one 4-beat pattern with 16 kick drum hits (ie. 16 16th notes) and copied it until the memory was full; I arrived at a ballpark figure of between 19,000 and 20,000 events. This is actually a creditable figure, which even some budget sequencers don't reach.
Basically, the DR660 offers a respectable quota of drum machine facilities and sounds in a small, friendly package. If you know the DR550 — well, almost any drum machine, actually — then you'll know where you are. As with a few examples of the current crop of digital drum machines, the DR660 offers bass sounds and percussion galore, as well as traditional kit sounds, and offers them in style. Everything that I found a bit iffy with the DR550 MkII has been fixed on the DR660 — MIDI dumping of kits and patterns, tunable percussion (two octaves either way), effects galore and separate outputs are just a few of the enhancements.
It's funny, but just as Alesis seemed to be paying unwitting homage to the DR550 with their SR16, when both appeared at around the same time, Boss are offering more Alesis-like facilities on the latest Dr. Rhythm — except that the DR550 gives you dynamic effects to assign to the onboard drum samples, rather than taking the approach of the SR16 and giving you drum samples already effected. The 660's reverb may not be the most sophisticated or controllable in the world, but it certainly is better than nothing. Perhaps the 660 could have done with a few more off-the-wall sounds — tablas, log drums, thumb piano, or even bells — but there is plenty of variety by way of latin percussion, sound effects and electronic kit sounds.
Those in the market for a budget drum machine, but worried that the likes of the DR550 MkII could be a little restrictive, might consider splashing out the extra hundred quid for the 660's extra facilities and flexibility. Let's put it another way: anyone hankering after Roland's history — ie. the TR909,and TR808 — could save themselves a lot of money, since sounds from both drum machines are well represented on the 660. While nothing but a 909 will offer all the options, pitch and nuance wise, the samples presented here are fairly typical; besides which, a second-hand 909 could cost you well over the asking price of a DR660.
The provision of bass sounds on a drum machine is not an innovation — Yamaha provide even more bass sounds on their RY10 — but it's definitely a nice feature. What I am a little perturbed about is the output assignment situation. The way in which one or both of the onboard effects are lost if you just want to treat a sound or two externally is really baffling. I would have much preferred to simply channel out the separate sounds from the mix output for external treatment — I'm sure it could be done. That is the way most synth modules work, after all.
Anyway, enough doom and gloom. Let's just call it an idiosyncrasy, and go with the flow. Of course, use up both individual outputs, and you have no effects: pan the remaining sounds in the main outs hard left and hard right (kick and snare for example), assign the hi-hat to one output and something else to the other, and you have four individual outs. Could be useful if your kits aren't too complex. And obviously, sole use of the main outs is an option, since each pad has its own 'send' level to the effects.
Sound-wise, the DR660 is a lot of fun, and full of punchy samples, with very much the Roland family character: up-front, contemporary, lifelike. Cymbals have good decays as well — no crunchy tails here. Personally, I find jamming with a drum machine at the heart of my setup much more musically satisfying than working with a sequencer of some kind — perhaps it's a case of working within limits. I found Boss' new baby quite instinctive to use, since unlike the more basic DR550 MkII, most of the facilities I expect of a more grown up machine are present, and a lot of parameters (kit assignments and so on) can actually be altered while a pattern is playing. The pads are very responsive, with the velocity and aftertouch response adding more nuance than is usual from a drum machine.
Unfortunately, like many MI manufacturers of late, Roland have had to increase all their prices due to Sterling's precarious position on the exchange markets. The resulting price of £389 for the DR660, a hike of over £50, is a real bummer for the average impoverished muso and departs somewhat from the Way Of Dr. Rhythm — in the past, the good Doctors were always the cheapest you could buy. In an ideal world, a drum machine would sell on its excellent sounds and thoughtful provision of effects, not to mention its friendly programming system and immaculate pedigree — all of which the 660 has in spades. In this world, however, a drum machine also has to sell on price... unless it drops down your chimney this Christmas!
Boss DR660 £389 Inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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