Korg DDM drum machines
cheaper digital drumming
So begins the battle to bring in the digital drum machine as cheap as it can go. Well, practically speaking it started several months ago when we reviewed Syco's strange grey, plastic box known as the MFB 512. But if you want to count the big boys in on the deal, I suppose Korg's £299, sampled, Super Drums launches a new offensive in the war.
In fact there's a pair of machines. The Super Percussion is adorned with nine latin effects from congas to cabases, but it's the DDM-110 in the darker grey casing that should steal the business.
To be absolutely certain from the off, rhythm boxes such as Roland's DR-110 (what a coincidental familiarity in numbers) are analogue machines with mini synth circuits imitating the sounds of bass, snare etc. Digital equivalents — and the Linn is the grandaddy — have recordings of real drums not on tape but on chips which can be played out by the rhythm programming section.
Sorry to act the schoolmarm, but we're reaching the point when in order to release such technology at a budget price, the designers are having to cut corners. If the aim is to produce a strong, realistic sounding drum beat behind your playing then, at these levels, perhaps analogue technology can do as convincing a job as the latest buzzword product. However, to question is human, to prejudge is being a bit of a twatknob.
The DDM-110 offers nine sounds plus accent, can store 16 patterns of 32 steps and 16 patterns of 16 steps, plus six song arrangements with a total memory space of 385 bars. You could cram them all into song one or spread them around at a max of 200 each for the remainder.
The sounds are bass drum, snare, rimshot, hi-tom, low-tom, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, crash cymbal and handclaps. There are ten oblong plastic buttons across the bottom of the 110 which are either used for pattern programming or for playing the sounds in real time. (What, I sometimes wonder, is un-real time? Moments spent drunk, perhaps.)
Programming is neat. You can either listen to the built-in metronome and play the buttons where you want the beats, or step through the measures, one beat at a time, entering a drum when you need one. It's for the second system that the three-figure LED readout, top left, is most useful. The number on the far left tells you what bar you've reached, the number on the right reveals what beat you're on in that bar. For example, for a simple, rock solid rhythm, you might choose a pattern resolution of 1/16 (16 steps in four lots of four), but where perhaps some fast rolls, tricky off beat work or, dare we say it, feel are involved, then a finer resolution of 1/32 would be better (32 steps in four lots of eight). Those are not the only divisions available. There are two lots of four, two lots of eight, plus various triplet measures, 3/4 and 6/4 in high and low resolutions.
As with most such machines, the best way of programming is invariably a combination of the two techniques; you can always pace through your real time patterns later and edit them in step time. Where the DDMs perhaps lose against some of the Rolands is that you have no graphic readout of the pattern so you can't see at a glance where every drum beat falls.
Song programming is a matter of calling up a pattern, entering it, moving to the next one, entering that and so on. Again the readout keeps excellent track of what's happening; there are repeat, ends, insert and delete features, as expected, plus the ability to call up exactly the bar you wish to alter without stamping through 384 to get to number 385. The Korg is tape dumpable, syncable (five pin Din), works from six penlights or a 9V DC input, has a stereo output (too fierce — everything's either hard left, hard right or middle), comes with coarse and fine tuning, master volume and an extra volume for the hi-hat/cymbal. Shame, no volume for the accent, it's either on or off.
But what, you beg to know, does it sound like?
It's here where the savings begin to show. With the exception of the crash cymbal, the sounds are short — unnervingly short in some cases. Digital memory is expensive. On the bass drum (hard as nails, very good indeed) and snare (more "crash" than "crack") that's no problem, both are exemplary. But the hi-tom and low-tom barely get going before they're dragged untimely to their grave. Not ambient.
And noticeable with both of the latter was the dreaded digital noise — a final, split second, escaping wisp of hiss that is one of the penalties of pushing memory to its limits. Handclaps are also unflatteringly brisk, and this really is a case where cheaper, analogue technology can do it better.
But the crash cymbal, at just under a second, is unarguably more accurate than on similarly priced analogue rivals. Same view, though more reserved, for the open hi-hat, but the clicking, closed hi-hat could be from any two year old analogue drum box.
Sad that you can't alter the pitch of any of the sounds, swell that you can hear the hi and low toms together, it's not one sample read out at different rates.
The DDM-220 Super Percussion is identical in layout but features hi-conga, low-conga, timbale, wood block, cowbell, hi-agogo (a bell), low-agogo, cabasa and tambourine. (Loved the congas, much better than the 110's toms; timbale was spot on, too.) I don't think anyone's seriously expecting you to buy this box alone: it's meant to be synced to the DDM-110 as an extra, programmable sound source.
Voices here are still short with that whiff of noise, but are more consistently realistic and endearing than the 110 — no real duffers.
So what have we got? Good machines, certainly, with clear, concise programming and some excellent drum sounds. But enticing though the digital tag may be, perhaps the technology's straining a bit too hard.
Korg DDM drum machines £299
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Review by Paul Colbert
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