Programmable Percussion Machine
The Latin percussion variant of Korg's new budget drum machine duo comes under the scrutiny of Trish McGrath. Is its beauty more than skin deep?
Fed up with conventional drum machine noises? Korg's Super Percussion unit offers nine PCM-encoded Latin sounds at a price that makes it both an attractive add-on and a highly usable unit in its own right.
This year's British Music Fair saw the debut of two new Korg drum machines, the 'Super Drums' and 'Super Percussion' units. Both of these employ PCM-encoded drum voices and have provision for full programmability and editing, all at a price that's as difficult to believe as a Dallas script...
The two machines sync together painlessly and Korg's KMS30 MIDI Synchroniser allows them to be incorporated into a MIDI system. The DDMs are due for release sometime during November, but we managed to get our hands on an early Super Percussion to whet your appetite.
The DDM220 measures a compact 226(W) x 49(H) x 196(D) mm and weighs just 800g - as indeed does the DDM110 Super Drums unit. The top panel controls consist of a three-digit LED display (the memory's 'window'), two tempo controls (coarse and fine), and three volume controls (for Master, Metronome and Cabasa/Tambourine). The last-mentioned is the only attempt the 220's designers have made to offer individual level control over the percussion voices - levels cannot be set during programming and the audio outputs comprise stereo left and right/mix only.
Ten Number keys (0-9) are situated along the bottom of the panel, and these can be effective in four different modes, more of which later. Below the LED display lie the Record Enable/Disable selector and the Song and Pattern multi-function keys. The Song key can be cycled through Edit, Song and Pattern modes, while the Pattern key cycles through Pattern, Instrument, and Initial modes. These modes determine what effect pressing one of the Number keys has on the programming of the unit, and the currently-selected mode is indicated by the green LEDs situated to the right of the Song and Pattern buttons. If the Record selector is set to Enable, two further (red) LEDs indicate whether or not the unit is set to either Song or Pattern Record. Centred on the panel is the ubiquitous Start/Stop key, the Up/Enter key and Shift keys. These latter controls are used when programming the unit in step time (the Up/Enter key changes to Down/Cancel when Shifted).
Right side panel sockets comprise Phones, the stereo outputs mentioned above, Start/Stop socket (used in conjunction with optional footswitch), and Trig Out (for connection to a suitable Trigger In on, say, a synth). The left-hand side panel includes a DC 9V socket (for the mains adaptor supplied, though the DDM220 can run on batteries as an alternative), the Power On/Off switch, Tape Interface sockets, and Sync (five-pin DIN) socket with In/Out selector.
Programming of the Super Percussion can be carried out in step or real time, or indeed a mixture of both, and with the help of the display and function mode LEDs, the necessary operations are easy to follow and even easier to pick up. Depending on the mode selected, the Number keys 0-9 have the following effects:
Pattern allows the selection of any pattern number between 01 and 32, which is then activated by the Start/Stop button. If a second pattern is selected, this 'waits in line', is displayed as the 'Next No.' to play, and begins immediately the pattern playing has completed its cycle.
Initial prepares the unit for programming and comprises Pattern Erase, Time Signature and Resolution options. Each pattern can be one to two bars long, while the resolution can be set to 1/16ths, 1/16 triplets, or 1/32s. Pattern numbers 01-16 have a step capacity of 32, while Patterns 17-32 won't accept more than 16 steps.
Instrument brings the drum voices under the individual control of the number keys, and allows them to be programmed in step or real time. The drum voices themselves cannot be described as anything short of excellent, especially considering the 220's price tag. From left to right, the Super Percussion offers Hi Conga, Lo Conga, Timbale, Wood Block, Cowbell, Hi & Low Agogo, Cabasa and Tambourine, while a fixed-level Accent can be implemented on any step in the pattern.
Song - Up to six songs can be stored - by chaining patterns - up to a total of 390 bars. However, it would have been nice if the display 'blinked' as a pattern was written into Song memory, as the Enter button itself does not inspire much in the way of confidence. Unlike some rhythm units, this Korg does not have an elephantine memory (the maximum for one song is 385 bars), but the facility to save to, and reload from, cassette tape should placate the greedy.
Edit mode is where the Song takes shape, and bars can be inserted or deleted, a new End selected, and the whole Song looped if necessary. A section can be repeated (by inserting Repeat Start and End signs) and the number of repeats specified. Bar Select displays the pattern residing in any particular bar, but sadly the unit counts all patterns as one bar, so that if you program a song with a mixture of one and two bar patterns, the 'bar number' count won't correspond to the actual number of bars in your song. Definitely an oversight on Korg's part, and one which might render the facility to start the Song from a selected bar number a bit of a waste of time.
Finally, Memory Avail flashes the number of bars left for programming, and Song Initial clears that Song's memory. If a Song is interrupted during playback, it can be recommenced by keying Shift and Start: Songs can also be played in series if needed.
Recording in both step and real time is quite straightforward, full editing of both patterns and songs is possible, and the display takes enormous pleasure in letting you know exactly where you stand at all times. In general, niggles are few and far between, and I guess it's unreasonable to expect some sort of individual voice level control on such a low-cost machine.
Although I can't blame Korg for adapting the Super Percussion manual from that originally written for the Super Drums, as they incorporate essentially similar functions, I found the repeated references to snare, bass and hi-hats a bit silly at first and downright tiresome by the time I'd reached the halfway point.
Allowing the two DDM units to be purchased individually obviously allows the user the choice of obtaining the conventional drum machine and adding the percussion voices at a later date; however, I wonder how expensive a 'combined' unit would have been, especially when you consider the duplication of much of the hardware? It would have been nice to have had the Super Drums to test alongside the Super Percussion, but I found the Roland TR606 (sorry Rose Morris!) to be a syncable companion (via the Sync In and Out sockets intended for the Super Drums, KPR77 etc.), while the Trig Out (generated at steps where the Tambourine is programmed) successfully activated the Arpeggio clock on a Korg Polysix. I had a lot of fun...
If Latin percussion is your sound, what are you waiting for?
The Super Percussion DDM220 tested and Super Drums DDM110 each carry an RRP of £229.
Review by Trish McGrath
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