MIDI Percussion Voice Generator
Simon Trask confronts a technological puzzle. Why have Korg put 19 digital drum voices in a box that contains no sequencing software?
Why duplicate sequencing software when drum voices can just as well be triggered by an external program using MIDI? That's the question Korg have tried to answer with the MR16.
Anyone coming across Korg's MR16 for the first time could be forgiven for thinking they'd stumbled across a drum machine with a built-in touch-sensitive keyboard - or maybe even a touch-sensitive keyboard with a built-in drum machine. In fact, what Korg have come up with here is a drum machine that has no inbuilt playing or sequencing facilities whatsoever, which is probably why they've called it a 'MIDI Rhythm Sound Unit' instead. Actually, even that description sounds a mite misleading - after all, you can't have a rhythm without a sequence, can you?
So, if there's no recording or playing software onboard, how on Earth do you play the thing? Well, the answer lies not a million miles away from the first word of the MR16's designation - yes, you guessed it, MIDI. What Korg have done is take the principle of remote control of a drum machine via MIDI to its logical conclusion, and this is where the keyboard comes in. Because to get the MR16 to utter so much as a whimper, you need to connect it up to a MIDI keyboard of some description. Thus, the keyboard diagram on the MR16's front panel is for information purposes only, indicating which key or keys on your MIDI keyboard will trigger which sound on the MR16.
By now you'll probably have surmised that in order to record anything, you'll also need a MIDI sequencer of some sort, the idea being that your drum patterns are effectively recorded as keyboard sequences and then played back on a MIDI channel to which the MR16 alone has been assigned.
If you're a trifle confused, just remember that when a note is played on a MIDI keyboard, a Note On code and appropriate value are sent down the MIDI line. Assuming it's read accurately, this data can then be acted upon in some way by the receiving instrument, the only limitation being the ingenuity (and sanity) of that instrument's designers. What Korg have done, then, is assign certain MIDI note values to each of the voices of the MR16, to enable exactly this sort of data transfer to take place.
What you get with the MR16 are 19 PCM-encoded drum sounds which effectively constitute Korg's DDM110 and DDM220 drum and percussion voices, gathered together and put in the one box. Rotary controls are assigned to each voice (with the exception of the snare and rimshot, which form one pair, the open and closed hi-hats which make up another, and the cowbell and woodblock, which form a third, the idea being to make the couples mutually exclusive, as they are in the normal drumkit scheme of things) for setting individual level and position in the stereo image that's available from a pair of audio outputs on the machine's rear.
Assignment of voices to notes is clearly displayed on the aforementioned keyboard diagram. Cleverly, Korg have allocated some voices to several adjacent notes, which means that a reasonable spread on the keyboard is attainable without the danger of 'silent' (ie. non-allocated) notes being hit by accident. It also means you can play very rapid runs on the one instrument in real time, simply by toggling manually from one key to the one next to it and back again.
Situated along nearly the entire length of the rear panel are individual audio outs for all the voices (except for the pairings noted above, which are also grouped at the output stage). As far as the stereo audio sockets go, the left one doubles as a mono out, but neither will drive both sides of a pair of stereo headphones, which is unfortunate as there's no headphone socket included, and messing with a machine like this can be quite disturbing to anyone within earshot who isn't actually involved with the experimentation.
MIDI is taken care of by one In and one Thru socket (no prizes for guessing why there's no Out), and there's also a row of recessed DIP switches for selecting the MIDI Receive channel (this can be any one of the possible 16). A big raspberry to Korg for this one: I can't imagine anyone taking kindly having to fiddle around with such tiny switches. Clearly the company are fond of the arrangement because their MPK130 MIDI pedalboard has it too, but it makes about as much logistical sense as a foot-operated steering wheel. What's worse, anyone not familiar with binary numbering will find the settings confusing, even though Korg have provided a table on the rear panel that gives the correct setting for each channel (and being binary, a setting of 15 gives MIDI channel 16, and so on - if this doesn't confuse you, nothing will).
If you aren't familiar with the recent but already popular DDM series of Korg programmable drum machines, I ought to point out that, with the two machines' sonic capabilities fused together, you get nine drum sounds of variable quality and nine percussion sounds of almost uniformly superior quality, plus an impressive ride cymbal thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the MR16's ancestry also means that a number of the sounds have a significant digital noise element accompanying them - this is particularly noticeable on the congas and timbales. Still, the machine's array of individual outputs does increase the likelihood that the offending noise could be effectively filtered out without affecting the drum signal too much.
So, in left-to-right placing across the keyboard, we have: bass drum, snare drum, rimshot, handclaps, low tom, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, hi tom, crash cymbal, ride cymbal, low conga, hi conga, tambourine, cowbell, cabasa, timbale, woodblock, low agogo and hi agogo. A pretty fair assortment, all in all.
This shouldn't really come as a surprise given the DDM machines' low price-tags, but the biggest problem their voices present is based around shortage of memory and, presumably, a less-than-ideal sample rate. They have neither the dynamic range nor the full time duration of their acoustic counterparts.
Having said that, most of the sounds stand up well in a performance context. With the possible exception of the tambourine and cabasa, the percussion are clear and well contoured - you shouldn't have much trouble hearing this lot through a mix. As for the drumkit sounds, the toms and ride cymbal are probably the most convincing, whilst the bass drum has a good attack but not enough follow-through, and the handclaps, sad to say, are only exceeded in 'ouch' factor by the Technics DP50's interpretation - see elsewhere this issue for details.
However, the drum sounds themselves are only one part of the story, because it's what isn't inside the MR16 that's just as important as what is. The DDM110 and 220 were generally well received as excellent budget machines, though the question was raised (if by no one else, then at least by our own Trish McGrath in her review of the DDM220, E&MM October 84) as to whether a combined unit, which would have obviated the need for much duplication of both hardware and software, might have been a viable alternative.
Now, just four or five months later, a combined unit is precisely what we've been given, but this one actually does away with all the hardware and software that was being duplicated in the first place. Obviously, Korg have reasoned that any MIDI sequencer, whether it be a software package for a microcomputer or a piece of dedicated hardware, is being unnecessarily duplicated by the sequencing aspect of every other drum machine. This is irrefutable logic, but the problem is that drum machine sequencers are generally more pattern- and loop-oriented than their all-purpose counterparts; they're also configured specifically for handling the multiple-voice layered approach that's generally required of programmable drum machines.
So there are plenty of points to raise against Korg's ideas on software duplication. Before all-purpose sequencers were around (and let's face it, they've only really begun to flourish since the ascendancy of MIDI), dedicated drum sequencers were something of a necessity. Yet even now, there's a lot to be said for a dedicated sequencer that'll handle all the percussive chores expected of it, so that your poor overworked MSQ700 (QX1 if you're rich) only has to handle MIDI Start, Stop, Continue, Song Select and Timing Clock codes whilst trundling out all those heavy Ultravox textures and Stanley Clarke bass-lines (now there's a combination).
I think it's called 'concurrent processing'.
Sorry, but I can't help feeling that Korg's marketing and R&D departments have thrown a bit of a wobbly with this one. It's going to be up against it when it comes on sale later this month, facing competition not only from other manufacturers' machines (which offer full sequencing software, the facility to play drum voices from a MIDI keyboard, and the provision to use the drum machine's sequencer to control a synth) but from units within Korg's own range. After all, a combination of DDM110 and DDM220 would give you a versatile programmable percussion system of lengthy internal memory for about the same price as Korg want for the MR16 alone (and, if necessary, a KMS30 MIDI Synchroniser at a further £155 would incorporate them into a MIDI-only sequencing setup).
Korg in the UK would probably feel your best bet is to go for the MR16 and use it in conjunction with an EMR MIDI software package (as the company haven't made a dedicated sequencer of their own since the analogue SQ10), but that requires you to have one of the home micros EMR are writing for, and as I've already mentioned, most general-purpose sequencing software isn't well suited to rhythm pattern applications anyway.
But Korg in Japan aren't stupid. If the MR16 is to be marketed successfully in its present form, there must be something brewing in their laboratories to act as its software partner. Now, it may be that said software will take the form of a program ta run on Korg's own Epson-based music micro, but if that's the case, European users are going to be left out in the cold if that micro doesn't get here; and that's what seems likely at the moment.
If you think you have a setup that might benefit from the inclusion of an MR16, then by all means investigate further. It does what it sets out to do admirably.
But whether it's setting out to do a particularly useful job in the first place is something only time will tell.
Availability of the MR16 is scheduled for mid-May, with an expected RRP of £449 including VAT.
Further information available from Korg UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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