Interactive Drum Pattern Sequencer
If your drum patterns sound uninspired it could be because you lack the subtle touch of the human drummer. Simon Trask looks at an electronic aid to drum programming.
Can a rhythm machine ever match the flexibility and spontaneity of a human drummer's playing? Oberheim's Drummer gives it a go.
THE THRUST OF technological developments during the past 10-15 years has been towards allowing us ever-greater control over the creation of our music. With programmable drum machines, MIDI sequencers and workstation synths and samplers at our disposal, we have all become used to the fact that we can create the drum parts, the percussion parts, the bass parts and any other instrumental parts that we feel our music needs - without being able to play any of the relevant instruments. We can all be multi-instrumentalists without having to be multi-instrumentalists. Any musician - keyboard player, guitarist, bassist, saxophonist, drummer - can use the technology to help them realise their own musical ideas. You don't even have to be a musician in the traditional sense in order to make music, any more. In fact, if the technology of sequencers, drum machines, synths and samplers has accomplished anything profound, it's been the removal of lack of technique as a barrier to the realisation of musical ideas.
It's all a far cry from the days when, if you wanted to make music, you learned to play a musical instrument and joined a band (or maybe joined a band and learned to play a musical instrument), and when your musical role in the band was largely defined by the instrument you played. If you weren't the drummer, you left the rhythmic stuff to the guy who was - after all, he was the one who could actually play the drums (with any luck). Then along came the programmable drum machine, and suddenly the rhythmic stuff was no longer the sole preserve of drummers and percussionists - and we all know what a profound impact that has had on music in the ensuing years.
Today, musicians from many walks of musical life use electronically-generated rhythms, but not everyone has either the desire or the ability to program their own drum parts. Drum machines which include preset patterns offer one alternative. Portable keyboards, with their ever more sophisticated and versatile auto-accompaniment sections, offer another. And now there's a third, in the form of Drummer, a new addition to Oberheim's Perf/x range of MIDI processors. Not so much a drum machine as a machine drummer, Drummer's purpose in life is to create drum tracks which sound as if (or, at least, more like) they're being played by a human drummer. What's more, it can "listen" via MIDI to a performance on another instrument and respond to the dynamics of that performance.
DRUMMER COMES IN the same compact, lightweight grey casing as its companions in the Perf/x range (Systemizer, Cyclone, Navigator and another new unit, Strummer). The upper half of the front panel is unused except for 12 ventilation slits; these unfortunately offer a direct access route to Drummer's circuit board for any liquids which might be spilt on the unit.
The lower half of the front panel is given over to a parameter list which is laid out in a 4 x 5 matrix format. To call up a parameter, you select its row and column - press the Mode button repeatedly to cycle around the rows until you reach the one you want, and press one of five function buttons to select the required column. Pinpoint LEDs light to indicate the selected row and column, allowing you to see at a glance which parameter is selected. As a parameter access method it's both straightforward and fast, though being able to select rows directly using dedicated buttons would have made it even faster.
The value of the selected parameter is indicated in a two-character LED display in the lower-left corner of Drummer's front panel. It's not everyone's idea of a good display, perhaps, now that we've got used to LCD windows, but at least it's bright and clear and for the most part conveys the parameter information in a readily understandable form. Additionally, two dots in the lowest segments of the display flash to give you a visual metronome and a visual indication of when Drummer is receiving MIDI data. The only other front-panel controls are the Start/Stop and data increment and decrement buttons.
Drummer's rear panel sports MIDI In and Out sockets, the power on/off switch (a rather delicate affair which protrudes about 0.25" from the casing and risks being snapped off if the unit is dropped or otherwise badly handled), the input for the external power adaptor (suppled), and four footswitch input jack sockets whose functions I'll explain later.
THE MOST APPROPRIATE description for Drummer is probably "rhythm sequencer", as it contains preset rhythms but not the drum and percussion sounds to bring those rhythms to life. For sounds you must turn to a slaved MIDI sound source. A Drummer rhythm (or Pattern, as it's known in Drummerspeak) can contain up to 16 different drum and percussion parts, each of which can be assigned a note so that Drummer can trigger the relevant drum and percussion sounds via MIDI. Sets of MIDI note assignments are known, logically enough, as Kits. Drummer comes factory-programmed with 13 Kits designed for use with selected instruments (Kawai K4, Korg M1R, Roland R5 and Alesis SR16 for example), but you can replace these with your own settings at any time. In all you can program 16 Kits.
Drummer allows you to program globally a single MIDI transmit channel (1-16) and a single MIDI receive channel (1-16), the latter being the channel that Drummer "listens" to when it interacts with your playing. Additionally, MIDI information received on any channel is automatically routed through to Drummer's MIDI Out.
A Drummer Pattern is more accurately thought of as a rhythmic model from which Drummer constructs variations known as Rhythms. Essentially it does this by varying the bass drum, hi-hat and cymbal rhythms and the timing of notes. Drummer has 100 Patterns, and for each of these you can select one of 99 Rhythms or a random Rhythm; that's a lot of rhythms, but because variations from Rhythm to Rhythm can be very slight, the perceived variety is much less than the numbers alone might lead you to believe.
A Drummer Preset could be considered the "patch" level. Presets can be selected from Drummer's front panel and from a controlling instrument via MIDI using patch changes; any one of MIDI channels 1-16 can be globally specified as the receive channel for patch changes.
Drummer has 100 Presets, and to each one you can assign a Pattern, a Rhythm (Feel), a Kit, a time signature, a tempo (40-219bpm), a Follow (Interact) setting and an Other Percussion instrument. Changing the time signature of a Pattern is another way of working variety into Drummer's preset material. For instance, you can set a Pattern to play in straight 4/4 or in swing time (4/4 with swing 16ths); other possibilities are 2/2, 3/4, 6/8, 9/8 or 2/8.
"Not so much a drum machine as a machine drummer, Drummer's purpose in life is to create drum tracks which sound as if they're being played by a human drummer."
All parameter settings you make are memorised by Drummer without needing to be Written into memory, and are retained through power-down. However, you can also transfer all data via MIDI as a SysEx dump (taking a modest seven seconds). This includes rhythm data that you can program into Drummer yourself - the first 13 Preset/Pattern locations can be used for adding your own parts to existing Patterns or for programming your own two-bar rhythms from scratch (you start by assigning the relevant Pattern or a special blank Pattern respectively to a Preset).
The original Pattern for a Preset can be recalled at any time; this has the effect of deleting whatever you've recorded into the Preset's Pattern location. Although the manual doesn't mention this, apparently by swapping the 8K RAM chip that Drummer comes fitted with for a 32K RAM chip, you can record into all 100 Patterns.
Drummer also allows you to create up to 16 Songs in memory, each of which can have up to 16 Parts. A Part consists of a Preset plus repeat and fill settings (of which more later). Drummer can be synchronised to the outside world via MIDI in both Preset and Song modes, and is able to act as either master or slave.
TO PROGRAM A Kit, you press and hold down function button 4, press the Mode button, then release both buttons. The LED display then reads "bD", which tells you that you must program in the MIDI note which will trigger the bass drum. At this point you can play notes on your controlling keyboard until you find the note which triggers the sound you want; Drummer's LED display indicates the played MIDI note number. While you're creating a Kit, Drummer automatically rechannelises data received on the MIDI In channel to the MIDI Out channel, so that the notes you play are echoed through to your slaved sound source.
Once you've selected the bass drum you want, pressing function button 4 takes you on to the next note assignment, in this case for the snare drum. You then follow this procedure for the remaining 14 note assignments in the Kit, with the two-character LED telling you which instrument type you should be selecting; you can step through a Kit at any time without having to re-enter note assignments, so changing just one or two sounds in a Kit is easy.
The 16 instruments you need to assign appropriate MIDI notes to within a Kit are: bass drum, snare, open hi-hat, closed hi-hat, tom 1, tom 2, tom 3, crash cymbal, click (also used for the metronome), ride cymbal, tambourine, cowbell, shaker, snare enhancement (claps, noise burst...), bongo or conga, snare with open snares (such as timbale). These labels reflect the function of each instrument within a Pattern - the bass drum instrument is triggered by a part appropriate to the bass drum, the snare drum instrument is triggered by a part appropriate to the snare drum, and so on - but there's nothing to stop you substituting, say, low, mid and high congas for the toms, or using a vocal sample for the snare enhancement.
If you assign Kit "=0" to a Preset, that Preset automatically uses whichever Kit you've assigned to Preset 0; this way, if Presets 1-99 are all set to "=0" (in fact, this is their factory default setting), all you have to do is select a different Kit for Preset 0 and you've changed the Kit assignment for every Preset. A neat idea if one Kit is all you need.
FOUR FUNCTIONS COME under the banner of Follow (Interact): Auto-Start, Bass, Velocity and Fill. Each of these can be set on or off per Preset. Enabling Auto-Start allows you to Start Drummer playing by hitting any MIDI note. If Bass is enabled, any notes which you play on your controlling keyboard below middle C will trigger the sound you've assigned to the bass-drum instrument in the current Kit, so that, for instance, the bass drum part becomes locked into the rhythm of the bassline; Drummer drops out its own bass-drum part in deference to yours, with the exception that it plays a bass drum on the first beat of each bar to help mark time.
Velocity provides what is perhaps the most striking feature of Drummer, namely its ability to follow the dynamics of your playing. It does this by looking at the velocity values of incoming MIDI notes on the MIDI In channel and adjusting accordingly the velocity values of the MIDI notes which it transmits. But more than this, it drops certain instruments out of the Pattern as you decrease the forcefulness of your playing (the snare is always one of the first to go), and brings them in again when you increase it; it also changes the "density" of the instrumental parts that aren't dropped out in a way that's appropriate to the dynamic level of your playing.
Drummer responds fairly quickly to dynamic changes in your playing, so you can use fluctuations in velocity as a means of introducing further variety into Drummer's rhythms (dropping the snare drum out on selected beats).
"Drummer is able to bring a drummer-like flexibility and responsiveness to its rhythmic performances which sets it apart from the preset machines."
The Velocity feature alone gives Drummer a unique level of performance responsiveness for a machine; I can see this aspect of Drummer making a lot of players very happy. Oberheim have included a globally-applied sensitivity parameter, with a choice of three velocity response curves (Lo, - or Hi), in order to help you tailor Drummer's velocity response to your playing style and the velocity output characteristics of your keyboard.
When Fill is enabled, Drummer monitors via MIDI whether or not you're playing, and if you're not it throws in fills to, well, fill up the gap. As soon as you start playing again, it stops playing fills. Drummer treats held notes as a gap, too. To my mind, Fill is a less flexible feature than Velocity, and I found myself using it less often - sometimes it's positively irritating.
The Other Percussion parameter, which also is programmable per Preset, can be set to off, closed hi-hat, click, ride cymbal, tambourine, shaker, snare fill every bar, or snare fill every second bar. The inclusion or omission of this part can make quite a significant difference to the feel of a Pattern. Typically it's a busy part, and seems to be calculated to push the rhythm along and give it an extra lift. Whether or not it's dropped out by the Velocity function depends on the individual Pattern; sometimes it's the first part to go, other times it's one of the parts which remains active throughout.
DRUMMER'S RHYTHMIC STYLES embrace pop, rock, reggae, swing and Latin. However, it doesn't take you long to realise that Drummer is primarily a rock drummer. There's Swing Rock with Variation and Fills, Rock/Reggae with Variation and Fills, Hard Rock, Joe Rock, Joe Rock Shuffle with Variation and Fills, Joe Swing Rock, Slow Rock, 16 Beat Rock, Swing Rock... The list goes on. There are also a few Latin rhythms such as salsa and bossa nova, but to my mind Drummer doesn't handle these very well. Nor is it all that hot when it comes to jazz drumming. You can select swing time and get a ride cymbal going, but there's a lot more to jazz drumming than that. Pursuing the analogy with a human drummer, I suppose you could say that Drummer's technique isn't really up to it.
Contemporary dance rhythms are thin on the ground, although you can get a few good things going with swing timing. But then such rhythms don't really have their roots in real drumming and the sort of hand/foot interaction that Drummer sets out to mimic. My guess is that dance musicians will get interested when they're able to get their hands on the in-depth programmable version of Drummer and start making it do things that no self-respecting real drummer would ever dream of doing - just like they did when programmable drum machines first came on the market. All that's needed is for Oberheim to actually produce such a machine.
By listing some otherwise hidden parameters - Jazziness, Swing, Percussion, Envelope, Fills, Backbeat and Downbeat - the Preset List towards the back of the manual (which lists the factory-default parameter settings for the 100 Presets) gives some insight into how Drummer is able to work the changes into its rhythms which make it sound less drum machine and more drummer. Jazziness, for instance, governs the amount of bass drum lead-ins, open hi-hats and random snare bounces that Drummer will throw in, while Swing governs the probability of 16th notes being thrown into 8th-note rhythms, and Percussion defines which instrument(s) will be used for added percussion parts within the Patterns.
Perhaps the most ingenious of the hidden features is Envelope, which can be used to specify at what points in Drummer's performances certain functions will be active. For instance, Preset 84 (Jazzy Rock with Variation and Fills) includes two Percussion parts, one of which has the tambourine assigned to it, the other the ride cymbal. Each of these parts has an Envelope applied to it, with the result that the tambourine part comes in after 32 bars, plays for 32 bars, then drops out for the next 96 bars, and the ride cymbal part comes in after 64 bars, plays for 32 bars and then drops out for the next 96 bars. Envelopes are also used in the Presets to, for instance, limit Jazziness to the last two beats of every fourth bar.
I mentioned earlier that you can add your own parts to Drummer's rhythms, and also program your own rhythms from scratch. Once you've selected one of Presets 0-12 and assigned the relevant Pattern to it, you can go on to select a quantisation value (off, 16, Shuffle or SG - swing 16ths). Different quantisations can be mixed within a Pattern. Shuffle quantisation is a way of getting triplet 8ths from straight 8ths and straight 16ths, and can be very effective in combination with swing and straight quantisations - in some cases, most obviously the hi-hats, within a single instrument.
To record a Pattern, you first select Record in the parameter matrix, then press the Start/Stop button to instigate recording. Drummer loops around the two-bar Pattern in familiar drum-machine fashion, allowing you to both add and erase instrument parts on each pass. Successive presses of function button five toggle between record and rehearse modes - the latter allowing you to quickly try out a part before recording it.
Drummer records any MIDI notes you play into it, so you can add non-Kit sounds to existing Patterns and combine Kit and non-Kit sounds in your own Patterns. And if you can map pitched instrumental sounds onto the keyboard along with the drum and percussion sounds (remember, Drummer can only transmit on one MIDI channel) it's possible to incorporate basslines and chordal parts, for instance, into Drummer's patterns.
"Drummer falls short of replacing the human drummer but offers a hint of something that will excite some people and horrify others: the intelligent machine performer."
However, any parts that you play in yourself are fixed as recorded, as on a normal drum machine, which begs the question "Why treat Drummer as a programmable rhythm machine when its preset rhythms are where all the action is?". Well, being able to drop in a fixed rhythm of your own every now and then can be useful, as can being able to drop in a version of one of Drummer's rhythms which has some Latin percussion parts or maybe a bassline added.
THE FOUR FOOTSWITCH inputs on Drummer's rear panel each have a global, fixed function. Footswitch one is used for Starting and Stopping Presets and Songs. Depressing footswitch two causes the entire rhythm to "drop out" for as long as the footswitch is held down. Drummer plays percussion fills on various instruments for as long as footswitch three is depressed - a good way of making a rhythm busier at any time you want and for as long as you want, though it can get a bit over the top. Finally, depressing footswitch four introduces standard - and in comparison with footswitch three more restrained - fill-ins; depending on when and for how long you depress the footswitch, these fills can last for one bar, for the last beat of a bar or for as many bars as you want, though they always end with a crash cymbal on the first beat of the next bar.
The bad news is that Drummer doesn't come supplied with any footswitches; the good news is that whenever you switch it on it can detect the polarity of any footswitch(es) plugged into it and adjust itself accordingly, so you can mix 'n' match any footswitches you already have.
THE PARAMETERS IN the top row of Drummer's matrix layout allow you to select any one of its 16 Songs and assign a Preset to each of up to 16 Parts, together with a repeat number (1-99) and a fill setting. The repeat number actually represents the number of bars the Part will play for before the Song advances to the next Part. The fill parameter has a choice of eight settings: no fills, one fill in the last bar of the Part, or a fill every 4, 8, 12, 16, 24 or 32 bars.
Sixteen Parts per Song might not seem a lot. However, it's worth bearing in mind that you'd have to program many patterns and use up many song steps on an ordinary drum machine to achieve the sort of rhythmic variety you can get within one of Drummer's Parts.
As long as you're not slaving Drummer from a MIDI clock source, you can take advantage of a neat feature which smoothly increases or decreases the tempo over the last bar in a Part where two consecutive Presets have different tempos. If you're using one Preset for the verse and another for the chorus, you can assign a slightly higher tempo to the chorus Preset and Drummer will then effectively "lean into" the chorus instead of simply jumping from one tempo to another. There again, if you actually want to have an abrupt tempo change, you've got a problem.
THE SIMPLEST CONCLUSION to draw about Drummer is that it's a fine example of accessible technology: small, cheap, easy to comprehend and easy to use. The manual could do with being a bit more thorough - and in one or two instances a bit more accurate - in explaining some aspects of Drummer, but this isn't really a reflection on the unit itself. Oberheim have deliberately set out to make Drummer as uncomplicated as possible, the idea being that you have to do very little else but set it going and play along with it. As such it's well suited to the musician who wants the advantages of working with programmed rhythms without the burden of having to program them. I can see Drummer finding a home equally with songwriters working on their own material and solo performers playing cover versions. Of course, if a fairly static preset rhythm backing is adequate, then there are preset drum machines which can do the job well - Roland's new CR80, for instance. It's also worth bearing in mind that preset machines typically have a more varied range of rhythms than does Drummer - if Latin American favourites are your thing, maybe Drummer isn't. Nor does Drummer have the convenience of Break, Fill and End buttons. And nor, of course, does it have onboard sounds - but then that gives you the freedom to slave whatever sounds you want to it.
However, Drummer is able to bring, to an extent, a drummer-like flexibility and responsiveness to its rhythmic performances which sets it apart from the preset machines and allows live creation of rhythm tracks which would take some effort to program. Most of all, the feature which sets Drummer apart from preset and programmable drum machines is its ability to respond to the dynamics of your playing.
Another way you could make use of Drummer is to record its output into a MIDI sequencer and then extract any sections you like in order to use them as patterns within your own rhythm tracks, perhaps after some editing to get them just how you want them.
I must admit I have mixed feelings about Drummer, though. It takes away the creative freedom of programmability and in its place offers a set of rules based on a set of preconceptions about what makes a good rhythm track. Under the guise of offering new freedoms it also manages to impose its own limitations. Playing along with Drummer is like playing with a human drummer who for the most part just does his own thing. It can introduce variety into its performances, but much of this has nothing to do with your playing. In the end, you're still playing along to it rather than together with it.
To put it bluntly, Drummer can be really irritating when it does something that doesn't really work musically with what you're playing - particularly as you can't tell it not to do it again. And on the subject of responsiveness, Drummer isn't able to extrapolate changes in tempo from your playing, so you're locked into its steady machine tempo.
Drummer falls far short of replacing the human drummer. But for all that, it still offers a hint of something that will excite some people and horrify others: the intelligent, creative machine performer. The impulses toward this are deep, both economically and psychologically, and in time it'll be an issue with such profound ethical, social and economic ramifications that it'll make the sampling issue look like a small disagreement between friends. Drummer is only the beginning.
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Review by Simon Trask
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