Roland R70 Drum Machine
Human Rhythm Composer
And the beat goes on - not least with Roland's latest drum machine, the R70. Simon Trask checks the pulse of the company that gave us the TR808, and are now giving it to us again.
Roland have a lot to live up to when they produce a new drum machine - maybe more than any other manufacturer. Does the R70 make the grade?
During the past three years, the drum machine has undergone both a creative and commercial renaissance. Credit for starting the process of rebirth must go to Roland, who with the R8 and its cheaper companion, the R5, re-established the uniqueness of the drum machine at a time when its future was being challenged by the MIDI sequencer and sampler.
Other manufacturers have followed Roland's lead, and in the process made the drum machine exciting again. Alesis' SR16, Cheetah's MD16 and Yamaha's RY30 have all shown that the dedicated approach to rhythm programming still has much to recommend it, both in terms of facilities and presentation. The drum machine has also come to represent the affordable face of technology, with the post-R8 generation of beatboxes almost invariably costing under £500 - in some cases, well under.
Roland have a tradition of budget drum machines within their Boss Dr Rhythm range - which they're continuing with two new machines, the DR550 MkII and the DR660, which are set to compete for the budget territory held so successfully by Alesis' SR16. However, it's via the Roland R-series and the R70 that the company are hoping to recapture the initiative at the "leading edge" of the drum machine market. Yet in designing the R70, Roland have had to balance the need for innovation and general one-upmanship in design with the need to compete in a market which is currently undergoing a general downward pressure on prices. So, have they produced a drum machine which will put them back in the leader's seat, or must they get used to playing second fiddle to Yamaha?
Roland have designed the R70 to meet an acceptable price for the upper end of the current market. As a result, they've effectively produced an R5 for 1992 rather than an R8, in that they've economised on some physical aspects of the new machine. It's a sensible enough calculation, given that Roland's priority must be to tackle the RY30 (reviewed MT, July '91) - a task for which a more expensive, R8-equivalent machine would have been less well suited.
In fact, the R70 lacks the high-quality pads and buttons used on both the R8 and the R5 in favour of less-expensive and less-responsive rubber ones. It also has two individual outs where the R5 has four and the R8, eight. But the new machine also improves on its predecessors by providing backlighting for its LCD and by adding an elongated pad called the Positional Pad which is Roland's response to the RY30's control wheel.
These losses and gains bring the R70 physically more into line with the RY30. However, unlike Yamaha's drum machine, the R70 doesn't have a sample card slot. Instead, it provides, via rear-panel Tape Sync II in/out connectors, an intelligent FSK tape sync facility (the type which embeds bar-number data in the sync code so that the slaved device can locate to song position off tape). And on the subject of physical differences, the R70 has 16 pads compared to the RY30's 12, and a 2 x 16-character LCD to the RY30 LCD's 2 x 24 characters.
Offsetting its lack of sonic expandability, Roland's new drum machine has a greatly-increased complement of onboard 16-bit samples compared to its R-series predecessors (210 to their 68), no doubt in response to the general trend for providing more and more onboard samples - a trend which Roland themselves kick-started with the R8 and R5 (remember when 68 samples seemed like an awful lot?). Other key new features of the R70 include a Rhythm Expert mode (which allows the drum machine itself to create new Patterns in various "genres'), Pattern-specific tempo settings, onboard effects processing, a Mixer section governing output and effect send routings, an increased number of Pad Banks to handle the increased number of samples, nine preset and four user-programmable MIDI Drum Sets (including General MIDI- and GS-compatible Sets), and a couple of functions which make it easy for you to identify and call onto the pads the samples used in a Pattern. Along with these new features, the R70 has benefitted from a redesigned user interface and a general streamlining of operation which make it more readily accessible than its R-series predecessors.
The R70's samples, or Sounds, are played via 210 pre-programmed Internal Instruments, each one of which uses a different sample, and 32 programmable User Instruments, each one of which can use any one of the 210 samples. Although you can edit the Sound parameters of an Internal Instrument, its Sound assignment is factory-fixed in order to guarantee the R70's GM and GS compatibility (an R70 Internal Instrument must be the type of sound which its MIDI note number assignment within a GS Drum Set says it is). If you want to use more than one version of an Internal Instrument, you can turn to the User Instruments to store the edited version(s); the R70 doesn't use these Instruments within its GS Drum Sets, so the compatibility issue doesn't arise. All the factory-programmed Instruments can be recalled at any time, either individually or in bulk, so you can edit them without fear of losing the original settings. You can also store all Instrument settings to a RAM card or via MIDI SysEx bulk dump to a remote storage device.
"Among the 'real' instruments are sounds taken from the TR808, TR909, TR606 and CR78 - if anyone has the right to plunder Roland's past it's the company themselves."
The R70's onboard sample ROM provides 28 kick drums, 45 snares and 36 toms and an assortment of electronic and acoustic hi-hats, cymbals, sidesticks, congas, bongos, cowbells, handclaps, claves, tambourines and maracas, and various acoustic percussion instruments including timbales, shaker, cabasa, pandiero, surdo, agogos, chekere, triangle, guiro and cuica. Where appropriate, there are high and low, open and mute, up and down, short and long, and open, slap and mute versions of the acoustic percussion instruments. In among the "real" instrument samples are some very well-known electronic sounds taken from the TR808, TR909, TR606 and CR78; well, if anyone has the right to plunder Roland's past (as many have done) it's the company themselves. Also included in the R70's sample ROM are seven reversed samples (kick, snare, tom, clap, and cymbals 1, 2 and 3), four reverb tail samples (kick, snare, tom and long) and four bass samples (finger, slap, acoustic and synth).
Sound edit parameters provided on the R70 are Attack Damp (0-31), Pitch (±48 semitones in 10-cent (1/10th-of-a-semitone) steps, Decay (±31), Nuance (±7), Brilliance (0-15), Velocity-to-Pitch (0-15), Assign Group (Off, Exclusive 1-18), Polyphony (monophonic or polyphonic), MIDI Note Off receive (on/off) and Layer (any other Instrument).
Nuance was introduced on the R8 and R5 to emulate the subtle tonal changes produced by hitting different areas of a drum or percussion instrument's playing surface. On the R70, where it's available on all the kicks and toms, virtually all the snares, some hi-hats, the ride cymbals, and a few percussion instruments, Nuance has been extended to purely electronic sounds. Although they may not have playing surfaces, some 808 and 909 sounds can have their tone and length changed. One of the problems with sampling these sounds is that you lose the programmability element; however, the R70's Nuance, Attack Damp, Brilliance and Decay parameters solve this problem - for instance, Attack Damp allows you to take the initial click off the R70's 808 kick drum sample, paralleling the Tone Knob on the real instrument.
Four further Instrument-specific parameters, namely Volume (0-15), Output Assign (Left7-Right7, Individual1 or Individual2), FX1 Send Level (0-15) and FX2 Send Level (0-15), are programmed in the R70's Mixer mode, where they're presented graphically rather than numerically in the LCD, as if they were bargraph LEDs. Values for the 16 Instruments of the currently-selected Pad Bank are shown.
One significant advantage of using the drumkit section on a synth is that you get to take advantage of any onboard effects processing. Roland have followed Korg in implementing effects processing on their new drum machine. As on their synths, it's limited to reverb/delay (FX1) and chorus/flanger (FX2). For FX1 you get a choice of hall, room and plate reverbs, delay1 or delay2, with reverb time and pre-LPF (high-frequency damping) parameters for reverb, independent Left and Right delay time (1-450ms) and feedback amount parameters for the delays, and an output level parameter common to both. FX2 simply provides a choice of chorus or flanger effect, with delay time (1-30ms), mod rate, mod depth, feedback level and output level parameters. The R70 provides a cruel trade-off between using the effects processing and using the individual outs: FX1 or Individual1, FX2 or Individual2.
The R70 allows you to create up to 100 Internal Patterns in its onboard RAM (which can store approximately 3700 notes) and a further 100 Card Patterns on an M256E memory card. Card Patterns can be played directly off the memory card, and incorporated into R70 Songs along with the Internal Patterns. Each Pattern can be given its own tempo (40-250bpm) together with a tempo switch on/off setting which lets you decide whether or not the tempo is to be applied.
R70 Patterns can be up to 99 bars long, allowing you to record extended performances (or maybe one extended performance) or Patterns which combine "through-performed" Instrument parts with shorter repeating parts of various lengths. Consequently the drum machine allows you to use all its memory on one Pattern if need be. As an instance of both this ability and the R70's record capacity, a 64-bar Pattern built up by means of the drum machine's Pattern Append function from a busy four-bar Pattern containing real-time parameter edits galore took up 77 per cent of the total Pattern memory.
"It has to be said that Roland have excelled themselves with the sonic versatility they've provided in the kicks and snares department."
Patterns can be recorded in real and step time, both from the R70's drum pads and from a MIDI instrument. A Pattern's time signature can be anything from 1-8/4 to 1-32/16, and quantisation on record can be set to 1/8, 1/12, 1/16, 1/24, 1/32, 1/48 or High (1/384th note, the R70's maximum resolution), and changed at any point during recording. Post-record quantise is also available, with values ranging from 1/12 to 1/48 and an extra feature, Rate (1-10), which determines how accurately the quantisation will be applied - the lower the value, the less inclined the R70 is to pull notes onto the quantise locations. Another post-record function is Swing, which allows you to set which notes will be swung (8ths or 16ths) and how much they will be swung by (0-47 clocks for 8ths, 0-23 for 16ths); a third Swing parameter, Swing Window, lets you to set a timing window of up to ±six clocks which allows notes not exactly on the 8th or 16th boundaries to be swung. There's scope for a lot more than "straight" swing here, you could say. Pattern Feel allows you to impose "human" fluctuations in the strength of pad hits onto a recorded Pattern by setting Feel Type (4/8/12/16 beat), Feel Variation (1-8) and Feel Depth (1-8). And if you want to completely turn a Pattern around, there's the Reframe function, which allows you to "rotate" a Pattern by any number of clocks so that it Starts at a different position. With all these post-record functions, if you want to focus on a particular Instrument part you need to copy it into a blank Pattern (using the Merge function, strangely enough), do whatever you want to it, and then Merge it back into the source Pattern.
Any number of Instruments can be used in a Pattern, within the practical limit set by the drum machine's 14-voice polyphony. In order to make all 242 R70 Instruments equally accessible on the R70's 16 pads, Roland have taken the Pad Bank (or virtual drumkit) concept of the R8 and R5 a stage further by providing three Groups of six Pad Banks each, giving a total of 288 virtual pads, each one of which has an Instrument assigned to it. At the same time, in order to make it easy to locate the Instruments used in an already recorded Pattern, Roland have included one function, Instrument List, which lists in the LCD all the Instruments used in the selected Pattern, and another function, Temporary Assign, which spreads any Instrument you select from this list across all the drum pads so that you can edit or erase its part without having to track it down through the Groups and Banks first.
Step-time recording allows you to record to any resolution from 8th to 384th notes, using the Zoom In and Zoom Out buttons to select the required resolution. The LCD window always displays 16 steps at the selected resolution, each step being represented in the LCD by a dot, which becomes a vertical bar when you program in a pad hit, with the height of the bar representing the strength of the pad hit. You can step-record in either of two ways: by using the FWD and BWD buttons to select a step and the Value slider to enter a pad hit complete with velocity amount, or by using drum pads 1-16 to enter hits complete with velocity on the 16 steps displayed in the LCD window. You can listen to the Pattern playing in real time as you record in step time, so you hear it building up as you enter pad hits. To erase a hit, you either move the Value slider to its lowest position or hold down the Erase button and hit the relevant drum pad for the step in the LCD window. If you're unsure of your location at any time, all you have to do is press the Timing button and the location will be displayed in the upper line of the LCD - an invaluable feature.
The ability of the R8 and R5 to record parameter changes for every pad hit in a Pattern was perhaps their single most significant feature, as it gave the drum machine something which couldn't be duplicated by triggering drum and percussion sounds from a MIDI sequencer. The R70 has the same ability, allowing you to program Pitch, Decay, Nuance and Pan values for individual pad hits into its Patterns. You can do this in real time using the Multi Bank (each pad has different values assigned to it), the Positional Pad (hitting different areas of the elongated pad produces different values) and the Value slider. The first two allow you to record values for all parameters along with the pad hits, while the latter is used for overdubbing or editing values, one parameter at a time, for recorded pad hits and adds velocity, timing shift and flam on/off to the list of available parameters. Timing shift allows you to shift recorded pad hits by as little as one clock (1/384th note). Additionally, a Global Edit function allows you to edit all pad hits for a particular Instrument in a Pattern by a ± amount (so, for instance, you can time-slide an entire Instrument part, or pan it to a different position in the stereo image).
Step-time editing provides the finest degree of control over parameter changes, allowing you to focus in on individual pad hits and edit its parameters one at a time; again, you can listen to the Pattern playing in real-time as you do this, so you get instant aural feedback on any changes you make.
The R70 allows you to program up to 20 Songs in its onboard memory and draw on a further 20 from a memory card. Each Song can consist of up to 999 Parts. A Song can be assigned an initial tempo (0ff/40-250/Pattern) and an initial volume level (1-127); if Pattern is selected for the Song tempo, the Pattern-specific tempo settings are used and any tempo changes programmed as part of the Song (see later) are ignored.
Each Part can be assigned a Pattern, a Start or End Repeat mark (with 1-99 repetitions specifiable as part of the End Repeat), a Tempo Change (specified as a percentage of the previous tempo, from 20-250 per cent, so if you alter the initial tempo all tempo changes during the Song will be altered relative to the new setting), a Volume Change (specified in the same way as a Tempo Change) or a Mark (by Marking one or more Parts you can subsequently jump directly to them by holding down the Shift button and pressing the FWD or BWD button). Repeats can be nested up to eight deep.
"Roland have moved the programmable drum machine into new territory by allowing it to program itself - or by programming it to program itself."
Song Create mode, in which you piece your Song together Part by Part, eases the creation process by allowing you to hear the Pattern you've selected for the current Part. Press Start/Stop and the R70 will loop the Pattern in Play; select a different Pattern for the same Part, or move to the next Part (or previous Part, if you want) and select a Pattern for it, and the R70 will start looping the new Pattern at the end of the current pass. Press Start/Stop again and the R70 will of course Stop playing the selected Pattern. If you can literally keep one step ahead of the R70, you can construct a Song in real time using this method. Roland's new drum machine doesn't stop at playing back Patterns within Song Create mode: you can record and edit in both real time and step time whichever Pattern you select for the current Part.
Further Song edit functions allow you to Insert a Part, Delete and Copy a range of Parts, Clear and Copy entire Songs, and Name a Song (as with Patterns, up to a modest eight characters). You can also create a Song playlist by chaining Songs together, though this causes the chained Songs to play consecutively without a break.
With the R70's Rhythm Expert mode, Roland have moved the programmable drum machine into new territory by allowing it to program itself - or rather, by programming it to program itself. The R70 lets you select one of 17 Genres: Rock1, Rock2, Rock3, Jazz1, Jazz2, Funk/Soul, R&B, Ballad, House/Rap, Dance, Shuffle, Waltz, Samba, Cha-cha, Bossa Nova, Reggae and African - together with a Pattern Type (Basic, Fill, Intro or Ending), Length (1-4 bars), Variation (1-8), Idea (1-8) and Feel (Off, 1-8), and from this information it creates a rhythm, or Pattern Model. By selecting different Variations and Ideas you can get the R70 to come up with many different rhythms within each Genre; basically, the higher the value you select, the more sophisticated and detailed the rhythm becomes, with more Instruments being added. The Variations provide broad changes in rhythm, while the Ideas provide subtler changes within each Variation. Roland's new drum machine is also able to produce variations on a rhythm from the same set of parameter values, although sooner or later it comes back to its first offering.
When the R70 comes up with a Pattern that you like, you can either copy it into one of 16 memory locations, known as Memo Boxes, for temporary storage (lost on power-down) or Convert it across into the machine's RAM Pattern memory for more permanent storage. Once a Pattern has been Converted, you can edit it as you would any other Pattern, whether it be to add just one more bass drum hit, erase an Instrument part you don't like, change the Instrument assigned to a particular part, or add one or more parts of your own. The R70's Instrument List and Temporary Assign functions really come into their own here, allowing you to identify which Instruments the drum machine has used in the Pattern and get them onto the pads straight away for editing. However, I don't want to give the impression that you have to edit to get anything decent out of Rhythm Expert mode; the R70 comes up with plenty of very good rhythms all by itself - and no doubt a number of them will find their way onto records. But if you want instant spoon feeding of the kind served up by preset and auto-accompaniment machines, where you press a button labelled Electro or Salsa or Seventies Fusion and the machine plays a rhythm in that specific style, the Rhythm Expert mode's much more general approach will probably have you feeling a little uncomfortable.
Rhythm Expert mode can also create Song Models for you. You specify a Genre and a Feel for the whole Song, together with whether or not you want the R70 to come up with an Intro/Ending and Fill-ins, and program up to 16 Parts for the Song by assigning one of eight Sections to each Part. A Section is in effect a Pattern Model, with programmable Length (1-32 bars), Variation (1-8) and Idea (1-8) parameters. As with individual Patterns, a Song can be Converted across to RAM - though in this case both the Song and its Patterns are Converted - and edited if need be.
The R70'S instruments are accessible over MIDI via two Instrument Sections and four Performance Sections, each one of which can be assigned to a different MIDI receive channel. This arrangement will be familiar to R8 and R5 users, the only difference being that the R70 can make all 242 of its Instruments accessible via MIDI at the same time (the MIDI note range being "only" 128 notes).
Each Instrument Section can be assigned one of 13 Drum Sets, or MIDI "drumkits': Standard, Room, Power, Electronic, TR808, Jazz, Brush, All1 and All2 (preset) and User 1-4 (programmable). The first seven of these are GS-compatible, with the Standard Set also being General MIDI-compatible; MIDI patch number assignments for remote selection of Drum Sets also conform to GS requirements.
"Perhaps the most significant development is Rhythm Expert mode but Roland also have a lot of credit in the Bank of Goodwill when it comes to drum machines."
Pad hits on the R70 are conveyed via MIDI using note numbers, with channel and note assignments matching those of each pad's Instrument on the MIDI receive side of the drum machine. For instance, if an Instrument is assigned to note number 54 in a Drum Set being used by Instrument Section one on MIDI Channel 10, these are the note and channel settings the R70 will use with pad hits for that Instrument; if an Instrument isn't assigned to either of the Instrument Sections, its pad won't transmit anything via MIDI.
Each Performance Section allows you to spread a single Instrument across the keyboard and set different Key Follow amounts for pitch, decay, nuance and pan centred around a programmable reference note number; nuance or decay amount can also be changed in real-time using MIDI modulation control. In this way, for four Instruments at least, you can effectively program real-time parameter edits for rhythmic and pitched parts triggered via MIDI - in fact, the Performance Sections are only intended for MIDI use.
For Instruments triggered via the Instrument Sections, selected real-time parameter edits can be conveyed via MIDI by means of the eight General Purpose MIDI controllers and Modulation; the drum machine allows you to assign an Instrument and either pitch, decay, nuance or pan to each controller. This works very well for GP controllers 1-4, but although the R70 transmits GP controllers 5-8 it refuses to respond to them.
The R70 can of course be set to internal or MIDI sync, and is able to transmit and recognise Song Position Pointer data. If you set MIDI Auto sync, you can use the drum machine as if it were set to internal sync, but as soon as it receives MIDI clocks it syncs to them instead of to its internal clock. R70 data can be transmitted and received via MIDI as SysEx dumps in All, Pattern & Song and Setup formats. One surprising omission from the R70's MIDI facilities is remote selection of Patterns via MIDI using patch and/or note numbers; as a result, you can't sequence Pattern changes within a MIDI sequencer, or select the R70's Patterns live from a remote MIDI instrument.
The R70 puts Roland back in contention for the heavyweight title of the drum machine world. But where they walked away with it when they brought out the R8 and the R5, this time round they've got a fight on their hands with Yamaha and the RY30, and the result will probably be decided on points rather than a knockout blow. I have a feeling that Roland may just edge ahead because the R70 has more onboard sounds, more pads, more Pad Banks, its Positional Pad, Roland's unique Nuance parameter (now extended to more Instruments), onboard effects processing, a tape sync facility, a significantly higher record resolution, much longer Pattern lengths and no memory restrictions on individual Patterns, GM and GS compatibility, functions which allow you to call any Instrument from any Pattern onto the pads quickly and easily. But perhaps its single most significant advantage is Rhythm Expert mode. Plus, of course, it has the Roland name on it - the company have a lot of credit in the Bank of Goodwill when it comes to drum machines.
In a way it's disappointing that Roland haven't been a touch more original in their selection of instruments - providing more of the same isn't the most exciting use to make of the extra sample memory. Still, it's an understandable response to Alesis' SR16, which followed the same formula with great success. And it has to be said that Roland have excelled themselves with the sonic versatility they've provided in the kicks and snares department. The absence of onboard filtering is disappointing in the light of the RY30's inclusion of it - especially as Roland's digital filtering is better. Is it really a matter of costing? I could be wrong but I suspect there's another reason for its absence - that if you were able to apply filter cutoff and resonance to the Internal Instruments, the R70's GS compatibility would really be messed up. The limited effects processing (typical for Roland) makes it more a utilitarian than a creative feature; having FX1 and FX2 send levels for every Instrument helps to maximise the usability of the effects, having to choose between effects and individual outs does not. As for the R70's Rhythm Expert mode, a worthwhile addition yes, but the description Rhythm Expert is, perhaps, misleading. Rhythm Partner would be more appropriate, I think. To my mind, the word "expert" implies that the R70 "knows" a lot more about rhythms than it does; it's not going to teach you anything much about the rhythms of the world, for instance.
However, treat it as a creative partner and you're nearer the mark. Some of its Patterns you may well want to use as they come out, others you may well want to edit, whether just to tinker with them or to use them as a spur to your own creativity. The fact that you can edit a Rhythm Expert-created Pattern as little or as much as you want is where the real flexibility comes in.
All in all, the R70 is a drum machine with plenty to recommend it.
Price £499 including VAT.
More from Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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