Beat crazy. As yet another drum machine arrives on the market, Nicholas Rowland wonders if it's time to get away from the present format.
The latest in a long and successful line in beat boxes is the Roland TR626 - a budget machine with its eye on professional sounds. Compromises are inevitable, but who do they favour?
JUMPING ONTO THE technology bandwagon involves a lot of heart-searching nowadays. Either you do it immediately and get the benefit of a longer ride or you hang on until it comes round again six months later, knowing that the treats now in store will be that much better and, invariably, that much cheaper. Whether you attribute it to some balding R&D boffin's personal obsession with pushing back the boundaries of science, or the marketing manager's cynical exploitation of the Planned Obsolescence Theory, it's a fact of life we are all learning to live with.
Roland's new rhythm baby, the TR626, is a case in point. It's got 30 tunable PCM percussion sounds, eight individual audio outs, 48 preset and 48 programmable patterns, comprehensive MIDI facilities, tape sync and trigger output, plus an optional memory card which has twice the capacity of that on-board. At a mere £350, that's excellent news for the musician on the lookout for a versatile, budget machine with extensive (read expensive) facilities. However, for those of us who, a little while back, parted with £295 for its predecessor, the TR505, it's just a mite galling to think that a mere £55 and an eighteen-month wait is all that separates us from this far superior model. Ah well, thank goodness for the Exchange & Mart.
Physically, the 626 looks exactly like a 505 after a session on the torture rack. It has exactly the same styling (tasteful off-white, complemented by grey buttons and graphics), and exactly the same number of knobs and buttons on the front panel - but it's a couple of inches longer to accommodate all those extra output sockets on the back panel. Like its older brother, it's powered either by batteries or the optional mains transformer.
AESTHETICS, MINOR PRACTICALITIES and multitudinous outputs aside, the major selling point of the TR626 is going to be primarily its wide range of available sounds. As I said, there are 30 digital voices in all, covering conventional kit sounds and latin and hand-held percussion. In the main, the 626 sounds are a "best of' compilation from all their other machines. Thus, while there are no real surprises in terms of new sounds, the voices are uniformly excellent: clear, sharp and with just enough recorded ambience to sound good without the need for extra outboard gear.
For the dance hit conscious, there's a choice of two bass drums (one, a solid punch, the other a wet "blat") and three snares (short and snappy, gated and reverbed, plus a tight, boxy, military-type sound). Hi, Mid and Low Toms also come in two flavours. One is a bright, hard sound (which I think is borrowed from the 707), the other is much dirtier and noisier (due to a slight gated reverb) which, with even more reverb is extremely handy for those thunderous power rock imitations.
For those of you who get high on lists, here's another for your collection: tambourine; cowbell; low and hi agogo; low and hi timbale; low, open and mute conga; hand clap; shaker; claves; china and crash cymbals; ride cymbal and cup; closed and open hi-hat.
The sound options are further widened by the ability to tune each sample up or down by seven semitones. This is a simple matter of holding down the Shift and Pitch keys, then using those two Up/Down keys once again. Given this considerable range, it's possible to tailor each sound to your own taste, especially invaluable in the case of bass and snare, where you may wish to avoid sounding like the other ten thousand musos-on-a-budget who've also purchased the machine.
Unfortunately, the TR626 won't allow the use of several different tunings of the same instrument to be held in memory. In other words, whatever tuning you program in for a voice, that's the one at which it will always play (including preset patterns too).
The spirit of compromise inevitably creeps into other areas too. Because front panel space is limited, two voices end up sharing the one button. Not too tragic, you may think, because although the voices can't be programmed on the same beat, they can at least be programmed in the same pattern complete with individual tuning and volume. What's more problematic, though, is when two such sounds are programmed close together at higher tempos, and the second sample cuts off the first. This precludes, for example, the creation of realistic ride cymbal patterns using both ride and cup sounds, or the use of dramatic mulitiple cymbal crashes using crash and china samples.
There are further limitations too. For instance, none of the three conga sounds can be heard on the same beat, nor the three alternative sounds - clap, shaker and claves, for example - which share their buttons. The same restriction applies to all the toms, cowbell and agogos, the timbales, the rim shot and any of the snares. Now this may not necessarily worry you if you're interested only in imitating the actions of that strange beast known as the "real drummer". For example, it might be difficult for said animal (certainly the ones I know) to physically play a snare and rimshot sound at the same time. On the other hand, I happen to subscribe to that school of thought which says that part of a drum machine's brief is to "play the impossible". Call me mad, call me a taxi, I believe that by limiting the combinations of sounds available you're limiting the creative capability of the instrument.
Bitter as it is, this particular pill is sugared by those 11 output jacks on the back panel: eight individual, right/mono, left and phones. Anyone whose recording intentions are serious will know the value of being able to EQ, pan and effect if not all the percussion sounds, then at least the most important. The assignment of the TR626's individual outs places the emphasis quite firmly on the conventional kit sounds: bass, snare, low tom, mid tom, hi tom, hi-hat, crash and ride. Plugging a jack into the individual socket removes the associated voice from the stereo mix passing out through the left, right and phones outputs. Hence, if you're using latin or percussion voices in a rhythm track, you'll still be able to effect them separately by plugging those outputs into the mixer as well.
THE TR626 FOLLOWS the tried and trusted Roland programming system which began life on the Boss DR110 Dr Rhythm and has been variously described through the ages as extremely user friendly, eccentric, mildly illogical and an absolute bastard depending on who you ask. My opinion is that it's no worse (though certainly no better) than any other system I've come across. As everyone seems to agree, the best thing about it is the LCD, which keeps you pretty well-informed as to what's happening and why. And given the quantise and pattern chaining facilities, there's no reason you shouldn't come up with exactly the sort of rhythms and feels you want (within the limitations of permitted sound combinations, of course).
A couple of the refinements are worth a special mention. The most exciting of these is the programmable accent facility, which allows you to vary the dynamics of each voice on each beat by plus or minus three, thereby over-riding the fixed internal volume level. This extremely flexible system makes the creation of natural sounding patterns an absolute doddle. The amazing thing is that you can program different accents for different voices, even when they share the same beat. Thus, if you need a particularly loud dynamic on the snare, you don't have to suffer the hi-hat and bass drum jumping out at you at the same time. In fact, if you wanted those voices to be quieter just then, so be it.
I suppose you could call it the drummer's equivalent of the touch-sensitive keyboard, but the fact is that it does away forever with leaden sounding rhythms. Students of the hi-hat with human emotions, take note.
The other functions which help swing things along are the programmable flam and shuffle. Indeed, the latter is one of the few systems I've come across which actually seems to have any effect on the overall feel of a rhythm (often with quite devastating results).
You can shuffle, flam, accent and generally boogie your way through a total of 48 patterns, arranged into three banks of 16. This matches the number and organisation of the preset patterns, which consist of the rock, disco, latin and swing - with associated fill-ins. There are however a couple of more unusual funk and reggae patterns: ideal inspiration when you've run out of ideas of your own.
All 96 patterns can be used to create a total of six songs, each containing up to 999 patterns. And if that's not enough, the optional memory card (M-128D) will allow you to triple the total memory available both for patterns and songs. For those with flat batteries in your calculator, this adds up to 144 patterns and 18 songs (this time up to 2797 measures in length).
MENTION OF THE back panel brings us conveniently round to the last part of our tour of duty. Here we find, along with the various outputs mentioned so far, the MIDI In and Out sockets, Tape Sync In and Out, Trigger Out and Tape In/Out and a Start/Stop socket for use with the DP2 footswitch.
The TR626 receives MIDI in Mode 1 and transmits in Mode 3. Hence, while the incoming MIDI channel is the same for all the voices, the outgoing one can be programmed for each voice, thereby making it easy to trigger a variety of other units from the machine. Note numbers can also be programmed for each individual voice, though not separately for transmit and receive.
Naturally, the 626 will sync with other machines via MIDI and will transmit as well as recognise song pointers. Using the tape/sync, the machine also proves useful when you're working with a sequencer which doesn't have this facility: the tape driving the 626 driving the sequencer. The trigger output is also programmable, giving you the option of incorporating single voices from drum brains with trigger inputs (Dr Pads, Simmons gear and so on), as well as driving non-MIDI drum machines such as the Boss Dr Rhythms.
THERE'S NO DOUBT that as time goes on, the basic expectations associated with budget drum machines are changing. Once it was enough to hear a muffled click and a burst of white noise for bass and snare. Now if it doesn't sound like Phil Collins at the Powerplant (complete with creak of bass drum pedal and rattle of engineer's earring), then the machine is in danger of being written off as being "unconvincing".
Where sound quality is concerned, the TR626 is excellent. Of course, the real scoop is that Roland should have gathered so much of their previous experience together for so few pennies, effectively producing a serious studio tool for a multitrack-in-the-bathroom price.
However, recently, criteria other than voice quality and number of outputs have come into play. Musicians are beginning to see the rhythm box as a "replacement" (and I use the word advisedly) not just for the drummer, but for the entire rhythm section: and that includes bassist, guest tuned-percussionist, brass players and knife-wielding orchestra. Both Korg and Kawai, for example, have each followed this philosophy with their budget machines, the DDD5 and R50. Admittedly they're not quite as "budget" as the TR626, but they are both expandable in terms of sounds and both allow the sort of programmability which would make "real" drummers turn in their graves. Meanwhile, the TR626 remains rooted in the more traditional notions of what drum machines are expected to provide and herein lie its considerable strengths, but also weaknesses which may make it a less attractive proposition in 12 months time.
Don't get me wrong, the TR626 is ideal for the musician looking for that perfect drummer - the one who doesn't get drunk or argue, keeps perfect time, whose drumkit always sounds brilliant and who can spice things up with some toys from the percussion box when required. The danger is that it might just prove a little bit staid for those who see "rhythm" in a wider context.
Price £350 including VAT
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Review by Nicholas Rowland
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