mid tech drum machine triumph
One of my first assignments for this journal, way back in the spring of last year, was to review Roland's long-awaited TR909 drum machine (see April issue). But to nearly everyone's disappointment, including mine, the 909 was not the digital delight that Roland had promised: it turned out to have only four "real" sounds (the cymbals), with all the drum noises being Roland's own analogue creations.
Admittedly, the 909 was a joy to use, but the drums lacked the punch that real sounds gave to its similarly-priced competitors. After all, why buy an analogue drum machine for £900 when you can have a digital Drumulator or Drumtraks for the same price?
Realising that real drum sounds are likely to be Flavour Of The Decade, Roland have now bowed to public opinion and bestowed upon us the TR707, an all-digital, all-singing, all-dancing, all-MIDI compatible Rhythm Composer. And all for only £500.
It's cheap, and it feels it. The 707 is roughly two-thirds the size of the 909, and it weighs under 3½lbs, which is not very much. While the switching (most of it dual-function) on the front panel is fine, the sliders that control the individual voices, accent, and overall volume are flimsy, and have a rather short range. The case and colouring are identical to the 909's wedge-shaped grey-on-grey configuration, down to the orange highlighting. It has Roland's usual 16 pushbutton keys along the leading edge, representing both bar length and drum voice selectors, as they did on the 909.
But while the TR909 only had a simple LED read-out for tempo, or number of bars elapsed, the 707 has a sizeable LCD display panel, which includes the tempo/bar counter (not a place to put your drinks, dummy), and a grid similar to that used on the Boss DR110: this fiddly-but-functional innovation shows by little black dots across the grid, which beats the voices fall on; in the step-writing mode, a little arrow appears next to the drum being used. Very useful, that. The other feature of the display panel is a "Mode" indicator, which tells you whether you are writing tracks, patterns, or simply playing.
The fact that the TR707 feels cheap doesn't have to put you off, although it can be something of a psychological barrier when you first pick up the box and have to check that there is something inside it. Roland have obviously had to cut corners to keep the price down, and I'm glad they chose the construction of the machine for this, rather than losing any of the facilities it offers.
The TR707 has 15 different drum voices, with 10 separate volumes and outputs between them; this inevitably means doubling-up, thus rimshot/cowbell, open/close hi-hat, and hand-clap/tambourine cannot be used at the same time as their pair. The other sounds are three tom-toms (high, middle and low), two snare drums (sharing the same output), two bass drums (ditto), crash, and ride cymbals.
The two snares and bass drums give some flexibility to the 707, a quality which it conspicuously lacks through its complete non-tunability. Snare 1 is straightforward, while Snare 2 has a crack to it that suggests the presence of a handclap underneath it — it's a very taut, modern sound. Roughly the same distinction can be made between the bass drum — "1" offers a solid "thump", while "2" is more of a "thwack". They look silly in print, but they're familiar noises — strong and punchy, yet anonymous enough to suit either disco or rock rhythms.
The three tom-toms seemed to have a fairly high level of digital noise behind them — always a problem with sampled sounds — though it was only obtrusive when listening to the voices in isolation. With the full kit in operation, they sounded excellent. The tunings of all three toms are quite high, and this helps contribute to their tight, positive feel.
And so to the rest. The ride and crash cymbals are very good — they don't have that nasal ambience that is often apparent on sampled metalware. The sustain on the open hi-hat is a bit short for my taste, but is adequate for conventional usage. Closed hi-hat is good.
The non-standard drum kit noises let the 707 down somewhat. The handclaps, excellent on both the TR808 and TR909, are now weedy and insufficient; the tambourine is equally unexciting — it sounds like a tambourine all right, but not the sort of tambourine that used to make Tamla Motown backing tracks so exciting. Rimshot and cowbell always were the poor relations on Roland drum machines, and the TR707 is no exception — is this the reason that their output is also that used as external trigger for non-MIDI synths?
Why do Roland insist on calling their drum machines "Rhythm Composers"?
Writing patterns into the 707 is a little less simple than it was with the 909 because of the dual functioning of some of the switches. There are four pattern groups — A to D — holding 16 different patterns each, giving a total of 64 "user-created Rhythm Patterns". These can be programmed into four Track Groups, "or tunes" (according to the manual), up to a combined total of 998 bars.
This may not sound like a lot of memory — certainly not enough to enable a whole set of songs to be programmed in for live work — but Roland have already thought of that, with the provision of the Memory Cartridge. This permits almost instant loading of data (it says here), giving "three times more capacity of Tracks". I wasn't provided with a Cartridge, so we must take their word for it.
As for writing the patterns: if you select "Tap Write", you may then play the keys representing the individual drums in time (hopefully) with the guide metronome provided on the rimshot. It's advisable to try live playing at a slow tempo, as the action of the keys is slightly sloppy, and not always reliable. The position of the beats struck by your paradiddling will be illustrated on the grid in the display window. There, it becomes easy to see why your pattern doesn't sound quite right: a snare drum on beat 8 instead of 9, a double-time hi-hat with two beats missing... Corrections are best made in "Step Write". In this mode, each instrument is written individually into its place in the bar. The voices are selected by holding down the "Instrument/Guide" and pressing the key for the relevant sound: the errant beat on that snare will light up key 8; simply press that key to remove the beat, then press the adjacent key to write in the amended position.
Writing tracks on the 707 uses the same time-consuming method as the 909: it's necessary to press the "Enter" key for every bar/pattern you wish to write in. Zzzz, particularly when you consider that this makes it necessary to calculate the number of times each measure is repeated. Editing, inserting and deleting patterns from a track has been made correspondingly easy, but this is small consolation for the amounts of preparation this lets the song-writer in for.
If you creep around the back of the TR707 you'll find a selection of exciting holes. Apart from the ten audio outputs, there are jacks out for an overall stereo mix, a stereo headphone socket, mini-jack sockets (why mini-jacks?) for the rimshot trigger, and for the tape sync whose 'in' and 'out' sockets double as tape dump for those of us insufficiently supplied with Memory Cartridges. The regular MIDI DIN sockets sit next to Roland's own Sync DIN facility. The MIDI "in" enables connection with touch-sensitive keyboards; MIDI "out" playing of sequences from the TR707 through the allocation of keys to drum voices (though one deficiency of this form of sequencing is that the 707 makes no noise when in MIDI "out"). Which makes it an expensive sequencer, although there are ways around this, using Tape Sync and multitrack recording.
Technically, it's a doddle. There's very little to be found on the TR707 that is not already familiar from other machines — the cutting edge of technology it may not be, but at least all the facilities on offer are known to work.
"Flam", "shuffle", and a two-stage accent are available on the 909. The principle of using a "Shift" key for the dual-function switches is known from the same source, the display grid from the DR 110; all are tried and tested tools of Roland's trade. And despite the manual's best efforts, they are not difficult to learn to use.
I do have complaints. The location of the Start button, for instance, is awkward. The flashing indicators on the display grid (they flash to show you're using the second of any paired noises) are off-putting. LEDS are not used to indicate which Track you are using. But these are awkwardnesses rather than major faults, and they do not detract from the noise the TR707 creates. One problem that might, however, is the manual's consistent reference to the instrument selector switch as "number 26 on the plan"; it is not. Number 26 is "Pattern Clear". This could cause trouble...
Roland's TR707 is a very modern-sounding drum machine, tight, aggressive and bright in a way that no previous Roland "Rhythm Composer" can match. It's not as versatile as some of the more expensive digital machines — not having tuneable drums is the main stumbling block — but it is two-thirds of the price. Thumbs up for that alone.
ROLAND tr707 drum machine: £499
CONTACT: Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Jon Lewin
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