Digital Rhythm Composer
What the world has been waiting for - Roland's first-ever digital drum machine. Exclusive review by Dan Goldstein.
It's taken them a while, but now that Roland have produced their first digital drum machine, they look set to re-capture their premier position among the world's electronic percussion manufacturers.
It had to happen sooner or later, of course. Roland had already had a brief flirtation with sampled-sound percussion in the form of the cymbal voices on their TR909 drum machine, and their MIDI Pad system unveiled at August's British Music Fair (and soon to appear in dealers' showrooms) was surely tailor-made for an entirely digital system.
If the 707's appearance looks familiar, it's because the row of pushbutton voice selectors across the machine's lower half is similar to that on the TR808 (Roland's first fully-programmable drum box), the 606 (their budget version), and the 909 (their deluxe version, still in production). Also similar are the pattern and programming selector layout and the illustrations of the four timing options available to the budding programmer, but the 707 differs from its predecessors in having a large LCD readout that incorporates a 16-by-10 matrix display on which programming data is indicated, and a three-digit numeric readout that shows tempo, measure, or MIDI channel number, depending on the mode currently in use. In fact, the LCD grid is a refined version of that found on the Boss Dr Rhythm Graphic, and as well as looking smart, it also makes programming (especially in step-time) a lot easier.
Programming on the 707 takes place on four levels: steps, measures, patterns and tracks. A measure is made up of 16 steps, patterns are made up from a series of measures, and up to 64 patterns can be chained together to form a maximum of four tracks. However, twice that number of tracks can be stored on external RAM cartridge (optional extras, these), and one advantage the 707 has over the 909 is that the receptacle for the said cartridge is mounted on the front panel instead of the rear one, which makes access a great deal easier. Incidentally, Rolandophiles will probably be interested to know that the 707 uses the same RAMs - Roland designation M64C - as the company's MKS30 MIDI synthesiser module.
There are 16 digitally-sampled drum voices on the 707, and all of these fall into the loose category of 'kit' sounds. Two variations of bass, snare, and closed hi-hat are available, but whereas on the 909 the difference between such alternative voices was purely one of level, the 707's duplicates differ substantially in tone, which, given the presence of a programmable accent, would seem to make a lot more sense in programming terms.
Individual slider pots are used for independent level control (though two sliders govern both rimshot and cowbell and handclaps and tambourine respectively), and in addition to these, a similarly-configured group of individual voice outputs (all on quarter-inch jacks) resides on the 707's back panel - a real boon for multitrack recording. The other (though in this instance, less significant) side of the coin is that the odd tone control present on the 909 is missing on the new, cheaper model, and that although the 707's output is stereo, no provision has been made for users to pan sounds themselves as they see fit à la Yamaha RX series. Instead, the Roland's voices are pre-panned, as they are on Korg's DDM series, to form a vaguely realistic stereo picture.
The 707's back panel incorporates a veritable plethora of interfacing options, which is good to see at a time when so many instrument designers are fitting MIDI and MIDI only. The 707 has the dreaded five-pin In and Out sockets, of course, and these are made more useful by the fact that the machine can be programmed to receive and transmit data on any one of 16 MIDI channels. But the machine also incorporates Roland's own 24 pulses-per-beat sync standard (itself only recently adopted by Korg, remember), and sockets facilitating syncing to and from tape, which incidentally doubles as the program dump-to-cassette connectors.
One thing that is fairly clear the moment you remove the TR707 from its protective packaging is that it's been designed down - rather than up - to a cost. The clever people at Roland in Japan must have drawn up a list of facilities they considered essential and then tried to think up ways of packaging them as economically as possible, in order to show some sort of profit at the end of the day. The results of all this are that (a) the 707 is astonishingly lightweight (some would say flimsy) in its construction, and (b) almost every control on the front panel - the level sliders excepted - is multi-functional, thereby eliminating excess hardware as far as possible.
To make selecting functions a little easier, Roland have stuck to the Shift key system pioneered on the TR909, and this makes mode and voice selection a lot less of a chore than it might have been.
Programming can be undertaken in either real-time or step-time (the 707 calls the former 'tap-time'), and the LCD matrix is particularly helpful in the latter mode, as it enables you to see at a glance which drum voice has been programmed and where. The grid operates in Play mode, too.
Real-time programming obviously has the advantage that all the 707's drum voices can be programmed simultaneously (in step-time you have to hold down the Instrument pushbutton and press the relevant selector each time you want to program a different drum, while a flashing cursor indicates the newly-selected voice on the matrix display), but thanks to the 707's logical layout, neither mode poses any real logistical problems. I suspect that the majority of readers will have come up against a programmable Roland drum machine before at some stage, and if you're one of that majority, things will be easier still.
It's worth noting that cost-cutting hasn't stopped the 707 from having both flam and shuffle program options, and these add greatly to the amount of 'human feel' that can be injected into a pattern.
Once you're happy with your patterns, these can be chained together to form tracks using, oddly enough, the same programming selectors you use to do the pattern writing, though this time in their Shift mode.
Ten of the 16 voice selectors double as numeric keys used to specify such things as measure number and MIDI channel number, while a further three are used for Insert, Delete and Copy functions (these see a lot of use during the chaining process), and the remaining three carry out the customary tape dump functions of Save, Verify and Load.
I can remember it being speculated not all that long ago that the reason Roland were reluctant to bring out a sampled-sound drum machine was that their analogue voices were already well liked by large numbers of the modern music fraternity. Those sounds were well liked, and for good reason, because a number of them (I'm thinking of the 808's clap and conga sounds as examples) were just as good as anything digital technology could offer.
However, all that has now gone by the wayside, because the TR707 has brought Roland into the sampled-drum stakes with a vengeance. The 16 sounds on offer are uniformly and disarmingly good, and although the Roland lacks the variety of sounds offered by the Yamaha RX11 or the tuning options of the SCI Drumtraks, I doubt many musicians will have the courage to complain.
Both bass drum sounds are strong and punchy, with just the right length of attack and, interestingly, a hint of recorded ambience that reminded me a little of the ddrum's recorded-through-a-digital-reverb voices. Have Roland done the same with the 707? Well, personally I doubt it, as none of the other voices exhibits this reverb, but it's nice to have all the same.
The snare drum sounds are fashionably mellow and rounded, and a far cry from the lightweight slap that characterised Roland's analogue endeavours in this direction. It's the second of the two that has the greater 'snare' component (remember the 'Snappy' control on the 808 and 909?), and after only a short while I found myself greatly preferring it, though there's no reason why you shouldn't decide on the first for one application and the second for a different one.
The three toms are also fashionable in that, although they've obviously been sampled from an acoustic tom (and it may have been just one: there's a slight aural suspicion that the trio might all be derived from the same sample and then tuned apart), the inconsistencies of the sampling process have made them just a teeny bit Simmons-ish.
The 707's rimshot is simply superb, though for some reason (probably because it's a sound that, in real life, occupies both a limited time span and a relatively narrow frequency spectrum, and is therefore easier to store in solid state memory), this is a sound most digital drum machines get right. However, unlike some of those computing machines, the 707's programming system doesn't prevent you from defying the laws of acoustic drumming and entering a rimshot and a snare voice together on the same beat. The wonders of modern technology, and all that.
Cowbell is perfectly competent if a little characterless, and much the same can be said of tambourine. The handclaps must have posed the 707's development engineers with a real problem, since as I've already explained, the clap sound is one thing Roland's electronics can reproduce Very Well Indeed. To be quite candid, these claps sound more 'electronic' than any other sample I've come across, which isn't necessarily to their discredit. Is it a sampled 808? Frankly, I suspect not, but you never know...
The three hi-hats and two cymbals (crash and ride) are absolutely wonderful, even if the crash and open hi-hat don't have quite enough decay on them to be utterly convincing. In fact, this is a problem that afflicts most of the 707's voices in one way or another, the degree of discomfort varying depending on how much decay the voice has on an acoustic kit. It's worth bearing in mind that digital memory still isn't nearly as cheap as a lot of people seem to think it is (let alone want it to be), so there are bound to be compromises on a machine in this price category, where storage space for samples is still very much at a premium.
Digital noise also makes an appearance, though it's similar in overall level to that produced by competing machines. In other words, quite noticeable when a voice is played repeatedly, thorough headphones, and in isolation, but not overly intrusive otherwise.
So yes, the 707's voices are excellent. Perfection is an entirely different matter.
Two further points worth making about the 707's sonic capabilities, both connected (no pun intended) with the unit's interfacing facilities.
As you know, several MIDI-equipped drum machines are capable of sending their voices via the MIDI bus to a similarly-equipped synthesiser where they can be 'played' from that instrument's keyboard, but few of them do what the 707 does in allowing you to program which keys relate to which drum voice. Not only does this programming facility make remote performance a more logical process, it also turns the 707 into a simple-to-use and, obviously, rather cost-effective MIDI sequencer. I've tried it, and it's great fun.
Secondly, the inclusion of the combined Sync In/Out five-pin DIN socket enables the 707 to be linked up to older-generation gear such as Roland's own MC202 Microcomposer (actually, it's less than 18 months old, but that's progress for you), as well as the recent Korg digital drum machines.
Connecting the TR707 in tandem with a Korg DDM220 might be the makings of an unholy marriage, but the pairing certainly isn't an incompatible one, as the two sets of voices complement each other (only tambourine and cowbell are duplicated - the 220 is better at both) to form a truly unstoppable digital rhythm section. And the combined price tag is almost laughably small.
A very real advance not only for Roland but also for rhythm machines as a whole, the TR707 looks set to have as bright a future ahead of it as any other drum box from the same stable has ever had. It may not possess the fancy (and, it must be said, rather useful) programming functions of some of its competitors or the elephantine memory of its elder brother, the TR909, but the 707 sounds superb. It contains sufficient programming and interconnection facilities for just about any recording or composing situation, and most significantly of all, its price tag is neither too heavy nor too light for it.
Perhaps the header for this review should have been 'The Empire Strikes Back'...
RRP of the TR707 is £525 including VAT. Further information from Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Dan Goldstein
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