A digital rhythm machine ideally suited to life in the studio.
The majority of drum machines sold in this country end up being used for home recording so it stands to reason that you'll want to know what's currently on offer. Paul White peruses Roland's first all-digital drum machine and discovers that it was well worth the wait.
Few home studios can accommodate a full drum kit without incurring the wrath of the neighbours, but as drumming forms the backbone of most popular music styles, the drum machine is often used as the only practical alternative. Up until now, the machine has offered a poor compromise, especially if funds are limited, but Roland's new baby really does give first class drum sounds combined with a very comprehensive programming section. What's more, it's price is within reach of the home studio owner at around £500.
The 707 comes in a tidy but unremarkable plastic case which looks a little on the insubstantial side, but I am reliably informed that Roland have had no damaged ones back, so perhaps it's tougher than it looks.
When it comes to facilities however, things start to look up in a big way; it turns out that lurking behind this modest exterior are no fewer than 15 different digitally sampled voices. These can be used to compose a maximum of 64 rhythm patterns, each of up to 16 beats, and these can then be combined to build four different rhythm tracks or songs. In addition to this onboard storage capacity, there is a cartridge slot which accepts an optional RAM cartridge, and this gives instantaneous loading and saving of compositions as well as effectively tripling the storage capabilities of the machine.
In order to make programming as simple as possible, an LCD display shows you what is going on in the rhythm pattern department as well as telling you what operational mode you are currently in, and there's even a built in party piece so that you can hear how the unit performs before you have learned to program it. Additionally, the 707 syncs to tape in much the same way as the MC202 does and compositions can be dumped to cassette for future use. There's also MIDI. There's much more of course but I have to leave some surprises until later.
The size of this unit will give no cause for concern being only a modest 380 x 250 x 73mm. Weighing in at a mere 1.5kg, you might wonder how so many facilities can be crammed in, but let me assure you that they are.
On the front panel of the unit are all the controls that you will need to access during operation, and in true Roland tradition, most of these are multi-function. Thankfully, these aren't quite as multi-function as some earlier Roland products and are fairly easy to get used to. Also on the front panel is the display, the cartridge slot and the level control section, the only rotary control being the tempo knob. Now I've often found tempo controls to be a real pain in the past because they are so fiddly to set accurately, especially if you indulge in that peculiar perversion known as playing live, but Roland have catered even for these deviants by giving a tempo readout expressed in beats per minute.
The rear panel is particularly busy incorporating nine output jacks for the individual voices: handclap and tambourine, and rimshot and cowbell share sockets. This is fair enough as neither of these pairs of sounds can be programmed to play simultaneously.
The main output is stereo but the pan positions are fixed, and if a mono output is required, the right socket only may be used. Additional sockets include a stereo headphone jack so that you can sort out the programming without driving those in your immediate vicinity totally round the bend, and there is of course a socket for a Start/Stop foot switch. There are also three mini-jacks, the first of which provides a 12V trigger pulse on every programmed rimshot, (handy for triggering your favourite sampler), the others being for tape loading and saving of programs. These latter sockets also function as the sync to tape inputs and outputs.
In the interfacing department, there is a DIN socket for the standard Roland 24 pulses per quarter note system and two further sockets for MIDI in and out. By using these, the TR707 may be used to control another MIDI drum machine or sequencer, and it also enables an external synth to be used to create additional percussive voices. Used the other way round, MIDI may be used to control the 707s voices by means of an external device, which may be anything from a set of MIDI drum pads to a sequencer or even a keyboard.
Lastly comes the power switch and this is located next to the DC input socket. A separate power supply is included, and whilst this works adequately, the rather thin cable supplied on the DC end worries me a little as I have had problems with wires breaking inside the insulation when using similar devices in the past. Two 1.5v batteries support the unit's memory when the power is switched off, but these cannot actually run the machine, you must use the adaptor supplied.
So what voicings do we have at our disposal? Well, there is a choice of two bass drums and two snare drums for a start, and although the two variations cannot be programmed to play on the same beat, they can be used within the same pattern. There are also three pitches of tom tom, a rimshot, a cowbell, a handclap and a tambourine. In the cymbal department we have open and closed hi-hats, a crash and a suitably bright ride. There are actually two buttons pertaining to the closed hi-hats but these for some reason both control the same sound.
All the above voices can be given two levels of accent, this affecting all the voicings on an accented beat rather than individual ones. A new feature called Flam has been introduced which as drummers will know is the effect created by playing one beat after another in rapid succession giving a slap back echo effect. This works on the toms and snares only, and four Flam spacings are available, all of which may be programmed into compositions and sound remarkably effective when used tastefully.
Another novel feature is Shuffle which again is programmable, and has the effect of giving alternate pairs of beats slightly different tempos. This adds a slight swing feel to the patterns and enables some rhythms to be created that would otherwise be difficult or even impossible.
I am not going to reprint the 51-page manual as if you choose to buy one of these beasties, you will have plenty of time to peruse the one supplied. In addition to the manual, though, is a fold out card which is supposed to prompt you into pushing the right buttons when you forget something. In practice, I found it easier to work out how to use the 707 just by using this card, as the small extra effort of will needed to figure things out means that the programming methods, once discovered, are less likely to be forgotten.
"Lurking behind this modest exterior are no fewer than 15 different digitally sampled voices."
Programming may be effected in real or step time, and in real time you have the option of having a click track to guide you. The display shows you the position of beats and accents programmed, and where two instruments share one line as is the case with the two snare drums, a flashing dot denotes the position of one voice and a solid dot the other. If you need to program fills that require more than 16 steps in a four beat bar, it is possible to chain two bars together and to set them to play through at double speed, forming in effect a single bar with 32 steps. Odd bars may also be set to play 12 beats instead of 16 and this gives scope for programming triplet fills. In the event that you need to program an out of the ordinary time signature, bars may be shortened to any number of steps, and bars with odd numbers of steps may be chained together.
Once you have created your 64 rhythm patterns or however many you need, the machine is then set to Track Write mode and you can assemble up to four songs, the main limitation being that the total stored length cannot exceed 998 bars. Editing is fairly straightforward at either the pattern or track writing stage, the latter having its full complement of Insert, Delete and Copy commands, and the display tells you which measure is currently running.
Being almost used to Roland's convoluted logic after owning and using a TR606 for the last few years, I found this machine far less trying. Somehow things seemed more logical, but it would be misleading to say that the operation is child's play, because a machine offering the features that this one does, obviously uses a lot of commands that must be learned if you are to get the best out of it. Anyway, don't let that put you off, it's nothing that an H&SR reader couldn't cope with.
What you really want to know at this point is what the thing actually sounds like, after all, there's no point in going to all the trouble of learning to program it if it's going to sound like a pair of bongos played through a fuzz box. Fortunately there is no trace of either bongo or fuzz box in the sound, and you will be pleased to know that there is no untoward background noise or clock breakthrough that some other machines suffer from.
Both bass drums sound very real and punchy but without being too stodgy at the bottom end. One has a more slappy sound than the other, and it is a nice touch to use both whilst writing patterns as an alternative to using only the accent feature to stress certain beats. The same could be said of the snare drum samples, one of which is deeper than the other, but both are modern and really very good.
The toms are somewhat different to those that I have heard on other digital machines in this price range and they are reminiscent of concert toms tuned to give a pitch drop during their decay period. The sampling time is generously long and allows the full decay to take place resulting in a very classy sound, but for some forms of rock music, you might find yourself craving for a lower pitched floor tom sample.
All the cymbal sounds work surprisingly well and the crash sample is long enough so that you don't hear the cut-off unless you listen to the sound in isolation without reverb. The crash cymbal may be a little too full bodied for some tastes, although I quite like it as it is, but for recording, the separate outputs give you the chance to EQ each output individually giving much more scope for tonal variety.
With the other sounds, these all sound like good clean samples of what they are supposed to be with the single exception of the handclaps. I have a sneaking feeling that this is a sample of Roland's famous analogue handclap sound which has become so much more popular than the real thing. If this is the case, it was a good move as they sound excellent.
The tape sync is a positive boon to the small studio user as it allows so much more flexibility, not to mention the option of changing the rhythm patterns at the eleventh hour without having to go back to square one. Having the dump to tape facility is also invaluable as it lets you dump a client's partly finished masterpiece onto cassette so that you can use the 707 to do other jobs, and then pick up where you left off when the client returns.
The inclusion of MIDI does mean that you can rope in a suitable MIDI synth to simulate the tubular bell parts you've always dreamed of, and when you do eventually buy a MIDI sequencer (if you haven't got one already), you can plug the lot together to form a big happy system, and only use the tape machine to record the voices and guitars.
Because the voices may be played in real time using the instrument buttons, I have found the TR707 to be quite handy for augmenting or reinforcing recordings of acoustic drums. If the crash cymbal has got lost or if the snare drum needs beefing up, this is an easy way to do it, and it's also nice to be able to add a bit of tambourine or handclap during the mixdown just by plugging the machine into a spare channel of the desk.
Before finishing off, it's worth mentioning that Roland also produce a unit called the TR727 which is identical in style and facilities to the 707 but features a host of digitally sampled latin sounds. This may be synchronised to the TR707 giving you a 30 voice drum machine - a mind boggling thought.
Apart from the rather lightweight construction, there is really nothing to criticise about this machine, at least, not when its price is taken into account. True it would be nice to have 99 levels of accent assignable to each individual voice, reverse samples and a slot that dispenses ten pound notes, but remember that this is inexpensive for a digital machine, and all the essential features are there. I have looked at machines costing almost twice as much as this one that don't even have separate outputs and to me, that totally writes them off as useful bits of studio gear. After all, if you can't add reverb to the snare without adding it to the bass drum, you might as well consign the thing to the bin.
Roland then have got their priorities right once again and produced the right package at the right price, and it sounds so good that I'm buying this one if I can find enough pennies under the floorboards.
From an engineer's point of view, although the 707 sounds good as soon as you plug it in, it sounds magnificent with a touch of psycho-acoustic enhancement and a spot of digital reverb.
Review by Paul White
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!