Julian Colbeck samples Roland's all-digital drum machine, the TR-707. Will he hold it, we wonder?
Quite apart from the oddity of 9 coming before 7, is this the drum machine that Roland should have launched instead of their TR-909? The TR-707, on the face of it, is more in line with present-day requirements for digital drum machines. For a start, it is all digital - with 15 individual drum voices - and secondly, the price is more in keeping with rivals like Yamaha's RX-15 or Hammond's DPM-48.
Although Roland have finally made the move to an all digital device, they've retained the form of layout and programming procedures that have stood them in good stead since the days of the TR-808 - but not without improvements, mind you. The first of these is the inclusion of a small grid-type display screen (along the lines of their new version Dr. Rhythm) whereby all the component parts of a one bar pattern are clearly displayed. This is not only a useful feature to have when it comes to programming, but also an educational one, especially for those who find the rigours of step-time writing beyond their scope due to a lack of music notation skills.
In all physical respects the TR-707 draws on its many predecessors from the Roland camp. Quite small and wedge-shaped (380mm x 250mm x 73mm - 1.5kg), the 707's instrument keys lie along the bottom of the control panel. They're not the raised, square type as were seen on the 909, but flatter and oblong, more like the TR-808's. As usual, they have more than one function.
Above the keys is the standard Roland scale setting chart - again, as seen on TR-606s, 808s etc. For those still unfamiliar with this method, here's where your basic time signatures are set. Above this are a number of small push buttons for selecting pattern groups, tracks (songs) and a variety of programming goodies which I'll deal with shortly. Finally, at the top of the panel is the screen, alongside which are volume sliders for all your instruments (though some double-up). I'm pleased that Roland abandoned rotary knobs for this purpose, as sliders are far more easily operated and seen.
The basic capabilities are as follows: 64 patterns can be programmed and stored internally. As usual, Roland refer to a pattern as a standard one bar unit, and if you need a longer pattern, or one that is in a more complex time signature (like 7/4 etc.), then patterns can easily be chained together.
Patterns can be linked to form 'songs', or 'tracks', and you have room to store four such songs internally. Now, before you start to think that the tape interface option is always something of a drag, Roland have offered increased storage capability on cartridge as well. The cartridge simply slots into place and will immediately increase the total of 998 bars threefold. And so to the sounds. Blisteringly punchy, most of them; with two (hard and soft) bass drums, two snares (one a bit too 'biscuit-tinny" for my liking), three very powerful and dynamic toms, perfect rimshot and cowbell, handclaps (hmmm, a bit thin really), good tambourine, open and closed hi-hat, long and powerful crash cymbal, electing one of the instruments and simply slotting in whichever beats in a bar the instrument is to play on, using (in a bar of 4/4) 16 instrument keys. If you make a mistake, a second press of the relevant key will erase the instrument at that point.
Real-time programming can sometimes be a little more fiddly, since to input fast drum patterns you may need to chain a couple of patterns, expanding the increments of a bar. In a basic one bar pattern, as offered by any of the four scale options, you're somewhat limited by a maximum of half a bar of 1/32 notes, or one bar of 1/16 notes, which often isn't quite sufficient. The problem is perfectly surmountable though, either by initially programming at very slow speeds, or by chaining patterns. Patterns are represented as being in four groups (A-D), each containing 16 locations. The same four pattern group buttons serve as track (song) locations, in track mode.
As an aid to lifelike programming, accents can be inserted at two basic levels, and flams can be attached to the beginning of drum beats in any one of four interval ranges. A 'Shuffle' beat - a grace note bounce beat - can also be added in any one of four volumes to crochets in either of the two common time scales. It's quite a neat idea but can get confusing, so it needs to be used with discretion.
For really lifelike playing (though not usable to store information), a touch-sensitive MIDI keyboard can be employed to trigger the sounds. Similarly, the new Roland Octopads can be used. MIDI can be Omni On/Off with full 16-channel assignment, and what should make the TR-707 all the more useful in various multi-instrument/recording applications is its ability to lay down and read a Sync signal - which shares jacks with the tape interface 'Save' and 'Load' at the back. In addition to this, the rim-shot pattern can be used as a trigger out, operating at a 5v 20ms pulse.
Another bonus lies in each instrument having its own output. This makes the TR-707 ideal, especially as it's relatively cheap, for programming at home. And yet it's also able to transfer data, unadulterated, onto a studio multi-track. For live work, where you may not want to gobble up a large number of channels, there are stereo (logically, but pre-set) or mono outputs.
In the main, the TR-707 is quiet - in unwanted noise terms, that is. The toms do still put out some level of digital 'fluff', but that shouldn't detract from their stunning power in attack and impressively long decay.
I don't want to get drawn into a TR-707 vs. Yamaha RX15 contest (well, not just yet, anyway!), but I think I do prefer the TR-707's tom sounds, and there's a wider range of basic sounds to choose from. Also, there's the important point of separate instrument outputs, and Roland's customary generous display of syncing and triggering options. Against this, it's only fair to say that the RX15 is a little cheaper, and a touch more comprehensive in programming and editing terms (programmable stereo imaging/levels, repeats etc.).
It's always struck me as surprising that Roland - who, after all, pretty well inaugurated serious drum machines with the TR-808 - fell behind when it came to producing low-cost digital devices. Now they have the TR-707, and it's great value for money - so one of my (very few) disappointments with Roland has been eradicated. Methinks we'll be seeing (and hearing) the TR-707 for a long time to come!
More details from: Roland (U.K.) Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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