Sampling Drum Machine
"Affordable" sampling drum machines are few and far between. Dan Goldstein checks up on this contender for a vacant throne from the French.
From France comes a black box that aims to unite the world of the drum machine with that of the sampling keyboard. Is the fusion a successful one?
STROLL INTO YOUR local High Street music shop (make that anybody's High Street music shop), and chances are you will see at least one example of that mid-eighties musical instrument phenomenon, the sampling keyboard. You will probably see several. And you may well get a glimpse of their close cousins, stand-alone sampling modules that communicate with their controllers via MIDI.
But what you probably won't see - unless there are some major instrument launches between my writing this and you reading it - is a sampling drum machine. Simply because there aren't many costing less than £3000.
If you have access to that sort of money, then one of the current glut of samplers/drum machines/sequencers, anonymous boxes that do the job of several units but are still, in essence, sampling beatboxes, can be yours. The E-mu Systems SP12 and the Linn 9000 were the first of this breed, and now they have evolved into the E-mu SP1200 and the Akai/Linn thingy that keeps changing its name; both also have the widely used Sequential Studio 440 for company.
However, if three grand sounds like stretching things a bit, your choice is strictly limited. Exactly why the choice is limited is something I'll come on to later.
You could try to make do with the fairly rough eight-bit sound quality of the Casio RZ1, and have change from £300. Or you could move up-market to the Korg DDD1, add a sampling board, and blow the best part of £1000.
On the other hand, you can go French, and opt for the machine under review here. It goes by the instantly forgettable name of RSF SD140, costs about three times what the Casio does, but is still comfortably cheaper than the big guns mentioned above.
RSF, as you may know, first became known nearly a decade ago for their Kobol and PolyKobol analogue synthesiser modules, much used (and abused) by the likes of Depeche Mode, Vince Clarke and so on in their quest for Better Bleeps. Since then the company has diversified successfully into digital drum boxes, and in technological terms (and perhaps marketing terms, too) the SD140 is the logical conclusion of that diversification.
Before we go any further, I ought to stress one point. The machine we were sent for review was in a somewhat "preliminary" state. Its software was susceptible to crashing (in the end, things got so bad that an EPROM was replaced with a new, modified one), and its documentation comprised a French manual accompanied by photocopied sheets of (pretty rough) English translation, some which were stapled together in the wrong order. A quick phone call was necessary to establish the SD140 as a 12-bit machine with a maximum 30K sample rate.
Happily, things have now straightened themselves out. The software is finished - though undergoing frequent and worthwhile updates including supporting the MIDI song position pointer. And all the machines now in the shops come with a more comprehensive (and coherent) English manual.
THE MACHINE'S DESIGNERS - by which I mean whoever was responsible for shaping the external aesthetics - are obviously not a very imaginative bunch. More than anything, the SD140's appearance reminds you of a Mk1 DX7 that's had its length cut by two-thirds and its keyboard lopped off with a hacksaw.
The similarity is more than skin-deep, too, since those banks of pale green and lilac switches are of the same membrane type as their DX7 counterparts - which means they aren't anything like positive enough to inspire confidence in use. Yamaha have seen the light here and fitted proper "clicking" switches to their MkII machine; let's hope RSF follow suit.
As well as the membrane switches, the machine's front panel proffers ten more push-switches for voice selection. There are two slider controls in the top right-hand corner, a two-segment LED display to the left of them, and a rather small LCD screen to the left of that.
All in all, quite a sparse front panel. As we've come to expect, the plain-looking panel design may help things look neater and keep component costs down, but it's a guarantee of operational nightmares to come.
The rear panel is another matter. Here we find a comprehensive assortment of connections - perhaps more important on a drum machine than on any other of today's techno-toys. There are nine individual voice outputs (on quarter-inch jacks) plus a mix out for those not endowed with multi-channel mixing desks; a single dynamic trigger input; tape sync connections that also act as the means by which sound and pattern data is saved to (and loaded from) tape; MIDI In and Out; a footswitch connection and, lastly but crucially, the sample input socket.
But back to the front, if you see what I mean. The usual problem with having too few switches doing too many jobs is that designers have to resort to a multi-layered system of "pages" through which the user has to rummage to find the correct function.
The SD140 is no exception to this rule. Its particular multi-function book has four pages, and most of the switches have a different job to do in all four of them. Broadly speaking, the pages correspond to four different families of functions. The first deals with pattern and song programming, the second with input and output assignment, the third with MIDI functions, and the fourth with sampling.
"The RSF does take a step ahead of many of its rivals by allowing you to alter the tempo of each pattern within a song, as well as program the tempo of the song as a whole."
Each page is given its own colour in the front-panel legending, but although the system is quite a logical one as multi-function arrangements go, some of the operational procedures it necessitates are none too elegant - as we'll see.
AS IMPLIED ABOVE, the rear panel's nine separate outputs are not, in fact, capable of handling all the SD140's voices at once, for the simple reason that there are 14 of them. These are preset sounds, mounted in ROM and therefore immovable. They cover a fair range, with a bass drum, a snare, a rimshot, four toms, two hi-hats, a cymbal, three assorted Latin Percussion voices labelled "Perc", and a set of handclaps.
In parallel with these, however, is a bank of RAM sounds that represent the spaces into which samples can be loaded by the user. Thus there are 14 zones - each one corresponding to a preset sound - into which external sounds can be loaded.
But the RSF makes life a bit more complicated than that. For a start, the sample zones are not numbered 1-14, as you would expect. Instead, those corresponding to the machine's four tom presets are numbered 1/1 to 1/4, while those equivalent to the closed and open hi-hat are numbered 11/1 and 11/2. In between, we have sample zones 5-10, and afterwards, zones 13-14. Now, there is a reason for these eccentricities, and it is this: the zones that share a common first number also share output circuitry, so only one sample within each group can sound at any one time - in just the same way that, among the preset voices, only one tom and only one hi-hat sound can play simultaneously.
A further complication lies in the fact that since each RAM zone corresponds precisely with its ROM equivalent, not all the zones are of equal length. In fact, they vary dramatically, from a few tenths of a second (the four toms) to over six seconds (the cymbal).
Yet although this system is no substitute for true dynamic allocation of memory - as found in fully-fledged multi-samplers like the Akai S900 - it does at least offer the kind of versatility you need if you're sampling a variety of different percussion instruments. For contrary to popular belief, sticking to percussion (sorry) does not mean all your samples are going to make uniform demands on sampling time, bandwidth, dynamics and so on.
Full marks to RSF, then, for devising a memory allocation system which offers a degree of flexibility, without being too unwieldy (those numbers excepted) in use.
In many ways, it actually makes sense, if you're recording (say) a bass drum, to assign it to the bass-drum zone (number 8). Not just because the memory length available should be just right for the sound itself plus a little post-decay ambience, but because there is also a small selection of editing controls available on the SD140 - each one tailor-made for the sound to which it's allied, and each one usable for both the factory ROM sound and the user-sampled RAM equivalent.
The bass drum, tom and cymbal zones all have filters for altering the timbre of their sounds, and the manual (yes, even my copy) gives you a guide as to the "correct" bandwidth and VCF values you should see in the LCD after your tweaking. The open hi-hat, meanwhile, has a more straightforward decay control - useful enough and a piece of cake to use, despite having to press umpteen buttons to access the function in the first place.
On the pattern programming front, the RSF is conventional to the point of being uninspiring. There are a few nice touches, like the Mute function which allows you to shut an irritating instrument up for the time it takes you to get a pattern just right, without having to lower its level manually. But overall, it's down to the usual patterns-linked-together-to-form-songs scheme of things, with the SD140's internal memory capacity being 100 of the former and 30 of the latter.
Programming can be in real time or step time, and since this is a European machine, there seems to be no bias either way: the two systems are as comprehensively equipped as each other. Before you do any real-time programming, you have to select parameters for volume and accent levels (both are variable per voice and per pattern, but not per beat), length of measure, tempo, auto-correct (quantisation) and swing. Swing can be altered while a pattern is playing back, but quantisation cannot, so if you're not sure how a different rhythmic resolution will affect the "feel" of your pattern, you have to make an educated guess.
In addition to recording a pattern from scratch in step time, you can also apply step-time editing (to alter things like accent levels) to a pattern that was initially recorded in real time. This is good news, if hardly revolutionary.
A variety of erasing, copying and chaining functions assists in the creation of songs, which cuts down on the donkey-work necessary if you want to use a pattern several times at various points in a song, or if you change your mind and decide you don't want a particular pattern in there at all. Again, this is hardly revolutionary, though the RSF does take a step ahead of many of its rivals by allowing you to alter the tempo of each pattern within a song, as well as program the tempo of the song as a whole.
Patterns and song data - as well as sample data - can be stored on cassette tape. The usual save (confusingly titled "Punch"), load and verify functions are provided for this, but it's no more a convenient and reliable means of data storage with the RSF than it is with any other digital instrument. Roll on the CD ROM.
"RSF's engineers have paid much attention to the SD140's sampling section but they've underestimated the importance musicians attach to preset sounds."
Alternatively, pattern data can be sent from the machine via MIDI System Exclusive data. No MIDI implementation chart was included with the review instrument, but I assume it can be done, so owners of universal MIDI disk drives (such as Yamaha's MDF1) should be laughing.
MIDI can also play a part in synchronising the SD140 with the likes of sequencers. Here the machine can act as either master or slave, and the usual 24ppqn MIDI clock is implemented, as is the run/stop command - though I could find no mention of such niceties as song position pointers in the preliminary manual.
Alternatively, you can use the tape sync option mentioned earlier, use the RSF's ordinary internal sync as master, or use an outside instrument's sync to do the same job - in which case you have a choice of 24, 48 and 96ppqn resolution.
THIS REALLY IS the SD140's Achilles Heel. Even if my manual had been one of the simplest and most comprehensive written, I'd have found working my way through the machine's multi-faceted control system a pain. And I think you will, too.
It's not that things are illogical. Or at least, not most of the time. But I can't help thinking there must be a simpler way of adjusting one instrument's level than pressing the Page Select membrane switch (the only control to have only one function, incidentally), holding down the switch for the instrument in question, and using either the "master" slider or a set of increment/decrement buttons to do the necessary tweaking.
Sampling is even more problematical. In common with most samplers, the RSF gives you a choice of manual or automatic triggering, but either way, you have to do a lot of button-pressing to coax the machine round to your way of thinking. The whole process is supposed to take five seconds, but I generally needed more than that to enter the correct page, select my chosen memory zone, adjust the triggering threshold, alter the pitch, and press Start. Only the last of those actions involves pressing a single button.
Things become less logical (and therefore even more frustrating) when it comes to choosing output and MIDI channel assignments, or adjusting individual volume and accent levels. Here, you have to enter the right page, select the voice you're working on with one of the membrane switches (as opposed to the row of "instrument selectors"), and make the necessary adjustments with the good of "master" slider or inc/dec switches. Most other drum machines in this category simply let a dedicated slider do all the work, so why not the SD140?
The LCD screen does sterling work endeavouring to inform you of things like input level during sampling, and the LED does likewise for showing tempo values during pattern programming, but no peak level meter is going to be very reliable if it has only seven segments, and no tempo readout should show "..40" when it should really mean "240". In short, the displays are just too small for the complexity of information they're trying to convey.
LETS RETURN TO our original question. Why, precisely, are sampling drum machines so thin on the ground, at a time when sampling keyboards and modules are in abundance? If my experience with the SD140 is anything to go by, the reasons are threefold.
First, if you're going to make a sampling drum machine, you must also give it a range of preset drum voices. This is in sharp contrast to the people who make sampling keyboards, who seem to have no trouble selling instruments that have no sounds in them at all. The RSF's sampling quality is excellent but its preset sounds are pretty lacklustre - usable, but not earth-shattering. Obviously, RSF's engineers have paid much of their attention to getting the SD140's sampling section right, but in doing so, they've perhaps underestimated the importance musicians seem to attach to preset sounds.
Second (and leading on from the first point), if you're going to sell a sampling instrument as a drum machine, it must have its fair share of drum machine-style programming options. What the SD140 offers here is fair enough, but nothing like as sophisticated as the range of tricks a talented programmer can perform with the Yamaha RX5, which costs about the same. It should also be pointed out that the RX5 offers a more convenient storage medium (RAM cartridge) onboard, and doesn't involve the user in anything like the operational mystery tour that the RSF does.
Third, if you're going to make sampling the crucial feature of a drum machine, you must ensure there's a good range of sample-editing features available onboard. Here, too, the SD140 falters. A couple of different memory lengths and a sprinkling of filtering options are no substitute for proper dynamic allocation or a set of looping, truncating and reversing functions. Comparable multi-samplers - even some that cost less than the SD140 - offer most of those possibilities plus a few more besides.
So maybe that explains why so few companies have entered the sampling drum machine fray. Then again, the lack of competition makes the SD140 unique in its combination of beatbox and sampler programming options. I can certainly envisage committed drum programmers opting for this route into the world of sampling, rather than trying to use an instrument that shatters their preconceptions and forces an entirely new way of working onto them.
If the combination of facilities suits you - and you can tolerate the machine's occasionally eccentric behaviour - the SD140 is well worth investigating. It strikes me as being to musical instruments what Citroens are to the motor industry: a machine that performs a distinctive set of tasks uniquely well, without setting the world on fire.
And though Citroen may never win a Grand Prix, they have always had their admirers.
Price £899 including VAT
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Review by Dan Goldstein
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