Preset/Programmable Digital Drum Machine
Technics attempt to marry the home-organ drum machine and the digital percussion computer. Success or failure? Dan Goldstein tells all.
The DP50 isn't the first rhythm programmer to be derived from an organ-based drum box, but it has a more modern specification than most. Does it succeed in making the transition to the professional arena?
You've probably never heard of a Technics multikeyboard (you'd probably call it a home organ) by the name of F3. It incorporates such wonders of easy-play technology as PCM Bass Presets and Programmable Tremolo Speed, and weighs in at an RRP only just the right side of £9000, so it's never going to be the world's best-selling keyboard instrument. You might, however, be impressed by its built-in digital rhythm machine. This is a hybrid preset/programmable device that uses PCM technology for the generation of its voices, and lets you use the F3's cartridge slot to store your own rhythm patterns on RAM packs.
Now, before you turn the page in disgust at what might appear to be a domestically-oriented product with no possible pro applications whatsoever, bear in mind there's a lot more to today's organ technology than meets the eye. And a lot of it, given half a chance, could make a sizeable impact on the professional and semi-pro music fields, as a few enlightened organ manufacturers are now discovering.
Technics, of course, have already applied their knowledge of Pulse Code Modulation techniques to a 'professional' musical instrument, the much-lauded Digital 10 electronic piano. Now they've decided that the F3 multikeyboard isn't the only place their engineers' digital drum voices could be of use, and hence the DP50, a self-contained, dedicated drum machine whose £679 price tag puts it slap bang in the middle of one of the group gear world's most currently-competitive areas.
Imagine you're an R&D engineer at a large, forward-looking musical multinational, and you're asked to come up with a drum machine that gives the Man in the Street all the advantages of modern technology, without being an ergonomic pain in the backside. What do you do? Well, if you work at Technics, you derive all your sounds from PCM-encoded samples of real drums, but give the finished device a large number of preset rhythm patterns with familiar names like Bossa Nova, Cha-Cha and Jazz Waltz. That way, Joe Soap can have the best-sounding set of auto-drums in his neighbourhood, and not have to worry too much about what's going on inside the metalwork.
However, when it comes to taking that domestic design and adapting it for the needs of the 'serious' musician, there are a couple of additional features that need to be incorporated if the finished product is going to capture a share of the market. First, and most important, it needs some form of real- and step-time programmability: preset rhythms simply aren't acceptable to aspiring professionals these days, even if the patterns they program themselves are no more inventive than the manufacturers'. Second, it needs some facility for connection to the outside world, and this is provided on the DP50 by MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, the machine being capable of running either from its own internal clock or from an external MIDI one.
You also need a nice, professional-looking facia design and a logical, easy-to-use control layout, and here the Technics does as well as any other programmable drum machine. It looks as contemporary as the best of them, and although there are an awful lot of multifunction switches, their spatial order has at least been given some thought by the design team.
Actually, there are an awful lot of different percussion samples present within the DP50's memory. At least 23 of them in all, though that doesn't take into account the fact that five voices also have dual accent levels, or the unfortunate fact that nowhere in the machine's user guide will you find a list of the various sounds available. This has already caused some confusion within the reviewing fraternity. An anonymous scribe in one of E&MM's rival magazines went as far as to mention a honking noise he hadn't even heard on a record before, let alone a drum machine. Well, to me it just sounds like a perfectly ordinary berimbau, star of a thousand Latin American carnival albums, and a few pop ones besides.
But before you get all excited about having so many different percussion sounds available for programming, you really ought to know that only 15 of them can actually be used to make up your own rhythm patterns. And it's the more exotic percussive devices (berimbau included, I'm afraid) that have been omitted from the DP50's programming section, leaving a rather ordinary selection of PCM sounds that includes bass drum, snare, four toms, two congas, and a tambourine. To be honest, this arrangement does strike me as being a little bizarre. After all, if you're going to take the trouble to PCM-encode a whole load of percussive exotica, you might as well give people some means of incorporating them into their own rhythm patterns, especially as some of the less conventional voices are clearly better, sound-wise, than their more traditional (but programmable) counterparts.
In fact, considering the way the voices have been derived and the DP50's middling but still quite substantial price tag, sound quality isn't really a strong point. Almost all the programmable voices suffer from a fair bit of quantisation noise, the worst offenders being the toms and congas. Some of the samples are less than inspiring in themselves, too. The bass drum (at either of its accent levels) is a peculiar thud reminiscent of BBC Horror Movie sound effects records, while only a couple of the toms really cut it (they might be loud, but it's quality, not quantity, that counts). The hi-hats and crash and ride cymbals are reasonable, while the rimshot is also a pretty fair effort, but the claps are diabolical (God knows where they got those hands from) and the snare has all the percussive character and excitement of a wet piece of haddock being slapped across the back of a trimphone. Sorry, Technics, but if you want to sell a drum machine that can stand on its own two feet outside of an organ accompaniment, you're going to have to put a lot more effort into the sound quality department.
Whichever method of entry you use, the DP50 provides you with seven Composer files in which you can store your own rhythm patterns. However, as each of these is only capable of holding a maximum of 32 measures, it doesn't take long to exhaust the memory available. Once you've done that, you can chain the patterns together using the orange Sequencer button (and there was I thinking there was some sort of digital keyboard recorder built in) to form a Song. And you're not confined to your own patterns, either, because if you're sufficiently impressed by what the preset patterns have to offer, you can incorporate one or more of them at strategic points during the Song, complete with any arrangement variations and intro/fill-ins that take your fancy.
The machine defaults to 16th-note resolution for real-time input at switch-on, but you can alter this value to 32nd-note, assuming you have sufficient confidence in your own time-keeping and digital dexterity. As soon as you've reached the 32-measure limit for the length of a pattern, the whole program loops automatically, leaving you to add or delete instruments as you see fit. And that, in a nutshell, is just about all there is to recording patterns in real time.
"If you're sufficiently impressed by what the preset patterns have to offer, you can incorporate them at strategic points within your own Songs."
As far as step-time programming goes, the DP50's organ ancestry has resulted in a couple of idiosyncracies that may or may not meet with universal approval from the pro and semi-pro camps. The first of these is the way in which the machine offers you a choice of four preset patterns for each programmable drum voice, which you are free to use as building blocks around which you can order your own custom patterns. Most of these are of a predictably conventional nature, and although they might help the complete drum machine novice get started on the road to programming, I can't really see them finding favour with the rest of the pro fraternity: the majority will probably come to the inevitable verdict that they take up valuable memory space which could have been better utilised elsewhere.
If you've decided you can happily live without the individual preset voice patterns, your step-time writing can be accomplished in Manual mode, and it's here that the DP50's glut of multifunction switches really becomes a pain in the derriere. Mind you, when you consider that the machine's voice selectors have four auxiliary jobs to do in addition to activating drum sounds, that's hardly surprising.
As I said earlier, no self-respecting drum machine can survive these days without a decently equipped back panel. Gone are the days when all a manufacturer needed to do was give his drum machine an audio out and a sync socket to ensure interfacing success. The musician of today wants (and deserves) MIDI, separate outputs for each drum voice, a selection of trigger outputs, external sync connections with user-variable time-bases - you name it, it's in demand.
Unfortunately, the DP50 gives today's musician very few of these things. True, there are left and right stereo line outs of adjustable level, but not one of the machine's drum sounds gets its own output, which means you're stuck with the way each drum sounds, its level relative to the rest of the voices, and its (often absurd) pre-panned position in the stereo image. And neither of the two jack sockets serves as a mono out when only one is connected, which obliges you to have some sort of two-channel monitoring system before you can actually hear everything that's going on.
As for MIDI, the DP50 has the usual In, Out and Thru trio of DIN sockets, and is capable of receiving data on any of 16 MIDI channels. You can choose between whether you want the DP50 to send its own clock and stop/start data to a neighbouring MIDI rhythm unit or sequencer, or whether the latter's clock can be used to sync the Technics externally. However, these syncing functions feature only the MIDI clock - no other sync facility is provided on the DP50, nor is it capable of responding to any.
Bizarrely, the machine does respond to MIDI note-on and note-off data over a 128-note range, but will only do so if you've selected a preset pattern that's in the course of being played by the DP50. The reason for this is that, whereas most MIDI drum machines use MIDI note information to trigger different drum voices, the Technics assigns the notes on the keyboard to each of its factory rhythm patterns, so that changing the notes you play alters the pattern that's playing to accompany you. Pretty useful, huh?
I'm disappointed with the DP50, and I think a lot of other people will be, too. The technology it uses is sufficiently advanced for it to be a real contender in the pro rhythm unit stakes, but the way that technology has been applied means the machine will never be more than an unfortunate but irretrievable compromise.
If it weren't for the fact that the programmable drum machine market were so competitive, the DP50 would be great. A selection of reasonable digital drum voices, step and real time programmability, and a large number of preset patterns and fill-ins (some of which are quite inventive, I might add) go together to form a package that looks fairly impressive in isolation.
But stacked up against the competition, the Technics' design failings become all too apparent. Not enough in the interconnection department, a notable shortfall in editing options, the lack of a cassette dump facility (you can save patterns to custom RAM cartridge, but the bigger of these, capable of holding just four Songs, costs the best part of £90), and a distinctly confusing system of mode selection and operation.
On the face of it, Technics have gone out of their way to make the DP50 a machine that's easy to use in a live situation: the peculiar MIDI implementation and myriad footpedal control options are evidence of that. But aside from cabaret performers and their ilk, how many pro musicians actually need a rhythm unit that's easy to manipulate live? Surely the idea of a drum machine is that you turn it on and forget about it, leaving your head, hands and feet to concentrate on manipulating keyboards, for example? Nope. It isn't going to win any prizes.
Further information from Panasonic UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Dan Goldstein
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