The Beat Goes On...
Trish McGrath investigates a software package for the Commodore 64 dedicated to the delicate art of rhythm programming. It sounds better than you'd think.
At last, a home computer forms the basis of drum software that could rival budget dedicated machines - with sounds that more than match its programming facilities. The computer is the Commodore 64, the software is the Syntron Digidrum.
Question: How do you combine the flexibility of computer control with a wide range of good drum sounds, without building a dedicated machine and without letting a micro's infernal sound chip get so much as a look in? Answer: you do something along the lines of what a Dutch software house, Syntron, have done with their new Commodore-based Digidrum package.
In essence, the Digidrum software programs the computer to process a pattern of data bytes which, on being received by the hardware connected to the user port, are converted (with the aid of some DACs) to produce analogue drum sounds, which are in turn easily manipulated to form patterns and songs in the normal drum machine run of things. If you wanted to be trendy, you'd call this 'number-crunching'. An obvious advantage of working this way is the almost limitless number of sounds that can be produced by the unit - the first set of 40 sampled sounds is available now - coupled with the ease of saving sound sets and programs to disk. So let the story begin...
The Digidrum package contains a computer interface which connects neatly (it measures a pocket-sized 7cm X 10cm) to the user port of the Commodore 64, software on either disk or cassette, and a strangely-worded user's manual that reverts to its original Dutch every so often.
The hardware boasts a couple of outputs: audio and trigger (wot, no Sync?). The former, pretty self-explanatory and of quarter-inch jack type, is directly connectable to a PA, mixer, delay, hifi or even the Audio In on your monitor. Less useful is the Trigger Out, emitting as it does one upgoing pulse flank per pattern step, but owners of analogue sequencers and some non-MIDI drum units will probably sit up and take note.
Sadly, there's no tape sync, or indeed any means of getting the software to obey an external clock. Other necessities in the hardware line include a CBM64, disk drive or cassette, TV/monitor and amplification.
Loading the program first time automatically introduces the standard set of drum sounds and demo patterns, and takes a couple of minutes. However, once you've built up libraries of your own, the 'bare essentials' can be booted up in the shape of a Quickloader program, whence you load your customised sound set and songs.
From the main menu, the first option presented is Program Rhythm Patterns, and no less than 50 different programs can be stored in the computer's memory at any one time. Believe it or not, this option presents you with the 38-step pattern grid from which the eight available percussion sounds can be selected and programmed. The instruments are abbreviated to read 'COHDSGFB' at all times (regardless of the sound set you've loaded in), and relate to a standard drum kit comprising Closed Hi-hat, Open Hi-hat, Hi-hat, Drum (small tom), Snare drum, Grand tom, Floor tom, and Bass drum. Before you go raving about the number of sounds available, I ought to point out that only three sounds can be triggered at one time - this arrangement allows the bass drum a channel all its own, the metallic sounds another, and the remainder fighting it out for third place. Again, this assignment relates also to the corresponding sounds in other sound sets.
Programming is carried out in step time only by moving the cursor to the required step and pressing the character relating to the instrument you want to sound. F1 places the end of measure bar at any step, and you can listen to the pattern at any stage of its production by pressing F7, Quite why a simple looping feature isn't available is beyond me, as the way things stand now, you need to enter Song mode to hear the pattern repeated.
Plus points include the option to scroll the cursor automatically to the next beat during programming, or to move backwards and forwards four steps at a time. There's also 'Home', which brings the cursor to the start of the pattern. You can erase patterns completely, copy them to other memory numbers, and vary tempo freely from over a 64-step range. If you want to erase all instruments on a specific step you press Delete, while pressing Shift and an appropriate letter removes a particular instrument one step at a time. But if, as I do, you tend to build up rhythm patterns instrument by instrument, you'll miss the facility to remove a voice from an entire pattern at a single stroke.
More serious is the fact that you can't actually play a sound without the software remembering it as part of a pattern. What that means is that you can't 'rehearse' a part in any way without having to go back and delete your attempts at producing a rhythm track. A simple 'Record on/off function would have done the trick, though ideally, there'd be some means of playing over the top of a pattern as it's replaying - but maybe that smells too much of real-time programming...
For all the flexibility provided by the software, the Commodore is sadly incapable of maintaining the screen display while processing a sound. Thus, the monitor presents you with a blank screen once a pattern is playing back. Even during programming, the screen blinks on and off as you input steps, hence a Mute option that allows you to enter beats silently. But even the most basic of dedicated drum machines indicates beats as they go by, and this visual guide is a good indication of where to begin editing. By comparison, 625 grey lines aren't terribly helpful.
When you select Compose Songs from the main menu, you're presented with a five-column screen comprising 100 steps of patterns (remember you can program up to 50 different patterns), and you can instruct each pattern to repeat any number of times (from 0-99) on each step. Since each pattern can have any number of beats (up to 38 steps), the time signature can change in the course of a song. And as if that wasn't enough, you've got no less than 10 songs to fill with your rhythmic meanderings, and a disk drive eagerly waiting to devour the entire proceedings courtesy of a Save Patterns & Songs menu option.
Options include playing a song repeatedly (albeit with a short pause inbetween), setting the tempo, commencing playback from a particular step in the song, copying a section to another location within the song, deleting and inserting bars, and erasing a complete song.
However, using some of these features introduced a slight bug during the review period, in that any space left after the end-of-song stop-bar mysteriously filled with a multitude of white lines. And simply moving the cursor around the unoccupied screen area resulted in white stop-bars being scattered wherever I ventured. Odd, to say the least, but you can easily redraw the song screen via a quick retreat to the main menu.
Once playback of a song is underway, the screen display is jettisoned again, leaving you pretty much in the dark as to exactly which pattern or measure is currently playing. So if you do want to assemble up to 50 patterns, repeated up to 99 times each, in up to 100 different steps, you'll want all your wits about you if you're to follow the order of things.
If the programming side could do with some attention on the part of Syntron's software writers, the Digidrum's sounds tempt you to forget all that and accept the package as it is. As already intimated, the software supplied with the basic package comes complete with a set of 50 varied patterns, 10 songs, the Standard Set of eight drum sounds, and a further Glass sound set. All of which should give you something from which to start building up your own libraries from, pending the arrival of further sound sets currently 'in the pipeline'.
There's no need to wait, though. The software as it stands encourages you to customise your own sets of sounds, for besides letting you store eight instruments in one go, it also enables you to store and load back each percussion sound individually. This makes it relatively easy to store, say, a rimshot sound from one set and reload it in place of the floor tom in another set. Take care to apply a little forethought to the operation though, as in the above example, you have to save the rimshot with the floor tom prefix F/ for it to be loaded to that particular position. Which could mean a bit of disk-swapping if you're not too organised (who is? - Ed). I suppose there's a reason for doing things this way, but it does stand in the way of complete flexibility.
And so to the sounds themselves. The Standard Set supplied were surprisingly clean, with the top marks going to the bass drum (like an untreated, undamped acoustic kit sound), the snare and the metallic voices - though I thought twice about using too many tom rolls. The Glass set supplies you with a good selection of tinkly agogo-type sounds, some of which are aggressively metallic, and an alternative bass drum that was more modern and better defined than the Standard one.
Our test disk included two more sound sets. The first batch, Syn Drums, weren't quite what the Doctor ordered, though the toms found more favour than those of the Standard set. But the Latin Selected were right down our street; closely-miked, startlingly realistic cowbell and timbale, a cabasa that had even the Publisher shaking all over (though that may have been caused by something else), and a repeat performance of the Glass set's excellent bass drum.
So there shouldn't be any complaints from the aural receptors, and whereas you tend to reach the boredom threshold fairly quickly when confronted by a dedicated drum machine that has no voice replacement possibilities, the prospect of lots of alternative sets coming out in the near future should keep the appetite whetted for a much healthier period of time.
If there's one sound feature I'd like to see in the next version, it's some kind of Help page or 'Description of Current Sound Set'. Because no matter which instrument is allocated to one of the eight instrument parts, the program grid retains the Standard Set abbreviations mentioned earlier. You need a good ear and a good memory to remember what's what.
Finally, the main menu will Display Directory, Erase all Patterns + Songs, and Set Tempo at your command, and allows the loading and saving of patterns, songs and sounds to standard formatted disks. Loading times from Commodore's 1541 diskdrive aren't desperately slow (patterns/songs take around 12 seconds, a sound set around 90), so you could quite easily manage to reload at a gig so long as the atmosphere was fairly relaxed.
Some better file management wouldn't go amiss, though - like a facility to rename disk files and a prompt to let you know if a file name exists already, or to remind you that you haven't saved the current memory. Meanwhile, you can opt for a cassette-based Digidrum if a disk drive hasn't yet made it onto your equipment list. I didn't encounter one on my travels, but I'd have reservations about the feasibility of using cassettes and staying out of mental institutions simultaneously.
The Digidrum is a flexible, if at times frustrating, percussion module for a very popular home computer. And it seems that just for a change, the press blurb is spot on: 'the Digidrum is for down-market applications, but with an upmarket sound'.
Keep saving if you want something along the lines of an Emulator SP12. But think twice before buying a cheap dedicated drum box without giving Syntron's software a trial run.
Prices £65 for hardware and starter software, £16 for each sound sample set (40 percussion sounds), both inclusive of VAT.
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Review by Trish McGrath
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