The Movement Computer Systems Percussion Computer
In our September issue Warren Cann, in the course of his review of the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, took a long hard look at the present situation regarding electronic percussion instruments and discussed possible future developments in this exciting new electro-music field. The problems, though, with this field are primarily commercial ones. Of all musicians, drummers are probably the most conservative and least ready, as a generalisation, to accept innovations resulting from technical advances. You can see their point to some extent. A drum, in essence, is the simplest of all musical instruments — you hit it and it makes a sound! So why start confusing things with all forms of electronic trickery?
To those of us who are, shall we say, more technically minded, electronic percussion is the next obvious step. Drums are large cumbersome beasts that take up a lot of space, have to be miked up individually (not always the case), and are basically one sound devices. With electronics as the drummers' workhorse all this is changed; he can get a far wider variety of sounds, the units are smaller, they cost much the same amount; but as yet they haven't caught on in a big way. Why? Several reasons are put forward, but the prime one seems to be the massive gap between the acoustic world and the electronic. A drummer just needs a kit and he's away; unlike electric keyboard players and to some extent guitarists, all drummers learn on an acoustic kit (there may be the odd exception, but the number is insignificant) so there is an initial hurdle for all electronic drum manufacturers to get over. Also if a drummer is going to go 'electric' he has to invest in some form of amplification, and that's quite a large investment. So drummers aren't rushing to get themselves an electronic kit by the thousands; consequently manufacturers aren't producing vast quantities of these kits.
The drum machine which is player programmed, such as the Linn, the Roland TR 808, and this MCS unit are, however, starting to take off in a big way. This is due, as Warren pointed out, to the rather jaded image people have had of the rhythm unit for the past fifteen years, being swept away by the increasing popularity of electronic music. These machines do so much more than simulate a load of Latin rhythm patterns — they are a whole new breed. But as things are starting small and building up, then so it is possible for a smallish company such as Movement Computer Systems to enter the field and to make a big name for themselves. Certainly with these units constantly appearing on Top of the Pops (backing Depeche Mode), and in the possession of such luminaries as Gary Numan, Jimmy Page, etc, the music industry is certainly aware of MCS.
Player programmable units have become more popular over the past few years because they allow any instrumentalist to compose rhythm tracks to put to their work without having to get hold of a drummer and hire a studio so as not to upset the neighbours. Whereas you have to be a drummer to play an electric kit, anyone can use an instrument such as the Linn or MCS, though drummers do have a distinct advantage in being able to feel what should go where, and how to tell the machine to do it.
Anyway, the MCS Percussion Computer originates from the West Country of England, Bridgewater to be precise, and was designed by Dave Goodway, in conjunction with John Dickenson. Although the Linn unit wasn't actually designed by a drummer it was very much orientated towards the musician rather than the technician, the MCS machine goes the other way more, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It may seem somewhat more daunting when first considered, but it is basically a simple instrument to operate. Indeed, to look at, the MCS appears much like a microcomputer with a monitor and full alpha numeric keyboard; this isn't altogether surprising as the Percussion Computer is based on the Nascom II and can be used as a microcomputer in its own right. MCS can supply the usual range of business and consumer software that turns the drum machine into a word processor or a games centre, etc. We're going to be considering the rhythmic applications only, though the MCS could come in handy on sessions, issuing an invoice at the end of the percussion track!
Whilst on the subject of money I should point out that the MCS unit will set you back £1,799 plus VAT, and an additional £54 plus VAT if you want a monitor — you will want a monitor if you haven't already got one, because the instrument is almost impossible to operate otherwise. MCS supply a Crofton monitor and all the necessary leads.
So the MCS Percussion Computer is less expensive than the Linn LM-1, but how good is it? Well, once you get over the 'instrument looking like a computer' hurdle it is a very good instrument indeed. There are fourteen percussion channels that could, if the need took you, sound simultaneously. Five channels offer either digitally recorded or synthesised voices, whilst the other nine are all synthetic. This is a good idea because it eliminates the cost of having all that storage memory for voices such as tambourine, claves, etc, and concentrates on getting right the most important sounds — snare, bass drum, and the three tom toms. If requested you can have your own sounds loaded into the computer at the factory, or you can have digital recordings of hi hat or cymbals loaded instead of a couple of the toms. The five channels of digitally recorded voices can also be switched to produce electronic simulations of the relevant sounds, so with an MCS you get the best of both worlds. I must say that the quality of the percussive voices throughout is excellent — I don't know if it was due to the ambience of the room in which I was testing the unit, but it seemed to produce a phenomenonally powerful sound if so programmed.
The digitally recorded sounds each use up 8K of memory, which is all stored on a plug-in board, so changing a sound is a very simple matter. MCS do produce 16K voice cards if requested, but I was surprised how effective the results were from just the 8K, which gives about 400ms of sound with a bandwidth up to 12kHz (which sounds quite sufficient).
The synthesised voices are, like the digitals, housed on separate plug-ins, so they can be swapped around as necessary; in addition there are numerous trimmer pots on each card, so a bit of jiggery-pokery will tailor the voices to your own specific requirements.
I won't delve too deeply into the programming of the unit, as the machine really just takes the player through things step by step. There are ten separate rhythm memory locations, and each rhythm can consist of up to 16 bars of 32 beats thus giving a fairly impressive resolution to the pattern. Each pattern can then be sequenced, or chained, providing a possible composite percussion track of over 300 steps. I think that it would have been nice to have had more than ten available rhythms, but then each one can have a pretty complex internal structure; the MCS can handle almost any serious time signature.
Programming a rhythm is done by telling the machine the number of beats required per bar, and how many bars are required; it will then sound the claves in order to lay down a beat. Simply hitting the relevant voice key at the required moment will register that voice to be sounded at that part of the rhythm, and in this manner the whole 14 channel percussion track is built up — simple.
Each voice has a separate volume and envelope decay control, though for the digitally recorded voices, this control doubles as a clocking rate adjustment, and can therefore be used to tune the drums.
On the rear panel is almost every conceivable interface outlet. There are separate audio outputs for each voice; independent triggers in and out for each voice; a printer interface (RS 232); audio output jacks for left, right and mono; as well as a cassette dump/load DIN socket (1200 baud, giving a load time of around 90 secs) and both monitor and TV video outputs. There really is everything here.
The fact that MCS is a relatively small company is a good thing, because it enables clients to have their instruments tailored to their own requirements, and with an instrument of this nature that's important. In a way, though, I feel that MCS aren't sufficiently convinced of the strength of the market to go fully into the design of a percussion computer. I'm talking here in terms of presentation and ergonomics; it's great that you can run ordinary computer programs on this instrument, but I think that MCS might have won wider acclaim if they'd concentrated on producing just a percussion unit, and designed it accordingly.
It is possible to play the MCS in real time, but it is rather awkward — if they did away with the conventional keyboard and used touch pads that could be tapped, or even hit with a stick, I'm sure that the unit would appeal to a wider market. A strange concept, though, narrowing the performance to attract greater sales; but in this case I think that it would hold true. There are facilities on the back for individually triggering the drums with an external signal, but it would be so much nicer to have the facility easily available on the front panel. This is just my personal opinion, but I'm sure everyone would benefit. Otherwise this is a fine piece of British equipment, well made in the old tradition with ideas that are bang up to date. I suggest that anyone considering a Linn should at least give this one a try out — and give it time, it grows on you.
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Review by Dave Crombie
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