Portable Drum Machine
Nigel Humberstone checks out Yamaha's latest miniature marvel — a drum box with a difference.
As Paul Ireson mentioned in his recent article Music On The Move, there is now a whole new market in portable, handy-sized hi-tech gear. Whilst other manufacturers may dominate the recording scene, Yamaha seem set to dominate the sequencer and drum machine corner of the market with the release of their RY10 Rhythm Programmer, a kind of drum/bassline machine which has a few things in common with the highly popular QY10.
Weighing in at a mere 0.7kg (without batteries) the RY10 is indeed a lightweight contender. Like the QY10, it can be powered by six AA cells or an optional mains adaptor. At just under 8" square, the RY10 is small enough to be both practical and portable, and its curved front end gives it a similar appearance to the Zoom 9000 guitar processor (which itself is an ideal companion to the RY10, given the provision of a line input on the latter).
On a unit of this size, it's good to see a full complement of connections. The one noticeable omission is a MIDI Out or Thru, but this apart, there are 1/4" jacks for left and right stereo line outs, an input for any low-level external source (eg. guitar or bass) and a footswitch. Two mini-jack sockets are provided for tape in/out (data storage) and headphones, and there's a single MIDI In.
The RY10 boasts a small internal speaker and amplifier, mounted behind a 2" slot in the front panel. Though useful, these have a tendency to distort when pushed anywhere near maximum volume, and lose all bass definition at low levels. In order to hear what the unit really has to offer, a pair of headphones or connection to a stereo sound system is preferable.
The ease of use of a new piece of equipment is always a crucial guide in assessing its potential appeal, and to me the RY10 could hardly be simpler. One of its main selling points must be the fact that you can just pick it up and go anywhere, programming and playing to your heart's content.
Not having had much in-depth experience with drum machines since Yamaha's RX21, I was a little apprehensive, but in fact found myself programming patterns and compiling songs before I'd even thought about digesting the contents of the manual. The RY10, following, as it does, the important conventions of drum machine operation, is uncannily intuitive in use.
The liquid crystal display is a big help in this respect, clearly showing all parameters and prompts — it even includes a miniature keyboard graphic, with a roaming 'dot', showing the bass notes as they play. A set of eight triangular LEDs count through the beats of patterns, and 16 LED dots (above the 16 number keys) have a dual function. As patterns play, LEDs 1-12 light up when their corresponding pad sound is triggered, and in step record mode they show, one instrument at a time, on which 16th notes in the bar that instrument will play; you enter and remove notes with the 16 number keys, and have a good graphic overview of one instrument's part in a pattern.
Situated above the LEDs is the Function Selection Matrix, which includes the mode keys: PTN (pattern), SONG and UTIL (utility). Any one of the functions listed on the grid panel can be selected by pressing a number key whilst holding down the appropriate mode key. I found this form of control interface very easy to work with, and a welcome change from constant scrolling through parameters. Completing the RY10's quota of soft key buttons are the seven placed above the instrument pads; namely the self-explanatory START/GO, STOP/CONT and FILL, along with MEMORY (which selects either internal or preset memory), the PAD key (which switches the instrument pads between drum, percussion or bass voices) and the inc/dec keys used for selecting and editing in various modes.
The most direct means of playing the RY10's drum, percussion and bass sounds is via the 12 instrument pads, which are laid out, rather ingeniously, in the style of a one-octave keyboard. Two smaller ACC/OCT keys, one at either end, have the dual function of providing accents when programming drum and percussion voices, and shifting the pitch of the bass voices, thereby providing a total range of three octaves.
Each instrument pad can be assigned to a different sound. The RY10 sports 250 voices, all of which can be individually adjusted for tuning, level, panning and accent levels. The RY10 uses Yamaha's AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) tone generator system, and includes 16 preset Pad Banks, composite kits of drums, percussion, and bass. The preset Banks includes selections such as 'Ambient', 'Dry', 'Analog', 'Techno' and 'Eurobeat', with a further 16 internal banks available for custom combinations. Each Pad Bank can hold up to 12 drum voices, 12 percussion voices and one bass voice.
There are 50 preset patterns and fill-ins, plus the same amount of user memory. Scrolling through the varying styles, you realise just how much fun can be had with this device. Each pattern can have its whole character and feel changed by selecting a different bank or 'kit of sounds'. This feature is ideal for getting new inspiration from a pattern that you may have programmed and not felt too happy with. The preset patterns are extremely listenable, ranging from Funk, Blues and Jazz through to House, Euro Beat, Rap and Techno rhythms. All have varying tempos, time measures and the ability to either mute or copy the bass patterns. The sounds themselves are tight and punchy, with only the occasional hint of distortion and break-up.
There are nine bass instruments, ranging from your standard electric bass, through slap and deep reggae, to analogue synth. Despite a noticeable hiss, which appears to be inherent in many of the samples, the sounds suit their purpose well and the LCD display of which notes are playing is very useful. In bass mode, the keyboard is monophonic, and when programming basslines in real time (step time is also allowed), the pads are sensitive to how long they are held down — you do not, therefore, need a second step in recording to determine note length. Note length, level and transposition are all variable.
The procedure for programming your own patterns and songs is much the same as on most drum machines. There are, of course, facilities for clearing and copying patterns, changing time signatures, deleting and inserting song sections, choice of repeat and chain playback, and an adjustable 'swing' function.
Perhaps one of the RY10's most noticeable drawbacks is the lack of a MIDI Out. For a device which provides the user with such an immediate means of composition, this is a shame, as it prevents you from dumping your work straight to a computer sequencer for further editing. However, backup of patterns and songs is allowed via a tape interface. The lack of any MIDI Thru also limits where the RY10 can be placed in your MIDI system.
MIDI mode, accessed via the utility key, has five functions, including the ability to allocate separate MIDI channels for drum and bass instruments. MIDI note numbers can also be assigned to the various instrument pads, and the RY10 can, of course, run either off its own clock or in sync to a MIDI source. The instrument pads on the RY10 are not velocity sensitive, but you can use an external controller of some kind to add dynamic control of volume.
Utility functions on the RY10 include pad and accent level adjustment, voice assignment, pan, tuning (a semitone either way), transposition, and 'chase', which allows you to determine if a particular set of 'kit' sounds is selected with a new pattern, or whether kits must be selected manually. The footswitch can be used to control pattern and song playback, through its Stop, Fill, and Next modes.
The RY10's inclusion of an automatic guitar tuner certainly adds to the unit's user friendliness; along with the line-in jack, this confirms the RY10's value as a tool for portable composition. In any case, it inspired me to dust off my guitar, plug in and play along.
Compared to the QY10, which has obvious similarities, whilst possessing better editing and sequencing facilities and more sounds, the RY10 actually comes out quite well: it is less fiddly to use, more immediate, and therefore better suited to fleshing out ideas whilst they are still fresh in the mind. For this level of product, the general idea is to provide a portable and convenient means for rhythm programming, and as such the RY10 delivers the goods.
As a writing tool, the RY10 is undoubtedly a piece of gear that, whilst highly portable, is still flexible enough to be of use to guitarists, drummers, and keyboardists alike. Yamaha seem set to attract a lot of interest with the RY10.
Yamaha RY10 £249 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble Music, (Contact Details).
Review by Nigel Humberstone
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