DISCLAIMER:

This page/article is a growing archival log, and work in progrses. Many entires may remain unfilled as I muddle through appropiate media, memories, and motivation to keep this “updated”.

 

Motivation:

While making breakfast, it dawned on me that I have owned over almost THREE DOZEN “drum machines” (devices that can create rhythmic patterns or loops from analog synthesis or digital samples). Yet, while being in half-dozen bands and a dozen recordings in which I’ve written/rehearsed/recorded on live acoustic drums, I’ve only (so far) had ONE recording project (PowerLoader) that was based around programmed rhythm.

Why do I (continue to) spend so much time/money/energy on something with so little application to show for it ?

I developed my musicality/literacy/voice on the drum kit (in middle school), almost 10 years before actually buying my first drum machine (in college), so studying them was never about need or a creative prop. I just immediately found it empowering, curious, and sometimes confusing to be able to relax my body and exercise my drum-literacy and hear the sound (and see the blinking) of the results.  The ability to set up a familiar pattern, then make
literacy side of my   and not about “know your enemy”… just pure curiosity to understand what kinds of imitation, robotics and automation existed in my world.

Commonalities and Distinction

Somewhere between psychology and engineering lies the behavioral study of “usability,” and the more mechanical design aspects of User Interface (UI) design. I’ve seen a fascinating spectrum of different ways that drum machines tackle the tasks of shaping sounds, creating patterns, stringing patterns into “songs” for automated playback, or driving the whole thing for spontaneous live performance, so I realize I should offer some background and specific terminology into the major distinctions that may make one drum machine work (and play) different from another.

  • Performance Type:
    • sound sequencer” : stores patterns that trigger individual sounds, with or without real time “tweak-able” control of these sounds. Here, “musical e expression” comes at two levels; editing of the pattern, and control of the individual sounds.
    • phrase sampler/looper“:  These devices capture the sound of performance directly. Layers of music performance (i.e. beat-boxing, playing guitar) or playback (i.e. sampling), can be captured, layered etc. Here, the “musical expression” is more tied to how audio layers were created/controlled separately, and how audio playback might be controlled (play/stop, speed up/down, time-stretching, etc).
  • Event Sequencing method(s): some machines only offer one method, others by multiple.
    • sTRip,”  : Originally popularize by Roland’s “TR-” series machines, a strip of 16 lit buttons allows one to see and register events in one bar at a time of one part at a time. Can be slower but more precise to
    • Step Input,” A pattern is created by stepping through available time-spots, and registering note event(s) at each, working in NON-real-time, you step forward, backward, erase, and skip around.  You can also put in many notes of a chord or various voices at one moment without having to wait for the next pass around
    • “Realtime Input”: while the sequencer cycles through the (looping) patter, press a voice-specific button to register that sound at that moment. Intuitive to “play” your parts, allowing multiple voices to be recorded together, but doesn’t allow you to edit anything but “live sounds now,” so this can be tricky plan or prepare (changed) parts to bring in later.
  • Velocity Sensitivity: can the device  the dynamics of soft- and loud taps of real-time playing or otherwise encoded dynamics into MIDI “velocity” in the sequence, and intensity characteristics of the sound ? If so, HOW ?
  • Recording Control:
    • ReStart” some real-time-recording machines require you stop everything, enter a “record mode,” and only allow you to work on that pattern until you stop, and resume “play mode” to switch among patterns
    • Fluid Recording” would allow you to jump freely between Compose (record) and Perform (play) modes while jumping between patterns.
  • Effects: many machines process the initial sound with analog/digital effects, to create more depth of sound, or expressive real-time control
    • reverb or echo can add ambient depth. If sounds can be selectively mixed into a reverb or delay buss (a ‘sub-mix’), we have finer sound control.
    • filters: can change the tone; cutting highs and/or lows. Filters allow for anything between subtle coloration to wild expressive “wah”/”bow” effects upon the source.
  • Real-time Controls: popular options beyond start/stop buttons or individual voice pads include
    • knobs/sliders to mix/filter/warp the sounds and/or effects.
    • control inputs, for foot switches to send discrete messages (“start”, “stop”, “tap”, “next”…). I have yet to see a drum-machines with an CV/Expression pedal input jack for continuous control (i.e. “volume” or “wah”).
    • In addition to triggering sounds or controlling step-events, can the buttons also …
      • mute individual voice parts ? This allows allows a pattern to be varied and deconstructed by live performance.
      • Switch between patterns on the fly ? To allow for vamping and jamming without predefined part lengths.
      • Allow for destructive editing, such as real-time erasing specific events or clearing whole parts ?
      • Change sequence length(s) ? Changing all parts together, or individual parts (to create poly rhythms).
  • Motion sequencing

Summary

in alphabetical order…

Aleis SR-16 : an (under)dogged legacy

Image result for alesis sr16 front back
back and front of the SR-16. Primitive all-in-one LCD screen with no backlight.

Distinguishing Features:

  • Sound sequencer, ROM samples
  • fluid sequencing
  • MIDI In and Out for Sync and notes
  • Foot-Switch IN for real-time start/stop/steerage
  • velocity sensitive pads
  • powerful, if dated, sound library
  • holds record for longest running production lifespan of any drum machine

Perhaps the 4th machine I ever bought. Distinct for being the drum machine with the longest-running production (over 20 years from). Sound comes from ROM sounds acoustic and (80s era) electronic cliche sounds. Each can be warped by pitch and primitive tone control. The velocity-sensitive pads allow step sequencing or real-time-recording. One of the fist popular “fluid recorders,” jumping between Compose and Perform modes on each of 2 variants per pattern (“A” and “B”) and a Fill. 4 outs (2 main, 2 alt) allow some primitive Individual Outs, with foot switch controls for Start/Stop and Tap/Fill/ChangeAB.

I had fun pitching sounds up and down way beyond natural to create warped breakdown patterns, which I could tap into sync and start/stop with my left foot while to create abrupt changes between live and “robot” drumming.

Akai MPC 1000: a compact flagship

 

Akai Mpc 1000 Sampler FREE DELIVERY
front panel of the “stock blue”MPC1000, by Akai… just like the one I knew and loved

 

This became my (first) serious relationship with a piece of gear, bringing new levels of learning to be creative within limitations, and I found not only how their “Programs” could create drum kits or chromatic voices (leads, vocals), but also experiment in between. As understand of, and ability to create on the MPC grew, I was looking at the screen less and less (having memorized all the basic screen interfacing).

Distinguishing Features

  • linear-recording pattern sequencer allows for real-time, step-input, or (with 3rd party OS) a fully-visual sTRip interface for sequencing.
  • more tracks (64) than I have MIDI channels.
  • work based on Projects (pool of samples, instrument definitions, and patterns), with ability to chain patterns into songs.
  • load your own sounds into patterns, limited only by onboard memory, expandable to dozens of megabytes (several minutes) with standard RAM sticks.
  • sample-based sound “Programs” allow up to 4 samples for each voice, with individual volume/tuning/etc for each sound, through a single filter (with envelope) and amp (with envelope). VERY expressive or one-shots (drums, stabs) or sustained tones.
  • Sampler can re-pitch sound, time-stretch sounds (to keep pitch at faster/slower playback), chop and slice rhythm/melody samples into their component notes/hits for creative replay and re-arranging. Time- and pitch warping can sound decent when use for subtle “corrections”, and wild with extreme or “abusive” application.
  • 2+4 phone outputs, with stereo sampling inputs.
  • well-lit pixel screen switches from displaying panel menus, waveform editor, sequencer grid, etc.
  • onboard
  • compact, where pads take on many duties: triggering sounds, switching patterns, muting tracks, even entering letters/numbers.
  • rugged build with after-market options to personalize colors/styles out your panels, pads, and knobs at places like mpcStuff
  • so deep that there are after-market Operating systems (I enjoyed the free version of JJOS form former-Akai employee “Japanest Jenius” ), and
rear panel of the MPC 1000… stereo main, 4x assignable audio outs, stereo in, 2 pair MIDI DIN port, IEC power plug

My Spin

Akai’s MPC line is less a product than an institution. The instrument-of-choice for much of  hip-hop, developed by  by two white engineers (Dave Smith and Roger Linn).

This was my ONLY, and I could already appreciate how people can be productive for hours in it’s work flow. The sampling, sound-building, sequencing, are all feel power-ful yet agile, and moving around quickly became a matter of muscle memory.

Only a FEW things felt like frustrating slow-downs.

  1. Early on, I noticed how much the screen-based interface required me to use cursor to move around and select different things with the data/value wheel. I can see why the “better” MPCs have more knobs and a dedicated.
  2. Later on, I’d notice when I’d have to stop and LOOK at the pads (say to key in names for patterns or samples, or enter numeric values). But luckily, this kind of housekeeping can be deferred within the creative bursts.
  3. After I got good at moving around, I’d start to run “run out of space” in the OS, such as not having enough memory to keep (re)sampling, or how I’d only be allowed a fixed number of  sound Programs per Project. Expanding the RAM helped the first case, but the Program Limit kept me grumbling.
  4. the sequencer required Re-Start to switch between composing and performing, and would lock to one Patten while recording. With the the ability to “jam out” by switching patterns, mute/unmute parts, and even play along, having to stop the groove everything to Record (or Erase) became a glaring hiccup.

These were not show-stoppers, and I continued to use the MPC as both my main sequencer for “beat box work” and main sound-module for my drum kit for 3 years. The MPC, not a latop, was my “brain” of choice for my presentation(s) on drumming-with-triggers and drum machines to the Philly chapter of the Audio Engineering Society.

Where this device really impressed and inspired ME was its ability to not just be polyphonic (many notes of one Program at once) AND Multi-timbral (multiple Programs at once), but also allow control among sound Programs and Patterns that was both selective, direct, and customizable.

Specifically, I could drive sounds out the MPC from 3 or so manners of live control at once, simultaneously (using mostly onboard interfacing).

  1. program tracks of rhythms and melodies on the sequencer, and use onboard footswitch inputs to both (re)set tempo and start/stop the play and/or recording actions.
  2. create a kit of drum sounds one one track to play live by MIDI input (from drum triggers) from my triggers
  3. program a patch of notes or noise, and leave that track active to play it with the pads.

The MPCs smart “MIDI Muli-timbrality” left promise to grow. I considered incorporating additional hands-on MIDI controllers (pads, keyboards, etc) to delegate for more direct, simultaneous control of switching patterns, muting parts, without having to fiddle with the devices screen and pads live.

Eventually, the thing that made me sell it was not so much a need for cash, as much as a growing appreciation/desire for devices with computer-based editor programs  (full screens UI, windows, easy saving/loading/organization, proper typing keyboard, etc). With these (such as my R3), I could do “pre-production” experiments, design, and prep with the strength of the computer,  then “unplug the box” to go play without struggling with menu-diving. Being discontinued from it’s official maker, with only third-party non-professional support, MPC1000 proved to be a dead end there.

I sold my MPC to try out the Elektron models (with their fluid “keep jamming” design and impressive OverBridge software editor suite), I see the MPC Live now has full editor/sequencing/recording parity with their MPC 2.0  recorder/editor software.

I hear the new models only take all Pad or MIDI control for only the active track, and could not “channelize” for 2 and 3 above… so I’m saving that money for a later MPC version.

 

Akai XR-20 : the “urban” SR16

akai_XR20_main
Akai XR20, front and rear panel. image from DanceTech.com

 

 

Distinguishing Features

  • pattern based real-time sequencer, with fluid movement between recording and performance.
  • clear, bright blue light-up pads
  • most-things on one-small LCD screen.
  • distinctive and aggressive sound set, focused on modern rap/hip-hop/etc sounds

Personal Perspective

After Akai and Alesis went under ownership with Numark in the 2010s, we see an Akai-branded re-imagining of the SR-16. Same “Compose/Perform” and A/B/Fill structure, same Main/Alt outs and foot switch INs.

The main things different/added here are the blue backlit screen and the Hip-Hop/Electronic-centric ROM sound set, which offers slightly deeper control beyond pitch with some filter and envelope controls. We also see a “Pad to Pattern” mode, where the  dozen pads can be assigned 1 set of 12 patterns. I enjoyed the real time contro to “surf” through a song structure, as well as the destructive editing, and vivid lighting, but things started to feel limited, and I found myself wanting to move freely among any/all patterns and voices more immediately….an itch that led me through the Yamaha and Elektron boxes to follow.

 

Boss SP-202 : battery-powered portable phrase sampler.Related image

the Boss SP202 “Dr. Sample”… Boss’s first of an era

 

Distinguishing Features

  • the first table-top sampler erode player with lit buttons and no piano-style keyboard
  • Not a a “drum machine” or “sequencer,” just a “sample player” that could loop and hold multiple prepared sounds.
  • NO means of forced time-sync between samples or MIDI clock. That came on later models.
  • 4 voice polyphony (half or stereo samples)
  • super simple and bright button-driven interface
  • 2 knobs: 1 volume, 1 FX tweak
  • FX include primitive Pitch Shifting and Time Stretch (very grainy).
  • RCA input, output.
  • single MIDI input.
  • decent (for the time)  onboard memory (less than a megabyte): allowing 32 seconds at “Hi Fi” (32 kHz sampling) … and 4+ minutes at LoFi2 grade (grimy 3.9 kHz sampling).
  • memory expandable with non-standard 5 Volt SmartMedia cards. Get up to 16 minutes with the 4 MegaByte S4M5 card..
  • ability to save/load Banks A+B to/from card.

Personal Feelings & Take-Aways

This was my second sampler, which I bought after the 303 for several things the 303 could not (apparently) do. This one:

  1. ran on batteries: six AAs in it’s bloated back compartment. Take the sampling to the world !
  2. Allowed you to play multiple samples from different banks (internal memory or card memory). This further extended the
  3. the lowest sample-rate setting on this 202  (LoFi2, at 3 kHz) was WAY NASTIER than that to the 303 (LoFi, at 11 kHz).
  4. unique per-sample approach to FX processing (rather than subsequent unit’s having a FX-path). While you could only use 1 effect per sample, the 202 allowed each sample to remember a different effect… so you could jump between tweaking RingMod on this one or adjusting Delay on that one.

I also got the 202 because I saw someone else demonstrate it’s ability to load/save any a “set” of 16 samples (banks A + B) to- and from the card. With the SP202 allowing up to 7 sets, you could theoretically plan/carry 112 sample slots…MANY more than just 32 samples (4 banks of 8 samples in fixed assignments, as seen on 404 and “up”). Now, technically, the 303 could also do this, but I hadn’t learned or understood the device or manual well enough to grasp this before selling my 303.

Nonetheless, this “new found” ability to This allowed me to create more, smaller, arbitrary grouping for separate songs or projects, and with only a few minutes of wave memory to ration among 7 banks, the limits seemed to “fit”.

The SP202 was crude, quick, dirty, and ugly. but its simplicity led to speedy, un-confused use… with absolutely NO menu diving. No way to edit/trim the sample beyond hitting Mark on time. No wave visualizer. Dismal for anything beyond primitive loops, textures, and stabs. Perfect for capturing crude real-words sounds to play live.

 

Boss SP-303 :

This “phrase sampler” could not only “loop” long(er) samples, but also had a primitive sequencer.

Distinguishing Features

  • sample recording, playback, editing, and looping
  • primitive pattern-sequencer to record and repeat sample triggers… lets it act like an actual drum machine (of sorts).
  • decent onboard memory: from 30 seconds at HiFi (proper CD-quality 44 kHz this time) to 3+ minutes at their lowest Lo Fi (only down to 11 kHz)
  • bigger capacity memory expansion of standard 3 Volt SmartMedia cards. get up to 33 minutes with a 64 MegaByte card
  • ability to save/load banks A+B to/from card.
  • FX processor with 33 different algorithms. Pick one, and pick which sample go through that FX path.
  • One of the first desktop samplers to feature ReSampling of output (through onboard FX) to build and sculpt your own sounds.

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

This was my first sampler, and effectively, my first drum machine. I bought it during my first summer home from college, and spent HOURS recording, re-triggering, warping, and sequencing drum sounds, speech sound-bytes, and noisy drones. Used heavily in the Joy Luck Fight Club  project.

With its primitive pattern-based sequencer, the SP303 was technically my first drum machine. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was frustrating to try to use as a drum machine for two camps of reason.

Firstly, this was the crudest of “reStart” sequencers. You had to stop everything, arm Pattern record, set a number of measures (of always 4/4 time…), and then do some RealTime Recording. Yes, you would delete unwanted hits, and there was quantize, but even this level of “depth” became confusing to find/set/follow on the unit’s spartan 3-character LCD display.

Secondly, as a drum machine, it was not “ergonomic”… not only did it lack velocity sensitivity, it proved frustrating to make any “drumkit” that was inspiring to play. With only numbers on the samples, it was hard to know/remember which drum or other sounds I’d put in a bank to play together, and I had to figure out (the hard way) that I’d like to put kicks on the right hand side, and snares on the left, rather than kick in “1” and snare in “2”… This was further aggravated by the fact that the SP303 had no way to move, swap, or copy samples among pads. In order to move a  You had to sample (From source) again, or use the ReSample to (temporarily) chew up memory.

Speaking of memory waste…while  the SP303 retains the SP-202’s ability to backup Sets of 16 samples (banks A+B) to the (vast) card, this is frustratingly still limited to 7 Sets: so now you’re likely to run out of Set slots before you run out of wave memory. Bummer ! For better or worse, I never discovered or used the Set feature.

 

Boss SP-404 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

I got this hoping it would be a “better” version of the SP303 that I knew and loved. It proved even more frustrating, so I gave it to my keyboard player.

 

Boss SP-505 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Boss SP-606 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Boss SP-808 :

Distinguishing Features

  • Profoundly deep and programmable FX engine

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Elektron Analog Rytm :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Elektron MonoMachine :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Elektron OctaTrack :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Future Artist MIDILooper :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg EA-1 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg EM-1 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg ER-1 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg ES-1 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg ESX-1 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg KP-1

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg KP2 Kaoss Pad: my first “chaotic” love

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg KP3 Kaoss Pad: “chaos” becomes groove-smart

Distinguishing Features:

This is the unit that really put Korg’s “koass” product line to the forefront, with the ability to act as FX/sampler/looper that seems equally useful for DJs (playing whole tracks) as for beat-boxers (building up layers from one mic), such as BeardyMan, who built his early rigs out of multiple KP3s.

  • MIDI In and OUT for clock, CCs (pad) and Notes (track ABCD) buttons
  • 8×8 LED screen to visualize pad position, display text, etc
  • 4 tracks of Loop/One-shot phrase-sampling, with slicing for remix/poly-rhythm play

Personal Feelings and TakeAways:

Other’s have spoken fairly of the power of this unit’s FX, sampling, and looping.
However, the KP3 feels just a bit clunky in that it has a shift key, and can switch context.
The KP1 and KP2 did not…. with the exception of downtime-modes like setting up MIDI channels, the previous KPs were touch-and-go… and the operations of sampling, saving presets, etc NEVER disrupted the flow of playing in a “hands on” way (even without looking).

The buttons/lights/screen on the KP3 switch between at least modes:
– main mode, where touch-pad controls FX and buttons ABCD start/stop/mute the Sample/Loop tracks, and keys 1-8 select Programs
– Track Edit mode, where the ABCD keys select a track, the keys 1-8 will (dis)engage slices of the loop, and the touch-pad adjusts (relative) level of that Track.

Couple this with the fact that that the Shift key can dive into various menus, and Saving presets is a two-button, two-step, “confirm?” process…
I feel like I spend more time looking at this thing, and less time “hands on/eyes off” FEEL-ing it out.
Starts to feel too structured and organize to be “fun Chaos”.

This is why I own two KP3s, but still kept my two KP2s, and one KP1.

Korg KP4 Kaoss Pad: “chaos” gets modular and dumb-ed-down

Distinguishing Features

  • clearly organized UI, just buttons and a touchpad, with some knobs for Gain and one for Mix.
  • 4 group group of 5 buttons…to select/combine a program that each of those 4 groups… leads to 5^4 FX combinations.
  • one Freeze button per Group
  • the “quickest” of all Koass pads… absolutely NO scrolling or menu-diving

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg MS-1 MicroSampler : a messy multi-tool

Distinguishing Features

  • 37 Mini keys
  • two ways to play samples, through Sample bank (press keys to trigger seperate samples) or KeyBoard (pick a sample, and use key to pitch across 3 octaves (1 down ~ 2 up)
  • Big knob to select Sampling Style (Loop, OneShot, Gate, AutoNext, KeyGate)
  • Futuristic plastic surface, recessed buttons,
  • Holds in memory 7 Banks; each bank holds 100+ seconds of sample audio, 16 patterns, and one FX memory
  • use 37 keys speed up jump around a parameters of the large menu-tree
  • two knobs for editing, both on one side, seems to slow down the tweaking within menu diving…

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Korg Volca Keys

Korg Volca Bass

 

Novation Circuit : a hands-on, but screen-less sketch-toy

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Roland D2 : ugly, clunky, cheesy, fun

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Roland PM5D : the PDA for

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Teenage Engineering PO-33 “knockout” :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

 

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Yamaha AN-200 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Yamaha QY10 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Yamaha QY70 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Yamaha RS7000:

A(nother) powerhouse as massive as a proper VCR (player). Sequence 16 tracks (1/channel) Step, sTRip, or realtime. Patterns can be saved and categorized in motifs to quickly mix/match genres.  Sound engine combines deep sampling (and sample control) with an onboard ROMpler from Yamaha’s Motif family of synths. Four effects engines; Insert (with all manner of wild effects), with a Chorus bus, a Reverb buss, and a Delay buss. MIDI sequences can be warped in real-time with arpeggiator and MIDI remixing (stretching grid WAY beyond shuffle). Loops can be sliced and remixed into new patterns. This thing is DEEP… too deep for me at the time. If this device were ever re-imagined with vocoder and USB for software editing and sample management, I’d sell other gear to but it again.

Yamaha SU10 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Yamaha SU200 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Zoom MRS-8 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Zoom MRT-3 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Zoom R8 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Zoom RT-223 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Zoom RT-234 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Zoom RT-323 :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways

Zoom SB-246StreetBoxx” :

Distinguishing Features

Personal Feelings & TakeAways