Lately, it seems as though anything you can slap, scrape, or smack with a stick has been sampled and fossilized on CD-ROM. The number of ready-to-beat drum sounds is staggering, but arranging them into usable grooves can feel more like trawling a flea market than making music. Ironically, it's quite possible that the sample you finally choose is simultaneously appearing in 15 other songs by other artists.
Fortunately, a small Swedish company called Elektron has bucked the sample-scavenging trend by releasing the Machinedrum SPS-1, a true rhythm synthesizer (see Fig. 1). The Machinedrum provides 49 basic percussive machines (synthesis algorithms) and a wealth of knob-driven parameters to sculpt new sounds from them. Within minutes you can whip up patterns in which every note is subtly or wildly different. Thanks to the Machinedrum's horde of LFOs, the sounds can continuously evolve each time the patterns loop.
The Machinedrum's powerful synthesizer engine gives it a big edge over typical drum machines. Its real advantage, however, is the way the synthesizer is integrated with its pattern recorder. SPS stands for Synthetic Percussion Sequencer, and it's an apt name. Like beloved Roland, Linn, and E-mu drum machines of the past (which it easily emulates), the Machinedrum succeeds not because its sounds are realistic but because of their expressive character and the ease with which you can arrange them. Indeed, as you'd expect from the company that developed the wacky SidStation (see the March 2000 issue for a review), the Machinedrum has more in common with a singing robot than a wooden drum.
The Machinedrum is decidedly not for everyone. It's manufactured in small batches and sold only through Elektron's Web site, and it comes with a ten-day, money-back guarantee. It's pricey for a groove box, though not for a synth or a high-end drum machine. The price includes express shipping and a one-year warranty, though according to Elektron, about half its U.S. customers have been charged an additional $30 to $60 in customs fees. Nonetheless, if you've been searching for a unique, infectious sound to drive your tracks that is packed in a box that's compact and easy to use in live performance, the Machinedrum could very well be the answer.
Like a Volvo, the Machinedrum initially comes off as solid, square, and homely. After a few minutes, though, you'll discover innovations reminiscent of another Swedish import, Propellerhead ReBirth. The Machinedrum is smaller and heavier than you might expect. (If you spread this magazine flat, the Machinedrum would fit over it with one-third of the page's height to spare.) The housing is massive steel with a thick aluminum faceplate. On my review unit, the edge of the faceplate was so sharp that I sliced my thumb; according to Elektron, newer units have been smoothed. Optional rack ears ($35) let you mount the Machinedrum in a standard 19-inch rack; depending on the audio cables you use, you'll need four or five rackspaces to accommodate it.
Audio jacks (all unbalanced ¼-inch) are bolted to the case. Four individual outputs supplement the main left and right outputs (see Fig. 2). Some people on the Elektron Users group site (see the sidebar “Web Resources”) complained about cross-talk noise in the individual outputs, but I heard only a faint version of the adjacent jack's signal on my review unit. The overall sound is clean, though you can easily rough up individual drums with the twist of a knob.
Two input jacks let you apply the Machinedrum's offbeat signal processing to external audio. The inputs also accept standard drum triggers. The only connector I missed was a footswitch jack for remote start and stop, but you can use MIDI for that. Such an expensive box should have a built-in power supply (or at least a cord lock); during one session, I accidentally dislodged the wall-wart cable twice.
WELCOME TO MY PAD
Sixteen drum pads with associated LEDs span the Machinedrum's front panel. In Live mode, the pads and LEDs correspond to the 16 sounds in the current kit. In Grid mode, they denote the steps on which the selected sound will play in the current pattern. Patterns can have as many as 32 steps; an additional button toggles the pads to access steps 17 through 32. Depending on the Scale setting (1× or 2×), each step corresponds to a 16th or 32nd note.
Half an inch square and somewhat clicky, the pads feel dependable; their vertical travel is about an eighth of an inch. Disappointingly, though, they are not Velocity-sensitive — a surprising omission in a kilobuck drum machine. The drum sounds do respond to Velocity over MIDI, but the onboard sequencer doesn't record that information. Because it's so easy to tweak individual hits and automate level and tone on the fly, the lack of Velocity response was less of a drawback than I expected, but I still missed it.
Above the pads is a group of four buttons for selecting the 128 patterns. They access the A through D or E through H banks, depending on the state of the Bank Group button. To call up pattern H3, for example, press Bank Group (if necessary), hold the H button, and then press drum pad 3. Thus, with only two or three keystrokes, you can call up any pattern. If a pattern is already playing, the next pattern you select will be queued. If you hold down a bank button and one pad and then press additional pads, all corresponding patterns will be chained in that order — a useful feature for live performance — and the chain will loop indefinitely.
You can also switch patterns by sending MIDI Note On commands to the Machinedrum. When you do, the pattern will switch immediately, allowing you to create complex turnarounds and breakbeats. The pattern you select will loop for as long as you hold the MIDI note; then it will play to its end and stop.
Surprisingly, the big data wheel above the bank buttons is underutilized. Its primary function is to select which sound to edit, but it's much faster to do that by holding the Function key and hitting the appropriate drum pad, because you don't have to scroll through all 16 drums. You can also use the wheel to adjust tempo, but because a full rotation adds or subtracts just 12 bpm, you might do a lot of spinning. Again, the Function key comes to the rescue: when you hold it, your next four taps on the Tempo button will be averaged to set the tempo. (Tempo range is from 30 to 300 bpm with 0.1 bpm resolution.)
The 128-by-64-pixel display is backlit in dark red, which initially looks exotic but makes the text harder to read than a brighter color would. Another challenge is that most parameter names are truncated to four characters or fewer in a font that's only 3 by 5 pixels. However, the way the display interacts with the Machinedrum's smaller knobs is brilliant. Each knob is continuous; twisting it moves an animated knob in the display, simultaneously revealing the numeric value (see Fig. 3). Pushing down on a knob while twisting it changes the values more rapidly (it's too bad that the tempo knob doesn't work that way). The parameter assigned to each knob depends on the current drum algorithm and on a nearby button that switches between Synthesis, Effects, Routing, and LFO screens. Eight knobs and four screens provide quick access to more than 90 sound parameters. I just wish that the knobs were a bit farther apart.
The best part is that when you hold down a pad and twist a knob in Grid mode, the new value is applied to the currently selected drum for only that step, a feature that Elektron calls Parameter Lock. Using Parameter Lock, you can subtly alter the decay of a cymbal throughout a bar, add a blast of reverb to every other snare hit, or create bass lines by varying a note's pitch, for example. By invoking the Slide function, you can make the values change smoothly rather than jumping, which is handy for the ever-popular panning Vibra-Slap effect. You can also record Parameter Locks in Live mode; each change is applied to the next drum hit.
There are several types of synthesis on the Machinedrum, each with algorithms (machines) tailored for at least kick, snare, cymbals, and percussion. TRX is analog drum-machine modeling. It's inspired by the sounds of classics such as Roland's TR series but offers more sound-shaping parameters. The resulting drums are as crisp or heavy as a low rider could hope.
EFM (enhanced feedback modulation, which sounds like FM to me) can produce aggressive, noisy sounds as well as clear, bell-like tones. Because turning a single knob can morph a sound from a tiny plink to a wall of grit, it's hard to describe the algorithms precisely. Visit www.emusician.com to hear some audio examples.
P-I (physically informed) synthesis is designed to model acoustic drums. With the maracas algorithm, for example, you can adjust the number and hardness of the grains in the virtual shaker. I particularly liked the tom algorithm, but each offers a variety of realistic (and otherworldly) possibilities.
E12, presumably an homage to the E-mu SP-12, is a sample-playback synth. The samples are quite brief, but parameters such as start time and pitch envelope expand the palette. An adjustable retrigger parameter lets you create convincing flams and stick bounces or metallic buzzes if you crank the timing into the audio range.
A fifth synthesis method, called GND, supplies basic sine, pulse, and noise algorithms, perfect for building thin, toylike drum sounds. Finally, INP, the input synth, lets you create a “drum” that applies a gate, an envelope filter, or an amplitude envelope (with optional lowpass filter) to either of the two audio inputs. I plugged in a wimpy old FM synth, set a syncopated 16th-note pattern to trigger an amplitude envelope, and dialed in some effects, and the Machinedrum transformed the chords I played into a pulsating groove.
Version 1.1 of the operating system adds the MID machine, which can play as many as three notes over MIDI when each pad is triggered. You can specify Velocity, Program Change, six Control Changes, and more. All those values are set not by digging through menus but by turning the knobs. Using the Parameter Lock feature, it was simple to automate the chord changes that I had been playing live. Although I appreciated the irony of replacing a keyboardist with a drum machine, the Machinedrum won't replace your sequencer, because each of its 16 tracks (drum parts) records monophonically. On the other hand, the ability to trigger an external sampler could be all you need for styles that rely heavily on sampled loops and sound bites.
The Machinedrum's 64 drum kits can contain a mixture of sounds made with different synthesis methods — a TRX kick and a P-I snare, for example, or even multiple copies of the same machine. One owner turned his Machinedrum into a telephone dialer by detuning ten copies of an EFM rim shot. All synthesis-, routing-, and effects-parameter settings are stored in kits, not in individual patterns (unless you specify them with Parameter Locks). However, every pattern is associated with a kit, so you can get repeatable playback. You can also override that association by pressing the Classic button, enabling you to hear what different patterns would sound like with the current kit.
The Machinedrum provides signal-processing effects for each track/drum as well as for the stereo mix. All effects are simultaneously available. Track effects include amplitude modulation (AM), which ranges from tremolo to buzzy distortion; a wonderfully nasty sampling-rate reducer; a bland distortion that only really helps kick drums; and an unusual filter with controls for highpass and lowpass cutoff frequencies as well as resonance. The user manual (which is concise and clear) explains the science, but it's simpler to twist the knobs until you like what you hear.
Otherwise, you can have the Machinedrum twist them for you. Each track has an LFO that can control almost any parameter as well as other tracks' LFOs. Because the LFOs actually consist of two six-waveform oscillators with a balance control, you can get some ridiculously complex shapes.
Global effects appear only at the main outputs. They include a tempo-synced delay, reverb, parametric and shelving EQ, and compression. Delay and reverb are fed by individual tracks, making them more like track effects, and the EQ and compressor are applied equally to the stereo mix. The delay offers modulation and filtering, which are good for generating spirals of echoes. You can route the delay into the reverb. Reverb parameters include predelay, filtering, and gate time, and the sound is pleasantly trashy. It's a pity that more instruments don't have the Machinedrum's EQ and compressor, which add a substantial slam to the mix, along with enough parameters that you can zero in on the details.
Thanks to its generous complement of LEDs, the Machinedrum makes it easy to see your rhythms as you develop them. You can even switch patterns without leaving Record mode. It would be helpful, though, if the screen could display multiple tracks at the same time. I also wish I could assign a different number of steps to each track to create complex polyrhythms.
Although the smallest division that the Machinedrum records is a 32nd note (equivalent to just 8 ppqn resolution), that doesn't mean it lacks feel. Press the Swing button, and it will delay the steps you specify by a percentage ranging from 50 (none) to 80. Unfortunately, all notes at that step are delayed equally. It doesn't sound like there are truly 30 discrete swing values from 50 to 80, but the ability to swing individual beats is interesting.
As with most drum machines, you can erase unwanted notes during real-time recording; simply hold the Exit/No button and press the appropriate pad just before the clam loops around. I learned the hard way that pressing the Clear button erases the entire track with no warning. If the Machinedrum is stopped, pressing Clear nukes the entire pattern — also without giving a warning.
I loved the Rotate feature, though. When the Machinedrum is in Grid mode, holding the Function button and pressing the right or left arrow buttons will move all notes on the selected track forward or back one step.
ALL FOR A SONG
The Machinedrum's song-editing process is far more powerful than the standard “string some patterns together” routine. Each pattern can be assigned a tempo, set to repeat as many as 64 times, and given a start and stop offset that lets you play, for example, just the last beat of a two-bar pattern. You can mute individual drums in each pattern, although a bug causes the mute status to be ignored on the first iteration of a repeated pattern. (A work-around is to make a copy of the pattern and delete the notes you want to mute in the song.)
In addition, you can set groups of patterns to loop a specified number of times or indefinitely, which is great for live jams. To break out of an infinite loop, cursor down to the step you want to play next and hit Enter. The Machinedrum will transition at the end of the bar. You can set break-points and jumps, and you can even create nested loops. Moreover, it's possible to do all that while the song is playing.
I had no problems syncing the Machinedrum with another sequencer. I was also able to update the operating system by playing a ten-minute-long SysEx file I downloaded from the Elektron site.
The reason you don't see wood paneling or soft, natural curves on the Machinedrum is that its designers are obviously proud of its robotic heritage. Although it builds on the time-tested features of classic drum machines, the Machinedrum leaps off in a wonderful new direction with its distinct synthesis and live-performance capabilities. It may seem expensive, but a couple of noisy, unreliable vintage rhythm boxes would set you back a lot more, and they would have far less creative connectivity. You can control all 384 of the Machinedrum's tone-tweaking parameters with MIDI.
Barring computer-based contenders such as Image-Line FruityLoops and Waldorf Attack, the Machinedrum's closest competitors are probably the Akai MPC2000XL or the E-mu MP-7 and XL-7 Command Stations. Those boxes have the advantage of Velocity- and Pressure-sensitive pads (though the MPC pads are now available separately as the MPD16 MIDI controller); they also have capable polyphonic sequencers. The Akai, being a sampler, has a limitless sound palette, but it lacks the Machinedrum's knobs and tone-twisting flexibility, not to mention the intuitive Grid mode. The Command Stations, based on the powerful Proteus 2000 synth engine and bristling with knobs, are a closer match.
Because the Machinedrum is not sold in stores, your best bet might be to listen to the megabytes of MP3s on Elektron's Web site and to spend some time lurking in the users' group. The overall mood there — and elsewhere online — is very positive.
The Machinedrum is a specialized instrument, but it's one of the easiest to personalize. If you're tired of the sampling bazaar, get to know the Machinedrum. Frequent EM contributor Todd Souvignier once advised, “Let machines speak with their own native tongues.” When the Machinedrum speaks, it's so joyfully synthetic that it verges on being alive.
Machinedrum SPS-1 Specifications
|Audio Inputs ||(2) unbalanced ¼" line-level |
|Audio Outputs ||(2) unbalanced ¼" main; (4) unbalanced ¼" |
|Software Version Reviewed ||1.11 |
|Polyphony ||(16) notes |
|Patch Memory ||(64) user-programmable kits, each with (16) sounds max. |
|Synthesis Types ||TRX (analog drum-machine modeling), EFM (enhanced feedback modulation), P-I (acoustic-drum modeling), E12 (sampled), GND (sine/noise/pulse) |
|Effects Processing (per track/drum sound) ||amplitude modulation, 1-band EQ, resonant lowpass/bandpass/highpass filter, sampling-rate reduction, distortion |
|Effects Processing (global) ||rhythm delay, shelving EQ, parametric EQ, gated reverb, compressor |
|Sequencer ||(16) tracks; (128) user patterns; (32) user songs; (254) song steps; 32nd-note max. resolution with variable swing individual; (1) ¼" stereo headphone |
|A/D/A Converters ||24-bit |
|MIDI ||In, Out, Thru; (384) controllable parameters |
|Dimensions ||13.38" (W) × 3.00" (H) × 6.94" (D) |
|Weight ||6.19 lb. (excluding adapter) |
|FEATURES ||3.5 |
|EASE OF USE ||3.5 |
|QUALITY OF SOUNDS ||4.0 |
|VALUE ||3.0 |
|RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5 |
PROS: Distinctive sound. Extensive tone-shaping controls. Intuitive pattern creation. Bombproof case. Ten-day refund policy.
CONS: Pads lack Velocity sensitivity. Sequencer doesn't record Velocity. Dangerously sharp edges on some units. Overly abbreviated parameter names. No footswitch jack. Loose wall-wart plug.