D16 Group is a year-old Polish company focused on re-creating the classic Roland acid gear. Its first product, Phoscyon, delivered all the squelchy goodness of the legendary TB-303 Bassline, while the forthcoming Nepheton is a promising-looking TR-808 clone. Drumazon is a spot-on rendering of the venerable dancefloor filler, the TR-909 drum machine. D16's modus operandi is quite simple: create plug-ins with unrivaled sonic and performance accuracy to that of the originals while equipping them with modern programming parameters and MIDI control for much more tweakability.
HEY, GOOD LOOKIN'
Drumazon shares the same uncanny, photo-realistic GUI qualities of all D16 instruments. In their Roland-esque layout, the 3-D buttons and knobs beg you to reach through the screen and give things a twist.
At the top of the VSTi-only plug-in (no stand-alone operation) is a control panel used for preset, pattern and audio-output management. Drumazon has a flexible output configuration with each of the rhythm instruments capable of being routed to any of the 11 outputs, allowing you to treat sounds within your DAW individually or in groups. Further, each output can be set to mono or stereo, and every instrument can be muted or soloed when troubleshooting a groove or tweaking a sound. What's cool here is that mute/solo actually stops the triggering of the instruments but allows the sounds to play until the end of their envelopes. In the cases of mix automation or live remixing, that prevents a sound from being abruptly cut off and makes transitions sound more natural. Most parameters can be automated within the host and also controlled by CC messages from an external controller, easily mapped using the MIDI Learn box.
Drumazon can either act as a straight sound module to your MIDI sequencer or play patterns from its internal sequencer, which can be set to sync to its own clock (30 to 303 bpm) or to that of the host. Instrument mapping follows the General MIDI standard (which coincidentally was based on Roland's early drum machines), and the note numbers are the same as the original 909. Instrument presets can be loaded individually, allowing you to audition and choose new sounds in full context while a pattern is playing. The Browser button reveals a handy preset manager, allowing you to organize your own library of instruments, kits and even banks of kits that load across the 16 trigger buttons of the drum machine. Drumazon's standard XML files can be easily edited in any text editor and shared with users online.
THE NEXT TOP MODEL
Drumazon's waveform emulation nails the synthesized drums as well as the 6-bit sampled hi-hats and cymbals of the original 909 with every subtle nuance and detail. By detail, I mean little things such as perfectly emulating the “common noise generator” of the original 909 so that every time you trigger a snare or a clap, for instance, you hit on a different “period” of this noise cycle. That's a big part of the unique 909 sound. To my ears, Drumazon is perceivably punchier and cleaner sounding — not in an artificial manner — but only because it lacks the annoying circuit noise of the hardware. It's easily the most accurate-sounding software or hardware 909 rendition I've heard to date.
Drumazon provides several control enhancements that make the sound far more flexible than the original. New Pitch and Tune Depth controls allow for deeper and more radically pitched frequency envelopes. Likewise, the toms (Low, Mid and Hi) each have a new Tone knob that blends noise/snare ambience release time into the main sound, as well as a new Tune Decay knob, which alters the time of the frequency envelope. Lastly, the rim shot, hi-hats and cymbals now feature individual tuning and decay, and the handclap has a simple, dedicated reverb. Together, those make far more expressive-sounding kits possible without losing an ounce of familiarity, character or classic sound.
LAYING SOME PHAT BEATS
Internal patterns are stored in eight banks, switchable by clicking on trigger buttons 13 through 16 once or twice. Every bank stores as many as 12 patterns, each consisting of a maximum of 16 steps. The patterns can be edited traditionally using the step/trigger buttons or by using the tap function. I do wish Drumazon had a more modern pattern-selection pop-up menu, but the Pattern Name field acts as a decent memory aid. Oddly, instrument or kit settings don't get saved with the patterns. Instead, any changes made to an instrument preset have to be stored with the project in the host sequencer.
Instruments can be accented or flammed per step within a pattern, and a cool rescaling function automatically stretches the pattern to the chosen measure. Shuffle and Total Accent knobs scale the amount of time- and velocity-based swing to a pattern, while the Randomizer allows everything from simple pattern tweaks to the creation of entirely new patterns. Quite intelligently, randomization may be applied to all or specific instruments and steps in selectable intensities for a number of performance parameters, including level, accent and flam.
The internal sequencer has three submodes of operation: Chain mode plays patterns in circular motion, or they can be triggered freely by selecting their corresponding MIDI note on a controller; Normal mode triggers patterns with a Note On message, causing a pattern to play for as long as the note is held; and Free mode plays patterns continuously following a Note On, until you press the key again with a Velocity less than a configurable value.
TO THE NINES
Drumazon is a ton of fun, and the original hardware wouldn't give you a much better experience. You'd be more broke and missing out on all the cool, modern amenities. There's room for improvement with the preset organization, and the 44-pattern set included with my early version (covering a wide range of techno) is kind of slim, but I suspect more will be posted in the near future. Hopefully true RTAS and Audio Units versions will be coded soon because wrapped versions are working less than perfectly, posing odd interface problems for some users. Also, the only manual at this time is a mediocre online walk-through. Still, Drumazon sounds dynamite without any compression or processing. Add a hard-distortion plug-in on the kick output, and you'll have rave flashbacks in no time.
DRUMAZON > 129 (APPROX. $182)
Pros: Spot-on emulation of original TR-909 sounds and functions. Synthesis enhancements for more flexible programming and expressive kits. Internal sequencer with smart randomization per part.
Cons: Must be wrapped for use in non-VST systems. Kit and instruments settings don't save with patterns. Mediocre online manual.
Mac: OS 10.4.3 or later; VSTi host software
PC: Windows 2000/XP; VSTi host software