The Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 is a classic-style drum machine built around a percussion step sequencer but with the modern amenities of software synthesis and an integrated digital effects/dynamics section — all tethered together by the best MIDI implementation of any beat box that I've ever laid hands on.
The Machinedrum's sonic prowess is broken down into four main types of MD-synths: TRX is inspired by, but not exclusively limited to, the Roland TR-series sounds; EFM (Enhanced Feedback Modulation) produces meatier synthetic “power drum” sounds and effects; E12 is inspired by the sampled tones of classic E-mu and Linn instruments; and P-I uses physical-modeling synthesis to simulate the behavior of acoustic drums and percussion. And although not considered an MD-synth, per se, GND produces basic electronic pulse and noise elements and pulls double duty by routing the stereo analog inputs. Each MD-synth offers anywhere from eight to 16 individual sound-type personalities, such as bass drum, closed hi-hat, cowbell and so on. Each of these has as many as eight real-time-tweakable parameters with which you can tailor an individual sound on the LCD's Synthesis page. The analog inputs, by the way, are also addressed as machines, but they route signals rather than produce sound themselves.
Kits can consist of as many as 16 machines individually drawn from any of the MD-synths. Each machine in a kit is assigned to one of the 16 tracks controlled by the sequencer (or an external sequencer). Each track has its own Track Effects page with amplitude modulation, 1-band EQ, resonant lowpass/bandpass/highpass filter, sample-rate reduction and distortion. Furthermore, each kit in the Machinedrum has 16 assignable LFOs. Finally, there's a stereo master effects processor with a simple synchable rhythm echo, a gated reverb, a 3-band EQ and a compressor.
After spending a couple of hours reading the excellent manual (a must!) and subsequently becoming a near-expert of the machine (it's that easy), I punched a few buttons, turned a few knobs and was elated to discover that this box can make your ears bleed, torque your gut and shred your tweeters. Being a huge fan and producer of the harder side of techno and trance, I was floored by the MD's ability to sound very warm, full, chunky, earthy and ripped-from-vinyl-like lo-fi.
But wait, there's more! Sequencing is more than half the fun and power behind the Machinedrum. Pattern recording can be performed in either Step/Grid or Live Record mode, but I found that drafting incredible beats was easiest and most fun in Grid Composition mode. Patterns are, by default, 16 steps long and expandable to 32 steps; they can be tempo-multiplied two times. The Machinedrum holds a maximum of 128 patterns in eight banks of 16, and patterns can be triggered onboard individually or by MIDI commands, or they can be linked together to form a song. You can mute or add accent to tracks within a pattern or apply as much as 80 percent swing to the sequence overall. The real kicker in Sequencer mode that sets the Machinedrum on fire is something called Parameter Lock. Simply by holding down a Step button and giving the appropriate knob a crank, you can insert changes to any synthesis, effect or routing parameter for that step in the pattern, allowing you to create wildly dynamic sound loops.
Just as virtual analog synthesis offers far more flexible parameters than sample-based synths, the Machinedrum delivers the same organic liquidity and real-time dynamic control of its sound, allowing for highly customizable and oft-unearthly percussion elements that no sampler could ever be tweaked into performing. The power of the Machinedrum is not in a single part of it, but in how everything interacts. Already a huge hit in Europe, the underpromoted Machinedrum is just starting to make noise on these shores — mainly through word of mouth — and for good reason. Machinedrum is a brave step forward for a beatbox renaissance and a powerful, intuitive, insanely fun tool to use live or in the studio. Put down your mouse, delete those sampled kicks and get ready to cry tears of revelation as you bump up your mix a production level or two — or 10.
MACHINEDRUM SPS-1 > $1,100
Pros: Killer sound. Superbly clean, punchy and flexible synthesis engine. Straight-forward parameter and system UI. Intuitive multimode sequencer with dazzling parameter-automation features. Uncanny MIDI spec. Deft internal timing.
Cons: Pricey. Only available direct from manufacturer.