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Review: Arturia Drum Brute - EMusician

Review: Arturia Drum Brute

Old –school sounds with new-school tricks
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Many people like to shout out area codes as if they matter, but electronic musicians have their own coveted three-digit codes that speak to a primal nostalgia and tribal sense of belonging: 808 and 909 send two of the strongest impressions. However, as the world shrinks and progress marches on, hallowed relics can become less and less precious. While analog 808 and 909 drum sounds may always saturate certain genres like trap and deep house, the analog renaissance we’re fortunate to be living through continues to put sacred cows out to pasture.

The next in a line of hungry young analog beasts, the Arturia DrumBrute is emblematic of the embarrassment of riches we now get to enjoy. This 17-sound, fully polyphonic drum machine has an all-analog signal path, 64 patterns of up to 64 steps, velocity-sensitive pads, software programmability and data backup, and full compatibility with the panoply of analog and digital gear of the past and present (see Figure 1). Beyond that, the instrument features a truckload of sequencing and live performance options to make its patterns funky, natural, and endlessly varied—all at a price that should make you feel good to be alive.

Fig. 1. DrumBrute supplies 17 full-bodied analog drum and percussion sounds across 12 channels, and includes an analog highpass/lowpass filter, 64 internal patterns, and powerful pattern effects.

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BUILT FOR BATTLE

A drum machine such as the DrumBrute, which begs to be thrown onto an impromptu folding-table stage and tweaked until daylight, has to be ready for the abuses of traveling and performing. Arturia answers the call by packing the 8-pound. DrumBrute into a solid metal casing with sturdy wood panels that lend the unit good looks as well as a stout, roadworthy build. The copious encoders feel resolute in their mounting, as well.

When performing with the DrumBrute, what else are you going to balance on that creaky folding table? Why, just about anything you desire, because it will connect to and sync up with it all. It sends and receives MIDI Note and clocking data from its MIDI I/O ports, syncs to DAW software and sends MIDI over USB (the USB port does not supply power or send audio), and syncs with many types of analog gear, new and old, over its Clock I/O. You can set the Clock I/O in Arturia’s MIDI Control Center (MCC) software to send and receive clock signals as 1 pulse per step (pps); 2 parts per quarter note (ppq), the Korg volca standard; 24 ppq (DIN sync, including start/stop); and 48 ppq.

The back panel also has 12 individual 3.5mm instrument outputs, including one for the metronome sound; using any of those outputs removes those sounds from the ¼-inch master Mix Output, as well as from the two headphone outputs.

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LOWER THE BOOM

The DrumBrute’s appeal really stems from two main attributes, including its many new and/or modern methods for modifying its patterns and creating spontaneous variations. However, all that would be for naught if not for the other main attraction—the 17 drum and percussion sounds, using an all-analog signal path. Spread over 12 channels—five of which host two sounds—the DrumBrute’s instruments comprise two kicks, a snare, clap, rim/claves, closed and open hat, high and low tom, cymbal/reverse cymbal, maracas/tambourine, and a Zap. Each channel has its own level control and at least one other control, usually Pitch or Decay. While there are 12 channels, each of the 17 sounds gets independent controls and its own part in the sequenced patterns.

When I mention the DrumBrute in the company of the TR-808 and TR-909, that’s not to say that its sounds will replace those of the all-time greats, and I consider that a positive thing. The DrumBrute’s sounds both exhibit characteristics of the classics and take on qualities of their own. In general, they live up to the lofty standards that make certain people seek out analog over digital sound: lush presence and warmth, deep and round low end, biting and crisp high end.

Kick 1 has an attack-like Impact control and a great Sweep control that can thrust the sound into a more musical and special-effect territory. Kick 2 tends toward a more sub-bass sound and is great for huge booms. When used together, especially with the Polyrhythm feature detailed below, Kick 2 provides a thumping anchor, while Kick 1 can be great for variations and an additional accent layer. The versatile Snare has both a Drum Tone and Snap Tone, as well as Snap Decay and Snap Level controls, and it ranges from thin and quick hits to dense and long-decaying bashes.

A real treat, the Clap has long potential decays and a wonderful Tone control that sweeps the sounds through an invigorating bath of resonance. The Rim/Claves and Maracas/Tamb channels both provide some essential percussive ear candy, and the fairly epic reverse cymbal makes for a rare delight when used moderately. The high-energy Zap is also a great addition and adds a little 303-style flavor to the DrumBrute.

An analog multimode filter affects the master output and has Cutoff and Resonance encoders. One button bypasses the filter and another toggles it between lowpass and highpass modes. It is a 12dB/octave Steiner-Parker filter based on the late-1970s Steiner-Parker Synthacon analog monosynth, a now-obscure Minimoog competitor. It has an amazingly creamy and smooth sound; the only drawback is that it doesn’t have the same sweeping depth of a Minimoog filter or other comparable analog filters. Because of that, it doesn’t have the same range for screaming resonance, although it still can pull off that sound within a shorter window. However, that capability arguably is more important for an analog synth than a drum machine, whereas the highpass/lowpass toggle—something you don’t find in all vintage analog filters—helps a lot for isolating and sweeping through different frequency ranges of a drum pattern.

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PATTERN RECOGNITION

The DrumBrute’s 64 patterns (four banks of 16 each) are 16 steps long with 1/16-note steps by default. This can be extended to 32, 48, or 64 steps and can also have step times of 1/8-note, 1/8-note triplet, 1/16-note triplet, and 1/32-note. However, using the Last Step function, you could actually set a pattern to be any length of 64 steps or less.

You record patterns using either traditional step sequencing on the row of 16 backlit buttons or with real-time recording on the 16 velocity-sensitive pads. The pads are very responsive and playable, but I didn’t get the same wide range of velocities out of them as easily as I’m used to with most pad controllers. However, you can enter exact velocity values for every step of saved patterns in the MCC software.

In Accent mode, the step buttons add notes with extra volume to them. Song mode lets you string any 16 patterns together to play sequentially and has 16 song memories. There’s also comprehensive Copy and Erase functions; you can copy/paste a single instrument part to another instrument in the same pattern or a different pattern, copy entire patterns, songs, or even entire banks of patterns.

The Sync button determines whether the DrumBrute’s internal clock will act as the master or whether it will sync to devices connected to the USB, MIDI, or Clock ports. When in Internal mode, the DrumBrute’s transport buttons control the internal sequencer, and clock messages are sent to all the connected outputs. You can set the tempo from 30 to 300 bpm and use fine-tuning to adjust the tempo to within 0.01 of a beat. As a slave to another clock input, the DrumBrute’s tempo controls won’t work, but you can still start/stop the internal sequencer and record patterns, and the clocking outputs will pass the master clock input through to other gear.

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THE SPICE OF LIFE

There’s a lot to love about an analog drum machine with basic step sequencing, track soloing, and track muting, but a handful of extra tools set the DrumBrute above and beyond the norm for extracting fresh and intricate patterns from a beatbox, starting with the Pattern Effects section.

The Swing function applies a really funky shuffle to patterns, but even better, it can apply to only the currently selected track, meaning you can have separate Swing settings for every track. Each pattern gets its own Swing settings. By pressing and holding a Step event, you can also use the Swing encoder to shift a note’s timing either behind or ahead of the beat by 1 to 50 percent of the note’s time-division. That lets you affect the feel and energy of a beat in ways that are commonly used in genres like hip-hop, with the only caveat that you have to enter the value for each note event, rather than entire instrument parts.

Randomness (ranging from 0 to 100) also applies to either an entire pattern or single instrument parts. At a value of three, for example, the Randomness introduces small fills and subtle note additions or subtractions that keep a pattern constantly fresh and interesting. By the time you get to a setting of 50 or more, it’s pretty much varying degrees of chaos—lots of fun for experimentation.

The touch-sensitive Roller strip, which we’ve also enjoyed on Arturia’s BeatStep Pro sequencer, can be used during recording or playback as a looper for spontaneous note repeats of 1/4-, 1/8-, 1/16-, and 1/32-note length. In Step mode, it can enter Step Repeat commands into a pattern without you having to alter the timing data for the pattern. It creates drum rolls in time division values, including triplets.

One of DrumBrute’s greatest innovations, the Polyrhythm mode allows potentially every instrument track in the sequencer to repeat at different lengths. For example, you could have a single kick repeat every four steps to anchor the beat, a single clap repeat every three steps, a single tambourine repeat every five steps, a hi-hat pattern repeat every 13 steps and so on. This would create extensive variations that won’t play back exactly for a very long time. It probably won’t suit you for every pattern you make, but it’s very fun to work with and presents endless possibilities.

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WINNER BY BRUTALITY

Software editors don’t often merit much detail, but the MCC program that comes with Arturia products goes a few extra yards when used with the DrumBrute. It manages the import/export of the pattern data and device settings to and from a USB-connected computer and sets the MIDI values for the transport controls and drum pads. (The encoders do not send MIDI.) Beyond that, however, MCC also lets you edit the drum patterns, set Step Repeat values for the Roller strip, edit track Polyrhythm settings, and much more, from a familiar software interface. Such edits can even live-update to the DrumBrute for instant gratification while performing or recording.

Dictionaries define “brute” basically as a savage, nonhuman beast. While there’s a tired tradition of slagging off drum machines for being inhuman, the DrumBrute’s intricate Swing, Randomness, and Polyrhythm features ironically bring a rarely-seen level of nuance to its patterns that will only sound better in the hands of practiced Homo sapiens. Together with its 17 rich, fully analog percussion sounds, the DrumBrute has all the potential of a future classic of the stage and studio.

STRENGTHS

17 satisfying analog percussion sounds, each with its own sequencer track and hands-on controls. Swing and Randomness values are saved for each pattern and can apply to individual instrument tracks. Roller touch. Polyrhythm mode.

LIMITATIONS

Filter and instrument control movements are not recorded into patterns. Encoders do not send MIDI. No audio input for routing through the filter.

$449 street
arturia.com

Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools.