The majority of technology-based musical products are aimed squarely at the keyboard player, and seen in that light, the Dr Rhythm Section comes as a refreshing change, as its interface is specifically designed with the guitar player in mind. Beneath the surface, it offers the kind of accompaniment and arrangement facilities that keyboard player have enjoyed for many years, and though anything to do with auto accompaniment has had its share of bad press over the years, the current state of the technology is more impressive than you might imagine. Don't listen to anybody who says that you can't achieve anything useful unless you have a MIDI keyboard, sequencer and a couple of synth and sampler units -- you could start a career in music with the Boss Dr Rhythm section, given the raw talent, a voice, a guitar and the means to record your ideas.
The Boss DR5 isn't a toy -- It's not just for people who want to dabble in music, although there's certainly no harm in that. The other thing that the DR5 is not, is a piece of equipment to add to an existing MIDI setup (although you can do this). If you're the sort of buyer the DR5 is aimed at, it'll be one of the first pieces of equipment you own because it's self-contained. It isn't necessarily better than a good multitimbral MIDI keyboard and sequencer, but it will cost you less. I also get the feeling that it will distract you less from the music-making process itself. It really is very easy to get caught up in technology for its own sake and forget what you're really trying to do.
You don't have to have a guitar to use the DR5, but it is laid out for guitarists rather than keyboard players and it's important to remember that using at least one non-sampled or synthesized instrument (your guitar) in your arrangement will add that all important element of humanity that is often missing in modern music.
The Boss DR5 is, as you can see, exceedingly button encrusted. Do they all really have a function? Will it take years to learn? Well, as far as I can tell, they all do have a function, and you're going to have to read the manual to learn them all. Even so, I often find that equipment is more complex in appearance than reality, and I start off by saying to myself "I'm never going to be able to learn all this", and then two hours later I have; and I'm no more intelligent than the average muso -- just more persistent, perhaps. I did test out this unit on some typical examples of Roland's target market (five students on a sound engineering course) and the main thing that held them back from fully understanding the device was an insufficient study of the manual.
In essence, the DR5 is laid out like a guitar. The leftmost column of buttons represent the open strings and the columns to the right of that represent the frets. Unfortunately, you're not going to be able to manage to playing this 'fret board' like a normal guitarist would unless your fingers are at least 10 inches long! Maybe Roland will bring out a guitar-shaped controller accessory, but I doubt it. Because of this, even an experienced guitarist will have to ponder over where the correct notes are to be found. When you play a normal guitar, your fingers seem to 'know' where the notes are automatically. Here, you have to think a little until you get used to it (and then you'll probably find yourself playing real guitars the same way!). Another problem with the layout -- although I can see why Roland have done it in this way -- is that only the buttons representing the bottom three 'strings' have the notes' letter names on them. The top three 'strings' have an additional function for playing chords -- more on this later -- and the available space is taken up for this. Then again, who ever bought a guitar with the note names engraved into the fret board?
Contrary to normal gig practice, let me introduce the members of the band halfway through the show. The rhythm section consists of four instruments which Roland confusingly describe as a 'kit'. Obviously there has to be a set of drums in each kit or Roland would get sued under the Trade Description Act, and there is the obligatory bass guitar or bass synth, plus two other instruments. There are many pre-programmed kits available to suit your chosen style of music, so if country music is your thing (and why not? It's one of the biggest selling styles of music world-wide), then there are kits to suit your purpose. If you can't bear to be routed away from the familiar there are enough dance and rock sounds to keep you very happy. So what are the sounds themselves like? You know already that it's made by Roland, and Roland certainly know a thing or two about drum sounds. In fact they have almost defined what a sampled drum kit should sound like. The DR5 doesn't achieve the impossible and sound like a good drummer playing a good, well recorded kit, but the drum sounds do sound 'right' in themselves, and Roland have provided a range of useful combinations. The only thing that is lacking, I would say, is a selection of 'sampled from vinyl' sounds since that is obviously what many people are looking for right now. To compensate for this, although there is no mention in the manual, Roland's designers have cunningly engineered the headphone output to give a lovely thick distortion when the batteries are running down!
In total, there are 47 preset kits which use sounds from the 256 instruments available. This a pretty impressive number of instruments and, as you would expect, most of them are percussion, but it would be unreasonable to expect to have, for instance, a different tambourine in every kit, so you must be prepared to use the same sounds again and again. There are many versions of commonly-used instruments, however (32 kick drums, including the famous TR909, for example), so the potential for sample boredom is minimised. The other instruments include such wonders as ukelele, Hawaiian guitar, pizzicato strings and accordion, among standards such as bowed strings, choir, electric and acoustic guitars and piano. For the cost of the DR5, it really is a good range and something that couldn't have been imagined in the early days of drum machines. And when you have tired of the preset kits, remembering that here a 'kit' isn't just the drums but the other three instruments of the rhythm section as well, you can make up your own from the instruments available, and you can even edit the sounds to a certain extent.
Since behind all the sexy black technology of the DR5 there beats the heart and soul of a drum machine, building up a backing track is a process of creating patterns and chaining them together into a song. With this drum machine, you do have to chain the patterns together; you cannot use the same pattern as the basis of the whole song -- as many drum machine users do -- since it really would get rather boring. I'm not going to bore you with the 'how' of creating patterns and making songs because it's really easy, with both real-time and step-time writing available. At this stage you're probably more concerned with the concept behind the machine and you want to see whether it fits in with your way of thinking.
If you're used to dealing with a sequencer, I should say that working with a drum machine really involves planning your song structure first before creating it, and then maybe doing a little bit of editing to perfect it. Sequencing, on the other hand, is more often a matter of recording something in, recording a bit more to fit, chopping it around -- a much more organic process. When drum machines first appeared, 'thinking' musicians used them first to write the song and structure it, create patterns suitable for each part of the song, and then painstakingly assemble those patterns into the correct order. 'Intuitive' musicians didn't have the patience to read the manual (and looking at most manuals, I don't blame them) and a style of music developed that used just one drum pattern all the way through the song. You may be too young to remember, but before the early 1980s it was unthinkable that the drummer should play only one basic pattern throughout a song without any variations, fills or embellishments. These days, it's commonplace to build a track on one basic pattern and simply overlay any extra rhythmic interest on top of that -- now that we've learned the trick of doing it and making it sound good. With the DR5, it doesn't matter how intuitive you are, I can't imagine that you would want a whole band of drums, bass, keyboards and whatever else to play just one repeating pattern all through the song, so you are going to have to assemble patterns into a song sequence and to do this you will need the manual. Once you have made the effort it will be worth it, I assure you.
To make patterns, you need to choose a kit and then select a blank pattern. As with any drum machine where the pads are assignable, you have to experiment to find out which sounds are where, and then start recording and play them in. In real-time mode, quantisation is selectable, as are settings like time signature and swing factor. Step-time mode is also available when you know when you want a note to be recorded but can't manage to jab your finger at exactly the right time. The pads, by the way, feel reasonably solid and are finger-friendly, although they are not touch sensitive. If you want sounds to come in at different levels, you have to use the two accent keys at the bottom edge of the instrument. I didn't find this a limitation for this kind of work. There are also keys for staccato (short) and tenuto (sustained) sounds, and if you want to soar up into the musical stratosphere, a pair of fret keys will enable you to move up and down the DR5's hypothetical neck, but not with a great deal of ease.
Once your drum track is OK, you'll probably want to move on to the bassline -- you simply press the Track Select button to shift one track at a time. Now we're in the realms of notes, so each pad plays a different note, corresponding to the unit's guitar-like layout. At first it may seem strange playing a guitar this way round, but you'll get used to it, at least for single notes. Putting chords together is more difficult, since even guitar-trained fingers don't 'know' the chord positions in this orientation, and you'll find that some chords which are easy on the guitar are more difficult here, and vice versa. You can play as many single notes as you like to build up a chord, but it might be simpler to go into chord mode, where simple combinations of two buttons will allow you to play almost any chord you could desire. If you know your chords, you will be delighted by the provision here, which includes the much sought after m6(9) and m7-5 types (!) as well as conventional majors, minors and sevenths. You can even invert or edit the chords if you really think you need to. Once in chord mode, you play the chords by holding down the button for the root note of the chord, and then pressing the chord type -- or you can do it the other way round, if you wish. Either way, when you're recording, the duration of the chord is set by quantisation interval or how long you hold down the tenuto button. When your pattern is complete, you may want to edit it. Erasing and replace notes, and nudging their positions in time are all fairly straightforward.
To make the most of the DR5, you need an electric or electro-acoustic guitar, since you have to be able to plug the guitar into the DR5 to use some of its features. At the most basic, this allows you to play along with your pattern, using either the straight sound of the guitar or an amp simulation (which I wasn't too impressed with, I have to say, so I would advise using an external effect -- from the Boss range, perhaps?). Furthermore, if you prefer the tactile qualities of your favourite instrument, you can program patterns (apart from the drum track), using your own guitar, as the DR5 comes with a built-in monophonic pitch tracking system. The tracking is pretty fast, although you have to play carefully, but it works amazingly well and I think many people will use this facility.
If you're a guitar-playing songwriter, the DR5 performs the essential functions you need for composition and performance without having any distracting gimmicks. Would the first person to write a hit song using the Boss DR5 drop me a line, please? Who knows, it could be you.
Maximum polyphony 19 voices
Total parts for songs 2000
Resolution 48 ppqn
Tempo 40-250 bpm
Pads (fret keys) 36 including open strings
MIDI IN, MIDI OUT
9V AC adaptor
Preset patterns are for dabblers, techno junkies, home organists and other non-creative people -- or are they? The Boss DR5 has 200 preset patterns in just about every conceivable musical style for drums, bass and two other instruments, and even though I can't bring myself to recommend actually using the preset patterns as a substitute for your own creativity, I do recommend that you have a very close listen to them. What you will gain from this is a knowledge, not only of what can be achieved with the DR5, but also of how those musical styles are created. If you can gain an understanding of styles foreign to your own favourite style, there is much more chance that you will come up with something original that makes you stand out from the crowd and gives you a better chance of success. Alternatively, you can easily copy some of the preset drum tracks, and perhaps the bass line too, to use as a foundation for your own original ideas.
When you see the Boss DR5 in your local music store, the first thing to check out is the demo song, which gives a good impression of what this unit can do -- if you work hard at it! To hear the demo song as it should be heard, you must first initialise the unit by turning the power off, then turning it on with both fret buttons held down. 'System Init?' will be shown on the display. Press Enter and confirm this by pressing Enter again when the display asks you if you are sure. If this has worked correctly the unit will be ready to play Song 20, 'Circus'. Press Start and enjoy.
Well thought out.
Just the right combination of features to do the job.
Easier to manage than a band.
Guitar input possible.
Separate mains adaptor.
No MIDI thru.
Miniature headphone jack.
Manual essential for successful operation.
Won't stand its round at the bar!
A versatile composition tool with a novel user interface especially suited to guitarist/songwriters. To get the best from it, you'll really need to first get your head around its features via the manual.
£ DR5 £389 inc VAT.
A Roland UK Ltd, Ancells Business Park, Fleet, Hants, GU13 8UY.
T 0252 816181.
F 0252 812879.