Analogue drum machines are a rare species these days, so it’s a huge relief that a breeding pair have been found in Berlin...
Manfred Fricke, Berliner, has been producing interesting and inexpensive synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines for many years, yet his company, MFB, is hardly known in the UK. With austerity the latest government scare-word and our wallets under more pressure than ever before, the time must be ripe to address that oversight. Let’s begin by introducing two new analogue ‘drumcomputers’, which, to give you some idea of MFB’s longevity, hit the scene 32 years after his first!
Although Mr Fricke isn’t making explicit claims, there’s more than a scent of two classic beatboxes in the air. The MFB 522 could easily be viewed as a miniature homage to the TR808, while the MFB 503 is — tonally at least — not unlike a TR909. Fortunately, there are enough differences that we can treat them as original machines rather than clones, and at just €300 each (approximately £220 at today’s exchange rates), they’re probably the most slimmed-down analogue drum machines you can buy. Is there a catch?
To answer, let’s take a look at the MFB 522. Measuring approximately 175 x 125mm and weighing little more than a mobile phone, it’s a drum machine you can pop into hand luggage or a pocket.
The 522’s audio outputs are all 3.5mm mini-jacks. Viewed positively, this means there’s room for a decent number of them — four in total, plus the main stereo out. This is ideal for processing the kick, snare, clap and hi-hat separately. Plugging a jack into an individual output removes that voice from the main mix, an action that could also serve as a rough and ready instrument mute. The isn’t much room left over for connections; those remaining are a single MIDI input and the external power-supply socket. Since the review model came direct from Germany, it arrived with a Euro-wart that sat, shakily, in one of my many adaptors. It’s funny how, no matter how many of these things you acquire, they never fit properly! Sadly, given its cute portability, there’s no battery option.
As black plastic boxes go, the 522 felt fairly robust squatting on its four rubber feet. After applying blobs of Blu-Tack to ensure it stayed put, I was ready to begin. The tiny red panel holds no less than 25 miniature black knobs. There’s a larger knob dedicated to tempo, a switch to select toms or congas, and buttons filling the remaining space. The most visibly obvious controls are the eight white step buttons, and if eight seems a weird number for an X0X-style drum box, here’s where an unusual compromise comes in. If you look above the buttons, you’ll see 16 yellow LEDs. Each shows a step’s on or off status. The odd keys are accessed with a press of a single button, while the even steps need an extra key, Shift. If you think this sounds less fun than it ought to be, I wouldn’t disagree.
After that operational blip, the 522 is refreshingly direct. What you see is what you get, although actually seeing the position of those tiny knobs is going to be a challenge in dimly-lit clubs or studios. Time for a microdot — of white paint on each! The knobs are similar to those of the Korg Monotron range, but with more variation in their quality. On the review model, some were smooth and loose, while others were a bit like me these days: stiff and reluctant to move. Spidery white text informs you of the 10 percussion voices, their names well known from Roland’s TR808 or CR8000. Prepare to unleash cowbell, toms and clap, plus a boomy bass drum, snare, cymbal and more. The most blatant 808 omission is, or are, maracas. It’s a loss that I, for one, can heroically bear.