Akai have long been the predominant name in hip-hop beat creation, thanks to their MPC range. Can they continue this success with that increasingly rare thing, a drum machine?
Photo: Mike CameronCan you believe it's been nearly 10 years since the last sample-based, hardware drum machine was reviewed in Sound On Sound? Software drum instruments, with their superior power and versatility, have become dominant in the studio. These days you're more likely to see a drum machine backing up a one-man rock & roll covers band in your local.
Akai's new XR20 drum machine is certainly not aimed at that market, being a repository of drums, hits, and basic synth sounds aimed squarely at contemporary hip hop and R&B styles. This genre-specific slant makes sense, as although hip-hop producers are certainly not averse to computers, many prefer to compose on hardware (in particular, the MPC range), for its immediacy, portability, and live capability. It should be pointed out, though, that the XR20 is not a 'mini MPC', as it has no sampling capabilities, but Akai are presumably hoping it will appeal to the same sensibilities.
Physically, the XR20 is very much a traditional drum machine. It has the pad grid, various function buttons and transport controls, and a data-entry wheel. Around at the back there's a pair of unbalanced main audio outputs, a stereo aux output, a headphone port, a couple of footswitch inputs, and MIDI In and Out. There's also a quarter-inch microphone input, should you want to perform with just the drum machine and a mic, although all the manual says about it is "the input signal will be mixed with the audio from the unit", and I couldn't find any way of adjusting the input level for the microphone. Physically, the unit looks fairly robust, but the four feet on mine didn't sit flat on the desk, giving it a wobble that you don't really need in a bit of gear that you spend a lot of time hitting.
Switch on the unit, and it takes a leap forward into the 21st century. The pads and large display screen (which it shares with its brother, the Alesis SR18 — see the 'Alternatives' box) light up in a glorious blue colour. During pattern playback, all the lights go out, lighting up again as they are triggered by the pattern or by hand. This looks great: more Korg Pad Kontrol than MPC. It's also really useful, as you can instantly see which sounds are associated with each pad just by watching them as a pattern plays.
The XR20 has 100 fixed Preset patterns, and 100 blank slots for User patterns. Listening through the former leaves you in no doubt about where this drum machine is coming from. BPMs centre around 90, patterns 1 and 2 feature vocal hits ("yee-errh!" and "check!" of course), and the first four patterns are called Addidaz, Brooklyn, Killa and Blunt.
One hundred preset kits are provided, with sounds drawn from the 720 on-board samples. Of these sounds, 414 are classified as regular drum hits and 306 are 'One Shots', which are a mixture of percussion sounds and effects. The effects sounds range from scratches and needle drops to vocal phrases, Rhodes chords and string stabs. Each kit has separate Drum and One Shot 'layers', which are essentially two banks of 12 sounds that you can toggle the pads between, via dedicated buttons. When you're using the XR20 as an external sound module, these sounds simply appear across different MIDI notes on channel 10. A third layer, called Synth, is a genuinely different layer, featuring one synth sound that can be played chromatically via the pads, or via MIDI channel 1 from an external source. Sixty-four synth sounds are provided, which are mostly basses and synth leads, with the odd string and piano thrown in for good measure. These are not sounds that are going to feature heavily in any hit records, but they might be useful for sketching out ideas or adding a little extra to your beats.
The drum sounds are mostly solid and well-chosen for the styles in question. It's also quite a fast and easy process to create your own kits, and store them in the 100 slots available. Once you enter Drum Set mode, you can select a pad, then step through a series of edit pages to select a sample, tune and pan it, set filter and envelope parameters, and so on. Each stored pattern is be saved with a specific kit. One thing for certain is that you'd better like the sounds, because the XR20 is a closed system and you won't be able to load new sounds into it.
The XR20 can be integrated with other gear in several ways. Firstly, it sends and receives MIDI Clock, and I had it running happily in sync with Ableton Live, locking up to both the tempo and song position. Secondly, you can use the XR20 as a sound module, controlling it from external MIDI devices and sequencers. One advantage of this is that the unit responds to the full range of velocity, unlike when you use the pads. Realistically though, if this was going to be the main way you used the XR20, you'd be better off with a plug-in.
One thing I was keen to try was using the XR20 as a MIDI pad controller and sequencer for external sounds. With many people buying pad controllers lately, I thought this might be a good secondary reason for considering buying a XR20. Once I'd enabled MIDI out from the pads, I was able to play Drum Rack instruments in Live, although the pad layout not being 4x4 was a bit off-putting. Luckily, the pads are set up to output standard General MIDI notes for drum kits, so the sounds mostly mapped as expected. D#1 was missing (usually mapped to claps), but I was able to re-program the pad assignments on the XR20. I had good fun running the XR20 as a dedicated drum sequencer for my Live drum racks, but ultimately the experience was somewhat dampened by the pad velocity issues (see main text), and having to re-do all the necessary settings every time I powered the studio on.
The first thing I wrote in my notes when playing with the XR20, was "No Velocity?". As far as I could tell, it made no difference how hard I hit the pads: sounds were always triggered at maximum velocity. I turned to the manual, which says that the pads are, in fact, velocity sensitive, although only to a resolution of eight steps. Additionally, there are three velocity curves (Soft, Medium, and Hard) and the default setting is Hard. The manual shows a fairly standard graph with all three settings tracing different curves from zero to maximum velocity. This didn't gel with my experience, so I fired up Snoize's trusty MIDI Monitor utility to see what was happening.
It turns out that with the Hard setting, only four of the rumoured eight velocity values are available, ranging from 80 to 127 (max). It also appears that the pads are rather inconsistent from one tap to the next. The result is that, at best, you can play each note loud, or slightly less loud. The Medium curve simply adds another two steps below 80. The Soft setting gives you all eight steps. It appears to be the only linear setting, and the only one that gives you the dynamic response that you'd expect. Simply chopping off some of the available velocity values in some settings is a shoddy shortcut, resulting in a rough approximation of true velocity weightings.
This problem is exacerbated by another issue. All Record Setup and System Setup settings are reset to the factory default when you power off. Losing the Record Setup resets your velocity setting (which reverts to Hard), along with your quantise and swing settings and more. The reset of System Setup means MIDI Clock gets disabled, as do Program Changes and external MIDI output from the pads. This might not be a problem if you leave the unit on all the time in a studio, but if you take it out live you'll need to make sure you set all these parameters correctly every time.
One thing to note is that changing the Swing setting (or having it turned off for you when you power cycle) has no effect on existing patterns. This is because Swing is applied during recording, not playback. This means that you can't audition different settings, you have to decide on one before you record the pattern. The only way to change the Swing of a pattern is to record it again with a different setting.
Creating patterns on the XR20 is a matter of recording them in real time from the pads and letting the quantisation take care of any shoddy finger work. You can overdub hits as the pattern loops, and drop in and out of record at will. If you need to erase anything, you can delete an entire pad, or remove individual hits by holding the Erase button and touching the pad during the parts to be cut. For fine-tuning, a Step Edit mode lets you move through the pattern in steps based on the quantise setting, creating, removing or changing the level of events.
Each pattern slot can hold two sub-patterns, and two fills. Once you've created an 'A' sub-pattern, you can quickly copy it into the 'B' slot and the 'A' and 'B' Fill slots, then create variations. During playback, you can switch between the 'A' and 'B' patterns, quantised to the end of the pattern. Pressing the Fill button immediately swaps playback to the fill pattern associated with the currently playing sub-pattern. At the end of the fill, playback swaps to the other sub-pattern, unless you override it. This system works really nicely, and with just two main patterns and some fills you can generate a large amount of variation, by bringing in the fills at different points throughout the loops.
Recording a Song (a sequenced string of patterns) is also best done in real time, although you can also create and edit songs in Step Edit mode. All you need to do is switch to Song mode, go into record and 'perform' your song by triggering pattern changes and fills. Songs can be made up of multiple patterns, and you can 'fill' from one main pattern to another. Pattern Play mode is very useful when recording songs, as well as for performing live, allowing you to assign your sub-patterns to the pads and use them to trigger pattern changes.
The highlight of the XR20 is its fast, hands-on pattern programming and song composition. It's certainly quicker and less fiddly to lay down a varied rhythm track with the drum machine's real-time song recording than it is to edit MIDI on a screen. You get 100 solid drum kits dedicated to one family of musical styles, in contrast to most drum machines, which tend to cover many styles, only a few of which are relevant to you. Even so, it's unfortunate that new sounds can't be loaded, especially synth sounds.
The XR20 has few pretensions. It's not trying to be more than a simple-to-use, portable drum machine aimed at hip-hop and contemporary US urban music styles. As such it would make a decent entry-level machine for anyone starting out, or anyone who doesn't want to get too overwhelmed by technology. The XR20 gains points for being ready to go 'out of the box', but would-be producers and beat-makers should also consider whether they would be better served by stretching the extra hundred quid for the MPC500. .
The XR20 is essentially the same machine as the Alesis SR18 (Akai Pro and Alesis are both owned by Numark). The SR18 is the successor to the hugely successful SR16. Although the screen and rear panel are identical on both units, the front panels are different, and the SR18 lacks the cool back-lit buttons of the XR20. Otherwise, the feature set and operation of both units is the same. Both have three layers, but the Alesis denotes these as Drums, Percussion and Bass, instead of Drums, One Shot and Synth. The main difference between the two boxes is sounds. While the XR20 focused on hip-hop and R&B, the SR18 covers pretty much all musical bases. Although the XR20 claims to cover dance music, if you are looking for electronica, techno, house or electro sounds, you're probably better off with the SR18.
In terms of rivals, it looks like Akai Pro are hoping to muscle in on a bit of the Zoom SB246 Streetboxx's action. The Streetboxx is a similar drum machine that is also directly aimed at hip-hop and R&B. Credibility probably plays a large part in the success or failure of these instruments. The XR20's sounds and patterns are by Chronic Music, well known for their LA Riot sound libraries. The Streetboxx's content is programmed by Nashville production team the Beat Kangz.