Beat Kangz Beat Thang

Sampling Workstation

Published in SOS October 2012
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Reviews : Sampler

This "portable production system” certainly looks the part, but does its performance measure up to its dramatic styling?

Paul Nagle

Beat Kangz Beat Thang

Beat Kangz Electronics' first hardware product is blessed with an enthusiastically daft name, but this in no way indicates a lack of ambition. Described as a portable production system, the Beat Thang could equally be viewed as a sampler in drum machine's clothes. With portability bestowed by a Lithium Ion battery, it ships stocked with an assortment of production-level samples, not just drums. It is accompanied by Beat Thang Virtual, a purely software version that can act as a plug-in.

Beat Me Black & Blue

My Beat Thang experience began with a shock. Having waited patiently for it to boot, I lurched at once for my shades. This was not merely an attempt to feel cool enough to beat the thang. Every rubber button (there's one for all the important functions) is backlit in a vivid, dazzling blue. Keen to tone this down, I fumbled around, eventually hitting the button marked Blang (what else?). Stepping from no blang right up to total retina burn-out, repeated presses of this button provide enough illumination options to satisfy boring old farts and loosely-trousered youths alike. Any surviving Knight Rider fans will probably relish the retro backlit grille, while everyone else sits back to admire the 3.5-inch colour TFT display and innovative side-mounted pitch and modulation wheels. Beneath the display, four buttons shift functionality as required, while a row of Function keys provide popular items such as Save, Exit, Undo and Delete. All navigation is via two encoders of the push-and-turn type, with a clicking action for every increment. The left encoder moves the cursor and the other is for data entry.

Chunky is a word I can't avoid recycling, but few products earn it like this curvy box of black steel. It's a squat 28 x 21 x 7cm and is surprisingly heavy, at almost 3kg, according to my kitchen scales. Unusually, there are two headphone sockets with separate levels, ideal for impromptu collaboration on the bus or in the park, but there are no individual outputs, which is a significant omission. Thus, with only a pair of balanced jacks, you'll either have to rely on the internal effects or process each sample in advance.

Inputs are better catered for. The mic input (complete with phantom power) conceals a neatly integrated stereo line connection and even sports a physical level knob. But that's as far as traditional niceties go; there isn't even a main volume control! Adjusting the level involves pressing the 'Volumes' button, then using the encoders, which is far from ideal.

The rear panel has two USB ports of type A and B, meaning that you can add a USB memory stick or external hard disk and a USB MIDI controller. The Beat Thang can even power the controller for you, which is a rare but splendid addition. The interfacing possibilities are boosted still further by two SD card slots, supporting cards of up to 32GB. There's MIDI In and Out, plus a footswitch input, so the only other item of note is the LED that reflects battery status. Battery life is quoted at between three and four hours, but expect considerably less if you keep every button blazing! Naturally, an external adaptor is bundled in, but if you're used to switching off your studio with a limited number of mains switches, the Beat Thang would become an extra step. However, this bodes well for unexpected outages on stage.

Notes and drum hits are entered via a 13-pad mini-keyboard, with Bank up and down buttons on hand to span additional octaves. Alternatively, the external controller option may be preferable for polyphonic recording of keyboard parts, although I experienced occasional latency when playing dense real-time patterns.

Exploring Patterns

The Beat Thang's pitch-bend and modulation wheels are located on the sides of the unit.The Beat Thang's pitch-bend and modulation wheels are located on the sides of the unit.

Two contrasting feelings arose as I began to audition the factory patterns. Firstly, for every pattern selected, there was a pause, accompanied by the message 'Loading samples'. This got old very quickly, I can tell you. Secondly, a lot of the patterns had a distinctly finished, polished feel. Some of the longer ones (16 or 32 bars in length) were practically demos already, and perfect illustrations that drums are only a fraction of what this machine is about. With a healthy 128 notes of polyphony, creating full songs on the Beat Thang could be a realistic proposition. Sixteen tracks is a manageable number, if a little stingy in comparison to an Akai MPC, and there are eight dedicated track buttons, plus an extra '9-16' button to access the rest. Each track can play the internal sampler or sequence external MIDI gear.

From the start, it was clear that the Beat Thang wasn't going to be one of those deep and labyrinthine machines reaching the same destination via a dozen different paths. To make original beats means simply hitting those velocity-sensitive pads: there's no 'x0x'-style programming or other alternatives. You first enter Edit mode, hit record and, using the metronome for reference, play. To add further drums or instruments, select a new track and play more. There aren't a whole lot of edit operations to consider either, beyond simple note or track deletion.

Having tapped in some beats, you are free to non-destructively quantise them. Quantisation is available in fixed increments from off up to 1/64, and a pattern's maximum resolution goes as high as 960ppqn. There's swing, too, but at the moment no refinements like percentage-based or groove quantise. The master time-signature ranges from 2/2, through the regular divisions, up as far as 12/8, although the metronome remains doggedly in 4/4 throughout. Each pattern can be up to 200 bars long, and each track loops based on its own unique length.

There are a couple of buttons primed for performance enhancement: Roll and Hold. Roll is a basic function that repeats notes at the current quantise rate. Its limitation is that it also disrupts notes already playing on the track, not just those you want to Roll in an ad-lib session. The Hold key is used to loop drones or other samples. There are also tiny mute and solo buttons that do exactly as you'd expect. Well, unless you expect to conveniently memorise the mute status of tracks in each pattern, that is.

Although you can't swap patterns in performance without the Loading Samples message, Song mode provides a means of arranging patterns, one after another. It's another uncomplicated affair, progressing through the patterns until the end, each individual pattern looping up to 100 times.

There's no track mix overview but the mixer does at least include — on a per-track basis — effect sends. Select each track in turn, then set various levels, including reverb, delay and 'Freak'. This last is an insert effect, so giving it a level of zero will mute the track whenever Freak is engaged. Hopefully, a future update will allow a more flexible routing, with tracks able to selectively opt out from Freaking.

It was while exploring and banging in my first patterns that I started to feel wary about the Beat Thang. Occasionally, the display response became sluggish, and I discovered that spinning the encoders fast during playback often caused audible glitches, especially when the effects were active. Selecting new kits or instruments during playback was similarly glitchy, and I experienced several random crashes where the unit unexpectedly powered itself off. I spent some time talking to the support team trying to discover the cause without ever getting to the bottom of it.

Kits & Instruments

The Beat Thang's back panel features an input for the external 12V PSU, two SD card slots, both types of USB port, MIDI I/O sockets, two headphone outputs and two main outputs on quarter-inch jacks, and a 'combi' mic/line input with accompanying level control. The Beat Thang's back panel features an input for the external 12V PSU, two SD card slots, both types of USB port, MIDI I/O sockets, two headphone outputs and two main outputs on quarter-inch jacks, and a 'combi' mic/line input with accompanying level control.

The Beat Thang has almost a gigabyte of onboard flash storage, a generous allocation that's extendable further by plugging in SD cards, USB sticks, and so on. It also has 249MB of reported RAM, making it especially grating to have to wait for all those 'loading samples' messages. Being unable to move smoothly from one pattern to another without a pause is a real spontaneity-killer, and hopefully Beat Kangz will revisit this area in future.

Each kit has a maximum of eight banks, which adds up to an impressive 96 possible sounds. Although there's a separate Instrument button, this is mainly for clarity, because kits and instruments operate in exactly the same way. In the case of instruments, the bank buttons translate to octaves — eight in total. Every pad can trigger up to 16 layered samples, each with a unique velocity window. Not only is this hugely flexible, it might explain how you could exploit all that lovely RAM.

Kit construction is clear and easy, and while you populate the pads with samples you'll notice a handy on-screen representation of content. Samples plucked from the factory set have accompanying icons, showing at a glance which keys trigger cymbals, shakers, kicks, and so on. Any pad can also be assigned to a voice group, designed so that one drum chokes another's output. With seven of these groups in total, there's way more scope than the usual open and closed hi-hats or slapped and muted conga handling.

Fortunately, it's possible to edit the kit of the current track but avoid the dreaded 'loading samples' message. If you hold the Edit and Kit buttons, you can tweak pads as the pattern plays. Actually, it would make sense for this to be the default action. Having selected a pad, there are numerous tweaks to make to volume, pitch, filter and envelope stages. You can also set the sample's playback type: for example, whether it plays all the way through on every hit or only while the note is held. Finally, you can adjust the start and end points for every sample's playback.

So what of the factory samples? There are over 3000 of these, and amongst them are some seriously deep and dirty urban kits, plus grunty human beatboxes and percussion suited to ethnic music, dance and rock. Unsurprisingly, many of the Kit samples are squarely aimed at hip hop but there's a fairly broad base to draw from, even before you turn to adding original samples.

By contrast, the Instruments don't have the same inspirational qualities. Many are already quite distinctly flavoured or not even looped. Those that are looped contain more than their fair share of clicks and other glitches. Yet, despite these flaws, the collection is not without its highlights. These include basses fit to accompany Godzilla; cutting, funky guitars; and showy synth licks, all of which can be hijacked for your own productions. Just as with kits, the instrument samples are tailorable on a per-note basis, with any individual sample spreadable over up to four octaves.

Importing samples from external media was an initially mystifying process, helped not at all by the sketchy manual. After more chats with the support team, I was advised not to import samples to the internal flash memory but to keep them on card, also ensuring any kits that reference the samples reside on the same card. With two SD slots and a USB slot, plus oodles of internal flash, it's easy to fall foul of this undocumented restriction. However, I did notice better stability after forcing all my samples, kits, instruments and patterns into one location, so there must be something in it.

Effects

Beat Thang Virtual is a very close representation of the hardware and can work as a plug-in. However, there's no automated sync between Beat Thang and Beat Thang Virtual.Beat Thang Virtual is a very close representation of the hardware and can work as a plug-in. However, there's no automated sync between Beat Thang and Beat Thang Virtual.

The fixed effects structure consists of reverb and delay, plus the quirkily-named Freak and Bang. Bang is described as a combined compressor, EQ and limiter and it's suitable for adding quick but effective mastering at the end of the effects chain.

A quick look at reverb and delay reveals them to be traditional send effects fed by entire tracks or individual pads. The reverb's single algorithm offers tweakable size, damping and width, and while it's no Lexicon, I found it airy and spacious enough. Delay is equally basic but has a maximum time of two seconds, plus clock-sync options that range from 1/4 up to 1/64. Hopefully, it can be extended one day to include multiple taps, stereo operation and delay-time modulation, just to hoist it beyond the mundane.

There are no accusations of mundanity for Freak. Whether you need modulation effects such as chorus, phaser or vibrato, valve saturation or pitch shifting, Freak has a passable stab at the lot. Its overdrive and distortion add a layer of grit that work particularly well with many of the factory drum kits. Despite finding the pitch shifter rather artificial, I concluded that it was useably artificial! As I mentioned earlier, Freak's biggest disadvantage is in being a global insert effect. When it's active, your whole mix — kick and all — is freaked out!

Each track also has a filter, which is separate to the one found in kits and instruments and way more versatile to boot. It's a multimode type that includes all the familiar modes, plus peaking and notch. Right now, its cutoff frequency is hard-wired to that rather slick mod wheel. The pitch bender is similarly hard-wired, with the option of acting universally or only on the selected track.

Sampling

For the most streamlined sampling implementation in the known universe, look no further than the Beat Thang! To start off, if your mic needs phantom power you should first visit the Volumes page to switch it on. There you can also adjust the input gain and decide whether you're sampling in stereo or mono. When using line inputs, you might need an adaptor for the quarter-inch stereo socket, but otherwise it's plain sailing whatever the source. Recordings can be either 16- or 24-bit.

In a virgin machine, the available sampling time clocks up at over 50 minutes, although I noted that this figure didn't change when I switched the recording from stereo to mono. To sample, first hit the record button, then hit play when ready. To stop sampling, hit the stop button. That's all there is to it! Sadly, this means there's no threshold-type sampling or resampling, but there are, at least, simple edit tools such as a reverse process and a trimmer to eliminate unwanted portions of the audio.

Low-level samples can be amplified or normalised before being subjected to other operations, including a basic time-stretch. This offers multiplication by a factor starting at 0.01 and ending at some unknown upper limit. As I failed to discover any way to increase encoder values by more than 0.1 at a time, I got as far as 25x (more out of curiosity than anything else) before sitting back to watch the progress bar of the calculation. This offline process can take a while, depending on the sample length, but the results are pretty good. It's a similar story for editing a sample's pitch. I can't tell you the limits there either, because I gave up counting at 100 semitones!

Autochop divides any sample into slices and spreads them across the pads. With a long sample — such as a segment plucked from a CD or vinyl — there could easily be more chops than the 13 available keys, so the Bank keys are employed to access the rest. The waveform view provides a useful window into the areas of the waveform about to be chopped. The only control you have over the chopping process is in the form of its sensitivity and frequency selection. The frequency field is unmarked but if you turn the encoder towards the left, the chopping is based on lower-frequency components. Ideally, you'd be able to place chop points manually anywhere you liked, but this proved to be a minor omission, given how straightforward it was to adjust sample starts and ends later, when constructing a kit.

The Export option is your means of creating neat samples grabbed from patterns or by capturing a complete performance. In the case of patterns, the exported .WAVs can be a series of individual tracks, which is perfect for fine-tuning beats in your DAW, adding different effects to each, and so on.

Beat Thang Virtual

Bundled into the package is Beat Thang Virtual. It's exactly that: a software version that runs without needing the hardware connected. Indeed, the hardware doesn't talk to it, sync to it or interact with BTV in any way, other than as a MIDI controller for entering notes. Again, the documentation doesn't tell you everything but there are online tutorials as partial compensation.

BTV will run stand-alone, but I suspect that, for most users, DAW integration will be key. As of version 2.0, BTV has been able to function as a plug‑in. However, I struggled to get the review version (2.2.3) to work properly until I realised the plug-in was 32-bit only. Being a Logic user, this rang familiar alarm bells for me, and when I forced Logic to start in 32-bit mode, the plug-in became visible at last. From then on, I had far more success. BTV was very familiar after using the Beat Thang hardware. Its main plus point is that the internal sounds and samples can be played from your DAW tracks like any multitimbral instrument.

Conclusion

Beat Thang is a game of two halves. On one hand you have a slab of blinged-up hardware that's built like a tank, has a commanding blue presence, a colour screen, and a battery life to see you through most gigs or an afternoon in the park. It also comes with more RAM, flash storage and polyphony than any rival I can think of. On the other hand, the workflow it necessitates is awkward and the software feels unfinished. I found it sluggish and occasionally crashy, and the delays while samples loaded were irritating. Given all that RAM and onboard storage, plus all the slots ready to accept external media, there must be a better way.

Another work in progress is Beat Thang Virtual. A bit of a novelty at the moment, it could be a real bonus if it sync'ed automatically with the hardware. And while Beat Kangz have clearly invested a lot of effort in the numerous online videos, a thorough, accurate manual with an index is still sorely lacking.

Finally, even though rumours of this drum machine have been around for years, it feels like there's still work to do. This is a pity, because in pure hardware terms it is promising; the only physical disadvantage is the lack of individual outputs. Once its software catches up, the Beat Thang could be a whole different beast, but as of now, it's hard to recommend.  .

Alternatives

Korg's ESX1 is a sampling drum machine that's been in production for almost a decade, but it scores for ease of use, dedicated controls, individual outputs and stability. It has a tenth of the Beat Thang's RAM, though, and, being just a drum machine, loses out on multiple tracks, polyphony and storage capacity. Alternatively, there's the Elektron Octatrack, a powerful, if geeky, monophonic sampling instrument whose talents include innovative loop handling and reading huge samples direct from card without breaking sweat. However, the Akai MPC range must still be the main contender for hip hop and for fast, logical sample manipulation in general. Only the baby of the range, the MPC500, offers battery power, though.

Beat Kangz Beat Thang £799$999
pros
The military-grade construction, colour screen and dedicated buttons galore lend the Beat Thang an impressive outward appearance.
Large RAM and onboard storage, with massive offline storage capacity too.
It's a fully portable, 16-track sampler with 128 notes of polyphony!
Some great drum samples are provided.
cons
I'm forever loading samples... a complete set for every pattern!
Workflow issues: it's shaky, simplistic and under-developed.
No individual outputs, and effects implementation rather restrictive.
No sync between hardware and Beat Thang Virtual.
summary
On paper, there's much to praise here, from the large amounts of sample and flash RAM to the quality of some of the factory samples. However, I found too many aspects of operation unpolished or illogical, and what should have been a worthy interface was marred by performance issues. That said, there could still be a great instrument in here somewhere, waiting to be liberated by more mature software.
information
£799 including VAT.
Sonic8 +44 (0)330 2020 160.

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