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Alesis DM Pro

Drum Module By Nicholas Rowland
Published June 1999

Alesis DM Pro

The latest addition to Alesis's DM series of drum modules has the suffix Pro — but does it have the feature‑set to match?

Alesis's (still current) DM5 MIDI drum module has been a long‑time member of my studio rack and, with 500 or so sounds to call on, covering all manner of genres, has proved its worth on many different styles of track. With this in mind, I took a more than passing interest in the new DM Pro, billed as the "ultimate drum and percussion module" (well, they all say that, don't they?).

Looking at the specs (see specification box) makes it clear why the new model is labelled the DM Pro rather than the DM6. This is not just a 'bit more of everything thrown in for good measure' upgrade, more an instrument designed to play in a different league altogether. Without giving away the ending, the new model offers more drum sounds than you can shake a drum stick at, a chance to get intimate with drum sound programming parameters in a way you never thought possible, six independent audio outputs with 20‑bit digital‑to‑analogue converters, 64‑note polyphony, an effects block borrowed from Alesis's top‑of‑the‑range Q20, and expandability by the shedload — just half a dozen reasons why rhythm freaks should get acquainted as soon as the DM Pro checks in at their local music store.

For the uninitiated, the DM Pro, like its predecessors the DM5 and D4, is essentially a drum machine without the machine — a collection of drum sounds in a box that can be played either over MIDI or by drum pads via the onboard trigger inputs (see 'Trigger Happy' box). All this comes packaged in a pretty unassuming 1U rackmounting box with a front‑panel layout following roughly the same format as that of the DM5: a large, backlit LCD to the left(ish), programming buttons to the right(ish) and a data wheel slap bang in the middle. Also present is the preview button, which allows you to trigger the currently selected sound from the front panel — essential for programming without tears.

The back panel fairly heaves with connections: six outputs (configured as two stereo pairs plus two 'solo' outs), inputs for 16 triggers plus a footpedal, the usual Three Wise MIDI ports, and a four‑pin DIN socket for the substantial 9V external transformer (supplied). As seems to be the fashion these days, the DM Pro also features two audio inputs on phonos for hooking up, say, a CD or cassette player for practice purposes. The sound from this is routed either through the main stereo outs or the headphone socket, which is found at the front.

The Alesis DM Pro back panel is heaving with connectors.The Alesis DM Pro back panel is heaving with connectors.

Next Please

The first action I'd recommend to any potential DM Pro owner is to audition the four short, but impressive onboard demo sequences. Whereas often I find that such extravaganzas bear little relation to the actual capabilities of a unit, the DM Pro's provide a brilliant taster of the delights that await within. If you like what you hear then take off your coat, draw up a chair and spend the next few hours working your way through the onboard sounds one‑by‑one. I say this because, both in quantity and quality, the DM Pro provides an acute embarrassment of riches. I mean, I'm old enough to remember when having a drum machine that offered just a variation bass and snare felt like you'd died and gone to heaven. But with no less than 16Mb‑worth of onboard sounds, the DM Pro makes heaven look like a wet weekend in Prestatyn. Basically, everything comes at you in multiples of 128. That's 128 each of acoustic bass drums, electronic bass drums, acoustic snares, electronic snares, toms, hi‑hats, cymbals, acoustic/ethnic percussion, electric percussion, special effects and melodic instruments. That makes 1536 preset sounds, to which you can add space for a further bank of 128 user sounds. And with an expansion card installed in the PCMCIA slot, you're potentially looking at being able to draw on 24Mb worth of sounds. Now tell me that's not enough to last most people a lifetime in eternity, never mind a wet weekend in Prestatyn!

I could easily use up this entire review simply talking you through the sounds. All I can say is that if you want realistic‑sounding traditional kit, orchestral and percussion sounds, you'll find them here; if you want classic beatbox and other electro sounds, you'll find them here; if you want ethnic sounds, tuned percussion, or downright off‑the‑wall weirdness, you'll find it all here. And more significantly, you'll also find plenty of inspirational sounds that will take you into new territories altogether.

The sounds are organised in 64 kits (of 64 sounds apiece), many of which are designed for specific styles — rock, pop, heavy metal, jazz, rave, jungle and so on. Several 'kits' also give you a full keyboard's worth of tuned percussion, such as marimba, vibraphone and tubular bells. They make a great starting point to put together your own kits, particularly as most are mapped to the GM MIDI set up. My only quibble is that saving a user kit means overwriting a factory one. I would have liked to have seen RAM allocated for a bank of 64 user kits, enabling you to modify and store your own kits while still having all the factory kits available when you want them. As a long time DM5 owner, I also found it strange that to select a new kit, you have not only to dial in the appropriate kit number but also press the Kit button to load it into memory, an operation that takes a second or two.

Alesis say that this is because of the sheer number of parameters involved in defining a kit, an explanation that you can well believe once you understand the DM Pro's architecture. Top of the evolutionary tree is the drum kit, comprising 64 drum sounds plus all their associated MIDI note number, trigger input and effects settings. In Kit Edit mode, there's quite a lot of scope for editing drum sounds: for example, you can tune them up or down by up to two octaves, assign them to specific outputs, and determine their volume and pan position. You can also select which of the two effect busses each sound is routed to. A link function also allows you to trigger two drums at once, a shortcut to setting up layered sounds without entering the more detailed Drum Edit mode.

If you're beginning to get the impression that the DM Pro is slightly more complex than your average beatbox, then you'd be right!

Drum Edit mode is the next level down (or should it be up?) in the programming hierarchy. Each drum can be fashioned from up to four samples or multisamples, allowing you to either create extremely realistic‑sounding multi‑sounds of real drums, or to blend wildly unrelated sounds just for the sheer hell of it. As you might expect, the choice of samples includes raw drum and percussion waveforms, along with tuned and melodic instruments. But interestingly, there is also a bank of sampled reverbs and ambiences that can be layered with 'actual' sounds to give some harmonically rich results, especially when you also route the results through the onboard effects.

Each sample within a drum sound can be individually edited with a set of sound‑sculpting tools that include pitch, volume, and filter parameters, plus a range of synthesizer‑style envelopes offering Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release, plus Envelope Delay and Sustain Decay. Three envelopes are available per sample, preset to control pitch, filter and amplitude. However, through the modulation matrix, you can also program any of the envelopes to control separate or additional parameters. MIDI controllers can also be brought into play to further modify sounds in real time. If you're beginning to get the impression that the DM Pro is slightly more complex than your average beatbox, then you'd be right! In fact, in some areas, the DM Pro flexes more muscles than many contemporary synthesizers.

As the factory presets reveal, by coupling this programmability with the capabilities of the onboard multi‑effects processor, you can create some complex rhythmic textures. The effects section is a two‑buss design, offering a reverb buss and a multi‑effects buss. Reverb types comprise two plates, room, hall, large, gate and reverse, with programmable parameters including pre‑delay, filter, density, low and high decay. In the multi‑effects buss you'll find a short but useful list of effects, namely delay, overdrive (capable of subtle analogue tape‑type distortions to full‑on guitar amp crunch), a two‑band shelving equaliser and 'Pitch'. This latter title covers three programmable effect types — Chorus, Flanger or Resonator — though only one can be used at once. The effect send is variable for each drum (with all effects levels being post‑fader) and you can also select which buss they are routed to. For good measure, the multi‑effects buss can in turn be routed to the reverb buss. One point to note is that any effects are sent only to main outputs of the DM Pro, and can't be routed to any of the auxiliary outputs.

MIDI Matters

MIDI-wise, the DM Pro behaves as you'd expect, with different kits being called up with different program numbers. As well as assigning a basic MIDI channel for the unit as a whole, you can also override this so that certain drum sounds can be accessed on different MIDI channels, which means you can use MIDI controllers to alter particular sounds in real time. This multitimbrality (of sorts) also works the other way too, thus extending the DM Pro's functionality as a trigger‑to‑MIDI converter. As I've already mentioned, the DM Pro responds to a lot more MIDI controllers than the DM5 (that unit basically offered just pitch bend and main volume). And here's as good a place as any to mention also the extensive house keeping functions, such as being able to copy sounds, effects settings and trigger setups from one location to another.

The Jury Returns

It's inevitable that with a complex beast like this, a review ends up dwelling on the instrument's functionality, rather than conveying a subjective impression of either its quality in terms of sounds or what it's actually like to use 'in the field'. The fact is that where the DM Pro's sounds are concerned, I can sum the situation up in very few words: they are excellent. And on a day‑to‑day level, the DM Pro is generally easy to live with too. As I've already mentioned, the programming hierarchy is organised into two levels of operation, Kit and Drum. I'm sure many users will find themselves spending most of their time at the Kit level, simply assembling collections of sounds for the project in hand and then altering their main parameters to suit. On this level, the DM Pro is as user‑friendly as its predecessor, the DM5: you can work your way around quickly, without too much need to scroll through screen after screen of parameters. Clearly, being more detailed, the Drum Edit level involves a lot more button‑pushing, and for that reason I'd have liked to see the unit increased to 2U in size, with more programming buttons.

Overall, I was certainly left with the feeling that, in the right hands, this is a formidable instrument. Of course, this power comes at a price, and at an RRP of £799, I suspect my DM5 isn't going to be replaced just yet. But the use of the word Pro in the product name is entirely appropriate: this is an instrument for professionals.

On The Cards

Note the front panel presence of a slot for a PCMCIA sound card, an acronym for expandability in a big way. Not only does this allow you to take advantage of extra sounds and sequences available on Alesis's soundcards for their QS synths, but significantly, it also provides the means to create and load your own sounds into the DM Pro.

The DM Pro ships with a CD‑ROM packed with various utilities for the unit in both Mac and PC format. These include MIDI files, demo samples, and utilities related to popular sequencers (for example, Logic Environments). The crucial program is Sound Bridge, already well known to owners of the QS series of synths. This allows you to assemble sounds, sequences, and drumkit banks, then download the whole lot to the DM Pro via SysEx and from there burn the information on to a PCMCIA SRAM or Flash RAM card. Of course, you can also save data from the DM Pro direct to a card for backup or expansion purposes. A 512K card will hold eight complete drum banks.

Also useable with the DM Pro are Alesis' QCards. Included on the CD‑ROM with the DM Pro is necessary data to allow instant access to samples from the Hip Hop QCard and the Eurodance QCard, both of which are heavily populated with drum loops and samples.

Specifications

  • Audio Outputs: 6 on quarter‑inch unbalanced jack; quarter‑inch headphone jack.
  • Audio Inputs: 2 on unbalanced RCA phonos.
  • Trigger Input Jacks: 16 on quarter‑inch jacks.
  • D‑A Converters: 20‑bit.
  • Sample Rate: 48kHz.
  • Sound ROM: 16Mb.
  • Polyphony: 64‑voice.
  • Panning: 7‑position, user‑programmable.
  • Kits: 64 memory locations with defaults permanently stored in ROM.
  • MIDI: In, Out, Thru.
  • Switchable Footswitch Jack.

Trigger Happy

Much thought has clearly gone into making the DM Pro usable with drum trigger pads. It can accommodate 16 mono triggers in total, though you'll only count 11 sockets because five of them are 'stereo' (dual‑channel). This enables you to accommodate, for example, snare pads which have a separate pickup in the rim (for alternative snare and sidestick sounds) or 'cymbal' pads which again incorporate a pickup in the rim to enable 'choking' of cymbal sounds (so that if you grab the edge of the pad, the sound is immediately cut off). The DM Pro can handle such cymbal pads through its auxiliary footpedal input, but you can also set them up to enable you to use the extra pickup to trigger sounds instead. Of particular significance is the DM Pro's ability to give you extremely realistic 'virtual' hi‑hat operation, using its inbuilt software coupled with the latest generation of hi‑hat pedal controllers. Not only can the DM Pro simulate the various sounds of a hi‑hat as it is opened and closed, but it will also give you the sounds associated with foot‑only operation (such as the 'chick' sound when the hi‑hats are pressed together using the foot only).

On a more bread‑and‑butter level, each of the trigger inputs offers five separate parameters (Gain, Velocity Curve, Crosstalk Threshold and Retrigger) to ensure smooth operation with your choice of pads. There's also a noise‑suppression function that can be used in conjunction with a sensor mounted on a drum rack to help cut out false triggering. Having tried out the DM Pro with my trusty Simmons setup (normally used with a DM5), I can declare myself impressed with both the speed of the trigger inputs and the ability to cut out any chance of false triggering through crosstalk and such like. Finally, I should mention that you can also send sequence commands from trigger inputs, for example to control external sequences from pads. You can also start or stop sequences stored on PCMCIA cards. The unit will memorise four separate trigger setups — a boon for anyone using the DM Pro with different electronic kits.

Pros

  • Huge selection of drums.
  • Six outputs.
  • Onboard effects.
  • Extremely powerful and flexible programming system.
  • Versatile triggering options.
  • Expandable.

Cons

  • Inevitably the programming system suffers a little from too few buttons to do too many jobs.
  • A bank of user kit memories in addition to factory ones would been useful.
  • I can't afford one.

Summary

The use of the word Pro in the product name says it all. This module is for people who take rhythm seriously.

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