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Alesis DM5

Drum Module By Paul White
Published February 1996

Alesis DM5

Paul White checks out the successor to his beloved D4 and ends up casting sidelong glances at his cheque book.

A cursory glance at the new Alesis DM5 module is enough to confirm that much of its hardware and operational architecture is based on its predecessor, the D4 (reviewed in SOS November 1991) — but the sounds are largely new, the front panel has been brought into line with Alesis' more recent product range, and there are one or two extra features well worth taking a look at.

Unlike conventional drum machines, the DM5 doesn't have an on‑board rhythm sequencer — it is a drum sounds generator that may be triggered via MIDI in the same way as any other synth module, or directly via drum pads or contact mics. It may even be triggered from off‑tape drum sounds (ideally gated first), allowing sub‑standard recorded sounds to be replaced by DM5 sounds.

There are 12 separate input trigger jacks which may be adjusted for sensitivity and set to trigger any of the sounds in the currently loaded kit. The trigger system includes a hi‑hat footswitch mode for open, closed and closing sounds, and the sounds may be assigned to groups, so that closed hi‑hats cut off open hi‑hats, just like the real thing. The footswitch input may also be set to cycle round the drum kits if the hi‑hat feature is not required.

On the D4, it was possible to feed one of the trigger inputs from a pickup mounted on the frame of the drum kit (or pad system) to help cancel out any crosstalk between pads, but on the DM5, this has been replaced by a more conventional crosstalk elimination system which is individually adjustable for each pad.

The external triggering appears to be much the same as it was on the D4, except that the new display now shows which trigger pad is being hit, while a small VU‑style meter at the bottom of the screen aids in adjusting the sensitivity to match that of the pads or trigger units being used. The drum trigger section isn't just an add‑on — it offers facilities to rival very serious stand‑alone pad‑to‑MIDI converters. Those wishing to use the triggering feature may be interested to read the constructional article in SOS August 1995, which describes how to make a full set of working drum pads for less than the cost of a takeaway curry for two!

As with the D4, there are two sets of stereo outputs to which any sound can be assigned (Main and Auxiliary), and I find that assigning the snare and bass drum to one pair of outputs (panned left and right to maintain separation), and the rest of the kit to the other pair works best. Level and Pan for each sound within a kit may be set, and because many of the sounds are recorded with ambience or reverb, external processing isn't always necessary and EQ is rarely needed. The MIDI socket arrangement is the same as the on the D4 with a dedicated MIDI In and a combined MIDI Out/Thru.

The sound quality of the D4 was excellent, and the DM5 is no less impressive with its 18‑bit DACs and 48kHz sample rate.

The front panel layout is exactly as it was on the D4, apart from the brand new, illuminated switches, a more comprehensive display, and a new style of data knob to match that on the Midiverb 4. Personally, I find the new wheel harder to use, as it relies on you keeping the end of your finger in a dimple (I personally prefer a more conventional control knob that you can grab by the edges), but the rest of the panel is a big improvement.

Inside Story

The sound quality of the D4 was excellent, and the DM5 is no less impressive with its 18‑bit DACs and 48kHz sample rate. There are over 550 sounds divided into eight categories, and a number of these are recorded with stereo ambience. Also retained is the dynamic articulation feature where certain sounds behave differently depending on how hard you hit them. This is akin to the velocity crossfading you find on a sampler, and in addition to being used to change the timbre of a sound as the note is 'hit' harder, it's also used in some examples to bring in a quite different variation on the sound. However, I did notice one or two rather odd things happening on the review model, where certain sounds seemed to have three levels of velocity sensitivity, with the 'variation' occurring in the middle velocity band. If the key was played very quietly, the sound reverted to something similar to the loud sound. I'm not sure if this is intentional, but it does make it difficult to predict exactly which sound you're going to get.

In most cases, the dynamic articulation feature worked really well and was particularly impressive on things like the castanets, where velocity lets you alternate between a single click and a roll (or whatever the castanets equivalent of a roll is!). Similar techniques are used on some of the ethnic drum sounds and congas to create a very realistic 'human' effect. Patches responding to Dynamic Articulation usually have the word DYN in the title, but I'm convinced I came across others that were conventionally named.

A new group of sounds has been added to the DM5 under the heading of Random. The 15 sounds in the Random selection are made up in one of two ways: either multiple variations on the same sound, or a compilation of complementary sounds — for example, if you play the hi‑hat sound, a small selection of slightly different hi‑hat samples are chosen at random to create an authentic feel, but by contrast, the RagaBabi sound is made up of several different ethnic drums, which play back in random order to create interesting rhythmic accents. As the voices are selected randomly every time a trigger is received, your song will never sound quite the same twice when played back from a sequencer.

The Random facility works so well that I wondered why more sounds weren't included in this group — ride cymbals and toms in particular would benefit from this treatment, but other than hi‑hats and a few snares, the rest of the Random group are mainly special effects.

The DM5's 21 on‑board kits can be modified or even completely overwritten, but as the original kit data is in ROM, it is possible to get the factory patches back should you need them. The kits can also be saved via MIDI using SysEx dumps. All 21 kits are new, and the sound effects section includes some particularly wonderful noises, including Kung Foo punches, whipcracks, assorted techno thrips and scratches, and lots of industrial, metallic hits.

Kits may be changed via the front panel, or over MIDI using program change commands, and during editing, the currently selected sound can be played using the Preview button. A program table facility enables the kits to be called up by any desired MIDI program change number.

As with the D4, the DM5 is 16‑note polyphonic, and by today's standard, that's beginning to look a bit on the tight side. Realising this, Alesis have built in an overflow function so that two or more DM5s can be chained together to share their polyphony. It's not an ideal solution as the audio still comes out of two machines, not one, but at least it's an option for the very few users who will find 16‑voice polyphony inadequate.

In Use

The DM5 is delightfully easy to use, the Note Chase mode being particularly useful, as it automatically switches the screen display to show the parameters of the sound you're currently accessing, either via MIDI or the trigger inputs. To assign a sound to a key, first select the sound group you want (such as bass drum, snare drum, tom and so on), then use the data wheel to scroll through to the one you want. It's often easiest to select all the sounds you're going to need on the different keys before going on to set the level, tuning, pan position and output assignment of each one, and once you've set up a kit, all you have to do is remember to save it.

In the MIDI setup menu, you can set the MIDI receive channel and decide whether or not the DM5 will respond to MIDI controller information. Unfortunately a criticism I had of the D4 still remains, in that although the unit responds to pitch bend, this only sets the pitch at which the sound will be played — it doesn't allow you to bend a sound once it has been triggered. As a result, you can't create talking drum and tabla‑type effects, and have to rely on the samples that have bends built in. What I would really like to see is a facility allowing you to select which voices in a kit would respond to conventional pitch bend and which ones would ignore it. More than once, I've had to sample Alesis congas just so that I could apply pitch bend to them via my sampler to create talking drums.

In my opinion, the D4 worked very well with drum pads, even if it was a feature that was rather underused. I consider the DM5 to be every bit as good in this department, with the added benefit of a simpler crosstalk cancellation parameter. You can make your own perfectly good triggers using piezo pickups that cost mere pence each, and the hi‑hat mode really makes this a professional tool. The triggered notes also come out over MIDI, so the DM5 can be used as a pad‑to‑MIDI converter to write rhythm parts into a sequencer. There's a great deal of flexibility when it comes to setting up the DM5 to work with your particular trigger pads, but most of this has been covered in previous reviews of the D4 — you can change individual pad sensitivity, dynamic response curves and retrigger delay times, plus a whole lot more. As the unit must work with a wide range of trigger pads and pickups, the manual contains an in‑depth section on trigger mounting, and on the effects of the various setup parameters.

The DM5 is a worthy successor to the D4. No sequencer should go to work without one.

Hit Or Miss?

The DM5 is unashamedly an updated D4 with a better front panel, a wider selection of contemporary sounds, plus the new Random sound option. Those interested in rave, dance, or world music will find more than enough new sounds here to satiate their sonic desires, yet the conventional drum pallet is still vast, with drum sounds to cover every eventuality, from heavy metal to jazz. Some areas are rather thinly represented — there are only three brush samples in the whole snare collection and no timpani that I could find — but on balance, the library of drum and percussion sounds is impressive by anybody's standard. The technical quality is good, the recording quality is excellent, and the sounds themselves have a lot of life in them.

Apparently, sequencer users are still buying more drum machines than drum modules, and perhaps that's because they like to use the drum pattern presets as a starting point. If this is the case, maybe Alesis should consider bundling a floppy full of drum patterns and fills in SMF format along with the DM5.

As to what the ultimate Alesis Turbo Nutter drum machine of the future will be like, I don't know, but the DM5 is a very worthy successor to the D4, and no sequencer should go to work without one. I'd love to tell you more, but I'm off to write a couple of hit singles before the rest of the world gets its hands on these sounds!

Sounds Interesting...

With over 550 possible sounds, I'm obviously not going to deliver a blow‑by‑blow critique on each one, but there are some notable areas that deserve a mention.

For a start, arguably the best of the D4 sounds have been retained, but these have been augmented by even more acoustic drum sounds. On top of the mandatory electronic Rolandesque offerings, there's several rave style stabs, a whole new raft of ethnic voices, including tablas, urdu, bolan, Oobla, American Indian drums, talking drums and lots of other stuff I wouldn't even pretend to recognise. All this is very welcome when you consider the high level of interest in world music at the moment, but due to memory limitations, there aren't as many different samples of each instrument as you might like. For example, even with five different tabla sounds (one of which is a chord), you still don't get the flexibility you'd have from a full set of tabla samples.

It would have been easy for Alesis to go over the top and fill the machine with 'fashion victim' sounds, but I think they've managed to make the DM5 very contemporary without limiting its useful life.

Pros

  • All the best features of the D4, plus an updated front panel and new Random sound mode.
  • Simple to use, either via MIDI or drum pads.
  • Impressive selection of new sounds, particularly the dance and ethnic samples.

Cons

  • Proper pitch bend still not implemented.
  • Data wheel pretty, but less easy to turn than the D4 version.

Summary

Technically, the DM5 is little more than an updated D4, but the huge range of excellent new sounds gives it a completely new lease of life.

Information

£499 inc VAT.

www.alesis.com

Published February 1996