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Jomox Xbase 09

Drum Machine By Chris Carter
Published June 1997

Chris Carter looks at a new dedicated drum machine which could be the best 909 alternative yet.

The Jomox XBase 09 is a brand‑new drum machine. Yep, a drum machine. Now there's a phrase you don't hear much these days. Of course there are units that perform part of the same function, such as the Novation DrumStation (which, sadly, has no rhythm programming), the Roland MC303 (which has no dedicated drum controls), or the Akai MPC series of percussion sampler/sequencers (which are probably over specified for anyone just looking for a drum machine). But there hasn't been a new, self‑contained dedicated drum machine in ages — and I think it's about time there was.

The XBase 09 took a year to design and build, by a small independent company called Jomox, a team of Berlin technicians who started out by building custom filters and CV‑to‑MIDI units, and modifying drum machines and synths. It has been designed with a very specific market in mind — the dance scene — and the title and panel layout give a pretty good clue to its origins. This machine is the mutant progeny of the dance icon of the '80s and '90s, the Roland TR909 drum machine. A shameless homage, if ever there was one — and why not?

X‑Ray Specs

So what do you get when you cross '80s retro with '90s know‑how? Well, let's look at the specs.

This is a hybrid analogue/digital drum machine, with MIDI, using TR808/909‑style pattern programming. It's 3‑voice polyphonic, with analogue circuitry for the bass drum and snare drum but with 8‑bit digital samples providing various cymbal, rim‑shot and handclap sounds. Each of the drum voices can be extensively modified with on‑board real‑time control knobs and, in addition to the mono mixed output, each voice has an individual output. There are the usual MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets and a Roland‑style DIN sync output socket. A large, 3‑digit LED shows tempo or various editing parameters. Programming is via 26 small illuminated push buttons and five large Tap buttons. The unit is quite sturdy, with a steel body, and pretty compact at 13" x 9" x 2", and although the TR909 was considerably larger, they're actually about the same weight. Power is supplied by a separate 12V wall wart PSU which, as seems to be more frequent these days, is a non‑standard AC type; these are, unfortunately, a lot more difficult to find replacements for if lost or damaged.

The XBase 09 can function in one of three modes of operation:

  • Pattern mode is for playing or programming rhythm patterns, with space for 64 patterns stored in four banks.
  • Performance mode is for saving and selecting drum kits, selecting rhythm patterns and adjusting the real‑time drum controls, with space to store 100 Performances/kits in memory.
  • Song mode is for assembling finished rhythm patterns and kits into songs. There are 10 song memories available, with space for compiling up to 100 rhythm patterns in each memory slot. In addition, each rhythm can be programmed to repeat, up to a maximum of 255 times, before moving on to the next rhythm pattern.

Twiddle De Dee

It's only recently that manufacturers have begun adding more controls to electronic instruments, instead of using multi‑function buttons to endlessly navigate through menus; I know it takes some very clever programming to emulate mixers, effects units, and even drum machines in software, but it can't be denied that there really is no substitute for the feel of real knobs to twist and turn. In this respect the XBase 09 is a knob‑twiddler's paradise.

There are so many controls for the bass drum (nine!) that it almost verges on overkill. In common with the 909, the unit has Tune, Decay, Attack and Level controls, although these don't affect the sound in quite the same way as on the 909. On the XBase 09, the Tune control introduces an envelope signal (that follows the Decay output) to the bass drum VCO. The Decay now has more than double the decay time of the 909, the Attack controls the intensity of the output from the Noise and Pulse controls, and the Level knob controls the bass drum VCA. In addition, there's a Harmonics control for changing the bass tone from sine wave through to soft distortion, and an EQ control for smoothing out the sound for a softer, 808‑type bass drum. There is also a Pitch control which can take the bass down to 25Hz for those gut‑wrenching sub‑basses, or up into conga range.

The snare drum has two oscillators, a noise generator and six control knobs. The 'XSnapp' knob is a combination of the 909 Snappy and Tone controls and acts as a balance between the oscillators and noise generator. The Tune control has a much wider range than the original, while the Level knob controls the Snare VCA. In addition, there's a Noise Tune control that varies both the filter and level of the noise generator and, when turned fully anti‑clockwise, completely mutes the noise signal. Lastly, there's a Detune control which offsets the oscillator tunings and is useful for producing cowbell, tom tom and bongo sounds.

...the XBase 09 can sound so much like the original that it's scary!

The dual hi‑hat sample section has only five control knobs and a single monophonic output, but is capable of producing some of the most extreme sounds in the machine. There are 909‑type Decay controls for both the open and closed hi‑hat sections, plus an open/closed hi‑hat balance control and a single VCA Level control. There is also a very wide‑ranging Tune knob (which should really be called Pitch) for adjusting the playback speed of the selected samples in this section. There are six 909‑derived samples to choose from: open and closed hi‑hats, crash and ride cymbals, rim shot, and hand‑clap, with a seventh source, analogue noise. Any two samples can be selected for playback, and all except the ride cymbal can be played in reverse, but only a single sample can play back at any one time. With the extreme range of the Tune control, and the fact that the samples only have an 8‑bit resolution, it's possible to get some pretty strange but very useable sounds by playing back the samples at very high or low settings, or both.

The degree of sonic manipulation available allows for an extremely wide range of percussion sounds to be programmed. Of course, what the XBase 09 really excels at is recreating workhorse TR909‑sounding rhythms. But it is equally adept at coming up with sounds ranging from smoothly minimalist bass and drums, TR808 and CR78 sounds, right though to acid, industrial, techno, jungle, and electronic. The 100 performance memories give the user plenty of scope for trying favourite kits with different styles of rhythm patterns. Couple this with the ability to switch back and forth between kits as you play back rhythm patterns, and the option of twiddling knobs and tweaking the sound even further in real time, and you've got a powerful improvisational tool. This makes it ideal for both songwriting in the studio and playing on stage. The XBase 09 ships with some very useable pre‑programmed dance rhythms and performance kits, with enough variety to please most people and more than enough to get you started.

16 Steps To Heaven

Ultimately, users will want to program their own rhythm patterns, and if you have used any of the Roland 707/808/909 machines the procedure is almost identical for both step‑time and real‑time writing. You first choose a pattern location (either empty or previously recorded) with one of the 16 red buttons on the front panel, then select which bank the pattern is in, from one of the four available. You need to decide how many steps the pattern will have, using the Last Step function, and what the Pre‑Scale is (time signature); the XBase 09 default is 16 steps in 4/4 time. In theory your pattern can contain a maximum of 64 steps, but exceeding 16 steps reduces the number of rhythm patterns available, as any patterns containing more than 16 spill over into the next pattern memory location. To record, press the Write button while a pattern is playing or looping; a drum voice is selected by pressing one of the large Tap buttons, and a flashing LED indicates which voice is ready to write. Then it's just a case of entering the beats by pressing any of the 16 illuminated step buttons, which stay lit on any beats that have been selected. Notes are deleted by pressing the relevant step button a second time — you get instant audio and visual feedback. You can switch back and forth between different drum voices by selecting one of the four Tap buttons, and enter and delete notes at will to build up a complete rhythm pattern. Accents can be entered in the same way as notes, though accents are applied for each drum voice, rather than globally as on the 909.

You may prefer to enter notes in real time, which is almost as easy — it's just a couple of extra button pushes to get into Real Time Write mode. It's even possible to switch between step‑time and real‑time modes while writing drum beats. In Real Time Write a metronome is available to help keep you in time, and you use the four Tap buttons to tap out the rhythm beats, instead of selecting drum voices as above. In Pattern mode there's also a Shuffle feature: this allows individual drum beats to be pushed or pulled against the rhythm by as little as 192nd of a step or as much as half a step, and is invaluable for putting swing or groove into a song.

This is pattern programming at its most basic level, and is an intuitive, tried and tested procedure that, once learnt, is rarely forgotten. However, there's a deeper level within the XBase 09 that may not be as easy to master but has some very sophisticated and creative uses. The XBase 09 has the ability to sound as though it's playing a whole range of tuned percussion at the same time, rather than just three voices. This is because it can record the settings of all the MIDI‑controllable knobs (and that's most of the knobs on the machine) either at each and every step in a rhythm pattern, or as continuously varying controller sweeps. With practice, it's possible to program melodic bass drums, tight or flappy snares, swooping bongos and congas, reversed samples, industrial clangs, bangs and crashes, walking bass lines, and lots more, in a single rhythm pattern. Multiply this by 64 patterns and you begin to scratch the surface of what is possible, given some creative programming, even with only 3‑voice polyphony. This feature alone takes the XBase 09 into realms that TR909 users can only dream of and makes what could otherwise be a humdrum drum machine a different animal altogether. Even a sampler/sequencer setup can't compete with the sheer speed and versatility that this drum machine offers when it comes to manipulating percussion sounds in real time and as kits, particularly when you consider that it also includes full MIDI control.

Amazing MIDI

The XBase 09 certainly tries to make up for its lack of polyphony by offering MIDI control of almost every function, and has one of the best implementations of MIDI I've seen in a drum machine. In Performance mode every knob, except the Accent and Tempo/Data controls, transmits and receives MIDI controller information, while note information from the rhythm patterns is also transmitted and received. An external MIDI keyboard can be used to trigger the drum sounds and the Tap buttons can trigger external MIDI sources. It can send and receive MIDI clock sync and perform SysEx dumps of all the rhythm patterns, drum kits and songs in memory. XBase 09 rhythm patterns can be recorded into an external MIDI sequencer in real time, by manually changing patterns or by playing completed songs, with the XBase 09 start/stop controls able to send or receive MIDI start/stop signals. A nice feature is that the 3‑digit display shows the incoming controller values when the unit is receiving MIDI data — handy for troubleshooting.

Adding this amount of control may also seem like overkill — but, believe me, once you start experimenting you realise the amount of scope available. Although a lot of knob‑twiddling and sound manipulation can be recorded from within the unit, connecting a MIDI sequencer and recording the output of the XBase 09 allows even more editing possibilities, with some amazing results. For example, you can record any knob changes — such as pitch sweeps on the bass or snare drum, changing attack/decay and EQ settings or volume changes — and then cut, paste, mix or overlay this controller information in your sequencer for even more complex and extreme effects. Rhythm patterns could also be recorded alongside the controller information and further edited, copied or changed, using the XBase 09 as a drum‑voice module.

09 Or 909?

If you're looking for an original TR909 and are horrified at the silly prices (the 909 is a very rare and very expensive beast these days), the XBase 09 seems like a reasonable alternative, at about half the price. And while it may not be everything a 909 is, it comes closer, by a long way, than any other dedicated drum machine in capturing the sound and the essence of the original Roland TR909 — and the 808, for that matter. The XBase 09 also has the added bonus of a vastly superior MIDI specification that leaves the old 909 standing, and the inclusion of a Roland DIN sync output makes it a piece of cake to hook up to an 808, 909 or TB303 Bassline. The audio quality is outstanding, particularly the analogue voices, and even the 8‑bit digital samples are noise‑free (they are just a little grainy, but then they are meant to sound retro). I know the limited 3‑voice polyphony could be a major turn‑off for some but, as I've mentioned elsewhere, the programmability of the drum sounds makes up for this, to a degree. If you want it to, the XBase 09 can sound so much like the original that it's scary! And, while I admire the fact that it does sound so authentic, this does bring me to another reason for recommending this beatbox. In the 10 days or so that I used the XBase 09, I unearthed all kinds of new sounds and rhythms. Speaking personally (and, of course, this whole review is personal opinion), if I had the XBase 09 for any length of time I don't think I would be using it to sound like an '80s drum machine, because it has enormous potential and can sound like so much more. Taking a wider view for a moment, to my mind the XBase 09 and instruments such as the recent Roland MC303 and the Novation and Quasimidi range of instruments show us how designers can acknowledge the past but also move forward. The behemoth that is the electronic musical instrument industry seems to go through pools of stagnation now and again, with glimmers of light such as those above shining through. I know there will be people saying that nothing could ever replace the sound of the TR909, but everything changes. It's called innovation and progress: musicians move on and chart new territories (pun intended).

End Game

The biggest hurdle the XBase 09 faces, for all but professionals, is going to be its price, particularly with units such as the Roland MC303 at £565 and the highly specified Quasimidi Rave‑O‑Lution, at £649, entering the market at ramming speed. However, if you're a pro DJ, producer, or remixer, or just serious about making dance music, you really should get a hands‑on demo of this amazing little machine with the big sound. I won't be at all surprised if the Jomox XBase 09 goes straight to the top of a lot of shopping lists.

Spec Check

  • 3‑voice polyphony (two analogue, one digital).
  • 64 Patterns.
  • 100 Performances.
  • 10 Songs.
  • MIDI In, Out and Thru.
  • DIN sync output.
  • Mono mixed output and three individual outputs.

Operating Theatre

Selecting the XBase 09's various modes of operation isn't always as intuitive as it could be, particularly Song Write, Track Record and Individual Step Mode (the modes where you can store the control knob settings for each pattern). I spent the first few days tapping out rhythms and wondering if this was as good as it gets. It wasn't until a copy of the English manual arrived that I uncovered the deeper and more interesting levels of operation.

The software version on the review model was only 1.03 and still had a few bugs that needed ironing out. One strange quirk is that the incremental Up/Down buttons are reversed. This caused some confused head‑scratching at first, and I thought it was just my being dense, but checking the gear in our studio proved me right, as every piece of gear had 'Down' to the left and 'Up' to the right. In addition, the unit wasn't responding to MIDI volume changes as it should, and it wouldn't record MIDI note messages in Pattern Write mode. The 3‑digit display usually shows BPM but if you alter a control knob it changes to show the current controller value; occasionally the knob would change the BPM, when it should have been scrolling through patterns or drum kits. It would also be nice if you could select patterns, drum kits or songs via MIDI program changes.

An imminent software update will fix most of these problems and add some new features. I would like to have seen a little more polyphony — at least four or five voices would be terrific — but I suppose that would push the price up even further. Another feature that I missed was dedicated Bank select buttons, which the original TR909 had. Instead you have to use four or five button pushes just to change to another pattern bank.

Yuk At First Sight?

First reactions are a funny thing, and that old cliché, 'you can't judge a book by its cover', must surely apply to the XBase 09. The colour scheme is pretty awful, to my eyes — lots of red buttons, plus a body finished in cream, highlighted by thick orange strips and with pine‑coloured, real wood end cheeks. Very retro. Come on, guys! if you're going to pay homage to a classic drum machine (even down to using the same sized 3‑digit display), why not go for the original, classy, two‑tone grey, with subtle highlights of orange? But at least the current package is eye‑catching!

Dedicated Alternatives

  • ROLAND TR909:
    The original, if you can find one. £1100‑£1500 second‑hand.
  • ROLAND TR808:
    The original, if you can find one. £450‑£550 second‑hand.
  • ROLAND R8:
    Uses 909/808 samples, no dedicated knobs. £300‑£400 second‑hand.
    Uses 909/808 samples, no dedicated knobs. £300 new.
    Uses 909/808 samples but has no rhythm programming. £449 new.


  • Superb sounds, capable of some amazing variations.
  • Real hands‑on control.
  • Well built and sturdy.
  • Well specified and excellently implemented MIDI.
  • Great improvisational tool.
  • Suitable for live or studio use.
  • As close to the original as you're likely to get without spending silly money.


  • Quirky operating system.
  • Clunky Tap buttons.
  • No stereo output.
  • No gate trigger output.
  • One of those dreaded AC/AC external power supplies.
  • Not cheap (but cheaper than a 909!).


A highly specified, superb‑sounding, dedicated drum machine with analogue snare and bass drum, plus digital 'bells and whistles'. It's modelled along the same lines as the original Roland TR909 but without the same number of instruments, though this is compensated for by its full programmability and an excellent MIDI implementation. The only slight drawback is the price.