The Korg DDM110 was one of the first digital drum machines to reach the mass market. Paul Sellars rediscovers its distinctive, punchy sound and revels in the simplicity of its programming...
The Korg DDM110 programmable digital drum machine first went on sale in 1984, and was one of the first digital drum machines to reach the mass market. What distinguished it as a 'digital' drum machine was its use of PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) samples for its instrument sounds. Earlier, analogue drum machines worked by internally synthesising percussive drum‑like sounds out of various combinations of sine waves, noise and filters. Digital drum machines, on the other hand, could actually store short digital recordings of proper acoustic drums in ROM, thereby offering far greater potential for realism. Having said that, 'realistic' is perhaps not the first word which springs to mind on first hearing a Korg DDM110 in action...
The DDM110 is a relatively simple, 'no‑frills' machine, occupying a small, almost‑square grey plastic box measuring 22.5 x 19.5 x 4cm, with the inspiring legend 'Super Drums' printed in its top right‑hand corner. Five dials, one switch, and 15 buttons are mounted on its face, giving the user control of various parameters, including the master volume, the relative volumes of the hi‑hat, cymbal and metronome sounds, and the tempo — which is calibrated to an arbitrary scale with Slow at one extreme and Fast at the other (which isn't overly helpful). There is a second dial for fine‑tuning tempo and this allows for a little more precision, although not as much as a proper bpm counter.
The Record switch enables and disables pattern editing, and the 10 buttons along the bottom represent the nine different instrument sounds: (Bass, Snare, Rim, Hi‑tom, Lo‑tom, Closed Hi‑hat, Cymbal and Claps), with the addition of an Accent button for adding a bit of dynamic variation to your patterns. This is useful, as the DDM110's buttons are not velocity sensitive.
The remaining buttons are Shift (which doubles as delete when editing patterns in real time) Start/Stop (which er... starts and stops patterns playing) and Song, Pattern, and Up/Enter which are used to change modes and navigate around the DDM110's LED‑illuminated menus.
The side panels are home to a variety of sockets, including a headphone jack, left and right line outputs (the latter offers a mix of the stereo signals when used alone) and a Trig Out socket (which can be used to send a pulse to trigger, for example, the arpeggiator on a synth with a trigger input). There is also an input for a nine‑Volt DC mains adapter, two mini‑jack sockets for connecting a cassette deck (to back up pattern data) and a five‑pin DIN socket labelled Sync (see Sync Or Swim box).
Without a manual, it can be quite difficult for the first‑time user to find his or her way around the DDM110, and I was initially confused. However, with the help of some useful information found on the Internet (see Free Samples box) it soon began to make sense. To create a new pattern, you must first make sure the Record switch is set to Enable and then press thePattern button. The Pattern LED will light and you can now use the numbered instrument buttons to enter the number of the pattern you want to create or edit. There are 32 pattern memories, all of which are user‑editable. Pressing the Pattern button again changes mode and causes the Initial LED to light. In this mode you can select both the time signature and quantise resolution that you want to use. Time signatures of 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4 and 8/4 are available and patterns can be quantised to 16th notes, 16th note triplets or 32nd notes.
Press the Pattern button a third time and the Inst LED lights. You can now begin to create or edit patterns. Step programming is simply a matter of tapping the desired instrument buttons in order and allowing the sequencer to advance one step at a time. Hitting Start/Stop starts the metronome and allows you to enter your pattern in 'real‑time'. If you make a mistake in your programming, you can fix it by holding down Shift and the relevant instrument button for the duration of the offending hit.
When you've made up a few patterns, you can chain them together to create a song. Hit the Song button and the Song LED will light. You can now use the instrument buttons to enter a number between one and six to identify the song you want to create or edit (the DDM110 has only six song memories). Pressing Song again lights the Edit LED and allows you to move through your song bar by bar, using the Up/Enter and Down/Cancel buttons. Hitting Song a third time lights the Pattern LED and allows you to select which pattern will be played for the currently active bar, by entering a number between one and 32.
Song and pattern data can be backed up to cassette using the built‑in sockets, which are switchable between mic and line‑level signals. The DDM110 has no pre‑set patterns in ROM, but it was originally supplied with a data cassette containing some pre‑programmed loops demonstrating the machine's capabilities. These cassettes have a tendency to go missing, and the pre‑set patterns are all‑too‑easily lost with them. Fortunately, Korg UK can supply replacement copies (see Accessories box).
I'll admit that before I had the opportunity to actually plug in and play with the DDM110, I had certain pre‑conceptions about how it was going to sound. These were largely based on its age and slightly 'clunky' appearance, and what I thought I knew about sampling and digital audio. A digital drum machine from 1984, I guessed, would probably be based on low bandwidth — eight‑ or maybe 12‑bit samples. It should therefore, I decided, suffer from a limited frequency response and poor signal‑to‑noise ratio. It should sound dull and unnatural, and noticeably 'digitised'. In short, it should sound awful. Maybe awful in an amusing, kitsch kind of way but, in the final analysis, still awful
I was, however, completely wrong: the DDM110 sounds great. This is not to say that it does not sound distinctly dated: it does. It positively stinks of the early '80s. What's more, none of its PCM instruments could be considered faithful recreations of, or plausible substitutes for, real acoustic drum sounds. It nevertheless sounds good. Its noises have a satisfying punch and a real character of their own, and I can't deny that as soon as I heard them, I was hooked.
The bass drum in particular is a solid, compelling thump that could easily make itself indispensable in any house producer's studio. The clap and snare sounds are instant 'old‑skool' electro, particularly when layered, and the hi‑hats 'tick' away in a suitably mechanistic fashion. This won't be to everybody's taste, I know, but it works for me.
Real‑time programming with the DDM110 is quick and effortless and, for a machine with such inflexible quantising, it's capable of producing some seriously funky patterns! In fact, after 20 minutes I had decided to abandon my sampler entirely and use the DDM110 for all my drum tracks, from this day forward, forever...
And then it occurred to me that I was probably over‑reacting. My enthusiasm was a symptom of Cubase‑fatigue; a reaction to having had too many groove‑quantise templates to choose from for too long. What appealed to me about using the DDM110 was the freedom from having to make too many choices. Well, whatever the root cause, I have to say that I found the simplicity of programming the DDM110 a real breath of fresh air. In fact, I'd go further: it was just plain fun.
Admittedly, this isn't the most versatile machine in the world — and I'm sure I would get sick of hearing those same nine sounds over and over again after a while — but its limitations can also arguably work in it's favour. It was precisely because I couldn't waste hours auditioning hi‑hats or moving different hits back and forth by a few ticks at a time that I was forced to concentrate on just programming simple patterns that worked in the context of the track. Having spent a couple of minutes doing so, there was nothing left to do but move on and start thinking about basslines. Such spontaneity can sometimes be hard to achieve if one allows oneself to get bogged down in the numerous menus and options offered by a sophisticated software sequencer.
It was not until several years after the development of the DDM110 that digital drum machines began to improve to the point where they were capable of producing sounds that could be considered anything like 'realistic'. When one listens to the DDM110, one can't help wondering exactly what was recorded in order to create its samples. Was it really an acoustic drum kit? If so, I would be fascinated to learn how Korg went about the recording process.
Ironically, by the time PCM drum machines were reaching their evolutionary peak, a huge revival of interest in their analogue predecessors was underway, and sampled kits from the more famous pre‑digital dinosaurs became an essential feature for any serious best digital contender.
To this day, the drum machine market remains divided roughly in two. On the one hand, there are the high‑quality, somewhat unexciting sample‑based workhorses, containing hundreds of high‑fidelity drum hits culled from professional sample libraries. On the other hand, there are the increasingly rare and disproportionately expensive second‑hand analogue machines, and the equally‑pricey 'new analogue' facsimiles.
Where does all this leave the DDM110? Not realistic enough to satisfy people who want a drum machine to act as a convenient substitute for a real drummer, not considered 'classic' enough to command the extortionate prices paid by retro enthusiasts for just about anything 15 years old with a Roland badge and no MIDI port.
This 'half‑way' status, coupled with its more eccentric qualities, is enough to place the DDM110 in the 'love it or hate it' oddity category. I personally gravitate towards the former opinion. Of course, I can quite understand why many people might not share my feelings: the DDM110 is limited, inflexible and offers very few of the features which today's discerning drum machine users might demand.
On the other hand, it represents an interesting piece of history, and possesses a unique and distinctive sound. What's more, its relative lack of popularity ensures that it won't cost you an arm and a leg on the second‑hand market. Exactly what it will cost you is difficult to predict: there does not seem to be a thriving trade in second‑hand DDM110s and it has been a while since I saw one advertised in the UK. They crop up on www.ebay.com from time to time, invariably in the United States, and sometimes with an asking price of less than $20! How that should translate into pounds and pence is something prospective buyers and vendors will have to negotiate between themselves...
Having become a fan of the machine and its sounds, I was curious to find out exactly what kind of sampling technology was at work inside the DDM110. However, sample‑based instruments were a comparatively new idea in 1984 and specifications like sample rate and bit‑depth were not routinely published in manuals or promotional material. Certainly, no such specifications were printed in the DDM110's user manual.
In my quest for more information, I contacted Paul Bundock at Korg UK who, amongst his other roles, is recognised as a kind of unofficial product historian. While no official records of the DDM110's more obscure specs have been kept, Paul was able, by poring over circuit diagrams from the original service manual, to make some educated guesses.
"The service manual," he told me, "does shed some light on the sample resolution, as the output DACs use a parallel eight‑bit buss. We can therefore assume that these were eight‑bit machines — which was normal for this era." As for sample frequency, a close examination of the circuit diagrams suggests that the two most likely candidates are 31.25kHz and 15.625kHz. "I think 15.625kHz for the sample rate is more likely," Paul continued, "as I remember I had a Casio SK5 in 1987 that had a sample rate of about 11kHz." Those were the days...
Integrating a DDM110 into your existing setup might present one or two problems. Although there is a familiar‑looking five‑pin socket on the side of the machine, it's not in fact a MIDI port. It's a DIN‑sync socket, similar to what you would find on a Roland TB303, TR606 or TR808.
DIN sync was a kind of evolutionary half‑way point between early CV/Gate systems and the later, digital revolution that was MIDI. Like CV/Gate before it, DIN‑sync is an analogue rather than digital system, which has been implemented in two different (although broadly compatible) versions; Roland's and Korg's.
Roland's DIN‑sync uses a 24 PPQN (Pulses Per Quarter Note) signal, while the Korg version (also found on the DDM110's big brother, the DDM220) uses 48 PPQN. This chance disagreement presents some interesting possibilities. The DDM110's DIN socket is switchable between input and output modes, allowing the machine to act as master or slave. Slaved to a Roland machine (for example, the TR606) the DDM110 should run half as fast as usual. When acting as a master, on the other hand, it could be used to drive a TB303 at twice its normal speed.
My first experience of the DDM110 came about when a friend of mine, somewhat mysteriously, acquired one from a friend of a friend, for little or no money and without a manual or instructions of any kind. Curious, I asked to borrow it, and I have been doggedly fiddling with it ever since (I suppose I'll have to give it back soon...).
As soon as I started playing with the machine I was immediately taken with its fat, crunchy PCM sounds, and I didn't waste a second in starting up my Akai to grab them. Having done so, and pleased with the results, I decided to share my good fortune with the rest of the web‑literate world, and uploaded all nine samples (as 16‑bit, 44.1kHz WAVs) to a page at www.appleonline.net/p.sellars/ddm‑110/.
Once the page went 'live', a couple of things quickly became apparent. First, a surprising number of people seem to be searching the web for samples of dodgy old eight‑bit drum machines. Secondly, there are quite a few people out there who, like me, have got hold of a DDM110 without a manual and are struggling to make sense of it. Having received a dozen or so emails asking for pointers, I decided to look for some answers. Some searching and a few unsolicited emails led me to Jed Haldeman, who directed me to a brief DDM110 programming guide that he had written. A revised version of this guide can also be found at the above URL. Thanks, Jed!
In spite of its relative obscurity, the DDM110 is still surprisingly well‑supported by its manufacturers. Korg UK can not only supply photocopies of both the original owners manual and service manual (£7.50 each, plus £3.50 postage and packing), but also duplicate copies of the original data cassettes containing the DDM110's preset patterns (£10.00).