It's clear where its inspiration lies, but is MFB's 'Analoger Drumcomputer' equal to fabled Roland machines of yore?
In February, I had a blast with the cheap and cheerful MFB 522 and 503 drum machines. For a couple of hundred pounds each, these tiny plastic boxes dared to impersonate Roland's TR808 and TR909 and do it, not by modelling or sample playback, but with analogue circuitry. The 522, in particular, had a ridiculous amount of instant, knobby access. For a box its size, that is. It was never going to challenge fond memories of Roland ergonomics or the simple joy of programming in authentic X0X.
Perhaps I'm showing my age, but these bite-size beatboxes awakened the eternal desire for 'something larger'. It's a desire that can now be satisfied — by MFB's 'Tanzbär Analoger Drumcomputer', which takes the best elements from both. Tanzbär translates as 'dancing bear' but the only cruelty is to anyone naively trusting the preliminary manual to explain all. Fortunately, trial, error and a ballpoint pen will carry you a long way. Even so, you'll welcome the more comprehensive manual that's apparently in preparation.
My initial feelings on unpacking the Tanzbär were mixed. My kitchen scales put it at a fraction over 1kg so it's less substantial than I'd expected. Measuring approximately 333 x 167 x 60 mm, it's actually quite a neat package, but one that never conveys an impression of durability. Comprising two black circuit boards framed by metal and thick wooden end-cheeks, the Tanzbär sports a forest of small, generic knobs. Most of the panel is taken up by their 3 x 10 grid, divided into sections covering the key parameters. Unsurprisingly, the most complex voices merit the highest knob count; however, the combination of small text and ugly font, plus the essential anonymity of the controls, means that finding what you want is often slower than it should be. Some use of colour would definitely have helped. A multi-purpose data knob contributes extra voice parameters and tempo adjustment.
You might not instantly notice the 15 miniature knobs. They're similar to those of the MFB 522 and unfortunately those on the review model were of equally variable quality. Although obviously a compromise, I can't deny the value of having individual volume controls that are always live. Sadly, the last three or four were so stiff I thought rigor mortis had set in, while the last knob (master volume) needed pliers before consenting to move. Happily, after a week, all but this last knob had eased up with use.
There are no pan controls, nor is there space for any. In compensation, there are seven audio outputs, all of which are stereo jack sockets. This enables two voices to be delivered from each — or one voice, in the case of the clap, because it's stereo. Despite exhausting my supply of spare insert leads, connecting individual outputs was well worth it to reap the rewards of separate EQ and processing. Each pair of instruments drop from the main mix as connections are made. Apart from the clap, the mix is conservatively panned anyway (and there's no MIDI control of it, in case you were wondering).
The Tanzbär has three MIDI sockets and seven mini-jacks. Unusually, it has two MIDI inputs, a feature many instruments and drum machines could benefit from but rarely receive. The 30-year-old MIDI protocol is wonderful, its endurance rivalling the finest wines or the silent guffs of vegetarians, but sometimes squirting everything down a single cable presents headaches of its own. Having two inputs enables you to sync to an external clock while triggering notes from a keyboard or drum pad without need of a merge box. You need to decide which input receives notes though, because they're accepted at both.
Before indulging in '80s drum machine nostalgia, I should point out that power is supplied by a 12V external adapter and that the buttons used throughout are rather too small for comfort — they're roughly liquorice imp-sized. Oh, and there's no dedicated headphone socket.
Lacking tracts of soothing, empty space, the busy panel is a lot to take in. The LEDs may be red or green and they're in plentiful supply. The preliminary manual claims orange is an option too, but with some optimism I felt. Orange is more like a side-by-side composite of the two other colours and I noted, in subsequent emails with the developer, references to red, green, red and green, and red and green flashing instead.
Having browsed the panel text, I eventually found the start button. For those still looking, Play is one of many shiny black spots on the black background. It's when you press it and sit back for a moment that the Tanzbär grows tangibly. Scribbling out my early impression of 'small and poky', there was a sudden promotion to 'amazingly compact'. This little bear punches several divisions above its weight.
The deep kicks raised an instant wow, while maracas, congas and claves all added fruity Latin ornamentation heard recently in the MFB 522. As far as I was concerned, the improved interface and extra voice parameters had already put the Tanzbär into a class apart, but as I auditioned the factory patterns, I realised there was more going on. Each knob provides digital control over some aspect of an analogue voice and therefore, not only can the drums be extensively modified, the modifications can be stored in each pattern — or each step!
While I was itching to try this for myself, it was obvious that to master the Tanzbär I should try to grasp its modes and idiosyncrasies first. To avoid digging out the manual every five minutes, it's important to know all the Shift key functions and to have memorised as many of the associated colours and states of LED as possible.
Here's my quick summary. The Tanzbär operates in one of three modes: Manual, Step and Jam. Step is the default and it's the mode in which you manipulate a drum's timbre and write the results into individual pattern steps. Alternatively, you can load an existing pattern and make sonic adjustments to selected steps only. It's an idea roughly similar to Elektron's parameter locks and it works wonders on old-school percussion.
Manual mode is the one to turn to when using the Tanzbär primarily as a module, or when you simply prefer patterns to trigger voices as set by their knobs. The main difference between Jam and Step modes is that in Jam mode you lose the capability of individual step variations. However, all knobs are live when recording rather than just those of the selected voice.
With no display of any kind, some operations are inevitably arcane but, other than the inability to set a numeric tempo, the interface wasn't unduly restrictive. When making tempo adjustments, no change occurs until the existing value is passed, which is something.
Gently encouraging originality, the Tanzbär powers up with no pattern loaded, but at any time you can quickly clear the RAM contents or select an empty memory location and set to it. Patterns are stored in Pattern Sets, of which there are three to populate. Each Set contains three banks of 16 patterns, totalling a splendid 144 patterns. Saving to new locations incurs no playback glitches — exactly as you'd hope.
Every pattern has an alternate or B-side and toggling between the two halves has a slick built-in refinement: when you start from an empty pattern and, at some point switch over to the other half, your work in progress is automatically copied over. This can be a valuable safety net when you begin to increase any pattern's complexity, especially if you're prone to getting carried away. In such cases, it's a doddle to drop back to the earlier version.
In pride of place in the top left-hand corner is the Rec/Man Trig button; a destination so popular your muscle memory will soon carry you there without a thought. When its LED is off, the step buttons serve as instrument mutes. Mutes are saved on a per-pattern basis, offering the opportunity to call up a pattern then reveal it in tantalising stages. Push the button and the LED turns green, indicating Manual Trigger mode is active. Now you can play voices from the step keys. However, as you're only supplied with those miniature, closely spaced buttons and they're incapable of dynamics, it isn't a hugely satisfying experience.
Recording is primarily in X0X tradition. To enter a few step triggers, you first enter record mode for a chosen instrument. Unless your hands are enormous this is going to be a two-handed operation for many drum voices. The Red/Man LED turns red prompting you to begin the age-old process of activating steps to trigger voices.
There's a back-door method for recording patterns from incoming MIDI notes, which I'll look at later. For now, X0X note entry focuses the mind differently, which made it a factor in why early drum machines were considered unusual and exotic rather than realistic.
Of course realism isn't the purpose of an analogue drum machine — these days, at least — so before getting to grips with the sequencer, let's savour some of the drums and their controls. A great example is the first bass drum (BD1) and its six dedicated knobs: attack, decay, pitch, tune, noise and filter. Most of these are self-evident but some deserve explanation; for example, pitch refers to the intensity of a hidden pitch envelope, while attack represents the level of an attack transient built in to add extra bite. In cases where there are further sonic possibilities, a flashing LED next to the Sound button invites you to try them out — this feat is accomplished by pressing it and a regular step key. Finally, distortion is on hand courtesy of the Data knob, recalling at a stroke the brash aggression of the MFB 503. In contrast, the second bass drum is unashamedly smoother, simpler and more 808-like, not that that's a bad thing. Having two is a luxury anyway! If you enable 'mute groups', either bass drum can take precedence if triggered simultaneously. This is a useful tool to prevent accidental low-end conflict, but if you want two simultaneous kicks you can have them.
In total there are 14 analogue voices spread across ground that Roland so kindly established as classic territory. Included is a reasonably versatile snare consisting of two mixable tones, a pitch envelope and a noise component. Next are hi-hats, toms, claves, cowbells and claps. With 16 different transients, some of which are staggered or delayed, I can't personally think of a more satisfying way to get clap from a machine! Especially as this one has a filter and pseudo-reverb too. Actually, with the exception of the oddly subdued claves, all the voices are either good or at least recognisably conceived in homage to Roland. Admittedly the toms are rather boxy but they're pleasant enough, much like my old Roland CR8000. They can be buttered up with a spot of noise or swapped for congas.
If you imagine you've heard all these sounds before, the manipulation of them within patterns might still be a pleasant surprise. Some controls have a specifically tailored response; for example, the bass drums, toms and congas introduce very long decays in the final few degrees of knob rotation. This can lead to unwanted drones if you aren't vigilant. The extended decays can be useful though because the sequencer supports the recording of bends, allowing gradual pitch changes between two points. Already this, and other programming intricacies, were hinting at fresh avenues for familiar sounds, assuming you like the idea of kick drums that morph into bass lines, that is.
The sequencer is largely consistent with analogue beatboxes of yore, but it's fitted with modern innovations too. MFB have added one feature not usually found on drum machines: each instrument's track can have a unique length. Furthermore, the length — and the overall pattern length — is freely adjustable during playback. Maybe I'm weird but I've always found mixing, say, straight 4/4 kicks alongside 12 steps of hi-hats and odder lengths of rimshots and maracas to be utterly fascinating. It's the kind of shifting polyrhythm that usually requires several drum machines to accomplish — and it can get a bit mental if you overdo it.
For patterns of up to 32 steps, you can glue the A/B halves together, although with the limitation that the result is always an even number of steps. More versatile than most is the shuffle implementation. It's friendly and accessible but its biggest innovation is in being applicable per track. Naturally, if you prefer to stick to the limitations of other machines, shuffle can be applied to the whole pattern, overriding any individual track eccentricities.
While on the topic of limitations, you can't record mixer data into your patterns, nor are the voice levels accessible via MIDI CCs. There is a simple accent system though, with choices of none, medium and high. Also, presumably as a by-product of MFB's approach to polyrhythms, patterns always swap to the next pattern at their end. Once you've experienced the pleasures of Korg's Volca Beats, you'll probably crave the option to swap on the next step too.
In almost all cases, the sequencer is the perfect blend of functionality and ease of use. It borrows Electribe-like features such as 'knob record', where every tweak can be captured. Strangely, this requires you to leave record mode first, which isn't particularly intuitive. The Roll button triggers repeated notes and can do so for multiple drums simultaneously. If you enable the recording of rolls, not only can you record them into a pattern, but this provides that back-door method I mentioned earlier — for grabbing notes from an external MIDI controller. Recording this way is a very basic implementation with obvious latency, but with practice it works. Mostly.
Patterns can be spiced up further by introducing flams. Or 'Flames', as the panel prefers. With 16 different flam timings to choose from — from fast stick bounce simulations to more explicit repeats — I was pleased to note different flams could be written on a per-step basis. This is one flexible bear and I caught myself idly wondering whether it practises yoga.
The Fill function really isn't. At least, it's not a fill according to classic terminology: it's a way of chaining patterns instead. Discarding expectations of cheesy tom or snare fills, this Fill is about setting up quick structures; selections of patterns that should loop. This is invaluable for freeing up your hands to play a synth, drink a beer, or roll a spliff. One action to avoid (if possible) is accidentally hitting the Fill button after you've been editing a pattern for a while. Fill, it turns out, is quite unforgiving and can select a different pattern, throwing away all your edits before you realise the mistake.
It was when sync'ed to MIDI clock that I noticed an obvious offset of Tanzbär voices compared to other sync'ed gear. This was one of several bugs in the review model and it set me on a journey that eventually led to the trashing of a USB cable in order to solder it directly onto the circuitboard — the prerequisite to installing an OS update. Regrettably there's no way to perform updates via the far safer SysEx or .MID file method. It's not a course of action users should typically expect to take, so let's hope there aren't many other models out there similarly afflicted! The effort required to install upgrades seems to rule out future bugfixes and enhancements too, which is a pity.
I really wasn't prepared for the Tanzbär. Having cut my teeth on a succession of Roland drum machines in the '80s, it was a revelation to hear these crisp analogue tones under such in-depth control. Being able to adjust the timbre on each step added a whole new dimension to pattern creation — and that's before wallowing in flams, rolls, pattern chains, individual track lengths and shuffle values, to name but a few favourites.
Sonically you can expect a drum machine that's generally comparable to Roland's TR808, but with a much-expanded synthesis. The first bass drum and the snare are widely configurable and encompass 909-like qualities while keeping a definite flavour of their own. The profusion of larger knobs made a huge difference when fine-tuning each drum, but the little volume knobs were disappointing. Compared to similar controls on Korg's Monotrons or Volcas, they felt stiff and rough — quality issues you could overlook on the cheaper MFBs. Ultimately, I can't help feeling that a few too many corners have been cut and that improved construction values, larger buttons, a display to make operation clearer and a practical means of updating the operating system would all have helped turn the Tanzbär into a classic in its own right.
Finally, if Japanese drum machines of the '80s leave you cold, or samples appeal more anyway, the Tanzbär is probably not for you. Alternatively, if you believe some sounds never date and relish the idea of digital control breathing new life into them, then the Tanzbär currently stands alone. Despite its shortcomings, I can't think of an analogue drum machine that sounds better, period.
For drum sounds with in-depth control, I've long been an advocate of Korg's ESX1 (reviewed SOS March 2004), which can be filled with samples of classic analogues. The Korg also has the advantage of being significantly cheaper, but if only analogue will do, you could grab both small MFBs, plus a Korg Volca Beats and still have change left over for a mixer! Probably the closest competition also comes from Germany: the Acidlab Miami (SOS November 2014) sets out deliberately to be a TR808 replacement; the Tanzbär aims to be something more.
Joining the analogue drum voices are two digital monophonic synths. They won't win any awards but they're sufficient for banging in melodies and bass lines. The bass synth is probably the more useful of the two; it's a square wave with a filter, its cutoff set by that ever-faithful data knob. You needn't stress over these synths too much because their main value is in sourcing two CV/Gate channels of output, as well as an extra CV channel to route wherever you like. Fortunately, either or both of these synths can be silenced if their output is not required. Sequences are entered in step time, the note values printed in tiny letters above the step keys, along with octave shifts, slides, rests and accents. In parallel to the 1v/Octave CV output, notes are transmitted on two separate (but fixed) MIDI channels.
There are further rewards for the voltage-astute, in the form of two mini-jacks (Sync and Start). These are soft-configurable as either inputs or outputs and designed for synchronisation with analogue sequencers and the like. As an experiment I connected an LFO to the sync input, its range going well into the audio. Impressively the Tanzbär clocked to it, those LEDs entering hyperdrive as they marked the rapid triggering of drum voices merging together to become a strange kind of gong tone.
After my exploits with the MFB 503 drum machine, I had high hopes for a generous list of MIDI CCs to try out with the Tanzbär. I was not disappointed. Firstly, a MIDI learn function is used to define the preferred drum channel. The channels of the bass and melody tracks (see the 'Volting Rights' box) are fixed at 1 and 2, but it might save you time to know (as I didn't) that the Tanzbär only listens for CCs at MIDI input 1 and on channel 10. The knobs don't transmit CCs themselves, presumably because their actions can already be recorded into patterns, but since each parameter responds to a unique CC, elaborate external manipulation is yours to command.
Via MIDI you can perform some tricks the hardware can't accomplish by itself, the best of these being individual track delay. Each track has a CC assigned that will shift it backwards in time. You can use this to introduce a slight 'lateness' to snares or toms, for example, but if you wanted to shift, say, the hi-hat track slightly ahead of the rest, there's no way to do it directly. You'd have to shift the others track by track.
One unusual feature of the Tanzbär's sync implementation is that it starts and stops at pattern boundaries. You hit stop (OK, Play), but your pattern doesn't stop, it continues until its last step. If already stopped, it will pick up from where it would ordinarily have been. This isn't always what you want but it does take the pain out of lining it up with other machines in a multiple drum machine or hardware sequencer environment. You can set the internal beat resolution for double speed, triplets and so on. Incidentally, the Tanzbär is one of those rare drum machines that cease sending MIDI clock when they stop playing. Ordinarily, this won't matter but it's worth knowing in case your effects unit switches off its delay functionality when clock pulses stop arriving.