British company Novation made their name with the BassStation synth, which offered dance music producers instantly tweakable, analogue‑style synth sounds in a MIDI‑controllable package. The new DrumStation applies the same formula to the de rigueur dance sounds of Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines. Paul Nagle moves from Station to Station...
I'm surprised someone hasn't brought one out before; a rack device dedicated to reproducing the two most sought‑after drum machines to hit planet Earth in the last million years or so: Roland's TR808 and TR909. Novation have already made lots of friends with their BassStation synth, and have now turned their beady eyes on the drum box market. Using a combination of samples and Analogue Sound Modelling (or ASM if your brain has storage space for the acronym), you can build a kit featuring sounds from both the TR808 and TR909 with all the means of modifying the sounds that has made these drum machines so popular. The one thing lacking is Roland's neat method of programming rhythm patterns, but if you opt for a convenient MIDI rack device instead of the real thing, the chances are you're after the sounds, and not just the 'pose value' of owning the original. So, how closely does it resemble the real thing sonically? The answer is pretty damn close. I managed to borrow a TR808 to try alongside it, and working on an 'eyes closed' method, found the most obvious difference was the way the TR808 was programmed. With Cubase's drum editor, I could get near to the programming style, but I wouldn't attempt to convince the 'original is best' advocates who hold to their beliefs at all costs — even when faced with machines held together by sellotape and bits of string.
Appearances Are Informative
Housed in a 1U rack module, the DrumStation is decked out in a tasteful combination of pale yellow and grey on a black background, and packed with rotary pots, switches and rubber 'calculator‑style' pushbuttons. Although small, these controls are well conceived and accessible. A small red 2‑character display conveys the various messages, program numbers and the like to the outside world. The manual, though excellent, was hardly needed at all — if I had to stoop to a cliché at this early stage in a review, it would be that this is an intuitive machine. On the far left is the master volume, which is notable, because it can be overriden by a MIDI control change 7 message at any time. Presumably Novation have a reason for this, but I found it pretty disconcerting. When I turn something down, I like to be sure it will stay down...
Two buttons to the right of the master volume select which drum kit is to be edited. Since some of the features of the TR808 and 909 differ, those functions pertaining to the TR808 only are marked in grey text. Perhaps the percussion voices unique to the 808 should have been labelled in grey also? Underneath are the headphone socket and memory write‑protect switch.
The DrumStation comes with 25 preset kit memories and a further 15 user memories. This is probably quite sufficient, but if necessary, you can transmit SysEx dumps of single kits or all user kits to an external device. The Select button below the display steps through the various MIDI functions such as transmit and receive channels, utility mode (see separate box for details) and program save or select. Navigation is via the tiny matrix of buttons.
The back panel is generously endowed with stereo outputs and six individual outs. Output routing can be saved as part of a kit, and I found it convenient to think in terms of each output being used for a different effects unit, rather than a different drum (see the Utility mode box for more on this). MIDI In, Thru and Out sockets are of course present, and the DrumStation controls send out all the movements as MIDI controller information, so all tweaks can be recorded into a sequencer, although some parameters (eg. Distortion, Pan and Front Cut) require you to generate the controller information yourself from your sequencer or master keyboard. If you are lucky enough to have a BassStation, Novation thoughtfully provide a conversion table of matched controllers for this purpose. And if that weren't enough, a Roland Sync 24 output (a pre‑MIDI communication protocol) allows triggering of old gear such as my battered TR606, providing you route a MIDI Clock to the DrumStation.
Dream Drums? — The Sounds
Sounds may be auditioned via MIDI or the handy auto trigger facility, which repeats a note at a tempo you set — that's the sort of attention to detail that I find most endearing! Many of the drum voices feature ASM — yes, it's that 'M' word again — and this means that you get to stray from the comfortable path of sample reproduction and delve deeper into the heart of the sound. Few details are available on the modelling process, but in many cases the ASM tone is combined with a sample to produce the finished result (see the chart elsewhere in this article for more details). Six of the instruments are totally sample‑based (with no ASM): the cowbell, maracas, claves, ride cymbal, rim shot and hand clap. These still work effectively, allowing the real sound generation muscle to be reserved for the more complex voices. The manual explains that ASM sounds, unsurprisingly, require more processing power than sample playback, and consequently polyphony is reduced depending on the number and type of drums sounding. This sounds confusing (and it is) but, in practice, it didn't cause me any problems, since I only have the usual complement of hands and feet anyway! I'm told polyphony is "up to 8 notes", not 12 as stated in the manual, and I guess some form of reserve function would have been nice, even as a global setting.
True to the original Roland sounds, the snare drum has four dedicated parameters: Tune, Level, Tone and Snappy — a setting which increases the amount of white noise in the drum body. Using these, you can squeeze plenty of life out of that old 808 snare, even before resorting to external processing. The bass drum has Tune, Level and Decay. For the 909 kit, there is also Attack, and for the 808, there is Tone. The remaining instruments each have Tune and Level knobs, with the toms, hi‑hats and cymbals also featuring a Decay setting. Those instruments which share common controls are selected via a small 3‑position switch, making it a little more difficult to set the relative tuning of the toms and congas.
It is difficult to single out any individual voice for praise. All are excellent renditions of their TR808 and 909 ancestors. If, by some chance, you have never heard these machines, remember that (with the exception of the 909 cymbal, which was a sample anyway), none of the voices actually sounded realistic. Yes, the toms can sometimes be mistaken for someone hitting a cardboard box with a dead fish, and yes, the famous 808 'snare' does sound rather like a yeti stomping through a pile of cornflakes, but what the hell — these sounds were what gave drum machines such a unique musical identity.
Novation have managed to reproduce a bass drum which has great presence, especially with a little front cut and external EQ. The toms sound superb with a touch of distortion, and the crisp, metallic hi‑hats and 'plinky' claves are classics that I will personally never tire of. Both the 808 and 909 snares seem destined to last forever, although thankfully the popularity of the handclap seems to have waned with the passing of disco. Of all the instruments, the only one I could never find a use for was the bloody awful cowbell! If I could vote for an enhancement, it would be to add the sounds of other classic machines such as the Drumulator or TR707 (especially the latter) — but perhaps now that the work has been done to create the modelling technology, it will be possible in the future.
A drum machine without the rhythm‑making section isn't a new idea, but the DrumStation is targetted at a very specific market. So, what's the verdict? Well, anyone with a regular need for these sounds will be more than happy with the DrumStation's version of them. Of course, because many instruments already include some 808 and 909 samples, the average punter might consider the DrumStation an expensive luxury — but I've heard many quality 808 and 909 samples, and none allow such a degree of control over subtle nuances of the sounds. On the other hand, although packing these sounds into a convenient rack is very neat and tidy, you do lose the pattern memories and step‑time input that was for some as important as the sounds themselves. At the end of the day, you have to keep in mind that if you wanted both of the original drum machines and a sync/MIDI box for the 808 too, you would probably have to pay twice the asking price of the DrumStation.
I suppose Novation must have felt faintly sick when they heard about the forthcoming Roland MC303, but there are significant differences between the two, not least that Roland's box omits all the dedicated knobs that make the DrumStation such a joy to use. And with advance orders for the DrumStation apparently numbering well into the thousands, it would seem that plenty of people are fed up with lining the pockets of those who were cunning (or fortunate) enough to pick up real 808s and 909s for a song when everyone was selling theirs!
MIDI Utility Mode
Some intriguing features set the DrumStation apart from its analogue predecessors, and allow you to carry out some things previously only achievable with patience and extreme cleverness. In Utility mode, you select the drum you wish to edit via the plus or minus keys. A nice time‑saving feature is that a quick turn of any knob causes its drum to become the currently selected one — but I'd have liked to have gone one stage further, and been able to select drums for editing by incoming MIDI note (though this could prove problematic for drums that share the same editing controls, like the toms). As it is, you can be auditioning a tom sound from your master keyboard and end up furiously tweaking the DrumStation's front panel controls, wondering why the sound you're playing isn't affected.
Front Cut, which removes up to 99 milliseconds from the start of the drum sound, results in a more muted or rounded character. This is particularly good for removing the 'head' element of a bass drum, enabling you to catch that 'hit in the chest' thud that is so vital in cardiac emergencies and dance music.
Controller/velocity decides whether a particular parameter responds to velocity or other controller data. You can program different elements of each drum so that, for example, the snare's tone and tuning respond to velocity but the 'snappiness' is controlled via MIDI, allowing a great variety of responses. I found I could get great results when triggered from my little Yamaha DD12 drum pads, combined with a continuous pedal mapped to pitch.
The DrumStation can accept or ignore note off information for each drum. This means you can choose whether drums cut off when hit again before their decay time has ended. If you get problems with polyphony, this might be useful and is set on an individual drum basis, like all the other parameters mentioned here.
General MIDI is, happily, almost entirely absent, but it does rear its bland head in the form of a simple remap facility. If you want to quickly integrate an 808 or 909 kit into a GM song, this is the way. Output Set lets you assign any of the drums to anywhere in the stereo panorama or to any of the six individual outputs. This is a generous number, and is invaluable if you wish to process the sounds of kick and snare separately. A useful feature within the Assign Bank function allows you to map a single drum sound over an octave range on the keyboard, although I didn't find a means of overlapping drums on the same note.
Novation have continued with their high standards as far as MIDI spec goes. Practically every DrumStation parameter has its own associated MIDI controller — 100 in total — with which you can coax out every drop of expression from these simple noises. Purists can ignore this if they wish, but I loved the power to take such basic voices and move them as far as possible from the starting point. Distortion adds 'soft‑knee' distortion to the currently selected drum voice, and is particularly good for adding some extra nastiness to snares and kicks. Last amongst the utility functions is a demo which shows off the sonic power of the DrumStation admirably with stereo hi‑hat panning, wacky tuning changes and dynamic kick and snare combinations. I freely admit that none of my own efforts matched this.
- Faithful representations of two classic drum machines.
- Great MIDI control.
- Sonic tweakability which exceeds even the originals in some cases.
- Loses the drum machine heart that helped shape the sound in the first place.
The DrumStation achieves a very realistic simulation of the TR808 and 909, and will therefore do well amongst those determined to have greater control over the sounds than mere samples can provide, but who can't afford the absurd price tag on the original instruments. The MIDI control also allows you to stretch the sonic limitations of these two instruments, but maybe the choice of some different sound sources would result in the DrumStation being added to a few more shopping lists.