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Roland TR626

Rhythm Composer (Retro) By Derek Johnson
Published November 1998

Roland TR626

'80s technology is still out there in abundance and going cheap. Derek Johnson spotlights a budget beatbox that has everything it takes to slot into the '90s studio.

No hi‑tech company has a prouder tradition in the art of the drumbox than Roland. Through good times and bad for the drum machine concept they've continued to produce dedicated units, spawning gems such as the TR808 and TR909 in the process, and never putting their name to anything less than a decent instrument for its time. These days the dedicated Roland beatbox torch has been passed to their alter ego Boss (with a new Dr Rhythm machine, the DR202, due any day now), while Roland concentrate on perpetuating their time‑honoured 'rhythm method' through dance workstation instruments such as the MC303 and MC505 Grooveboxes.

With Roland's catalogue consisting of around 20 machines (give or take a couple), it's perhaps inevitable that some have occupied a historical back seat. Take the TR626, for example — launched in late 1987 to respectable reviews, it didn't set the world on fire, but its unpretentious usefulness certainly didn't do the Roland name any harm either. And now that it's possible to pick one up for around £120 or less, you can buy into the '80s revival very cheaply indeed.

Smooth Operator

The 626 is resplendently beige, and has a smooth, sleek, console appearance that just a few years ago was looking decidedly dated, but which is now showing signs of edging back into hipness (it also matches modern computers and Akai samplers to perfection). The machine's lightness implies portability, and this impression is confirmed by the battery compartment on the underside: insert six AA batteries, and you're on the move. In fact, this was how new 626s were supplied, and though they will, of course, work from the mains, an external PSU was not included as standard. The usual 9V unit costing around a fiver will do the job.

Eleven small, square, self‑coloured buttons access various of the machine's functions, while 16 large dark‑grey buttons serve as pads (and also double as further editing controls). Neat, flat rotaries control volume and tempo, and pattern programming is accomplished via a custom display (not, sadly, backlit) of a size that still looks generous compared to many current hi‑tech instruments! The 626's work surface is decidedly sparse, with none of the flashing lights, knobs and level controls you'd find on the 808 or 707. It's round at the back, though, that you find one of the machine's greatest assets: no less than eight outputs (plus a stereo out), through which individual kit sounds can be routed for external processing and EQ of your choice. On an instrument which had a price tag of £350, this was pretty good going — how many recent budget drum machines can you name with eight separate outs? This facility is even more relevant now, allowing the '90s weirdness freak to make the very most of the 626's limited 30‑sound palette.

Sounds Of The '80s

And what about those sounds? Well, what you get is largely confined to the traditional kit, with the addition of a few Latin bells and whistles (see '626 Sounds' box for a full list). They're PCM samples, almost certainly 12‑bit, the quality of which is nicely up‑front, clean and punchy, though some samples (especially the open hi‑hats, cymbals and toms) cut off a bit sooner than modern tastes would prefer. On the up side, they're all tunable by plus or minus seven semitones, and each drum sound can have its own level. All new tunings and levels, however, are 'global' — once a sound has been altered it will play that way in any pattern which includes it, even preset patterns.

Programming, in real or step time, is a doddle even for the relative novice, and anyone who's ever programmed Roland drum machines should be up and running in no time. You can easily switch between record modes with the current Pattern running, and bum notes or parts can just as easily be erased on the fly. The method has more in common with the 626's immediate predecessor, the TR707, than a 909, in that notes are input on the LCD‑based grid. Drum‑pad buttons 1‑14 each access two drum sounds, which you switch between by way of the Inst Change button. Pads 15 and 16 each trigger only one sound — open hi‑hat and closed hi‑hat, respectively — making a 30‑sound total that's not as grand as it used to be, in these days when new instruments such as Quasimidi's Sirius offer 450+ drum waveforms (then again, who really needs 450 different drum sounds?). Though the 626's pads are, unfortunately, not velocity sensitive, it's possible to program one of three accent levels separately for every instrument on every step of a pattern. This is a huge advance over, say, the TR808, where setting an accent level on one step of a pattern affects every instrument sounding on that step. Anyone using the 626 as a drum sound module will discover that all the sounds respond to a full range of velocity when triggered from a MIDI keyboard; however, drum patterns can't be written using an external keyboard, so those three preset levels of velocity are all that's available when the 626's drum sequencer is being used.

Thoroughly Modern MIDI

The 626 was launched when MIDI was only three or four years old, yet it has a pretty fair MIDI spec, which even includes recognition of MIDI Song Position Pointers — so that if the 626 is being run in sync with a sequencer, it will pick up at the correct point if the sequence is started from somewhere other than its beginning. Since the TR626 has tape sync sockets, it could happily function as the central sync source in a small studio based around budget MIDI equipment and a cassette multitrack, especially given its compatibility with SPPs. The one caveat must be the bizarre assertion in the manual that the 626's tempo should be kept below 180bpm when using tape sync, since "synchronised playing cannot be done correctly at any setting above this limit".

A nice and unexpected bonus is the ability to dump, via SysEx, the 626's entire user Pattern memory to an external device, making the relatively restricted quota of 48 user Patterns much less problematic. There is a RAM card slot, for a card that will store 96 Patterns, 12 Songs (a Song is a chain of up to 999 Patterns) and two sets of drum‑voice parameters, but since we're talking about a 10‑year old instrument here, there's no guarantee that RAM cards will be easy to find, so the SysEx solution could well be the cheapest one for Pattern and Song storage. Unless you want to wrestle with slow and unreliable tape dumping, that is... (However, see the 'Trick of the Dump' box above for an interesting use of tape in/out sockets on older instruments.)

Missing from the 626's back panel is a DIN sync socket. This socket was included on the TR909, 707 and 727, and allowed certain of Roland's pre‑MIDI sequencers and drum machines (such as the TB303 and TR808) to be sync'ed to more modern instruments, using the DIN sync‑equipped machine as the 'middle man'. But there is one link with the past: a trigger out socket that outputs a +5V pulse. The trigger is generated by the rim shot 'track' of the drum sequencer, so that whenever a rim shot is playing, a pulse is also output from the trigger out socket. Various analogue instruments can be interfaced in this way. For example, Roland produced a number of stand‑alone drum sound generators in the mid‑'80s, and these can be triggered by a +5V pulse. Some sequencers and drum machines, and the arpeggiators on many analogue synths, can also be clocked by a steady stream of +5V pulses. You can get some funky results if you feed an arpeggiator a pattern, rather than a steady stream, of pulses. (Setting the rim shot's volume to zero when using the trigger out is advisable, unless you're producing turbo‑jungle...)

Fade To Beige

I remember being quite excited by the 626 when it was first released. The prospect of both traditional kit and Latin sounds in one machine was enticing, giving the impression that one might be getting what amounted to a 707 and its 727 Latin counterpart in one box — with eight separate outs and a sub‑£400 price tag. But the 626 would have had to be even more sub‑£400 than it was to be within my financial reach in 1987, and I never got one. Until fairly recently, that is, when I bought my first dedicated drum machine for years, the admirable Boss DR660 Dr Rhythm, and the seller magnanimously threw in a 626 he'd had lying around, for nothing. As they say, everything comes to him who waits...

Retro Spec

  • 48 preset, 48 user Patterns.
  • Six Songs (maximum 999 Pattern steps).
  • 30 drum voices.
  • 8‑voice polyphony.
  • Stereo output, plus eight individual outputs.
  • Start/Stop footswitch jack socket.
  • MIDI In/Out sockets.
  • Tape Sync In/Out sockets.
  • Tape dump In/Out socket.
  • Power from 9V external adaptor or six AA batteries.

Trick Of The Dump

As mentioned below, the TR626 has a pair of tape dump sockets, allowing you to save the machine's memory contents to tape, and while this is a cheap storage method, it's definitely not the most reliable. However, there is a rather clever way of using the tape dump sockets: record the output to your computer. Regular SOS readers may recall Dave Burraston's letter (and Chris Carter's reply) in the Crosstalk pages of the August 1997 issue, regarding a technique for recording the output of an MC4's tape interface to a Mac, using virtually any sound recording utility. The recording can be made at 8‑bit resolution and data‑compressed for maximum compactness of the final file. Chris found that the most consistent results were obtained by saving the file in QuickTime format, using Dave's recommendations: 8‑bit, 22kHz with MACE 6:1 compression settings. Saving in QuickTime format also means that saves should be easily portable between Mac and PC platforms. The same technique, naturally, should be possible with a PC.

Houston, We Have A Problem...

One criticism that was levelled at the 626 on its launch was that it was a bit on the safe side, with a traditional 'kit' bias that inclined it towards the staider regions of the world of rhythm. If anything, the 'voice grouping' that Roland adopted for the machine tended to reinforce this impression. Despite the fact that 30 sounds are available, a maximum of eight can sound at the same time (8‑part multitimbrality). Roland pre‑arrange the sounds into eight groups, and those which are in the same group cannot sound at the same time. Group 1, for instance, contains Snare Drum 1, Snare Drum 2, Low Timbale and High Timbale, so there's no layering of the two snares for added impact. The fact that Group 6 consists of Bass Drum 1 and Bass Drum 2 likewise prevents you from using these two sounds simultaneously; neither can a hand‑clap sound at the same time as the claves, the shaker, or the mute hi‑conga, for example.

Hit Parade: 626 Sounds

  • Bass Drum 1 & 2
  • Snare Drum 1, 2 & 3.
  • Rimshot
  • Low Tom 1 & 2
  • Mid Tom 1 & 2
  • High Tom 1 & 2
  • Closed & Open High‑Hat.
  • Tambourine
  • Cowbell
  • Low & High Agago
  • Low & High Timbale.
  • Low, Open High and Mute High Conga.
  • Handclap.
  • Shaker.
  • Claves.
  • China Cymbal.
  • Crash Cymbal.
  • Cup Cymbal.
  • Ride Cymbal.