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Yamaha DTX950K

Electronic Drum Kit
By Mark Gordon

Yamaha's DTX950K kit combines cutting‑edge drum-pad technology, heavy‑duty hardware and an advanced brain — but what does it sound like and how does it play?

Yamaha DTX950K

The DTX950K is the flagship of Yamaha's very popular DTX series of electronic drums, and when you see it in the flesh, you can understand why. It's built around Yamaha's new hex rack system — an impressive piece of hardware originally developed for the company's acoustic drum kits — and features the brand‑new DTX drum pads.

This substantial kit comprises six pads plus the DTX900 'brain', and offers some clever studio integration features with Steinberg's Cubase DAW software, demonstrated by the inclusion of a copy of the cut‑down Cubase AI.

Let's Get Physical

All manner of playing surfaces have been tried for electronic drums over the years, from the 'riot shield' plastic of early Simmons kits, through various rubber pads, to, more recently, mesh heads that are remarkably similar to real drum heads in feel and playability. The main playing surface of the DTX pad is another major leap forward. It's called a 'Textured Cellular Silicon Head' and is constructed from a silicone gel material with millions of tiny bubbles in it. Adjusting the number of bubbles at the manufacturing stage changes the density of the head, so the feel can be changed for different pads.

Connected to the rack are four of these new DTX pads: two 10‑inch 'high toms' and two 12‑inch 'low toms', attached using a very sturdy memory‑lock clamp system. The clamp itself is connected to the hex rack via a ball‑joint that allows a comprehensive range of movement. I was able to adjust the toms to virtually any position I wanted and, after a quick twist of the securing T‑bolt, they were not going anywhere! In addition to the tom pads, the rack supports two 13‑inch crash‑cymbal pads and a 15‑inch ride cymbal pad, attached with equally heavy‑duty hardware.

The 12‑inch snare pad sits on a regular snare‑drum stand and the hi‑hat pads on a normal hi‑hat stand (both provided as part of the kit). The kick‑drum pad is also free‑standing and not connected to the hex rack, but is held in place with pretty substantial spurs that wouldn't look out of place on a regular kick drum. I very much liked these free‑floating items, as they allow far more freedom in setting up the kit exactly how you want it, and with a far more natural feel, akin to sitting behind a regular kit.

The DTX900 'brain' also mounts on the hex rack with a ball‑joint memory clamp, and a fully labelled loom is provided to connect all the pads to the brain, with velcro straps to attach loom to rack in a neat and tidy way. It might be nice to have all the cabling inside the rack system somehow, to keep things really clean, but I can see how this could cause as many problems as it would solve.

Come On Over To My Pad

Each of the main pads features Yamaha's Textured Cellular Silicon Head technology and is robustly constructed around a metal frame.Each of the main pads features Yamaha's Textured Cellular Silicon Head technology and is robustly constructed around a metal frame.

The pads themselves are built on a metal frame that matches the hex rack and are extremely sturdy. Each pad has three trigger zones: two around the hard rubber rim, plus the main playing surface itself. The pad heads 'float' on a built‑in shock absorber system that prevents cross‑triggering from stand vibrations. At the top left corner of each pad is a knob that can be assigned to a number of different functions, from simply tuning the toms or loosening and tightening the snares through to resonant filtering of the voices.

The new DTX pad technology mentioned above has been used to great effect in the 950K. The tom pads feel softer than the snare pad and, as a result, they have slightly less bounce — exactly as it would be on an acoustic kit. They play extremely well and have just the right feel. I swear I play better on these pads than on my acoustic kit!

The other noticeable advantage of this new head material is how quiet the pads are. If you've ever heard someone playing an electronic kit on headphones and really laying into it, you must have noticed how loud the acoustic noise from the pads can be. These Yamaha pads really reduce that.

Moving on, the kick pad has a more standard rubber head under a mesh fabric and, although acoustically slightly louder than the other pads, it has a nice solid feel against the beater. The cymbal and hi‑hat pads are made from a more familiar black rubber compound and, like the drum pads, have different trigger zones; bell, bow and edge on the cymbals and edge and bow on the hi‑hat.

The Brains Of The Operation

At the centre of the DTX950K is the DTX900 brain. The DTX900 is presented simply and is easy to navigate — so much so that I had everything connected and was auditioning kits within seconds of setting up.

The rear panel features the usual collection of inputs and outputs: each pad connects to its own individual input on the brain by way of the jack loom, with a further four inputs available in case you add extra pads. Along with the headphone output and the left and right 'Main' output sockets are six individual outputs that can be used to send any of the drum voices out to a mixer or audio interface, for example, and an S/PDIF digital output.

The DTX900 also has a 'USB to host' and a 'USB to device' port. The first connects the module to a computer and exclusively handles the transfer of MIDI data. The second is, as you might expect, for connecting to an external data‑storage device.

Dominating the front panel is a large, informative LCD, below which are two banks of 'function' and 'sub function' soft keys corresponding to parameters on the display, depending on the current mode. All major functions are easily accessed via dedicated buttons, not buried under layers of menu options. In a similar vein, the volume of each drum voice can be controlled by its own physical fader, making balancing the elements of a kit in a performance situation very easy. Four further faders control the volume of the Main Outs, Phones, Click and Accomp (accompaniment).

Internally, the DTX900 is an equally impressive beast, offering a grand total of 1326 voices; 1115 drum and percussion voices, and a further 211 'melody' voices taken from Yamaha's Motif‑series synths. Fifty factory kits, covering lots of musical genres and kit 'types', are provided. There are also comprehensive effects, taken from Yamaha's SPX2000 hardware processor.

Editing a kit is very easy, ranging from assigning voices to pads and turning effects on and off to detailed tweaking of EQ and attack, decay and release parameters. You can select a pad or pad zone by simply hitting the pad, then a graphic representation appears on the brain's LCD, with the zone you're working on in black. This makes editing a whole kit very quick, even if you have hands full of drumsticks.

The DTX900 is the only 'sampling' drum brain on the market and can store up to 512MB (102 minutes) of user samples when the optional DIMMs are installed. AIFF and WAV samples can be loaded in via USB, or samples can be recorded directly via the 'Sampling In' jack at up to 44.1kHz, 16‑bit. They can then be assigned to a User Voice and treated in the same way as preset voices. Unfortunately, the review kit had no DIMMS installed, so I was unable to test this feature, but it's easy to see how powerful it could be. Imagine taking all the drum sounds you've used on a recording out live with you!

It's worth noting that the samples are not saved within the module and do need to be backed up. This is less of a major disaster than it appears, as you can save samples to, say, a USB pen drive and get them to autoload each time you switch on.

Playing The Kit

The DTX900 brain module is at the heart of the DTX950K kit.The DTX900 brain module is at the heart of the DTX950K kit.

I was immediately attracted to acoustic kits such as the Oak and Birch Custom, as I wanted to see how accurately an electronic kit could mimic, or even replace, a real kit.

As I do a lot of live playing, it took me a moment or two to get used to hearing a perfectly tuned kit, EQ'd and reverbed, being pumped directly into my ears through headphones. Being able to balance the drums quickly and easily with the individual faders was a boon at this point, and I was able to get the kit sound exactly as I wanted it in my headphones.

The acoustic kits sound utterly convincing, particularly when mixed in with a track. The new DTX head surface is a dream to play on and allows for extremely expressive dynamic performances. All but the very, very lightest grace notes are heard, and the dynamic articulation is excellent. This seems to be mainly due to Yamaha's XA (Expanded Articulation) System, which creates subtly different samples even when you strike the drum with the same force. The three‑zone pads also allow for expressive and realistic performances, enabling rim shots to play very easily and naturally.

A really nice touch on the acoustic kits is found as you play the kick and tom pads: the snares rattle in sympathy, as they would on a real kit. Another 'drummer' feature is the control knob on the snare pad. Turning the knob loosens and tightens the snares to the point where you can quite realistically choke the drum, or even turn the snares off completely.

The three‑zone cymbal pad enables an impressive level of variation, and moving between the bell, bow and edge, particularly on the ride cymbal, works very well. The cymbals are good — better than I expected — but still not quite good enough compared to the expression you can get from real cymbals. Being able to grab a rubber cymbal pad with your hand and choke it is very impressive, though!

The hi‑hat is the best of all the cymbal pads. Once I'd got used to the feel and adjusted the sensitivity of the pad, it was playable and surprisingly convincing. Like the 'sympathetic' snare, it has a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve. For example, playing the closed hi‑hat and pressing the pedal harder, squeezing the two cymbals together, produces a slight rise in pitch, as it would on a real hi‑hat.

The 'electronic' kits are great fun to play, and the slight issues I had with the cymbals are less apparent here, as you're not always triggering acoustic sounds. Again, the three‑zone pads are used to brilliant effect, with each pad offering an intriguing selection of sounds, depending on where it's struck.

Percussion is catered for in the form of African, Cuban, Asian and Brazilian kits which, again, make great use of the three‑zone pads. The dynamic capabilities are also showcased, with (for example) open congas turning to conga slaps the harder you play.

There's a fair smattering of weird and wonderful uses that take advantage of the DTX900's ability to stack notes to form chords, and to create sequences of (up to 300) drum sounds, sound effects and keyboard voices. While these are great fun, with massive 'demo' potential, I'm not sure how useful they would be in the real world.

In short, the 'out of the box' kits pretty much cover all the bases, and could easily be all you need from the system, but you can edit and manipulate them to an almost frightening degree — or simply create your own.

Cubase AI5 Integration

The DTX900 brain's rear panel, featuring connections for the pads and cymbals, audio outputs for the main mix and individual sounds, and MIDI and USB ports.The DTX900 brain's rear panel, featuring connections for the pads and cymbals, audio outputs for the main mix and individual sounds, and MIDI and USB ports.

The DTX900 offers what Yamaha describe as 'unique integration with the bundled Cubase AI5 DAW software'. As I understand it, though, the DTX900 is happy working with almost any recent version of Cubase on Mac or Windows, not just the AI version.

As Cubase is not my usual DAW, I didn't have a copy on my Mac, so I really made a leap of faith and tried the DTX900 with Cubase 5 on Windows. I hadn't received the accompanying Yamaha CD by that point, so I downloaded the required drivers from the DTX web site. It's worth mentioning (as it's certainly not always the case) that this was easy to navigate, and selecting the correct downloads is very simple.

Two drivers are needed: a USB/MIDI driver and a DTX900 Extension. The USB/MIDI driver lets you connect the DTX900 to your computer via the USB port and simply transmit and receive MIDI data via an external MIDI interface. If you weren't looking to fully integrate the DTX900 with Cubase, or were using it with a different DAW, this driver would be all you needed.

Using only the MIDI driver, I was able to record and play back drum parts with Cubase and trigger its virtual instruments from the pads. This installation of Cubase only includes the basic selection of instruments, but I was able to play (and record) the sounds from Groove Agent quite happily from the DTX pads.

The DTX900 Extension lets you control almost all the functions of Cubase from the front panel of the DTX900. Entering 'Cubase Remote Mode' disables all other DTX900 functions, then the front‑panel buttons exclusively control Cubase.

The DTX's transport buttons control the corresponding functions in Cubase and work exactly as you would expect. The interesting part comes when you start using the Function and Sub Function buttons. The six function buttons are already pre‑assigned to Quantise, Undo and track zoom functions but, along with the unallocated Sub Function buttons, they can be assigned to almost any Cubase function via the device setup screen. Obviously, certain functions are better controlled with a mouse, and I certainly wouldn't recommend any major Cubase editing with the DTX buttons, but you can lay down fairly simple tracks without having to vacate the drum stool.

My usual DAWs are Digital Performer and Logic on a Mac, so I connected the DTX kit up to my Mac to see what else was possible. Obviously, the Cubase control aspect is limited to, er, Cubase, but the DTX kit was still a more than capable partner for Logic. I have a few more drum 'options' on the Mac, so I was able to test out the DTX as a trigger for FXpansion's BFD virtual drum instrument.

The Cubase Device Setup Window where DTX function buttons can be assigned to Cubase commands. The six function buttons on the DXX900 are already pre‑assigned to Quantise, Undo and track zoom functions but, along with the unallocated Sub Function buttons, they can be assigned to almost any Cubase function via the device setup screen.The Cubase Device Setup Window where DTX function buttons can be assigned to Cubase commands. The six function buttons on the DXX900 are already pre‑assigned to Quantise, Undo and track zoom functions but, along with the unallocated Sub Function buttons, they can be assigned to almost any Cubase function via the device setup screen.BFD allows you to load MIDI maps so that the samples can be triggered correctly by whatever hardware is connected. I couldn't find a map for the DTX950 kit, but the user mapping options in BFD are comprehensive and intuitive. Anything that isn't mapped as you would like can simply be dragged onto the corresponding MIDI note displayed in the BFD interface.

The DTX hi‑hat has a multitude of trigger options (open edge, closed edge, open bow and so on). I was able to assign exactly the sample I wanted to the particular trigger very easily, and create my own map, complete with stacked notes and articulation. The whole thing worked very well and expanded the possibilities of the DTX kit enormously. The kits that ship with the DTX950K are excellent, and more than suitable for pretty much any application, but using the DTX with something like BFD means that you can have an almost limitless range of kits, and edit them to within an inch of their life long after the drummer who played the part has left the studio.

Conclusion

As a primarily acoustic drummer who has dipped in and out of electronic percussion over the years, I can honestly say this is one impressive bit of kit. The quality of the DTX pads and the solid hardware make playing the DTX950K a fantastic experience.

At its current price of over $5000, it's not cheap, but a good acoustic kit with half a dozen top-end cymbals would also cost you the best part of £3000 to 4000$4000 to $5000. That's only going to give you one kit sound, too. Add in a few different snare drums and some percussion and we're really starting to stack up the costs. And, of course, there's the microphones to record the kit! The DTX, on the other hand, gives you the ability to instantly dial up almost any ready‑produced drum sound, from a rock kit to a TR909, plus your own samples.

For recording, it's an absolute dream. Even though I do have access to a real kit, miked up and ready to go, I found myself far more inclined to use the DTX950K on a session. And why not? Sit down, turn on and instantly dial up the perfect kit for the track you're working on. Record the drum sounds directly onto their own audio tracks via the direct outputs, while simultaneously recording your performance as MIDI data. I would possibly want to add real cymbals and hi‑hat to the setup for some sessions, but in general I'm totally sold on this kit!  

Alternatives

At this end of the electronic drum kit spectrum, there really are only one or two alternatives to the DTX950K. Yamaha's own slightly smaller sibling to the DTX950K, the DTX900K, offers a similar setup and the same DTX900 brain, but with one less tom pad and the lighter weight aluminium RS130 Rack System.

From Roland, we have the V‑Drum TD20KX, which features an identical configuration of drums and cymbals to the DTX950K and is based on a heavy-duty rack system with deep, brushed-metal pads and silver‑coloured V‑Cymbals.

Favourite Factory Kits

  • Oak Custom: Stunning‑sounding acoustic kit. Nice deep snare with a slight ring, and great warm‑sounding toms. A perfect 'do everything' kit.
  • 70's NY: Fairly dry and damped, great for some retro disco or early Steely Dan!
  • Rock Kit: Gunshot snare with an awesome ring on the rimshot. Huge kick drum and massive toms make this kit perfect for that big rock track.
  • R&B: Instant Justin Timberlake! Great thin hats and a clap mixed in with the snare. Some interesting percussion available from the rim triggers too.
  • Electric Funk: Think Chad Smith — nice high‑tuned snare and toms with a bit of an edge. Some great Giorgio Moroder‑style electro‑funk riffs are available on the rims of the pads too!
  • Vintage: A tight kick and a nice open snare give this kit its vintage sound. The ride cymbal is big and heavy, with very little overtone. A great all‑round kit.
  • Trad Electric: A traditional Simmons kit with that 'sheep being kicked in the stomach while sneezing' kick drum and Eastenders toms. The classic 'Love don't live here any more' toms make a welcome appearance too!
  • Jazz: Boomy, undamped kick and retro snare with fantastic Gene Krupa toms and sizzle ride. A great‑sounding swing and jazz kit.
  • Asian Perc: An amazing selection of percussion sounds taking full advantage of all the DTX950 'tricks'. Voices switch with alternate hits or velocity, to great effect, and all manner of sounds appear on rims, cymbal bell, edge and hi‑hat. This is a spectacular example of all that's good about the DXT950.

Sequencing

The DTX900's on‑board sequencer makes itself useful in a number of ways. At the basic level, there's a click feature that lets you play along with a metronome, but if playing to a click isn't your idea of a fun night in, you can dial up one of 50 preset songs in different styles.

These are really glorified keyboard demo songs, comprising a drum part, bass part and usually a rhythm and top line, which can all be individually muted. Typically, you would mute the drum part and play along, balancing the accompaniment against the kit with the faders. With the odd exception, they sound pretty good, and apart from being great fun to play along with, are fantastic practice tools. You could always plug in a CD or MP3 player via the aux input and play along to that, but the built‑in sequencer songs offer the advantage of being able to access the useful Groove Check Function, an excellent on-board practice aid.

It's also possible to record your own performance, and that of an external MIDI source, such as a keyboard plugged into the DTX900's MIDI In. The sequencer has two tracks and 50 User memory locations, and is fine for quickly and easily stacking up drum parts. A decent range of editing features includes a quantise function, but for me that sort of defeats the object of playing the part in via pads!

One very cool feature of the on‑board sequencing is the ability to assign any sequence to a pad zone, allowing you to create a short percussion loop or musical phrase such as a bass line and trigger it from a specific pad, in 'one shot' or continuous loop mode. It works very well.

Pros

  • Amazing playing surface.
  • Solid as a rock.
  • Incredibly good acoustic drum sounds.

Cons

  • User samples lost when turning unit off.
  • Quite expensive.

Summary

This is an impressive piece of hardware that does a more than convincing job of putting some of the best‑sounding drums and percussion at your fingertips, in a very playable form. Fantastic for drummers and very attractive for recording musicians who don't have ideal drum‑recording facilities.

information

£4999 including VAT.

Yamaha +44 (0)1908 366700.

www.yamahadownload.com

$5399.

Yamaha +1 714 522 9011.

infostation@yamaha.com

www.yamaha.com

Published September 2010