Behind the conventional facade of Yamaha's latest drum machine hides a selection of sophisticated features — like 'human feel' groove quantisation, bass sounds and built‑in digital effects. Paul Ward gets into the groove.
To think of Yamaha's new RY20 'Rhythm Programmer' as just another budget drum machine is to do their latest offering something of an injustice. Whilst the front panel suggests little more than the type of 'beat box' we have come to know and love, this newcomer has a couple of features that may just up the stakes in the electronic rhythm market.
The RY20 is about the size of an old Sinclair Spectrum computer, but the similarities with that small piece of computing history don't end there, as the drum machine also sports those squidgy rubber keys that everyone just loves to hate! The small LCD is reasonably clear and features lines and legending to separate and group the display areas. Yamaha do lose marks, however, for not including a backlight. You really need to have the RY20 in clear view and good lighting conditions to make proper use of the display.
On the RY20's rear panel are the main left/right outputs and the MIDI In/Out sockets, though a MIDI Thru is absent, doubtless a casualty of space and/or budget. Some manufacturers get around this by allowing the MIDI Out to be configured as a Thru, but Yamaha have not followed suit here. You'll either have to sit the RY20 at the end of your MIDI chain or invest in a MIDI Thru box. Also to be found here are the DC power supply input and the mini‑jack headphone socket. I find the latter somewhat puzzling — on the one hand, a headphone socket smacks of portability, yet no battery option is available to exploit it. And if portability is not an option, I wonder why the headphone socket is anything other than a standard quarter‑inch type? Also conspicuous by its absence is the provision of any kind of foot switch input. This could prove to be a bit of a pain for the average gigging accordion player.
The most striking feature of the RY20's control surface is the large 'jog and shuttle' control. Many people will be familiar with these from video recorders and digital sound editors. For those who are not, the mechanism consists of an outer collar or 'shuttle' control and an inner dial or 'jog' control. The shuttle control is a centre‑detented, sprung‑loaded device that scrolls values faster the further the control is moved from its centre position. In contrast, the jog wheel is a continuously rotating dial, better known in some circles (sorry!) as an 'alpha' wheel. A pair of +1/‑1 buttons is also provided, to give a finer degree of control when needed.
The RY20 features tape‑like transport controls, with play, record and fast forward/rewind buttons, in addition to a key that returns you to the top of the current pattern or song. These controls are very intuitive to use and effectively mask the technology present behind them, which is the way it should be. A red LED above the record button provides a welcome reminder to avoid accidental recording, and a green LED above the play button flashes reassuringly in time with the current tempo.
Four buttons to the left of the control surface allow selective muting of bass drum, snare, hi‑hats or 'others' (which literally covers all of the remaining voices). This is an excellent aid, allowing the programmer to focus on the most important parts of the rhythm. These same buttons also allow deleting and copying of the same groupings, which is extremely valuable when programming many patterns for a single song, where the basic elements of the rhythm might remain pretty much constant.
Dedicated buttons take you into each of the RY20's 'modes'. These modes include Song, Pattern, Tempo, MIDI, Drum Kit and Effects. A pair of page up/down buttons allow movement between the pages within each mode. Cursor left and right buttons select specific data items for editing.
Pattern mode is where all rhythm programming takes place. The RY20 has a few features here to make the process as painless as possible. For instance, instead of having to switch out of record to audition a particular sound, you simply hold down the 'audition' key, which allows any pad to be played without recording the result. Once in record mode, real‑time recording is instigated by hitting the play button. All that remains is to tap the touch‑sensitive drum pads in the traditional fashion or hit the appropriate keys on a MIDI keyboard. I found the pads a bit fiddly to use and resorted to a keyboard most of the time, although this is true of my experiences with many drum machines. During real‑time recording, and also in playback, the LCD displays velocity‑sensitive meters for each pad, which is quite helpful.
Quantisation values are definable between an 8th note and no quantisation at all, and it is also possible to alter gate times for looped sounds. Time signatures from 1/4 to 32/16 can be accommodated, and a section can be defined as containing up to 16 measures. Tempo is variable between 40 and 250bpm. A first for a Yamaha drum machine is the use of a grid‑based programming system. The LCD displays a grid of the four 'tracks' (bass drum, snare, hi‑hat and 'others'). By using the drum voice pads and the forward/backward buttons, it's simplicity itself to create usable rhythm patterns. Grid edit mode is available whenever the RY20 is switched into a record‑ready state but is not in play. The manual suggests using the step method for getting the basic beat into the RY20 and then moving on to real‑time programming to add the flourishes. This seems like an ideal way of working, in my opinion, and is certainly better than being forced into one specific programming method. Any editing of individual beats is done in step mode, where velocities can be trimmed, or voices changed. The delete button works in both real‑time and step modes — press it in conjunction with the drum voice pad to be deleted. Other useful facilities include programmable count‑ins on both record and playback, and the ability to alter the volume of the click used for the count‑in.
Of special note are the programmable swing function and the 14 groove templates. These features can really help to relieve the 'mechanical' nature of programmed rhythms. Rather than simply affecting the timing/quantisation of the rhythm on playback, the groove templates can affect velocity and even the actual number of beats that a particular voice plays. 'Snap2', for instance, will look for a snare on the second beat of the measure and repeat it after a delay of an eighth note, a dotted eighth note or a sixth note. The degree of quantisation, timing shift and level modification is user‑definable.
Up to 50 patterns can be created by the user, and another 50 are held as pre‑recorded ROM patterns. Each pattern consists of six 'sections' which are designated as intro, main A, main B, a fill pattern for linking A to B, a fill pattern for linking B back to A, and an ending. Although you're not compelled to program the sections in this way, if you do so there are several advantages. When the RY20 is started on an intro section, upon completion of that section it will automatically step on to the main A section. Similarly, fill AB will move onto the main B section on completion. The ending section will always stop playback on completion. These sections are accessed by holding down the 'section' button and then pressing the drum pad associated with the section to be played. I found this much better than having to remember that my fill was number 27 and the middle 8 was number 42, for example. By grouping rhythms together in this way the RY20 allows the programmer to work in a much more 'musical' way than previous drum machines.
Song mode is where your carefully programmed patterns are pulled together into a complete rhythm track. There are no major surprises here, with all the expected facilities for inserting and copying of steps. Again, the RY20 supports both step and real‑time methods — or a combination of both — to suit the individual programmer or circumstance. Songs can be set to repeat or can be 'chained' to play back consecutively, which would be of great benefit for anyone looking to use the RY20 in a live situation.
Twenty preset drum kits are provided, with a further 20 being user‑definable. Each kit is divided into five drum pad 'banks' and a bass pad bank. These pad banks consist of 12 sounds which correspond to the 12 drum pads. By switching across pad banks, you can utilise the pads to play any of the 60 sounds within a kit. Each voice can be edited, with parameters available being volume, pan position, pitch, decay and effects send.
In addition to using velocity to control output level, the RY20 can also respond by modifying pitch and decay. The degree to which velocity has an effect is definable, albeit to a relatively limited extent (usually three levels). Many of the RY20's sounds feature velocity crossfading — between soft and hard snare samples, for example — and the level of response is again definable. It is even possible to reverse the relationship between the two crossfaded samples (the 'hard' sound plays at low velocities and vice‑versa). Polyphony can also be switched off for any sound, which will force it to cut off on being re‑triggered, which can help create more realism in a snare or tom part, for example. The RY20 also offers 'groups' to which a sound can be assigned, where no more than one voice can be active at any time. By assigning several hi‑hat voices to a single group, you can be sure that they will remain mutually exclusive — closed or foot closed hi‑hats will always cut off the decay of an open hi‑hat, for example. The provision of seven such groups must be seen as a luxury at any price! One nice little feature is the ability to make a sound respond to note‑off information. Although it is usually desirable for a drum machine to ignore note‑offs, in some cases it can be useful, such as in producing a 'choked' cymbal.
Pad sensitivity can be switched between four levels, including a setting that produces a constant velocity, although this is a global function (it cannot be defined for each kit), which is a pity. A further global setting specifies whether the RY20 will utilise the kit used to record the pattern for playback, or will use the currently chosen kit.
Eight different bass sounds are available. These provide the RY20 with competent, if unexciting, examples of fingered, picked, slapped and 'electronic' basses. These really must be seen as a bonus, and certainly justify the RY20's claims to be a 'rhythm programmer' rather than merely a drum machine. When the bass pad bank is selected, the page controls allow selection across a five‑octave range. Programming with the bass sounds is no different to programming drum patterns, although switching the pad banks around to access notes above or below the current octave can become somewhat tedious. A MIDI keyboard is a much better option for programming in this instance.
So much for the theory — what does the RY30 sound like? With 300 AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) sounds at its disposal, the RY20 is certainly not short on variety. I would think that just about everyone could find something to their taste here. I especially liked the 'toppy' snares and the excellent 'smacky' toms on offer. The selection of TR808 sounds is superb, but I would have liked to see the TR909 kick and snare in there too. The bass drums and toms have plenty of guts and the cymbals are suitably 'zingy'. Only the crunchy 'rock' sounds gave me any cause for concern. But what makes this little machine really sing is the effects section (see box for more details). It is a great relief to be able to free up external processors, especially since the RY20 makes such an excellent job of it by itself. I have already mentioned my liking for the plate settings, but to be honest it is quite difficult to make a kit sound bad here. The sonic quality is exemplary, with a fullness of sound that belies the size of the box from which it is emanating.
The preset rhythms are competent examples of their genre, with plenty of variety in their various sections, and make an excellent starting point for the creation of customised patterns. Most popular styles are covered (including 5/4 rock — I'd love to see that one hit the dance floors!) and these are sensibly grouped to make selection easier.
What gives the RY20 a competitive edge is the separate bass channel. It's true that the bass sounds themselves are not devastatingly original, editable or particularly shining examples of their type. But they are a lot more convenient, especially in a live environment, than a separate synth or sampler to do a the job. The main problem, however, is likely to be one of memory. Although your drum pattern may remain constant, each change in the bassline will necessitate a repetition of the whole section. While this may not be a problem for a single song, you might be struggling to get a whole set in there. When in use with a separate sequencer, however, any such problems are resolved and the RY20 becomes a very competent performer.
Whether the few niggles I have pointed out would be of concern is really down to the individual considering buying an RY20. I can see such points as the lack of a backlit display or start/stop footswitch being relatively unimportant in the context of the average studio, but on a stage it could be a different matter. My own wish list would certainly include the provision of MTC synchronisation.
However, if you get the idea that I'm impressed with Yamaha's latest offspring, you're essentially correct. The provision of lots of high‑quality drum voices, the competent effects section, and the RY20's ability to function as a bass sequencer should certainly make the gigging solo musician consider it very carefully, and the home studio owner should also consider the RY20's ability to free up an effects processor. Overall, a desirable and well thought‑out machine.
Since the days of the desperately cheesy foxtrots and rumbas of the old home organ brigade, we have come to expect quite a lot from pre‑programmed rhythm sections. The RY20 does not disappoint; whatever you are looking for, you should find a starting point in there somewhere. Here are some of my favourites:
- 12: 5/4 Rock & 13: 7/8 Rock. Sorry, but I just can't resist 'em. Pass the Mellotron please...
- 22: Funk. A tastefully programmed pattern with a suitably 'loose' feel to it. The fills are inspirational, though the ending is a little overblown for my taste.
- 25: House. A touch busy in its raw state, but the basic elements are all there.
- 30: Rap. Excellently trashy. As authentic as they come. The fills are superb.
- 41: Samba & 49: Calypso. Street parties in full swing.
If Pattern 24 appeals to any of you out there, I can only assume you are working on a Eurovision Song Contest entry. One to be avoided at all costs...
One of the most welcome aspects of the RY20 is its built‑in effects processor. After years of watching engineers dedicating effects units to the rhythm section, manufacturers seem to be finally coming around to the idea that an onboard effects processor might be useful! Six reverb types are provided, along with four 'delay plus reverb' settings. Two of the delay patches actually synchronise their timing to the current tempo, which is a nice touch, although they do not have the ability to synchronise to external MIDI clocks, which is a shame.
Control is provided over the amount of send to the effects processor from each pad and the overall effects return level, and basic editing of reverb time, delay time and delay feedback is available. The quality of the effects themselves is good and they certainly seem to have been chosen with a degree of understanding for their end use. I found the plate settings particularly satisfying.
The RY20 can send all of its internal settings as a system exclusive dump over MIDI. Yamaha optimistically suggest the use of their MDF2 MIDI Data Filer for this, although it worked quite happily with my own Atari SysEx librarian.
MIDI clock synchronisation is provided for, but there is no MIDI timecode option. Manufacturers still seem reluctant to implement MTC, which is puzzling, considering the flexibility it has to offer. A MIDI channel can be specified for the drum sounds, but, more importantly, the bass section can be given its own separate MIDI channel. This is brilliant, making the RY20 a very effective bi‑timbral rhythm machine, and certainly giving it the edge that could see off the opposition. The MIDI channel for receipt of program changes can also be specified, allowing the RY20 to respond by changing kits. Four 'MIDI note assignment' tables are available, which basically map MIDI note numbers to kit voices. The first table conforms to the General MIDI level 1 standard and cannot be edited, but the other three can be changed by the user. Yamaha have not forgotten their previous customers, and include a mapping for the old RX drum machines as a factory setting in one of the user tables.
The RY20 can be set to respond to both MIDI volume and MIDI expression messages. In the latter case, the RY20 will produce an 'accent'. Both volume and accent response levels can be specified separately for both the drum and bass channels.
Pattern numbers 100 to 149 are where Combination patterns are defined. These seem a strange idea at first, but effectively extend the memory capacity of the RY20. Combinations are basically patterns created by merging together, say, the bass drum track from pattern 56, the snre and hi‑hat from preset pattern 12 and the percussion from pattern 63. Where measure lengths do not match, the RY20 will pad out the shorter patterns by repeating them as many times as necessary. It's also possible to combine patterns with differing time signatures. Swing and groove templates can be applied to the combination pattern without affecting the original patterns. Combinations are great when building patterns for a song where much of the basic rhythm remains constant. This is a brave attempt by Yamaha to provide the RY20 with a little extra flexibility, and as such, it works.
- Wide variety of excellent drum voices.
- Bass sounds with dedicated MIDI channel.
- Built‑in effects with programmable send levels for each sound.
- GM compatibility.
- 'Human feel' quantisation.
- No backlight on display.
- No foot switch control.
- Diminutive pads can make operation fiddly.
An excellent drum machine that should be considered by the smaller home studio or gigging musician. Other studio owners with an eye for a bargain may consider that the built‑in effects make the RY20 worth buying as an expander module.