Looking to invest in some percussion-oriented hardware? Studio hound Chris Lyth names his Top 5 of the current crop
It’s mince pie time again and if we’ve been good girls and boys, Santa may have stuck a wad of cold. hard cash down the chimney. So with that in mind, let's have a joyous Yuletide refocusing the hands and eyes on physical knobs and buttons, and explore a few hardware drum machine options...
Vermona DRM1 MkIII (£604)
While many of the other drum machines here boast a whole range of features, the Vermona has very few. There are no presets, no sequencer, no effects and only the most basic MIDI implementation. But - and it's a big but - what it does possibly better than any of the others is produce sounds of such weight and heft that all of the above is quickly forgiven.
The DRM1 MkIII has a physical knob for every parameter (making 73 knobs in total) and 10 separate outputs. This is not an attempted emulation of other well-known units, but a seriously versatile drum synthesizer with its own sonic signature. I think I can go on record as saying that I’ve never heard as powerful a kick from any other machine as the raw unprocessed kick from the DRM - and the range of said kick can go from a sharp, tight click to a long, deep bass-heavy decay, like an 808 on steroids.
Think of it as having eight different percussion synths in one unit. The shaping of the tone architecture is why we're talking about it now: it’s absolute organic, analogue genius. Not only does it do drums, it can also stray into bass note territory without too much trouble. It’s unpredictable, uncompromising and all-round bloody gorgeous.
Elektron Digitakt (£540)
There’s definitely something in the water at Elektron HQ. They know how to make me salivate like a junky's Rottweiler chained to the gates of the Bisto factory when a new product is released.
Anyone familiar with the Elektron way of working will tell you that some dedication is required to fully decipher their unique language, but those who persist are rewarded with a deeply complex and inspiring instrument. With the Digitakt, a slightly simpler approach has been taken: the workflow seems honed for speed and the feel of the unit is very fluid. You can very quickly jam a sequence, edit your sounds or load more samples without losing momentum and having to resort to the manual for 20 minutes.
The sound is as you would expect for a product of this calibre - that is, stellar. The effects are superb, and the reverb in particular is deep and expansive. The sound design potential here is manifest, with the ability to span any genre and possibly even invent a couple in the future, while the power of the sequencer with its parameter locks gives real depth, dynamics and variety to your patterns and will make it a formidable tool for playing live.
Korg Volca Beats (£119)
Many will be familiar with the Volca range, and the Beats is arguably one of the most successful adaptations. It fits into the pocket of your coat and is a digitally controlled analogue drum machine that’s broadly aiming to put some Roland classics to the test.
Okay, then.... so how does it sound? Pretty bloody good! When hooked up to a soundsystem I was impressed with the girth and depth of the kick. It seems almost inconceivable that such a deep, punchy sub could emanate from such a diminutive unit that runs on batteries! Dial in a little bit of click, tune the decay, and you have a kick that will level any dancefloor. The snare, clap and hats all sound great, less so the crash, clave and agogo.
Its sequencer is highly user-friendly: you can punch in your drums in real time or enter in step mode, so it’s great for jamming and playing live, while the step-jump function is great for adding fills and drama. The stutter control creates a delay-style effect, allowing you to re-trigger individual sounds or the entire unit's output, and there’s lots of fun to be had by adding delay fill to certain parts to liven up your patterns.
There’s always going to be a compromise, but Korg have picked their battles well and given us a cheap, portable machine which is fun and has bags of character.
Teenage Engineering PO-32 Tonic (£75)
If you thought the Korg Volca was small and affordable, then this is like something Lemuel Gulliver dreamt up after retiring to bed having consumed a whole brie. It’s the size of a pocket calculator and hits harder than the hammer of Thor.
Dirty heavy kicks, glitchy percussion, hissy hats and all sorts of shattered digital IDM timbres are here. It can send and receive a pulse clock signal, allowing it to act as a master or slave when hooked up to other pulse-compatible gear such as Volcas and other Pocket Operators. There’s even a cheeky nod to Elektron, as they've taken a little slice of Elektron’s jazzy parameter lock function, which is a very fast and powerful way to create controlled changes in patterns such as envelopes and filter cutoff… snazzy!
The PO-32 works in tandem with the amazing Sonic Charge drum synth plug-in, allowing new sounds and patterns to be loaded from the plug-in. Don’t be fooled by the price here: this is a real instrument with considerable creative and inspirational potential.
Roland TR-08 (£314)
I tried not to include a Roland TR machine in this list, but their impact on modern electronic culture has made it impossible. Essentially, Roland have re-imagined their most iconic analogue drum machine in ultra-compact form.
Firstly, the sequencer is great. Roland have added some extra functionality, allowing you to create very detailed, intricate patterns with the new 16 sub-steps per step function. You can program drum patterns either by playing them in live, or by entering steps in typical TR style. For all its power, it’s a very straightforward and intuitive instrument to use.
So does it sound like the original? Well, yes! Roland have done a sterling job. The snare has great depth, perfectly capturing the weight and crack. The envelope controls are very responsive on the kick, adding shape, weight and bite just as we have come to expect from the 808. This is about as faithful a sonic recreation as you could ever wish for: they have meticulously modelled the original sound and if anyone can tell the difference between the two over a club PA, I’ll buy them a chocolate Santa.
Will this unit be able to withstand beardy prejudice? Probably not. For some, the authenticity of having the originals is a must, but most will enjoy this for what it is: a portable, affordable take on a classic, with some very handy modern creature comforts.
Words: Chris Lyth