Sunday, 13 December 2020

Behringer RD-8

Let's have a look at the Behringer RD-8, a modern-day clone of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The TR-808 used analogue circuits to generate a bunch of percussion sounds, and so does the RD-8, but whereas the TR-808 is a valuable antique that has been out of production for thirty-seven years the RD-8 is only a few months old and is keenly-priced, retailing for around £290 or so.

What's it like? Is it any good? Can it cure erectile dysfunction? Let's have a look. Physically it has a metal base, plastic end-cheeks, possibly a metal top - could be polymer, I'm not sure - but it fits together well and doesn't creak. I was struck by its size. It's much bigger than I expected:

In this picture it's sitting next to a Korg Volca Beats, which is also modelled on the 808. Over the years there have been lots of 808-style drum machines, but as far as I can tell the RD-8 is the first attempt to directly clone the original as a desktop module. Roland makes no less than three 808-style drum machines - the TR-8, TR-08, and TR-8S - which use a mixture of virtual synthesis and samples to model the 808, but the company consistently refuses to re-release their older instruments in unmodified form and the 808 is no exception.

Is there any reason to own a physical 808 in 2020? Or a drum machine at all? Why not use samples and a bunch of MIDI knobs? On a rational level there is no reason, but the RD-8 makes a good case for itself because the interface is generally painless and it's a fun performance tool. It also adds some features that didn't appear in the original 808 and are awkward to implement with a sequencer. The RD-8 has a huge front panel with a bunch of easily-tweakable knobs, plus the outputs and trigger outputs play well with outboard gear, and of course what if you don't want to gig with a laptop?

The RD-8 apparently sounds just like an 808, which is to say awesome, although the tuning of some instruments isn't quite the same. I don't own a TR-808 so I can't directly compare. Roland claims that the 808's fizzy sound came about because the machines used a batch of out-of-spec transistors that are now impossible to source, but whatever the truth of this Behringer seems to have had no trouble emulating the original.

The general arrangement of the panel owes a lot to the 808, although the backlit instrument select buttons and LED status display are new. The original 808 had an instrument select knob instead. One of the most interesting new features is PROBability, which assigns a random chance of triggering to individual notes, but POLY is also good for live fills.

The original 808 was launched in 1980. It replaced the earlier CR-78, which was a little wooden box that was simultaneously awesome-awesome and naff-awesome. The CR-78 had preset Bossa Nova and Samba rhythms, but there was a starkly minimalist coldness to the drum sounds that appealed greatly to contemporary Cold Wave bands. It's all over John Foxx's Metamatic, e.g.:

The CR-78 was mostly aimed at well-heeled home and amateur musicians who needed something to jam with, but the 808 was designed as a flagship professional drum machine for studio professionals. It was one of the first drum machines with a comprehensive, editable sequencer, and unlike the CR-78 it had programmable patterns that could be arranged into a complete song.

In theory it should have been a huge hit, but it had the misfortune to be released at the same time as the Linn LM-1, which totally overshadowed it. The Linn LM-1 used digital samples of actual drums, and although it sold in tiny quantities - just over five hundred units - LM-1s were snapped up by the world's top recording studios. What does the LM-1 sound like? Check out The Human League's "Don't You Want Me", or Michael Jackson's Thriller, or indeed the vast majority of mainstream synth-pop from 1980-1984 or so.

Back in the day the 808 was used prominently on Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and Phil Collins' "One More Night", but I have the impression that for mainstream pop producers in the early 1980s its obviously synthetic sound made it a novelty rather than a viable instrument. I'm fairly sure it's also on Altered Images' "Love to Stay", which I point out purely so that this blog post can have Clare Grogan in it:

I'd like to say "that's enough of Clare Grogan", but you can never have enough of Clare Grogan.

As with the original 808 the RD-8 has a mono master output, plus individual outputs for each part. It also has MIDI in/out/thru, a USB socket, clock in/out, and three trigger outputs, which are by default assigned to accent, handclap, and cowbell, the idea being that you can drive external equipment from a pattern played back by those instruments. In the video below I use the cowbell trigger out to drive a Korg Volca Sample.

The 808 wasn't a complete flop. Roland quotes sales of 12,000 units, which sounds very small today but was impressive for a drum machine costing over $1,000 in the wake of the second oil crisis. It outsold the LM-1, LinnDrum, Oberheim DMX, and E-Mu Drumulator, but it failed to define the sound of mainstream pop music in the early 1980s, and that must have hurt.

There was however a happy ending for the 808. So the story goes the machine found a second life on the used market. As with the Roland TB-303 it fell into the hands of talented DJs and hip-hop musicians who loved its synthetic electronic sound. The TB-303 flourished and then faded away, but the 808 remains ingrained in the fabric of contemporary pop music because there's something definitive about its sound. It's one of the mother sauces of modern music.

The 808's most famous instrument is the kick drum, which is essentially a low-pitched sine wave. With the right processing it's a distinctive pop-pop-pop noise with a solid meaty bass thump underneath it. The snare drum is an assertive white noise "spish" that goes well with everything. A close third is the handclap, which is let down slightly by the fact that it's uncharacteristically realistic; it doesn't have as much character as the Oberheim DMX's handclap, for example.

The rest of the 808's sounds are less distinctive, apart from a peculiar metallic cowbell that sounds nothing like a cowbell, but on the whole the TR-808 generally sits well in a mix. The simple kick drum works as a musical thickener, and it has always been a common practice to pair it with another drum machine, such as Roland's own TR-909, which had a generally cleaner and punchier sound. Older readers might recall Rebirth, the late-1990s virtual instrument that had a pair of TB-303s plus a TR-808, and in later incarnations a TR-909 as well. The TR-808's only major weakness is that the kick drum vanishes on laptop-style speakers, because it's just a low-pitched sine wave.

In a fit of boredom I decided to paint my battered old Power Macintosh G5. This has nothing to do with the rest of the article, I just thought I'd share it.

Ironically the clipped, acoustic-sounding drums of the Linn and the booming snare of the Simmonds SDS-V have dated horribly, whereas the TR-808 has a timeless quality; lots of electronic acts in the 1990s used samples of the TR-808, and it's plastered all over Artificial Intelligence-era Warp Records releases; it fell out of fashion during the Big Beat years in the late 1990s, but came back in force during the unstoppable rise of hip-hop during the 2000s, and since then it hasn't really gone away. If you sit in McDonald's long enough in Britain in 2020 you'll eventually hear skittery 808 hi-hats coming over the tannoy.

Enough of the 808, let's focus on the RD-8. As with the original it has a sequencer that can string together multiple patterns, but it adds some features. The original 808 could store sixteen patterns, which could be arranged into a single song; each pattern was composed of a pair of sixteen-step A and B variations. The RD-8 on the other hand has sixteen songs, each of which stores sixteen patterns, and each pattern can be up to 64 steps long. Each song has its own set of sixteen patterns, so although the unit can store 256 patterns you can't, as far as I can tell, have a song that has more than sixteen different patterns in it (you can however chain songs together).

If you assign a pattern to one of the last four memory slots you can use it as an auto fill pattern, which plays once and then goes back to the pattern you were playing originally. I have to say that so far I have programmed two patterns plus a fill, and the extent of my programming has consisted of generating a short sequence just to see if it works. The original 808 was apparently difficult to sequence and from what I have read most hip-hop musicians back then played it live, entering notes on the fly and switching from the main rhythm to a fill every so often.

There's a switchable, global low-pass/high-pass filter with resonance, plus a compressor that can be applied to individual drum voices. Behringer calls it a "wave designer", but it's a compressor. The filter can be sequenced; the compressor can't. In my experience the compressor is unsubtle and the filter is global, but they're both nice to have:

The filter/compressor are only applied to the mono master out. They don't play through the individual outputs or the headphone output, so presumably Behringer expects you to use your own compressor and filter if you use the RD-8's outputs.

There's an individual step repeat mode that adds little trills, in addition to the live step and note repeat buttons on the front panel. In this sequence I've made the hi-hat go tr-tr-tr:

The polyrhythm function lets you selectively alter the step count of individual parts, so that instead of looping after sixteen steps the selected instrument loops at step (for example). This is one of those features that sounds cool in theory, but I struggled to make use of it until a bit of playing around revealed that it's great for rolling, jazzy-sounding fills:

In that clip I'm simply switching poly mode on an off every few bars. It strikes me that with a lot of work and some added sauce from the probability and random functions the poly mode could be a fiendishly complicated. As mentioned up the page you can set the sequences to loop at 16, 32, 48, and 64 steps, with fast-forward and rewind buttons stepping through sixteen-step pages on the front panel. The RANDom function lets you assign a bunch of instruments to a step, such that the RD-8's little electronic brain picks one instrument at random and plays it on that step, and as mentioned the PROBability function assigns a certain level of probability to individual instrument steps, which is useful for semi-random fills or hi-hat lines.

The multiple outs are shared with the 808. In this sequence I've fed the hi-hats through a stereo flange and the cowbell through reverb:

The RD-8 has both standard MIDI and USB MIDI. It uses one channel, with the notes mapped in a slightly curious way (the kick is C, there's nothing on D and the snare is E, etc), although you can remap them, so there's nothing to stop you plugging your RD-8 into a sampler and using the sequencer to drive other instruments.

I mention MIDI in particular because my Korg Volca Sample - a great drum machine in its own right - spreads its instruments across ten separate MIDI channels. The RD-8 is much more sensible.

Bad stuff? As Sound on Sound's review points out, the probability function is by default activated on each step, which means that when you turn it on your sounds suddenly go crazy until you painstakingly hit every one of the step buttons to turn it off. A later firmware update apparently fixes this, although on my unit it didn't seem to have any effect.

To save a pattern from step mode you have to press PATTERN - SAVE - PATTERN - [pattern number] - SAVE one after the other. Why not just switch to pattern mode and hold down SAVE-[pattern number]? Why bother with the convoluted copy procedure when you could just select e.g. [pattern number 1], and hold down SAVE-[pattern number 2]? Conversely I had no trouble working out how to copy steps 1-16 of a 32-step pattern into steps 17-32, so perhaps the interface was designed by two different people.

In general Behringer gets a lot of stick for releasing clones of other manufacturers' gear rather than innovating in its own right; the Behringer Model D, for example, is essentially a Moog Model D at less than one-tenth the price. The RD-8 is in an odd grey zone whereby it sounds exactly like an 808 and is clearly based on the original, but it adds a bunch of features that differentiate it. My attitude is that Roland could at any point in the last twenty years have re-released the 808, and it would have sold like hot cakes, but they chose not to.

Up the page I mentioned erectile dysfunction. The RD-8 can do nothing for the physical component of ED - it's not heavy enough to cure Peyronie's - but after playing the kick drum through some bassy speakers at 140+bpm I found that it had a considerably beneficial psychological effect. I also noticed improved digestion and a pleasant tingling sensation in my lower limbs. I am not a qualified medical professional and this could of course be entirely coincidental.

In summary, is the RD-8 any good? It's apparently a spot-on recreation of the 808 and it sounds awesome in its own right; the programming is mostly easy with some rough edges, and the addition of balanced outputs and triggers etc lift it up a massive notch from Korg's Volca units. It's also much less noisy. In a live context you'll probably be the object of mockery for owning a cheap clone, and it remains to be seen how it will hold up on the used market - there appear to be absolutely no used models for sale on eBay as I write these words - and on a physical level it takes up a lot of space, but I've had masses of fun playing with mine and I can't imagine getting rid of it.

Behringer is apparently working on a clone of the Roland TR-909. The two instruments complement each other, but the 909 has the advantage of sounding slightly less characterful than the 808 - the 808 has an inherent retro quality whereas the 909 works perfectly well as a "normal" drum machine. The 909, or at least samples of the 909, were used on mainstream pop records well into the 1990s, and it's not especially dated even in 2020. I mention this because if you plan to only buy one drum machine, an 808/RD-8 is an eccentric choice unless you really like electro. Which I do.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Alesis Microverb II

Let's have a look at the Alesis Microverb II, a budget-priced effects box from 1988. It's a 16-bit stereo digital reverb unit that sold for around £200 when it was new, at a time when digital reverbs typically cost three times that. There was a whole line of Microverbs, beginning with the original Microverb of 1986, then continuing with the Microverb III of 1991 and the Microverb 4 of 1996, by which time everybody wanted Alesis' own Quadraverb instead, so the line came to an end.

The Microverb was aimed at bedroom studio producers, but the form factor was such that it could easily be taken on the road as well. As a consequence the units I have seen tend to be either chipped and battered or mint-with-box-plus-original-PSU. Physically it feels like a solid chunk of metal. Nothing rattles although the pots crackle a bit. I need to get hold of some switch cleaning spray.

Alesis was founded in 1984. The company initially majored in digital effects boxes, but it branched out with the sample-based HR-16 and SR-16 drum machines and the popular ADAT multi-channel digital audio tape system of the 1990s. For a while ADAT was a big thing and as far I know it's the only digital tape system ever mentioned in song by The Prodigy, in the opening lines of "Diesel Power".

The Microverb has 16 non-editable presets. Reverb only, no delay. You can change the ratio of dry/wet but that's about it. There's a single LED that glows green (all is good), yellow (the incoming signal is cool) and red (the signal is distorting).

Sadly Alesis was not immune to the Great Hardware Apocalypse that hit the world of music production at the turn of the millennium. There was a point in the very late 1990s when Pro Tools and Cubase VST etc hit critical mass, and seemingly overnight the world's recording studios dumped their digital audio hardware in favour of software. Back in 2000, 2001 I remember seeing stacks of Akai samplers and Alesis ADAT machines for sale in Notting Hill's Musical Instrument Exchange, which itself went out of business itself a few years later.

The likes of Lexicon and Dolby managed to survive at the very top end of the market, but Alesis had always targeted the amateur musician. Unfortunately even low-budget bedroom producers were caught up in the Great Hardware Apocalypse. They threw out their Tascam Portastudios and Microverbs in favour of free VST plugins and legitimately-purchased copies of Fruityloops and latterly Albeton Live, leaving Alesis without a market.

The back is equally simple, with individual left and right inputs and outputs. If a mono source is plugged into the left input it comes out as stereo. The defeat plug is for a footswitch that ducks out the reverb. There isn't a discrete power switch.

As a result Alesis filed for bankruptcy in 2001. It recovered and continued as a going concern for at least fifteen years afterwards, but I can't tell if it's still active or not, or whether it develops new products or simply resells stuff made in China. It has a website but it's very spartan.

Let's talk about the Microverb. The first two versions were housed in a small case that was one-third the width of a standard 19" rack, hence the name. There was a family of Alesis Micro effects, including the Micro Limiter, Micro Expander, and Micro Gate. They all had fins on the sides so that three units could be slotted together to form a 19" rackmount unit:

In an example of feature creep the Microverb III and 4 came in standard rackmount cases, so they weren't really micro any more. The real successor of the Microverb was the Nanoverb (1996), which looked very similar to the first two Microverbs and had a similar feature set.

Alesis also sold the half-rack-sized MIDIVerb, which paralleled the Microverb range but had MIDI control. It went through four iterations which were released about a year before the corresponding Microverb.

The first two MIDI/Microverbs require 9v AC power. Suitable adapters are surprisingly hard to come by.

To make things even more awkward the PSU connects to the Microverb with a 3.5mm audio-style jack.

The company's other products included the Quadraverb (1989) and Quadraverb 2 (1993), which had EQ, delay, chorus/flange and reverb, and were generally much more capable machines; the Quadraverb GT included distortion and speaker simulations and was also sold in a compact case as the Wedge. Price-wise the range was roughly £250-350-450 MIDI/Micro/Quad in that order. There were also one-offs such as the MIDIFex preset digital delay unit and the Ineko and Picoverb preset reverb units of 2002/2003 and probably lots of others. For a small fee Quadraverb owners could upgrade their machines into the Quadraverb Plus, which could sample one and a half seconds of audio; curiously the company never released a rackmount sampler, although their Nanopiano and Quadrasynth instruments made extensive use of sampled sounds.

What do they mean today? Apparently a bunch of Warp Records artists from the Artificial Intelligence era used the Quadraverbs, because they were the most flexible cheap reverbs available at the time; the guitarist from Phish regularly has or had a Microverb in his live guitar rig for its backwards reverb effect, and perhaps because of its compact size lots of people on the internet seem to have Microverbs tucked away in a cupboard somewhere. Alas, in common with most other professional digital audio gear from the 1990s Alesis products fall into an awkward place whereby they're not quirky enough to have a retro following but they're less practical than a VST, so what's the point? Some people hanker for the scuzzy sound of 12-bit samplers, but Alesis' gear was mostly 16-bit, 44/48khz, so it doesn't have much inherent sonic character.

But what of the Microverb II? To test it out I recorded a track with it, using a Behringer Model D and a Korg Volca Modular. Each of the five tracks was put through the Microverb at a modest mix setting. The instruments were fed into the Microverb and thence into the audio interface, e.g. I didn't use it as a send effect:

On the bad side the two gate effects aren't very good - the second one sounds too metallic - and most of the sixteen presets feel like variations of each other. Furthermore the unit would have benefited greatly from an EQ knob, or at least a top-end filter, because the reverbs are all very bright. Perhaps it was the fashion back then. With the mix knob turned up above 40% or the reverb takes on an unpleasant ringing tone. It has a "boxy" sound, for want of a better word. I had to do a lot of fiddling with the signal volume, input, and output controls to keep the noise down; if you're a fan of endless sustain compression it's not as noisy as I expected, but it's still noisy.

But on the positive side the reverb is surprisingly transparent at lower mix settings. Essentially the best presets are SMALL 2, which at around 10% thickens out the sound nicely and at higher levels adds a curious but not unpleasant ringing distortion effect; any of the MEDIUM presets, which again at moderate levels thicken out the sound; and LARGE 4, which has a much longer decay than the other presets.

Off the top of my head I used LARGE 4 at around 30% on all of the tracks above. At a higher level the sound becomes an unpleasant swirling mass, but with moderation LARGE 4 generates a nice ambient swoosh.

Now, I don't want to oversell the Microverb II. I bought it mostly as a novelty. I wanted to hear what a 1980s reverb sounded like, and I also fancied the idea of plugging a reverb into another reverb.

I also have a Stymon Bigsky (pictured), which is far more flexible. It has dozens of presets, some of which are very good, and they're all editable. The sound is a lot smoother, and even with the mix level turned up the reverb never seems overpowering; the original sound seems to float over a sea of warm reverb, whereas at higher levels the Microverb feels like sticking your head inside a metal box. In fact let's compare the two:

In that video the Model D section has been fed through a compressor. You can hear the noise at the end of the sustain tail. The Big Sky is fed through the same compressor - I essentially just swapped the two boxes - but is obviously much less noisy, and the reverb is more pleasant.

Still, the Microverb II is better than I expected; at the very least LARGE 4 at a low mix level is a neat ambient thickener. Of course in terms of flexibility the excellent and free Valhalla Supermassive plugin beats it hollow. I sequence with Logic, and I've never been enamoured of Logic's built-in reverbs - there are half a dozen, but none of them stand out - but you can chain them together with multiple effects and EQ plugins with just a few mouse clicks, whereas the Microverb requires cables and a power socket. At this point I'm curious to find out what the Quadraverb sounds like.