SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.14 No.2. December 1998
Review by Chris Carter
Boss Dr. GROOVE DR202 Rhythm Machine
THE CHURCH OF DANCE
The seemingly unstoppable onslaught of affordable, easy to use dance music making instruments have now been joined by a new rhythm box from the one company that has arguably been more responsible for the current BPM driven feeding frenzy than any other...Roland, or more specifically in this case their alter ego...Boss.
The Boss Dr.Groove DR202 is one of a continuing line of 'Groove Approved' Roland/Boss products aimed squarely at clubbing DJ's, pro and semi-pro remixers, bedroom based dance music techno-heads and in fact anyone tempted by the church that is...DANCE.
NOT JUST A DRUM MACHINE
For an instrument that arrives in a box marked 'Drum Machine' I think Roland are selling the DR202 a mite short, this is a drum machine and a lot more besides. A quick run down of the basic specification sheet reveals all:
Programmable rhythm machine with 207 drum and percussion samples, 49 bass samples and 24-voice polyphony. A 3 track pattern sequencer for rhythm, bass and external MIDI control, 400 Preset rhythm patterns, 100 User patterns, 128 Preset drum kits, 64 User drum kits and 20 songs. Dedicated 'realtime modify' VCF controls, dedicated Reverb/Delay and Flanger controls, realtime rhythm mute and solo (kit, instruments and bass), BPM Tap Tempo, programmable Roll function (68 types), Groove quantize templates (20 types), fully featured MIDI specification and battery or mains operation. All in one tidy little unit.
DOCTOR DOCTOR !
While not quite as small as some earlier Boss 'Doctors', with a footprint of 10" x 8" the DR202 is small enough to chuck into a DJ bag or holdall and will run on batteries for up to 8 hours, long enough for an all-nighter in a field. The top of the plastic case is pretty well crammed full of those nice rubbery function buttons and performance pads and a row of 8 knobs along top deal with modifying the audio signal. Unlike the diminutive Dr.Sample, which has 18 flashing backlit translucent buttons, the Dr.Groove has only five flashers, none of which are the drum pads, a shame but probably a good thing for battery life. Lack of velocity sensitive instrument pads is also a big disappointment (although it does respond over MIDI).
The LCD display is a standard 'dark grey on light grey' 32 digit affair with no back light and hence almost invisible on a dimly lit stage. Connections are basic but adequate with a pair of phonos for the stereo output, MIDI in and out (switchable to thru), a headphone mini jack and a standard 1/4" foot switch jack socket (programmable). External power is supplied by a standard Boss 9v wall wart PSU.
For a budget unit the DR202 has more dedicated controls than you would usually expect to find, which is fine by me and even though most of the editing controls are multi-function the editing process is still quite straight forward, once you take a few a cursory scans through the instruction manual.
When switched on the DR202 defaults to Pattern mode which allows you to start playing back some groovy beats immediately. The pattern name and number is shown in the top half of the LCD and using the left/right cursor keys and the data wheel selecting a new pattern is simplicity itself (using the shift button allows even faster scrolling). If you select a new pattern while a current pattern is playing the lower half of the LCD shows the next pattern to be played (see box for a list of preset pattern styles).
At any time while a pattern (or song) is running you can play along with the drums, bass or an external MIDI source (eg. sampler or synth) using the thirteen instrument pads. These are marked with a C to C scale and the names of a basic drum kit: Kick 1, Snare 1, Open HH, Hit 1 and so on. The pads play the bass and drum voices from whichever kit is programmed into the current pattern but you can change to other preset and custom kits while patterns are running.
THE BANK OF INTERACTION
If that isn't enough interaction for you then there's also the option of twiddling a few knobs. The Volume and Low Boost knobs do exactly what they say but next to these are the four unassumingly named "Realtime Modify' controls: Cut Off frequency, Resonance and Decay. These fellas really spice up the sound and are what set the Dr.Groove apart from most other run of the mill drum machines. What we have here are a bank of 14 digital VCFs (thirteen for the percussion sounds and one for the bass) with an Instrument selector knob to determine which VCF/voice combination is currently being modified by the control knobs: bass & drums, bass only, drums only or each individual percussion voice.
Having 14 VCFs at your disposal is a pretty awesome thought and the preset kits don't really take advantage of the extremes I'm sure some users are quite likely take this instrument to. Also with the additional ability to record ANY VCF knob movements to a pattern in realtime and you begin to appreciate what a capable little monster the DR202 is. How about an 808 or 909 kit with each percussion voice (and the bass) modified by a sweeping resonant VCF, mmm...music to my bleeding ears.
Though it's not all plain sailing if you get the urge for a bit of 'hands-on' modifying over a pattern with previously recorded knob twiddling, as you AND the Dr.Groove fight over who has control of those fabulous filter sweeps.
BEE PEE EM
Patterns will always play back at the BPM they were programmed in (whether in Song or Pattern mode) but the BPM can be changed at any time by pressing the dedicated BPM button. With either a User or an edited Preset pattern the LCD shows two values, a fixed RECOMMENDED BPM (the Pattern BPM) and an adjustable BPM parameter. Once in this mode you can enter a new BPM using the data dial (to the nearest 10th of a BPM) or use the Tap button to change the BPM 'on the fly'. To be honest I found the Tap method frustrating, and sometimes not too accurate. The Tap BPM rate is calculated from the first four beats you tap out, at which point the display changes to indicate: TAP BPM. However, if you continue tapping away after the first four taps the LCD tries updating the BPM for each and every tap, this results in the BPM rate drifting erratically by as much as +/- 8 BPM. Solution: Discipline, four taps and no more.
The last two knobs control effect parameters for the Reverb/Delay and Flanger, with their function changing from kit to kit depending on what type of effect is programmed. If the effect is delay the Rev/Del knob adjusts the feedback level, if it's reverb it controls reverb level, the Flanger knob is always adjusts the flanger output level. If either control is turned clockwise beyond the OFF position the LCD changes to show the current effect parameter value, pressing the right-hand cursor button scrolls the display through the various effect parameters for the current kit, which can then be adjusted using the data wheel.
There are 8 reverb types, from halls to rooms, each with adjustable decay time and level and two types of delay, panning delay and stereo delay. The delay time can be set in milliseconds (5 ms - 450 ms) or in BPM related time divisions (10 settings from half-note triplets to sixteenth note triplets).
Although the effects features are limited they sound fine within the scope of a typical dance based rhythm. The effects parameters can be changed in realtime while a pattern or song is playing but any adjustments made can't be recorded to a pattern, as with the VCFs, and any changes made are lost if you select a new kit as it's impossible to perform a save while a pattern or song is playing.
RECORDING A PATTERN
As with most pattern based drum machines you can record rhythm patterns in real time or step time. The most obvious difference is that you don't need to specify which track to record to as drums, bass and external MIDI are allocated automatically, but the first thing to do before recording a pattern is to select a drum kit and BPM rate using the dedicated buttons.
Realtime recording is the default mode and can only be activated by first selecting a User pattern. This can be either an empty location, an existing pattern or one of the preset patterns copied into an empty User location. Pressing REC button puts the Dr.Groove into Record Standby mode and sets the REC button flashing at the current tempo and starts the metronome ticking. At this point various options are offered: Name (8 digits), (Measure (1 - 8), Beat (1/4 - 4/4 time), Quantize (9 resolutions from 8ths - 384ths). You can also practice tapping out rhythms along with the metronome until you are ready to go for a take, a which point you hit the REC button (or use the foot switch option). And basically that's it, simple. Adding (or overdubbing) bass lines or external MIDI notes is done in exactly the same way as track allocation is handled automatically. Step Time recording (also used for editing patterns) involves slightly more effort. For this you need to select the Step time option while in Record Standby mode and use the +/- step buttons to move backwards and forwards through a pattern and tapping the instrument pads at each step. Editing options available within Step Time mode are changing the Kit, changing effects, deleting and inserting notes, adjusting gate time, inserting portamento values, inserting Rolls, instrument timing shift, mute individual instruments (without deleting them) and copying and deleting patterns. If an external source such as a MIDI keyboard is used to input drum or bass data the Dr.Groove will record (in Real or Step Time) note velocity for bass and percussion instruments and portamento data for the bass.
KIT IN A BOX
The DR202 contains 128 preset rhythm kits each containing 13 different percussion sounds and one bass voice. Kit styles include Hip Hop (27 types !), Drum n' bass, Techno, House, Jungle, Electro, Ambient, Acid Jazz, Funk and even a couple of Industrial kits. Of course there are plenty of Roland TR drum machine kits and a few customary, Rock, Pop and Latin kits.
64 user kits are available, with various programmable parameters for each of the 14 voices. These include: Instrument type (from 256 available), level, pitch, pan, effect send and cutoff, resonance and decay for VCF control, not a bad line-up. Effect parameters for the Reverb/Delay and Flanger are also set within a kit. Kit construction basically involves tapping a pad, selecting a voice for that pad adjusting the parameters for the voice and moving on to the next pad. Kits can also be named and copied.
I must say I sometimes found the limit of 13 percussion instruments per kit a slight hindrance for creating really adventurous custom set-ups but nevertheless some pretty decent kits can be put together quickly and easily if you can't find one from the 128 presets.
Once all your rhythm patterns are assembled you can think about putting a song together which is achieved in a similar manner to Step Time pattern recording, but with less options to worry about. Press the Song button (for Song Mode), select an empty song location from the 19 available, give it a name, hit the REC button and use the data dial to select from the available Preset or User patterns. Then it's just a matter of stepping through the song using the +/- step buttons selecting a pattern for each step. A Song BPM figure (40 - 250) can be programmed to override the pattern BPMs and patterns can be inserted or deleted into an existing song and completed songs can be copied to new locations.
ARSENAL OF SOUNDS
The Dr.Groove includes a full compliment of 207 drum, percussion and SFX samples and 49 bass samples, including essential dance stalwarts such as the TR707, TR808 and TR909 and acoustic, electronic and distorted kick drums, snares, cymbals, blips, clicks, vinyl scratches (which the manual quaintly refers to as 'plastic scratches'), reversed percussion, even the ancient Roland CR78 is included. Bass samples include everything from sawtooth, square and sine waves, electric and acoustic bass guitars, various SH101 waves and of course a selection of TB303 samples (notice the emphasis on Roland rhythm machines anyone ?).
But what does it sound like, I hear you say ? Well...pretty good actually. With the right kit and some judicious use of the Low Boost control the Dr.Groove can really kick you in the guts. On the whole the sound is more 'budget' than 'pro' and some samples lack a little presence and 'oomph'. But let me quickly say that I don't think it really matters a jot that these samples don't sound like they're being produced by a top of the range 16 bit sampler, especially in this price range. Dance music is rarely about quality and more about feel and emotion and the arsenal of sound shaping tools, patterns, styles and overall grooviness of the DR202 compensate for any minor failings in the sound of the raw samples.
GROOVES ON A PLATE
If you've had any dealings with constructing rhythms using a software sequencer then you've probably come across groove templates before. Here they do the same thing, essentially quantizing the timing and accents of a pattern to a preset rhythmic template. This is done without actually changing the content of the pattern just the rhythmic feel of it and the pattern can returned to its original state at any time. In the Dr.Groove templates can only be used on User patterns or Preset patterns copied to a User location and are applied using the dedicated Groove button. Depending on the complexity of the rhythm the process can be a little slow as the groove template is applied to all three tracks in a pattern. Also, the DR202 insists on applying a groove template each time you select a new one from the list, no fast scrolling to the end or middle of the list, you have to step through each template and wait for it to be processed before you can move on to the next.
But these foibles aside, groove templates are an invaluable tool for breathing new life into plodding or uninspired rhythms and although the 20 templates here are uneditable there are enough to accommodate most dance styles.
The Dr.Groove roll function is a little special, and unusual. It offers 68 pre-programmed drum roll patterns including regular fill-ins and flams but also complete rhythmic phrases and dynamically filtered rolls. This latter bunch are the type you regularly hear in Drum n' Bass tracks which consist of ultra-fast rising or falling rolls (in velocity and/or pitch) and some of the rolls use the VCF bank for even greater effect. Only two parameters are used: Type and Speed (00 = a slow tick tick tick and 127 = blindingly fast warp speed) and these are programmed as part of a Kit. The Roll button can also be latched to allow individual percussion sounds to keep repeating ad infinitum while you play other non-rolling pads.
The Dr.Groove has a full, if slightly frustrating MIDI implementation. SysEx loading and dumping of all the internal kits, patterns and set-ups is catered for, as is setting MIDI channels for bass, drums and external MIDI in and out. It also responds and transmits MIDI Volume, Pan and control change for each track, Program change for selecting Kits, Portamento data for the Bass, all the VCF real time controllers, effects levels and internal or external MIDI sequencer control of Start, Stop, Continue. The Bass and external sequencer tracks will also respond to MIDI Modulation and Pitchbend, great for expressive bass lines, however the sequencer tracks will not record either Modulation or Pitchbend, a disappointment. The instruction manual doesn't give any specification for sequencer memory other than the maximum number of measures per pattern, 8 and maximum number of patterns per song, 999. I tried recording a busy 8 bar rhythm pattern containing drums, bass and some MIDI sequences and chords, I then copied 100 patterns into a song and copied the song 19 times and the available memory still read 60%, so no problems there.
STATE OF THE ART GROOVINESS
There can't be (m)any rhythm machines around in this price bracket with quite the same unique features as the Dr.Groove. If you add the feature bursting but similarly priced Dr.Sample to the equation you have, in effect, a mini workstation complete with stereo sampler, synth, drum machine, multi-effects and a MIDI sequencer for approximately £599, and I'll bet good money that dealers will start offering special bundle deals on the two as a 'dance workstation on a budget' package. Roland see this as the ideal combination and supply details of how to link the two Doctors together and run the built-in (and syncable) demo's in tandem, to great effect I might add.
But combinations aside, at a very reasonable £299 the Dr.Groove would be ideal for gigging dance musicians working out ideas on the road, DJs wanting near state of the art grooviness AND portability or someone starting out with a bedroom based dance rig. With so many instantly accessible and usable bass and drum patterns and styles available at the touch of a few buttons even pro's wanting to bang out top notch dance rhythms quickly and easily while those creative juices are flowing need look no further than the Boss Dr.Groove. Bottom line...highly recommended for ANYONE producing dance music.
So chock full of groovy goodies it hurts. 256 drum and bass samples, 3 track pattern sequencer, external MIDI control, realtime control of multiple VCFs, digital effects, groove templates and literally hundreds of authentic dance patterns and kits. Exceptional value for money and little to complain about, this box of tricks sounds as good as it looks and has 'success' written all over it.
Affordable and easy to use.
Hundreds of great dance patterns and styles.
Plenty of dedicated buttons and realtime control knobs.
Some unique features.
Portable (and with a decent battery life).
Very very groovy.
Pads not velocity sensitive or backlit.
Realtime effects control not recordable.
Slightly frustrating MIDI spec.
The Preset rhythm patterns are divided into 11 styles which in turn are sub-divided into various hybrid variations and BPMs. According to Roland "every genre of groove music is represented in these Preset patterns - all with street-level authenticity thanks to their legitimate DJ and dance music programmers". Who these authentic programmers are Roland don't, or won't say but they sound pretty bloody good nevertheless.
Preset Patterns include:
Hip Hop East
Hip Hop West
Hip Hop Rock
Hip Hop Old School
Hip Hop Soul
Hip Hop Jazz
Raga Hip Hop
New Jack Swing
Drum n' Bass
R & B
Boss DR202 Dr.Groove
256 (207 Drum, 49 Bass)
Reverb/Delay (8 Reverb, 2 Delay)
VCF (for each Instrument and Bass)
24 voices (shared between Drums and bass)
40.0 - 250.0 BPM
Stereo output (phono)
Headphone (mini jack)
MIDI (in and out)
Foot switch (1/4" jack)
9v DC input
Copyright © 1998 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.