SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.12 No.8. June 1997
Review by Chris Carter
JOMOX XBASE 09 DRUM MACHINE (see also: JOMOX AIRBASE 99 review)
DEDICATED FOLLOWER OF FASHION
The Jomox XBase 09 is a brand new drum machine. Yep, a drum machine. Now there's a phrase you don't hear much these days and why not you might say. Well maybe it's a fashion thing or maybe manufacturers just want everybody to use workstations and GM modules. Of course there are units such as the Novation DrumStation, which sadly has no rhythm programming, the Roland MC303, which has no dedicated drum controls, or the Akai MPC series of percussion sampler/sequencers, which are probably over specified for anyone just looking for a drum machine. But there hasn't been a new, self contained dedicated drum machine in ages, well it's about bloody time, that's what I say !
The XBase 09 took a year to design and build by a small independent company called Jomox, a team of Berlin technicians who started out by building custom filters, CV to MIDI units and modifying drum machines and synths. It has been designed with a very specific market in mind, the dance scene and the title and panel layout give a pretty good clue as to where its origins are. This machine is the mutant progeny of the dance icon of the 80's and 90's, the Roland TR909 drum machine. A shameless homage if ever there was one, and why not?
X RAY SPECS
So what do you get when you cross 80's retro with 90's know how, well lets look at the specs.
This is a hybrid analogue/digital drum machine, with MIDI but using TR808/909 style pattern programming. It is 3 voice polyphonic using analogue circuitry for the bass drum and snare drum but with 8-bit digital samples providing various cymbal, rim shot and hand clap sounds. Each of the drum voices can be extensively modified with on board real-time control knobs and in addition to the mono mixed output each voice has an individual output. There are the usual MIDI in, out and thru sockets and a Roland style DIN sync output socket. A large 3 digit LED shows the tempo or various editing parameters. Programming is via 26 small illuminated push buttons and five large Tap buttons. The unit is quite sturdy, with a steel body and pretty compact at 13"X 9"X 2", and although the TR909 was considerably larger they are actually about the same weight. Power is supplied by a separate 12V wall wart PSU which, as seems to be coming more frequent, is a non-standard AC type, which are unfortunately a lot more difficult to find replacements for if lost or damaged.
The XBase 09 can function in one of three modes of operation. Pattern mode is for playing or programming rhythm patterns, with space for 64 patterns stored in 4 banks (4 X 16). Performance mode is for saving and selecting drum kits, selecting rhythm patterns and adjusting the real-time drum controls, with space to store 100 performances/kits in memory. Song mode is for assembling finished rhythm patterns and kits into songs. There are 10 song memories available, with space for compiling up to 100 rhythm patterns in each memory slot, in addition each rhythm can be programmed to repeat to a maximum of 255 times before moving on to the next rhythm pattern.
TWIDDLE DE DEE
It's only recently that manufactures have begun adding more controls to electronic instruments instead of a usual multifunction buttons to endlessly navigate through and I know it takes some very clever programming to emulate mixers, effects units, and even drum machines in software but it can't be denied that there really is no substitute for the tactile feel of real knobs to twist and turn. In this respect the XBase 09 is a knob twiddlers paradise.
There are so many controls for the bass drum (nine!) that it almost verges on overkill. In common with the 909 there is Tune, Decay, Attack and Level, although these don't affect the sound in quite the same way as on the 909. On the XBase 09 the Tune control introduces an envelope signal (that follows the Decay output) to the bass drum VCO. The Decay now has more than double the decay time of the 909, the Attack controls the intensity of the output from the Noise and Pulse controls and the Level knob controls the bass drum VCA. In addition there is a Harmonics control for changing the bass tone from sine wave through to soft distortion and an EQ control for smoothing out the sound for a softer 808 type bass drum. There is also a Pitch control for taking the bass down to 25 Hz for those gut wrenching sub basses or up into conga range.
The snare drum consists of two oscillators, a noise generator and six control knobs. The XSnapp knob is a combination of the 909 Snappy and Tone controls and acts as a balance between the oscillators and noise generator. The Tune control has a much wider range than the original, while the Level knob controls the Snare VCA. In addition there is a Noise Tune control that varies both the filter and level of the noise generator and when turned fully anticlockwise completely mutes the noise signal. Lastly there is the Detune control, this offsets the oscillator tunings and is useful for producing cow bell, tom tom and bongo sounds.
The dual Hi Hat sample section has only five control knobs and a single monophonic output but is capable of producing some of the most extreme sounds in the machine. There are 909 type Decay controls for both the Open and Closed Hi Hat sections plus an Open/Closed Hi Hat balance control and a single VCA Level control. There is also a very wide ranging Tune knob (which should really be called Pitch) for adjusting the playback speed of the selected samples in this section. There are six 909 derived samples to choose from: Open and Closed Hi Hats, Crash and Ride Cymbals, Rim Shot and Hand Clap, with a seventh source, analogue noise. Any two samples can be selected for playback and all except the Ride Cymbal can be played in reverse but only a single sample can playback at any one time. With the extreme range of the Tune control available and the fact that the samples only have an 8-bit resolution it's possible to get some pretty strange but very usable sounds by playing back the samples at very high or low settings, or both.
The degree of sonic manipulation available allows for an extremely wide range of percussion sounds to be programmed. Of course where it really excels is at recreating workhorse TR909 sounding rhythms. But it is equally adept at coming up with sounds ranging from smoothly minimalist bass and drums, TR808 and CR78 sounds, right though to acid, industrial, techno, jungle, and electronic. The 100 performance memories give the user plenty of scope for trying favourite kits with different styles of rhythm patterns. Couple this with the ability to switch back and forth between kits as you play back rhythm patterns and the option to twiddle knobs and tweak the sound even further in real time and you've got a powerful improvisational tool. This makes it ideal for both song writing in the studio or playing on stage. The XBase 09 ships with some very usable pre-programmed dance rhythms and performance kits with enough variety to please most people and more than enough to get you started.
16 STEPS TO HEAVEN
Ultimately, users will want to program their own rhythm patterns and if you have used any of the Roland 707/808/909 etc. then the procedure is almost identical for both step or real time writing. You first choose a pattern location (either empty or previously recorded) with one of the 16 red buttons along the front, then select which bank the pattern is in from one of the four available. You need to decide how many steps the pattern will have, using the Last Step function and what the Pre-Scale is (time signature), the XBase 09 default is 16 steps in 4/4 time. In theory your pattern can contain a maximum of 64 steps but exceeding 16 steps reduces the number of rhythm patterns available, as any patterns containing more than 16 spill over into the next pattern memory location. To record, the Write button is pressed while a pattern location is playing/looping and a drum voice is selected by pressing one of the large Tap buttons and a flashing LED indicates which voice is ready to write . Then it's just a case of entering the beats by pressing any of the 16 illuminated step buttons, which stay lit for any beats that have been selected. Notes are deleted by pressing the relevant step button a second time, you get instant audio and visual feedback. You can switch back and forth between different drums voices by selecting one of four Tap buttons and enter and delete notes at will to build up a completed rhythm pattern. Accents can be entered in the same way as notes, however accents are applied for each drum voice rather than globally as on the 909. Some may prefer to enter notes in real time which is almost as easy and is just a couple of extra button pushes to get into Real Time Write mode, it is even possible to switch between step and real time while writing drum beats. In Real Time Write a metronome is available to help keep you on rhythm and the four Tap buttons are used to tap out the rhythm beats instead of selecting the drum voices as above. In Pattern mode there is also a Shuffle feature, this allows individual drum beats to be pushed or pulled against the rhythm by as little as 192nd of a step or as much as 1/2 a step and is invaluable for putting swing or groove into a song.
This is pattern programming at its most basic level and is an intuitive, tried and tested procedure that once learnt is rarely forgotten. However there is a deeper level within the XBase 09 that may not be as easy to master but offers some very sophisticated and creative uses. The XBase 09 has the ability to sound like it's playing a whole range of tuned percussion at the same time rather than just three. This is achieved by its ability to record the setting of all of the MIDI controllable knobs (and that's most of them) at each and every step in a rhythm pattern or as continuously varying controller sweeps. With practice it's possible to program melodic bass drums, tight or flappy snares, swooping bongo's and conga's, reversed samples, industrial clangs, bangs and crashes, walking bass lines, and lots more, in a single rhythm pattern. Multiply this by 64 patterns and you begin to scratch the surface of what is possible, with creative programming, even with only 3 voice polyphony. This feature alone takes the XBase 09 into realms that TR909 users can only dream of and makes what could otherwise be a hum drum drum machine a whole different creature altogether. Even a sampler/sequencer set-up can't compete with the sheer speed and versatility that this drum machine allows when it comes to manipulating percussion sounds in real time and as kits, particularly when you consider that it also includes full MIDI control.
The XBase 09 certainly tries to make up for its lack of polyphony by offering MIDI control of almost every function and is one of the best implementations of MIDI in a drum machine I have seen. In Performance mode every knob, except the Accent and Tempo/Data controls, transmit and receive MIDI controller information while note information from the rhythm patterns is also transmitted and received. An external MIDI keyboard can be used to trigger the drum sounds and the Tap buttons can trigger external MIDI sources. It can send and receive MIDI clock sync and perform SysEx dumps of all the rhythm patterns, drum kits and songs in memory. XBase 09 rhythm patterns can be recorded into an external MIDI sequencer in real time by manually changing patterns or by playing completed songs, with the XBase 09 start/ stop controls able to send or receive MIDI start/stop signals. A nice feature is that the 3 digit display shows the incoming controller values when the unit is receiving MIDI data, handy for trouble shooting.
Adding this amount of control may also seem like overkill but believe me once you start experimenting you realise the amount of scope available. Although a lot of knob twiddling and sound manipulation can be recorded from within the unit, connecting a MIDI sequencer and recording the output the XBase 09 allows for even more editing possibilities, with some amazing results. For example, you can record any knob changes such as pitch sweeps on the bass or snare drum, changing attack/decay and EQ settings or volume changes and then cut, paste, mix or overlay this controller information in your sequencer for even more complex and extreme effects than can be achieved within the XBase 09 alone. Rhythm patterns could also be recorded alongside the controller information and further edited, copied or changed using the XBase 09 as a drum voice module.
09 OR 909
If you are looking for an original TR909 and are horrified at the silly prices (they are a very rare and very expensive beast these days) then the XBase 09 seems like a reasonable alternative, at about half the price. And while it may not be everything a 909 is (only a 909 could be), it comes closest, by a long way, of any other dedicated drum machine in capturing the sound and the essence of the original Roland TR909 and the 808 for that matter. After all, part of the spirit of the originals came from the programming style and hands-on features as well as sonic individuality. The XBase 09 also has the added bonus of a vastly superior MIDI specification that leaves the old 909 standing and the inclusion of a Roland DIN sync output makes it a piece of cake to hook up a 808, 909 or TB303 BassLine, a particularly powerful combination The audio quality outstanding particularly the analogue voices and even the 8 bit digital samples are noise free, just a little grainy but then again they are meant to sound retro. . I know the limited 3 voice polyphony could be a major turn off for some, but as I have mentioned elsewhere, the programmability of the drum sounds does makes up for this, to a degree. If needed, it can sound so much like the original it's scary! and while I admire the fact that it does sound so authentic this does bring me to another reason for recommending this beat box. In the 10 days or so I used the XBase 09 I unearthed all kinds of new sounds and rhythms to play with and speaking personally, (and of course this whole review is personal opinion), if I had the XBase 09 for any length of time I don't think I would be using it to sound like an 80's drum machine because it has enormous potential and can sound like so much more. I'm no seer, but if this drum machine found a place in the history books on its sound alone, it wouldn't go undeserved.
But taking a wider view for a moment, to my mind the XBase 09 and instruments such as the recent Roland MC303 and the Novation and Quasimidi range of modules show us how designers can still acknowledge the past but also move forward. The behemoth that is the electronic musical instrument industry seems to go through pools of stagnation now and again with glimmers of light such as those above shining through. Sure, I know there will be people saying "you won't get my TR909 till you pry it out of my dead fingers" and "nothing could EVER replace the sound of a real TB303", but everything changes, everything must. It's called innovation and progress, musicians move on and chart new territories (pun intended).
The biggest hurdle the XBase 09 faces, for all but professionals, is going to be the price, particularly with units such as the Roland MC303 at £565 and the highly specified Quasimidi Rave-O-Lution, at £649 entering the market at ramming speed. if you are a pro DJ, producer, remixer or just serious about making dance music then you really should get a hands on demo of this amazing little machine with a BIG sound. I won't be at all surprised if the Jomox XBase 09 goes straight to top of a lot of shopping lists.
ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES
Superb sounds, capable of some amazing variations.
Real hands-on control.
Well built, sturdy.
Well specified and excellently implemented MIDI.
Great improvisational tool.
Suitable for live or studio use.
As close to the original as you are likely to get without spending silly money.
Quirky operating system
Start/Stop controls too small and similar to the pattern buttons.
Clunky Tap buttons.
No stereo output.
No gate trigger output.
One of those dreaded AC/AC external power supplies.
Instruction manual would benefit from some practical examples.
Dubious colour scheme.
A highly specified, superb sounding, dedicated drum machine with analogue snare and bass drum, plus digital hi hats etc. Modelled along the same lines as the original Roland TR909 but without the same number of instruments. This is compensated for by including full programmability and an excellent MIDI implementation. Let down slightly by the price.
JOMOX XBASE 09
Three Voice Polyphonic (two analogue, one digital).
MIDI In,Out and Thru.
DIN Sync output.
Mono mixed output and three individual outputs.
Price: £699 including VAT.
Demo CD available on request.
The Global Distribution GroupPO Box 39, AshdonSaffron WaldenEssex CB10 2FT
Tel: 01799 584925
The software version on the review model was 1.03 and still had a few bugs that needed ironing out.
Selecting the various modes of operation isn't always as intuitive as it could be, particularly Song Write and Track Record and Individual Step Mode, (the modes where you can store the control knob settings for each pattern). I spent the first few days tapping out rhythms wondering if this was as good as it gets. It wasn't until a copy of the English manual arrived that I uncovered the deeper and more interesting levels of operation.
One strange quirk is that the incremental UP/DOWN buttons are reversed. This caused some confused head scratching at first and I thought it was just me being weird or something but checking the gear in our studio proved me right, as every piece of gear had the DOWN to the left and UP to the right. Also the unit wasn't responding to MIDI volume changes as it should and it wouldn't record MIDI note messages in Pattern Write mode. The 3 digit display usually shows the BPM but if you alter a control knob it changes to show the current controller value, this is OK but for some parameters you can use the dual function Tempo/Data knob to alter values or step through patterns etc. Occasionally the knob would change the BPM when it should have been scrolling through patterns or drum kits. Also, it would be nice if you could select patterns, drum kits or songs via MIDI program changes. An imminent software update will fix most of these problems and add some new features. I would like to have seen a little more polyphony available, at least four or five voices would be terrific but I suppose that would push the price up even further. Another feature that I missed is the lack of dedicated Bank select buttons that the original TR909 had. Instead you have to navigate your way through 4 or five button pushes just to change to another pattern bank, still you can't have everything.
YUK AT FIRST SIGHT !
First reactions are a funny thing really and that old cliché 'you can't judge a book by its cover' must surely apply to the XBase 09, cheap and cheerful springs to mind. The colour scheme is awful, lots of red buttons plus a body finished in cream, highlighted by thick orange strips and with pine coloured, real wood end cheeks, very retro. Come on guys, if you are going to make a homage to a classic drum machine (even down to using the same size 3 digit display) then why not go for the original, classy, two tone grey, with 'small' highlights of orange. It certainly is eye catching!
Roland TR909. The original, if you can find one. £1100-£1500 second-hand.
Roland TR808. The original, if you can find one. £450-£550 second-hand.
Roland R8. Uses 909/808 samples, no dedicated knobs. £300-£400 second-hand.
Boss Dr. Rhythm DR660. Uses 909/808 samples, no dedicated knobs. £300 new.
Novation DrumStation. Uses 909/808 samples but no rhythms. £449 new.
Akai MPC series of percussion samplers
Lots of 909/808 samples available. £1000-£3000 new.
Roland MC303. Uses 909/808 samples, no dedicated knobs. £565 new.
Copyright © 1997 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.