SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.14 No.10. August 1999
Review by Chris Carter
JOMOX AirBase99 MIDI ANALOGUE DRUM EXPANDER (see also: JOMOX XBase 09 review)
CULT OF THE CLASSIC
Jomox have always had a fairly low UK profile and their wonderful little beat box, the X-Base 09, never really fulfilled it's full potential and instead became something of a cult item rather than achieving the widespread success it could have. But times are changing and Berlin based Jomox are back with a new distributor and a brand new (ish) product. It's described by Jomox as both a drum machine and a drum synthesiser but the latter is a more accurate description of this MIDI controlled hybrid analogue/digital drum expander module.
The majority of the AiRBase99 sounds are derived from the earlier TR808/909 inspired X-Base 09 (SOS June 1997) and have almost identical audio characteristics, the Kick and Snare drums in particular are said to 100% the same as the X-Base 09. But one of the most obvious differences is that the AiRBase99 is capable of playing back nine percussion voices simultaneously (Kick Drum, Snare Drum, High and Low Toms, Hi Hat, Clap, Rim Shot, Crash and Ride cymbals), as opposed to the X-Base 09's measly 3-voice polyphony. The AiRBase99 also features additional percussion voices and samples, modulation LFO's and an increased memory of 500 preset ROM kits and 1024 User RAM kits. However it's missing the plethora of knobs and rhythm pattern features of the X-Base 09. You win some, you loose some.
As you can see from the accompanying photo the AiRBase99 is housed in a 1U rack module. This is a nicely constructed, substantial unit (19" x 10") and being made from steel is quite heavy for its size. The front panel is pretty sparse with just a power switch, 6 small illuminated push buttons (MASTER, EDIT,PLAY/MIDI,ENTER, 2 x CURSOR), a continuous data knob, an illuminated 2-line 32 digit LCD, a volume control and a headphones socket. The rear is an altogether busier affair with jack sockets for audio left and right mix output, 10 individual audio outputs, MIDI in, out and thru and AC power in. Disappointingly (considering how much space is available internally) the AiRBase99 uses a bulky external 12v AC/AC adaptor. I wish manufactures would stop using AC/AC adaptors, don't they know how difficult it is to track down a replacement (compared to a regular AC to DC adaptor) during a sound check on a wet afternoon in the middle of a nowhere, they're not the sort of item your average Tandy or Dixon stock. I know, it's happened to me.
As hinted at above the percussion sounds are divided pretty equally into analogue and digital types with the Kick Drum, Snare Drum, High and Low Toms all being analogue. The AiRBase99 doesn't use any new fangled analogue modelling techniques for its analogue, sounds instead it relies on tried and tested authentic discreet analogue circuitry under digital control, allowing for some impressive and powerful dynamics.
The Hi Hat, Clap, Rim Shot, Crash and Ride cymbals are all generated digitally and stored in ROM as 8 bit samples. Each of the four digital instrument voices can play back one of four sampled variations: 808, 909, CR78 and JMX (the JMX variations are samples of real sounds, not beat boxes). Each sample is processed by a simple analogue VCA/AR combination for further sound manipulation and the HiHat samples can be further modified by two resonant filters (2-pole high-pass and low-pass).
SOUND FOR SOUND
I didn't have an original X-Base 09 to directly compare sound for sound with the AiRBase99 but I had a few banks of sampled X-Base 09 percussion voices from my previous encounter with it. I found the overall sound to be even punchier and more dynamic than the original X-Base 09, but of course that could be attributable to my sampling. Nevertheless the analogue drums still sound mightily impressive, with some extremely wide ranging sonic acrobatics possible, far outperforming the already impressive sounds of original TR808 and TR909. The welcome inclusion of low and high Toms, Claps and Rim are all useful additions to the already fine sounding Kick and Snare
I'm not so sure about some of the new digital samples though, in their raw state a few sound a little flat and uninspired, which could be due to the 8 bit sampling. But spend some time editing and it is possible to coax some interesting sounds out of most of them.
This is where the individual outputs become essential as you can dedicate a mixer channel for each percussion voice, giving you a lot more scope for further manipulations such as EQ, compression and effects. It's worth noting that the outputs run at the professional and very hot level of +4dB rather than the alternative and widely used -10dB semi-pro level, be careful out there !
Editing is a little idiosyncratic, if you decide to edit a preset ROM kit you'll find that even though the display will ask if you wish to save your edit (and confusingly let you press YES), if you return to the preset later all your tweaking is lost. Frustratingly you aren't given the option to save the kit to another location either. The Jomox way is to first copy a ROM preset to one of the user RAM locations, which can be a little tricky as it's not entirely obvious which bank you are copying into. It's a bit of a roundabout way of getting down to business but once you have a kit in RAM you edit and save to your hearts content.
Editing parameters available for the percussion voices are as follows:
CLOSED HH ATTACK
CLOSED HH PEAK TIME
CLOSED HH DECAY
OPEN HH ATTACK
OPEN HH PEAK TIME
OPEN HH DECAY
HH SAMPLE SELECT
REVERSE, SOURCE (NORM-VCA-VCF)
HIGH PASS CUTOFF
LOW PASS CUTOFF
Clap, Rim, Crash, Ride:
As you can see from the list there are more than enough editing parameters to work with, particularly for the Kick Drum and HiHats. Most of the parameters are self explanatory but the ATTACK and PEAK TIME do need a some clarification. Confusingly the PEAK TIME parameter actually sets what 99% of instruments commonly call the Attack time, while the ATTACK parameter adjusts the overall level of the PEAK TIME parameter, OK? (for a more detailed description of editing the sounds check out my previous review, SOS June 97). Selecting INTITIALIZE on any of the percussion voices resets it to a default TR909 type sound.
System-wide parameters include setting receive and transmit MIDI channels, Kit naming, LCD contrast, memory protect (which unusually is applied on a kit by kit basis), overall BPM/LFO speed and initialising kits. Kits can be copied from bank to bank or saved over MIDI using the not entirely original but nevertheless useful SNAPSHOT feature. This sends a short SysEx dump of all the settings for any selected kit to your sequencer. This MIDI snapshot can be placed within a song and sent back to the AiRBase99 while the sequencer is playing and the current kit will adopt those previous sound settings. Backing-up all the kits using MIDI SysEx bulk dump and load is also an option.
Each LFO can output a waveform to modulate the pitch of any of the percussion voices and LFO 1 can also control the HiHat filter cutoff parameter. If required both LFO's can modulate the same destination. Waveforms available are: sawtooth (normal and inverted), triangular and square (here called RECTANGULAR). The rate of the LFO's isn't as wide as I would have liked, so there are no ring modulator effects possible, but they can be synced to an incoming MIDI BPM or a user selectable BPM figure and can also be synced to MIDI note-on. Each LFO has an output level parameter but I would have preferred to see a more versatile approach of separate LFO input level parameters for each percussion voice.
As with the X-Base 09 full control of almost every editing function is controllable over MIDI and, if I remember rightly, the X-Base 09 was one of the first beat boxes to feature real-time recording of control knob manipulations from within a rhythm pattern. By not having a pattern sequencer the AiRBase99 cant quite match the versatility of the original but connected to a computer you can achieve almost the same results, but with more percussion voices. This feature is beginning to appear on more and more beat boxes and once you've tried it becomes an essential (and addictive) creative tool for rhythm pattern manipulation.
A couple of annoying omissions are the lack of a voice panning parameter to the stereo mix output, and no overall output level control, software or hardware. The AiRBase99 doesn't to respond to MIDI volume controller 7 and the volume control knob on the front panel only adjusts the headphone level.
NO EXPENSIVE KNOB GALLERY
According to their literature Jomox have introduced the AiRBase99 for 'musicians that are difficult to separate from their beloved sequencer software programs and that ridicule old-school internal step sequencers, looking upon them with suspicious, unbelieving and critical eyes...' and ' Instead of sporting an expensive knob gallery all parameters on the AiRBase 99 are instead controllable only via midi'. hmmm.
Bearing this in mind and the fact that the AiRBase99 ships with editing templates and mixer maps for Cubase, Logic and Opcode sequencers Jomox are positively encouraging users to program the AiRBase99 externally. Which is understandable because although it's not particularly difficult to program the combination of limited LCD information and the nature of multi-page menu structures make it very laborious and time consuming, editing the HiHats alone involves 8 pages of parameters. Editing kits on the AiRBase99 is not one of the most pleasurable tasks I've been asked to do for SOS. However, the helpful instruction manual has a good index, is clearly laid out and includes plenty of useful MIDI related information for the adventurous programmer.
Without access to a computer I imagine most users will resort to using one of the many preset kits or just tweaking and customising a few, rather than building news ones from scratch. If you do have a computer the picture is a lot brighter. The supplied editing templates are pretty good and new ones are also in development (and will be available from the Jomox web site soon). The informative instruction manual also contains more than enough MIDI controller information to build your own templates, if you're that way inclined. Alternatively you could use a hardware editing solution such as the knobbly Doepfer Drehbank, Kenton Control Freak or Phat Boy, but unless you already own one of these this could be a rather expensive editing solution. However once you have completed all your editing the kits are quickly and easily accessible from the front panel or via MIDI program changes.
The increased memory, LCD, nine-note polyphony, extra outputs, additional drums and samples and LFO modulation are welcome improvements on the original and when I first heard that Jomox were bringing out a new drum module I assumed it would be something a little different but it's obvious that the AiRBase99 is essentially a repackaged X-Base 09 without the user friendly hands-on programming of the original. There are some very good preset kits to choose from but, due no doubt to the limited number percussion samples to work from, some do have a tendency to sound a little samey. Also, although there's no question the AiRBase99 is capable of producing some extremely unusual and dynamic percussion sounds some of the samples are beginning to sound a little dated and it would have been nice if Jomox could have been a bit more creative in this department. I'm not entirely convinced that dance based musicians still consider the retro TR808/TR909/CR78 sound quite as essential to a mix as it was 2 years ago.
The original X-Base 09 was a quid short of £700 and seriously close to being overpriced, while the AiRBase99 is £400, give or take a pound. Personally I couldn't quite justify that much for what's on offer but for the professional remixer or producer the value for money equation isn't such an issue, and it's obvious that some of its features are aimed at pro users, the +4dB audio outputs and the substantial industrial strength steel case for instance. If you don't have an original X-Base 09, TR808 or TR909 the AiRBase99 could have just the sound you are looking for and in the right hands it can really sound the business and kick arse.
The AiRBase99's biggest hurdle is going to be competition from the likes of the recently price reduced Alesis DM5 drum module (currently around £269) and the Korg ElecTribe ER1 (£349). Although the ElecTribe uses analogue modelling and digital samples it's still capable of sounding very similar to the AiRBase 99 and offers a similar hands-on approach to programming to that of the original X-Base 09.
However fill the AiRBase99 chock-a-block full your own kits and drum sounds and you'll undoubtedly have a powerful and professional instrument at your command that is equally at home on stage or in the studio.
Ultimately my advice has to be try before you buy.
UK distributor: Turnkey
A drums only stripped down and repackaged version of the X-Base 09 cult classic that sounds even better than the original. The additional percussion voices, samples, LFO's, LCD and increased kit memory are all welcome but the sacrificial lamb has been rhythm patterns and ease of programming. Some of the kits may sound a bit dated but if you're prepared to invest some extra time programming it could be a worthwhile addition to any professional set-up.
Dynamic, versatile and authentic retro sound.
10 individual audio outputs.
Sizable ROM and RAM kit memory.
Well specified MIDI control options.
Sturdy, well built case.
Laborious to program without a computer.
Limited and slightly dated samples.
No trigger inputs.
No voice panning.
No on board effects.
External AC/AC adaptor.
Analogue Bass Drum
High and Low Toms.
Crash and Ride cymbals
1024 User RAM.
500 Preset ROM.
9 note polyphonic.
2-pole resonant high pass and low pass.
Midi: Midi In, Midi Out, Midi Thru
10 individual outputs, stereo mix, headphone.
approx +4dB on all outputs.
2x16 digit LCD
external 12v AC/AC adapter.
Planned for future software release:
Sequencer Macro Loops.
Apparently these will be programmed using a mini step-sequencer method and play back internal drum loops, which will be triggered as a single sound with the playback rate controlled by MIDI-clock input. Sounds good, I can't wait !
Copyright © 1999 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.