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Well here is a Blast from the Past. I am writing this review because despite the fact that I have written to Roland and Boss on the matter of upgrading this machine, 6 years have passed and this is still their top drum machine - why is that? Whilst I know I like hardware drum machines, a great many people prefer to use software but this machine was aimed at a slightly different market - the guitarist.
The Roland Boss DR-880 is much more than a drum machine; it is also partly a bass guitar synthesiser and partly a guitarist effects package with built-in COSM Drive/Amp models and effects such as chorus, delay, reverb, wah, crunch, and others. Add to this a direct input connection for a guitar, a built-in chromatic tuner and a Composition function for drum and bass sounds! Guitar players just love this and you can't blame them.
You don't have to be a guitarist to make use of this unit as it can be used by any musician wanting a drum and bass guitar backing. It is really an excellent tool to jam along with providing you with both rhythmic and melodic ideas for song creation.
This unit is a great all-rounder. The sounds from Roland's SRX series are indeed excellent and cover a range of styles and instruments to satisfy people's needs from all walks of life across the world. This has got to be its main reason for success as there is something for everybody, from a raunchy rock pattern to a Santana Samba, with 440 drum sounds and 40 bass sounds to choose from in 1000 patterns (500 preset - 500 user) - that is a lot of choice. The drum sounds are divided into the following categories:- 64 Bass Drums, 101 Snare Drums, 12 Cross-sticks, 66 Toms, 53 Hi-Hats, 34 Cymbals, 62 Percussion, 16 Claps and 32 Effects.
There seems to be so many drum sounds available today, especially in software and you may find that the DR880 (apart from the fact that it is over six years old) does not have all those up-to-date sounds that you currently hear. Roland are a Company who in my opinion prefer realistic drum sounds and in the main that is exactly what you get here - natural sounding drums. They do partly include Techno, House and Hip Hop sounds to some degree and have sounds from the TR606, TR707, TR808 and TR909.
I saw a drummer recently at a workshop who had a whole range of metal objects attached to his kit (most of which he made himself). He made an incredible sound which piercingly cut through the mix. His mind was very open to the fact that it is possible to use all manner of materials to create textures in your rhythms such as using a piece of lead piping. This is exactly what I want in a drum machine - the combination of real drum sounds coupled with a whole extensive range of sounds, noises and even vocal sounds. This may not be what everyone wants and perhaps the success of the DR-880 proves this to be the case. I think consideration needs to also be given to the fact that the DR-880 does not really have any competition. There is nothing on the market that really gives all these facilities, so perhaps Roland feel that at this stage of the game they do not need to bring out the DR-990, but I wish they would.
LAYOUT AND PADS
So looking at the layout, I must say I really like this. Considering the number of controls, they are all very sensibly positioned for ease of use on this machine, which is 273 mm (10-3/4 inches) wide by 242 mm (9-9/16 inches). The top section has exactly what you need; Volume knobs for Master, Bass, Drum and Input Volume, a large LCD and Value Dial. The middle section is divided into two parts. On the right-hand side you have twenty touch-sensitive pads, suitably sized for you to create your patterns with ease and very responsive to your touch. Above the Pads are the three EZ Compose buttons, a Groove Modify (to add a human feel to your patterns) and Total Sound Control button (for effects).
On the Left-hand side you have the Effect and Tuner buttons (for when you have a Guitar or Bass connected), an Output setting, Song/Pattern and Kit Buttons, a Pad button (to switch Pad Banks), a shift button to double the use of other buttons, the Display, Edit, Exit/Erase and Enter buttons. Lastly you have the Transport functions which also include Loop, Key, Tempo and Record Buttons.
Below all this you have four favourite buttons for ultra-quick, easy access, and a bank select button. You can use these buttons to register eighty (20 banks x 4) of your favourite pattern/song numbers or guitar effect patch numbers.
KITS, PATTERNS AND TOTAL SOUND CONTROL
The DR-880 contains 100 preset kits, and 100 user kits that you can modify. Each of the patterns remembers the kit number that was used when creating that pattern. This means that the kit will also change when you switch patterns. The effect of this is very useful, especially when you are changing from something very noticeable like a Rock Kit going to an Electronic / Techno Kit. You could also think about using this in Song mode when you change from a verse to a chorus for example.
The kits are suitably arranged across the 20 Pads so that you can easily record a Pattern. Kits are made up of 60 Sounds and 1 Bass Tone. You can access the 60 sounds for each kit by selecting 20 at a time from the 3 Banks.
On the DR-880, 2 to 4 measures worth of rhythm performance data that is designed to be played back repeatedly is called a 'Pattern'. You can either play preset patterns or create your own. To simplify the creation process, there is an easy way to create patterns called EZ Compose. The 100 Preset patterns do cover a lot of styles and genres. I would suggest in the first instance, altering the BPM as it is surprising sometimes as to how different a pattern can sound if for example you drastically slow it down. If you change the kit as well, then you might believe you have a completely different pattern.
For each kit you can specify which effects you wish to apply directly to the instruments or bass tone, and for Bass Tones you have a Compressor and bass amp simulator available to you. As well as this you have something called 'Total Sound Control' (TSC). This gives you overall control of the tonal character and ambience by way of a stereo three-band equalizer and an ambience / reverb control. Settings for these two effects are handled together by a 'TSC patch'. There are twenty preset TSC patches, and another twenty User TSC patches in which you can store your edited settings.
I have always liked the idea of 'Song Mode', where for live playing you can have the equivalent of a drummer with you that can provide intros, breaks, dynamics and an ending. It is far better than the situation of a basic flat rhythm playing the same all the way through that is just stopped when you end. The DR-880 provides space to record up to 100 Songs.
Creating a song does take some thought and planning and to some extent you have to learn to think like a drummer. The DR-880 makes this process as easy as possible, because at the end of the day we are simply dealing with patterns here, whether they are used for Intros, Verses, the Chorus, Breaks or Endings, and one song can contain up to 500 patterns.
Thinking like a drummer, in the main means that you may want to use a hi-hat on the verse, a Ride cymbal for the Chorus, and you will want a small break between verse and chorus and chorus and verse etc. You may also want to have a Crash Cymbal at the beginning of a bar. This will involve you having two similar 'User Patterns', one with a Crash Cymbal and one without. The thing to do here is to listen to some of your favourite tracks and get your ear concentrating on the drum part and to what it is doing throughout the song.
USING A GUITAR WITH THE DR-880
You have a convenient Guitar/Bass input at the front of the DR-880 - simply plug any electric or acoustic-electric guitar 1/4-inch cable into it. If you want to tune your guitar before you get started, you can activate the precise chromatic tuner with a simple press of the "Tuner" button. The output signal is then muted. The large display provides all that you need to get the job done quickly and accurately.
You will probably want to get a great sound on your guitar next and the DR-880 provides the Guitar Player with built-in effects and uses the Roland GT-6 sound-engine. Just press the "Effects" button and you can use the master Value dial to choose from 50 preset effects or 50 custom effects that you have created.
If you press the right arrow key it takes you to the next page of 'Guitar Effects'. The first thing to sort out with effects is the Type. There are three types: - Guitar Multi, Bass Multi and Acoustic Multi. These types then give you different sub-sections for effects. For example, under Guitar Multi you will find Amp Simulation, Noise suppression, Compression, A-Wah, P-Wah, Chorus, Phaser, Flanger, Tremelo, Pan Delay and Reverb.
The presets are set up to cover most effect situations with names such as: Heavy Metal, Echo Lead, Classic Stack, T-Amp Drive, Flange Drive, Cool Crunch, Voxy Drive, T.Wah Crunch, 60s Echo, JC-120 Clean, Mild Jazz, Acoustic, Clean Bass, Rock Bass, Power Bass and Drive Bass.
You will also find a further break down in the categories, for example under the Bass Amp Simulation you can select a Type from :- Concert 810, Session, Bass 360, T.E, B-Man, Flip Top, Bass Clean, Bass Crunch, Bass HiGain and Flat.
I really do believe this is why guitarists love the DR-880...
CONNECTIONS AND ACCESSORIES
The generous connections are found at the rear of the DR-880. I particularly liked the outputs. From a recording point of view, you have 4 outputs, so as I began recording my drum track, I divided the outputs to simultaneously record on three tracks, one mono for the bass drum, one mono for the snare drum and all the rest as a stereo track. I found that whilst this was not as good as having a whole kit with microphones recording every part of the kit onto separate tracks, it was significantly better that just recording everything as a stereo track as you would from most other drum machines. I could then apply effects and EQ just to the bass drum for example to bring it out in the mix. I think I have just thought up the next great thing for the DR-990 - it has dedicated outputs for Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Toms, Hi-Hat, Cymbals and percussion. That only adds a couple more outputs - I am sure Roland could do this.
So around the back you have connections for the BOSS BRC Power Supply AC Adaptor, USB, Midi In and Out, a coaxial Digital Out, Controller 1 / 2 and Controller 3 / 4 or Expression Pedal, Individual outputs A and B, Main Outputs L/Mono, R (1/4 inch phone type) and finally L and R (phono type).
On the front of the DR-880 is a Head Phones input (stereo 1/4 inch phone type) and a Guitar/Bass Input (1/4 inch phone type).
You can also purchase as optional extras a Foot Switch: FS-5U or the FS-6 Expression Pedal.
I personally prefer a hardware drum machine to a software alternative, and whilst I will agree with the software fans that there could be a much greater choice of sounds on a PC, you cannot experience the same hands-on fun as you can with hardware. There are now machines that are part hardware and part software, but I cannot understand the fact that 500 GB of storage space on a PC seems a basic amount today, so why can't we have these amounts on a hardware drum machine? It could be then loaded with every type of rhythmic sound possible. You could then write your whole masterpiece of a drum track away from your DAW, or easily use it in a live environment with complete confidence. Provide sufficient outputs to take each instrument to a separate track and you have invented my dream drum machine!
Dreams aside, I do love the Boss DR-880! The drum and bass sounds are great and it gives you that complete range of expressive potential to take that sound away from a bland robotic machine to a level with 'Human Feel' and 'Groove'. It has some great built-in features for the guitarist and must be considered as a Guitar Effects processor as well as a Drum Machine. It is also packed with features such as tap-tempo, EZ compose, Groove modify and Total Sound Control to adjust the overall tonal character and reverberation. It is blessed with a good range of outputs and other connectivity and for solo acts or duos it can provide a great drum and bass accompaniment. This very popular drum machine, which has stood the test of time is a definite winner.