In songwriting, there was Rodgers and Hart, Gilbert and Sullivan. In music gear design, it’s hard not to assign a similar degree of expectation to the pairing of Dave Smith and Roger Linn.
Between them, these two designers have been a major part of what music technology is today. Dave Smith pioneered MIDI (even giving it its acronym), the first microprocessor-based instrument (the Prophet-5), the first programmable polyphonic synth, and other innovations at Sequential Circuits. Add to that landmarks in physical modeling research (at Yamaha) and the first PC soft synth. Roger Linn built the first programmable sampled-sound drum machine and with the LM-1, LinnDrum, Linn 9000, and his work on the MPC60 and MPC3000, introduced workflows and ideas in drum machines we now take for granted. It’s not easy to overstate the contributions of either designer.
Putting two minds like that together can easily raise expectations, but it can’t magically create a product. And so as these two embarked on a collaboration on a drum machine four years ago, the resulting project didn’t immediately get off the ground. But at NAMM 2011, the first real, functioning product – complete with a ship date this year – finally sees the light of day, thanks to a reboot that re-calibrated the designers’ own expectations and process. As Steve Jobs once infamously said, “real artists ship.”
So, with shipping in sight, what happens when a MIDI-fathering pioneer of synthesis and the pioneer of the modern drum machine work together? And what do they view as important to design? The answers were, to me, insightful, even if you don’t expect to pick up the new Tempest drum machine.
Indeed, they had so much to say, that I’m going to largely let them speak for themselves, unedited. These really speak to the core of how Roger and Dave have thought about their creation; there’s no marketing filter. Either you’ll find these ideas appealing to you musically, and it’ll be something you want, or you won’t. And unlike at NAMM, you don’t even have to hear them shout over the din of a trade show hall to listen to their story.
First, be sure to read up on the specs of the Tempest:
Tempest, Roger Linn + Dave Smith Analog Drum Machine, is Official
Concept behind the Tempest
Roger: I think the things that have carried over [from the original collaborative design] are the real-time performance instrument aspects. I always saw the need for something that was not just an off-line editing machine, but in which the idea of composition was tightly integrated with performance. So that’s what the operating system is about on this one – to try to do that with as few controls and as a tight a package as possible, and to have those controls work in multiple modes.
Dave: There are two purposes of this instrument. I think one purpose is what Roger covered, which is usability, and what a drum machine should be doing these days. But the other half is sound. If you’re happy with samples, we can’t compete with a free piece of software that gives you a billion samples and a full-screen interface that lets you program it however you want. That’s not what this is about. This is a musical instrument, and the sound is tightly coupled with the operation, and it gives you a much wider palette of sounds because of the analog side. But you can use samples when you want to, and you can combine the two to come up with all kinds of new sounds.
From my point of view, if it didn’t sound new and different and better, then there’d be no reason to do it. I certainly wouldn’t have done an all-sample drum machine, because my interest is always in the sound area. If the sound is like everything else, it kind of bores me, and there’d be no reason to do it.
Roger: Basically the entire user interface, data structures, file types … as far as the interface and the way that the machine works as a drum machine, that’s entirely me.
Dave’s really a hardware guy much more than I am. I’m not a real hardware engineer; I’ve put products together, but under duress. I can’t really design a circuit very well – I did circuit design on my earlier machines, but it’s always harder for me. And it’s just not fun for me.
I live in Plato’s world of ideals. Dave loves to live in that world of imperfect copies on the surface of the Earth. It’s just a matter of what makes you happy, what’s fun for you. The truth is I’ve never really liked hardware, it’s just that when I made products earlier on, you needed hardware. I prefer to live in the computer, the efficiencies of the computer, the connectivity, the screen, the ease of writing software. The only reason to have hardware is for the human interface.
I like design, and I like to be close to the musician’s experience. [Dave] likes to be close to the circuit. On this, the first thing he did was design the voice board. He didn’t really care about my 3D models or drawings; he had to touch and feel it. He has the physical gene turned on and I have the virtual gene turned on.
It’s actually very nice, because we cover opposite ends of the spectrum, and I think it’s what made this product work is that we’re covering both those sides. I agonize over the user interface and the data structures and the files and the interactions of the controls. I like solving multi-dimensional problems where you’ve got time involved, as you do with the sequencer, and imagining myself playing the device before it exists. He likes the circuit boards, and he likes writing the low-level firmware.
The synthesis engine
Dave: Large parts of [the Dave Smith Tetra] are in that there are the same two analog oscillators and low-pass filter and one sub oscillator, and we have feedback like we did on the Tetra and the Mophos. The additions are that each voice has four oscillators — two of them are analog and the other two are digital. The digital oscillators are really samples as opposed to oscillators, but they can go either way. We’ll probably be putting the Prophet VS waveshapes in there also. So you basically have four different sound sources per voice. We also added the high-pass filters which none of our other synthesizers have.
[The high-pass filter] gives you a lot more control when you’re mixing analog sounds with samples. Sometimes the analog stuff gets a little bit too bottom-heavy. If you’re not careful, it’ll get a little muddy after a while. But the high-pass does a great job of letting you tweak that when you need to.
Sequencing and real-time control
Roger: The sequencer is event-oriented. In each note event, you’ve got four bytes that you can feel with four different pieces of information. For example, for all notes of the snare drum, byte one could be pitch, byte two could be the filter, byte three could be decay, and byte four could be pan. People who are not very technical can just touch it.
The touch strip lets you override parameters as it plays, or record parameters. This is something that I first made on the MPC60, the variation slider. So it’s not really new, but it’s turned out to be an effective thing. Instead of one, we have two, and each of them as two different sets of assignments, so you can toggle between them.
The idea is that all the changes you make in real-time are recorded into the sequencer if you’re in record mode, or changing them live if you’re playing live.
The way we designed these, they’re both position and pressure-sensitive FSRs (forse sensing resistors). It’s a two-dimensional sensor.
An instrument you can play
Roger: What is cool about this is, with these sixteen beats, you can go in and out of record on them, do any editing that you want, use any sort of pad mode for your recording or play live with the tunings or adjusting the voices or adding and recording note effects – and note effects you can also save beat-wide parameter changes – and do all that, and you never have to stop. The only time you have to save is when you’re saving to flash [memory], but I think that’s the only thing. I think even the edits can be done as a background task. And of course you’ve got real-time erase and all that stuff and single-level undo.
You can actually do real-time creation, and I think that’s the nature of working today, is that a DAW as an editor is kind of an old-fashioned statement. Editing and performance are ideally the same thing.
That’s what I’ve tried to do with this is to try to say, what’s the virtuosic music instrument that we could create if we’re trying to make a drum machine?
What differentiates the sound
Dave: lot of it is a matter of how you program it. A lot of people have already found that on a Tetra, because it’s multi-timbral, you can get some pretty interesting drum kits going. And on this one, we went just a little bit further with the high pass and the samples and a few other little things here and there. We have five envelopes per voice, because envelopes are pretty important when you want to tweak a percussion sound. The LFOs go up a lot higher in frequency, so you can actually use them to do some FM-type effects with the oscillators. And then just the programming, people approach it more like a percussion instrument, so it takes more of that flavor.
Groove and voodoo
Much has been made by MPC users of that instrument’s groove, but Roger – the guy who actually made the groove – routinely discounts it as being anything special. I raised an eyebrow when Roger mentioned in his copy for the Tempest that he used his “bag of tricks.” He explains here precisely what he means – a must-read, incidentally, for MPC fans.
Roger: There’s a lot more voodoo in the press than actually exists. Even on my earliest drum machines, all I did was make sure my samples were trimmed tightly and wrote my software so that the software responds tightly. Swing is just a matter of accurate percentages.
My bag of tricks is basically taking away all the stuff the software sequencers give you — options for that no one knows how to set. Back then, in the earlier days, sequencers just weren’t very good for timing because the OS would always get in the way. These days, you can get great swing if you know what yuo’re doing. The problem is the software interfaces make it so hard to get what you’re trying to get.
For swing, what I do is I use my percentages. You can do fifty percent up to seventy-five percent. And what that means is, for every eighth note, it’s the percentage between the first sixteenth note and the second. 50% means straight time, 66% means falling on triplets, 75% … is going very slow for a jazz groove. It actually falls on 32nd notes. Most of the time it’s 50%, 66%.
There’s no other trick than that. The thing I think made a lot of my early drum machines sound good, at least starting with the 9000, was that you had the pressure-sensitive pads coupled with the note repeat feature. I called it note repeat, people called it rolls. It was mostly not for doing rolls, but just doing good … sixteenth-note grooves. If you just play it by varying pressure, it’s pretty easy to get it right. You couple that with nice swing percentages – something around 58-60% is really pretty cool. I think it’s pretty easy for most people to get a good groove.
The Tempest and its place in drum machine history
Ask a marketing person about a product, and you’ll get a fairly dull answer. Ask someone who’s been around the industry as long as Dave has, and you definitely get an answer with some personality.
Dave: When you say analog drum machine to people, it can mean almost anything. A lot of people instantly think of the old Roland stuff, and already a lot of the people who have been playing with this machine have programmed a lot of the classic 808-type sounds. So we can cover that kind of analog.
And then we can also cover the poly-synth kind of analog, because it is a real programmable analog voice. It’s not the stripped-down Roland version from way back. And then you get the samples, so between all of that, you get a pretty wide palette to work with. It sounds a lot different than if you did the same thing on a Tetra or a Prophet.
The old style analog drum machines – there’s the Roland style, which nobody bought when they first came out because they didn’t sound very good compared to the drum machines at the time, and it only became fashionable much later. But the earlier drum machines, like the ones we made at Sequential, we were basically just taking samples and running them through analog filters. They weren’t really configured like this as a fully-programmable analog voice.
We’re trying to cover all of the bases. Operation-wise, you can program it Roland-style, you can program it MPC-style. From a sound point of view, if you want to stack oscillators to make a big sound, which is what people tend to do a lot on the MPCs, to make it sound thick because you stack a lot of voices, we’ve got four oscillators per voice, and two of them can be samples, and if you want to throw in some low-frequency triangle waves or something you can do that, too. So we don’t need the huge voice counts of the MPCs to do the same thing. The idea was kind of a one-size fits all instrument that can cover all types of musical styles, so it’s not shoehorned into one or the other — I guess what you’d call the two different camps.
It’s been so long since there has been a new drum machine out there of any kind. Even the monomachines have been out for a while, so it was time for something new — and a different take on it.
Price and value
I mentioned to Dave that, given the ability to use a Tempest as a synth module as well as a drum machine and take advantage of genuine analog signal path, the price would make sense to at least some prospective buyers.
Dave: You can already plug in a keyboard and play it as a six-voice analog poly synth. It is definitely dual-purpose in that sense.
The street price on a Prophet is a little more than this, and this has a more complex voice than this does. If we took the pads off and sold it as a six-voice synth, it’d probably cost about as much as it does. I think it’s a good price for what it does.
Roger: The thing can actually double as a six-voice keyboard synth. It has all the same voices that the Tetra has. I guess it’s like a Hextra.
The pads and their layout
Roger: I really like the two by eight layout; I find it really cool to work with. All the pads are right on the front between your fingers. It’s the ideal compromise between the 4 x 4 and the 1 x 16 layout. And since this does both step time and real-time programming, it makes it very nice. The other thing is, when you’re using the pads for tunings, you can select a number of scales – it can be two octaves of major, two octaves of minor, chromatics, two bass strings, two octaves of pentatonic minor, pentatonic major – it actually works out very nicely for doing pitch parts.
Who’s it for?
Dave: I think anybody should like this. The old synth guys from the 80s should like this, because it’s a good, old-fashioned poly-synth drum machine. The electronic guys should like it – a lot of people already use our stuff, because if you want an analog poly-synth these days, there aren’t many choices. The hip-hop guys will always appreciate a new sound, and they always love anything Roger did, for that matter. It’s funny, I’ve been through this cycle so many times. And it’s really hard to predict ahead of time, because so much of this is just a fashion thing, where if the right people decide this is the thing that everybody has to have right now, then it will go crazy. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll still sell a lot, but it can make a pretty big difference. And those are the kinds of things you can never predict
So far, the handful of people who have played with it have liked it a lot, which is a good start. We won’t know until after we start shipping.
Philosophy of design
Dave: Concise instruments to me are very important. A Prophet doesn’t do everything a synth can possibly do, but it has just the right number of knobs for direct control, and the right number of features that make it easy to get your head around it. At the same time, it’s incredibly versatile. People who go too far down the software path where every year there’s a new version and new submenus — it’s more features, you can’t argue, but it just gets silly after a while. So I try to avoid that. Ed.: Since this line was misunderstood in comments, part of this came out of Dave not particularly liking software – which I found especially amusing, as Roger describes not particularly liking hardware. I think these two are yin and yang, Bert and Ernie, in a good way. -PK
For me, an instrument should be concise, it should have a lot of personality. Software never has personality, if you ask me. And it should be fun to play. Software often isn’t fun to play.
Photo courtesy Dave Smith and Roger Linn, circa five years ago.