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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gear Change: Korg DDD-1

The DDD-1 is the second to last piece of gear from my old studio, and likely the last one I'm going to wind up letting go of. The reasons would be lack of space and necessity, since I've just started to move into computer-sequenced sampler-based production (Roland S-550 + the CTS-2000 of the first review, an FB01, an E-mu Proteus 1 and a Matrix-6R controlled by an old pc laptop running cakewalk pro 3 in win95: Still got that 92 hardcore cred to build). I picked up the DDD-1 when I bought an Ensoniq Mirage from a keyboardist who was cleaning out his basement of leftover gear from his touring days back in the 80s. He gave it to me for free, since he thought that some of the outputs/sounds were dead. Don't make this mistake yourself! Make sure that all of the sounds are routed to the main stereo outputs instead of the individual outs when testing if you are selling one, since I don't believe they show up even on the headphones when routed to individual outputs. If you're buying, then take any claim that the machine has broken sounds with a grain of salt. It's nearly impossible to kill these 12-bit machines barring noticeable physical damage.

The interface of the DDD-1 is extremely intuitive, based on the same grid-matrix idea from Korg's SQD-1 sequencer (a favorite of Juan Atkins up to the early 90's). The menus are laid out in a grid printed on the front of the machine, with buttons for each row and column. One simply selects the column and row of the desired function or setting and uses the number pad or +/- keys to change the settings. It's a very shallow learning curve and provides for a fairly fluid editing process for an 80's drum machine, although I wish they would have included an alpha-dial type knob instead of relying on +/- buttons. There's always something to be said for the physicality of programming sounds via movement, even on a 128-step (or less) digital interface.

The internal sounds of the DDD-1 are passable 12-bit samples which have a surprisingly good tune-ability range, as one would hope from Korg. They're a bit flat, with a usability range that stretches from fairly good (shaker, bass, tambourine) to utterly hilarious (the claps, which must rank among the top ten worst samples ever put to ROM). Thankfully, Korg provided several options for adding sounds, including 4 ROM card slots, a Sampling option which allowed for (I believe) 4 0.8 second 12-bit samples within a total 3.2 seconds of memory and a RAM card slot to save your samples and sequences (sequences are stored internally as well, of course, and while I think the sampling board has battery-backed RAM, I don't own one and therefore can't be sure). The Korg ROM cards were actually fairly good, with several latin percussion cards, the usual fusion/pop/rock drums, and various others including some basses and other sound effects. There are also some 3rd-party cards which feature samples from other drum machines, most notably the extremely rare Linn Drum card. The built-in sequencer, with memory for 100 patterns and 10 songs, is extremely flexible for the time. It allows you to program changes in pitch, decay, pan, velocity, roll & flam, and the usual tempo change-ups and swing variations. It also provides 12 pressure-sensitive pads for real time or step-time input. The flexibility of the sequencer, along with the 6 individual outputs (in addition to the dual-mono stereo outputs) and the ability to alter the pitch, decay, and other settings of the internal samples make the DDD-1 a very respectable alternative to similar drum machines of the time such as the TR-505 and TR-707, especially given the very reasonable second-hand prices, which range from $50 to $100 dollars and often undercut a TR-505 of similar condition.

The MIDI implementation is solid, the timing is bang-on and I believe the DDD-1 accepts sysex changes for all of the functions the sequencer offers. When paired with a cheap 8-input mixer (I recommend the Yamaha KM802, which usually goes for $50-$75 secondhand and has three independent stereo effects loops for reverb/compression/eq/etc), the DDD-1 becomes a very powerful old school drum machine for house, industrial, and minimal synth-style music. The DDD-1 also features a metronome/click out and a programmable trigger output which should work with any pre-MIDI sequencer/arpeggiator/gate gear you should care to throw at it.

The real beauty of this machine, and what makes it a total steal right now, is the availability of new ROM cards which feature samples that were, if not impossible, at least extremely hard to find for the DDD-1 in the past. This Brit techie has begun releasing homemade ROM cards with socketed sound-chips for prices which at least match (if not undercut) the prices of the rarest DDD-1 cards. The 3rd-party Linn Drum card for the DDD goes for between $75-100, while his £42 deals on two chips plus the socketed card, at present currency conversion rates, go for $70. I have the 909/808 set, and the samples are impressively clear and highly usable, although the pitch and delay configurability is somewhat less than one might wish. It's a homebrew project though, reverse-engineered and built from scratch, so the sound quality he's achieved is honestly leagues beyond my expectations. The sounds from a ROM card inserted into a DDD-1 are assigned to a given pad/note by the user, and the DDD-1 allows for up to 15 different drum sets to be created, which allows for a wonderful amount of flexibility when you're working with more than one card. This means that if you buy a set of ROMs from korgdddmods plus an extra socketed card, you can mix 808 and 909 sounds (or the CR-78 etc sounds of their Analog Percussion chip, the SDS-5 chip, or the Mattel Drum Box chip) with the internal DDD-1 sounds to create your own kits, making the DDD-1 not only an extremely flexible yet inexpensive studio machine, but also allowing it to act as a highly reliable alternative for more delicate and expensive analog gear. Were it not for the limited production runs of korgdddmods' chips/cards, I would recommend the DDD-1 as the most desirable live performance drum machine for anyone making or performing synth-based music with old school hardware given the extraordinary price/feature ratio shown above.

In terms of house, my recommended buys for the DDD-1 ROM cards would be a Latin percussion card, whichever of the korgdddmods 2chip+card deals you prefer (and if possible, definitely buy a second socketed card), and whichever of the other available cards you like (for me, ideally the Linn Drum card, although the synth basses are nice and second latin perc card couldn't hurt). An external dedicated mixer is definitely a smart buy if you lack the mixer inputs otherwise.

Some other sound examples and programming tips can be found here and individual sounds as well as a manual can be found here. VSE page here.

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