The Roland DR880

The drum machine. If there is anything in the world that would make you a better guitar player, it is the drum machine. Some people are born with a metronome built into their hearts, some are born with silver spoons in their mouths and some are born with both. If, like me, you were born with neither, then the drum machine is a must. The drum machine is your personal trainer, your music teacher, your resident house band and your best music friend. It is by working with the drum machine you will acquire that "natural" awareness of the passing of each beat and each measure, it is by working with the drum machine that you will learn to play note-perfect solos, play with feel and play solos and sing at the same time. Boss is one of the first companies to manufacture drum machines. I remember the first one I bought was their DR. Rhythm DR50. Their latest model now is DR880. I suppose that gives away my age.

The DR880 is the top-of-the line model in the series of drum machines manufactured by Boss. The DR880 is their flagship, no doubt about that. The going price for the DR880 is around HK$3,200 plus (US$430) The DR880 comes with a built-in bass line. Aesthetically, there is little or nothing say, the machine is house in the usual Boss metallic-greyish box. The thing is not heavy at all and is actually quite handy, 10 inches by 9 inches. One of the most unusual feature of the DR880 is that not only does it play the drums and bass, it actually allows you to plug in a bass or a guitar and play along with the rhythm section. There are also built-in effects for the bass and guitar. Not only that, DR880 has an individual volume control for the drum kit, the built-in bass line and the guitar or bass that you might be playing. So in effect the DR880 is a mixing desk as well as a drum machine.

The bigger scheme of things, as envisaged by Boss is the DR880 is the heart and soul of an entire sound system. You can hook up the DR880 to just a simple consumer hi-fi set, or you can hook it up with a sequencer, connect it to a digital recorder, obtain data from a computer, hook it up to professional mixer or a guitar amp, or simply a pair of powered speakers. The DR880 can accommodate four (yes f-o-u-r) foot switches to control a variety of functions. Mind-boggling isn't it. This is the diagramme that sets the hook-ups graphically :-

The back penal of the DR880 has MIDI sockets, standard 1/4 sockets, RCA sockets and a USB socket. In short, if there is anything you don't find on the back panel, you probably don't need it. Flicking through the manual cursorily and you can tell Boss has put a lot of thought into the making of this machine. It is no ordinary rhythm box, it is a very sophisticated and well thought out device. The million dollar question or the US$430 question is does it work? And if so, how well does it work? Is it worth the money?

Is it user friendly? That is the first question I normally ask of these devices. The people most likely to buy a drum machine are guitar players. They need to play along with a rhythm section, try out soloing ideas and so forth; but they are also people who know very little about how the drum kit works. So it is absolutely necessary to make things as simple as possible or explain things in logical and easy-to-understand way. Let's have a look at the DR880 in detail.

The DR880 has 500 Preset Patterns. These are patterns which were set at the factory and built into the DR880. You cannot change them. Each pattern is complete with drums and bass and are often 4 bars in length. The chord of each bar currently being played can be seen on the display. The music genre of the Preset Patterns ranges from Rock to Jazz, to Blues, to Surf Rock, Country, Samba and just about every style. Whilst it is very interesting to listen to them if you have time, but they don't help much. Some of the patterns are very intricate but if I cannot see how you can use them in the song you want to play. If you jam along with these Preset Patterns, you will soon get tired of them. There are 4 Preset Blues Patterns (052 to 055) and they are absolutely useless. The beat is wrong, the bass line is wrong, and nothing is right about them. So far as Present Patterns are concerned, the DR880 does not offer anything new, they are as useless as its predecessors and its competitors. Now, here comes the real crunch , the User Patterns. These are patterns you can tailor make to suit your requirement. Before we investigate the User Patterns, some features of DR880 are worthy of note :-

Tap Tempo
There is a tab function for the tempo, you can tab four times or more and the DR880 will get the average tempo.
Chord Progression Display
You can choose how the chord progression is displayed : 4 measures x 3 lines, or 2 measures x 2 lines or 1 measure x 3 lines or Pattern Display.
Change keys
You can change the key of any song with the touch of a button.
Chord Display
The DR880 allows you to write out the chord of each measure and you can see it on the display when the rhythm is on progress.

Step Write Mode

Step Write Mode This the mode of creating patterns that most of us will use. You don't have to play in time to the metronome. Rather you punch in the notes individually according the the time and beat they are played. The manual states that in the Real Time writing mode, you have to go to the "Info Mode" to assign the number of measures to each pattern. But what it does not say is this setting in the "Info Mode" in Real Time Mode writing actually affects you when you are writing in Step Write Mode. And the default setting in a pattern contains 4 measures. So if you start with the Step Write Mode and want to change the number of measures contained in each pattern, you are left in the dark. It is only after fumbling for some time before I found out how to change the number of measures assigned to a pattern. Here are some of the problems that I have found :-

The manual does not say how you can erase a note you have entered in Step Write Mode. After much fumbling again, I found that if you press "Shift" and "Erase" a note can be erased. But once that is done, the cursor will automatically skip to the end of the pattern. So if you erased the first beat of the 1st measure in a pattern consisting of 4 measures, your cursor will end up on the last beat of the 4th measure. If you pattern has 8 measures, the cursor will end up on the last beat of the 8th measure. What it means is you have to use the backward arrow button and go all the way back to the beat in question. Quite tiresome.
You cannot test the sound of a any key pad when you are in Step Write Mode. In the Real Time Mode, you have a rehearsal mode so you can try out the relevant key pad before you actually write it into the pattern. But in Step Write Mode, there is no such luxury. If you want to try out, say, a bass note, the moment you pressed on the keypad, it is entered in the pattern. If that is the wrong note you will have to erase it by pressing "Shift" and "Erase". Once the note is erased, the cursor automatically goes to the last beat of the last measure in that pattern and you have to find your way back to the relevant position. If you want to try out whether a bass line sounds good, you have to leave the Step Write Mode by pressing "Exit". After working out the bass notes you want, you have to go back to the Step Write Mode again. This gets quite annoying after a few rounds.
The bass is divided into three pads, "Normal", "+1" (an octave higher) and "-1" (an octave lower). Trying to find the relevant note in the different pads whilst keeping an eye on everything else is not easy. It really takes quite a bit of practice to navigate between the three pads to find the relevant notes.
According to the manual, you can add a chord progression for the bass part and actually hear it in the play back. But after spending a good deal of time following the relevant parts of the manual still could not get this to work.
According to the manual you can add the name of a chord to each measure so that that chord will be displayed during playback. I tried this out on a pattern consisting of 4 measures. During playback, the chord display works fine for the first 3 measures but there is no chord display for the 4th measure.
The manual says you came write a pattern in Step Write Mode and supplement it in Real Time Mode later on. I programmed the drum parts in Step Write Mode and would like to programme the bass line in Real Time Mode to save time. When I switch to Real Time Mode, I cannot hear the drum parts I programmed in Step Write Mode, all I could hear is the sound of the metronome. I don't know whether this is a default setting or I am missing something. The manual does not say anything about this.


These are some of the problems I encountered working with the DR880 for the first time following the manual. I am quite sure that there are ways to get round all these problems. The gist of all the problems, I believe, lies not in the machine but in the manual. I really don't think the manual does the machine justice. With such a complicated machine, a more detailed manual is necessary. Life would be so much easier with a more helpful manual, it will save a lot frustrating hours. Actually, what Boss could have done is to provide us with a VCD showing how to work the more intricate functions of the DR880. I am sure given time and sleeping with the DR880 every night, I will one day be able to programme a song in Step Write Mode blindfolded. But that really isn't the point. The point is to give the best help with a minimum of fuzz when learning how to use the machine.

I have been using a Roland R8 drum machine for a long time and am no stranger to drum machines but I still find it very frustrating trying to follow the manual to work the DR880. Quite often the DR880 does not do what the manual says. I am sure after 3 or 4 hours many owners of this machine have long given up trying to work out how to work this thing. Life would have been so much easier if only Boss would go just that little bit further and give us an instructional VCD. Having spent so many frustrating hours on the DR880, I just got very tired and lost interest in the thing. I really don't have the time and patience to spend months on end trying to learn how to use this thing. This is not how it is meant to be.

Bass and Guitar

The DR880 allows you to plug in a bass or a guitar and play along with the patterns or songs. This is a really useful and attractive feature. It is often not practical to turn on your 100 watt tube amp at home (particularly in Hong Kong). Even if you have your amp turned on, depending where you place your amp you may not get a good mix with the bass and drums. The DR880 allows you to mix your guitar signal with the patterns in the machine and you can do a adjust the volume of your guitar and the drum kit and bassline using the individual volume buttons. This is really useful. If you connect the DR880 to a Hi-Fi system (and there are RCA outputs in the DR880), you can get a really respectable sound. The sound is certainly good enough for jamming and practicing.

There is a wide variety of effects for the guitar inside the DR880 and they include overdrive, chorus, delay, reverb, wah wah, and a host of other preset sounds. The overall sound of the guitar coming out of the DR880 is good, not fantastic I must say. But this is good enough for practice and jamming. There are also a host of built-in effects for the bass as well. I have not tried playing a bass through it. You can edit the effects and save them in a user patch.


Other features

Well, there are so many features in this machine one does not know where to begin with. There is a Groove button and a button for Total Sound Control. You can basically control the groove and ambiance of the drum sound. There is a built-in guitar and bass tuner which works well. You can MIDI the DR880 with a drum patch, connect up to 4 pedals, save your data in the DR880 onto a computer. There is so much in this machine it is just wonderful just to look at the manual.


In the End

In the end, I have to say the DR880 is a very good machine. As said before, a lot of thought has been put into its design and function. For a stand-alone drum machines, the DR800 must be one of the best, if not the best, of all similar products now in the market. But the major problem with the DR880 is the user manual. For a machine of this complexity, it warrants a much better user manual, not only in terms of detail but also in terms of easy to understand. Not all the functions in the DR880 have been presented in the manual in the most logical manner. You have often to skip all over the manual to find out how to use a particular function. There seems to a lot of 'holes' in the manual and the trouble shooting part in the manual does not even begin deal with basic problems one is likely to encounter operating the DR880 for the first time.

Well, maybe it is just me, but what I am trying to say is this : it does not matter how great a device is, it has to be user-friendly. A machine should be simple to use and the manual should be easy to understand. If we have a machine as sophisticated as the DR880, you must give us a manual that is easy to understand with all the functions explained in a logical manner. I got fet up and got very frustrated trying to follow the manual and work the machine. I spent hours on end trying to figure out certain aspects of the DR880 which could all have been avoided if the manual is better. For a machine of this complexity, Boss really should give us a VCD explaining how each function of the DR880 works. Most guitarists want to buy a drum machine so he can start jamming or tailor-make his drum and bass parts for his songs. They don't want to spend 15, 20 hours to try and figure out how the thing works. I suppose I will learn to use every single scrap in the DR880 if I spend 10 hours a day working on it for a few weeks. But is that what I want? I have to say again, maybe it is just me. I am sure some guitarist will be able to figure out how to work the whole thing in 10 or 15 minutes. Well, I am sure it is just me. I need a better education really.