When it comes to drum machines, the punchy, analog Roland TR’s have been the holy grail for a long time. In just the past few years, the 808 and 909 have just about doubled in price on the used market, commanding nearly $4000 for a mint specimen of either of them here in 2015. For years, all we really had to go on were rompler drum machines and, while a sample can get you halfway there easily enough, it’s simply not the same. I’ve never laid hands on a TR-909 but I have played around with the 808 and the bass drum on it certainly is substantial. I always thought that having some good samples loaded up into an ESX was close enough but when I stood there in front of an actual 808 and heard the boom, I really could tell the difference. Don’t get me wrong, I was always very happy using my ESX as a drum machine. It had a good amount of hands on editability, sounded nice and punchy and I had mine loaded up with several hundred vintage drum machine samples, which was very convenient. One box, all of my drum machine needs sorted. However, you can pitch a sample up or down but it’s not the same as tuning an actual analog bass drum. Actual drum synthesis is a bit of a different animal.
So, while the analog monosynth revival rages on, we’ve also had some very viable analog drum machine options brought to our doorstep as well. Jomox has been around for a while, of course, but I’ve always read that their earlier machines were buggy and the 888/999 seem a bit pricy to me for being just an emulation of the originals and not bringing much else to the table. I ended up procuring a used Tempest for a decent price and it also brings a six voice polysynth to the table, so we’re heading in the right direction. But, as good as the Tempest is for making weird sounds from scratch with it’s rather deep and impressive synthesis engine, there is some truth to the rumors: it requires a lot of work to really nail those old TR sounds and, even then, it often ends up sounding a bit loose. It never really bothered me much, as I was able to make some great sounds (I’m into really weird, percussive noises and it does this better than anything else, imo). But when you want that 808 boom or that 909 punch, like I said, it is maybe a bit loose. It has some quality samples on board to help out but you can’t load your own and, if we’re being honest, samples aren’t really the answer you want when you pay this much for analog drums. Now, overall, the Tempest is still my favorite piece to sit and jam with when you factor in the polysynth aspect of it on top of the weird drums you can make. It sounds amazing, is a joy to program and it runs very deep. But it is definitely not a replacement for an 808/909, imo.
And then I unexpectedly stumbled into an Analog Rytm. I never intended to, figuring that the Tempest should be more than enough for me. I actually intended to flip it. But after just a few days of playing with it, I was hooked. The synth engine is not nearly as open ended as the Tempest and I count that as a strength in this case. Point A to Point B is a short trip. The basic editing on the Rytm is a bit deeper than on the original TR’s, but not that much. There are different algorithms (aka “Machines”) for the different types of drum sounds and each of those algorithms has slightly different parameters. For example, you want a bass drum, you tune it, set decay, click, volume, etc. and you have a nice deep, punchy bass drum. So you can leave it at that and, I really have to say, it is definitely up there with the classics. But move beyond that a bit and you have full filter control and amp editing with overdrive, reverb send and delay send per sound. Just dial in a thumping 909 type kick, overdrive it just slightly and I think it will make you a believer.
And what was that other thing the Rytm has… oh yeah. User sample upload with one full GB of space on the +drive! 😉 Not only does it nail the analog drums in a big way, the Rytm can really be any of the old rompler drum machines you want it to be. Load it up with Linndrum, R-70, SR-16 samples, whatever you want. You know that “300 drum machines” sample pack that’s been around online for years? Well, you now have a drum machine that is capable of loading them all up to recall and tweak at a moment’s notice. Not only that, but samples on here run through the analog filter, overdrive and compressor just like the synth section does so they sound great. Take it a step further though and think about the drums that don’t come out of a machine: breakbeats. You have plenty of room to load up your favorite breaks and you have the tools to aggressively manipulate them. There is no sample chop on the Rytm but you don’t really need to chop it because you can isolate the hit that you want to sound on each step by adjusting the start and end points.
Like I mentioned above, synthesis on the level of the Tempest is simply not possible on the Rytm but it is very easy to load up several hundred (even thousands) of single cycle waveforms, wavetables, sample chains, etc. Whereas the Tempest gives you two LFO’s, five envelopes and an incredibly deep mod matrix, the Rytm gives you one LFO, filter and amp envelopes, bit reduction, overdrive, reverb and delay. Whereas on the Tempest any sound can be played chromaticly and with six voice polyphony, Rytm can play chromatically but only monophonically. But that doesn’t mean you can’t crank out some great synth sounds. Monophonic basslines come very easily out of the Rytm and, truth be told, the filter is more flexible than the one on the Tempest. You have, if I recall, six different filter types on the Rytm (including a band pass) so it’s entirely possible to make airy, wispy pad sounds and the like in addition to gritty basslines.
Sequencer-wise, it’s really a matter of preference. With it’s excellent pads and arpeggiator, I find that the Tempest is more geared toward real time recording whereas the Rytm, with its smooth parameter lock system (and slightly stiffer pads), specializes in step sequencing mode. That’s not to say that you can’t do it both ways on either machine, because you certainly can. The biggest difference is when it comes to doing fine editing on your patterns. The Tempest has a screen with a matrix on it where you scroll to the note event you want to edit, select from a handful of paramaters and enter the value you want on that step (velocity, etc). With the Rytm, you hold down the trig button for the note event you want to edit and simply turn the knobs to where you want them. Beyond that, you can make the parameter do a smooth slide to the value of the next note event (like a filter sweep, for example) and you can adjust the placement of the note trigger by using the micro-timing feature (this is quite awesome and sooo easy to do). I mentioned above that the Rytm gives you overdrive, reverb and delay sends per part and these (apart from delay) are absent on the Tempest. But the Tempest’s sequencer somewhat makes up for the lack of effects with its assignable touchstrips and by allowing you to roll and/or reverse individual sounds or the entire beat.
In the end, both the Tempest and the Rytm qualify as next level, in my humble opinion, and I am very happy that I now own both (even if I had to sacrifice some other great gear to make it happen). I really look at it as a yin and yang situation, rather than an either/or. The Tempest makes unique sounding analog drums and the Rytm handles the bread and butter. The Tempest adds a six voice analog polysynth and the Rytm gives you a fairly deep sampler that can handle classic break samples and some monosynth sounds. Both of them have complex sequencers that will appeal to live performers but are also at home in the studio. Both are very solidly built and, on the used market, are in just about the same price bracket these days. One major difference is that Tempest is capable of (monophonically) sequencing external gear on one of its tracks but the Rytm can not. The pads on the Rytm still send midi, of course, but the sequencer does not at this time.
So if you would ask me which one you should get? I say do whatever you need to do to get both. In my opinion, you won’t find more power per square inch than with a Tempest/Rytm combo. Tack on a phrase sampler at the end of your chain (I use an SP-808 but I could see an Octatrack doing major damage) and you’re pretty much set. But if that seems like overkill for you or it’s just not feasible, it’s really a question of what you like or need. Just check the differences I’ve outlined and I hope that it can shed some light but keep in mind that as of now (May of 2015), both of these pieces are still in development, so there’s no telling what functionalities might be added to each. But whichever way you go, you win, the way I see it.