Coming from a period before computers began to dominate the sphere of home recording, the Boss DR-660 serves as a great illustration of the way masses of musicians built their drum tracks in the early 1990s. Introduced as it was in 1992, the device is now approaching twenty years of age, and that’s quite evident in a number of ways. The simple fact that this is a stand-alone, hardware drum machine, in itself makes the product rather quaint in today’s sophisticated world of computer sequencing.
Tracing back the Doctor Rhythm range through the years, you arrive back in the era of analogue tone production. However, since the mid ‘eighties, these drum boxes had exclusively featured digitally-sampled sounds.
Anyone who remembers earlier digital Doctor Rhythms, such as the DR220 and DR550, may well recall the DR660 as a milestone – an instrument which crossed a line into new territory. For me, the DR660 was the box which finally made the home recordist think: “Now people are gonna think I’ve hired a drummer!” Of the three aforementioned devices, the ‘660 is the only one which in my view still stands up today as a viable bank of drum sounds for contemporary musicians. I used both the DR220 and the DR550, and in their day they were great. But I could never quite remove the synthetic quality which said to the listener: “Beatbox trying to simulate real drums”.
There's an audio stream of a track featuring the DR-660 in full action below...
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Part of the problem was the limited nature of sampling and digital storage during the 1980s when analogue tone circuitry was dropped. The DR220 was only 12-bit, with such a small capacity for sounds that two separate models had to be released – one for the acoustic set, and one for the electronic. I had the acoustic version. The electronic version featured digital samples of analogue sounds – what a baffling concept that was at the time!
But the level of sophistication and the quality of the sound from the DR660 was a different ball game. Hundreds of sampled hits (compared with just 11 in the DR220), arranged into 32 preset kits – each targeted at a particular style of music. These included the TR808 and TR909 kits, which were a huge selling point - I think shop assistants selling DR-660s were ordered to mention them on pain of death! There were additional spaces for user-assembled kits, which was where you could truly create your ideal drum sounds. There was even a facility to combine samples using the Pad Layer function, so the range of possibilities was almost infinite. Add in the onboard digital effects such as reverb, delay and chorus (each effect assignable per drum), and your custom drum kit really could capture that highly desirable studio feel which musicians of the day were looking for.
The DR660 offered 100 preset drum patterns in various styles. The majority of these were pretty tacky and I doubt many musicians would accept them today, but again, there was space for the user to program custom patterns, using his or her own, custom-assembled kits. The patterns could then be linked together to create songs – probably the most irksome part of early ‘90s drum programming, given the small LCD screen, the limited information it could display, and the push-button user interface.
Of course, these days, a bank of sounds is really all a machine such as the DR660 would be regarded as. It’s essentially a tone generator, which can be hooked up to a computer via MIDI, and driven with all the ease of use and editing scope of a modern sequencing package. However, in the early ‘nineties the DR660 had to fulfil a much wider brief. Back then, a drum machine was its own sequencer, and it would be programmed using its own interface – not an easy task if you’re used to the computer’s big screen and cut/copy/paste operation. But it seemed acceptable at the time.
For those who could program in real time – i.e. literally play in the drum patterns, hitting the sound pads in time to a metronome – the Realtime Write mode speeded up the basics, and could prove an enjoyable experience. I remember taking the DR660 into work one day in the early ‘90s. I showed the staff how the machine’s Realtime Write function worked, and one of the girls (who’d never used a musical instrument before) got so absorbed with tapping in rhythm patterns on-the-fly, it was all I could do to get the thing back! I seriously thought at one point that I might be going home without it.
On the face of it, Realtime Write was great. The problems arose when it came to editing. Operations which could be completed in seconds today on a computer, could take a significant amount of time on a drum machine. It was inevitable that serious musicians who needed precision control over their beats, and who needed a constant visual overview of what was going on, would migrate to a computer package once the technology became sufficiently powerful and sufficiently affordable. But when the DR660 came out, a viable PC would typically cost well over a £grand - perhaps two, and have just a couple of megabytes of RAM (a megabyte being a thousandth of a gigabyte), if that. Our business PCs at work weren’t even using Windows, because the OS drained far too much in the way of resources. We had to put up with the command line technology of DOS (no mouse, just type in the instruction), and that was actually worse than the interface of a well-designed drum machine. But time would change all that, and when it did, instruments like the DR660 would fall by the wayside.
There are undeniably things you can do with sampled drum hits native to a computer, which you can’t do when sequencing an early ‘90s beat box via MIDI. However, I’d argue that you’d have to go a long way with software to rival the quality of the sounds in the Boss DR660. It is a hassle using outboard gear with a computer setup, when the VST environment so neatly integrates everything. But I still use my DR660 from time to time, and I wouldn’t consider getting rid of it. It’s advisable to back up the sounds and settings before changing the C2032 battery (which I’ve had to do a couple of times in 19 years), because in my experience the DR660 loses everything in the process. But other than that, I’ve never had a moment of trouble from what I consider a very capable and very well made piece of gear.
Posted by: Bob Leggitt