Some technology companies of the 1980s were great at ensuring that when you bought from them, you’d never knowingly do so again. Others, meanwhile, had a genius for guaranteeing that you’d always want to upgrade in two or three years’ time, but when you did, you’d place your trust in them to provide the replacement. Roland/Boss were pretty clever in the department of the latter – especially with their Dr. Rhythm beatboxes.
The Boss DR-550 was one of many steps along the road of progress in the largely amateur/budget-focused Dr. Rhythm range, which, despite the general affordability of most models, always managed to give the home recordist the essence of in-the-moment technology. There were two versions of the DR-550: the original, which entered the market around the cusp of the ’80s/’90s decades (the manual is dated November 1989), and the Mk.II, which appeared in 1992. It’s the original version I’m looking at here. You can see it depicted above in its original UK ad from early spring 1990. The recommended price, as you may have noticed, was £199.
The DR-550 can be considered, in retrospect, a stepping stone. It was the bridge between the decidedly limited DR-220, and the supreme quality, comprehensively featured and altogether more expensive DR-660. I bought all three, as, I’m sure, did many others. Clearly the DR-660 was in a different league from the DR-220, but where did the DR-550 sit in the vast chasm between the two?
The DR-550 was definitely a massive improvement on the DR-220. It had clearly superior sound quality, upgrading the ‘220’s 12-bit conversion to 16-bit, and it had a lot more to offer in sound variety. In fact, the DR-220 had been so limited in its capacity to store samples, that two separate models were produced: one loaded with an acoustic kit (DR-220A), and the other with an electronic (DR-220E). The DR-550, however, could effectively be considered to cover the roles of both DR-220 models, incorporating a wider combination of acoustic and electronic sounds – 48 in total, arranged into four banks of 12. That was well over four times the number of sounds in a DR-220. Five separate kicks and 6 separate snares in a single budget beatbox? Amazing! It was at the time, anyway. And there was even room for Boss to include six factory-set demo songs.
In its day, the DR-550 was a mightily impressive product for those restricted to sub-£200 territory. But looking back, it did have some pretty arresting compromises. Whilst the sounds were sampled and reproduced at good quality, I found the realism of acoustic drummer simulation was relatively poor. This was down to the implementation of the unit’s sequencing, control, etc, which, unless you were a virtual genius, produced a stilted and mechanical result.
Basic patterns comprised sixteen rigidly-timed beats, meaning there was no way to simulate a “human timing feel”. For fills, it was possible to enter 32nd notes or triplets, or vary the timbre (by multi-padding), but overall editing was clumsy, slow and often frustrating. With no velocity sensitivity, establishing a sense of dynamics was also pretty convoluted. There was an Accent feature which could increase the volume of a hit by a preset amount. Being clever with Accents meant you could produce a bit more dynamic variation, but beyond that, you were into duplicating the same sound across multiple pads and assigning a different volume level to each duplicate. A typical approach would be to dedicate a whole bank to snare sounds, with each pad carrying the same sample, but different volume or timbre characteristics.
But even with all of the above stops pulled out, there was still a mechanical aura to the DR-550. And whilst the sounds were completely usable and well defined, I never felt there were any real show-stoppers in there. Of course, this was a cheapish product of its time, and it was much, much better value than the DR-220, but if you’re looking at a DR-550 today, you’re unlikely to be bowled over by it.
The Mk.II version of the DR-550 was little different from the original. The only significant upgrade I’m aware of was an increase in the number of samples from 48 to 91. The real development went into the shortly-to-follow DR-660, which really was a different proposition from the ‘550 and has, in most ways, stood the test of time. That’s really not the case with the DR-550. But it should be stressed that the DR-660 was more than double the price of the DR-550, and was a departure from previous Dr. Rhythms in its wealth of features and professional-sounding tone.
It might seem that the DR-550 has more of a kinship with the DR-660 than the DR-220. But don’t be fooled by the looks of the units and the fact that the ‘550 is much closer to the ‘660 in terms of its release date. The ‘550 was really a 16-bit ‘220 with a lot more memory, some much needed help in creating fills, and a raft of new sounds. You still get a very ’80s personality with a mechanical feel you just can’t do anything about. And really, you can’t even strip everything back into straight 4/4 rock beats and claim the back-to-basics territory because the sounds just don’t have the weight and substance to them.
This, however, didn’t stop the Boss DR-550 rocketing to the top of the UK bestsellers chart (Making Music dealer survey) in spring 1990, beating the Roland R-5, the Yamaha RX8, the Roland TR-505 and the Alesis HR-16 into the next five respective positions. The ‘550 was very well received and was considered exceptionally good value for money. It did linger around in the shops for a considerable time after being superseded (even at £129), which suggests that by the time the DR-660 came in, people were well aware of the '550's shortcomings. But the '550 easily gave you enough confidence in the Dr. Rhythm brand to maintain future trust in Boss, whilst giving you just enough headaches and frustrations to make sure you’d want to replace it when the next model came along. From a purely business standpoint, the perfect commercial offering.