We’re travelling back to 1984 and we are pretty much amidst a major battle, the battle of the Drum-Machine. One year after the release of the Yamaha DX7, which had blown all its competitors out of the water, the battle had now shifted from the synthesizer market to the Drummachine market. The digital drummachine to be more precise, as these were still pretty pricy items. In 1980, being the first drummachine containing digitally recorded samples of real drums, the Linn LM-1 was astronomically expensive and had only found its way into the hands of high profile rock stars such as Prince, Michael Jackson and Peter Gabriel.
The digital drummachine slowly became more affordable with the Linndrum and Oberheim DMX, but the machine that really broke the price barrier was the Emu Drumulator in 1983.
Still not equiped with MIDI, the next step for manufacturers was to release a drummachine with Linn type features that had MIDI as well. This feat was established by Sequential Circuits in 1984 with the Drumtraks. Interestingly enough, by that stage you would have expected more competition from the Japanese manufacturers, but the Japanese were moving slow this time. Where they had pretty much hijacked the synth market from the Americans and Europeans, the Americans were still very much in control of the drummachine market, until 1984.
Roland had made a not so impressive contribution with the analog TR-909 early 1984, but later that year both Yamaha and Roland released their first digital drummachines, both with promising features and at a much more affordable price.
However affordable and successful their drummachines were, they didn’t quite convince the pro users.
Eventually the Japanese did take over the market, which lead to the downfall of almost every single American company.
So, let’s look at these two first Japanese models, the Yamaha RX-11 and the Roland TR-707.
These two machines were direct competitors, as they were priced similarly and offered similar feature sets, making it hard for the buyer to decide which to go for.
MIXER & INDIVIDUAL OUTS
The first major difference one will notice is that the 707 features a hardware mixer on the main panel, whereas on the RX sounds had to be adjusted in volume accessing built-in level control. However, both machines featured individual outputs on the back for external processing. This was essential for professional studio set-ups, as they had ample tracks and outboard gear for processing the sounds individually, but for the home user or performing artists, this was hardly feasible, as mixing consoles at that stage were still large and expensive. The individual outputs were thus aimed at the professional market, but the professional market had already been investing in Linndrums, DMX’s and Drumulators.
The RX-11 has an individual output for each instrument. The Main Stereo outs can also be used as individual outs for Tom 3 & 4, so there’s a total of 12-outputs.
The TR-707 has a total of 10 individual outs. Some sounds share the same out, like the Rim/Cow and HCP/Tamb.
Apart from the two machines sounding completely different, which I will get to soon, a major factor for choosing one over the other is the number of different drum sounds. The RX will score higher in that department. However, the sounds of the 707 have become more recognisable over the years, but more about that later as well. The 707 has two very similar sounding kicks and two dissimilar sounding snares. There are two cowbells, but everything else is represented by one sound. The RX has more variety. To begin with, there are 29 sounds in total compared to the 15 on the 707. This means more kicks, more snares, 2-claps, 2-rims, 2-hats and 2-cowbells. Mind you, these sounds were stored over 6 ROM chips, with each capable of storing a whopping 256-Kb. Sound quality wise things were still early stages, so these drummachines were still using 8-bit sampling. Where the American models sounded fat and beefy, the RX and 707 sound a bit weaker. This caused them to not feature much on big productions, where you would more often hear Linndrums, Emulators and Fairlights, but budget productions featured the RX and 707 heavily. You would typically hear them on TV tunes and commercials. They would also more likely end up in small/home studios due to the differences in price.
Unfortunately both the RX and 707 cannot combine instruments, even though there are double pads for the kicks and snares. Only one will ever play.
Another major difference between the two, is that the RX can be set to a pattern length of choice and the 707 has a fixed length of 1-bar.
This makes programming loops a different experience, as variations in an 8-bar loop with a fill at the end is easier to program on the RX than programming each bar separately on the 707.
In today’s music this has become less favourable, because of loop and clip based performances, where switching quicker between different patterns results in more instant changes, hence why the 707 is more popular that the RX.
What they both have in common is that they have 16 drum pads. The ones on the RX are larger and divided into 2-rows.
Both machines have cartridge slots for saving patterns and songs to.
The 707 uses the same cartridges used on other Roland products, which is the M-16C or M-64C.
The RX uses the same RAM cartridge that the DX7 uses.
Cartridges for both machines are extremely costly these days. In case of the RX-11 the RAM cartridge can almost be as expensive as the machine itself.
Both respond to velocity sensitivity via MIDI.
The RX can even receive parameter changes over MIDI, like accent-level, volume, panning and even instrument changes.
Because this was pre General MIDI days, both can freely assign sounds to MIDI notes, so you can map the sounds to a keyboard in your preferred order.
Vice versa you can assign MIDI notes to pads, so you can program sequences from both drummachines.
A feature that was standard on all drummachines of the time, as velocity-sensitivity was not yet affordable. In order to give a rhythm more dynamics certain hits could be accented.
The 707 has a global accent, which means that ever drum sound landing on the same note would become louder.
To get more dynamics from the 707, playing the sounds via MIDI was an option. However, these velocity changes can not be recorded into its internal sequencer.
The RX allows you to set an accent level for each drum sound, which was quite a revelation at the time.
Another big difference between the two machines, is that once the grid is set to 16th notes on the 707, you can’t program triplets.
On the RX the quantisation changes can be recorded.
The 707 provides more information, with a larger display, which also shows the note grid. The RX has a small display, which forces the user to do more menu diving. In order to exit a parameter on the RX you have to press that same parameter again. i.e. to access the different sounds, you hold the Function key and press the Instrument Change function. To exit you have to press that same combination again, which needs getting used to and is a peculiar design choice.
The 707 has what’s now become that classic Roland look, which it inherited from the 909.
The 707 is plain white with grey buttons and sliders, with orange print, which makes it more visible in dark spaces such as clubs.
The RX has a few more colours and has the same colour scheme as the DX7, but is harder to see in the dark as it’s completely black.
The RX has a lot more heft, which is because the power-supply is built in and it has a metal and wooden underside.
The 707 is completely made of plastic and has an external PSU.
This can both be a hinder or an advantage. A hinder as the unit will move when knocked, but an advantage when carrying it around.
An external PSU can get lost, but it can also be easily replaced when it breaks.
A built-in power supply means there’s a cable dangling from the unit, which is quite a long one on the RX.
So, which of the two withstood the test of time better than the other?
I think the answer would be clear, although ever debatable.
The 707 comes from a more famous family of drum machines.
Because of its famous siblings, the 808 and 909, the 707 is somewhat overshadowed, but still has plenty merit.
In fact, the 808 would often rely on the 707 than vice versa, because the 707 had Dyn-sync next to MIDI.
Because the 707 has that built in fader mixer, it’s also perfect for live jamming, as sounds can easily be mixed in and out.
The fact that it only has 1-bar patterns allows for more improvisational possibilities, allowing quicker switching between patterns.
The RX has a sound of its own, which has never become a classic sound.
Until recent years it has regained popularity through a genre called “Retrowave”.
This music that’s heavily relying on 80’s influences, uses a lot of the 80’s drum machines that nobody wants anymore, which includes the Yamaha RX series.
Because 2nd hand Linndrums and DMX’s keep going up in price, these RX machines are the perfect alternative for getting that 8-bit sound.
If I had to keep one of the two, my choice would probably be the RX.
The reasons for that is that the RX has more flavours to choose from and its sound is not as recognisable as the 707. Because the 707 has been used to death, the RX seems to sound more refreshing to me. I feel more nostalgic when I see and hear the RX, because it sounds so typically 80’s.
If you want to hear the RX in action, listen to George Duke's "Thief in The Night".
WHAT CAME AFTER
The TR-707 wasn’t really succeeded until 1988 by the R8.
In 1985 it received a fraternal twin, the TR-727, which was identical in design, but contained percussion sounds only.
In 1986 Roland needed to counter Yamaha’s RX-21, which at that stage was the cheapest drummachine on the market. Roland did this with the TR-505.
In 1987 a larger version of the 505 came out, which was the TR-626.
Then finally in 1988 Roland released the R8, which was a seriously powerful machine.
Releasing a smaller version, the R5, was also starting to become a common theme.
The follow up to the RX-11 was the mighty RX-5 in 1985. This huge machine offered incredible features and a myriad of drum sounds.
Yamaha had also released a budged line of products in 1985 and among them was the RX-21.
Later that year they also released the RX-21L, which stood for Latin and as you can guess, only contained percussion sounds.
The drummachine market was in full swing, but that didn’t last for very long.
It also got some stiff competition from Sound Modules that contained drum sounds and of course cheap samplers were a great way to obtain any sound you wanted.
By the early 90’s drummachines weren’t a lucrative business anymore, as computer sequencers and samplers could do the same thing and more.