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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Clef Master Rhythm — Programmable Analogue Drum Machine

YouTube via julianjordan | February 26, 2010

"Here's a quick lesson in how to step-program a clef master rhythm"

via this auction

"Main Features
* Completely analogue sound generation
* 7 Instruments + Accent (Bass Drum, Low / High Tom, Snare, Rim Shot, Long / Short Cymbal)
* 3 Variations for Snare sound
* Adjustable parameters for each instrument (via trim-pots on the bottom)
* Analogue Low Pass Filter (Tone knob)
* Fully programmable via internal Step Sequencer
* Moog Style Knobs :)

This is essentially a fully expanded Boss DR-55 feature-wise and tone-wise. The circuits are identical (schematically and tonally) to the Boss DR-55, but the Clef Master Rhythm gives you way more instruments than the Boss DR-55 and ALL of the instruments are fully programmable (take a listen to the samples and then listen to the Boss DR-55 on YouTube and you'll hear that they are identical)! There are also more patterns and more sequencing options than the DR-55. It's what the Boss DR-55 should have been and the only reason why these machines are not in the same conversations as the Boss DR-55 is because they are extremely rare! The Clef Master Rhythm simply does not come up for auction (there has been one on Ebay in the last 6 months)!

The Clef Master Rhythm came out a little before the Boss DR-55 in late 1979/early 1980. It was sold in two versions and available in greater quantities in Europe than in the United States. One version was a kit that the user put together and another one was a prebuilt machine. This particular Clef is the factory built version. It became a hit with a number of minimal wave, synth pop, and industrial artists as well as with certain production houses because it was affordable, fully programmable, and portable. There are several classic electronic music recordings where most would assume it's a Boss DR-55 but in fact it's a Clef Master Rhythm.

The sound of the Clef Master Rhythm is a vintage, classic analogue drum sound that has not lost any relevance. It is as much at home in a dub tune as in the most underground minimal electronic song. Its perfect rim shot with the subtle hi hats can take you anywhere from a slow tempo Air impression to Isabelle Antena and then, with the aid of a Space Echo, to a deep dub track. The overall tonal spectrum of the machine feels complete and united. None of the sounds invoke criticisms of non-belonging for they all interact with each other and compose a fluid aural matrix unlike a lot of cluttered sample collections or software simulations. The whole machine feels unified and complete. There is a sense of analogue warmth and sensical unity that is on aural display no different than a Roland TR-808 or CR-78. The feeling a user gets from manipulating such machines, and especially the Clef Master Rhythm, is a sense of tracing the simulation back to its source, to the real. Perhaps historical, but relevant to the current aesthetical music-sphere, the Clef is the originator of the sounds we have become familiar with, but sounds that have not become cliche, trite, overused, irrelevant. It is this very power of the Clef Master Rhythm that sets it apart from many of its peers; its ability to provide high quality sounds that still invoke a positive response from the listener and yet are able to reference the era of origin but not be defined by this era. Timeless.

The kick drum is full bodied and has almost too much bass. It can give the Roland TR 808 a good run for it's money and will surely find a home in a techno track as much as in a synth pop tune. Listening to the kick come straight off of the machine will definitely induce questioning of this small boxes ability to produce such thunderous bass. There is nothing small or minimal about the bass end on the Clef Master Rhythm and its ability to shake subwoofers is second to none. Take a listen to some of the provided samples (which were recorded from this very machine) on a decent sound system and you will hear and feel the power of the Clef's kick drum!

The snare drum has the classic snap to it. It is definitely an early Roland snare drum. It has that puffy filtered noise and carefully tuned oscillation that punches and pleases. Unlike a lot of digital emulations of this kind of snare drum, there is zero harshness but no impact is lost. It has a dark, soft warmth coupled with a snap that records incredibly well. More importantly, I've found that simply mixing the snare drum's volume brings a completely different feel to a rhythm I am working on. Without more than a reworking of the snare's volume level, I am able to very quickly change the feel from driving to laid back without having to reach for the equalizer. That's the mark of a quality instrument. Further, there is a switch which regulates the behavior of the snare drum. The first setting brings the classic Boss DR-55 snare drum. The middle setting, titled Brush, is the Clef's take on a snare drum struck with brushes. Effectively it sounds like a reversed noise. It's unlike anything I've heard on a drum machine but is extremely effective for odd, noise based percussion. In isolation it can provide the interesting noise element of an analogue style beat but when used in tandem with the hi hats something really wonderful happens; the two sounds become fluid and one. It's as if out of the sea of percussive soft, filtered, white noise, this perfectly timed reverse noise emerges slightly changing the overall shape and timbre-color. As if the two sounds are perfectly connected in a sensical union, yet emerging from separate sequencer tracks. Stunning! The third setting couples the rim shot with the snare drum for a very pleasing double hit. Also of importance is that the snare and the rim shot can be programmed independently of each other and the switch regulates the behavior of both. When only using the rim shot, the switch will change aspects of the rim sometimes adding more of the snare characteristics and other times simply allowing to rim shot to sound on its own.

There is a low tom and a high tom and they are essentially retuned variants of the kick drum with a decay time that is slightly less than that of the kick. The low tom is very useful when composing techno rhythms where the low tom is used to bounce off of a four to the floor kick rhythm. The toms are much punchier than on other organ-based drum machines (such as the early Hammond or Ace drum machines) and have a stronger bass fundamental. Further, their tunings can be fine tuned via the trim pots on the back panel (more on this later).

The hi hats are simply wonderful. Soft and filtered noise. There are two, an open and closed hi hat, and they play off of each other very well. Unlike sampling, the relationship between the two 'hats' as it comes from a sequence playing off of the machine is organic and interactive. It is this kind of feel and sound that is unattainable through mere sampling of the two instruments. A very useful function of the Clef is the switch that controls the behaviour of the hi hat section. Fundamentally, the switch's main intention is to let the user switch between a straight 16th's beat of the closed hi hat, to turn the closed hi hat completely off, or to trigger the closed hi hat via the programmed sequence. What this allows for is a great playability. The user is able to quickly fire off a set of 16th notes, then switch effortlessly to a the programmed hi hat track, which could be a much sparser rhythm, and then turn the closed hi hats off completely. The Boss DR-55 only gives the user provisions for two variations of the hats, whereas the Clef lets the user program their own pattern and switch between a straight rhythm or completely off!

And to tie all of the sounds together and give more dynamic depth in each rhythm, there is a programmable accent!

Finally, the user is able to control many aspects of the synthesis section through exposed trim controls on the bottom of the unit. The labeling is somewhat vague, but essentially, the user is able to set various decay times of the kick and tom drums as well as tunings, noise amounts in all the instruments. The user can also set the accent amount that affects all instruments (and again the accent is fully programmable). The section is very useful for precisely tuning each instrument (just like on a TR-808) to suit the needs of a song.

Most of these recordings are just the raw signal from the box, on some I've used the effects I would use on any rhythm track (compression and a touch of reverb). Headphones or decent stereo system recommended!

Rock Beat

Flat Beat

Straight Beat

Raw Tom Toms

Raw Kickdrum

Clef visits Berghain (+Synth)

Clef Slow Funk (+Synth)

The Clef's sequencer is full fledged and feature packed for a machine from the late 1970s. It has many features that were left painfully absent from the Boss DR-55. The programming method for the Clef is the same as the Boss DR-55 or the Roland CR-8000. The user punches in a beat including it's rests, with the two red buttons (labeled 'Play' and 'Rest'). Take a look at the youtube video and you will see how this process works.

First, there is a total of 24 patterns split between A and B parts. What that means is for each of the displayed 12 patterns, there is another pattern accessed via the A/B/Seq switch. This is no different than on the Roland TR 808 where a user gain access to another set of patterns by flicking a switch. Patterns 1-3 and 11 and 12 are patterns designed for 3/4 timing or 12 step patterns. The rest are 16 step patterns. The user is able to switch between patterns while the machine plays back and the switch is just like that of pattern switching on the Roland TR-808 where the currently playing pattering will play to its end and then switch to the next pattern. This also means that the user can switch between 3/4 and 4/4 timing without having to restart the drum machine.

The sequencer really shines when using the 'Sequence' function of pattern playback. This allows the user to create much more sophisticated sequences and variations. By flipping the A/B/Seq switch to the 'Seq' position the sequencer will cycle through the A and B parts of a pattern depending on the behavior set by the 'Sequence' switch. The 'Sequence' switch has three settings: pattern A plays then pattern B plays, pattern A repeats three times then pattern B plays once, pattern A repeats seven times then pattern B plays once. This allows for a number of different variations. On one hand, this can be used to create a fill in on every fourth or eight bar, or as a subtle variation every second bar. The Roland TR-808 and the CR-8000 have same function and it's part of the reason why users of these machines are able to create very fluid and alive rhythms without too much effort. When coupled with the fact that the Clef allows the user to switch patterns, a complex rhythm arrangement complete with intro rhythms, fills, break downs, and main rhythms with plenty of variations is possible with great ease.

Most importantly, the sequencer has a very good feel. The timing is excellent and flows unlike a digital software sequencer. Snare rolls feel alive and there are subtle timing variations. The imperfections allow for very organic and 'natural' sounding rhythms. Even when playing back the most robotic rhythms, the Clef's sequencer has imperfections that give these rhythms a much more organic character. While the machine can be modified to take an external clock, I chose not to perform such functions and instead used the Clef to set the tempo of the tracks I was working on. Using Logic Pro, I would record a several bars of a rhythm and then detect the changes in the tempo from the audio file, then use this to create a global tempo map and sync everything else to the master rhythm track set by the recording of the Clef. I found that this got rid of a lot of the rigidness that comes innately with software sequencers and did not compromise the feel and timing of the Clef's sequencer."

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