So kritikon has written a good post here and I want to address some of his points, most of which I agree with in spirit, I have some disagreement in detail.
kritikon wrote:I used various of the Roland boxes in the past and mostly thought they sounded awful. All of the cheaper x0x boxes were like toys. Sacrilege I know, but I didn't even like the 808. The 909 was the only one that actually sounded good, and I still like it today, but once I made anything outside of strict 4 on the floor danceystuff it became useless.
I think that the essence of old analog drum machines are that there are a few great analog circuits and a lot of simple stuff. What was great about the 808, other than the silly booooooom, was the detail in some of the other sounds, for the time. I too never got on much with the 808, although, I wish I had picked one up when they were cheap. The 909 is the same. To me, the 909 is the kick and the clap. The snare/rim is ok.
There is a really important point here, however. The reason that those sounds are great is because of the attention to detail that Roland put into the engineering to mimick a real drum sound with analog circuitry. Try to keep in mind that the 909 was not sold as the ultimate techno drum machine, rather, it was sold as the top of the line drum machine at the time. It was right there at the cusp of sample based drum machine and it was far more difficult/expensive to get the variation in sounds with samples than with analog circuits.
Tried an Alesis HR thingy...Had a Roland R8...I can spot them a mile away, and mostly you just don't want your drums to define the sound of everything you do.
...Alesis - one of those D things, wasn't it a D5 or summat? Good set of samples again...but if you're not a drummer, the mix of s/w ease of use and ability to mnagle both loops and individual samples together wins out for me.
Ok, yes, I clipped quite a bit. The essence here is that there's not much point to a drum specific rompler unless it's attached to an out of this world sequencer. Absolutely!
Some things, h/w just don't make sense, and drums is one.
Now I disagree ever so slightly. What doesn't make sense is silly romplers, or limited samplers that aren't awesome grooveboxes, or trying to convince people that the Matrix 6 makes a good drum synth (I'm looking at you DSI). What does make sense is awesome drum synths but there are VERY VERY FEW! Now, getting back to the first part of my post, you might think that I think that Roland has this down, but they don't. They had great analog designers at one point, but, they've never been good at thinking outside of the fusion jazz box. They know how to be trendy, they just don't know how to be hip. People think of them as famous for the techno sound, but, everything that is techno about Roland is just an accident on the way to a jazz fusion concert. The 909, the 303, the Juno-60, all mainstream instruments intended for a mainstream audience.
Jomox knows what's up. Their shit has always rocked and the reason that the Mbrane is good and the Tempest isn't is becasue Jomox knows that there's more to designing a drum synth than just stuffing a bunch of cheap bog standard subtractive synths behind a step sequencer.
So, yes, drum synths matter. Analog vs digital isn't as important as drum synth vs some other kind of synth. Knobs are just as important for linking what you hear to how you play as they are in any other kind of sound production.
If you do other completely different styles, then ITB.
But let's be clear, this is usually a limitation of the sequencer. I once did a live piece with a 909 that is hardly techno, but, I slowed the tempo down to about 20 BPM.
A drum machine is a sequencer plus a drum sound engine. If neither is compelling, you have shit, if one or the other is compelling, you might have something. If both are compelling, well, that just doesn't happen because nobody will pay for it. Both devices always end up being compromised.
I see the point in analogue g.a.s.
My translation: Wonderful instrument g.a.s. If you aren't getting that, you're not getting your money's worth. Take off the retro goggles and put yourself back in time. The TR-505 wasn't meant to be compelling, it was meant to be a cheap drum machine with enough features to meet a price point.
There absolutely is a point of difference, whether that be synths or modulars. Mostly they sound different to s/w and the interface is completely a different thing (ie one knob per function etc), but drum machines seem to combine the worst of both worlds. They sound digital as anything, and have the most complicated interface you could design. I really liked the look of the latest Roland one, but I won't buy it because I know in my heart of hearts that it'll be a pita to actually use.
Here, I don't say digital, I say sterile. Drum machines sound sterile for two (related) reasons. One, it's expensive to design a good sequencer, and two, it's expensive to design a flexible drum synth. Put these two things together and you have conflict because drum machines are expected to be cheap.
But good step sequencers can be compelling and get you places that you can't get easily with your DAW. We know this is true otherwise we wouldn't have so many software step sequencers. They aren't a replacemtn for ITB though, not for production. So, when you consider coupling your drum machine to your DAW, the drum machine is now nothing more than a sound module, and, unless it's a great sound module, it seems rather pointless. The ARP1613 still fetches a hefty sum on ebay. Ok, some of that is hoarding, but they are quite usable in interesting ways.
I was ragging on the RS7K earlier, and my points hold, but, it is a decent live sequencer and before push came along, I did not find anything that I liked better, and, there are still some shortcomings, but,they aren't worth the hassle at this point.
tl;dr: Compelling drum synths, and compelling sequencers are worth the money. Most drum machines are some combination of a less than compelling sequencer combined with a less than compelling drum synth.