A long time I felt tempted to buy an Elektron Digitakt (meanwhile I could not resist anymore and bought it) or a Teenage Engineering OP-Z, cool little machines, which promise to offer an autonome production-environment and contemporary sound-design. On Youtube everybody is telling, that it’s a must today, to free yourself from the DAW and to go back to powerful hardware-machines. Somehow all these influencers managed it brainwash me and now I also believe in the over-hyped hardware. But all those cool hardware-devices are pricey. Therefore I looked after a machine, which should be more affordable, but could serve me with similar virtues. Soon I looked on the vintage market and found the Boss DR-5.
The DR-5 was designed with the guitarist in mind (back in 1991, when the machine hit the market, guitars were still popular). I will not numerate all specs of the DR-5, but there were a few things, which stroke me immediately:
- Battery powered
- Internal Sounds
- Internal Sequencer
- Easy, guitar orientated input of notes
- Easy chord input
What I expected from the device? I wanted a little production studio, which I could carry with me everywhere and which could work like a sketchbook. At last I hoped, that I could tweak the internal sounds to sound cool, though the Boss is more than twenty years old. So I got one from ebay for only 100 Euro and packed it in for the upcoming vacation. During our vacation in France I used it almost everyday and created many song-ideas on it. After you feel familiar with the sequencer the concept of the DR-5 is flawless and offers a lot. The functionality of the sequencer in combination with the fretboard style input and dedicated chord-buttons lead to a fast workflow. I remember laying on the bed with headphones and the DR-5 running from battery-power and I became not tired to input one idea after another. The sequencer is comfortable, though not as comfortable as newer ones (more on that later). What I most miss here are dedicated step-buttons like on the TR-808 and 909. Instead of buttons the steps are only visualised on the tiny display.
However after some practicing you get used to the interface. Another downside of the 90s design comes to the light, when you try to modify patterns and steps while the sequencer is running. In fact many commands can only be executed, when the machine is stopped. This is kinda sad, because otherwise the Boss could also become a tool for your next Techno-session. But it was not designed for realtime performance. It was meant to be carefully programmed at home and to accompany the guitar (or bass)- player on stage with a quality playback. Coming back to my initial idea to replace a modern Elektron or Teenage Engineering device regarding sketches the DR-5 can still convince. If you are looking for a mobile composing-station and if you are a guitar player and feel familiar with the guitar layout, you will find nothing as easy and comfortable on the actual market. In fact I really wonder, why this layout was not further developed by Boss. I could imagine, that today there are even more guitar players, which would get attracted by cool, new electronic toys. And a concept like this combined with a modern sound engine could seduce many, many guitarists.
But you know we musicians always want more, more possibilities, more functionality, more of everything. The end of the story is, that after the experience with the Boss DR-5 I could not resist anymore to buy a Digitakt, because I realised, what the Digitakt would do better. I am not sure, if that more of functionality justifies the price-tag. When I compare these two machines I can even find plus points for the Boss.
First I want to discuss the disadvantages of the Boss. The main concern with the DR-5 are the sounds. In fact most internal sounds sound like the typical Standard Midi sounds of another age. And the machine freshes up all bad rememberances on the General Midi era. In general the Drumsets and basses sound better, but synth-sounds are pretty basic and editing is limited. The natural sounds are okay, but who wants to use it today, when much better natural sounds are available? Of course limitations can push your creativity, so I tried to alter the natural sounds in unusual ways turning an acoustic bass to a high pad-sound or using a violin-ensemble as the bass. When you use a sound against its original purpose you can achieve sometimes fresh results. But it still sounds like 90s GM in the end. To overcome the limited sound-engine and because I really liked the layout of the DR-5 I experimented with external distortion on the main outs to breathe a bit of life into the internal sounds. I created a few Youtube-videos and achieved a nice distortion from overriding the camera-input of my trusty Panasonic HDC-SD99.
It turned out as a lot of fun, though it worked a bit like trial and error to find the sweet spot between too less and too much distortion. However I am satisfied with some videos, where the distortion is underlining the lofi-sound of the Boss. I also tried to deal with the limitations of the sequencer: For an example you can hide, that you have to stop the sequencer to change the input-mode, when you consciously work with breaks in the performance. The ticking metronome in the realtime-input-mode can be used as a welcome addidtion to the percussion-department (Meanwhile I have discovered, that you can adjust the volume of the metronome)
I want to show some basic operations with the DR-5 to showcase the workflow. Though I am guitar- player I felt not tempted to test the guitar- input of the Boss, because there are meanwhile much better sounds available for guitar.
At first you choose an empty pattern with Shift+Pattern. Second you type Shift+Utility to enter the general settings of the pattern, especially time measure (even odd measures are possible) and pattern-length are mandatory. The tempo can be adjusted using “Tempo” and the Jog-wheel. You can identify User-Patterns easily, because they start with “U”. Next you can press “Kit” and decide for a collection of sounds. It’s also possible to customize these sound-sets, but I just want to show a basic start with the DR-5. The next important button is “Track select”, which let you switch between the four (Yes, this is not much) sequencer tracks. Fortunately track one controls a whole drumset, so you have three left for other instruments. Because of the clever chord-functionality the four tracks are not as limited as it seems at first. Normally you will start with a drum-track, but first you have to decide, which sequencer-mode you want to use. To choose sequencer mode you press “Real/Step”. When you are happy with your selection press “Play”. Unfortunately the step-sequencer is not designed to play live, but it becomes handy, if you want to program something complex. Because the display is not showing an overview of all steps, you can get lost in a longer pattern and it needs some time to get used to the cryptic position-markers of the step-sequencer.
But there is also light between the shadows. Accents can be set with ease diving into a submenu with the arrow-keys on the right side of the display and switching between different solutions can be executed just changing the note under “Quantize”.
But the step-input of the DR-5 is somewhat limited. Too often you have to stop the machine. Many commands can not be done while the sequencer is running. When I had understand the basic operations of the DR-5 I started a little Youtube-serial and tried to use it like one of its modern counterparts. The following video showcases the whole programming-process for a Drum-pattern using all features of the sequencer including different accents for each note. If it’s too boring for you just skip to the end to listen to the complete work.
After some of these boring programming-videos I started to use the realtime-input, which is much more usable for realtime-performances. Press “Real/Step” and the recording starts immeditely ( I have not figured out, if you can program a preroll). Therefore I let the whole pattern play one time before I start to record notes. But though you have to live with a slightly annoying metronome in the background in realtime-mode the machine becomes a joyful instrument for live-performance. After the realtime recording is running you can start to input notes using the brilliant fretboard layout.
Now I talk about the chord-mode, one of the many highlights of this vintage treasure box. To enter chord-mode you have to select track two to four ( remember track one is reserved for drums) and push “On/Off”. If you see “Chord” on the display you have succeeded. Now a combination of a button from row one to three on the guitar-interface with a button of row four to six leads to a chord. In this way you can easily record chord-progressions to one track. Thinking on the layering you could even record some crazy poly-chords. And that is not all: You can also program custom-chords, maybe a cluster or Scriabin’s “Mystic chord”. Latest now you should recognise the creative potential, which is hidden under the grey surface of this overlooked machine.
When you record in realtime keep in mind, that the Boss will record layers. There is no handy way to switch between recording and playback. In my improvisations I used to methods to overcome this: The first way is to erase a recorded phrase before recording something new. For an example I would record a melody, let it play back one or two times and then press and hold Shift+Delete to delete the recorded track. When the track is empty again I could record something new. The second workaround is to stop the sequencer to switch to playback mode. I masked this action, since I created a break in time, which I used to switch between the two modes. With a little bit of practicing you get used to this method. When I felt comfortable with the workflow of the Boss I created tracks like this:
As I told you above the DR-5 can be powered by batteries unlike the Digitakt. Of course you could pair the Digitakt with an external mobile power source but in my opinion it’s much more comfortable to have the mobile option inside the device. While modern mobile devices like Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 or OP-Z are often driven by Lithium-accus the DR-5 can be fed with standard AA-batteries. I guess nowadays the companies prefer Lithium-accus because of the size, but in my humble opinion Standard batteries are more future-proof. It’s easy to exchange them. Try to exchange the lithium-accu of your OP-1 or your smartphone and you will recognise the differemce. I bought recharchable batteries for the Boss and could work for hours with one charge.
Looking further on the connectivity of the Boss I appreciate the choice of standard 6,3mm-Jacks and Standard Midi-cables. If you follow the trend of small hardware-setups you become grateful for real Midi-connectors as USB-Midi will never work between two Standalone-devices. On the other hand Midi-Connectors getting rare on Audio-interfaces, so if you prefer to work with a DAW it might turn into a disadvantage.
Conclusion: The Boss DR-5 is more powerful than one would think of at first. If you can deal with its limitations and can live with the internal sounds without the possibility of sampling you get a mighty, mobile sketchbook. Thinking on a studio-environment you could overcome the sound-limitation with an external sampler or synthesizer, which you would control via Midi. The DR-5 alone can deliver a charming Retro-sound.
- Battery powered
- Standard Midi and 6,3mm Jack Outputs
- Four Sequencer voices
- Guitar-orientated Note-Input
- Easy Interface
- Many functions require to stop the sequencer
- Internal sounds are outdated
- Buttons are not Velocity-sensitive
- No visual overview over a pattern
- Well it does not look attractive
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